Creative Writing

The Most Unique Thrill Ride in the Park: A Review of Tim Bryant’s BLUE RUBBER POOL, including an Interview with the Author

JT Harrington, the protagonist of Tim Bryant’s offbeat novel Blue Rubber Pool, is world weary but not particularly wise. He is, though, savvy about survival on the “Money Trail,” the seedy south-of-the-border domain of gun runners, drug dealers, money launderers, hit men, government–sponsored mercenaries, and prostitutes.

Through a plot that spirals in and out of a variety of locales, we encounter a wide-ranging cast of characters—most of them sleazy, unhinged, or both—who are at ease “letting their demons run free.” The versatile mind behind this wickedly twisted roller coaster ride turns out metaphors as effortlessly as a seasoned grill cook flips eggs. One can’t help but suspect that our multi-faceted protagonist is an extension of his creator or perhaps an alter ego.

JT has recently married Marianne, a Southern belle from rural South Carolina, but the lifestyle she represents is a sharp departure from the one he’s lived for years on the Money Trail. Indeed, he and Marianne are “opposites balanced on the fulcrum of time and place.” The tension between these two, their pasts and their divergent lifestyles, is what keeps the novel from ripping apart at the seams.

When they meet, Marianne is vacationing on a small island off Hilton Head. JT, having been at sea for a while, has briefly docked, readying for re-launch and a return to risky business in and around Honduras. He is salty, sweaty, and grease smeared from boat maintenance; she is prim, pretty, and innocent in a white sun dress. Her nails are painted, and as she politely nibbles a sandwich with pinky extended, JT’s eyes find “Goodness where before they were lost in Evil.” He watches spellbound as she expertly shucks oysters between delicate sandwich bites. Smitten by her proficiency with the shucking knife, he falls in love, fancying himself her protector, and follows her to her landlocked home in rural Jonesville.

JT’s love of sailing and beaches inspires him to tow his forty-foot ketch to the cow pasture adjacent to Marianne’s family farm where he plans to build a new life, securing the boat on jacks and living in it until his new dwelling—a beach house on stilts—is completed. He hopes Marianne will find it cozy, that it will be their little love nest, but she prefers the comfort of her parents’ big house. His new life becomes fraught with other frustrations: intruding cows, obnoxious turkeys, snakes, an overabundance of country radio stations, the unease of Marianne’s family and neighbors over his pretentious arrival, rednecks, and general boredom.    

He develops a coping mechanism that includes floating in a blue rubber swimming pool picked up at the local Big Lots, booze, full-auto target practice with a duct-taped Uzi, Led Zeppelin, and weed. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s losing his edge. Soon, without even trying (or trying not to), he finds himself back on the Money Trail.  

His life has become a tug-of-war between opposing desires. On one hand there’s comfort and safety in a pastoral setting with a beautiful woman who is “part rose petal on a church pew, part Hemi-powered oyster eater”; the competing impulse is toward the rush of adrenalin that rises out of being in the middle of—facilitating, even—major deals, minor uprisings, and military coups while sailing between Caribbean islands and sea ports or trekking through Central American jungles infested with deadly beasts and humans. One lifestyle provides peace and health, the other excitement and big paydays. 

Built upon this see-saw, the narrative comprises an assortment of bizarre situations, flashbacks, and plot twists that illustrate the concept of being caught between two extremes. JT Harrington is—miraculously, after the hard knocks he experiences all along the money trail—a living, breathing, dazed-and-confused enigma seeking resolution. He discovers, though, that reconciling his past with the present and finding an inhabitable space between requires perhaps more fortitude, cleverness, and courage than he can muster.  

One thing’s for sure, though: on the money trail it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. This never mattered much for JT before Marianne. Now, looking through a different colored lens, he’s presented with new possibilities, but in order to reinvent himself, he must conquer old habits and disentangle himself from former connections that are as twisting and binding as the kudzu surrounding his cow pasture. We eagerly join JT on his adventures to discover whether or not he is up to the task.

Our compulsion continues as we delight in the intrigue, liveliness of language, colorful characters, dark humor, and harrowing action. For the thrill-seeker residing in all of us, Blue Rubber Pool provides the giddy catharsis of a twisting, plunging ride on the amusement park’s most unique roller coaster. Board at your own risk. Once the ride starts, you won’t be able to get off.

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Tim Bryant agreed to answer a few questions regarding his background, style, influences, process, and life in general. What follows will provide insight for anyone interested in novel writing and how life experiences affect the creative process:

RY: The narrator of your novel displays a love of the sea and sailing. The details indicate that you may also have these proclivities. Do you currently own a boat? What are the most enjoyable aspects of sailing? Feel free to share some of your sailing adventures.

TB: Sailing kept my soul from hardening regardless of hard times and hard people around me. I started as a grade-schooler. Heading out alone with nobody stipulating a direction or timetable made the world open up a zillion times its size—bringing a sense of freedom to an otherwise very claustrophobic childhood. As the boats got bigger, the lakes became oceans and more and more things of nature were revealed to me: its currents and tides, its fishes and animals, its changing moods of weather—things I might have missed otherwise. At the same time, I became aware of sailing as a transactional intersection of wind, water, and Man. I became more in touch with our ancient great-greats—the first who went out beyond sight of land and yet looked up at the same stars and moon as me. Although I’m presently boatless for several reasons including a bad injury, I see waves every time a breeze stirs the field grass at Pineapple Hill, my beach house in a cow pasture in rural South Carolina.

RY: You seem to know a great deal about espionage and intrigue—government sponsored and otherwise—in Central America. Is this knowledge based on experience, thorough research, or a combination?

TB: I was asked this in a writers’ circle once. I froze up for a second until a Dali across the room caught my eye. “It’s the same as that,” I replied, pointing to the framed print. “How much of that is real?” There’s an awful lot of truth in Blue Rubber Pool yet not an ounce of stolen valor. It was written as a love story. A not-so-righteous guy meets an über Godly girl. Tranquility conflicts with chaos. Trust sumo wrestles skepticism. Baggage aches to be jettisoned to enable pursuit of that genuine soul mate. When it was written, I was living in a lava lamp situation, a kaleidoscopic mid-life melt down combining PTSD with a long lost bag of weed and Led Zeppelin cassette, clients across several area codes, some with Uzi-carrying bodyguards, some requiring I own guns too. I was miles from open water— feeling claustrophobic again. My purchase of that kiddie pool was either a symbolic return to the serenity of the womb or last ditch attempted baptism. I rode that pool float every day for most of a summer—writing in the mornings about trying to save myself in the afternoons.

RY: Is becoming a novelist a recently acquired aspiration or a long-harbored one? Who or what was responsible for starting you along this path? Do you have advice for others interested in taking up this pursuit?

TB: I discovered writing for fun—I’ve always called it “recreational” writing—approximately the same time I started sailing. Writing brought sailing’s same sensations of freedom, hope, and adventure. Nobody controlled my thoughts or the enjoyment of exploring them. I could create new worlds all my own in poems or short stories. My English teachers encouraged me while math teachers punished me with Fs. It was a good cop, bad cop thing that pushed me into a habit of writing a bit here and there no matter where I was in my experience of being alive. Initially this was done late at night but eventually it became a very early-in-the-day thing in which I wouldn’t punch my time card until clearing my head of what ever needed out and onto paper. Now, living on a small farm with just a puny vineyard and a few peach trees to tend to, I’m able to give it a more serious go. I’m committed to publishing at least five novels. It has to be that many. After that, maybe I’ll buy a motorcycle. As for advice to other writers starting out, the best thing I ever heard was simply “to be a writer, one must write!” Tinker with it as much as you can and wherever it leads in search of your truest writing voice. Do it for your own satisfaction and if you get a bad critique don’t fold up like a dying spider.

RY: The protagonist of Blue Rubber Pool, JT Harrington, is a risk-taking adventurer, complex and slightly unhinged. How are JT and Tim Bryant similar? Different? Are any of JT’s traits based on other characters either real or fictional?

TB: Well, in the sense that Blue Rubber Pool is a blurred memoir, JT and I are pretty much the same guy blurred into one. We both have love/hate relationships with the world around us. We’ve both moved a lot yet never felt at home. We’re both tired of looking over our shoulders or way up ahead, on guard for the next sucker punch. Same as JT, I want peace and quiet now. Clarity between good and evil. A better sense of how God and faith figure into all that. No wonder JT and I both seem unhinged, we’re in a desperate state of spiritual overhaul. JT and I are both like an armadillo—rolling up into a protective ball to protect what’s inside, spirits seeking grace. This is explored in my other manuscripts too. I’m in a very intense phase of life. George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord or Al Green’s Take Me to the River are my sound track now and they play on continuous loop. That’s great. But there’s also paranoia and distrust at play. It’s a hit-the-brakes-while-also-hitting-the-gas situation of believing there is a reason for the universe but not trusting Man to explain it.

RY: Please name a book or two that made lasting impressions on you as an author? Can you think of certain titles that would be generally beneficial for aspiring writers?

TB: In my teens and early twenties, I discovered John Irving’s easy going writing voice and ability to conjure up oddball situations bordering on the absurd. I also liked Jack Kerouac for his improvisational writing style. Whatever stream of consciousness he laid on the page stayed on the page without losing its honesty through rounds of revision. I liked James Michener’s willingness to take his own sweet time getting a story going—sometimes starting at the Beginning of All Beginnings: a tiny shrimp-like life form washes ashore then through a gazillion years evolves into humans. I liked Hunter S. Thompson’s cynicism, Charles Bukowski’s rugged reality, and how Williams Carlos Williams, a busy doctor, took snapshots in skinny snippets that would fit on his tiny prescription pad. Of course, Pat Conroy will always be a favorite—not only as a Southern voice but for stories as hard as they are soft. I’m probably still into writing because these and other authors gave me a satisfying place to start. Musicians and painters get hooked the same way. Blues led to rock. Politics led to abstract expressionism in the visual arts. We are all the sum result of our experiences. It would be dishonest to ignore them.

RY: Describe your methods for making a novel. Do you plot heavily with outlines, diagrams, and note cards; or do you simply give your characters free rein, allowing the narrative to develop organically? Please describe any hybrid or unique techniques that you employ.

TB: There’s a thumb drive at Pineapple Hill with four novel-length manuscripts stored on it and there’s a box in a closet with other bits and pieces of a fifth. None of these began with a goal of going hundreds of pages long. They evolved from an hour or so of jotting down whatever came to mind, perhaps a vague sensation snagged out of the air, the spark of a memory or even a long ago dream, a déjà vu that stayed on then wanted out. If it seemed interesting enough, I’d pick it up the next day and the next until, after five to ten pages, if I still had interest, I’d take a break to consider a possible path for the long haul. Usually, this involved roughing out a brief synopsis—no more than a few paragraphs—and then a few ideas—just bullets—about the characters. For instance, what they look like, what motivates them, and what their role might be. Then I jump back in to see if it feels right. If it does, I stop again to graph the story arc and create a mind chart showing key variables. Ready-made templates handed out by grade school teachers are good for this—I like their simplicity. Then I dive back in, periodically assessing my progress and correcting course as needed. Because I have no formal training, I had to learn the hard way that planning helps capture opportunities for a better story while saving on revisions later. That said, I keep planning at a minimum. One writer I know has spent literally years mapping out her novel. She gets no joy from just writing for the fun of it.

RY: What about your current projects? What sort of fictional gems might your readers expect from you in the future?

TB: Well, as mentioned, there’s four manuscripts on a thumb drive and bits of another in a box.

Of these, Blue Rubber Pool, is published with enough bits left over to get a sequel going later. It’s one of four connected stories. Not a series per se. More like a collection. As if the same soul quantum-leaped into different men in different mid-life implosions, each face-planting into his own fears and regrets same as I did that summer.

Birdwatching on Edisto, for instance, is about an Atlanta advertising executive who divorces, loses his job, and must move back in with his elderly mother on the South Carolina sea island where he was born and raised. It’s a fun story about familial responsibility, Southern traditions, and island life. I’ve turned down two contracts on it recently because I’m new to this and there’s a lot of scams going.

Also set in the Charleston area is The Stained Glass Mustang about a sales and marketing guy who drives drunk, kills a kid, and loses everything (job, wife, home, friends, etc.). He lives alone at a crappy marina. His only client is a dishonest, belligerent con man. He’s close to getting fired until his estranged father leaves him a muscle car painted up with images from Christianity. It’s a bit dark and full of symbolism. Great fun to write. This one had a publishing contract too but the pandemic screwed it up.

The one I’m working on now, Old Hotel by the Sea, is about a mailbox salesman—he specializes in the type used at apartment complexes and business parks—who accidently kills his fifth wife during their honeymoon. He plans to commit suicide at the place where he met wife number one but things keep getting in the way. Not as dark as it sounds. Lots of moving parts built in. A great project for this winter. I’m halfway through the second draft.

As you can see, I evidently can’t say enough about my mid-life crash and burn. I enjoy messing with it as a cat messes with a cockroach. The world is so simple and yet also ridiculously complex. That’s the God in it, I believe, and all around us saints are like shepherds. Established saints but also new ones, unknown—saints in the making—at war with evil behind the scenes, cleaning up the sins we leave like footprints. Large and small.

Creative Writing

“The Distance of Mercy”—A Passage through Darkness into a Hopeful Future: A Book Review Featuring a Conversation with the Author

Shelly Drancik’s impeccably written novella, The Distance of Mercy, is a hundred-page passage through the dark territories of institutionalized hatred and generational enmity, a journey that, thankfully, carries the reader to the other side through the pathways of friendship, love, and mercy. The main setting of the story is Chicago in the late sixties, with situational insight coming through flashbacks to Vienna twenty years earlier.

The book opens with a young woman’s first-person account of how her world was shattered before she was born as a result of the German invasion of Austria, the devastation continuing through the allied occupation of her country following the Second World War. The damage is irreparable, but in the chapters that follow we learn how the narrator discovers a kind of redemption along with the strength and faith to move forward with her life.

“Sometimes ‘all we have to offer is love.’ As the novella closes, the reader will reflect upon the many facets and subtleties of this understated truth.”

Shelly Drancik

Her name is Nicolette, and in subsequent chapters we see her through the eyes of Tillie, a woman who cleans houses and has taken Nicolette on as a helper. Tillie’s voice is that of an “ample-sized” black woman who lost her husband in the war before they could start a family. She never remarried and has remained childless. A bond gradually develops between Tillie, who is never at a loss for words, and taciturn Nicolette.

The girl is something of a mystery to the older woman. Tillie becomes fascinated with Nicolette’s past and how it must feel to travel so far from home and family in order to study violin in America. Nicolette is reticent, but Tillie gradually pieces together enough of her past to realize that both she and the girl have been permanently scarred by war.  

Nicolette’s father, as a gifted violinist, placed high expectations upon his daughter. After his dreams were thwarted, he sought to realize them vicariously through her. Nicolette’s mother was physically and spiritually beautiful, yet her attractiveness and sensibilities became a burden to the family during the Russian occupation of parts of Austria. When Nicolette comes to America, her mother is dead and her father is ill.

The Chicago scenes, as well as the Austrian ones, are sensory and precise without being overwrought. The dialogue, mostly between Nicolette and Tillie, is crisp, revealing, and freighted with emotion. All of the characters, even Tillie, are mysterious and motivated by secret longings.

Nicolette’s desire for love and acceptance eventually overcomes her need for solitude, bringing complicated problems and conflicted emotions. There will be no easy way for the young Austrian violinist, but Tillie, an unlikely ally because of her skin color, lends support. In doing so she gains a broader sense of purpose for herself as well as respite from her painful past. Both she and Nicolette learn that sometimes “all we have to offer is love.” As the novella closes, the reader will reflect upon the many facets and subtleties of this understated truth.

The reader will also, more than likely, turn back to the beginning pages to savor the ways that love and mercy, even when ostensibly absent, carry us through the dark hours into an illuminated future. Read The Distance of Mercy, then read it again. It’s that good. Available through Amazon and other online retailers as well as directly from the publisher, Unsolicited Press.

Following is a conversation with Shelly Drancik:

RY: During the Vietnam era the term “generation gap” was often used to describe the tension, lack of understanding, and lack of empathy that existed between those coming of age and their parents. The war was the principal dynamic behind this “gap.” Can we draw parallels between Nicolette’s WWII-related struggles and the generational conflicts of the early hippie days in America? When Nicolette arrives in Chicago in 1967, the Vietnam war is in full swing. Is this coincidental or was it a conscious decision to have this war, unstated as it is, serve subliminally as a backdrop to reflect the destructive patterns of Nicolette’s and her parents’ circumstances?

SD: Your questions have such depth! I feel you wrote these based on knowing the origins of why I wrote this book. Thank you!

Yes, parallels can be drawn; one of the scenes shows Nicolette on the subway with Tillie as she watches, actually stares, at the females her age. I wondered how Nicolette’s childhood experiences in postwar Vienna would affect the way she sees them, and how they’d see her, though they didn’t notice her. I’m not suggesting that American young adults didn’t have lives that were difficult or traumatic; they were simply raised in a completely different environment. In spending time thinking about Nicolette’s life, the late 60s in Chicago not only exposed this contrast, it also depicted the extreme prejudice Tillie experienced. The Vietnam War was a veiled part of this background.

RY: Nicolette is a complex, fascinating character. You must have spent a great deal of time with her in your mind in order to understand her desires, fears, and motives. Is she based on a person or persons you’ve known, or is there perhaps a bit of the author in your protagonist?

SD: My father died when I was 14 and for much of my life I suppressed the pain that his absence created. It seems that Nicolette became the voice of my buried grief. Her voice came to me very specifically in tone and content but it took a long time to draw out her story.

RY: The book seems entirely accurate in the details of setting (especially the cathedrals) as well as the information concerning the war and subsequent Allied occupation. I get the feeling that this material is very close to your heart. Have you spent time in Vienna? Do you have family members who lived through the events of the occupation?

SD: I’m drawn to WWII history, notably surrounding Hitler’s rise to power and stories about the subsequent resistance movement. I still wonder how his reign came to be, how it could be allowed when his intent was to extinguish an entire population of humans. I started reading about Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria and the Night of Broken Glass when Jewish people were targeted and hunted, or sent away if they could afford the Nazi imposed confiscation tax, and I knew this was where Nicolette was from. Even though these scenes are not in the book, the events weighed heavily on me as I wrote and they became integral to the story.

In order to fully understand Nicolette, I had to imagine what it would be like as a child to live in an environment vastly different than mine with everything controlled politically. Families suffered, and still do, under occupation and oppression. The Soviets were some of the Allied liberators in Vienna at the end of the war but then became the oppressors during the next ten years.  

To make sure my descriptions were accurate, I was fortunately able to visit Vienna for a few days. I spent time in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, went on a historic tour, visited a couple of museums, and indulged myself at a kaffeehaus for jause.   

RY: In reading The Distance of Mercy, one can’t help but reflect on the horrors of war and how the devastation ripples through time and space. Distance, though, eventually helps, even heals. Those who’ve suffered often cling to memories, artifacts, and the practices that abided with them through the bad times, but they’re also—at least the ones who come out on the other side—able to cast their hopes on a better future, their dreams clarified through experience and perspective. Distance, both temporal and spatial, seems to be the key. Is this idea implied in the title? Can you elaborate on other elements that are necessary in order for sufferers of traumatic stress to move out of despair toward hope and fulfillment?

SD: The title changed a few times. I decided on The Distance of Mercy knowing that Nicolette had to leave for America in order to get distance from her life. With this act, she betrayed her father.  Nicolette felt she had to forgive herself for what she saw as her sin when she was a child—taking confections from a Soviet soldier and not protecting her mother from him. She clearly wasn’t responsible, yet some children have a coping mechanism of self-blame in order to make sense of traumatic events they are a part of or witness.

Tillie was the one person who saw Nicolette’s pain even though she didn’t know its precise details. With that one human connection, Nicolette was able to “move out of despair toward hope and fulfillment.” Tillie stood in as well as a mother figure though Nicolette was reluctant to open herself up to her. At the end, there was a subtle, yet significant change within both women.

RY: Can the human race ever move beyond war and its horrors? Why is it so difficult for us to apply the lessons of history in a constructive way, actually learning from past mistakes?  

SD: After war has ended, it continues to affect soldiers and lingers within families. Trauma is passed from generation to generation. I don’t understand why we as humans can’t learn from our past mistakes with war, destruction, and loss of life. It doesn’t make sense.

RY: The novella doesn’t provide a neatly wrapped ending with all conflicts resolved; war has taken its toll and there are victims. As in real life, the future is uncertain. The story does, though, close on a hopeful—albeit unexpected—note, at least for Nicolette and Tillie. Did you struggle with the ending? What is your idea of a perfect ending and what strategies can be employed in achieving it?

SD: Yes, I struggled tremendously because for a long time the ending was different. I had to frame Nicolette’s story within the context of who she is narrating the story to. The ending for Nicolette is more like her beginning. For Tillie, even when life was unfair and difficult for her, she didn’t dwell; she moved on, and that will continue to be her path.   

I believe that endings must first satisfy the story even if doing so results in readers preferring a different ending. One strategy is to try out different endings until you find the most authentic one, the one that clicks. With the screenplay that I’m working on, I know the ending so I’m writing everything in the script to get to that moment of closure.  

RY: Please explain your writing process. Do you start with voluminous notes and detailed outline, or do you allow the narrative to develop organically, growing out of the characters and maybe a pivotal scene or two? Do you always choose one method over the other, or do different projects require different approaches?

SD: With this story, I heard Nicolette’s voice. With other stories, it may be a line of conversation or an image I see which triggers something inside of me. It’s rarely intentional. After an idea has a hold on me, I start jotting down notes and researching if necessary. Outlines haven’t worked for me since I’m not a linear thinker.

For the novella, the pivotal scene (after many failed attempts) was the appearance of the Soviet soldier in their flat. The rest of the narrative flowed from Nicolette’s experience of that moment and the loss that would follow, all seen through her limited perspective as a child.     

RY: What other projects do you have in the works? Do you see yourself producing more fiction in a similar vein, or will you veer off into entirely new directions?

SD: I’m working on a book of nonfiction flash as well as writing a screenplay. I’d love to write another novella as I’m partial to its form and compression. Maybe something a little less heavy though!

RY: What are your hopes for The Distance of Mercy? What would you like for readers to take away from this impactful reading experience?

SD: I’m grateful that the book exists and believe much of it is relevant today, especially with our country’s reckoning of racial inequality this last year. What do I want readers to take from it? That in experiencing a connection with one person vastly different than ourselves, we can find the opportunity to feel compassion for everyone.    

RY: Historical fiction often becomes bogged down with details and facts, but here the prose is sparse and lyrical. The carefully placed details, the tight dialogue, and the references to classical music reach us on a level that is more spiritual than mental while still providing much to ponder. How did you manage to achieve so much in only a hundred pages? What role does the process of revision play in producing such a cogent finished product?

SD: Because of the first-person narration, I knew I couldn’t load this story with too many historical facts and details. I had to weave them in as naturally as possible. At one point, I tried an omniscient narrator just so I could include more facts! Finding the right structure for the story was also crucial. Many revised drafts helped me realize how it wanted to be told: in parallel voices of Nicolette and Tillie.

The process of revision plays a massive role. Writing is rewriting. Then more.

I also keep a Mark Twain quote nearby. “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”

RY: Thanks, Shelly, for sharing insight into the making of this impactful reading experience! https://www.amazon.com/Distance-Mercy-Shelly-Milliron-Drancik/dp/195073059X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3F7AS9UOL7LVL&dchild=1&keywords=the+distance+of+mercy+book&qid=1624110628&sprefix=The+Distance+of+Mercy%2Caps%2C205&sr=8-1

Creative Writing

Firmino’s “The Marble Army”: A Novel To Be Savored and Contemplated

The Marble Army by Giselle Firmino is a novel about family, loss, and redemption. Set in Brazil during the Fifth Brazilian Republic—a military dictatorship—the narrative roughly spans the years of its rule, from the 1964 coup d’état that marked its inception to the massive Diretas Já demonstrations in 1984 that led to the first democratic elections in over twenty years.

The relationship between brothers Luca and Pablo Fonte occupies the center of the book. Luca, the younger brother, narrates, usually from his own perspective but occasionally through dream visions that explore the perspectives of other principal characters. The trauma of loss is the catalyst that foments these imaginative flights.

The first loss comes ironically on the heels of a ceremony that honors the boys’ father, who is a pillar of their little town and supervisor of the mine that supports it. All the workers and their families come out to rename the main street, “Rua Antonio Fonte.” A sign has been made to make it official. Prominently absent from the ceremony, though, is the governor, a friend who Antonio suspects has been targeted by the new military leadership and has probably fled to Uruguay. This dark omen sets the tone for much of what follows.

It takes a while for the oppressive regime to affect the little mining town and the Fonte family but the poisons of the dictatorship inexorably spread, “like the grayish green mold you’d see on the outside walls of your home, knowing that it will eventually creep into its interior.”

The family moves from the mining town to the city after the mine is taken over by the government. The father’s health declines; the mother becomes obsessive. Pablo, attending university, begins to behave secretively. Luca’s teacher is humiliated before his eyes and carried away by government officers. Later Luca undergoes a terrifying interrogation at the hands of the officers. Almost against his will, Luca is drawn into the resistance, and he becomes fascinated with a slogan he sees painted on walls around the city: “They can’t shut us up!”

An intriguing subplot involves Pablo’s former girlfriend Rita, a spirited beauty and friend of the resistance. After a chance meeting near the university, she and Luca reconnect, sharing their hopes and fears, and Luca becomes infatuated in a troubling way. Their shared past is fraught with pain, especially now since Pablo has been missing for some time.

Luca also struggles with self-respect and his own perceived inadequacies: “For most of my life I felt as though I didn’t really exist, but was close enough to being real that people wouldn’t notice it. The man I should have been just never became a reality. I felt as though I’d just hover over the people I knew, like the undead. . . . I’d hover over the memories I have of them and myself, of this man I should have been.”

The passage of time doesn’t bring relief. Things don’t work out, but years later, as the Diretas Já protests are playing out live on TV sets across the country, Luca realizes that things do work out, but not as he’d imagined or hoped. Peace, redemption, and fulfillment, after years of hopelessness and tragedy, ride in unexpectedly at the end of the procession. Luca has become real and can now fathom a way to move forward.

The Marble Army is a novel haunted by characters who must be very much like the souls who lived through these actual events. Firmino, thankfully, doesn’t dwell on the details of the coup, dictatorship, and all the political ramifications but instead focuses on the effects of authoritarianism on families and individuals and what they must endure to survive, both physically and emotionally. The dreamlike lyrical prose of this novel, rich and lustrous as a cat eye marble, teaches us much about the human spirit, love, and the cost of freedom. It should be savored, and contemplated.

Creative Writing

The Making of Ben Stempton’s Boy, Part 3

I’d been back in public education for about eight years, long enough to be getting burned out again. I was sputtering along with the writing and thinking about retirement, knowing I had a long way to go. I would have to renew my certificate one more time before I got there. Thinking about my salary and my upcoming pension led me to an important discovery.

On the back of my current certificate, which was a T5, or Masters level, I saw that the T6, or Specialists level, could be achieved through an MFA degree. This was during a time when Georgia was interested in recruiting teachers from other fields. It took a while for me to grasp the possibilities. I thought the MFA category was there as a nod to art teachers; it certainly wouldn’t apply to an English teacher. Or would it?

I asked curriculum people and administrators in my system if it was possible for me to upgrade with an MFA. They knew of no such thing. The only route they could speak for was through an EdS degree program. I’d been stuck at the T5 level for a long time because I had no desire to take more education courses. I’d had enough of that stuff.

To be honest, I thought most of what passed for academic instruction in those programs was an exercise in qualifying and quantifying and assigning elaborate new names and acronyms to what should be common knowledge—concepts and practices we already knew—along with analyzing “research” that was plainly designed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Parameters, hierarchies, jargon, and all manner of inclusive and exclusive lists abounded, along with terms related to “brain-based” learning, as if there are other kinds. In my mind these programs made a fairly simple act, teaching, unnecessarily complicated, and I wasn’t interested.

(Here I must apologize to those who have pursued and earned EdS and EdD degrees. I don’t mean to disparage your sacrifice of time and energy toward what for you must be a very fulfilling goal. You did good work and should be proud. Honestly, I just couldn’t focus on that stuff.)

I was interested, though, in writing and literature, so I made phone calls and wrote letters in hopes that an MFA degree would, in fact, lead to an upgraded certificate and a substantial pay raise. I may never have thought twice about those three letters and what they could do for me had it not been for my regular reading of Poets & Writers magazine. Within those pages I’d noticed a proliferation of ads for low-residency programs in creative writing. It became a wild hope that connecting my passion to my livelihood in a more remunerative way could somehow work.

Long story short: I got confirmation in writing from the Professional Standards Commission that I could indeed upgrade to the T6 level through earning an MFA in creative writing. I began applying to programs, and one day I got an acceptance call from Fred Leebron, director of the program at Queens University of Charlotte. I was fifty-three years old at the time, but the news made me feel thirty years younger.

The program was intense. There were craft seminars, a lengthy required reading list, and analytical papers to write. The heart of the program, though, was the workshop. I’d never participated in such a thing, and to have others critique your work as you critiqued theirs, while intimidating at first, proved to be a life-changing experience. The submissions were discussed at length; that alone—having your work taken seriously by other writers—was gratifying. And thoroughly examining the writing of others to identify what was working and what wasn’t helped me to develop and define my own aesthetic.

And there were deadlines. Submission requirements for each semester had to be met, and the pages would be shared with a discerning audience. I wrote, revised, and critiqued my fingers to the bone while I held down my day job of teaching high school English. The program only required a week on campus each semester, the remainder of work being done via distance learning. It worked out for me and didn’t seem like drudgery. I loved it and, I daresay, thrived within that program.

I gained skill in controlling point of view and narrative voice, although I still struggle with these elements. I learned how to transition through time. I realized the importance of writing “in scene.” I learned how to read like a writer and vice versa. I slowly began to understand the concept of tight writing and “trimming twigs.” I studied and struggled with many other aspects of the craft of writing and gained proficiency in most of them. Learning to write well is a life-long pursuit that is never mastered. This is true of all the arts and most any endeavor worth doing.

The requirements of the Queens MFA program along with the camaraderie, discussions, and the friendships that developed caused me to begin seeing myself as a real writer. Proceeding accordingly resulted in finishing the manuscript, revising it numerous times, and sending it out ad nauseam until it finally found a home with Unsolicited Press of Portland, Oregon.

I am thankful for the guiding hand that caused myriad incidents and circumstances to fit together in such a way that this novel has become a reality. I’m also thankful to all those who helped and encouraged and put up with me during this lengthy process.

I hope you all enjoy reading Ben Stempton’s Boy!

 

 

 

 

Creative Writing

The Making of BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, Part 2

I don’t remember exactly when I wrote the initial short story, mentioned in the last entry, that I later developed into the novel Ben Stempton’s Boy. I’m guessing late eighties. I set it aside after realizing it begged to become a longer work, and, as always, life interfered with artistic pursuits. I really didn’t know how to proceed even when I found time.

I made some progress on the novel during the nineties, when I was operating an automotive repair business. I didn’t have to commute to work, and my schedule was somewhat flexible. I was reading “literary” novels then: Updike, Oates, Richard Yates, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver; and I also revisited masters from the canon of American literature: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee, and Edith Wharton. I convinced myself that I could do what they did, and I made a commitment to write a novel that would be a substantial literary work.

I realize now that I had much more ego than talent, and little understanding of how fiction worked. I learned much, though, from reading and trying to write, and I kept at it. The manuscript grew, albeit at a snail’s pace. Some of the passages, I thought, were pretty good. I gained encouragement from rereading the parts I liked, a kind of assurance that I was capable of meeting my goal. That was about the only encouragement I got back then. I didn’t belong to anything that resembled a writing community.

I told myself that didn’t matter. I’ve never been much of a joiner or a group person. Who needs that stuff? Best I could tell from my reading, writing was largely a solitary affair, carried out by the determined and mentally tough. I, like my father before me, have always been a do-it-yourself, independent guy. My motto was, “If I need help, I’ll ask for it.”

But I had to admit there was a type of human contact I needed: an audience. I wasn’t, after all, writing a journal. I wanted people to read and enjoy my work. I wanted to share this part of myself with others who would hopefully appreciate the final product and the work that went into it. Pleasure, catharsis, personal growth, and other benefits are gained from completing an artistic endeavor, even when it’s not shared, but ultimately we want others to experience what we’ve created. I believe this desire for an audience is somehow connected to the artistic temperament—ego and presumptuousness, mainly—that drives people to devote their time and energies to creating art in its various forms.

After finally admitting that, besides being damned difficult, fixing cars wasn’t feeding my soul, I closed up shop and went back to teaching English. At least this gig provided, as part of the work, opportunity to share my love of literature. I also enjoyed the kids and was able to find ways to be creative with them. I was too overwhelmed with the demands of the job at first to get back into writing, but, as time passed, I knew I must find a way, or else give up on my dream.

Being around others who were interested in literary arts, after I got comfortable with my colleagues, allowed me the opportunity to share some of my work and gain valuable feedback. Although we were following different avenues, we discussed writing in general to mutual benefit. This small sounding board, the Haralson County High School English department, along with one or two art department folks, helped to keep me motivated.

Back then we actually found snippets of time during the day to chat in the teachers’ lounge. These opportunities lessened as teaching duties and the problem of time management grew. The time problem extended into all areas of my life as I still hadn’t figured out how to fit writing in with the obligations of family and making a living.

The solution I finally adopted will seem intolerable to some, as it involved getting up in the mornings hours before daylight and retiring to bed an hour or two after dark. That was it, the magic bullet through which words made their way onto paper and pages accumulated. I arose at 3 a.m. every weekday morning for years and wrote for an hour or two while the house was dark and quiet.

Many mornings dream fragments accompanied me to my writing chair and found their way onto the page. I always tried to stop at an easy place in the writing, never in the midst of an unsolved problem. In the evenings and on weekends I’d read through what I’d written that morning or the day before and revise. Some days I’d complete only a paragraph of good prose, others a page or two; but I was finally making consistent progress.

Time passed but that was okay. I was loosely following an outline, checking off the plot points, creating the illusion that I was getting near the end. I knew that by continuing to move forward I would eventually get there.

It’s a good thing I had no idea how far I had to go. The end in sight was a mirage on the horizon that moved or vanished as I got closer. The occasional glimmer of victory allowed me to continue, which was the main thing. I had no choice really: either keep going or let part of me die.

In the next installment I’ll detail some of the specific obstacles I encountered and the one career move that finally solidified the mirage into reality.