We are delighted to welcome debut mystery novelist Bruce Holbert as our guest blogger today.
Bruce describes his new book, Lonesome Animals (Counterpoint April 2012 Hardcover), as a western novel reinvented, a detective story inverted for the west.
Today he talks to us about writing a first late novel …
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Recently I was asked in an interview, "What took so long?"
I am a 52 year-old publishing his first novel. I don't have the data at hand, but my guess is I am fifteen or so years beyond the mean.
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The question struck me as impolite. I wasn't sleeping in doorways or staggering through a drug induced stupor those years (although that would have made for an interesting answer). I helped raise three children with whom I'd rather spend time than most any adults; I navigated a quarter century of marriage with fairly happy results: I excelled (by others' accounts) in a teaching career. I bought a house and sold one and bought another: I participated in Cash for Clunkers; I obeyed the Patriot Act (or at least what I knew of it): I stopped on red and went on green, paid taxes, drove on the correct side of the road, used credit in moderation, avoided smoking in no smoking areas, honored my parents, avoided felonies whenever possible, and I kept writing. That's a pretty full life, it seemed to me.
My inquisitor's question was not without grounds, however. In 1990, I graduated from the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop, one of the nation's leading schools for young writers. While there, I worked on a nationally regarded literary magazine, The Iowa Review, and won a Teaching Writing Fellowship. Peers I felt were equals published novels and story collections and memoirs to acclaim well before the age of forty, let alone fifty.
I admit the latter compelled me to pose the question to myself until I felt cursed, or, more accurately, exposed. The truth is, I felt, even in graduate school, like a charlatan. My peers had earned undergraduate sheepskins from Harvard, Cornell, GW, Stanford, Yale, Columbia and Boston University. I matriculated at Eastern Washington University (yes, the state) where I earned a 2.9 grade point, identical to my high school g.p.a. My biggest accomplishment in college was forging the signatures of three deans to garner placement in Kay Boyle's graduate writing workshop where, by the time I was found out, she insisted I stay.
I was raised in a bookless world before then. My father worked construction, and I lived in 23 different towns before age six. We pulled a trailer and I became schooled at leveling and blocking the wheels and reattaching propane tanks and igniting pilot lights. It was an existence not unlike many others I knew and it was not unpleasant. My parents loved me and made certain I had what I needed. My dad threw the ball with me; my mother held me when I cried. I was neither neglected nor abused.
I was, though, a mutant. I read and thought thoughts that appeared impractical to those around me, even family. Though I managed to commit enough minor crimes to eventually appear part of my particular herd and recognized the rituals of my world and responded as fittingly as I could, I did so with a wooden self-consciousness that kept me on the precipice of being exposed. I remained a refugee in my own consciousness.
Yet I could write a sentence.
So Iowa admitted me, then allotted me a generous fellowship.
There, I flourished, then graduated and went home, while most of my peers found jobs teaching in various programs while others went on to Stegner or Provincetown residencies. The university's Summer Writing Program offered me work, but I was on a sabbatical from the only job I ever did well, teaching high school English. I intended to return to my duties and re-enter what I thought of as the natural world. Iowa reminded me of greenhouse, where the best horticulturalists applied the finest fertilizer and the optimum light and water, and you grew as if on steroids, into rose buds the size of your head and thorns lethal as sabers. It was incredible, literally: I didn't believe it. So I returned home to the plausible.
Despite such doubts, I wrote. But every manila envelope I deposited in the mail became less an act of faith than a meager blow against the certainty of rejection. Such thoughts cannot help but pervade one's work. My language turned tentative, hunting for several rhythms simultaneously, contorting syntax, piling phrases into one another for this or that effect.
Yet I continued, wedging writing into evenings and between baseball games and concerts and family trips. I did not resent them. I have read many writers complain that family was an impediment to their work. Mine was the opposite, my marriage and my children informed my work, but more significantly, slowly, over the years, they led me to recognize, for better and worse, the self was, not simply a stranger in a strange land trying to acquire the language I lacked, and over that time I began to hear my own voice when I spoke to them and its echo when they answered, and eventually, when I wrote I grew able to work from the place from which those sounds came.
This did not end in publication, however — it seems the long way is the only one I know. But it did lead me to a coherence concerning my own work, one informed, but less clouded by the inflection of others and the voids within myself. And, then, it took time to listen closely and hear clearly the syntax and habits of lexicon and happen onto the characters who would speak so and the events that would occur in such lives. And, then, as it is a singular voice peculiar to me, it took more time to find someone compelled by its possibilities instead of it's nearness to others that have made their way into the publishing world.
So, it took so long because early in my life I learned to doubt the sound of my own voice and the lesson stuck, whether I resided in a construction town trailer court or the best graduate school in the country. Oddly enough, the reason it happened at all was because the facets of an ordinary life that artists typically regard as impediments finally taught me otherwise. It was a mighty wide circle, I admit, but the territory within it is my own and am not inclined to trade it for less property even if it was attained more quickly.
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Bruce Holbert grew up in the country described in Lonesome Animals, a combination of rocky scabland farms and desert brush at the foot of the Okanogan Mountains. What once was the Columbia River, harnessed now by a series of reservoirs and dams, dominates the topography. Holbert's great-grandfather, Arthur Strahl, was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee. The man was a bit of a legend until he murdered Holbert's grandfather (Strahl's son-in-law) and made Holbert's grandmother a widow and Holbert's father fatherless. A fictionalized Strahl is the subject of Lonesome Animals.
To learn more about the author and his body of work, which includes a large number of short stories, poetry, and a collection of remembrances of influential teachers he co-authored with his wife, visit his website at BruceHolbertBooks.com.
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About Lonesome Animals:
Russell Strawl, a tormented former lawman, is called out of retirement to hunt a serial killer with a sense of the macabre who has been leaving elaborately carved bodies of Native Americans across three counties. As the pursuit ensues, Strawl's own dark and violent history weaves itself into the hunt, shedding light on the remains of his broken family: one wife taken by the river, one by his own hand; an adopted Native American son who fancies himself a Catholic prophet; and a daughter, whose temerity and stoicism contrast against the romantic notions of how the west was won.
Lonesome Animals contemplates the nature of story and heroism in the face of a collapsing ethos –not only of Native American culture, but also of the first wave of white men who, through the battle against the geography and its indigenous people, guaranteed their own destruction. But it is also about one man's urgent, elegiac search for justice amidst the craven acts committed on the edges of civilization.