READ THE REVIEW OF Among the Lost
- Mention three fun facts that your fans maybe don’t know about you.
Passing over the peculiar and thrilling notion that I have fans… I am an avid do-it-yourselfer. Much of the furniture in my house was made by me in my basement, and at this moment in my spare room three shoe-box size blocks of dried cooked mashed soybeans are hanging from the ceiling as part of the year long process of making Korean fermented soybean paste, doenjang, while a gallon crock of fermented hot pepper paste, gochujang, sits bubbling way in my kitchen window. When the gochujang is done Ill make some kim chi. Last winter I built a kayak in my living room.
I love historical fiction. My favorite recreational reading is Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels about the Napoleonic era British navy, starring Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
On the several days a year in Vermont when the temperature is above 50 and it’s not raining, I ride a motorcycle.
- When did you know that you wanted to become an author?
I always have been a writer, since I first learned how to use a pencil. I don’t think I fully, consciously embraced this until I was in my later thirties, however, about the time that my first child was born, when I wrote my first book. Until then, it was just something I did. Wanting to be an author is of course implicit in being a writer, so I could say I’ve always had that ambition. But it emerged from the realm of fantasy and daydream in my late thirties. I couldn’t say that any one event sparked this evolution, but I know when it crystallized. My wife and I visited a past lives reader in Chittenden, Vermont. It was an amazing experience. Do I believe in past lives, and that this medium told me about actual past lives of my own? Not literally. And she didn’t tell me, “You will write books,” either. But something about the experience catalyzed that part of me.
- How long have you been writing? And what started it?
I cannot remember a time when writing was not part of my identity. I think I was born with it. My parents both were creative people – my father was a potter and my mother was a weaver – and when I was small I got a lot of attention for my precocious verbal ability. For example, I was using “who” and “whom” appropriately when I was 8. So these things must have come together in some way and started me off.
- Who discovered you? (Did you contact publishing houses? How was the process?)
The process of finding a publisher was lengthy, expensive, and frustrating. You spend a lot of money on postage and “contest” fees, sending manuscripts to every publishing house you can identify that might conceivably have an interest in what you’ve written and many that don’t. Most of the time you don’t even get the courtesy of a reply. Once in a while I’d get a rejection slip that indicated the editor actually had read at least some of the work, and that was vastly encouraging. Finally, Rennie McQuilkin of Antrim House responded to one of my query letters with an invitation to send him my book. He loved To Join the Lost, the first volume in the trilogy of which Among the Lost is the second, but worried that Antrim House might not be able to handle the project. We had an exaggerated idea of the sales that might be expected for a first poetry book by an unknown author with an extremely limited publication record. Rennie encouraged me to continue looking for a larger publishing house. I did so for a year, with no luck, and then returned to Rennie. I am so glad I did! He is a wonderful poet and a fantastic editor.
- How many books have you published (so far)? And which genre?
Among the Lost is my second publication. Both of my books are narrative poems. After Antrim House published To Join the Lost, the novelist Marc Estrin and Donna Bister, friends of mine who live near me in Vermont, founded a publishing house, Fomite Press. Marc had been an admirer of my project for a long time, and he began to talk with me about having Fomite do my next book. I was torn for some time between staying with Antrim House and the wonderful Mr. McQuilkin, on the one hand, and working with Marc, a friend and neighbor, on the other. It was thrilling to have two publishers simultaneously willing to handle my work! Eventually it became clear that due to other demands on him Rennie, although willing to publish Among the Lost, would not be available as my editor. That tipped the balance in favor of Fomite.
- Why this story? What made you choose this specific theme?
I have loved Dante’s great epic since high school. It is more comprehensive, profound, and beautiful than any other work of literature that I know of. I wanted to show people what I see in it. As a poet, my way of showing something to somebody is to plunk myself down in the middle of it and describe what I see. So that is what I decided to do with Dante’s Comedia.
- What inspires you to write? Which authors have inspired you? (Music, art, things in life?)
I have a need to explain and describe things. I want to be understood, and to have my relationship to things understood. When this need and desire are motivated by strong feeling, poetry results. It could be on any subject. I’ve written poems about tea, trees, weather, deaths, politics, emotional states, fantastic visions, my son playing soccer when he was small, changing diapers, sex… anything.
- What is the message of your book? How should the reader interpret it?
When I am asked questions like this, I like to quote Edward Hopper, the great American artist, who (perhaps apocryphally) said, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” If I could tell you the message of my book in this format, there would be no reason for me to have written some 5,000 lines of poetry. But that also feels like a bit of a cop out. Among the Lost plays with the relationships among several themes: the conglomerate nature of individual identity; how we are rooted in compassion; how compassion like identity is rooted in our physical being. All this like a palimpsest laid over a structure and themes borrowed from Dante’s Purgatorio. The reader should interpret it in whatever way is useful and fun.
- How do you identify with the persona(s) in your book?
The main character in the trilogy is a middle-aged guy named Seth who has had a lot of the same life experiences as me, so it would be easy to read the work as somehow autobiographical. It also would be wrong. The nature of the project demanded that I follow Dante’s model in important respects, one of which is that the Comedia purports to be about a guy named Dante who has had a lot of the same life experiences as Mr. Alighieri. But there is a big difference between drawing on one’s life in order to write, and writing about one’s life. This is not the book I would have written if it were intended to be a memoir, and I am sure that Dante would have said the same of his work, had the concept of a personal memoir existed in fourteenth century Florence. (He was groping towards that in the Vita Nuova, but that’s another story!) There is a sometimes very thin but all-important veil between me and the Seth in the book. He is in the book, and the book is in me. I think that I am in some ways smarter than he is, but he is more adventurous and adaptable. I admire his clear sense of himself and what he believes, firm and at the same time flexible. Sometimes he surprises me.
- What are you currently reading?
Patrick O’Brian’s 21-volume saga about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in the British navy during the Napoleonic era, for the umpteenth time. It never gets old. Just finished Sharon Olds’ delightful Odes.
- Mention three book titles that you wish to recommend.
Okay, I’m going to skip over the obvious, which would be Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso by D. Alighieri. Although, really, they are all you need. I’ll count the 21 volumes of O’Brian’s sea story as one title, and I’ll recommend Sharon Olds’ jeu d’esprit Odes for the second. For the third, The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen. You’ll never think about language music and consciousness the same way again.
- When is your next book going to be published?
Not for a longish time. I am working on the third and final book in the series, and it is proving to be the hardest of the three. The first two took about fifteen years, altogether.