(not Marvel or GOT related 😁)

… but since we’re all here and not there, I figured why not — Oliver Solberg and Denis Giraudet win Olympus Rally!

This is an incredible accomplishment for Oliver Solberg. While I’m sure he missed the presence of Aaron Johnston beside him in the car, Solberg clearly did not suffer from the experience brought to him this weekend by Denis Giraudet. Watching Solberg drive at 100 Acre Wood, I felt he is a tremendous talent who would bear watching. Seems he is ahead of schedule. 

Let’s not diminish the driving of David Higgins and Craig Drew this weekend. By all accounts, the course and conditions were strong, with Olympus Rally taking its toll on cars and drivers/co-drivers alike. The #70 and #75 cars of Subaru Motosports battled these conditions and each other to build a substantial lead on the rest of the field. I am sure Higgins & Drew don’t plan on making the rest of the season easy for Solberg. 

If there was ever a year to have a bunch of frequent flyer miles and points for hotel stays, this is it. I wish I could attend every leg of the ARA championship series. All I can say is go to one of the remaining events, if you are near any of them. At the least, you will see some incredible driving. However, it’s possible you will get to witness a very bright star taking its place among the constellations. 

Following My Master’s Voice

“In 1,000 feet, turn right,” the GPS said.

“Turn right now,” it said.

What you must understand is I had turned off a dirt road onto this dirt road. Pavement, and reliable cell phone service, was as much a memory as that morning’s breakfast. “Road” only loosely described what The Foz’s onboard navigation wanted me to choose at this juncture. County Road 557, if I recall correctly. It can be seen on Google Maps. Just.

County Road 5600, which I was currently on and which (if truth be told) intersected the Loop Southern stage of the Rally In The 100 Acre Wood, was a proper country gravel road. Well-maintained and graded, The Foz comfortably ran a good clip on it. The new route suggested by my car could be described as a road. It would be more accurate, though, to describe it as a trail; while it carved a distinct mark through the countryside, a thin layer of vegetation attested to its position on the list of priorities for the Dent County and Mark Twain National Forest maintenance crews.

Still, I was running close on time and the new route promised to cut off a corner of road maybe best left untraveled. I followed my trusty stead.

A short while later, after I passed what would turn out to be the last convenient place to turn around, County Road 557 steepened, dramatically. It also narrowed, considerably. Still, I had chosen this year to break out of watching the race only from official spectator points, so I was game for adventure.

After the second creek crossing, I decided adventure might have been a bridge too far. At this point, it was clear according to GPS that I was as far in as I had left to go, so I reasoned that the only way out was through. It would take me as long to walk back to the last intersection, at which a bunch of race volunteers had gathered between stages, and the approach road to the turn at which I planned to watch Stage 13 at Southern Loop, where surely someone would happen by shortly.

Also, The Foz and I had completed many adventures on the familiar paths of the Ouachita National Forest, where it had astounded me at what a bone-stock Subaru was capable of (when, of course, I also unadvisedly took the path least traveled). Still, those trails were close to home – and within range of cell towers. Here, I was on my own. So, with a quickening pulse, I slowly guided the vehicle forward over baby-head rocks, through low-water crossings (which thankfully had discharged their flows from the storm two days previously) and then up the steep trail back to County Road 5600.

Perhaps The Foz had been inspired by the Subarus competing at 100 Acre Wood. Perhaps I had been a little too enthusiastic after having discovered Mtn Roo and all those Subaru Overlanding videos on YouTube. At the end of the day, though, I came away impressed yet again by what a bone stock Subaru Forester – admittedly, the Grocery Getter de rigeur – was capable of off road. Some people might have described this detour as a “Jeep trail”, and I cannot say that would be inaccurate; on this day, though, it was a “Subaru trail”. My only regret is I had not spent enough time with my new adventure camera to have captured this leg of my journey, if only to show my wife how truly stupid her husband can be (like she needs more proof).

That, as they say, is what next year is for. I like to say that every year I attend 100 Acre Wood, I learn a little more about how to follow Rally. This year, Falstaff would say, the lesson was discretion being the better part of valor.

Then, again, where’s the adventure in that?

The Foz in its natural element, a proper country road – the Ouachita National Forest

Rally in the 100 Acre Wood

Rally In The 100 Acre Wood is coming up next weekend.

I first attended 100 Acre Wood in 2016, which is a fancy way of saying I’ve been twice. How did I find myself standing in the rain in a Missouri forest on a cold Spring day?

ESPN introduced me to Colin McRae and his “if in doubt, flat-out” philosophy. I was a bored college student with eight-to-twelve classes and afternoons free, while ESPN was a 24-hour network filling slow periods in its programming with obscure European sports (coming in July — LE TOUR!). Turbo-charged compact sedans dodging trees at 100mph on gravel roads punched all my inner-redneck buttons. As the most accomplished rally driver of his generation, McRae throttled Subaru into the hearts and minds of the next generation of drivers. Certainly into mine.

20 years after careening down forested roads with Colin McRae, and right in time for my mid-life crisis, I found myself in the virtual backseat with David Higgins and Craig Drew, careening around rural America. Subaru’s cinematic YouTube series, Launch Control, became part of the research for purchasing my Subaru WRX. One of the episodes featured 100 Acre Wood. Watching American rally online, you get used to words like “Oregon”, “Vermont”, and “Susquehanna” (okay, maybe you never get used to that last one — hello, spell-check), so an event within driving distance piqued my curiosity.

My first 100 Acre Wood was a last-minute, chaotic event. Subaru Rally Team USA brought Higgins & Drew, as well as Travis Pastrana and co-driver, Christian Edstrom. The presence of Pastrana attracted the Nitro Circus/X-Games fans, which meant large crowds and no rooms in town. With nothing resembling a plan, I booked a room 30 miles away, picked up a copy of the spectator guide at parc exposé, and proceeded to follow-the-leader to the organized spectator points. The trip from stage to stage was driving in a disco, as every oncoming Subaru flashed its high beams at my showroom new WRX. I left Missouri invigorated and determined to come back better prepared.

For my second trip to the event, I recruited a friend for company on the road, booked the same hotel in the nearby town of Licking (because you should never underestimate a clean hotel room in a town with an interesting name), and, most importantly, broke out Google Maps. Better organization meant we were able to enjoy more rally. Although SRTUSA was not present, Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive insures the brand’s popularity with rally teams, and it was well-represented among both racers and fans.

This year, not only is Subaru returning with Higgins and Drew, they’ve signed 17-year-old Oliver Solberg, RallyX Nordic champion and son of legendary Subaru driver, Petter Solberg. Also, YouTube viral video maestro, Ken Block is bringing his latest project — a rally classic Ford Escort Cosworth. With this kind of action lining up, I figured I’d better bring my A-game. I hit up Airbnb back in January, booked a place almost on part of the course, and, as soon as race organizers released the spectator guide, back out came Google Maps.

And, in the communal spirit of rally, I’m sharing my own version of the event organizers’ spectator guide. The adventure of following the race is part of the fun. So, if you’re in the area, come out and join in the mayhem. I hope you find the following helpful (as well as this). Finally, follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and look for me on the road; I might have some goodies for you.

Day One

11:30 – 1:45 PM — Parc Expose’ & Welcome Ceremony — Potosi — Washington County Fairgrounds

1:49 PM — Stage 1 — Potosi Super Special — Spectator Stage

2:10 PM — Stage 2 — Floyd Tower

2:40 PM — Stage 3 — Pigeon Roost — Spectator Stage

3:00 PM — Stage 4 — Little Moses

4:00 PM — Stage 5 — Westover-Pandora — Spectator Stage

4:25 PM — Stage 6 — Huzzah Super Special — Spectator Stage

4:35 PM — Huzzah Valley Resort — Friday Service 1

6:00 PM — Stage 7— Floyd Tower

6:35 PM — Stage 8 — Pigeon Roost — Spectator Stage

6:50 PM — Stage 9 — Little Moses

7:50 PM — Stage 10 — Westover-Pandora — Spectator Stage

8:15 PM — End of Day 1 — Huzzah Valley Resort

Day 2

8:30 — Parc Exposé — Salem — 4th Street

10:25 — Stage 11 — Elders-Crooked Truck N — Spectator Stage

11:05 — Stage 12 — KP-Ollie Long — Spectator Stage

12:00 — Service 1 — Dent County Commons

1:30 — Stage 13 — Loop Southern

2:10 — Stage 14 — Scotia North — Spectator Stage

2:50 — Service 2 — Dent County Commons

4:20 — Stage 15 — Elders-Crooked Truck N — Spectator Stage

5:00 — Stage 16 — KP-Ollie Long — Spectator Stage

6:10— Victory Celebration— Dent County Commons

The Sound of My Own Voice

The best thing, maybe the only thing, about the courtly hell that is a graduate writing program, it forces you to put words on the page.

On the keyboard. Whatever. Some of us are older than others.

The weekly grind of that three-hour chum-bucket — the workshop — meant you always had something going and suffered a constant fever of it being, frankly, crap. You wrote constantly, because if you didn’t keep up, you’d sink

You’d get your ass handed to you by the moron who’d memorized all of Donald Barthelme’s greatest hits.

You’d get your ass handed to you by the professor with a habit of folding stories into paper airplanes he’d send sailing out the third floor window.

You’d get your ass handed to you and spend the rest of your weekend with either your head in a bottle or, if you were smart, back at your pencil and pad, your typewriter, or – for the more adventurous at the time – the word processor.

And, that was fine. For awhile. You graduated, you worked an internship at a moderately celebrated regional magazine, you fried whole catfish nights and weekends. You shot pool and drank beer.

And you wrote. You convinced some poor schlub at the free independent weekly they needed a poetry column, and there you were again — riding the fever train to a weekly deadline. To keep your hand in. Keep you scared. Keep you honest. Keep you writing.

Then, you landed it — a full-time gig teaching Composition at the local community college. No more fish guts under your finger nails. No more snide comments from the self-educated fiction editor about your years prostrate at the feet, or some body part, of Academia. No, it was seven-to-three, five days a week, and the most creative thing that’d happen to you is when that kid, there’s always one, would turn in the paper about how your class was a waste of his time. With twenty-three misspelled words, eight comma splices, and a whole schizophrenia of subject-verb confusion.

So, one year I climbed down the ivory tower to join the private sector, and I thought, “Sure, I’ll write; I’ll have a host of things to write about, not just school and which side of the desk I’m on. There’ll be infidelities, peccadilloes, a whole host of amusing subject matter.”

Ten years, two kids, three states and four jobs later, I’m just getting back to it. Haphazardly at best, but there are efforts.

Like this blog. Column. What-have-you. I started it between jobs a few years ago, toying with the idea of going freelance, and someone suggested I needed a website to market myself. The idea evolved into a blog, where I could post entries weekly, as a way of getting my hand back in.

I gave myself 750 words, lengthy enough to make some sort of point but short enough to rein me in when I started to go long, which has always been a sort of a problem for me. In between, I’d get in a more creative frame of mind. I started a novel-length manuscript (still not finished), had ideas for a few stories (two out of three completed), and figured I’d be good for a couple of poems a month (two out of three ain’t bad).

And, the blog collected a few thoughts on writing craft, Faulkner (my great nemesis), and technology. The idea was I wouldn’t worry too much about one topic (for that way lies the rusty shores of Crass Commercialism). I’d just go where my interests and my particular point-of-view took me, polishing what I wrote and trying not to make a stink of the whole thing. Fall in love again with putting words on the page. Fall in love again with the sound of my own voice.

Because, no matter what you hear, that’s what really gets a writer going, gets you to face down the page — the love of the sound of your own voice. And for a long time I didn’t. I turned my back on that life, developed other interests, tried to become a normal person. The kind of person who didn’t overhear scraps of dialogue and think, “Jesus, that’s how people actually sound.”

Here I am again, though, ready to push my sleeves up, get on the wagon, write a little bit every day. Because, the best part about the page? It’s right here waiting for you. Sometimes with a whip. Sometimes with bells on.

Not Your Parents’ iPhone

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...
English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Apple Inc.. The design of the logo started in 1977 designed by Rob Janoff with the rainbow color theme used until 1999 when Apple stopped using the rainbow color theme and used a few different color themes for the same design. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For months, commentators have pointed out that platforms like Instagram, Vine, and Youtube are overtaking Facebook among teen users (ok, in fairness, Facebook owns Instagram, so do we count it towards or against the mothership?). It’s worth pointing out the social media platforms attracting the attention of today’s teens are primarily photo- or video-driven, because Apple’s new iPhone announcement yesterday subtly pitches its product to the teen market. Phil Schiller spent nine minutes discussing the iSight camera during Apple’s keynote; that’s a little more than 10% of the total address’ 85-minute duration and one of only three features highlighted, behind the new 64-bit A7 processor and Touch ID. Safe to say that Apple bets the camera, and its handful of new features, in the new handset platform will get a real workout.

As they come from the new iOS 7 operating system, most of these new camera features should apply to both the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5c, Apple’s eagerly awaited, less expensive model. It is both plastic and colorful, exactly what your parents have been waiting for in a new iPhone, yes? No. They want the new gold 5s, which leaves the iPhone 5c squarely marketed to today’s teens, who are tired of having the same old black or white phone as their folks. But, what about emerging markets? Retailing at $549 and $649 for off-contract 16g and 32g capacities, respectively, these are not the cheap iPhones your pundits were looking for. Less expensive, yes, with an on-contract price in the US of $99, which means, along with the steel frame reinforcing the structure, Dad will be much more likely to pull the trigger on this iPhone for the kids.

Despite all those great camera features and colors, Apple held a few tricks up its sleeve to keep the iPhone 5s in front of teens  —  remember that 64-bit processor noted as a key feature at Apple’s presentation? Phil Schiller invited the creators of award-winning iOS game platform Infinity Blade to come up and demo the new edition of their game. With 2x the processor speed and 2x the graphics performance, the iPhone 5s makes new gaming features possible to studios and designers. Safe to say that Apple hopes for more than Angry Birds this time around and bottom dollar says they bet the kiddos follow the games.

Finally, that 64-bit A7 processor also makes possible new camera functions, like 120 fps slo-mo mode. Coupled with the inclusion of iMovie, slo-mo mode makes the iPhone 5s a Youtube/Vine star-maker. Twerking and ball-pit antics abound  —  wait’ll the kids can do it in super. slow. mo. without even leaving their phones. Then, there’s Burst Mode, where keeping your finger on the shutter button results in 10 shots per second; have you seen what Google+ is doing to multi-shots with its auto-awesome feature (another lurch towards the teen market)? There’s auto-stabilization, where the iPhone shoots several shots and combines them, resulting in the sharpest possible picture (particularly good for action shots like the skateboarding and BMX freestyling highlighted during the keynote and neither of which your dad will be doing).

So, while you may think the new gold iPhone 5s is strictly for the Jersey-Shore-cum-Williamsburg-Brooklyn set, think again. Apple is banking the kids will ditch their Android handsets (because rooting is so 2010) and line up for the iPhone once again. Or, maybe not, as only the iPhone 5c can be pre-ordered starting on September 13. Then, again, this is not your parents’ iPhone.

Faulkner’s Reluctant Student

William Faulkner, 1954
William Faulkner, 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, I steered clear of William Faulkner as long as I could, a major feat for a writer born and reared in Mississippi. I guess I read “The Bear”, “A Rose For Emily”, or “Old Man” during high school sophomore English class. Probably “A Rose For Emily”. It seems the most appropriate for that age, and, having discovered Edgar Allen Poe the same year, “A Rose For Emily” would have stuck in my mind for the macabre alone. I know well, though, the book which caused me to run away from William Faulkner  —  As I Lay Dying, soon to be a major motion picture release. Each student in my senior English class had a choice between one of two books as an optional reading requirement; I cannot remember the other option, but, then and now, it seems pedestrian next to the idea of Faulkner’s ode to family, death, and struggle.

The story seemed straight-forward until I reached the infamous chapter in which Vardaman, youngest member of the family, declares only, “My mother is a fish.” That’s it, the whole chapter; no explication, no exegesis. I did not yet have all the critical tools to deal with it, the three things Faulkner himself said every writer needs: experience, observation, and imagination. So, ignoring the fact he also said at times any of one of those things would suffice for the others, I flew my white flag and declared the author obfuscating for the simple expedient of appearing difficult. Besides, I had found another Master, one of complex insights housed in seemingly simple vessels  —  Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s minimalist style proved more accessible to my immature intellect, while the international settings of his novels and stories inspired a young mind seeking an escape from, not deeper into, the humid, kudzu-ridden South of its youth.

In this way, I spent my upperclassmen and undergraduate years devouring The Sun Also Rises, For Whom The Bell Tolls, A Movable Feast, and whatever other Hemingway I ran across. I also wasted a major opportunity to penetrate the works of Faulkner. Noel Polk, one of the foremost Faulkner scholars of his time, taught classes at the university I attended and, though I knew him, I avoided his classes concerning the most famous novelist of my home state, due in some part to my accepted difficulty with Faulkner’s work, and perhaps due, in some part, to my roommate being an ardent Faulkner scholar. We would have vehement arguments  —  my roommate and I, not Professor Polk and myself; that would’ve been ridiculous  —  wild, adolescent, undergraduate debates of “Who’s the Better Writer”, he always defending Faulkner and me Hemingway. His defense consisted of Faulkner’s complexity versus Hemingway’s simplicity, while contending that Hemingway could not write a Woman. I, meanwhile, argued Hemingway wrote symbols, not women, Faulkner’s complexity made his work impenetrable and that, anyway, he could not punctuate his way out of a paper bag. Oh, the hubris of youth.


So, with one of the finest, kindest educators in my experience, not to mention one of the most renowned Faulknerians, at my disposal, I steadfastly refused to engage the author and retreated further and further into Minimalism, mistakenly assuming that it owed some allegiance to Hemingway. Ultimately, though, I had to admit Faulkner intimidated me. The first book of his I read contained this alien and quixotic sentiment, meaning one thing or another, depending to whom you listened, and my undergraduate roommate gave me to understand what I had read in high school represented the easy stuff. There were others  —  The Sound and The Fury, Absalom Absalom, for instance (confession: I still have not read that last one)  —  which to the uninitiated remained as impenetrable as Calculus.

A funny thing happened, though. The year after taking my Master’s, I moved to Oxford, MS. Faulkner fairly floated, like pollen, on the air. Most importantly, I walked his landscape, his terrain. I picked up pieces of him here or there, scraps of his letters, telegrams back and forth between himself and his Hollywood employers, his thoughts on various employments, or lack thereof, on his little “postage stamp of soil.” Then, I picked up The Hamlet, the first of his Snopes trilogy. Here, then, lay a story I could understand, the Have-not on his way to becoming a Have, being generally sneakier, slicker, and downright meaner than anyone standing in his way and, ultimately, losing. Through Flem Snopes, I came to appreciate Faulkner’s themes and language. I’m sure my own critical tools matured in the ensuing years, also, but the Snopes Trilogy gave me a backdoor into Faulkner’s more experimental work. I came to appreciate his legacy and his place in Literature’s Pantheon (as much as I hate the idea of a canon). Though I’ll never use language as dense as Faulkner’s, or as deceptive, I understand the larger point behind the books set in his Yoknapatawpha County, that great themes can be played out on small stages, that there are no new stories, only telling them well, and that what a writer must do more than anything else is care, deeply care, about the characters who embody his or her stories, regardless of their ultimate outcome.

Indie/Trad Publishing

Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster
Lake Side Publishing House, by Lovejoy & Foster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, Salon published an article in which Rob W. Hart opined on the situation between traditional and independent publishing. No neophyte in this debate, Hart self-published his novella, The Last Safe Place. He also serves as Associate Publisher for Mysterious Press, a digital publisher for classic and out-of-print crime and mystery novels. Given these credentials, and the supposed subject of his article, you would think Hart sits on the same sunny side of the self-publishing street with the likes of J. A. Konrath and Barry Eisler. And you’d be wrong.

For Hart specifies the reasons he self-published his work: a novella is too short to sell in a traditional deal, and, being on the one side of the eBook counter, he wanted the experience offered by the other side. Mostly, though, curiosity appears to have motivated Hart; he did not expect to get rich, find The New York Times Sunday Book Review breaking down his door, or have the world hail him as the Prophet of a New Digital Publishing Age. Instead, many, particularly those in the independent-publishing world (let’s dispense with the connotations of “self-publishing” right about here, okay?), hailed him as a pariah.

Hart can maybe blame himself for some of this keening. Calling anything a cult in the title of the article in which you examine said thing can cause that kind of a reaction. But, those readers going along with this gut reaction blind themselves with their own myopic view, and attempts to vilify him in the Comments section of the article pretty much just prove his point. And, anyway, shouldn’t authors worry about more pressing matters, like making sure the dog gets its flea medicine, or some other important activity, like writing?

Konrath himself is pretty clear about his position; if there’s to be any Prophet of The New Digital Publishing Age, he wants that title (if the proclamation doesn’t already hang from his wall). Weekly, he proclaims the efficacy of indie publishing, quoting his own considerable sales figures, inviting guest posts by indie authors or converts, all of whom have glowing things to say about either leaving the Big Bad Wolves behind in the dark forest of traditional publishing, or about how they found themselves listed among their heroes in the bestseller lists of traditional reporting media. Among his other proselytizing, Konrath makes clear that having success in independent publishing takes a lot of work and self-promotion, all of which he claims his traditional publishing deals left him responsible for in the first place, at least nominally. So, if he does the work, he should get all the dough. A hard position to argue.

Except that publishing houses do offer authors services, besides just selling the paper on which they print them. They either hire artists to create engaging cover art (or contract it out), hire a marketing department to pimp the books (or contract that out, too), and provide editors, sometimes very good, very talented editors, to help authors hone and polish their works into the diamond that each hopes lies at the bottom of the lump of coal with which they started.

However, plenty of people line up on the virtual corners of Main Street Internet and offer their services in precisely these areas. One can easily get into a chicken-and-the-egg argument concerning whether the indie publishing push took off before or after, with or without, the cottage industries of independent publishing support. However, that argument ignores the important point: a lot of people have found a way around the gate-keeper system. Sure, a lot of indie published work should have stayed half-digested in some corner of an author’s mind. But, do we need publishers to decide that for us anymore?

Look to Amanda Hocking, look to E. L. James (okay, maybe not). Most importantly, look to Hugh Howey. Starting as an independent, he parlayed the success of his work in the Kindle Direct Publishing system into print deals with Simon & Schuster, with one caveat, however — he kept his digital rights.

Mostly, that with which authors should concern themselves is control. But, this control entails more than just dreaming up fictions and arranging words on the page. Don’t think for a minute that the best of the best got there because they let everyone else do the work (outside of the real work of writing, of course; one must have a compelling story to tell and tell it well). We must have no doubt that the best understand that publishing is a business, which entails other kinds of responsibility, as well.

But, for now, the gates begin to open, and, ooh, baby, it’s a wide world. Hugh Howey and this concept of a hybrid author (aren’t labels such a joke, by the way? — but thanks to Chuck Wendig anyway) seem to be the real future of publishing, at least if any author worth his or her salt pays any attention to the other considerations, the other responsibilities. The last thing you want is to be the most celebrated novelist of your, or indeed of any time, and have a Sotheby’s auction of your paraphernalia come up relatively empty-handed.

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Slate-Type Devices

Once, in graduate school, I argued with a professor regarding books and technology. He had taken the line that, one day, we would all read books on computers, possibly some sort of slate-type device, which we would carry around with us. I thought his pronouncement preposterous. Cell phones still a luxury for most, pagers took up the ubiquitous spot on everyone’s belt, hooking us all into the security of the now nearly-extinct landline, and I could not imagine this slate-type device he described, nor could I imagine sitting at the gargantuan desktop computer in my apartment and reading off the cold, grey screen, which could not venture with me to the park, or even down the hall, for that matter.

Then, a book’s physicality held as much responsibility for the impact of its text as the mere words on a page. I romanticized books as companions, fetishized the sandpaper feel of the pages in a dime-store paperback bought on-the-cheap in a second-hand bookstore. I loved the the dry, dusty musk of those old stores, of libraries, despite the havoc they wreaked on my allergies and sinuses. I lamented the problems faced by independent bookstores as they fought off the constrictor embrace of the Big Box stores  —  Borders, Barnes & Noble, the eponymous Books-a-million. The books, the physical objects themselves, stood for these things  —  a noble fight against the corporatization of our souls and the enshrining of independent thought in a world bent on making even its citizens homogenous commodities.

Ironically, nearly twenty years later, I myself have proven that professor right. I bought my wife one of these slate-type devices. E-readers having been around for awhile, I still insisted on the primacy of the printed word. However, my wife’s slate-type device fascinated me. She’d sit on the couch and surf the web while we watched TV. She’d use it to chat with friends on Facebook. It would prop itself up in the kitchen displaying whatever recipe she used that evening. Whenever I could, I stole it from her, sneaking so many moments of tablet time, it quickly became apparent that one device would not be enough for our household. So, on my birthday, she presented me with one of my own.

Like her, I spent the first few weeks surfing the web, or, ensconced on the deck within easy reach of our home’s wifi, I watched documentaries on Netflix. Then, I discovered reading on this device. I realized how many books I could store in it, my entire catalog with me at any time if I wished, but it took me awhile to revel in its true capabilities. Like my wife and I pausing a particular episode of Castle to research a guest star on IMDb, I could look up words, passages, or even characters of a particular book while reading. It possessed an internal dictionary, thesaurus, even web browser, with built-in options to search either Wikipedia or Google. Suddenly, I could see how many books one could dispense of while using such a device. I could even annotate passages, highlighted in one of many colors, and, with a little web magic, export those notes to Evernote for later use. Then, I remembered my undergraduate years and how just a few classes’ worth of English major paraphernalia could weigh one down.

I won’t lay claim to the title of Futurist; let’s just say I’m convinced. Too much the Romantic, I love pouring over pictures of the past, imagining the lives of people frozen in time crossing cobblestone or unpaved streets in the small towns and cities of my experience. However, I find no less interest, joy, and fascination in reading historical fiction, like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, off my slate-type device than I do from the printed page itself. Maybe I’m realizing the ultimate irony, re-living the past through a device hard to imagine within my own lifetime. Or, maybe I’m experiencing one of those Phillip K. Dick moments, where all of this information is right at my fingertips. Maybe the two are one and the same, and, sometimes, that scares me just a little bit.


In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa. I had met authors before — after standing in lines to get books signed by them; as visiting writers at university, where a healthy distance and a microphone separated student from author during the Q&A; or, when I was in graduate school, at the professor-house parties, where informality ruled, fueled by friendship between the visiting writer and the professor/host. This interview, though, represented the first time I would have direct, professional interaction with a celebrated author, one whom I had studied; I could not shake the intimidation and awe in which this interview blanketed me. Also, I could not shake my fear of appearing underprepared; being a student of literature and creative writing, I did not have the journalistic chops and had never performed an interview. I feared I would appear an amateur, so I prepared my list of questions based on the reading I’d done of his work. During the interview, I did not have the gut instincts to delve into the more important of his responses; I blindly turned to the next question on my list or allowed my own interests to lead me down some patently obvious lane. In my ignorance, I missed the chance to follow his thought down an alley which has become an important one to me as a writer.

A child of the South, I found it impossible not to read and study Southern literature and one of its most exposited characteristics — Place. It lay, posed in the works of Southern authors I read, like a frog in Biology class, something to dissect and tease apart but not to manipulate for its own ends. Aware that Komunyakaa hailed from Louisiana, I posed what seemed the obvious question — had he found that images and impressions from his youth in the South had insinuated their way into his work? He answered:

Yes, I think so, especially in the book, Magic City, because that’s really about my childhood-adolescent experiences. But also I think what happens is that we, as people, internalize terrains and, consequently, those internalized terrains become psychological overlays for whatever we experience or even dream about later on.

At the time, I had been writing a series of poems, a fictional, serialized account of love gone bad, captured in snapshots of image and word, moment and action. Unconsciously, I had myself internalized the terrain of the small Mississippi town to which I had recently moved — smoky bars with peanut shells on the floor; curbsides on the town square late at night, concrete parking blocks still warm in the humid Summer air; the snake-sweet smell of woods in summer and musty leaf of winter. I had used all of these images to give the protagonist and denizens of my poems a landscape. Komunyakaa’s insight galvanized me. Place was not something in which an author planted his characters. Rather, in using the term Terrain, Komunyakaa’s response suggests to me something I had missed in my studies; the by-ways and highways in which characters lived, not merely inhabited, could tell as much about them as their own actions, could be every bit as much a character as them.

To this day, the work that speaks most clearly to me provides its characters that necessary Terrain. Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero protagonist of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine and Hogdogging, stomps and blazes his way across the windswept reaches of Southwestern Minnesota, Southeastern South Dakota, and any number of locales in between and beyond, in many ways every bit as barren as the landscape suggests. Likewise, in Tom Franklin’s Hell At The Breach, the claustrophobic woods and weedy creeks enliven the tensions between its characters. In this novel of chaos and feud, a bulwark of forest, known as the Bear Thicket, serves as more than the metaphorical boundary between Town and County; it swallows characters whole in its voraciousness.

Much more than simply Place, as I had misunderstood it in my youth, Terrain becomes as much a character in a story or poem as those that wander through it, feeding on the narrative force it provides, sometimes falling prey to it themselves. It is. It lives, it breathes, and it speaks volumes as I wade through it in search of the story taking place across it. For now, as a writer, the terrain that surrounds me, that exists within me, seems at once immense and rapacious. Sometimes it’s a wonder I can leave the house at all.