Literary Ghetto

I had an epiphany yesterday about my books. At the Narrow Gauge Book Co-op there is a special section for “local authors.” The sign over the shelf says, “We love local authors!” Not really. Putting them on a shelf like that isn’t “love.” It’s stigmatization.

Here’s what I mean.

None of the books I took to the Narrow Gauge in October have sold. It occurred to me that the local authors shelf is kind of a ghetto neighborhood. Local authors’ books should be interspersed with the other books in their genres. My books should be shelved with historical fiction. Why would anyone look for historical fiction about Switzerland, Mennonites or the Crusades on a shelf in an Alamosa bookstore tagged “Local Authors?” That does not mean “most desirable.” It sounds like a warning… I’m thinking of liberating them next week some time.

This has also led me to think about how much of life is disappointing. We want things. We hope things. All the time. Most of the time we don’t get whatever it was we hoped for or wanted (or is that just me?). Along the way we get wise advice, such as “Let nature take it’s course,” or “All in the fullness of time.”

When I was in Milan about a million years ago there was a young woman in the neighborhood where my friend’s sister had a store. This young woman was determined and earnest about converting me to Buddhism. I was pretty miserable in Milan a million years ago. I had a broken heart, a fairly flat wallet, few options and a desperate desire to get away, but I couldn’t. I had to deal. That the girl was so adamant, so desirous, of persuading me was, right there, an eloquent synopsis of the whole philosophical/spiritual problem of striving to overcome desire.

It’s incredible how many times that situation happens in life. You’re trapped with your emotions and all you can do is deal. Anyway, I wrote pretty beautifully about it in a book that will never be in the local author’s section or anywhere else. 😉

I wrote about being in Venice alone one afternoon, wandering around and studying the mosaics in the Basilica San Marco. While I was there, I suddenly understood Yeat’s poems, “Byzantium,” and “Sailing to Byzantium” more profoundly, differently, than I had before. They are poems about artifice and desire…

From the book…

To work for ANYTHING without WANTING to? The merely MECHANICAL, for a man to to work without desire. But a machine? No desire, yet,working, furthering the desires of its maker for earthbound immortality? Extending the purpose for which the artist was born? Good God. Yeats’ golden bird chirps into infinity. A soulless, animatronic, singing mechanism, like this Byzantine labyrinthine basilica, a curiosity for which I waited in line 48 years. Yeats himself left only the immortal idea, there is no bird, only songs, “. . . images that yet, fresh images beget” Inspiration; the animating breath. In a corner, in a dark and quiet shelter from the gold, the devout kneel, noiseless, before a painted statue of the Virgin. Her sweet face, compassionate and gentle, the child on one arm but the other open ready to succor another, offer mournful man what he needs more than God’s glory–God’s mercy; she models, inspires, love. 

I look at the ceiling and for the first time notice how living stories suffuse each voluptuous arch. The fish of the sea and the birds of the air struggle to life in a segment between archangels. The sea is crowded with fish; in their midst, a dragon. A golden eagle dives from one corner; a goose, a swan, a gull, a heron, an egret, a duck and a raven fill the rest of this compressed and golden sky. “All mere complexities of mire and blood.” Nearby, Noah releases a dove. St. Mark crosses the Mediterranean and is hauled up the Adriatic. His corpse sits on the boat like a living entity; the sea is rough; three men struggle to bring in the sail while a fourth, the animate soul of St. Mark, holds the rudder steady.

I study this “monument to its own magnificence” (Basilica San Marco in Venice) as well as I can–though to do a decent job would take me YEARS; I am that ignorant. I buy postcards, step outside and wait for my eyes to adjust to the light of the pigeon tormented piazza. In Yeats I had found not just “a” key but the key. 

Some of the people I met and talked with in Milan were Buddhists, Italian Buddhists. From these Italian Buddhists, I heard the argument that mastering desire is enlightenment. One handed me hand-rolled sticks of incense from Tibet as I stood in the doorway of the shop in the Naviglia. “If you do not WANT anything you are free.” This, I guess, is peace? The thin young woman who pressed the sandalwood sticks on me had an earnest not beautiful face; passionately and with consummate desire, she tried to get me to change my mind without knowing my mind. For me, God is inexpressible, unutterable. Awe. God is the force that pushes me beyond myself. I am his “golden handiwork;” his “golden bird upon a golden bough”–this earth. I WANT that song with all the burning ferocity of lust. 

The tranquil slow evening, the leisurely shutting down of businesses along the street, a new bottle of Italian spring water, I stood holding my incense; that was my first night in Milan. Tomorrow will be my last. I see all of it already in my mind as a form distilled and perfected through time, emerging. I loved that fervent girl standing there, color for my yet unpainted picture. I smiled and told her that yes indeed I do know the terrible pitfalls of desire (who would know better?) that I even saw the Dahlai Lama, and when? you were six or seven I tell her. It isn’t that I did not believe that what she told me is true. That desire makes us miserable is ONLY logical, but logic isn’t sufficient. “Hey, you guys overcome desire, you can reach Nirvana; you can become divine.” 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/02/13/rdp-thursday-most-desirable/

Writing, Readers and Reading

One thing I like about my life as a “famous” author is that I have personal relationships with many of my readers, however briefly. I chalk this up to social media making it easier to promote a book and living in a remote valley which is — in spite of the widely strung towns — a close community. This past year — after reading at the Narrow Gauge Book Coop in Alamosa — I came to understand the relationship between a writer and his/her readers.

I guess I should have figured this out before, but with the exception of my thesis advisor, Robert D. Richardson Jr. who has written beautiful biographies on many writers (Thoreau, Emerson, Omar Khayyam, William James), George Schaller (featured photo), Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, I never saw any of “my” authors read. None of those were situations in which the audience had a lot of contact with the writers, could find them later or meet them in a remote town to make a book deal.

I’m in this photograph… Outside D. G. Wills Bookshop in La Jolla CA, 1994, listening to Allen Ginsberg who’s inside reading into a microphone blasting the sidewalk.

Martin of Gfenn Goes to Del Norte

When I did my reading at the Rio Grande County Museum on December 7 — first from the China book then from Martin of Gfenn — two women came up to me afterward to talk. One of them was very touched by the tiny bit I read from Martin’s story, a part relevant to Christmas, spoke straight from the section of Luke in which the rich man, Dives, refuses to help the leper, Lazarus. It’s — it seems — a fairly obscure passage for many people, but it is the essential scriptural source for the Knights of St. Lazarus and the leper hospitals of Europe’s Middle Ages. It was not obscure to this woman. She was moved by it in a way maybe every writer hopes his/her writing moves a reader.

I was ready to hand her a book right then and there, but I wasn’t there to give away books. I was there to sell them.

Her younger sister said, “Can we find that book at the library?” I had to explain how libraries weren’t very keen on self-published books, but the library in Alamosa did have my books because it takes local authors seriously. I smiled. Even I think there’s something “less than” about a self-published novel. She was gently outraged. “Why? You’re a good writer. These are good books!”

A few days ago she called. She wanted to buy two copies. One for her older sister, the one with the Bible verses, and one for herself. I was torn about charging them the full price, or any price. But I told myself, “Martha, you live hand to mouth as it is. Earning money from your writing or your art is no crime. What’s your problem?”

So we arranged to meet today in Del Norte where I had a doctor’s appointment. We pulled up in front of the library at the same time. She hopped into my car (the blessed Bella who loves ice and snow) and handed me $32. We chatted for a minute. “I sent my brother the China book,” she said. “I loved it. I think he will, too. He’s in Chino,” a city in California.

As is the way here in the San Luis Valley, I heard the life stories of three remarkable adults — two teachers and a nurse. There’s something about the San Luis Valley that launches some pretty amazing people out into the so-called “larger world.” One thing that is always a little tricky is that here people really DO know each other, but I don’t know everyone. I am here from the outside, but no longer an outsider. In the eyes of many of the people I know, and many I have met in the last year, I just fit into a context with which they are familiar and I have no idea. I’m OK with that. I just learn as I go.

I told her there were cards inside and that the pictures on the cards are scenes I’d drawn from Martin’s life.

It was all lovely. What a wonderful moment to cap this amazing year.

***

Also, since I have some new readers and some people have asked about the geography of where I live, here’s a map. I live in the world’s largest Alpine valley. We are at 7600 feet — that’s about 2300 meters — pretty much all the way across the valley. We are surrounded by mountains, but the valley is pretty flat. That’s about as good as it could possibly be for me. I can always see mountains. Today they are, in words from Martin of Gfenn “Blue and white promises.”

Reading at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte

Part of my mindset is still in the complicated crowded California world where it takes a long time to get anywhere and a long time to do anything. It’s OK with me if I NEVER fully get that I’m not there because it gives me the chance to be beautifully surprised, as I was yesterday.

Njal

The plan yesterday was to drive to South Fork where I was going to meet up with a woman who was buying three tiny paintings. There was a large art and craft show in the Rio Grande Club — a fancy country club along the Rio Grande in the semi-resort town of South Fork. “Semi” because people live in South Fork, but “resort” because there is an enormous subdivision of large and beautiful houses that are occupied mostly in summer.

I saw people I know, and they said things like, “I heard you on the radio!” I was flustered by that, hit again by the fact that we just don’t know that much about where we are a lot of the time. We live in a little tunnel of our immediate concerns, our habits and what’s right in front of our faces. It’s necessary that we live that way, and surprising when we learn that somehow WE were in someone else’s immediate concerns and right before someone else’s eyes. I knew the interviews would be broadcast, but I was chiefly concerned with showing up and doing a decent job. I didn’t think of people listening ON PURPOSE.

The craft show was lovely, and very large, filling all the banquet rooms upstairs in the country club. Lois shopped successfully for Christmas and I found my customer.

Mr. Haefeli

I had a conversation with a young guy who is the scion of one of the San Luis Valley families that has been in the bee-keeping honey making business for generations. I learned that they had come originally from the German speaking part of Switzerland and in Switzerland they also kept bees. I asked where in Switzerland they had come from, but he didn’t know. I revealed my “Schneebeli” ancestry and told him my name means “Little Snow Ball.”

Over the course of the day I met three people who’s ancestors came from the German speaking part of Switzerland and all of them had stories like that of the Schneebelis.

From there we headed back down the mountain to Del Norte for lunch and then to the museum. I wanted to get there early to help set up.

Well…

I got there and Louise great-grandson had gotten a haircut. He’d also burned his tongue testing the coffee. He told me he’d tested the coffee to be sure it wasn’t poisoned before giving it to Louise. I was charmed.

We set out a few chairs, maybe seven or eight. I didn’t expect people — just my friends and Louise and Rita who work at the museum. BUT…

People kept coming. Pretty soon there were (I think) fifteen people there. The youngest was Louise’ great-grandson who’s maybe 10; the oldest were well into their eighties. Most were retired people like me. We kept putting out chairs. Then I introduced the reading but I did a poor job. I forgot to give the title of the book OH WELL.

The reading went very very well. I could see interest and sympathy spread across the faces of the people in my audience. It was a wonderful, magical, thing to see. The reading had been publicized as being a Pearl Harbor Day remembrance, focused on the Chinese I met who spoke American English and who had worked with the American military at the end of WW II. The stories are really incredible and so unknown that they are interesting.

Afterward, I sold three books, gave out many business cards and talked to the people who’d come to listen, two of which revealed Swiss ancestry. Mennonites back in the day, just like my grandma’s family. This makes me think maybe I should give a reading about the Swiss Protestant Reformation since it’s the reason so many of us are here.

Again I realized how much fun it is to share my words with living, breathing people who are in front of me. I read a small piece from Martin of Gfenn and it so touched one of the women who came listen — a beautiful Hispanic grandma there with her sister — that she came up to tell me in passionate, elegant prose the story of Lazarus and Dives. “Can I get your books at the library?” she asked.

“In Alamosa. Monte Vista won’t stock them. I don’t know about your library here in Del Norte.”

“Why not?”

“They’re self-published.”

“What difference does that make? Your books are good, and I want to read them,” she said.

“Alamosa is serious about local authors,” I said, and shrugged. I would have handed her a copy of Martin of Gfenn right then and there if people hadn’t been around and I wasn’t generally there to give books away, but I actually LIKE giving books away so… She introduced herself to me and her name means “Star of the Mountains.”

BUT…. As wonderful as all of this was, the high point was Louise’ great-grandson looking at me and saying, “I really liked your story.”

~~~

Featured photo: Rabbit brush flats between Del Norte and Monte Vista, CO, 3:30 pm December 7, 2019, winter light. Taken by Lois Maxwell

Back to the Future

A week or so after Thanksgiving I was at the BIG STORE in the BIG CITY (City Market in Alamosa). I really wanted to bake a mincemeat pie. Last year I made one for Thanksgiving dinner at my friend’s house and I had a dim idea of where the mincemeat might be — in a random temporary display someplace between the craft beer and the frozen pizza.

I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it.

Damn.

At the check stand I asked, “Do you know where I would find mincemeat?”

Young checker gives me a blank look and says, “In the meat department.” Her eyes add, “You idiot.”

“It’s not meat. It’s pie filling.”

“Pie filling is on aisle 4.”

“It’s not there. Last year it had it’s own little display in a random place.”

The checker looks at me with that deer in the headlights expression. Meanwhile an elderly Hispanic farmer has taken a spot in line behind me. He’s wearing a black serape over his Carhart jacket and jeans. He is built like a bomb and has two teeth, but even so he has a beautiful smile. He says, in English, “I know what that is.” In Spanish he mentions two New Mexico — one empanadas — holiday pastries that use mincemeat. “I haven’t had that in a long time.”

The bagger, who’s 12, says, “I can find it,” and takes off. My groceries are checked through and I pay for them. The bagger comes back. “Look in the canned meat,” she says to me. I shrug.

As I am leaving, an older stock person says, “We might have it closer to Christmas.”

“Thanks,” I answer, seeing a future in which no one has eaten mincemeat pie.

But…

Amazon.

Today I’m going to “do” some of the Christmas things there are to do here in the “hood.” My friend Lois is here from Colorado Springs to hear my reading, give me moral support and hang out. I sold three little paintings and I have to deliver them to their buyer who will be in South Fork today at an art and craft show, so Lois and I will go up there, deliver the goods, see what there is to see, then go to Del Norte in time for me to help at the museum if I’m needed and then I’ll read from Baby Duck and, I hope, a bit from Martin of Gfenn.

In preparation for Lois visit, I made a mincemeat pie. Lois said as we ate some pie, “I bet most people alive today have never tried this.” I think she’s right.

Take that, future. You won’t know what you’ll be missing.

P.S. In other news, yesterday I took the ankle brace off. I realized IT hurt more than my foot did, meaning, it was hurting my foot. My foot is finally doing better. I’m cautiously happy about this. I’d be jubilant, but that’s too risky.

Another Radio Spot

I just got back from the big city of Alamosa. I went to the KRZA radio station to do an interview about the China book and what I plan to read/talk about this coming Saturday. It was another interesting interview, and it was cool to meet the program director, Mike Clifford, who did this interview and the earlier one.

If you want to listen in, it will air tomorrow, December 4, at 8 am MST and again at 7:30 PM MST. I got to talk a little bit about Switzerland and Martin of Gfenn.

You can stream it here, https://www.krza.org by scrolling down to the KRZA Live Stream button and then clicking on the play arrow on the next page that opens.

“You Have to Pay for Everything These Days”

New ways to rip-off aspiring self-publishing authors. 

Incredible. Two years ago I did “giveaways” on Goodreads. They were expensive because they meant buying books and shipping books to anyone who’d asked for one, up to the number you said you had to give away, in my case 5 copies each of three different titles. That was met buying 15 books at close to $7 each and between $3 – $7 postage each. That’s AT LEAST $150. The idea was to get reviews from the people who’d gotten free books. 

That didn’t happen. I don’t think my “giveaway” yielded any reviews at all. Maybe one or two, but it’s doubtful. One woman even complained that it “took too long to get the book.” Seriously. 

And NOW Goodreads is CHARGING authors for basically NOTHING. So, if I wanted to DO a giveaway for The Price (which I was thinking of since no one reviews it) would have to pay Goodreads (a subsidiary of Amazon at this point) $119 so that I could buy books and pay to ship them. What would I get for that $119? Nothing that I wouldn’t have anyway. 

And who looks at Goodreads to get recommendations for books? I don’t know anyone, though I’ve heard it’s an active community of book lovers.

What do you think?

Sweet Bonus

What was especially cool about the book launch party yesterday was seeing the effect of my work on other people. I am not a person who listens to others read. I don’t have strong aural learning aptitude, and I tend to lose track of things, conversations, in which I’m not directly involved. It made school difficult at times.

But most people DO get a lot from hearing something. When my friend Lois hears music, she’s completely involved, and when she sings and plays she KNOWS what she’s hearing. For me, even though I studied piano for more than 10 years, it always felt kind like good luck if I got things right. I love music and listen to it almost all the time, but not with the intensity or immersion that Lois can — and does.

Words on a page are VERY evocative to me, and I was most worried about crying as I read, so I practiced a lot to kind of desensitize myself to the story. I managed it. I used the remedy of looking at the people listening to me as much as I could because what I was doing was for THEM.

A magical result of it was that my reading inspired two people. One, came and sat down beside me and told me the story of her childhood in Germany as an Army kid when the Berlin Wall was built. Fascinating. The other, who’s traveled a lot, said, “I always write down what I do when I travel, in a notebook, just for that trip, hmmm…” she was thinking out loud to me.

I said, “Yeah, we’re at the time of life when we learn how stories turn out.”

She thought I meant death, but I told her, “No, not that, but I mean I couldn’t have written Baby Duck until now. I didn’t know enough.” Then she understood. Who knows? Maybe she’ll write her stories. I think it’s very cool that a couple of chapters of Baby Duck inspired people to think of their own stories.

As a writer, I haven’t done a reading of my work like this before. Until it was in progress, I didn’t have any sense of the what it might mean or how great it is to meet readers, to share the book with readers and to see how the book kind of living on its own. So many books I’ve read have affected me, inspired me, made me think — and my book has done that. I’m so happy.

The BIG Event

I knew I would over prepare because that’s just me. I had no idea who would show up — could be a lot of people, could be no one, who could say? So there were four dozen of every cookie, cups for sixty people, napkins and plates and and and and. A slide show and a poster and books to put in inventory, door prizes — everything just in case the ENTIRE CITY OF ALAMOSA showed up. I didn’t want that, didn’t expect it, but I was ready…

A handful of people — all of whom were my friends — showed up. It took longer to set up than we planned — the better part of an hour. Logistics and electricity and no one wanted to abandon any part of this extravaganza for the sake of expedience. So…

I read and my reading was the best part, I think for everyone.

Except maybe for the cookies. No one can compete with cookies and then EVERYONE won a prize and took home a box of sticky rice candy, known in Japanese as Mochi in China, as far as I know, as “sticky rice.”

SO all my anxiety and stress was spent so that I could learn that I am able to go to a bookstore and read stories to my friends who listened with rapt attention to the story I told.

I honestly can’t think of a better outcome. And, if I ever do this again, I will know how, I’ll have the resources and the encouraging memory of a very sweet experience.

And, I sold a book. ❤

P.S. Thank you for all the moral support leading up to this. It reminded me how much this is more than just a blogging platform. In a way, it’s a neighborhood that extends around the world. In a way, we meet here to chat over coffee, or tea, or whatever and learn interesting things about each other, share ideas, advice, help, visions of life, photos and stories of our travels. It’s very special.