Learn From The Dead: There’s a reason they’re still with us

We live in an age where everyone seems most concerned with what comes next. But writers should never apologize for spending considerable time with what came before. The simple truth is that we can learn from the dead just as we do from the living. William Faulkner, an author who knew a thing or two about writing fiction, is quoted as saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He realized that as writers, we must forever be willing to re-examine, to look backward as well as forward, not just at our own work and experience, but that of others as well

While there are certainly contemporary authors we read, admire, and constantly learn from, we should also learn from writers who are no longer with us. Famous writers endure because their work touches different emotions in different people. So an immersion in the past need not be onerous. It can be as engaging as it is valuable. Ask yourself this question. Who are long gone writers that you admire, and why? Your answers will be your own. Here are three you may want to consider: Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Lowry. They may indeed be gone, but their work continues to live and inspire via their distinctive voices.

Chandler elevated the detective novel from potboiler to mainstream literary fiction because he wrote, as one devotee said, like a “slumming angel.” No one could turn a phrase quite like Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe. His character became the archetype for all who would follow. But Chandler’s writing wasn’t mere linguistic sleight of hand. There was always acute observation and insight involved, as in The Long Goodbye, when Marlow casually tosses off the thought, “At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.”

Graham Greene’s sardonic, irony-laced tales literally drip with attitude. Often venomous, always filled with regret, they chronicle the fall of the British Empire as omnipresent Greek Chorus in stories set in sordid little backwaters of the world where one or another disenchanted Englishman finds himself having to deal with betrayal, irresponsibility, and honor or the lack of it. More often than not his characters come to a bad end. But just as often, they grudgingly accept it, as Greene’s Major Scobie laments in The Heart Of The Matter, “We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.”

And for an absolutely heavenly descent into hell, check out Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under The Volcano. Reading of his protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin’s last twenty-four hours on earth, one is made mindful of the sad inadequacy one’s own vocabulary. Lowry’s explosive novel erupts from page to page as his alcoholic Consul spews a tsunami of words and phrases that turn into images and scenes and drama that one is unlikely to ever forget. Such as the last words Firmin utters when he’s finally stripped to realistic simplicity, “Christ,” he remarked, puzzled, “this is a dingy way to die.”

Make room for your own long gone but constantly remembered writers. Let them rent space in your brain. They will help keep the fires of inspiration burning. When it seems difficult to write something, read something you love. Nothing will help your writing more than having a head full of sources, styles, and stories to draw from. There is no better intellectual reservoir than a well-furnished mind. Keep yours filled with the work you truly enjoy, and don’t be shy about looking back to move forward with your fiction.

Joe Kilgore is contributor to The US Review of Books and an award-winning writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library recently featured one of his stories. Joe’s latest novella is The Horse Killer

The Crowded Hour:  Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

by Clay Risen

Scribner

book review by Christopher Klim

“Strictly speaking there is no single San Juan Hill.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, before America entered Europe to join the WWI campaign, the US was an isolationist country healing from the great war of the previous generation when its north and south did all but completely tear the union asunder. It had pushed to the California coast, claiming the nomadic plains from Native American tribes as well as Mexico’s Spanish legacy. The scars of battle were fading, but the mythology of the Wild West was taking hold. Both a romanticism and dread of the past competed in the American psyche, as it headed into a bold and fearsome future.

Meanwhile, the long reach of Spain, one of the last European empires, loosened if not entirely retracted. It’s holdings across the globe were no longer strictly under its control, and where Spain could, it kept the people in line through colonial brutality at the tip of a bayonet. Cuban was one such place, blown-up and divided via a series of indigenous revolts spread over more than one hundred years. For Cuba, independence was at stake. For Spain, the loss of its final new world foothold, including significant financial benefits, hung in the balance. Eventually, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, which may have been a military accident and not Spanish aggression, mobilized the US to Cuba’s side, thus beginning America’s longstanding policy of global intervention for freedom.

There exists periods in history when a man is born for the times. Theodore Roosevelt was one such man. Revered by many for his frontier exploits and often reviled by those in higher offices, Teddy Roosevelt had the capacity to charm, repel, lead, and recoil men. While benefiting from a privileged upbringing, stoic might be a primary word to describe him, but he wasn’t a quiet man. He lauded the selfless deeds of others, while booming his dissatisfaction with the military’s general lack of preparedness. As an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, he pushed for an increase in naval forces. While many in power lingered in the terrible memories of the Civil War, Roosevelt asserted that weakness in fact attracted outside aggression. After the Maine and against recommendation, he resigned his post to assemble a special force for the looming engagement with Spain.

This is the evolution of Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders, a throwback cavalry ranging from greenhorns to seasoned adventurers, war veterans, and frelance cowboys who volunteered on horseback to avenge the Maine. In fact, they were the country’s first volunteer cavalry. Every bit of the American spirit and experience seemed to assemble outside San Antonio, and at first blush, Roosevelt wondered if they’d ever get this regiment of around one thousand men into working order. They were lean and rugged, and many barely operated with a sense of discipline. Order had to be maintained, even while rules were bent to accommodate those who’d spent a lifetime demonstrating the essence of liberty and independence on the frontier.

While the entire campaign is outlined in this book, the turning point, as well as one of Roosevelt’s personal high water marks, is superbly detailed during the Battle of San Juan Hill. In breadth, length, and barbarity, the battle fails in measure against any involving US troops before or after, yet it remains iconic in American history. Perhaps this was because the troops themselves were somewhat iconic even before they set sail from the Florida coast. For months, Roosevelt feared that the conflict might conclude before they reached Cuba, and although his troops eventually did land and see action, when the famous moment arrived along a rise known as Kettle Hill, he rushed forward with his charge almost out of a sense of overall frustration as much as his concern to protect his men. For the most part, the battle was paced and labored, gathering many casualties, not the storming uphill gallop depicted in art and lore.

In The Crowded Hour, eponymously named from Roosevelt’s battle description at San Juan Hill, journalist and author Clay Risen narrates a pivotal moment when the US rejoined in the aftermath of the Civil War and western expansionism and turned outward to launch its mandate of spreading democracy around the world, or at least pause the succession of imperial, dictatorial, or socialist growth.  As is always the case, motivations are never pure, and Risen does well to identify both the genesis of our actions and the naivety of the times.  He also dedicates significant pages to establishing the assembly of the troops and the attitudes surrounding them and those of their peers and countrymen. In many ways, these noncombat aspects are more important than following a roughly two-month “war” in the Caribbean. In the end, a maturing country had finally chased the last vestiges of the old world from the new world, while beginning a global policy that exists until this day.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher

by Armand D’Angour
Bloomsbury Publishing

book review by Christopher Klim

“But if the stimulus to Socrates’ adoption of his philosophical perspectives and procedures was the woman who first taught him ‘all about love, we should recognise that Aspasia was not just a dynamic and unusually clever woman in her own right…”

To the western world, Socrates is most often seen as an aging philosopher. Both history and art ratify this, most famously in Jacques Louis David’s masterpiece The Death of Socrates. Here the legendary philosopher holds court a final time, while facing a deadly mixture of hemlock, the result of a politically motivated death sentence. As in most of Socrates’ depictions, he is a finished product at the height of his mental prowess and approaching his untimely ruin. In contrast, Oxford professor D’Angour attempts an image of young Socrates, employing known texts to unearth the potential experience and motivation that formed the mature man. The result is Socrates in Love, a kind of reverse engineering through history to reveal the famous philosopher’s genesis.

Uncovering Socrates is a Rashomon study. While credited with inspiring the studies of ethics and epistemology, he committed nothing to paper, and therefore we know of his words and deeds through the secondhand recollections of those who loved him and sometimes disliked him via conflict and jealously. His character is legendary, but it’s clear Socrates was beloved by the people, exhibiting a charm that drew both the robust and the intelligent to his side. Evidence of this truth exists in his legacy. Almost 2,500 years have passed, and we haven’t stopped speaking or writing about him. While we employ the Socratic Method—an argumentative dialogue inspiring critical thinking—Socrates is this method, immortalized through its brilliance and simplicity.

Can Socrates be shown in his youth? No one but other scholars will refute D’Angour’s depiction. His narrative presentation is story craft, beginning with Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ dissertation on love and then trolling history and testimony to reveal the geopolitical environment and events that shaped and surrounded the philosopher’s life. Heavily annotated and cross-referenced, the author presents acceptable facsimiles of Socrates as a boy, warrior, dancer, lover, and ultimately a vagabond sage who shunned material wealth but purported a zeal for life. It’s a fun read, albeit academic in nature, as it somewhat humanizes the legend, although not as assuredly as Mark Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo.

The discussion comes full circle with “The Mystery of Aspasia”—for it is back to love, so central to Socrates passion. Aspasia, partner of statesmen Pericles, entertained what might be called in modern times an artist’s salon, hosting thinkers of the day whom likely included Socrates. Aspasia was no passive host, both influential and persuasive. Socrates perhaps sought her advice on matters of love, and this aspect indeed crosses paths with the known record, but not by her name. Her exact role cannot be determined, although that it may have been larger than can be attributed. Regardless, D’Angour supposes that it would have been impossible for these two broad thinkers to resist each other’s company, and here we perhaps find the burgeoning philosopher in love.

American Moonshot

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race

by Douglas Brinkley

Harpers

book review by Christopher Klim

“Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs? If not, why not?” – from JFK memorandum regarding US space effort

Famous for making a “giant leap for mankind” upon the lunar surface, the US space program was in fact built with small steps. It began with the great minds of earlier centuries and the brainchildren of inventors and tinkerers. By the time John F. Kennedy took the reins of the Presidency and a splintered military push for rockets, an approach for the moon had already been discussed and often been dismissed within the higher circles of scientists and pundits. Then the first Russian Vostok missions occurred, solidifying a presidency as well as defining a purpose for America in space. Reaching the Moon would “leapfrog” Krushev’s accomplishments and threats. In many ways, the free world drew focus for the first time since WWII, lifting three astronauts to the Moon and etching a new high water mark for humanity that for fifty years remains unduplicated and unsurpassed.

In American Moonshoot, historian and deep narrative journalist Brinkley braids the stories of JFK with the US Moon landing. There exists glory and tragedy in both, and eventually JFK’s ghost hung over everything. Like war itself, much blood and treasure were spent along the way. When Neil Armstrong pressed boots on the Moon for the first time, it was the fulfillment of Kennedy’s mandate. This was in spite of the fact that the program had passed through the stewardship of Presidents Johnson and Nixon—both having profited from the effort and achievement in various ways.

While Brinkley’s detailed narrative lacks the immediacy of The Great Deluge, his seminal work on the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, he picks his spots to reveal the humanity of JFK and the people who made the Moon missions possible. That is perhaps one of the author’s best skills—to hold a mirror to us without judgment and let the facts speak on their own—a dying art in journalism. For that alone, this book is worth the read and maybe its selection above others. Alan Shepard’s and Deke Slayton’s heavily ghostwritten, Moonshoot, will always be a favorite for the astronaut’s insider view of rockets, although tightly focused on just the Apollo Program. Brinkley’s palette is a broader and more revealing worldview of the space effort in general.

Few books delve into the true genesis of the space race—beginning immediately after WWII with the seizure of German rocket scientists—with Brinkley’s aplomb. The pacing early on is historically slower and less dramatic, though none less essential to understanding how the space race evolved from military experiments into a civilian force idolized by the world. This is perhaps why many narratives begin late in the process with the famous Mercury Seven astronauts, when in large part the tone and ambitions of the US effort were already set. For those retellings, it’s almost as if astronauts and rockets suddenly arrived in the early sixties. Brinkley rightly reveals that nothing was further from the truth. The building toward the eventual Moon landing had begun two decades earlier in technological growth and at least a century earlier within the hearts and aspirations of scientists and artists alike. The achievement, if eventually surpassed, will remain a landmark.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter

by Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Their subsequent conversations, gathered in an interview for an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, would do much to create the Wild Bill Hickok legends that exist to this day. It even contained a few facts.”

Why do legends exist? Perhaps to capture the boldness of a moment in time. Perhaps to whitewash its dirtier element. Or perhaps to underscore the human desire to become bigger than we are. Sometimes a person of unique caliber intersects with the right moment in time and the stories of their adventures take on a life of their own. They transform into an enduring legend.

Wild Bill Hickok is one such legend. Born at the dawn of the great American western expansion, his above average height and looks, as well as his cool demeanor and superior shooting skills, cut the image of a remarkable man. He was the first American gunfighter, or shootist as they were called. He could fire with either hand and punch lead through your heart before you raised your gun very far from its holster.

Spending time as a military scout on the frontier during the Civil War, he learned the ways of wagon trains, cattle drives, and Indians. He knew the front trails and back trails and even served time as a U.S. Marshal, tracking down criminals but mostly military deserters escaping miserable conditions. He loved various women—Calamity Jane being the most famous—and was loved by women, more than he’d know. And of course, he savored the occasional whiskey and a good card game for stakes. It’s the type of life that many a man tries to recapture even today, but the lawlessness and landscape are gone forever. Any man who tries appears like a cheap and cowardly criminal and is quickly extinguished. Hickok himself would be gunned down in the end, because that’s where the tracks run afoul for every man who lives by a pair of six-guns at his side.

Author and historian Clavin brings us through it all. He tells us that Hickok wasn’t exactly the legend we know today, although the famous gunslinger did little to deny the tall stories circulating in his name. Americans wanted to believe in the luster of the great move west. They needed to. The reality of traveling through and settling in the harsh landscape was much different, deadlier even. Still, the tales of Hickok ran close enough to the facts that the man and legend soon became difficult to separate, and in the end, even Hickok passed those stories as his own.

Clavin is not a flowery writer, but engages as storyteller who might keep you rapt around a campfire or across the bar with subtle, wry commentary. With on-point side excursions into western lives, he covers not only Hickok but those tangent to his biography. In doing so, he paints a wider image of perhaps the widest American landscape in history. Well done.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wooden Characters

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

My Iroquois grandmother once asked me who I was. She wasn’t losing her vision or slipping into dementia. She had a keen eye on the horizon, like her young grandson, and kept a small gun beneath her shawl in case that horizon offered unexpected trouble. Listening to her was like bird watching. Rewards came with a quiet, patient effort.

That day, her question was completely lost on me. I was ten years old—a recent refugee from the city and living in a small tract housing neighborhood at the end of the woods. It was a so-called better life, but I was frightened by my change in circumstance. The steel and concrete was gone—no city buzz or crime. This was not a better life. I’d been dropped into the country, and along with a small band of friends—one relocated from Brooklyn and another from Newark, NJ—we roamed the birch forests. My grandmother noticed that I lacked the simplest outdoor skills, and even more so that I had no sense of how I fit in the world. Her question had asked me to begin looking inward for answers.

Often, when reviewing books and manuscripts, I encounter characters who appear to be lost in a story. They’re being forced through plots lines by their authors. They speak and move unnaturally because the writer hasn’t asked two basic questions of their characters—questions they probably hadn’t asked themselves in full: Who am? Why am I here? These questions were a gift from my grandmother, and I employ them until this very day. For creators of stories, they are fundamental. Let’s break each of these down.

Who am I?

Writers are brave souls. We are downright precocious. We dissect the human condition and attempt to make sense of it. Genuine storytellers translate their findings about humanity into words. And it can only begin after we truly understand who these people are moving across the page. Sometimes we know because we’ve been thinking about them for years, but more often, we need to do the research. One surefire method is to perform a character sketch, an autopsy before they are dead and buried. Here are the absolute basics for each character:

Name – People have names, and so do your story characters. A name suggests ethnic background and even country of origin. It speaks of the character’s parents. All names mean something.

Body Specifics – Story characters possess genetic characteristics that follow them throughout life. These include their age, gender, height, weight, body dimensions, facial structure, hair, and voice. The list of physical details is endless. Memorable details stick in the reader’s mind better than a name.

Body Language – Psychology begins to enter when we discuss human body dynamics. How we position our bodies in space reveals our personalities and betrays our inner thoughts.

Presentation – Many of the aforementioned character details are a culmination of fate and circumstance, but the way a character presents himself to the world is a personal decision. Clothing, hairstyle, and speech pattern are cognitive decisions of character. They speak of social status, education, financial inclination, overall preference, and personality type.

Background – Characters don’t arrive in a story as fully formed people. They had prior lives. They grew up and experienced certain events. They acquired various skills. As in real life, a character is in large part a culmination of their abilities and experiences. You may not use any of this, but you’ll understand better what this person is capable of doing based on their history.

Psyche  – At this point, we have sketched a pretty good character from the outside, poking a finger or two into the interior. Let’s ponder two important questions. How does the character view the world, and how does the character place himself in it? Answering theses questions goes a long way to anticipating a character’s reaction to story situations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – Select strengths that will support the resolution of each character’s goals and desires, and select weakness that will sabotage their chances of success.  We all have positive and negative traits that govern our personalities. Major traits rule each character, for better or for worse.

Motivation – When sketching story characters, pass from the physical into the psychological and uncover their motivations. That is the most interesting detail of anyone you’ll meet. Why does an individual behave in a particular way?  By uncovering a character’s motivation, we not only understand them more fully, we predict their moves and plot an appropriate course for them in a story.

Why am I here?

A story journey begins when a character asks: what do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Good story people take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. Confusing, unpredictable people in life are individuals who don’t fully understand themselves. Wooden characters in stories are individuals who the writer doesn’t fully understand.

Not until decades after my grandmother’s death did I began the process of asking myself who I was and why I was here. I am a scribe, part of the ancient clan that reaches back as far as the Iroquois themselves. Scribes document history and try to make sense of the people and things that pass through time and emerge within it. While this isn’t my only avocation in life, it wasn’t long before I applied my grandmother’s two vital questions to my story characters. It was only then that I began to bring life to my characters and uncovered their stories in a worthwhile and authentic way.

 

Previously in The Book Killers series: White Room

The Authority of Book Awards

Most authors, either through their own efforts or those of a PR firm, seek validation and publicity for their books. Recognition by a reputable book award can do both. While many award contests are open to small and independent press authors, the landscape is full of both charlatans and champions. As the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the last decade, I’ve helped develop a set a criteria that has maintained consistency and integrity. This criteria should apply to any book award you are considering. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll apply each of the following questions to the Eric Hoffer Book Award as well.

How many registrants are accepted each year? The number of annual entrants should be available upon request both during and after registration. The overall number relates to public interest in the award. If only a few hundred or less register annually, then the book award is probably not worthy of your consideration. Each year, over one thousand entries register for the Hoffer Award. Our coordinator provides detailed registration information during the year and especially after the final results are tabulated in the spring.

What are the registration fees? This helps determine if the book award exists to help the authors or enrich the host of the award. The Hoffer Award registration fee is kept intentionally low. Some awards charge for every entry combination, which results in hundreds of dollars to fully register a book. For the Hoffer Award, a single category registration exposes your book to all higher level awards. The staff is composed of volunteers, although a small honorarium is given to the category judges. Clearly no one is getting rich for their hours worth of service. The bulk of our budget goes to shipping books around the country for evaluation.

What is the award focus? Many awards focus on certain genres or are known for one genre more than another. A little research should reveal this information. The Hoffer Award was designed to be all-inclusive across eighteen unique categories. Our registration committee ensures that each book reaches the correct judging committee.

What awards are given? Beyond cash prizes, recognition by a reputable award is much more valuable to the success of your book. Some awards honor only a grand prize and a handful of finalists, which means only a small percentage of worthy offerings are being recognized. The Hoffer Award offers a grand cash prize; winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions in eighteen categories; press type distinctions; the First Horizon Award, Montaigne Medal, and da Vinci Eye; and a group of category finalists. From thousands of registrants come over one hundred prizewinners and dozens of finalists. Each author is able to capitalize on these honors in various ways.

Who are the judges? Without clearly stating who the judges are, your book will likely be evaluated by unqualified in-house staff (i.e. inexperienced general readers). The Hoffer Award has over one hundred experienced category readers, who typically include librarians, literary agents, and category professionals. Judges are carefully vetted via resume/CV, references, and an interview with one of our coordinators. Judges are annually graded and rejoined/released based on their individual performance. It is not unusual for a returning judge to receive notes on improvement for the coming award year. To keep judges fresh, they are rotated into different qualified categories whenever possible.

What is the publicity campaign? Try to determine if the award uses traditional or modern campaigns, if any campaign at all. Merely posting results on their website is not a publicity campaign. The Hoffer Award uses a combination of promotional activities via press releases, media coverage, and the Internet. Our partnership with the US Review of Books has been highly beneficial to authors. (More on that later.) We also get honorees and entrants involved via social media to help promote each other. In the future, we are planning more innovative ways of cross-promotion via entrant participation. Some entrants have done very well with only an award nomination.

What is the award reach? The ways in which the award results are viewed and processed aids the success of honorees. The Eric Hoffer Award results are published within the US Review of Books, which is read by over 15,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors and followers. (The US Review reports a significant spike in traffic in the months surrounding the award announcements.) As the Chairman, I have firsthand experience of literary agents and publishers who scout our book award results for new authors and books. In our history, we have twice been asked to suppress the honors for an independent author because a new publisher has purchased the book (in part based on its Hoffer Award honors) and requires time to prepare the new publicity campaign.

How are the books judged? Any book award should offer a window into their evaluation process, otherwise it is a black box and open to doubt. To preserve integrity, the Hoffer Award does not divulge its judges’ names, but it does discuss its process with entrants and in writer’s forums across the country. Our scoring process is a proprietary seven-point system that encompasses the entirety of the book from content through production. Judges must complete scoring sheets and commentary according to schedule. No judge handles more than twenty books during an award year, and no judge works in more than one category. When the initial double-blind scoring is complete, books are promoted for higher level panels that are composed of mutually exclusive judges, although they may contact the initial judges for consultation.

Are they claiming publishing rights? Some book awards claim publishing rights for the book being entered. (Many literary magazines hang by a thread and claim one-time publishing rights of a story for an issue or anthology. That is reasonable, because there is little and often no money to be made.) However, claiming the publishing rights of any entire book or any portion without a significant payment in return is just another way to publish an author’s work for free. If the book award in question loves the book enough to give it honors, it should respect the author enough to offer a proper publishing contract. Each time we field this question from registrants for the Hoffer Award, we advise that the author avoid any operation that claims rights.

If the book award you are entering cannot answer the above questions satisfactorily or avoids answering these questions altogether, consider avoiding that organization. Every one of the Eric Hoffer Award’s correspondences explains our basic mode of operation within our e-mail signature, whether you ask the question or not. Any award you enter should be that transparent and work hard to promote your book.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.