Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

Meeting Ignatius J. Reilly in the Rain

It was pouring on Canal Street. I was hobbled in New Orleans on a foot I didn’t know how I’d hurt, struggling back to my hotel from giving a TED talk at an anti-bullying conference, and it was getting dark and the storm had opened up ferociously. I ducked under a hotel awning, by the corner of Bourbon Street ... and there he was.

Beneath the clock he waited for his momma. Both flaps of his ridiculous hunting cap turned up, he was “studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency.”

At the base of the statue, a placard said this had indeed been the site of D.H. Holmes, the department store where we meet Ignatius J. Reilly in the opening scene of A Confederacy of Dunces, the funniest American novel ever written.

I’d never before been to New Orleans; but because I’d read the novel two or three times many years ago, I had already bought wine cakes for Ignatius inside Holmes with well-meaning Irene Reilly. I had ducked into the Night of Joy, the French Quarter’s least reputable club, with ill-paid porter Burma Jones; and I had ridden up St. Charles Avenue under a canopy of ancient trees with hapless Patrolman Mancuso, “undercover” in shorts, t-shirt and long fake red beard.

It’s central to the legend of A Confederacy of Dunces that its author, John Kennedy Toole, having failed to get his book published, committed suicide in 1969. His mother finally persuaded famed Southern novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript. Percy was awestruck, but it took even him four more years to convince a small publisher to bring out the book, in 1980. Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize, and has since sold 1.5 million copies.

I think it’d be impossible to get this novel published today. It so celebrates Ignatius’s outlandish insensitivity, and its gay and African-American characters are at the same time stereotypical and strikingly human; the former aspect would sink the book. Nobody would touch it. But it’s with us forever, now — and like that statue in the rain, to run into it is to rediscover an old friend. To laugh at the memories. To have again, for a little while at least, a shelter from the storm.

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The practice of the pause

After a long holiday weekend, we start back wondering if we can stay relaxed. Somehow.

It wasn’t easy to get relaxed, for me — by Saturday, our company had moved on and I’d been looking forward to slowing down, but mostly I snacked and twitched and realized how tense and tight I was. Finally by the end of Sunday, after a real effort (ironic? oh, at least), I had pretty much relaxed. But that goodness will evaporate by mid-morning this Monday ... right?

Well ... probably. But does it have to?

I like to read about mindfulness and meditation practice, and there I find the concept of the pause. In her book Radical Acceptance, which is a really good one, therapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach calls it the sacred pause. The idea is simple: At times during your day, pause and take three conscious breaths. That’s all. It’s often not simple to remember to do ... but that’s all it is.

In his new book pause breathe smile, Gary Gach uses the concept of pausing to embrace the whole notion of intent — that we make an ongoing effort to live with more care and awareness. He frames pausing as one of three intersecting spheres of mindfulness practice; the others are “breathe,” which includes the sitting meditation, and “smile,” which embraces an attitude of kindness that can open into insight.

That’s a lot to think about, on a Monday morning, but it does bring me back to a good place to start. With the pause.

The more I try to remember to do this, the more I do. It really is simple: pause, wherever I am, and take three conscious breaths. The mind can wander far and away even after the first in-and-out! But the key is not to judge, just to come back. And the more I remember to do this little thing, here and there in my day, the less I do keep the the chance to open up to the day itself. Tension is a closing-up. Conscious breathing, in contrast, relaxes.

Really ... that’s it.

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Back to Gettysburg, To the Turning Point

My son and I went to Gettysburg, and walked the fields of Pickett’s Charge.

I had done this once before, in 1993 when Brad was six and I was researching Gunfire at Gettysburg, one of my Choose Your Own Adventure books. Walking then the long, broad, gentle slope of farmland where 12,000 Confederates made the final failed assault on the Union line that finished the battle on its third awful day, I was thinking about a story. This time I was thinking about us. All of us.

Back then, the divisions between us that could not be reconciled without violence led to war that cost 70,000 dead and wounded, just on those three days. Now again hatred, violence and division are a rising tide. Tuesday’s elections can turn us on a pivot toward a new birth of freedom, in the phrase Lincoln gave us after the battle. Or they can keep us on the course to cataclysm.

As we came down the long field, we were reversing the path of the terrible charge. Brad got angry that the great statue of Robert E. Lee stood mounted on Traveler at the bottom, where Lee said “This has all been my fault” to those of his soldiers who survived the slaughter. Brad said of the statue, It’s a monument to white supremacy. It should come down.

I walked along the low wooded ridge, reading stone monuments to the units stationed that were stationed there that afternoon, each marker headed “C.S.A.” When I turned around, Brad was taking photos for an interracial group of Virginians who stood on the steps of Lee’s statue. They had handed my son their cameras. Now a man wearing a rebel uniform, carrying the stars-and-bars battle flag, walked down the path, tracing the terrible retreat.

This is where we are. I wonder which way we will go.

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The Book that Opened My World

I can still see the seventh-grade desk and my Scheaffer fountain pen, with the ink cartridge and translucent blue barrel. I must have had a number-two pencil too, because we were taking a standardized test. I finished early, so I opened a book, read about places I had never been, and began to dream new dreams.

I still have that book. It was my dad’s: Seven League Boots, published in 1937, the fifth collection of author Richard Halliburton’s colorful travel adventures. Halliburton disappeared in 1939, trying to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean. Today I have all of his books; over the years I’ve found them here and there. But it was Seven League Boots, retelling Halliburton’s adventures in the Caribbean, the Caucasus Mountains, the Soviet Union — and following Hannibal’s tracks on an elephant over the Alps — that changed my life.

I was a lonely seventh grader. I just didn’t fit in the little world I knew. Halliburton showed me there are all kinds adventures and discoveries to be reached for out in the world, no matter who you are. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance, opens with a photo of the grinning author in shorts and a white turban in front of the Taj Mahal and a dedication to his four Princeton roommates, “whose sanity, consistency and respectability ... drove me to this book.”

All of Halliburton’s once-famous work is infused with that buoyant, just slightly defiant good humor. Going with him in Seven League Boots, I visited the awesomely massive ruin of U.S. Fort Jefferson far out in the Dry Tortugas, discovering its story of unjust confinement and rampaging fever. Together we interviewed one of the assassins of Russia’s last czar; we met some descendents of 12th century Crusaders who’d been marooned for centuries in the Caucasus with their swords and helmets and armor; we conversed in a desert tent with Ibn Saud, the towering and near-mythic creator of Saudi Arabia; we visited Mount Athos, the Greek monastery island that had been closed to females, of all species, since the days of Byzantium — and I’ve never forgotten the horrors we beheld on Spinalonga, the island off Crete that was one of the world’s last leper colonies.

Halliburton was often dismissed or belittled in his day as a popularizer, even a fantasizer — yet decades later, his detailed account of the assassination of the czar and his wife and children would be proven correct. And he could write! Here is how he opens that account:

Lying prostrate in his bed, desperately ill, Peter Zacharovitch Ermakov, one of the three Bolshevik officers who, on the night of July 16, 1918, murdered Czar Nicholas II of Russia and all six members of his family, poured out with semi-delirious violence the whole dreadful story of the slaughter of the Romanoffs.

Nobody else penetrated the layers and decades of Soviet denial and obscuration, traveled to Ekaterinburg east of the Ural Mountains, and persuaded Ermakov to tell that terrible story. Halliburton did.

And here’s one of the greatest lead paragraphs in all human-interest journalism — the one that opens his chapter “The Oldest Man in the World”:

“He’s been drunk for the last hundred and thirty years,” sighed the great-granddaughter of the old Caucasian soldier who was seated before me clutching a vodka bottle. “I’ve given up all hope of reforming him.”

By the time I finished Seven League Boots, the world looked different. I was different. I was no longer wholly imprisoned by seventh-grade meanness and pressure to conform; I had glimpsed with opening joy a living globe that was vast, vivid and wide-open to an adventurous soul — and I wasn’t the only one. In the depths of the Great Depression, Halliburton “thrilled an entire generation of readers,” said a publisher who later reissued The Royal Road to Romance.

In the depths of our depression and bewilderment today, we could use another writer like him.

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Through Rafflecopter, the publisher Chooseco is giving away signed copies of my newest book, Snake Invasion, an interactive novel for young readers that I think is pretty scarey — and that could really happen! Here is the link to the giveaway … and here’s the story of the story:

There’s nothing more fun, when you’re in the right mood, than a good creature feature.
    I remember hiding under couch pillows, thrilled by terror, as Saturday night TV’s “Chiller Theater,” hosted by Zacherly the Cool Ghoul on New York City’s Channel 11 in the 60s, showed classics like “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
    So last year when the publishers of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, for which I’d written nine previous interactive novels, asked me to try a new project tentatively titled Snake Attack, I said heck yes! And I read some books like Nathaniel Benchley’s Beast (whoa), and watched some newer films like “Anaconda.”    
    And I had fun! I think you will too, if you check out my newest “Choose” book, Snake Invasion (we made the title more creepily realistic), which just came out this spring.
    Whether books or films, creature features work best when they’re built on a premise that's just believable enough to make it hard to sleep at night. So our concept for Snake Invasion is that you — the Choose books always center on “you,” a main character through whose choices the multi-ending story unfolds — are a kid living in a giant new subdivision that was built on a filled-in edge of Florida’s Everglades.
    What you don’t know at first, and neither does anyone else, is that the gigantic Burmese pythons, an invasive species that really is overrunning the Everglades (some estimates are that half a million of the creatures may be living there, with no natural enemies) have eaten all the wild prey in the world’s largest wetland.
    So now they are coming for the pets.
    And among the first two disappear is your little dog Zelda, who is snatched by a ten-foot python from her invisible-fenced pen in your backyard.
    You and your best friend Jackson, who spots the huge snake slithering toward the water with Zelda in its jaws, set out on a quest. Searching for your beloved pet leads you into a brace of moonlight adventures and scary predicaments, out in the gator-infested wetland at night — and among pet-attacking pythons by day.
    I won’t tell you what happens, but Snake Invasion has 13 different endings — and I had a great time researching what really might happen, if (as some experts predict) the huge, hungry snakes do clean the Everglades out of its raccoons, opossums, bird eggs and other vulnerable species, and come looking in nearby neighborhoods for more living food.
    If this sounds like a story for you, or for a young reader you know, the publisher Chooseco has just extended a Snake Invasion book giveaway through Rafflecopter. Here again is the link!
    Each copy is signed by me. I hope you’ll win one. And if you read Snake Invasion … I do hope you’ll survive.

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The library with a stuffed tiger

The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

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Watching Bernie, from way back

I first met and interviewed Bernie Sanders when I’d become a Boston Globe correspondent covering Vermont from Montpelier, and he’d just been re-elected mayor of Burlington. Over the years I’ve spoken with him a number of times and seen him many more — and like most all of us here in Vermont, I’ve always seen him in the same damn shirt.

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Words from another age of fear

“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.”

That’s how the writer E.B. White began a still-celebrated letter to the New York Herald Tribune on November 29, 1947. Ten men from the world of filmmaking — screenwriters, directors and/or producers — had just been convicted of contempt of Congress, and given jail terms, for supposedly sneaking Communist propaganda into their work. In levying the charges, the House Unamerican Activities Committee had given no supporting evidence.

White was worried, much as many of us are worried today.

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A president, a ball ... and a book

Early on in in Alexander Wolff’s new book The Audacity of Hoop — Basketball and the Age of Obama, there’s a photo of a ten-year-old boy and his dad. The setting is San Francisco airport. This is the last time Barack Obama will ever see his father, who abandoned the family when his son was an infant and had only now come back, to visit, for Christmas.

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What to tell a young teen who wants to write?

Because I’m lucky enough to do a lot of author visits to middle schools, I very often meet young people who are seriously, intently interested in writing — and often are writing; a sixth grader I met this week told me he’s working on a 500-page novel. (Whoa!) On almost every school visit I’ll get asked what advice I can offer.

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The songwriters: McCartney's "no rules"

At his old school in Liverpool, Paul McCartney teaches songwriting. “And the first thing I say ... is, ‘Look — I don’t know how to do this.’ And it’s kind of true. Because every time I approach writing a song, there are no rules.”

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The songwriters: Jackson Browne's basement

The other day I bought “Looking Into You,” the double CD that’s a tribute to the early songs of Jackson Browne — and whose cover photo shows a roughly made wooden door, opened to a room that looks to be dominated by an upright piano. I’m assuming that’s either the actual doorway into the basement room where Jackson, young and struggling in LA, actually wrote his early songs, or else it’s meant to look that way.

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When a story helps a kid find courage

I was interviewed online last week about my novel The Revealers, which deals with middle-school bullying, and about the effort to address that issue in schools that I've been plunged into since the book came out. My conversation was with ConvergenceRI, an online public-affairs newsletter in Rhode Island that is published every week by Richard Asinof, a lifelong journalist, writer and friend with whom I went to high school and worked on the school newspaper.

Richard asked some great questions! The full interview is here, if you'd like to see it. Here is the last question, which (as I hope you can see) really got me thinking:

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Until they took her away

I’m right in the middle of Suite Francaise, the celebrated, unfinished novel by the late Russian/French writer Iréne Némirovsky that transports you into the turmoil of French civilians’ experiences as the German army overran France in June 1940. It’s been said that this book is the first great literary work to have emerged from the war, because Némirovsky composed it in the midst of everything; she was deported from Paris to Auschwitz in 1942, and soon after died of typhus there, at age 39. 

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Maybe we need to hang up ... and be

Louis CK is a comic who tends to capture things, and in a few words recently he capsulized what an MIT professor, researcher and author conveyed in a 1,600-word New York Times oped. Our phones are wrecking our ability to be real.

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What to leave out

“Omission” is the title of an essay by the celebrated nonfiction writer John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker, and as soon as I saw that I knew I had to read the piece. For me, the key to writing anything that might connect and mean something has always been as much about what you leave out — or take out — as it’s ever about what you put in. This is lucky, because I’m much better at leaving and taking stuff out than I am at thinking of clever things to put in.

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Ending my summer of story: Fatima

For over 30 years I’ve been both fascinated and baffled by the traditional teaching stories of the sufis, Islam’s teachers of the wisdom path. Best known and widely read in collections by the late Idries Shah, these stories have often, Shah tells us, been in circulation for centuries. He usually shares what’s known about their origin or authorship as he passes on the stories in books like Caravan of Dreams and The Way of the Sufi.

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My summer of story: the detective encounter

Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his first, came out in 1841 and featured an almost magically observant amateur detective, plus his his much-impressed sidekick narrator. Arthur Conan Doyle later based his better-known detective on Poe’s Parisian sleuth Auguste Dupin, and called Poe “the father of the detective tale” in his preface to 1902's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Added Doyle: “The secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero.”

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My summer of story: Grisham

Without having read his stuff, I used to be snide about John Grisham. How could he be worth reading, I figured, if everyone was reading him? Then I actually read a Grisham novel, and now I have a different question. Why do we tend to assume that a first-rate storyteller can’t be a first-rate writer?

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My summer of story: World Tales

“A man once heard that he would attain to wisdom if he could meet the Happiest Man in the World, and obtain his shirt. It took him nearly all his life to find him. And then he noticed that the Happiest Man did not own a shirt.”
    This may be my favorite story — it’s definitely the shortest one — in Idries Shah’s World Tales, a 400-page collection of traditional stories that have each emerged in various different cultures.

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