Category Archives: Nonfiction

The looooooooong story of Hemingway

I’m reading a biography of Hemingway because he was in that exotic “club” of American artists living in France post WWI. I’ve always wanted to time travel and join that club. Together we’d smoke, drink and talk big at Parisian cafes. We’d be witty and cool, and we’d make James Joyce the butt of our jokes.

Which brings me to why I generally dislike biographies.

Must be a biography.

Must be a biography.

They’re long. Bio writers, even those with modern tales, tend to start in the year 1678, because after describing the lives of all the subject’s ancestors, we are sure to better understand the subject. That context is the difference between a Good Book Award and a Really, Really Good Book Award.

Your hero is no hero. Typically creative geniuses are rather unpleasant on a personal level. No shock there. But Hemingway? That guy was a complete ass. Insecure, bombastic, lying, manipulative, macho. He would’ve have ruined my cool little French writing club.

The poor mothers. Character flaws are blamed on Mommy Dearest. In Hemingway’s case, family and friends freely shared stories about Hemingway’s hatred. Grace Hemingway was pretentious and domineering. She tried to make young Ernest a girl, letting his hair grow and keeping him in his sister’s clothes. She belittled and berated her husband. She had an affair with a servant girl. She built her own lake home, separate from the family’s lake home, to get away from the chaos of having a family.

On behalf of mothers everywhere, I say to the author, if you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all and go to your room!

Too many characters. Certainly we meet a lot of people during a lifetime, and that’s when bio writers should use a filter. Otherwise, readers need a chart to keep track. Good luck enjoying this entirely invented passage, … Hemingway wrote to Phillip Hanstigya and recollected times with their friends Collin “Moose” Frundefrin and Robert “Nippy” Jonwhiler. This letter is significant because it alludes to Frundefrin’s attraction to Jonwhiler’s sister, Nellie Jonwhiler Hiersomby, who as you’ll recall, praised Sunny’s writing over Ernest’s. The letter ended up in the hands of Percy Inclandoesme. Percy refused to forgive Allen Barfecut. Hemingway laughed. That Allen was quite a jokester. Even Ralph Treshinweig agreed.

Still, Hemingway really did say this:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Whenever I read that quote, I return to admiration.

I’m only half way through Hemingway’s biography. Let’s hope great quotes outweigh misdeeds.

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A memoir that won’t let you down – part 2

A new memoir by Rachael Hanel

A new memoir by Rachael Hanel

Here’s part two of the Q & A with Rachael Hanel. Her incredible memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You, is now on bookshelves.

You’re a huge fan of memoir as a genre. Why? 

I think this ties into the previous question. I grew up listening to true-life stories. Even as a small child, I felt like the fictional stories I read paled in comparison to these stories that Mom told me or the real stories I sought out to read. I was always fascinated by real stories and was captivated to try to learn how people react to events in their lives. The memoir genre continues to fill this need.

It’s also no surprise that I grew up wanting to be a journalist. I wanted to learn people’s stories and be the one to chronicle them. I remember returning from interview after interview shaking my head and thinking, “Wow, what an amazing story! You can’t make this stuff up.” Real people and their real situations will just always be very compelling to me.

What memoir are you currently reading and name 3-4 you’d recommend.

I just finished Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic, by Luke Longstreet Sullivan and published by the University of Minnesota Press. I was completely blown away. It’s funny, because the couple of books I read before this one were novels. They were very good novels and I enjoyed them. But after reading Longstreet Sullivan’s book, it was once again affirmed that I am completely drawn to memoir. The novels just seemed to be lacking something in comparison—I find it hard to fully care about a fictional character.

My favorite memoir is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I bought it right away when it came out in 2006 because her father worked as a part-time mortician. I came to find out that this is actually a very small portion of the memoir, but the book (which is a graphic memoir) is stunning nonetheless. Bechdel is a very smart writer and she expertly weaves together many different stories and ties everything together in a full circle. I read the book several times as I was writing my memoir. Structurally Fun Home is about as perfect as a memoir can get.

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

I’m partial to memoirs that take place in the Midwest. Some stunning ones include Nicole Helget’s The Summer of Ordinary Ways, Kent Meyers’ The Witness of Combines and Debra Marquardt’s The Horizontal World. These were also books I read several times as I was writing my memoir.

What’s it like to think about your book – your baby – going out into the world?

This is causing me a great deal of anxiety! Ironically, even though I wrote a memoir, I’m a very private person when it comes to my life and my emotions. So there’s anxiety surrounding the idea that I’m going to be revealing myself to friends, family and strangers. There’s also anxiety over the fact that I’m sure not everyone will love the book, so what will the critical reviews say? But even good reviews will make me nervous because I don’t like a whole lot of personal attention. I’m social and I love being around people, but I don’t like the focus to be on me.

But of course, this is a day I’ve dreamed about for many, many years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way! I’m just sure the reality of it will be different than the fantasy I built up in my head!

I’m grateful to Rachael for being part of my blog. I also owe her an overdue, public thank you. Nearly 20 years ago, she was copy editing my news story under deadline.  Rachael and her eagle eyes saved me from spelling my own name wrong. (Really, who hasn’t done that?) She actually prevented public humiliation for lots of reporters during those years. On behalf of all of us, thanks!

Voldemort or Gizmo? Ashley or Stumpy? The writer decides!

My sister adopted two rescue dogs years ago. Gizmo and Peyton. I’ve asked her, Why didn’t you give them new names? As a writer, one of the most fun – and challenging – parts of developing your novel is naming characters.

In the dog instance, I’d have suggested Attila and Voldemort. I kid, dear sister, I kid! Her actual response regarding new dog names was this: they’ve already been through trauma, and I don’t want to add confusion to trauma, or make them feel that they’re bad.

Awww. You’re feeling a little misty right now, aren’t you?

Personally, I think the dogs hear blah blah BLAH blah blah, and the BLAH with emphasis indicates a name. Or perhaps a Milkbone.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I'm naming him Muffin.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I’m naming him Muffin.

My sister’s reasoning reflects her character. Compassionate. Sweet. Generous. And if you mess with me or my family I’ll unleash the power of Voldemort on your sorry a**.

Names, or course, reflect your character and the book’s tone. You can have three old men drinking morning coffee together at the local café. One man is Stumpy. And that works. It speaks to the size and quality of the town, and the kind of guy who might have a nickname Stumpy. Cliché: a retired farmer who lost his arm in a machine. Character twist: a lawyer. Humor: the town’s mayor, Mayor Stumpy.

Quirk has its limits. Unless the tone is absurdity, or you’re writing a picture book, you shouldn’t name the trio Stumpy, Lumpy, and Grumpy.

My writer friend quoted her agent: No more than two quirky names per book. Every rule was made to be broken, but he has a point.

In my forthcoming novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, I have pages of notes with possible character names. I spent days at my job, testing the names in my head. We had conversations, my characters and me. I asked a lot of questions. Why are you so rude to your mother? What’s your favorite food? Who’s your hero?

At work, I looked at clients and checked my character names against their names. What’s your name? I’m hoping, Ashley, please be an Ashley because you look like my Ashley.

My Ashley says, Linda.

So where do you work? Please say thrift store!

Ashley/Linda says, I’m a pharmacy tech.

Two strikes.

Ultimately, I used a typical, popular name from the late 1980s-1990 for the least typical character. My spunky, sassy heroine has a princess name, a name she dislikes and ditches in favor of a nickname. Mom doesn’t have a name at all. Just Mom, which says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her mother. Dad has a special name, which says also says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her father.

My writer-friend Angie Johnson almost always finds a way to slip “Margaret” into her stories. My writer-friend Rachael Hanel hit the jackpot. In her memoir, her father digs graves and maintains cemeteries. His real-life nickname: Digger. Digger! It’s perfect and true.

(And a plug for Racheal: The Barnes & Noble in Mankato, Minnesota, will host a book launch event with author Rachael Hanel for her new memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter on Thursday, April 4th at 6:30 PM.)

Test your character names. Say them in a sentence (Sherry shouted to shovel the driveway.) Picture them reacting to a crisis. (Edith froze with terror as Attila the dog chased the kids.) How would it sound if she’s paged on a store intercom? (Clean up in aisle 14. Antoinette Rousseau, clean up in aisle 14.)

You’ve got to test drive a lot of cars before settling on a 1994 Corolla or a 2002 Audi or a new Ford F-150 pickup truck. Personally, I’d get the 1994 Corolla. It best reflects my character. And my budget.

Dead coyotes, gun control and, yes, books

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Rep. Tony Cornish ditches the NRA shirt for his lawmaker wardrobe.

I don’t claim to be an expert on guns. And this blog is about books and writing, not politics. Still, I have a tiny bit of credibility because I wrote three books about weapons for kids. See? It relates to the blog!

Last week, a state representative in Minnesota government wanted to make a point about the gun-control debate. Rep. Tony Cornish posted on Facebook a photo of himself, wearing an NRA shirt and holding an AR-15. Behind him is a coyote hanging from a tree. He shot the coyote from 225 yards.

“So gun control advocates,” Cornish said. “Explain to me how you don’t think the AR-15 is hunting rifle.”

From Wikipedia: The AR-15 is a lightweight, 5.56 mm, magazine-fed, semi-automatic rifle, with a rotating-lock bolt, actuated by direct impingement gas operation or long/short stroke piston operation.

Gun control advocates say the AR-15 isn’t for hunting. For the record, I’m not a hunter, but I support them. Hunting is part of our culture in the Midwest, and I’d rather see deer, for example, killed and used for food than starving in the winter because of overpopulation.

Back to the photo. The Mankato Free Press printed the photo with a story on gun control. Cornish thinks killing an animal with an AR-15 proves his point: The AR-15 should be considered is a hunting tool, not just a gun for shooting rampages in schools and movie theaters. Therefore, the government should not restrict this weapon or others like it.

Hmm. I could kill a coyote with a nuclear bomb. But that doesn’t mean I should.

Back to the book blog. To see my kids books about weapons and war, look under the “My Books” tab.