Serpent Blog

A Letter from a Reader 
Please forgive me. I am humbly in awe of what the universe will provide if you ask for it. I have been feeling very down, very sad, because the world of book publishing, the business of it, is so cold, so short-sighted, so cruel. I have been thinking seriously of giving up. Never writing again. And then comes this, this lovely letter from a reader in the midst of Serpent Box. Here's what he says:

"In the train, I’m sitting next to a woman who’s reading a business book called “The Case For Levity”, opened to a page with a little text box that says, literally, “8 Questions for Measuring a Potential Employee’s Fun Quotient”. Ha! I’ve been waiting for the Slaughter Mountain chapter since Monday...I’m beyond questioning you as an author – you’ve already earned my trust as a reader, and since you’re a craftsman I will digress briefly and tell you specifically how you did it to me. Each of these ‘checkerboard chapters’, the Ten Years Earlier section, has a payoff. At first glance, I thought “Ten years earlier? Oh noooo! I’ve got to wait until I find out what on earth happens to Jacob!”

But you make it easy to wait. Every chapter illuminates something vital in his parents’ lives, something meaningful and interesting. You don’t betray your reader. Every chapter ends with a feeling of dawning enlightenment, and I know that it is purposeful and intentional. And then, somewhere around the nighttime box car incident with Charles and Sylus, I was content to leave Jacob on the back burner, lying bitten in the Tyborn tree, because I already trust you. And all of a sudden, I’m more interested in Charles and Rebecca than I am in Jacob. A coup for the author!

Our Sofia was born at home, by the way. Jacob’s birth rang true to me. I recognized it. I knew, when reading it, that you were a father. I tasted a little of the love you have for your daughters. It echoed and resonated with the love I have for mine.

So, to resume what I began in the first paragraph: I’ve been waiting for Slaughter Mountain since Monday. A good waiting, a getting ready to savor a good meal kind of waiting. And you pulled it off for me. I don’t see any of the work you put into it, edits or revisions or doubts. I know the work that goes into crafting something, and I know how difficult or impossible it is to come back to it later, separate from the experience of making it. But I’m telling you: from the outside, it flowed. Easily, perfectly. I forgot I was reading, I forgot I was on a train. You pulled me out of myself and landed me in the crowd under the circus tent, and I was a spectator, and then, as in a dream, I was Charles, or perhaps just behind him. And then I was the boy, with a tamed rattlesnake in my hands and filled with the spirit of the Holy Ghost… as I was in my mother’s high octane Pentecostal church, drizzled with oil, speaking in tongues, and watching the casting out of demons.

You pulled me straight out of myself, heated me in your poetic prose, pounded at me and molded me and then sank me in the ice bath of my own memories, and you made me different. Your writing changed me, man!

I always used to joke that my mom’s church was just one level below snake handling. It is a bizarre and wonderful experience to have you leading me down this road you’ve built.

Thanks for writing this book. It’s marvelous, it feels just right to be reading it, and I am happy to know you. I don’t know what kind of difficulties you’re facing today, but if you ask me, you should let ‘em go. You’re an author, and your book is out there doing good things to people. Everything else is just details.

I can’t wait to keep reading!


THIS, dear readers, is why I write and why I will keep writing, as long as you let me. As long as you will keep reading.

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The Dust of Us 
“The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you.” Flannery O'Connor

Yes Flannery, we are made out of dust, cosmic dust, the smallest particles of which we may soon actually discover, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN next month. Strangelets, monopoles, bosons. The very essence of everything that is. Photons, gluons, quarks. The deeper we probe, the more we discover. Life is infinitely complex.

Stories are built out of dust. You sit for hours, days, weeks, plucking with tweezers the little particles of dust from yourself and carefully arranging them so that they resemble a new living thing separate from yourself yet still connected, so tenuously, that each particle seems to depend on the other for its strength and meaning. You feel that it can crumble back to dust at any moment. And it can. The journey of a story’s creation is treacherous and painful. And it can sometimes take years.

The materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Shame, doubt, sudden pangs of unabashed love. Leaves, water, light. We draw from the flotsam of our lives. What are my materials? There are the places I’ve been and the people whose lives I’ve entered, or who’ve entered me. It we are lucky, we will collide with each other, at random, and take away little bits of each other and then, if we’re luckier still, spin off on a whole new trajectory, slightly altered for the interaction. Slightly better.

While I was writing Serpent Box I experienced moments of terror when it seemed as if the whole story was in danger of slipping out of my hands and vanishing forever. Because I didn’t know how to write a story (and still don’t) I lived in perpetual fear. Each morning I would gather what dust the earth itself would yield to me. My daily walk with my dog would guide the day’s writing. The dog would lead and I would follow. I believe we can learn much from a dog. Where the dog would take me, I was meant to go, and what I saw, though small and insignificant, was placed there for me to use. Many of the things that made it in to the novel came directly from these micro-journeys – owls, serpents, cloud movements, the shape of a tree, the quality of light. But it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t getting myself dusty.

John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters, became my guide. Within this slim volume, I found the courage and the method to mine my own dust. Collected here are Steinbeck’s daily letters to his editor and friend Pascal Covici. He wrote them while writing East of Eden, and though he was at that time no rookie, he clearly faced the page as I did, with all the doubt and emptiness of a first time novelist. Steinbeck’s ‘method’ helped inform my own budding process and I began to write a letter every morning before I began the actual writing of Serpent Box in order to help me understand what I had done the day before and what I hoped to do in the day’s writing ahead.

Your dust is everything you are and everything you see. It swirls all around you, though sometimes it needs to be stirred up, like algae in a pond. The dust of me lies in my earliest memories, and in those flashes of revelation that manifest themselves when the then is juxtaposed with the now. Two forces are at work on the writer of fiction, the past and the present, and between the two the lens of the story itself, which draws the two into focus to provide for a collision of particles that yield something new. The story is an instrument of becoming, not the product of it. And that is why some stories take years to form, and some never form, but lie in stasis waiting the collision which will set them spinning.

I wrote 162 pages of “warm-up” letters while writing Serpent Box. Reading them now will bring me to tears. They are stark and self-effacing and pathetic. But writing them helped me to find the story and find myself. I wrote them to a friend, who would kindly answer indirectly, helping me to find my own way, my own dust. The dust of fiction reveals itself not concretely, but as grains of flowing sand whose form can be glimpsed through careful observation and reflection, and then only briefly. Writing fiction is a grand job, and the question is, am I good enough for it?

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The Sacred Act of Reading 
“Then there were times when you had to write. Not conscience. Just peristaltic action. Then you felt sometimes like you could never write but after a while you knew sooner or later you would write another good story. It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn’t conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else.” Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories

What a strange thing it is, to stand before a group of people unknown to you and read to them. There is nothing quite like it. You appear before a group of people and read from something painfully extracted from yourself. You read to them, for their approval, that which you’ve derived, at great cost, from your living. You let them hear, in your truest voice and intonation, your most secret, private thoughts and observations, gleaned from all your moments of pain and glory. You open your self. You expose the very essence of who you are. When you stand before a body of readers to share what you have written, honestly and with all your might, you stand naked and alone among the critics, judges and lords of the land to which you seek citizenship.

What an electrifying thing this is, to take what you’ve created in utter solitude that which you could not possibly conceive of being read by anyone, and to transmit it, via your mouth, to the minds and hearts of story-lovers whose names and lives are as mysterious as the very source of the words themselves. Can there to be a purer union than that of the reader who loves the act of reading and the listener whose passions are words and books? There symbiosis here, between the story-teller and the story-lover. There’s a flow of something, back and forth, a willingness to be part of the other, a desire to know and be known.

Here’s how it begins. Words lie on the page. You see the words there but for a moment there’s no reaction between mind and mouth, for a nanosecond there’s a terrifying sense of panic, as if you’ve lost the faculty to translate language into sound. There’s a moment when the words are legible and then there’s a moment when they blur into strange forms like ancient Greek or Celtic runes. So you breathe and you blink and you remember the very day you sat alone with a pen and a book of lined paper when those words, the ones right there below you, printed and no longer your own, first came to you, as mysteriously as they come to you now. You remember that they were given to you as a gift, but at the great cost of your full commitment to them. You remember that they came only one, two, three at a time like drops of water from a faulty valve. You didn’t understand them then and you seem not to understand them now and before you sits a small but patient crowd who have relinquished part of their afternoon, and part of their private joy - the sacred act of reading. They have turned that over to you, they are trusting you with that, allowing you to do for them what they have already mastered, and more than that, allowing you to transpose your voice, your sound, onto words that would otherwise become their own, so that forever you will be inseparable from everything stamped with your style and your name.

There’s a lot of pressure on a new writer. There’s a lot at stake. You want the world to read your book but you don’t want to beg for it, or sell hard. You want the book to come to readers naturally, on its own merits. A book is a personal thing. It’s not a patent-medicine or a Ginsu knife. You can’t sell a book any more than you can sell yourself as a friend. Friendships are formed through affinities between people. The relationship between a book and a reader is like a friendship. If there’s something about it that connects you, that resonates with you, then you can become its friend. Reading at bookstores is the only way a writer can truly connect with a reader. And one feels a great responsibility to those who come to listen. I’m humbled by it. A reading is a holy event. I approach even a small, intimate reading as if I was Martin Luther King mounting the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as if what I read actually means something, or might move someone. Because I want the reader-turned-listener to feel what I feel, to see what I see, to know what I know. I want us to be one.

The miracle of reading a book, the joy of it, is when the writer and the reader meet on the page and become one. When the reader and the writer meet face-to-face the connection between the story and the reader can be even more powerful. The human voice is beautiful and nuanced. It is suffused with so much emotion, so much meaning, that the pauses themselves can bear the significance of words. A breath can impart sense, a tremolo, a stutter - all become the vocabulary of the reader. Listen to Martin Luther King when he speaks. The null space is as powerful as the text itself. The void between words, the gestures, the movement of eyes, the hand at the brow, the tilt of a head. We see the words come to life. We see them wholly, and just as the writer intended.

Hemingway said that writing was simply, the greatest pleasure. I used to agree. Yes, there can be great joy in the writing but I tell you, there is greater joy in the reading of the writing, especially to an audience of eager listeners. The moment when the words truly come to life, and take on their fullest meaning, is that moment when they’re being shared, physically, between the writer and the reader hearing them for the first time. That is the magic of story-telling. The teller standing before the listener, fully involved in the telling. Bookstore readings are the sole vestige of our ancient story-telling traditions.

As I stood before a small group of listeners at Book Passage this Sunday past, I was aware that my voice was being broadcast not just in the small room at the back of the store, but throughout it. I was told the P.A. system was on low, everywhere, so that those browsing the stacks might hear and be drawn to the reading. And some were drawn. Some came and sat. Some stood for a few minutes and then wandered off. Some simply stood, new books in hand, watching, listening, becoming part of the story for a little while until I stopped, and closed my book and they walked off to once again resume the story of their own.

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The Guest House 
The Book Passage Blog, 7 of 7

I will tell you a secret in this last entry of mine here at Book Passage. I will tell you how I persevered through hundreds of days of confusion and doubt. I discovered (through an incredibly serendipitous moment) that I had a spiritual guide who seemed to be watching over me and providing me small doses of illumination and hope. His name is Jelaluddin Rumi.

The miracle of reading, and writing is the very real, visceral connection between the individual, who struggles to express and describe that which is the mysterious and unknowable, with the multitudes, who burn with the same curiosity and wonder, seeking some answers and affirmation to life through the words of those who’ve lived before, and reach out across time to bind together all lives ever lived with all minds blessed with the gift of thought and speech. Or, more simply put by my good friend Andrew Wilson: when the reader meets the writer on the page and (they)become the same being.

Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan in 1207, permeates every word I have written. His poetics are woven into Serpent Box. His observations on nature, human relationships and God are, miraculously, at one with my own. I feel as if we were born together. It is to Rumi I turn for strength and clarity and guidance, not just in my writing life, my in my total life.

I leave you, Book Passagers, with The Guest House, a poem that teaches us to wait and to open and to see all things as fodder for our souls.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be cleaning you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

Thank you to Coleman Barks for his wonderful translations, to the poet Michelle Murphy for giving me the gift of Rumi, to the street-poet Diamond Dave for pulling him out of my heart and to Book Passage for allowing me this opportunity to get on my little soapbox in this blog and for the chance to read to you today. See you at four.


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Phototropism - The Book Passage Blog Part VI 
"The truth of my writing – the spiritual truth for which I write – is all that darkness, so clear in its depth that there is, like God in eternity, no seeing to the end of it." David Plante

I had never dreamed of writing a novel. I wanted to write stories. I began by writing short pieces. Serpent Box itself began as a short story that was inspired by a photograph of a boy I saw in a book. The image I saw evoked a feeling and that feeling drove the creation of a story. All stories begin, for me, with a feeling, an emotional tug, a visceral pang. They begin in wordlessness. They begin in darkness. They strive toward light. My stories are phototropic.

I desire to create something like a dream, and I want to make it delicious, so delicious that you will want to read it again and again in order to savor it. This is what Cormac McCarthy is like for me, rich, succulent writing that is both intoxicating and informative to the story he’s conveying. In this way I seek to emulate McCarthy.

Many writers have left their mark upon me. I am an amalgam of those whose sensibilities jibe with my own. But no writer has had more impact on my writer’s psyche than Cormac McCarthy. He is, whether he likes it or not, my mentor. His cadence is biblical. His rhythm, hypnotic. His scope, vast. His dialog, terse and never unnecessary. When I read All the Pretty Horses, a bomb exploded in my head. This, I said to myself, is what I have been waiting all my life to read.

I am not comfortable with the idea of telling a story. I despise plot. I try to convey a sense of story, indirectly, through tone, mood, rhythm, language, and by rendering individual moments that, when juxtaposed, will create a greater and more meaningful whole that does tell a story – much like a film. In some ways I compose stories like a filmmaker, by employing a series of shots. A scene in a film does not require language to be understood. In film, language is secondary to image. I am image-oriented and wish to convey stark, crystal visuals that utilize sense to create a feeling of space and time more vivid than can be ordinarily imagined.

I cannot bear to write anything that feels written. Nor can I bear to read it. I want to be invisible to reader. I want to begin each story with a plunge into a wholly believable world. The first sentence, for me, must act like a vortex. It must capture you without you realizing you’re being captured, for only then can I show you what it is that I see in the story-world. The most difficult part of writing is conveying exactly what I see and feel to you. That is the essence of it all, sharing something I see vividly, and feel viscerally, with you. The trick is to get you to feel it as I feel it and understand it as I understand it. Not to teach, not to tell, but to show you what it is I see. I don’t want you to look at me, I want you to look at what I am looking at. Therefore I must be you and me. I must write as me and read as you.

I wrote Serpent Box to try and reconcile what I feel toward the mysteries of life and the universe, and the concept of God. I was searching for the meaning of faith, just as my young protagonist Jacob Flint embarks upon a quest for his own sense of meaning and purpose. Together, Jacob and I began a journey that helped us to make some sense out of life’s ironies and evils, in the face of its beauty and good. What does it mean to live?

I have used the word darkness to describe that which I write from, working toward a moment of illumination. Perhaps darkness is not the right word, a more accurate word is mystery. That which is unknown, and possibly unknowable, is what I seek to explore. I cannot know for fact that there is a God, but I do know as fact that there is a spiritual realm of energy that I cannot explain. I have seen it first-hand. I have been lucky enough to see a paranormal phenomenon, and not just see it with my eyes, but hear it and feel it pass through my body. That event changed my life, but I will not describe it here. I use it to explain how I look at the world and how I derive my spirituality. Einstein said:

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

Nature is the lens through which I do my small part to interpret the world. Religion, in Serpent Box’s case a very extreme religion, is the filter through which I attempt to glean notions of personal and spiritual faith. Childhood, specifically the transition from childhood to maturity, is the human condition through which I continually explores themes ranging from wonder and curiosity to humility and morality. Racism and violence are the millstones around the neck of mankind that I still cannot understand, nor accept, nor reconcile, and I wrestle with those demons in my writing, certainly in Serpent Box, which takes on the overlooked history of racial violence in America for which we have still not atoned.

So it is through the process of story-writing that I learn what it is I truly believe. My stories often begin in darkness, and sometimes they end there, but they do strive toward light. I hope that the process of writing will illuminate me, and thus you, the reader. Please forgive me if I fail. I have so, so much yet to learn.

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