Thursday, February 25, 2016
A MANNER OF BEING: WRITERS ON THEIR MENTORS
Edited by Anne Liontas and Jeff Parker
University of Massachusetts Press
How do you become a writer? Well, it starts with doing a lot of reading, and then you have to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). But it also helps to have a good mentor.
In “A Manner of Being,” a new book published by the University of Massachusetts Press, some 70 writers — figures as diverse as former punk singer Henry Rollins, short story maestros Tobias Wolff and George Saunders, and novelist Mary Gaitskill — offer short essays and remembrances of the people who not only inspired them to write but took them seriously as writers, including by offering tough but honest criticism of their work.
Saunders, for example, recalls in a kind of diary format his early days at the graduate writing program at Syracuse University in 1986, where he meets his advisers, Tobias (“Toby”) Wolf and Douglas Unger, and falls under their spell — though not always for what might seem obvious reasons.
“Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera,” Saunders writes of his first semester. “Mostly I watch Toby with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them. ... I had always thought great writers have to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone ... Wow, I think, huh.”
The book also notes the way writers pass the torch to the next generation. Wolff and Unger, for instance, recall their mentors, while Saunders describes how Wolff and Unger helped him. Chicago novelist Adam Levin, in turn, recalls his tutelage under Saunders.
Another protégé of Saunders is one of the co-editors of “A Manner of Being,” Jeff Parker, who teaches in the MFA program for poets and writers at UMass. His idea for the book, Parker writes, started with a general notion that he wanted to do something to honor his memories of Saunders and another mentor, Arthur Flowers; by the time he’d solicited essays from other contributors, he’d found many common threads.
“One of the resounding messages here is that mentors give permission,” he writes. “Another thing [they] do is take you seriously, often when, as in my case, there is no good reason to do so. ...These essays contain more nuggets of good advice and invaluable lessons learned than I can count.”
By Christopher Boucher
In 2011, former Northampton resident and Gazette reporter Christopher Boucher took an unorthodox approach to fiction in his debut novel, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,” the same title as a noted 1969 hippie repair manual for the car. In Boucher’s book, set in Northampton and the Valley, the car itself became a child that the narrator had to care for and love — an anthropomorphic vehicle that might eat too much cake on its birthday, for instance.
In his new novel, “Golden Delicious,” Boucher has taken the same free-form approach to narrative structure and language as he did in his first book. It’s the story of the western Massachusetts town of Appleseed, told by a narrator who recalls his boyhood in a place where stories grow in the soil, sentences are kept as pets, and the Memory of Johnny Appleseed himself appears as an old man in too-big pants, old sneakers and a patchy beard.
In short, it’s a book that takes farce, fantasy and metaphors off in unpredictable directions. The narrator’s mother takes off — literally — from his family’s house to join a flying militia, wearing a flightsuit and employing some form of self-propulsion. His father is consumed by his job, and his sister runs away for a better life elsewhere. With his family torn apart, the narrator has to wonder what will become of him and who will save Appleseed, which is suffering from a bad economy and bookworms that threaten the very pages of the town.
The prose must be taken on its own terms. Example: “A few weeks after the house’s return, the Memory of Johnny Appleseed asked me to help plant apologies in the deadgroves on Old Mill Road; I worked all day with him and then rode the Bicycle Built for Two back to Converse Street. I was really looking forward to getting home and ripping open a bag of rippled barbecue DeathChips.”
Or this: “We left that piano out in the worryfields for anyone to play, but most people seemed to ignore it. Once I saw Canada out there, sitting at the bench and staring at the keys, but I didn’t hear any music or changing points of view.”
Boucher, who teaches writing and literature at Boston College, includes imaginary review blurbs for “Golden Delicious” that are in keeping with the zaniness of the story. There’s one from something called the “Haily Dampshire Mazette” that notes that “the page is cracking, is breaking. We all know it. We’ve known it for some time. At least someone finally said it.”