Monday, October 29, 2012

I Gave Donald Ray Pollock the Wrong Book, Yep

I had the pleasure to meet and talk with Donald Ray Pollock a couple weeks back.  The author of Knockemstiff and The Devil All the Time, Don is, without question, a fine writer.  But don’t doubt for a second that he’s a standup guy, too.

On invite from the gracious Tom Williams, I attended the ceremony at which Don was presented with the annual Chaffin Award in Appalachian Literature at Morehead State University.  Prior to the ceremony (and a thoroughly enjoyable reading from Don) Tom introduced me and Don and we spoke for a bit about the simple act of keeping the nose to the grindstone and having people around you who support such a strange profession as being an “author” and just shooting bull.

I had a few copies of my collection in the car and had grabbed one up to take to Don as a gift, a token of appreciation for sharing his work with all of us.  He accepted and I apologized for seeming strange, giving a dude my own book at his award ceremony, a day that was his day.  His response was perfect, saying, “Who would ever complain about being given a book?”

Truth, Don.  Truth.

All was well until I made it about halfway home.  I checked my other copies (all of which were signed to various folks I intend to send to friends, fellow writers, etc.) and jerked as if punched in the throat.  Don’s copy was right there in the seat beside me.  I searched the others and found one missing – my copy for Logan Rogers, the talented graphic artist who had designed the cover for my collection.

Now Donald Ray Pollock had a copy of my book signed, “Logan, thanks for the great cover work!  Enjoy!”

I wrote Don that same day and explained the mix-up.  Cool as a cucumber, he offered to simply mail Logan’s copy along to him with a provided address and said if I’d send another to him at his address, all would be well.

Try to beat that, folks.  That’s an understanding cat, right there.  So, again, thanks to you, Don.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Royal Flush: Five picks for October

I missed September.  I know.  Likely went unnoticed until I just admitted to it.  In any case, here's five picks for this month:


Marcus Speh writes about blogging, and does it well.

"Blogging is a writerly virtue, not a necessity. It is a journal left on a subway seat but found again, every week."


An old favorite revisited this month - Dave Clapper's "Winnie the Pooh and the Very Medicated Day" at Fictionaut. Originally published at Metazen.

"One day, when Rab­bit was tak­ing his med­ica­tions, Tig­ger bounced his car­rots to smithereens and Rab­bit had an idea. A won­der­ful, ter­ri­ble idea."

Mel Bosworth Facebook status update (of which he has adopted a minimalistic style of late) dated Oct. 9.
"there was outside today."

Jeff Kerr's story collection Hillbilly Rich.  See my review here at Bent Country.  From the back cover:
"The stories in Hillbilly Rich depict modern life in the Appalachian mountains on the Kentucky and Virginia border, a landscape beautiful and ruined simultaneously."

D.T. Max writes a book about David Foster Wallace I want to read.
"It was my first biography and I thought it would be slow because one thing I’d already kind of learned is that there’s a lot of grief still in people’s hearts and you really can’t push people when they’re feeling bad. But the thing that was surprising to me, well, there were two things really: one was the amount of letters that I was able to unearth, which was really a treat."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

REVIEW: Jeff Kerr's Hillbilly Rich, A Slim Gem

I remember a talk I attended once while folks were trying to teach me how to write better called “Slim Gems”.  That was the name of the lecture these two fine writers were giving.  They talked about The Catcher in the Rye and a dozen other titles most people fail to realize are comparatively small in length to other books but shine like new pennies, word for word.

I suppose they hoped to show us you don’t have to write six-hundred pages to say what you mean and mean what you say, and say it well, at that.

I don’t remember seeing Jeff Kerr there, but they could well have been talking about his set of stories, Hillbilly Rich.

Kerr, a native of Eastern Kentucky living for the time being in the world, offers up six stories and an essay in this collection from Blue Dixie Publications.  In the best of them, Kerr shows a knack for observation that couldn’t be more precise to the people and the region he’s writing about, such as these few passages from “The Red Wolf”:

When my wife Roberta took my boy Dan, I lost interest in things.  I still went to work and supervised the convicts as they picked up trash along the interstate, but I did the job like I was underwater.

I sat on the loveseat looking down at a Time-Life history book on Indians.  They had pictures of all the famous ones: Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise.  All of them staring defiantly back at the camera.

I took a good hit off of my Jim Beam which I was drinking straight up from one of Dan’s Mighty Morphine Rangers glasses.  I felt the burn of the bourbon as I stared back in the eyes of them dead Indians.”

As the back cover says, “Red Wolf” is a story in which a man “sees the wildness and freedom he once had in the form of a red wolf”.  But more than that, Kerr gleams brightest in the tiny details that live inside the overall story.  Dan’s glass, for instance, grounds the reader in the protagonist’s hurt, places a vivid picture, a flash of anguish in the same way it often comes to any of us in our daily lives.

The ability to convey this emotion, or any emotion in such a short space, is something a writer cannot learn outright.  As with Kerr, it must already exist somewhere inside the writer and the writing then provides the lightning bolt as a means of delivery.

My favorite of the stories was “Primitive”, an exploration of outsiders, outsider art, servitude, integrity, and, well, I could go on but the thrilling aspect of this story is how much is packed within it without breaking the delicate shell of what Gardener called the “fictive dream”.

Will Ramey, an old, retired miner courting Black Lung, heard a voice as a young man while under the mountain, the voice of the Lord telling him to “make pictures to tell the truth of the Lord about times past and times to come.”

Over the years, the pictures would come to Ramey’s mind and he’d push them aside, tending instead to his family and other obligations. 

Kerr’s telling of Ramey’s struggles in the mines are worth a review in and of itself, but the moment that is pitch-perfect comes when the old miner gives himself over to his most recent vision, the one that finally finds him creating astounding works of art painted on “the surface of old gourds, slabs of wood, chucks and of coal”, works that eventually find him under the thumb of a fast-talking Northerner who visits and offers to “represent” him in selling his art.

And, oh, that vision, I tell you, flock, raised hairs on my arms.  Without hesitation I’m including a good portion of that full-bodied paragraph here:

One day I was out dumping a bucket of furnace ash onto the ash wagon out back by the car shed.  I closed my eyes shut and saw beautiful gardens of flowers I’d never seen in these hills.  Flowers that swooped and opened like great pink and blue tubas.  Flowers as long as train cars golden and shining with their own inner sun.  These flowers reached towards the clearest, cleanest blue sky I’d ever seen.  Animals of all kinds gathered hide to hair of each other and not a tooth or claw was raised.  People naked like children new to the world were smiling and walking among the animals and strange flowers.”

One last thing.  Buy it.  Seriously.  Buy it.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Scar Lover

I was minding my business when a guitar string gave me this sweet gash.  Just lucky, I guess.

Monday, October 1, 2012

UPike, Shelby Lee, Still: The Journal, Jeff Kerr and Photographer Heather McCoy

Some news to share, and a guy happy to share it right here.

In the past month, I've worked steadily but with that nagging stitch in my creative section of brain that maybe things were slowing down - the story ideas, the grasp on the current novel, my talent (whatever there is of it) slipping into some corner both dark and cold and anything but inviting for someone searching.

But a reading and lecture I gave at the University of Pikeville Saturday and some good news earlier in the week and again this morning has provided the caplight needed to make my way out.

I was invited to be the Visiting Writer at UPike this past month and had a great time, had a chance to meet some great people and several writers who are coming up and working hard to hone their craft.  Left with an invite to visit English classes next semester to give lectures and walked away having turned some friends into strangers.  Can't ask for more than that.  Connecting is what it's all about.

Before this event, I got word from good friend and master photographer Shelby Lee Adams that he had spread the word about my new collection, The Same Terrible Storm.  I without doubt could not be more thankful to Shelby, a man who is more down to earth than anyone you'll meet and so stocked up with talent it'll take generations of those studying him to get close to being able to reflect what his work truly means to so many people.

A recently found friend, Jeff Kerr, writer and singer and native Eastern Kentuckian, has some material out I had been eyeballing closely - namely a collection of stories called Hillbilly Rich and a CD of spoken word and musical offerings called Jeff Kerr & The Hard Ballad Medicine Show.  My eyeballing ended Saturday when both arrived like found treasure in my mailbox.  Thanks to you, Jeff, for a generosity found only in those who truly want to share a story.  Visiting the mailbox that morning and starting in on Jeff's stories was like sitting outside Damron's gas station and hearing a local tell a story from a lawn chair five feet from the gas tanks I could only hope to tell as well on the written page.  I've already devoured most of the the book and CD and look forward to talking more about them both here at Bent Country soon.

Lastly - and this is two-fold - I received word from the good folks at Still: The Journal (those being, in particular, Silas House, Marianne Worthington and Jason Howard) that my short story "Lost Ball in High Weeds had faired well in the Still Contest had was published today in that fine journal.  Those interested in reading the story, and the rest of the issue (please), can find it here.  Included in the wonderful news that came way of the Compton household this morning was that my great love, Heather McCoy, has attracted due attention for her photography.  I'll keep the details under my hat for now, but needless to say of all the news that has come down the pipeline in the past few days, this one pleased me most of all.  Please take time and visit her website, Heather's Photography Ky.  Please take a worthwhile moment to have a look at the below photographs:

I'll finish by saying how grateful we are to live in a time when there is still room for those of us who work each day to add to the canon of work (in whatever small way) that has encouraged humankind to remain here and able to marvel at the world around us and reflect back to others the beauty it has given us for no other reason than the simple notion to share a good and fine thing as we happen to be lucky enough to come across it while passing through.

Yes, I googled myself. But look what I found!

I googled myself yesterday. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. I have a busy online life and so I like to see what...