As most of you know I can rarely look at anything in life without trying to inject at least a modicum of humor. The title line, clearly a twist on the opening line of Dickens’ classic, will to you Simpsons fans be familiar. In an attempt to see what a thousand monkeys banging on a thousand typewriters really could produce, Mr. Burns walks into the room, tears a sheet from a cigarette-smoking monkey’s machine, and reads from the page:
“It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times…stupid monkey.”
Sorry. That’s me. My kind of humor. But still, Dickens‘ true first line from A Tale of Two Cities is as good as any to begin this tale of a writer’s first foray into the non-virtual world of bookselling.
This all began with an email from my sister, who lives in Hamilton, a town fifty miles south-ish of Missoula, Montana. Each year, for the past twelve, Humanities Montana has put on Festival of the Book. Turns out there are some crazy-talented authors in and about the area of Missoula (and greater Montana). Enough to populate a small bookstore around which the “exhibit hall” is built. (The exhibit hall consists of a dozen outlying tables manned mostly by organizations or small presses. Oh, and one lonely Mystery writer named R.S. Guthrie.)
The bulk of the writers in the area are of what many of us call a “literary” style, which is to say they don’t write Mysteries. Or YA. Or Horror. Starting to get the picture? Yeah, the candy dish we put out was far more popular than any book (or even free giveaway or pamphlet of my work) and more times than not my smile into someone’s face was ignored.
But, dear readers, I did not make this adventurous journey a thousand miles north and west of Denver with only two expectations:
1. Learn something (which I always try to do).
2. Hear the author legend who (though he knew it not prior to this trip) inspired my author voice.
Ten years ago, I had probably written a hundred short stories (some submitted to face rejection, most just piling up in ethereal digital space on some hard drive long forgotten), a dozen songs ranging from Blues to Rock to Contemporary Gospel, and even a poem or two. I’d taking writing courses, attended (and run) workshops, and still did not have any idea who I was as a writer (i.e. I did not have my voice).
I had read every Travis McGee book by the legendary John D. MacDonald and knew, I think, that ultimately I wanted to write a Mystery series, but it seemed all anyone respected was “literary style” (I always thought of it as a bit “sans dialogue”, and I adore excellent dialogue, priding myself in my own honing of such). The thing is, I felt I could write in that style. Poetically, I call it. Wordy, yes, but heartening to read. How to combine the two? My best friend at the time argued he’d never “sell out”, never write like Grisham or King or Connelly. In other words, genre, just for the success and money (as if there was ever any guarantee of that for any kind of writing—even good writing).
Ironically, that same friend introduced me to my idol. My voice. I had asked him to give me a list of books I should read. Books I must read if I was to be the author I wanted to be. On that list, amongst many great books and authors, was (wait for it) a Mystery writer. Well, more than that. A Mystery writer with TWO Edgar’s and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. A mystery writer with a book that was nominated for a Pulitzer.
Mr. James Lee Burke.
From the first chapter of the first Dave Robicheaux novel I read, I knew I had found my voice. I had discovered that a writer could intertwine literary style and gritty, engaging storytelling with exquisite dialogue (and even end up lauded for it).
Guess who now lives near Missoula, Montana and was speaking at the 13th Annual Festival of the Book? I will now do what all writers should and try to keep the story succinct and without unnecessary detail (Elie Wiesel said, in one of my top three favorite quotes on writing: “Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”).
I was privileged enough to meet Mr. Burke. If not for my wife, who worked far harder than me at making my booth presentable, my works displayed, my entrance to the world of authorship announced, I may not have had the chance. As he passed my table I met his eyes and uttered a barely-intelligible “Mr. Burke”, followed by a nod. He smiled and nodded back. My wife called out to him. He called back that he’d return in a moment.
The moments passed. Celebrities are busy people. Everyone wants the most valuable possession any of us have. Their time. More moments passed. A crowd began to muster, shielding our table from view. And then, with only a few minutes left until his time to speak, Mr. James Lee Burke rounded the corner, clearly looking for Amy and our table. He not only came over for an introduction to me delivered by my levelheaded wife (I was a bit overwhelmed at that point), he spoke with us for ten minutes, telling us a great Denver story when he discovered that’s where we were from, and he graciously accepted an autographed copy of my book. I can’t swear to what I scribbled, but it was always meant to be:
It probably turned out more like hen-scratch foreign language I was so nervous.
I don’t know if he’ll ever read my book. If he does, I don’t know if he’ll like it. Doesn’t matter. I went to his talk on writing, as planned, and was mesmerized for an hour by his wit, intelligence, experience, penchant for knee-slapping storytelling, and most of all for the things he said about The Writer. I felt as if he were speaking directly to me. It was almost an out of body experience for me and gave me more hope and belief in myself and my work than I’ve ever had in my life.
Those seventy minutes—ten visiting, sixty listening—not only made the entire two thousand mile trip worth it but also instilled in me a resolve I thought I already possessed. It’s difficult to put into words how inspired I left that discussion, and as a writer, that is perhaps the most heralded compliment of all: I was speechless.
I’ll blog about the adventure, and the “blurst” of times later this week. This post has no room but for my humbled gratitude to a hero knight rendering a squire’s heart fulfilled by imparting a few of his words.
I will end with a quote from Hemingway, clearly a favorite of Mr. Burke:
“When I have an idea, I turn down the flame, as if it were a little alcohol stove, as low as it will go. Then it explodes and that is my idea.”
The blank page is dead…long live the blank page.