Gardner’s Ghosts

On a warm Tuesday in September of 1982, I received a letter from the novelist John Gardner about a collection of my short stories he’d been gracious enough to critique. That evening, as I sat in the newsroom editing copy, the city editor swiveled his computer monitor and said, “You should read this.”

Gardner had died that day, the 14th, in a motorcycle accident. The description in the story that had moved over the wire read like something from his novels. It didn’t make sense. I’d just seen him, on my first and only visit to his house in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, standing in his makeshift office, touring his home, speaking to his fiancée. He was a living legend among writers, his novel October Light a bestseller, his newest at the time, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, leading the book review section of the New York Times. Unlike many celebrities, he was approachable, hospitable to emerging writers. And now he was gone.

John Champlin Gardner Jr. was born on July 21, 1933. His death 36 years ago came as a blow. The author of 14 novels and numerous others works, he taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the State University of New York’s Binghamton University. All notable achievements, but a CV hardly describes his influence.

Over the course of his career, he evolved from ardent critic to mentor who embraced veterans and novitiates alike. Still, his true north was in storytelling. He eschewed labels, focusing on the ancient art, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view and putting people at the heart of great philosophical debates. He strove to create what he called “a vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, writing novels with an intensity often reserved for short stories and poetry.

His passion overflowed in his nonfiction, too. Gardner seemed obsessed with the collision of philosophy and culture. He constantly argued against nihilism, a doctrine that claims nothing is knowable and rejects all distinctions in moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” It’s likely he deeply identified with Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, who finds itself cast from heaven because it is ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions—possibly a comment on the maligned state of humans, as Gardner’s father was a lay preacher.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner treated students and aspiring writers with a generosity and grace consistent with his values. I first met him in May of 1982 after he spoke, at the invitation of professor and novelist Fred Misurella, at East Stroudsburg State College, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Gardner looked the part of the Great Writer, sporting a shock of white hair overflowing his forehead and small, wrinkled bags under his eyes. His ubiquitous pipe kept winking out as he talked. He also acted the part. After reading aloud the first page of one of my stories, he invited me to his home in Susquehanna for a longer critique.

* * *

Gardner lived across an open metal bridge on the edge of town, in a farmhouse nestled among the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house resembled an old train station, with curlicues over the porch. Inside sat Gardner’s son, Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married that Saturday. A colleague of his handed him a few short stories and a novel for Gardner’s comments. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Then it was my turn. Gardner retreated to his study, a spare room with big windows, to concentrate on the story I’d brought. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and stacks of papers. He hunched over the work, making quick notes in pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave, Gardner apologizing repeatedly for offering me so little time.

In the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical. Not much, he said, but then opened the door to the dining room. With its thick beams and sparkling new plaster, it resembled something out of Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

There were other similarities. The main character in that novel, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at SUNY Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, as well as his wife, son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father invented most of the book.

* * *

John Gardner was born in Batavia, in northwestern New York. His father worked as a dairy farmer, his mother as a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about a thousand copies, but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He was an academic but not an elitist. Playboy paid top dollar for his short stories. (“Julius Caesar and the Werewolf” appeared in September 1984). He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and was married several times. He settled in rural Susquehanna on a 30-acre farm and continued to work.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he always wrote interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts, he had completed his evolution, merging philosophy with a vital narrative, tempered by a humility that bordered on self-doubt. By the time he got to Susquehanna, he’d turned the ferocious critic into a man who wanted to say good things about others. People believed he was trying to find his place.

That day at his house, he seemed subdued. Seated on the couch, he spoke in a smooth and quiet voice about future projects. As an aside, I said I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. The novels weren’t filed under the category of “Fiction.” I’d asked the clerk if she carried the author and she led me to the back of the store. We found his books filed under “Literature.”

Gardner listened intently, without expression, then threw back his head and laughed.

Stars and Stripes and Sousa forever

John Philip Sousa III (1913-1991) did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but those who met him discovered a spirit as creative as the famous march king. I interviewed Sousa the younger in the summer of 1987, when he visited Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, for a concert in honor of the man who wrote what many consider to be America’s second national anthem.

John Philip Sousa III marches to the beat of a different drummer than his famous grandfather. It isn’t that the New York City resident doesn’t thrill to the stirring marches of his illustrious forbearer. It’s just that he’s more inclined toward the written word.

“I love hearing them,” Sousa said of the marches during a concert featuring “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps anthem, and other favorites. “But writing always has been my enthusiasm.”

The New York resident is the author of two books, both nonfiction, of which one was a bestseller. He was assistant publisher of Fortune and formerly head of public affairs for Time magazine and in charge of long-range development for the Time-Life Book Division.

“Right now, I’m writing a book on good taste in management,” he said. “Then I think I’ll write my memoirs.”

John Philip Sousa III relaxes during a concert in honor of his grandfather

He is also head of the Sousa Foundation, which controls the rights to his grandfather’s work, although he admits that, when he was young, he wasn’t aware of the music.

“I paid no attention to it at all. As far as I was concerned, he might not have existed. Then, when a certain aunt died, I got stuck with the whole Sousa Corporation. It’s just something I have to do every day. I think I owe it to my grandfather.”

As a youth, Sousa may not have been familiar with the music, but he has fond memories of his paternal ancestor.

“He was charming, relaxed. He had a good sense of humor. He smoked cigars all day long, but back then, it was good for you.”

The elder Sousa wore mismatched clothes and “always had a piece of music in front of him.”

He’s familiar with the music now. “I love it. I have the same favorites everybody else does, ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’” But one piece stands out. “It’s ‘El Capitan,’ from the operetta. He wrote 20 operettas, you know.”

Although Sousa has heard the marches hundreds of times and is used to the fireworks and fanfare, he still marvels at the reception with which audiences greet his grandfather’s music.

“Last summer I was in [New York’s] Central Park for a concert with Leonard Bernstein. There were about 100,000 people there. They cheered and applauded him and he played a number of his own compositions, but they wouldn’t let him go. And finally he turned around and what did he play? ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

During a speaking engagement in Toledo, Sousa was asked about the connection between John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July. “I said, ‘Funny you don’t know that. He invented the Fourth of July.’”

Does he see a resurgence in Sousa’s popularity together with heightened interest in patriotism?

“No, they are just good marches. Yes, they make everybody cheer and clap, but if the marches weren’t that good, everybody wouldn’t be cheering and clapping.”

Sousa saves his sentiment for other things. He will not divulge his age. He will not even discuss it. Once, when he bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad, the ticket agent asked if Sousa was over 65 and eligible for the discount rate.

“I asked for a ticket, not a discussion of my age,” Sousa fired back.

He seemed more relaxed at a tribute to his grandfather’s music in the tiny borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., lounging in a director’s chair in a white suit that matched his hair. “I thought it over and the concert just sounded so enchanting, with everybody up here knocking themselves out. And it wouldn’t kill me to come up, you know.”

Sousa appreciates music but never learned to play an instrument. “I blame this on my mother, if blame is the right word. She couldn’t carry a tune. Talking to myself I said, ‘He did it better than anybody. Do something else, John.’ So I did.”

Pat Dorian directs the band on Aug. 20, 1987, 75 years to the day when John Philip Sousa conducted a similar concert on that spot in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.

What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.

The mystery of the critique

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often says the secret to his success as a detective is simple: “Order and method.” We writers could use a bit of that ourselves.

Elizabeth George, author of the Inspector Thomas Lynley mysteries, has two criteria for evaluating fiction: strengths and inconsistencies. In other words, what did the writer do right, and are there any inconsistencies in character, plot, setting, tone, or language.

At the risk of second-guessing the author of 28 books, many of which have made it to TV, I’d like to add one more metric to the list: clarity.

Why is clarity important? Because what’s in the author’s head doesn’t always make it onto the page. Finding the holes in our story is like using a single mirror to see the back of our heads. We need a second opinion.

What about George’s criteria? I believe they are essential to good critiquing. Simple, but not widely practiced.

Consistency means the characters behave in a manner that is congruent with the personalities we’ve created for them. The language and tone should do the same.

The idea of strengths is simple but its application is often misunderstood. If we focus on the good parts of a manuscript, the writer will, too; hopefully the better work will crowd out some of the lesser stuff. That runs counter to some people’s philosophy—I’ve been stopped after class by those who want to know why I encourage a tiny piece of good writing in a sea of struggle—but that’s the exception to the rule.

What should writers avoid when critiquing a manuscript? In her work of nonfiction, Write Away, George urges us to forget about our own tastes. After reading or hearing a piece, many writers will say they liked or disliked the writing, characters, language, or plot. A typical response from even the most educated is, “I couldn’t get into it.”

That kind of critique doesn’t give the writer enough detail to improve, and might discourage an emerging talent. As George points out, it’s not our story. We’re not there to rewrite the work but to call out the strengths and flag the confusion. Did the writer mean to change point of view in mid-chapter? Is she experimenting with time by switching tense in mid-sentence? Those inconsistencies are concrete, measurable, and susceptible to improvement.

All of this boils down to a single question: are we critiquing the construction of the work or the content? If we develop a system that relies on order and method, we’ll know. And so will the reader.

 

‘Thrilling and suspenseful’

What a way to start the new year. Amy Shannon of Amy’s Bookshelf has written an expressive review of Curb Appeal that awards the novel four stars. She calls CW McCoy’s third outing in the Southwest Florida series “thrilling and suspenseful.”

Since the review is brief, and Amy has graciously granted permission to reprint it, I’m doing so here.

“This is a great story that has more than just one plot, but the major plot points to a murder and CW is a detective who must solve it. The writing brings the reader right smack in the middle of the story. It’s an interesting and intriguing story, and makes the reader want to see more sides of CW McCoy. I haven’t read other books from Widmer, but I definitely will add more to my TBR list. I look forward to going back to reading the first two McCoy books.”

So do customers who have left comments on Amazon. “A spell binding addition to the CW McCoy series. Can’t wait for the next one.” “I like how the characters have developed over the three books, the drama and the levity in parts. It is a good read!” “I read it in two sittings and got nothing done around the house! I loved it and highly recommend it.”

Reader reaction to Peak Season, the first of the McCoy novels, was just as enthusiastic. Kirkus Reviews called it “an entertaining mystery romp” and things just got better from there. “Really a good read with lots of character details and plot twists.” “Widmer’s created a great protagonist with many facets…hope to hear more of her!” “The details of south Florida lifestyle and tourist season are spot on.” “Made me want to hear more of CW’s adventures!”

Many came to the novel through the audiobook version and wanted to hear more. “Very skillfully written; the characters are described in such detail that they feel real and relatable.” “The scenes are intricate, suspenseful, and haunting. This book has everything: mystery, romance, suspense, and murder! Overall, Peak Season was a very engaging read and I cannot wait to start the next novel.” “All in all, a great start to what promises to be an interesting, fun series, and I look forward to finding out what Jeff Widmer has in store for CW in the future.”

Those who like a strong female protagonist in mystery/suspense fiction might appreciate these reactions: “Amazing that a male writer can do such a great job with a female character as the lead!” and “A good read for guys, too, even though the main voice is a woman.”

You can find all of the books in the CW McCoy series in print or electronic form at Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo and through bookstores everywhere. Peak Season is available in audio format through Audible, as is my other mystery/suspense series, starting with Mr. Mayhem, the book that introduces the defrocked journalist named Brinker who, as a purveyor of public relations, brings new meaning to the term fake news.

 

‘What’s not to like about this new novel?’

What’s not to like about a good review?

No, they’re not uncommon. Most writers can find something positive to say about a book. But unqualified praise? It’s rare.

That’s why I’m so pleased to see Ryan G. Van Cleave’s assessment of Curb Appeal, the latest in the series of mystery/thrillers featuring detective-turned-real-estate-agent CW (Candace) McCoy. (No, that’s not her in the photo on the left.) The piece appears in the October edition of Scene magazine.

For those of you who don’t feel like following the link, here’s an excerpt:

“What’s not to like about his new novel by Sarasota resident Jeff Widmer? Most of the things I look for in a mystery are right there. Hot new cop boyfriend faces assault charges—check. Rival real estate agent is strangled by a lacy black bra in chapter 1—check. Back-to-back hurricanes—check. Seriously, Widmer understands the value of pacing and creating a driving forward momentum. But he still knows how to sprinkle in telling details. Widmer’s Curb Appeal presents the image of an intriguing book—and the reality matches.”

I’m especially pleased to see the review combined with one of Patricia Gussin’s latest books, Come Home. Dr. Gussin is a former executive with Johnson & Johnson who specializes in writing medical mystery/thrillers. She and her husband Robert run the independent Oceanview Publishing on Longboat Key, Florida. I’ve read her work and heard her speak at the annual Venice Book Fair, and she’s as informative in person as she is in print.

Ryan has a raft of publishing experience, too. He is a poet, editor, and teacher who lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he heads the creative writing program at The Ringling College of Art + Design. An Amazon.com best-selling author and co-author, he has penned and edited a diverse field of books, including Memoir Writing for Dummies, Contemporary American Poetry and Unplugged, My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction.

He’s a writer who is generous with his time and praise, as is the person who brought Curb Appeal to his attention, fellow author and teacher Eric Sheridan Wyatt.

What’s not to like about that?

Stormy weather

Starting a new project is never easy. Working during a storm that threatens your entire state makes it even harder to concentrate.

Now that Hurricane Irma has swept through Florida and spared our home, I’m trying to refocus efforts on a new novel, tentatively titled Born Under a Bad Sign, although The Peaceable Kingdom might provide an ironic description of the theme.

Set in 1969 just before the historic Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the book pits the residents of eastern Pennsylvania against the government in a battle to save or dam the Delaware River. It introduces two young people, a budding photographer named Elizabeth Reed and a prodigal musician called Hayden Quinn, who struggle with their own personal conflicts as they weigh the risks and rewards of love and fame.

For Elizabeth, the peace of the Minisink Valley is a form of paradise. For Quinn, whom Rolling Stone calls the next Jimi Hendrix, Eden lies to the north, at Max Yasgur’s farm. Whether they realize their dreams is an open question.

Unlike its predecessors, the CW McCoy and Brinker novels, this work is more mainstream, an exploration of the baffling mysteries faced by a sixteen-year-old woman on her emotional journey to adulthood.

I started working on paper (hence, the image of the notecards) before graduating to Word, with its document-view feature that uses headers to provide a visual outline of the manuscript. Less onerous than outlining, it’s a system I recommend to fellow writers who want flexibility as well as organization.

 

Creatures of habit

This month, I’ve been posting images of Southwest Florida that inspired many of the scenes in Curb Appeal, the third installment in the CW McCoy series of romantic suspense novels. If you would like to see the collection in one place, head over to Flickr for a global view of the scenes and people who inhabit CW’s world.

And speaking of characters. . . . While locations along the Gulf Coast weave their way into the novel, animals play an equally important role. Witness this trio, some of whom make regular appearances at Myakka River State Park as well as the Sarasota Farmers’ Market.

 

Captain Louie, Walter’s black lab who lives aboard the ‘Mary Beth’ in #curbappeal

 

I once was lost but now I’m found: Sugar Bear returns in #curbappeal

 

Alligators outnumber people in some areas of Myakka River State Park. Just ask CW in #curbappeal

Playing it safe

The National Association of Realtors has been at the forefront of promoting agent safety. The organization’s Realtor Safety Program website offers several resources for agents as well as background on why a personal safety plan is important. It also provides a context for buyers and sellers who may see some of these precautions as inconvenient or unnecessary.

One of the most accessible tools on the site is the video “Real Estate, Safety, and You,” through which consumers can learn about the safety protocols they may encounter when working with an agent.

(In Curb Appeal, fictional real estate agent CW McCoy breaks it down into the Three C’s: set the initial client meeting in the office, copy their drivers’ licenses and, when showing the property, never get cornered.)