Good to Know
In our interview with Mossman, he recalls, "The first real job I ever had was pulling corn and soybeans outta boxcars at Cargills. It remains the only one I have had where, at breaks, everyone I knew lay flat on the floor, put a bottle of cold Pepsi on their (panting) navels and (only) breathed for 15 minutes."
Mossman is an avid Cubs fan and rides a motorcycle.
Some of the other literary figures who have cameos in Stone Reader, Mark Moskowitz's documentary film about Mossman: legendary literary agent Carl Brandt, Iowa Writers' Workshop head Frank Conroy, and Robert Gottlieb, star editor of Joseph Heller's Catch 22.
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In the spring of 2003, Dow Mossman took some time to answer some of our questions about his 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer, and the fascinating story of how über-fan Mark Moskowitz's documentary film Stone Reader has put Mossman back into the spotlight -- and his book back into print.
Take us back in time and tell us a bit about how your novel, The Stones of Summer, came to be. Any horror stories or inspirational anecdotes surrounding its publication?
I knew an editor and agent, by introduction, before I left Iowa City. I was wandering around Manhattan later, in ‘69, for quite a while -- near Jane Street and Ninth Avenue, I believe it was -- and shooting a lot of pool on 14th Street. I even remember I was reading James T. Farrell and living on cranberry juice and bread, mostly because I never did figure out where they kept the supermarkets. But I loved to walk around that place -- I used to get up early just to do it. I never walked so much, even back on the farm.
So anyway, actually, I was on my way outta town, headed back for God's land, car packed, when I got the impulse to go the other way and finally see this editor. So I parked the thing and explained myself to this tailor shop that was sittin' there, down in the lowers. They let me change my pants and watched my stuff, so I took a cab up to the 50s somewheres. Even though the elevator opened directly into the huge temple offices, which threw me some, I went right in. She [the editor] was real nice -- even glad to see me some -- and even bought the thing.... It may sound funny, even unusually lucky, but you realize I was only about 25 at the time....
What was your reaction when you saw Stone Reader, Mark Moskowitz's documentary film about tracking down you and your book?
You'd really have to have spent 10 or 15 years reading and trying to figure out a rather huge/fat first novel, crack up some, get apprehended in some great reviews, then never hear anything at all, wander for six years, meet a red-haired woman, get married, keep reading, have two fine sons...
But, mostly, in terms of this question, you'd have to get up every morning at four o'clock and spend, mostly, 10 hours a day for 19 years in a weld-shop, pickin' up and weldin' steel, every 10 yards x 15 miles (which, incidentally, I loved to do) and then have someone like Mark Moskowitz ring your phone one sleepy Thursday night (I think it was) to understand this question properly....
Needless to say, I was pretty delighted, even enthralled.... Like about everybody else he talks to, captivated....
I've seen this movie about six times, probably at least five more'n I oughta, but, I must say, every time I see it, his genius for storytelling gets me more....
You've been living out of the public eye for years; how do you feel about your second time around in the spotlight?
I surprised myself in Illinois.... I discovered I liked meeting people. I would have, in my youth, done anything short of murdering the speech teacher to get out of that public speaking stuff, but (after Mark's movie) it's so hard to fail, short of leaving your zipper down.... Fortunately for everyone, the world included, I'm too old to get entirely giddy over anything....
What are you working on now?
Life? I'm semi-retired, mercifully.
Books? I'm just sitting here, finishing typing up about l00 pages of my short poems I call Real Imagos. I also scribble at hollywoodola, my old-movie book....
My friends in Indianapolis want me come over and take down...the stories of our late youth, together, which I just might do and which I would want to call Injuntown....
What were the books that most influenced your life?
I read the Bible, thanks to my grandmother paying me, one chapter a night in grade school. Also, my father bought me The Complete Sherlock Holmes when I was rather delirious, half-dying from childhood illnesses (I had them all, especially bad ear trouble). Also The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and especially Oliver Twist, along with the Hardy Boys and Chip Hilton series, all the Landmark books and father's Rover Boys books, Tom Swifts, and especially a 19th-century Robin Hood I'd still like to find....
What are your favorite books and authors, and what makes them special to you?Casanova's life memoirs -- eight volumes. I consider it to be the great, mostly "lost" documentary of the western world with its multiple/unreliable narrator.... A book more alive in its century than any other I know.
Autobiography, in general. I have come to consider it both the greater (in time/place) mask and the lesser (in the inverted irony of the unreliable narrator) mask. From Augustine to Davy Crockett, I don't care. Benvenuto Cellini, Rousseau (dawn of the serious middlebrow), Casanova. I consider Sam Clemens'...to be one of his top three books, and the act of a 500-year-old-mind.
Shakespeare and the books about him. If I had to pick one -- Leslie Fiedler's The Stranger in Shakespeare.
William Faulkner, when I was younger, before I wrote my novel. Sartoris, if I had to pick one book.
Edmund Wilson's books: To the Finland Station, for one. As always, where did he even get it, let alone construct and disravel it? In one lifetime, also. The American Earthquake is superior, only contemporaneous stuff.
Gilbert Seldes' The Stammering Century I've read three times, lately. Unusual for me. The last (first?) word on the crack-brain's underpinnings of American history and society. A personal sleeper, maybe.
Dashiell Hammett. I consider 10 or 12 of his short stories co-equal in sudden, clairvoyant reality with Chaucer's Prologue. Also, his five genre-covering novels.
Also Cornell Woolrich, Frederick Brown, J. M. Cain, W. R. Burnett (who wrote Dark Hazard, the greyhound racetrack novel, and who I believe my grandfather knew), Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Horace (the smart-guy hero) McCoy, and others.
My father and I read Elmore Leonard novels and watched Cubs games together for about 25 years. I'm only a main-liner here. But I have spent nearly 40 years talking to Ed Gorman, the encyclopedia-brain mystery writer.
Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, a book I've been pushing at others for a long while and without enough success. His Lives of the Great Whores must be the great "lost" book of the world -- or one of them.
Also, Petronius' The Satrycon and Apuleius' The Golden Ass -- the first "modern" novels and so, chronically, at least 1,400 years ahead of/or out of their times....
What are some of your favorite films?The Killers
Out of the Past
The Asphalt Jungle
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
The Maltese Falcon
Odds Against Tomorrow
One Sunday Afternoon
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I realize bluegrass and blues -- a little tin-can alley -- to be the real wellspring of American pop music. I also like American standards -- Gershwin, Cole Porter, and [the music] in old movies....
I never thought I'd like opera, butI tripped upon an old collection of Puccini arias and came to think of it as about as profound a human (emotive) utterance as you could possibly get.....
I wrote my novel, definitely, to great pop-rock and jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it's hard to get parts for a record player....
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Old books. 19th-century books, built back then. I've got an 1890s run of bound Century magazines I'm pretty happy about. I'd like to get some more, but I wouldn't give any away, just yet....
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I most definitely like to write (read, even think and go to sleep) on the porch. In bad weather, I sit on the end of the couch I sleep on and write in various pens, colors, and pencil stubs on an approximately 40-year-old TV tray that even wobbles. Needless to say, I prefer the porch and its masonry table-bannister....
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
That's easy. Read, work hard, be young, have limitless ambition, live in the street, never quit, get lucky, don't die, hope you were some kinda born-poet in the first place, and then, wait for Moskowitz to come around.
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