Sunday with Zin: An Inconvenient Book

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child's Garden of Verses by RLS

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by RLS

Hello, I am Zin! And this week, Richard Russo brought his Interventions book tour to the library!

He and his daughter Kate spoke about the stories, the art (which Kate did, she is an accomplished artist) and the design of the book by Tom Butler (he was not able to be at this particular presentation), an artist who is married to Kate – a family project! It was also very important to Richard that he use a Maine publisher (Down East Books), that it be made in the US, and that it be printed on sustainable paper. All of this adds to the cost of the book, of course – and the book is not cheap, it costs $40, which is a lot for 4 works (one essay, one novella, and two stories), three of which have been published before. But the idea was not to release new material, it is to create a synthesis of art forms into a beautiful reading experience!

The first thing Richard wanted to discuss was to get out of the way the claim, which first appeared in a BBC web report, that he is anti-e-book! He is not boycotting ebooks! All of his work, except this one, is available as ebooks, and he has a novella coming out that will initially be available only as an e-book! It is just that he envisioned this as a tribute to the printed book, and because of the way it was conceived, he did not think it would translate to e-book form! So lighten up on the e-book thing!

When he was a little boy, Richard used to be almost happy to get sick – just a little sick – so he could stay home from school and read in bed! One of his most prominent memories of reading was being in bed with A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, a beautifully illustrated edition! I am not sure the link points to the same edition with the same illustrations, but it gives the idea! He was particularly drawn to “The Land of Counterpane” (a counterpane is a blanket or bedspread) about a boy reading and playing with toy soldiers on his bed – and including a picture, as the one above! Young Richard thought it was fun to be reading in bed looking at a picture of a boy reading in bed! And that was the basic genesis of the idea to create an illustrated book, an object in addition to text! I suppose some day an author will talk about how he used to love looking at a picture of a child reading a Kindle while he was reading a Kindle, and that will be an ebook!

When it came time to design the book, they ended up with nine pieces: four individual volumes (one for each story), four paperback-book-sized pieces of removable art (Richard wanted the reader to be able to take something of the book with him/her), and a slipcase! This is why he calls it “an inconvenient book”! Again, this all adds to the cost of the book, but it is unique! You can buy 12″ x 18″ prints of the art by Kate Russo on Etsy!

He wanted some connection between the narratives, which became the idea of intervention, and that became the story he wrote to tie the other three together!

High and Dry” is an essay that was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Granta, themed “Going Back.” It is about his home town of Gloversville, NY, which used to be the center of glovemaking in the country, and how the recession affected the people there. It also serves as a model for the setting of most of his novels.

My other grandfather, who lived in an Italian village near Rome, had heard about this place where so many leather artisans had gathered in upstate New York, and so he journeyed to America in hope of making a living there as a shoemaker…. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

For the art, Kate thought about the gloves, and how making the gloves ironically would harm the hands of the workers, so that resulted in a painting of beautiful gloves side-by-side with bloody hands! That is making a statement!

Horseman” was published in the August 2006 issue of The Atlantic (and is available online). It starts with a few lines from the poem “Windy Nights,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.

…When she jogged in the woods behind the New England college where she taught, she’d realize she was running to that unwelcome, unforgiving iambic cadence — whenever the moon and the stars are set — as if she were a horse. And then the familiar heartsickness, as if she were suddenly clomping not through the woods but through an endless cemetery.

Kate read the story and set it aside for a few weeks to see what would stick most with her when she returned to it later: it was the last line of the poem, and the obsession with the wind which started at night but was still going the next morning! The character is a woman obsessed with a poem from childhood, aware of her own mortality, imagining the woods becoming a cemetery! So the painting is from the point of view of the character, physically – when you look at it, it is as if you are riding a horse and can see the back of the head of the horse, and the road stretching out, and gravestones cropping up later on, just like what the character envisions! I like the explanation a lot better than I like the painting! The cover for the book is a repetitive pattern (patterns are what Kate is known for) of the bent leg of a horse!

Kate had read “The Whore’s Child” before (as have we – it is wonderful; the first section is available online). It is about an elderly Belgian nun who shows up for a creative writing course and writes her autobiography in a search for witnesses, justice, or just to finally express her rage:

The first installment… detailed the suffering of a young girl taken to live in a Belgian convent school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them there. As a charity case and the daughter of a prostitute, young Sister Ursula (for there could be no doubt that she was the first-person narrator) found herself at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain…. The shoes she was given were two sizes too small, an accident, Sister Ursula imagined, until she asked if she might exchange them for the shoes of a younger girl that were two sizes too large, only to be scorned for her impertinence. So before long she developed the tortured gait of a cripple, which was much imitated by the other children, who immediately perceived in her a suitable object for their cruelest derision.

Kate wanted to capture the idea of memory, embodied in the black and white saddle shoes, stained with blood on black and white tile; black and white because those are the colors a nun would wear, and it shows the discrepancy between nuns who are supposed to be kind and caring but were in reality cruel and heartless! It is a very powerful painting in combination with the story! The cover is the black and white tile pattern!

Intervention” (in the singular; the title of the whole book is Interventions) is the new story written to tie these things together! In the essay, businesses, and later the economy, interfere in the lives of craftsmen to their detriment; the memory of the horseman poem intervene in the life of the college professor; and there are many interventions in “The Whore’s Child” from the nuns who take her in to her appearing in class to the students who critique her work and thus provide some measure of objectivity to her self-examination! So he wanted to write a story expressly about an intervention!

He started with a character: Ray is a realtor in Camden, ME. Now, it just so happens that Richard is married to a realtor and lives in Camden! She has told him numerous stories but he feels they are confidential, kind of like a priest or bartender (he never specifies if this comes from a story she told him or not)! Ray has a medical problem that will become life-threatening if he does not deal with it, and he shows no signs of dealing with it! He is reluctant to do the simple, right, good thing!

Enter a young woman who, due to the economic downturn, must sell her home before she loses it to foreclosure! But there are problems, such as, she has gone to Portland to find work, leaving Ray in charge of selling the house; and she is a bit of a hoarder (such a popular obsession these days!) so she has left many many cartons stacked in the house, unable to pay for storage! She seems to be sabotaging a sale she desperately needs to make! People who come to see the house can only see her stuff, her mess! It is easy for Ray to see her problem and the solution, because after all it is always easy to see the problem someone else has, as it does not have the emotional connotation that prevents you from fixing it in the first place! So the tension of the story becomes: should he intervene, and how? And of course there is the underlying question about his own need for intervention, will he recognize it before it is too late? This sounds like a great story!

Kate decided the painting would be a stack of boxes blocking the window, using the metaphor of the boxes being in the way, they are the mess, you can not see anything but your own mess so you can not see a way out! I love that! And again I like the explanation better than the art itself!

We then had a brief Q&A which of course went to writing! I only took notes on two questions:
How do you learn to write better if you can not go to a university program? The advice from the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist was to read voraciously, write daily, and get someone else to read your work and give you feedback, someone who 1) knows more than you do and 2) does not love you, like a spouse or parent!

He was also asked why the teenage girl in Empire Falls was in present tense! I have not read the book (one of these years that will be my project, all the Pulitzer-prize winning books, except for A Visit From the Goon Squad which I have tried to read four times and I refuse to try again!) but he said something interesting about present tense: it brings you closer, slows you down, and has an immediacy, and for a teenager that was perfect because everything is happening right now since they do not have the perspective of time an older person might have!

I did not buy Interventions – I had decided I would not before I went – but I have to admit I was very tempted, and am again tempted just writing about his visit! I do have a hold on the library copy so I can read the stories I have not already read, and I will post more when it comes in! Until then, you can listen to a radio interview with Richard and Kate on a radio interview from June 26 on WMAC!

[Addendum: Comments on “Intervention,” “Horseman,” and “High and Dry” now posted. – KC]

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3 responses to “Sunday with Zin: An Inconvenient Book

  1. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: Fifty Shades of East Millinocket | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Richard Russo: Interventions | A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: Illustrations | A Just Recompense

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