Sunday, October 23, 2011

I’ve Been Everywhere, Man . . .

Kevin Scanlon Photographing at Dawn
copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

In case you’ve been wondering, I haven’t gone missing. I’ve been on the road, traveling with my favorite photographer, Kevin Scanlon (who also happens to be my husband). Kevin shows me the world in ways that I would otherwise miss. All I have to do is hang out with him and watch him work to see things in new ways. Believe me, it’s not just with anyone that I would venture out early enough to watch dawn break over the city on a cold morning. Writer Jack Kerouac, who was a friend of photographer Robert Frank (Kerouac wrote the introduction to Frank’s book The Americans), once said that a good lesson for any writer is to pay attention to how a photographer works and to look at what he shoots. I say, Amen.

There’s an excellent interview with Kevin at “Wedge of Smoke” by Chris Crook, which reveals insight to his creative process and the evolution of his subject matter. Click here to read the interview and see some of Kevin’s photographs.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Lauren B. Davis: Our Daily Bread

Lauren B. Davis’ new novel, Our Daily Bread (Wordcraft of Oregon, September 2011), is a story of insiders and outsiders – and it’s also about the difference between outsiders (community members who internalize feelings of difference) and outcasts (those who are banished by the community). The situation of the story is based on the infamous Goler clan of Nova Scotia, who were finally charged and brought to trial in the 1980s after generations of child abuse, rape, incest, and other violent crimes. In Davis’ backstory, she tells of wanting to write about how communities can marginalize people into “us” and “them.” Having lived in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s for a short time, she’d heard stories of the Goler clan, and she explains that “the extreme marginalization of the community and the terrible ostracism haunted me and it seemed the perfect framework to explore how such ordinary people could do such dreadful things, or permit such dreadful things to continue.”

Set in the fictional town of Gideon, Our Daily Bread is told from multiple points of view. Main characters are bread deliveryman Tom Evans and his two children, fifteen-year-old Bobby and ten-year-old Ivy; Dorothy Carlisle, a widow who owns an antique shop and befriends Ivy Evans when she is bullied by classmates walking home from school past the store; and Albert Erskine, who longs for a life different from the one he was born into and forms a friendship with younger B
obby Evans. Each of these main characters has secrets, and each feels apart from the others in their own way. At the heart of this story is loneliness through isolation, abandonment, and exclusion. Issues are substance abuse and addiction, poverty, and ignorance.

The fictional Erskine clan i
s based on the Goler clan. The Erskine patriarch and uncles are moonshiners turned meth makers, and children on the mountain grow up terrorized, hungry, and living in dire poverty. The townspeople of Gideon turn a blind eye to what happens on the mountain as long as it stays on the mountain and doesn’t concern them. But, of course, the two worlds do not remain separate, and when the isolation of the mountain is breached by insiders and outsiders alike, events ignite.

Divisions separating the characters in the town of Gideon are familial, societal, theological, and even geographical in nature. These motifs run through Davis’ work (she is the author of five books) including her terrific blog, “View From The Library Window.” A few years back I read her excellent novel The Radiant City, a book I still think about, the characters still haunting me. I was a bit hesitant about this new novel, mostly because the title and the cover image reminded me a little too much of the religious tracts and evangelical churches of my childhood, until a description labeling the novel as “backwoods noir at its best” sparked my interest. I dug a little further and found an author’s note where Davis wrote, “My family, afflicted by mental illness and alcoholism, was going through a rough time the summer I was nine. I was an only child, and adopted, and rather bookish and prone to making up stories, all of which helped to make me ‘Other’ in the eyes of some of the children in the neighborhood. That summer a lady who owned a little antique shop near my house let me hang out around the store . . . it was a refuge from loneliness and bullying and I’ve never forgotten it.” OK, now I was really interested.

Reading Our Daily Bread, Davis hooked me early in the first chapter, and her well-paced suspenseful story kept me spellbound for long stretches of time. I had to find out what happened next. And when I finished the book, I knew I would have a very hard time selecting what book to read next that would hold my attention and keep me turning the pages in the same way. Each of the main characters was interesting, but the most complex by far is Albert Erskine. For me, this was Albert’s story, and it will stay with me for a very long time. Davis taps into deep human emotion and shows us our own darkest and brightest sides. I highly recommend this book.
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Sunday, August 14, 2011

August Is County Fair Season

County Fair, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

August is county fair season here in Pennsylvania. Fairs and carnivals bring out the kid in me, evoking the same sort of muscle memory reflex that shows itself as I watch parades with marching bands. Long dormant band practice drills awaken within me at the sound of a drum cadence, left-right-left-right-left-right, and I check myself to see if I’m actually marching in place from the sidelines as a spectator. I get a similar adrenaline jolt at the sound of a Ferris wheel motor starting up or hearing the bells and whistles of games along the midway.

Carnies, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Growing up, summer meant 4-H Club projects. End of summer meant county fairs and carnivals coming to town before the start of the school year. For rural kids, the county fair was an amusement park that traveled to us each year, bringing with it a sense of mystery and a hint of danger. The rides excited and distorted the senses, the games of skill and chance always seemed rigged, and the nomadic outsiders working the fairs looked more world-weary than the locals. It’s the ultimate story premise: a stranger comes to town.

Dunk Bozo, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

What draws me in most is the carnival atmosphere, especially at twilight when the mood shifts with the light as it changes from the golden glow of sunset to bright, spinning neon. After dark spookiness sets in, an underlying sense of danger, which probably works better to create added tension in films than in books since it’s so visual. No specific scenes from books come to mind as I write this in the way that scenes from films do, particularly Alfred Hitchcock’s film noir “Strangers On A Train.” I’ve yet to read Patricia Highsmith’s novel on which the film was based, so I don’t know if the carousel scene in Hitchcock’s film was part of story in the book. I never tire of Hitchcock’s visual mastery in storytelling, be it in black-and-white or Technicolor – and no one used color better than Hitch.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Further Along On The Road

Road Trip 1978, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved

Road trips make great stories, summer the perfect setting. This summer brings back two famous journeys, one by Jack Kerouac and one by Ken Kesey, in new formats – a book app for On The Road, and the documentary “Magic Trip” using restored film footage of Kesey’s 1964 cross-country trip with the Merry Pranksters. The beat and hippie generations, two eras colliding for Kesey, and with Neal Cassady serving as the legendary wheel man in both stories. Born too close to the end of the baby boomer generation, I missed out on much of the great stuff – at least that’s the way it always seemed growing up. But, I was just old enough to fully embrace the ‘70s with my art school friends, and we have a few road stories of our own.

The picture above was snapped by Kevin as he was about to set off on a cross-country trip with his best buddy KT in the summer of 1978. KT is the shadowy figure in the driver’s seat. Shortly after Kevin took this photo, the two departed Pittsburgh for what was to be a summer’s long road trip to British Columbia and then down the west coast. Riding along in spirit were friends who’d painted their names on the blue VW beast, and that big thing on the passenger’s door was supposed to be a hawk (KT was a big fan of The Band, known early on as The Hawks when they were the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins). I’d moved to Los Angeles a month or so earlier, and one of those boxes on the roof rack contained some of my favorite books which they were kindly transporting west for me.

Kevin and KT made it as far as the Ohio border before the blue beast developed serious engine trouble. They sputtered back to Pittsburgh, managed to borrow a car from KT’s dad, transferred their gear and my books to the loaner car (a Pinto, Ford’s legendary fiery deathtrap of a ride), and set out on the road again later that same day.

The year before graduation and this road trip west, Kevin and I both happened to be reading On The Road for the first time – the 25th anniversary paperback edition, the one with the bright orange sunset on the cover. That book brought us together, connected us. Most couples have a song they call theirs, we have our book. We return to it again and again. I’ve reread it many times over the years, and Kevin keeps adding new editions of it to our bookshelves, the latest being a new hardback version he came home with a few weeks ago, this one with a new version of the yellow and orange sun on the jacket. It’s likely that my first copy of On The Road was in that box strapped to the roof rack.

It’s also likely that my copy of Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest hitched a ride to Los Angeles with Kevin and KT. Last Wednesday I happened to catch Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s “Magic Trip” on cable. It must’ve been a preview prior to its official release last Friday in theaters and on pay-per-view. You can read a review by Charles McGrath for The NY Times here. Filmmakers Gibney and Ellwood managed to salvage forty hours of footage shot by Ken Kesey and the Pranksters during their 1964 cross-country trip in the psychedelic bus, Further (and the New York City World’s Fair) their destination. My favorite scenes included glimpses of novelists Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone, and of Kerouac, who seemed to be having no fun at a prankster party. Kesey, who’d already published Sometimes A Great Notion and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, appears incredibly young in the film.

Just as with all good stories, there were complications and unexpected twists in Kevin and KT’s road trip of ’78. KT ended up having to drive all the way back across the country alone for the final leg of his journey. Kevin decided to stay in California and start a different journey, and convinced me to join him in San Francisco. I’m a sucker for happy endings. KT remains Kevin’s best buddy after all these years. And after all this distance, all this way further along the road, it turns out the road trip of ’78 was really just the beginning.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Guest Post by Erika Dreifus: "Mannheim in Pictures and Prose"

This month’s guest post is by Erika Dreifus, author of Quiet Americans. I’m a longtime subscriber to Erika’s blog “Practicing Writing” and to her “Practicing Writer” e-newsletter, both of which are wonderful resources for writers. A big thank you goes out to Erika for contributing this essay to my blog – and for her tireless and generous efforts in providing information on the craft and business of writing to practicing writers.

Mannheim in Pictures and Prose
Guest Post by Erika Dreifus

As the author of a recently released short-story collection (Quiet Americans), I have been appearing before audiences and reading brief
excerpts from my book. One of the excerpts I’m most fond of presenting is a section from a story titled “Homecomings.”

Like much of the book, this story draws inspiration fro
m the experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. In “Homecomings,” a couple with a similar background—Nelly and Josef Freiburg—return to Germany for the first time in September 1972. At one point in the story, the cousins who are hosting them drive them back to Nelly’s home city: Mannheim.

In fact, Mannheim was my grandmother’s home city, and my grandmother did return there for the first time in 1972. I was too young to be awar
e of the occasion at the time, but Grandma spoke about it in later years, and I often thought about what she said, and imagined how she must have felt. I thought about all of this even more in 1990, when my father and I traveled to Mannheim ourselves for the first time, and on two later trips.

Some of those commingled thoughts, observations, and imaginings appear in “Homecomings”:

Mannheim’s water tower still stood, surrounded by well-tended lawn. The florist shop she and her father had visited each week, so that he could buy a bouquet for her mother—still there, too. The office where her father had run his business, until the Reich outlawed that. Only the shoe store had changed; now it was a café. The shoe store, where she had found a job at the age of eighteen, because even with her Abitur she couldn’t attend university. Not then. Not in 1933. But her father had said: “You’re not just sitting around here, my dear girl. Waiting to emigrate. You shall do something useful.”

Her cousin Daniel turned the Citröen off the city’s main ring, onto Ifflenstrasse, and Nelly thought she’d stopped breathing. The b
uilding, where she and her parents had lived in an apartment that occupied the entire second floor, was the same! The same purplish stone. The same flowerboxes. The same big windows.

No. The windows. Those were not the same.

“Those men came in,” her mother had said, once they could speak freely about that night back in November 1938. “They smashed the windows. The china. The paintings.”

In writing these paragraphs, I relied not only on memory and imagination. I relied also on photographs.

I am proud to share some of those photographs w
ith you, in the spirit of "In This Light," and with thanks for Dory's invitation to contribute a guest post.

The florist shop she and her father had visited each week....

The office where her father had run his business....

off the city's main ring, onto Ifflenstrasse...

Visiting a location isn't necessarily essential for every writing project. But I believe that for "Homecomings," it mattered very much.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories. She is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review. Web:

Photo Credits:
All photographs copyright by The Dreifus Family, all rights reserved, used by permission

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Guest Post by Cliff Garstang: “Images: Inspiration IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY”

It’s my pleasure to host a guest post by Cliff Garstang, author of In An Uncharted Country. I’ve been a reader of Cliff’s blog “Perpetual Folly” since back in the days when I was the cofounder and fiction editor at Paper Street and found his annual
ranking of literary journals based on Pushcart Prize awards and special mentions. A big thank you to Cliff for contributing this essay (see author bio below).

Images: Inspiration in In an Uncharted Country

While working on drafts of a couple of novel
s, where a handful of characters and a single place remain central to the narrative over the course of a few hundred pages, I’ve found it useful to keep images—photographs—at hand as a starting point for fictional creations. For the characters, the images help me visualize and then describe physical attributes, especially faces. I used postcards I’d purchased for one project—portraits of various celebrities whose faces came close to the look I wanted for a character. For a recent long project, I used photographs clipped from magazines. I tacked them to my bulletin board where they gazed at me while I worked, reminding me of who my characters were, or at least what they looked like—bearing in mind that no plausible fictional character is as flawless as a fashion model. When it comes to place, I’m often a little more specific about my story’s needs. I may have a particular style of house in mind where the story is set, for example, and I’ll try to find a photograph of just the right house. Or I may have envisioned a landscape that’s important to the book’s setting. If I find it, that image is helpful as a constant reminder of the environment in which the fiction exists.

But image in two broader senses will also at times inspire story, not merely reflect the story or characters I’ve already imagined. Two examples come to mind from my linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country.

My favorite use of image from the book is in the story “The Clattering of Bones,” a tale of a marriage that is struggling to survive both alcohol addiction and a miscarried pregnancy. The story—its imagery, but not its plot, at least not directly—arose out of an incident that occurred shortly after I moved from Washington DC to rural Virginia. I got up one Sunday morning and came into the kitchen to make coffee. Standing over my sink, looking out the window, I noticed movement in the yard. Because the trees were in full leaf, I had to shift to get a better view, but
when I did I was shocked by what I saw: a deer stranded on the barbed-wire fence that separated my yard from a pasture. I wanted to help the animal, but, as a city boy, I had no idea what to do. I thought I might be able to lift it off the fence, but the deer wouldn’t let me get close; her twisting and thrashing was only making the predicament worse. I called various agencies for help—the sheriff, the wildlife rescue center—but they couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything. Eventually, the poor thing died—what a slow, agonizing death!—and then its disposal presented me with a different problem that I was also ill-equipped to handle.

The deer on the fence—that was my working title for the story—is both an extended metaphor (the troubled marriage suggested itself almost immediately) and an image around which the story is organized. Because I had taken notes about the
actual event, when it came time to describe the image of the deer—its legs twisted between the wires of the fence, the struggle to get free, blood trickling down its leg—the work was already done. But, of course, there was still the little matter of the actual story about the conflict between husband and wife, which alternated with the image that the husband saw out his window: how it changed over the course of the day, how his wife reacted to it, how he dealt with it and was influenced by it. While I don’t have a photograph of that deer, her image is still sharp to me.

Another story in my collection uses a completely different sort of image, one that I didn’t see but only read in a poem. Probably my favorite poem of all time is “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens. It’s filled with glorious images—images in the sense of vivid description—and for my story “Savage Source” I borrow
ed from the poem’s last two stanzas, in which “a ring of men/ shall chant in orgy on a Summer morn/ their boisterous devotion to the sun,/ not as a god, but as a god might be,/ naked among them like a savage source.” I also incorporate into the climactic scene of that story references to the “windy lake,” the “trees, like seraphin,” and “echoing hills” and other images from the poem. I’ve always been able to picture that scene without the aid of a photograph. The narrator, a girl named Tina, has been brought to an isolated hillside by her boyfriend, Ben, in the middle of the night. Both teens are disaffected and long for acceptance. She thinks she has found what she’s looking for in Ben, but he has turned to a mysterious group for comfort. As the sun rises, the presence of others—all men, shirtless, similarly tattooed, facing the sun, chanting something Tina can’t make out—is revealed. When Tina tries to flee, Ben won’t let her go because he wants to share his salvation with her. The entire story was written so I could have the couple arrive at that moment in the sun.

There are m
any kinds of images: photographs; mental pictures; metaphors; vivid descriptions; apparitions. In my work, at one time or another, I’ve employed them all for the same purpose—to help me put on the page words that will evoke the world that exists only in my imagination. And yet the images are only the beginning. Invariably, the fictional world and the people who inhabit it take on lives of their own, moving far beyond the images that helped create them

CLIFFORD GARSTANG, a former international lawyer, earned his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country, was published in 2009. Recent work has appeared in Cream City Review, FRiGG, Los Angeles Review, The Tampa Review, and elsewhere. He is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine. His website is He blogs at

Photo Credit: Author Photo by Carol Turrentine

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chuck Kinder Interview at Flywheel Magazine

Popping in for a minute to point you in the direction of an interview with Chuck Kinder at the newly launched Flywheel Magazine. The thing I enjoy most about the Internet is being surprised by where I happen to land, such as at “Don’t Be Scared: An Interview with Chuck Kinder.” Regular readers of my blog know that Chuck is one of my favorite writers, not to mention an important teacher to me when I first fell in love with writing fiction and found my way into one of his classes at Pitt. Do yourself a favor and read the interview by David James Keaton. I promise you’ll smile. You might even laugh out loud – even before you get to the photograph at the end of the interview.

Chuck Kinder, 2004,
Photo Copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved