When At the Waterline was accepted for publication, my mind’s eye almost immediately started seeing things: pictures, typefaces, covers, illustrations. What would the character Emma’s lightning bolt–like sketch of the Columbia River look like on the cover? What about a boat on fire at night? or a sail loosely woven together out of duct tape with a man hanging in the midst of it like a fly caught in a web? What would Marge’s painting of painted canvases floating down the river look like? or a sailboat sailing up the rapids of a churning river? Especially vivid in my mind was the image of a skeleton on a motorbike, resting at the bottom of the Columbia River. What would this story look like in the minds of readers? If the manuscript was going to be made into a thing you could actually hold in your hands, the thoughts and choices of other people would weigh heavily in how it would look: the front and back cover, the inside layout, the typesetting, possibly a map and illustrations. And after that, readers would have their own unique responses to the imagery. The whole thing would be much more than what it had been in my wee brain up until now.
Without much of an agenda, I asked some artist friends if they wanted to read the novel and see what they could make of it. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, other than maybe some illustrations to put to use in connection with the novel. Or maybe there could be a show in a local studio space or a loose collaboration to weave a conversation between one art form and another. Maybe a few artists could catch the wave of At the Waterline’s publication and benefit from its momentum. After all, these days you hear a lot about collaboration being an increasingly necessary path toward that vague but illusive thing called “success.”
A friend of mine (Aaron Scotthorn) runs his own contracting business, and he draws and paints on evenings or weekends—whenever he can carve out the time. Recently, he’s been doing some stunning photos on his Instagram account. After he read At the Waterline, he started drawing and “slinging paint,” as he puts it. The images he came up with offer the suggestion of masts, pylons, water, and smoke, perhaps the glow of fire in the distance. This mostly monochromatic work plays with vertical and horizontal lines in motion.
What strikes me the most about Aaron’s work is its boldness. These paintings are not easily reproduced or commodified, digitally or otherwise. The following set of images is my attempt at photographing one image from slightly different angles using the light from the sky above me. The silver paint is alive with light—glowing, shifting, and flashing. The piece moves as you move around it. I love that Aaron has taken a few prominent elements from the novel and used them as a launching pad to explore. I don’t think his work leaves the world of the novel entirely. For me, it captures some of the natural elements in the setting in a very tactile way.
Another friend (Rachel Zasadni) draws and paints casually and unobtrusively, but with more skill and vision than she lets on (even to herself, I think). She has come up with a couple of different pieces that I like very much. The closer I look at her watercolor of Beacon Rock, the more I see the likeness to the place itself, with the vertical formations of rock and trees. Beacon Rock in this image is very animal-like, a sleeping porcupine or hedgehog. The red kayak on the shore is a nice touch and seems to rest there like a small creature looking for shade. Her drawing of the marina has a generous array of boats. Boats of all kinds. An abundance of variety at various stages of repair and disrepair. This might have been a page from a collection of coloring illustrations for At the Waterline.
And speaking of coloring, Riley Pittenger has put together a handful of amazing, detailed drawings that are crammed under the deceptively reductionist category of “coloring pages.” To me, Riley’s illustrations are much more than that. His images effortlessly capture the sense of place I struggled to describe in many words during endless hours and years of writing. Now that Riley’s coloring pages are out there in the world, anyone else who takes the time to fill in the white spaces with colors of their own are able to move into the story in a tangible way. In particular, I’m thrilled that he took on the task of rendering a skeleton on a motorcycle at the bottom of the river. His vision of that space was as fresh and stunning to see drawn as it was for me when I discovered the words to write it.
Along with these specific people and their work, Ooligan’s designers and marketers have come up with iconic images for the inside and outside of the print version of the novel. Their use of color makes for astounding front and back covers that catch the eye from afar, both on the page and on a screen. It definitely stands out from surrounding covers.
You might look at this wide range of visual art and find some of it more or less accessible, more or less conceptual, and more or less illustrative or story driven. This array of work has helped me to see readers as more varied than I might have envisioned before. It has been a joy for me to see these artists take a story I wrote and make something new. It has made the lonely work of writing a little less so. I’d thought that I might be able to share the momentum of publication with other artists, possibly putting their work to some use in marketing. What I failed to anticipate, though, was how much their progress would go to work on me. With next to no guidance from me, they have done more than I ever could have asked for: they gave me new ways of seeing the story that I thought I knew better than anyone.
When I got my first job working at a marina on the Columbia River, the heavy autumn rains were beginning to replace lighter summer rains. The river began to swell with runoff, a murky brown that remained for about a week. After the rains calmed, the river’s color shifted back to a foggy green. As we passed each other going in opposite directions on the dock, a houseboat tenant told me, “The river is back to its old healthy green color again.” I nodded but thought to myself, Yeah, right. Healthy for the bacteria feeding on the chemical runoff. The river’s greenish-gray color, and the familiarity of it, brought me both comfort and concern. Green was normal. But it was also a reminder of all that was wrong with our relationship to the river. Most maps of the Portland area show the creeks, rivers, and channels in healthy, bright-blue lines. The maps aim for clarity and convention in their representations. Maps also reinforce our expectations about the proper colors of a landscape. The river does indeed look blue at certain angles, when the clouds part and a clear sky reflects off its surface, but moving bodily through a place will reveal living color in motion.
Downstream from the marina office where I worked, the boatyard crew repaired boat hulls and engines, and they kept the property maintained. One day, not long after I started working there, I saw several employees from the yard running frantically up and down the dock, gathering the absorbent pads, booms, cloths, and emergency equipment that indicated a fuel spill on the water. I stopped several of the men, before one of them would fess up. Apparently, someone working on an engine had left a fuel line unclamped on a large powerboat the day before, and the automatic fuel pump had been slowly pumping diesel overboard for the past twenty-four hours.
“How much fuel are we talking?” I asked.
“How the hell should I know? The tank on that boat holds maybe one hundred gallons. Maybe one fifty. Who knows how much fuel was in there. It’s bad.”
I followed him downstream to the section of the marina where a dozen men were busily spreading absorbent cloths over the water. For the remainder of the morning, I helped the cleanup crew sop up the bright-red diesel off the surface of the water. We dabbed at the reddish sheen on wood stringers and wiped the slick ring of fuel from around thirty boat hulls that were moored downstream of the spill.
A dozen others worked for the remainder of the day pushing the slick, red film into a log trap using brooms and high-pressured hoses. The trap was made up of two long stretches of wood tied together into the shape of a V. Absorbent booms and cloths floated inside the jaws of the V, and a small tugboat pushed the trap around the marina, gobbling up the fuel like a floating mouth. Several employees stood at the bow of the tugboat, squirting greenish detergent from spray bottles into the mess, attempting to break up some of the fuel on the surface. One of them had a glowing cigarette hanging from his mouth. Someone yelled across the glistening surface of the water at him. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and turned back and forth, as if looking for somewhere to toss it. Then he shrugged his shoulders, pinched the lit end between his fingers, and slipped it into his coat pocket.
My stomach sickened as the morning went by. My head began to swim. A haze of evaporating fuel hung unseen in the air. The other men were eerily quiet. No one was willing or able to put a name to what we were up to, nor could they suggest any other options we might have. I began to think this mess was bigger than our efforts could handle. A lot of fuel had already made its way downstream. The shoreline was shimmering with an oily residue. There were murmurs about who had been working on the boat and whose fault it was. Someone said that we only needed to work at it for a little while, then the current and evaporation would do the rest.
My stomach sank further when I realized that someone really needed to report the spill before it disappeared downstream. If we didn’t, it might look like we were trying to cover it up. I told the boatyard manager that I needed to get back to the office and walked the quarter-mile distance to the upper section of the marina. While I walked, I decided what I would do and what I would say. I knew there would be people in the main office and no privacy. No one could know I was making the call that could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for the marina, which would effectively ruin its reputation in the Portland area. What if it was no big deal and I called anyway and everyone found out it was me who called? What if this was a phone call that would shut down the marina, and I lost my job? What about loyalty? I swallowed hard and decided to remain loyal to the river that was close to my heart.
Around the corner from the office was a public phone booth. When the coast was clear, I stepped inside. I flipped open the Boaters’ Yellow Pages and found a coast guard listing for reporting oil spills. I kept the call short, hoping no one I knew would walk around the corner and see me on the pay phone instead of my usual phone inside the main office. I was among a suspicious people in a small liveaboard community. Word got around fast. Paranoia was settling in.
I was careful not to let on to the dispatcher that I worked at the marina. When I was finished describing what I had seen—along with giving the name and address of the marina where the employees were cleaning up the mess—the woman on the other line started asking questions that I was increasingly uncomfortable answering.
“And can you tell me your name and number?”
“No, I’m sorry. I can’t give you that information. This is a small world down here. I might actually put myself in danger.”
“OK, I will send down an officer right away.”
There, I had done the right thing, though I felt worse. I was worried about more than my job. The shipwrights and the rest of the crew in the yard had lived in the area all their lives. They knew where I lived. Suddenly, I saw them as little more than thugs willing to scare me and my family in order to make a point.
It wasn’t long until a fire marshal came to survey the damage. During his short visit, the red lights on top of his white SUV continued to flash and spin. The fire marshal filled out paperwork with the boatyard manager and quickly left. He took the boatyard manager at his word that only a few gallons of fuel had been spilled. There would be no investigation. More straightforward emergencies in the county needed attention. Higher priorities. Limited emergency resources.
In the days that followed, the tone of conversation at the marina changed. Employees minimized the spill and mocked any attitudes to the contrary. Guys from the boatyard stopped by the office to talk and lighten the mood. I sensed they were feeling me out to see where I stood, or rather, who I would stand with in the end. Even the boatyard manager and his assistant came into the office and, while looking in my direction, joked with each other about the crazies who cry over the poor birds that are suffering because of a little dirty water. One of the men mockingly said, as if weeping, “Boo Hoo! The innocent little flying insects! Poor creatures!” Laughter. I left the room with a stack of papers, not laughing, wanting to cry, unable to do anything but feel sick. The boatyard manager was insistent that it was maybe a gallon or two. The fire marshal agreed with me: “We keep telling people. It only looks like a lot. Have you ever spilled a glass of milk on a tabletop? It spreads out over the surface of the table like nobody’s business. The diesel just sits there on the surface, a super-thin layer. A little goes a long way.”
Everyone around me on the dock seemed eager to move on. The fuel spill remained in my mind, like a canker sore I couldn’t stop working over with my tongue. I called the coast guard again. I did some research. I talked to an agent at the State Department of Environmental Equality. I wanted to know how much fuel could be dumped into the Columbia River before further investigation and cleanup were required. There were too many variables for the agent to say for sure. The state and federal government were working with limited resources. Most of the evidence would be gone, downstream, by the time anyone got around to looking into it. I asked more questions and got more soft-pedalling in return. I persisted. Give me a number. How much “apparent” fuel before someone did something? before they opened an investigation? before they required ongoing cleanup or maintenance? before someone was held accountable? Would it take a lawsuit before someone looked into it or studied it or took samples in order to come to a conclusive statement about what had happened and how bad it had really been? Could I turn myself in as an accomplice? I wanted a number. How many gallons would it take? “We aren’t likely to pursue a situation where there were less than maybe one hundred gallons of fuel involved.” There, I had a number. Was I happy? No, I was not happy.
Sailboats, powerboats, and outboard motors all run on fuel. When you fill their tanks with diesel or gasoline, sometimes a little of it drips or splashes into the water. The caustic scent of fuel is common around boats.
People told me a little bit of Simple Green or another liquid soap would help to clear up the thin layer of gasoline on the water. So when I dribbled a little fuel into the water while fueling up boats, I squirted the water with soap. Since then, I’ve learned that using detergents only scatters the fuel and causes it to rain down into lower layers of the water where it is no longer likely to evaporate. Many detergents themselves are harmful to aquatic life. Someone else told me that 99 percent of the fuel evaporated off the surface after a couple minutes. Dubious claims like “99 percent” and “a couple minutes” cry out for verification. Fuel is a mixture of hundreds of compounds—not all of which evaporate—that continue to harm the ecosystems exposed to them. At the marina, the fuel dock manager’s attitude was to just let the fuel go: “If you leave it alone, it will evaporate much quicker. Let it go. It will disappear. It is not a problem. People make it a problem.”
Why do our limited perceptions and uninformed opinions weigh so heavily in conversations about the use and abuse of our natural environment? How much fuel can be spilled into a river before you give the event a name or call it harmful? Could I confess before a court that, so far this month, I had dribbled maybe an ounce or two of fuel into the water at the fuel dock? What good would come of such a confession? To whom can I promise that I will be more careful? What if I use absorbent pads around fuel nozzles whenever I’m at the pumps? Yes, I can do that. Who will hold me accountable? How long does my guilt remain? Though I repent, I am not made innocent.
At the end of the day of the fuel spill, I went back down to the lower section of the docks. It was past 5:00 p.m. Past time to clock out. I was alone on the dock. Everyone had gone home. I thought, When do you stop cleaning up your own mess? Before you go home for dinner? The water appeared to be back to its old “healthy green” on the upstream side of the dock. The gray sky began to pour rain again. Soon the river would turn brown with runoff.
I walked downstream to the very end of the marina and watched as the thin layer of colorful grease trailed off the thick logs that held the dock together under my feet. Everything the water could reach as it sloshed with the current and the wind was still shedding diesel. The swirling rainbow trailed off and out of sight in the rush of current.
Fuel Spill Guides and Emergency Response Information:
The prospect of recording my own book in order to draw in people who may not want to sit and read a novel seemed like an easy enough task. At first, my intention was to hit the record button and give it a straight read through, stutters and hiccups intact. Ten hours of work, tops. Maybe ten more to go back through and edit out mistakes. I didn’t have the time or the funds to get the help of a voice actor, a studio technician, or distribution like a more professional audiobook. I figured I could offer a straightforward, unapologetic, clearly amateur recording as a giveaway for contests and promotions, which would also help boost the print and ebook sales.
Without much of a plan, I constructed a makeshift studio in my attic at home, hanging carpet on the walls and ceiling. I purchased a Logitech H390 headset with a decent entry-level microphone. I downloaded Audacity, a free piece of software for recording and editing. I watched vocal lessons on YouTube. I watched online demos and listened to audiobook-related podcasts to learn a bit more. I grew pickier about my own rendering of certain key scenes and dialogue. I started hearing some of my own nasal ticks and uneven breathing. As I went on, I spent more and more time cleaning up the recordings and adding audio effects. On my lunch breaks at work, I locked myself in meeting rooms and piled soft chairs onto tables for a makeshift recording studio. The whole thing took me a lot more than ten hours. More like four months, and I’m still putting the finishing touches on the final chapters.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the process was my rediscovery of At the Waterline’s characters. While recording, I searched for consistent, recognizable speaking voices for each of them. I thought I’d found a solid, direct voice for Jack—the foul-mouthed old salt—but then it shifted a little, taking on a slightly fragile, wizened quality. Barry, the ex-priest living on his sailboat, began as a slow, hesitant voice that grew into something more assured and alert, as a way to match his growth as a character. Dory, the outspoken woman who runs the hot dog stand on the dock, was a lot of fun to explore. You can hear some natural laughter coming through in the audio footage as I tried to find ways to intone her boisterous, sometimes ill-considered exclamations. Other characters were not quite as colorful or distinct. Depending on who was present for a given scene, making characters discernable was sometimes very difficult.
I can understand the decision to write a scripted version of an audiobook that is performed more like an old-fashioned radio play. I can also see why some audiobooks are produced as abridged versions. It’s not always about book length or funding or the audience’s perceived attention span. There are some scenes and passages that simply don’t work very well when read out loud. While recording At the Waterline, I was tempted to add or remove words here and there for clarity. I refrained, but if you listen along with a print copy nearby, you may hear a few “accidents” that I didn’t go back and correct.
Recording an audiobook version of At the Waterline mirrored the writing process in so many ways with the initial drafts, developmental editing, and fine-tuning, as well as the surprises and discoveries—the story seemed to take on a life of its own all over again. For me, reading the novel aloud from start to finish has been a new window on the manuscript. As I’ve listened to each track over and over, listening for technical glitches, I’ve been surprised how many times I’ve gotten lost in the story and forgotten that I was supposed to be working on something.
The critical editor in my brain burned a lot of fuel on this manuscript in the past year of editing. Sometimes the editing process was fueled more by my desire to make the writing appear smarter than I think that I am. In my work to make the book as complex and nuanced as possible, I often let the editing process lure me too far behind that facade of high-minded intelligence—a lofty literary guise that might earn me recognition, acceptance, and even adoration. Maybe having an audiobook on Amazon that is read by the author would earn me some form of cultural capital, if not monetary capital. Like most writers, I want people to like me and my work. During this long stretch of effort, my own enjoyment in the creative process drifted into a blind spot. But something about literally breathing new breaths into these paragraphs by recording and listening to them brought the characters and stories to life for me in a way I hadn’t thought to look for. Producing the audiobook ended up being more than just a marketing exercise—it reminded me that the joy of telling stories and hearing them can be a richer reward than the lesser, more fleeting joys that come with recognition, affirmation, or even publication. In the long, long journey toward holding this published novel in my hands, I didn’t know how much I wanted to hear myself unselfconsciously say, “Huh. You know what? At the Waterline is a pretty good read. A story you can lose yourself in.”
If you buy a print or ebook copy of At the Waterline in May 2017 and send proof of purchase to firstname.lastname@example.org, you will receive access to the first three chapters of the audiobook.
This is the tenth post in Joe Biel’s ongoing Business of Publishing series. Today’s edition is a deeper focus into title development, so if you haven’t read the previous post already, take a look—it’s perhaps the most important part of being a successful publisher.
Due to the four thousand new books being published every day, readers have less of an attention span than ever for unfamiliar titles. When I interview interns who want to go into publishing for the editorial side of the work, I explain the three things that make a book successful:
- 40 percent – Determining that an applicable niche exists and that your book can provide meaningfully unique benefits to readers.
- 10 percent – Making sure that your book actually delivers on those promised benefits.
- 50 percent – Clearly communicating those benefits in the title, subtitle, cover, data, and metadata.
If you did your title development correctly, your research should have steered you away from any parts of the shelf that are already too crowded or that have one celebrity author thoroughly dominating all sales.
But even if you do your research, develop correctly, and the book is beautifully written and edited, you can still screw it all up with bad metadata!
The most telltale sign that a book is self-published or from a vanity press is that the back cover indicates a subject to shelve it under that simply doesn’t exist in the bookstore. Similarly, I’ve had to explain to many authors that while their idea is unique, clever, and important, we can’t package it the way that they want to because “essays / general” or “world history” or “memoir” just aren’t exactly magnet destinations in any store. They are huge dumping grounds for books that don’t fit on the shelves that readers frequent (or, again, are dominated by a few celebrity authors).
Metadata directs the industry and, in turn, the reader. When salespeople go out and meet with buyers, the process is accelerated. There are lots of books and they are presorted by subject. The ones with the biggest marketing budgets get a few extra seconds. But if a book isn’t correctly developed or is listed for the wrong shelf, the salesperson and buyer won’t make time to let you know about the error—unless it’s the only book being sold, they have large expectations of its sales potential, or you have a longstanding relationship with them.
And so again, this is where your comparable and competitive titles (comps), the books that a customer might buy instead of or in addition to your book, come into play. If you have access to BookScan software, look up what the comps are selling. Make sure that your comps are as successful as you suspect that they are. Many authors have argued that their book would be successful based on the success of another book, sending a link to a New York Times article about the book as proof. When I look up this well-received book, I sometimes find that it hasn’t even sold two hundred copies in BookScan! Sometimes so much effort is put into smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of success that we forget to actually make a book successful.
By looking at the metadata, you can see what is working for your comps. What keywords are readers searching for that direct them to that book? These words should appear in your title, subtitle, reading line, and jacket copy. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) creates a list of approved shelving codes based on what books are currently being published and what subjects are no longer seeing new titles. Once enough titles exist, say, in “comics journalism,” it will be a distinct category for new books. What BISAC shelving codes are your comps using, and where are stores actually shelving the book? Publishing industry software typically allows two to four shelving categories, and this information is propagated to a series of industry databases. Use them all!
Naturally, things can still go wrong. The worst horror stories feature the publisher making a series of intentional choices and inputting them correctly and Ingram or Baker & Taylor misinterpreting the data that arrives in their feed. Stores don’t order a book about home repair if it’s listed under “philosophy / hermeneutics.” Though that might be an apt opinion about the book in question, no one is going to look for it there.
This is why it’s very important to routinely check your metadata on other databases. Amazon is another place where Microcosm Publishing’s books have shown up as DVDs or under hilariously incorrect subjects. When Sarah Mirk’s Sex From Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules showed up as part of another publisher’s series on Amazon with the subject “religion / biblical meditations / Old Testament,” I admittedly took it somewhat personally since the book is about rejecting religious dogma as the foundation of relationship choices.
Try to detach yourself from your personal relationship to the subject matter. Think about what you would be most excited about as a reader. Sometimes your metadata choices can become so robotic that the final product doesn’t feel like a personal or creative work any longer. Review the cover and metadata with both industry professionals (ideally buyers) and people that read books like this for fun. You will likely be able to make simple fixes to avert huge mistakes. For instance, sometimes a beautiful, painterly book cover just doesn’t work on a self-help / compulsive behavior / obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) title.
Once you’ve done the homework of determining what the best keywords and shelving choices for your book are, visit two local bookstores that sell new books. See where books like yours are shelved in practice, and if you’re the friendly type, talk to the staff people about why they do this. They will likely have hilarious personal anecdotes about what led to this decision-making, or in some cases, a political axe to grind about having to shelve Newt Gingrich’s Treason in the first place. In any event, learning about how their decisions are made will better inform your choices.
Often making a few quick and easy changes will vastly improve your development before it’s too late and you are hearing this same feedback from stores explaining why they think it wasn’t more successful.
Sometimes your vision for the book will come so naturally that it only takes a single draft and the idea comes to you clearly and immediately. Even when this has happened to me, I am sometimes so excited that I still overlook important details—like making the title as readable as possible, omitting a word in the subtitle, or neglecting to note the different meanings between “everyday” and “every day.”
Sometimes you’ll do everything “right” and the book still doesn’t sell. While this can be disconcerting, investigate why this happened and learn from it. Similarly, sometimes you’ll do everything “wrong” and the readers will find the book anyway and love it! Learn how to repeat this effectively.
Learn from my mistakes! Good luck!
Truly feminist collectives are difficult to maintain. At CALYX we try to have titles without having rank, to vote on material without kowtowing to a rigid majority rule, and to celebrate our big-name authors alongside those who are up and coming. It takes effort and hard work to go against the grain, to always stay mindful of each member’s intrinsic value to a forty-year-old publication.
But sometimes, feminist collectives are the most natural systems in the world. The collective that chose material for our fortieth anniversary anthology, Memories Flow in Our Veins, was one of those zen moments where everything clicked and the joy of the work was present at every meeting.
Over the course of several months in mid-2014, our editors and personnel read through the incredibly rich and diverse material that CALYX has published over four decades. Stacks of journals. Dozens of books. The system wasn’t perfect. Each editor was assigned a year, or five years, or a decade, and given the staggering task of choosing representative poetry and prose to be featured in the anthology from those years. What an overwhelming responsibility.
It’s difficult culling material this way. Everything that CALYX has published was chosen because it spoke to someone, because it was polished, because it was doing something new with content or craft. So choosing the “best” pieces was, of course, impossible.
The way it happened was much more organic than any rigid system. Each of us came to the meetings with a list of possible choices, but it didn’t come down to recognizable names or cherry-picking from certain decades. My first meeting I sat down next to our editor Marjorie and said, “I found a story about a woman keeping a rotting pig’s head in her fridge. It was fantastically creepy.” This spoke to everything that makes Marjorie who she is. It had to go in.
The next meeting, Lill, a prose editor, remembered a short story about a woman whose boyfriend has aged backward into a toddler. The story hadn’t been chosen in the first round of readings, but it was immediately added to the discussion (and, eventually, the anthology) because the value of it was immediately clear. CALYX is full of stories that touched people, intrigued them, and stayed with them over the years. It’s not about votes or consensus. It’s about the deep place where good literature changes us.
With a perfect mixture of editors encountering the work for the first time and people who had been involved from the beginning of CALYX, this anthology is as much a product of those meetings as it is the product of forty years of brilliant writing and thousands of hours of editorial work. We could never have set a definitive representation of CALYX because CALYX is something different for every writer, every editor, and every reader.
Every community in our country was affected by the Civil War; so much so that a year after the day the war ended many towns closed all their shops so people could go place flags and flowers on the graves of their loved ones. Think about how that translates to modern times. Can you think of a day in your lifetime that shut our country down a year after the event occurred? September 11, 2001, would be most people’s answer. In one day almost 3,000 people were killed, in a country with a population of 285 million. The Civil War lasted four years, and we lost 600,000 people out of a population of only 40 million.
This unofficial holiday would happen in May for years after the Civil War until General John Logan decided to organize an effort and create what they called Decoration Day. Eventually Decoration Day changed to Memorial Day, but since the South saw it as a celebration of a Union victory, not everyone celebrated on the same day. It wasn’t until after World War I, when the United States lost 130,000 servicemen and -women, that we really united as a country to give the fourth Monday in May its true meaning.
In World War II we lost 419,000 servicemen and -women. In fact, the world lost 3 percent of its population in that war. In the Korean War we lost about 54,000 of our best. In Vietnam we lost 59,000 souls, and in the current Iraq and Afghanistan Wars we’ve lost 6,882 so far.
In this last war, I lost a soldier in my squad during a coordinated and violent ambush. He was two feet behind me when he was killed. His name was Eric Scott McKinley, and he was a dear friend. We lost too many from my company: Eric, Kenny Leisten, Dave Weisenburg, Ben Isenberg, Earl Werner, and Taylor Marks. Earl and Taylor were killed on a different tour, but all of these losses really affected me on a level most people can’t understand. I came back from three deployments a different person, so different that I didn’t know who I was, how I was supposed to fit into the world anymore, or even how to really interact with society. I wrote my book The Wax Bullet War about this struggle in my life, a struggle too many veterans share and can relate to.
Sean Davis, helping with hurricane Katrina cleanup.
Memorial Day is a time to mourn and remember those we’ve lost, and I believe that can mean mourning and remembering the pieces of ourselves that we will never get back. I also believe this day reminds us veterans who were fortunate enough to come home that our service hasn’t ended. We made a promise when we raised our hands. We made a promise to our families, our communities, our country, and our gods—the sacrifice of our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters holds us to that promise. I don’t mean the oath of enlistment. The promise we made was to find our true potential, to be leaders, to bring out the best in those around us, to cover down, and to make wherever we are a better place for us being there. That’s what I believe it means to sacrifice what we’ve sacrificed for the greater good.
Too many people equate a veteran with someone who suffers from PTSD. We’ve started to see it in pop culture, TV, movies, even music videos. I worked with State Representatives Julie Parrish and Paul Evans to help put together and promote the Veteran/Lottery Fund Bill. When it was time to testify before the committee that would say yes or no to the bill, we had a room full of veterans of all ages from all wars, but it wasn’t our testimony that convinced the committee to pass the bill. In fact, they didn’t even let us testify. It came down to money (as most of our laws do nowadays). The presenter showed that with an investment of one dollar of the lottery funds we had the potential to get back twenty dollars of federal money. The plan was to hire more veteran service officers with the lottery funds so they could help more veterans get disability percentages from the VA (i.e., federal money), and that money would be spent in Oregon where our veterans live. While I was happy the bill passed and the money would go to veterans issues, I was almost insulted that our government sees veterans, especially combat veterans, as soul-broke heroes who have lost the potential to ever be whole again. In my opinion, they are betting on how messed up we are, rather than how we can positively change the communities we live in. What if they invested in our ideas, in our talents, and our abilities rather than investing in our diseases or injuries?
I don’t blame them, but somehow we’ve come to a point in our history where we see our veterans as a negative rather than a positive. I’m not saying we need to do away with the disability rating. I understand how many people are using that to live. But I believe we should set aside some of those funds and invest in what our veterans can do.
We need to honor the sacrifice of those we’ve lost as well as their families. But we also need to celebrate our lives. We need to remember our potential. Keep that promise. I want to encourage my fellow veterans: Inspire to those who need it. Do great things in your community. Do great things in your life. Do things you didn’t know you were capable of. Show the people around you that we’re more than soul-broke heroes. Get them to believe it, and in that way, you can make someone who doesn’t think they can go one more day believe it too. Live so the victories in your life are shared by those who aren’t with us anymore. Honor the millions of servicemen and -women who died before you, but honor yourself as well. Make your life a monument that will inspire others.
A pipeline rupture.
For a copy of Sean’s book, visit the book’s webpage.
When I talk to musicians about Rhythm in the Rain, their first question often is, “Am I in it?” And I often have to say no. To cover one hundred years of jazz in the Pacific Northwest in a narrative that moves readers forward, you can’t include everyone—or even half of the artists who have contributed to this distinct culture that grew up far from centers of influence and power, where tradition is honored, young talent is nurtured, and nice guys often finish first. Here’s the story of one of those artists whose contributions didn’t appear in the finished version. And like those that did, his story is about art and the power of place.
Now this story is about jazz pianist Dick Blake. But first I have to tell you something about humpback whales. You’ll see the connection—because their story’s all about the magic of homecoming, just like Dick’s, with the same kind of happy ending.
So … every year, when humpback whales gather off the Mexican coast, the males arrive singing. Early in the season, each whale’s song is short, simple, and different from the rest. But as time passes, all the males end up singing the same long, complex tune. The next year, each returns with different fragments of the previous song, but they all leave singing in unison again. It’s like they have to come home in order to find their song, or maybe the only way to recover it is to build a new one together. At any rate, their identity resides in those waters where they gather every year to sing. I like to think that’s true for Dick Blake too.
I call him Dick Blake, like everyone in Portland did, but that’s not his real name. See, when he returned home in his fifties to live in Albany, the Willamette Valley town where he was born and raised, he took the name he grew up with: Richard Applegate. A name with historic Oregon connections, a name with roots.
Albany was a mill town in the ’40s when Dick learned to play, a tough little place in a soft and forgiving landscape, and Dick listened to the rain and to meadowlarks and became an artist. Age sixteen, he and his childhood sweetheart Mary won a talent contest at the Oregon State Fair and then performed on Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour in New York. That launched his career, but their love affair went quiet for forty years—until Dick returned to Albany.
Those comfortable jazz standards he loved to play? Them he never left. And every time he sat at the keyboard, whether in Portland, San Francisco, or on the road, he sounded like he was at home, in the Willamette Valley, filling his music with its abundance and beauty.
There’s something familiar about it, even if you’ve never heard him before. It’s full of the hopeful rhythms and pretty chord voicings of his boyhood Oregon, rooted in swing and the blues. You feel his hands on the keys when Dick plays, the soil of the valley, the river in spring, oak leaves in the wind.
It’s the sound of home.
Sometimes you just have to leave something out, and here’s one of the stories we couldn’t fit into Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest about the accomplished and tempestuous Native American saxophonist, composer, and singer Jim Pepper, who grew up and got his musical start in Portland.
Imagine thousands of people, standing, swaying, some even crying, and all singing “Witchi-Tai-To” with Jim: “Water spirit feeling springin’ ’round my head, makes me feel glad that I’m not dead,” sang Jim, and it was a spiritual experience for many in the crowd that late summer afternoon. But Jim wasn’t a spiritual guy; he was more earthy, liked women, booze, food, whatever made you feel good.
But he was angry too: once cursed an audience in Montana, screaming, “You mf-ers, don’t you know that Custer died for your sins!” Some performances were like opening a wound. Of Kaw and Creek descent, it was hard for Jim to walk in two worlds with one spirit.
But that’s what made him a hero—because sometimes he did.
Born in 1941, Jim grew up poor in a Vanport apartment with coal heat. One day he came running in from a game of cowboys and Indians with neighbor kids. “Dad,” he cried, “they won’t let me be the Indian!” So Gilbert dressed him in feathered powwow costume, and by god, they let him be the Indian then, and ever after, Jim always played the Indian. Even as a handsome four-sport star at Madison High, where he dated the prettiest girls and toured with the Young Oregonians, he’d dress in feathers for an Indian dance, change into a tuxedo for tap, then don his zoot suit to play with the band.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” he’d always urge his friends. “Let’s go!”
But he was always an outsider, and Jim—lured by wild bop to Williams Avenue—gave up sports for the saxophone, which took him to New York eventually, where he became a jazz-rock pioneer with the pop hit “Witchi-Tai-To” in 1971. But music became too commercialized for Jim; compromise was never an option, and he retreated to Alaskan boat decks and dive bars, seeking there his path through two worlds.
Jim returned with a vision of Native music fused with jazz, so Jim recorded with his father, played powwows, and wrote Indian songs for jazz shows that were both sweet and fierce, full of healing and hate; love songs and war dances for a man twisting between two worlds. His band felt the tension: simple melodies that led to explosive bursts like the obsidian flash of a claw. I was afraid of him. But bandmates stayed because the music was bigger than the man.
Called himself Polar Bear then, humorous but dominant, and on a path leading him to Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and critical acclaim in Europe. Until he came home to die.
The last time I saw Jim, he was on a festival side stage. Brown felt hat over a head now bald from chemo, he walked with a stoop. But up close to the stage you could hear him: “It’s good where we’ve been and where we’re going,” sang Jim. “It’s good where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
And the music was bigger than the man.
Don’t miss Lynn’s third and final blog post this Friday. Read his first blog post here.
“Maybe it’s something in the water,” I said, as a joke at first. But as I thought about it, I began to realize that maybe it is all the water around here that makes jazz from the Pacific Northwest as distinct as its landscape and culture.
That was the starting point, anyway, for Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest, when I began research in early 2014. And at first it seemed impossible: comb through one hundred years of history to show how the geography and the communities that grew up here shaped the character of the jazz scene? And explain, in this place so far removed from the centers of influence and power, why such a robust scene developed?
Fortunately, without realizing it I’d been working on this book ever since 1979, when I wrote my first magazine article about local jazz. And for the next thirty-five years, I covered people and events important to the story. That was a good start, since I’d saved a good portion of everything I’d written. And since I’d been editor of the Jazzscene magazine for years, I had a stack of those to consult too. I’d collected other publications as well, and those dusty piles yielded details that are hard to keep in memory.
I’d been lucky enough to record many of my conversations with musicians and others in the jazz business, and I’d kept airchecks from my radio shows, too, on which I’d interviewed dozens of artists. Then I conducted numerous interviews to fill the gaps. But most of my subjects were from the Portland area, where I live.
So north I went to Puget Sound, where I’d visited frequently in my childhood and during several periods since. I’d been writing for a Seattle magazine over the years, too, and had read all I could in others. But the Puget Sound scene is vast, and if it hadn’t been for the help of Paul de Barros (and his book, Jackson Street After Hours), I would have been lost. He spent hours answering questions about people and events from his nearly thirty years covering music for The Seattle Times.
As vital as all those words were, you can’t write about jazz without listening to the music. And as a journalist and radio host, I’ve been able to hear nearly every jazz album that’s come out of the region; as a journalist, I attended live performances by many of the artists active since the 1970s.
No matter how much information you gather, though, there’s always someone else to talk to, another artist to consider. But the need to tell the story trumps completeness, and in the end I put what I had all together into a story about a happy marriage between people and place and the distinct musical culture it produced.
It’s but one story you could tell about this under-documented subculture, and in someone’s eyes, you’ll always be wrong—a lesson I learned from the legendary Red Rodney, who played with Charlie Parker and had a colorful history, which I figured everybody’d want to read about.
But when I got to the club, the short, red-headed trumpeter player stormed up, angry that my article had dredged up tales he said weren’t true, though I’d confirmed, and at the end of his rant he yelled, “You don’t know shit!”
So when I was attempting to wrestle the one-hundred-year panorama of jazz in the Pacific Northwest into the picture I wished to paint, I remembered Red.
And then I went ahead anyway. That’s what living in the Pacific Northwest will do for you. Must be something in the water.
Don’t miss Lynn Darroch’s second blog post this Wednesday.
In his essay, Solotaroff encouraged young writers to work on their craft for many years and think about publication—and possible glory—later. Write “in the cold” now, and you will eventually get your day in the sun. Some writers, undoubtedly, go from obscurity to fame, and they manage to maintain a relatively successful writing career the rest of their lives. For years they walked, head down, into the wind, and then they turned a corner and stepped into sun. But for most of us, writing success is more intermittent. One of my friends had some early high-profile journal publications, got the attention of a New York agent, and has been working on her novel for over a decade. Another was notified several times that her short story collection was a contest finalist; only recently did it finally win. My novel was pulled out of the St. Martin’s slush pile by an assistant editor, but it was fifteen years before another editor felt as enthusiastic about my work again.
Brautigan’s success, too, was uneven. In one sense, he did astoundingly well, publishing ten novels, ten volumes of poetry, and numerous stories. For many baby boomers, his work was a touchstone; during my book tour, Brautigan fans have told me about their own pilgrimages to Eugene and San Francisco. But the critics could be critical. Near the end of his life, Brautigan complained to his agent that he was being systematically ignored by the literary establishment. At a party, he pretended to aim a gun at his critics and shoot them. In those moments, it didn’t matter that he was, by most people’s standards, walking in the sun; he felt shadowed.
Solotaroff wrote that “durability” is key to a successful career as a writer: “For the gifted writer, durability seems directly connected to how one deals with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.” He thought this was true especially in the early years of a career. But it’s true throughout careers, especially for those of us whose names will never be widely known. And the key to durability, at least my durability, is community. My community of writers here in Seattle is what warms me. We attend each other’s readings and book launch parties, take each other’s workshops at Richard Hugo House, and cheer each other on Facebook. Groups of writers create their own residencies, renting hotel rooms together for long weekends. However cold my writing career may feel at times, I know that someone in this community will, when I most need it, hold open a door and beckon me to the fire.
Brautigan came into a stormy world in 1935 and left his stormy life in 1984. His self-destruction was, perhaps, related to his standing as a writer, although it seems mostly the result of his extreme abuse of alcohol. He had his writing—stories, poems, novels, and lists in pocket notebooks. He had a beautiful sunny day in Bolinas, California, on September 14, 1984. But it wasn’t enough. Still, he predicted that one day his work would be rediscovered, and it has been.