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.

 

Creative Writing

The Making of BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, Part 1

 

I must give credit to my mom, Betty Lou, for the germ of an idea that would become a novel. She was of a literary turn of mind, and, even though she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, she loved to read. She was also a whiz at crossword puzzles, skilled enough to complete the huge ones that were featured in the combined Sunday editions of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

I remember a thick novel by Taylor Caldwell, Dear and Glorious Physician, that she plowed through in a couple of days. I’d begun college by this time and, being slightly overwhelmed with my reading requirements, had already fallen into the despicable habit of relying on Cliff’s Notes. I was amazed at Mom’s ability to focus. She recommended Caldwell’s lengthy book, a fictional account of Luke, the author of the third Gospel. I tried but couldn’t get into the copious layering of details about ancient life. The religious subject matter was also a turn-off. In those days I was happily avoiding Christianity, but that’s another story.

Enjoying solid ground after struggling through my difficult teenage years, Mom and I continued to recommend books to each other. I’d fallen in love with the delicious irony of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Mom read it in an afternoon and loved it too. We talked about that novel and a couple by Erskine Caldwell, no relation to Taylor. We were both mildly offended by God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road, agreeing that the sensationalized content did not accurately represent the rural poor folk of Georgia. Mom had grown up during the depression and had witnessed and suffered poverty first hand. She’d had a rough time before she met Roscoe, my dad, and not altogether smooth sailing afterwards, but that’s another story.

Six or seven years earlier Mom, Dad, and I moved from Atlanta to the Hickory Level community of Carroll County, Georgia, a few miles from Villa Rica. I was thirteen and behaving poorly. Dad wanted to get me away from the evil influences of the city, so he found this rural, out-of-the-way place. We experienced culture shock and laughed at some of our neighbors who we thought were “backwards,” taking special delight in their country expressions and pronunciations, even though we were far from refinement ourselves.

This was 1966, and some vestiges of the old sharecropper system were still evident in this area: shacks and lopsided old barns; poor black folks living in despicable conditions; dirt roads; chickens, hound dogs, and bare-foot kids resting and playing on hard-packed clay yards; pot-bellied stoves; and battered old trucks. Most of these scenes and relics have since been replaced with subdivisions, McMansions, and convenience stores, but they were common if not prevalent then. The trappings of rural poverty were engrained in our minds by the time Mom and I began discussing literature.

I’d already encountered Flannery O’Conner, probably at the hands of Ron Walton, my high school English teacher. I rediscovered her after the Caldwell books. Her renderings of poor Southern characters, while equally grotesque, resonated more deeply with both Mom and me than did Caldwell’s depictions. We read the wonderfully twisted Wise Blood and discussed it at length. We laughed and were engrossed in a Southern Gothic trip for a while. At some point during this ongoing dialogue I mentioned to Mom an idea I had for a story. Really, I only had a scene in mind.

The picture I was trying to convey involved an old shack with a warped porch and oak trees in front. Mom liked the idea of the oak trees but felt more details were needed. She gazed out the picture window and exhaled smoke from her Kent cigarette. Brain spinning, she provided this line: “In their shade a handful of chickens gossiped among pebbles, but they scattered, cackling and running in circles, as the truck approached.” That image became integral to the short story I later developed about a grizzled old pulp-wooder and a hitchhiking orphan from Pittsburgh.

But the story never quite worked. It ended with the death and burial of the old man, leaving too many loose ends. It finally dawned on me that these unconnected threads held abundant dramatic potential, so I let the threads unspool. Many years later, with Betty Lou’s line still intact, I had in hand a much bigger tangled ball—a chunk of overwritten manuscript that would become the novel Ben Stempton’s Boy.

This incomplete, mess of a tale was with me when I entered the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program. I workshopped parts of it during my studies there and managed to finish a draft that served as my thesis. It still needed much work, but that’s another story.

Now, as I flip through the final galley proofs of Ben Stempton’s Boy, scheduled for release through Unsolicited Press in October, I smile when I read Mom’s sentence about gossiping chickens. I hope she, from her vantage point in heaven, is smiling too. We both know the book wouldn’t be the same without that lovely image. Thanks, Mom!

 

 

 

Reviews

Mike Burrell’s novel based on an Elvis- worshiping religious cult provides literary satisfaction

In his novel The Land of Grace, author Mike Burrell pulls off an impressively satisfying balancing act. Contrasting elements are in play throughout: light against dark, comic narrative against serious commentary, slapstick humor against shocking violence. Fully rounded dynamic characters are cast in textured relief against stock Southern figures. Once inside these pages, the reader suspends disbelief on the promise of comedy awaiting inside a religious cult that worships the risen Elvis—a premise made plausible within the rural Alabama setting—only to discover that the humorous elements are mixed with violent, tragic images. The cult’s carefully constructed village, built around a facsimile of Graceland, becomes a Theatre of the Absurd, where broad comedy and frightening tragedy are locked in a frenzied dance of life and death.

The protagonist, Doyle Brisendine, is a talented Elvis impersonator whose skill and attention to detail are barely enough to support him in a time when his prospective audience is dwindling. The novel opens during his latest show at an out-of-the-way Amvets club in Willow Ruth, Alabama. The audience is especially appreciative, and he has mysteriously been promised more than six times his usual fee to come there and perform.

In the dilapidated dressing room after the show, Doyle is skeptical that he will ever be paid the promised amount when the manager, aptly named Parker, knocks on the door. The mystery deepens when Parker hands him an envelope fat with cash and informs him that someone sent by his “sponsor” wants to see him. The someone is a beautiful woman who seductively suggests they have dinner together.

Doyle, taken aback by her pink ’55 Cadillac Fleetwood, nevertheless settles in the plush passenger seat, setting into motion the bizarre series of events that propel the narrative. He finds himself, after the mysterious woman drives him over miles of dark and winding Alabama back roads, inside the gates of the Graceland replica, the headquarters of Our Lady of TCB Church. The details of the establishment of this “church” and its operation are linked to the escalating events of the narrative as they inexorably unfold.

At the center are Mama, the mastermind, and her staff of “apostles,” modeled and named after characters from the Memphis Mafia. Before she became a prophet, Mama was Carolyn Susan Haney, the daughter of the wealthiest man in Willow Ruth and the surrounding counties. After living most of her adult life up north married to a wealthy Jewish businessman, deaths bring her back to her childhood home. Her father’s factory is now closed, and she is shocked to find her father’s “children,” those who were previously in his benevolent employment, now forced after the closing of the factory to live in a ramshackle trailer park, victims of foreign competition and an opportunistic slum lord. After much soul-searching, she envisions a way to provide salvation for these people through her enduring love of all things Elvis and her inherited fortune. She concludes that “all you really needed to be a prophet was . . . to find a bunch of people who really needed a prophet and the chutzpah to call yourself one.”

This background provides plausibility for the plot as well as opportunity for Burrell to explore satirically the phenomenon of religious extremism and how cults are able to indoctrinate and control their needy converts. Our Lady of TCB Church is begun out of desire to help poor agonized souls, but, through the rising megalomania of its founder, becomes oppressive, self-serving, and evil. The careful reader will be able to draw many parallels. The church has its own set of scriptures, the Gospel of Gladys, penned by Carolyn as she was becoming Mama. Practices such as shunning and the sexual abuse of young girls are not just accepted but condoned and celebrated.

The triangle of major characters is completed by Rhonda, the young woman who takes Doyle from the Amvets club to the church headquarters. She has fulfilled key roles throughout the history of the church but has now fallen out of favor with Mama. Her mission, to bring in the next incarnation of their risen lord, is a way for her to regain her former status alongside the apostles.

Romantic attraction grows between Doyle and Rhonda, and the reader, hoping they’ll be able to escape the cult’s clutches and build a life outside of “Graceland,” eagerly follows them as the escalating action turns dark. The white-knuckle suspense of the final act is the result of unpredictable twists and turns and surprisingly graphic imagery. The novel becomes a fast-paced action thriller, a quality that is earned by cleverly placed details and foreshadowing. By the time the action reaches a climax, Burrell has shown himself to be masterful at this kind of writing, as well as witty dialogue, social commentary, and satire. The final scenes fulfill Aristotle’s requirements for a perfect ending: unexpected, yet the inevitable result of what has gone before.

The deeper you delve into The Land of Grace, the more you’ll appreciate the carefully constructed plot, the nuanced characters, the humor, the action, and the skill of Mike Burrell in pulling it all together. Go ahead, step inside that elaborate gate. Salvation from the mundane awaits.