April 05, 2001 News » Cover Story

Word of Mouth 

If I could choose one activity to celebrate this week's breathtaking wave of spring, I would climb high up into the arms of a blooming tree, nestle down and read a good book preferably a first novel filled with characters larger than life and distant places so perfectly rendered I could smell, see and hear them.

But since we have no blooming trees, and even if we did I'd need a ladder to climb one, and even if I could wiggle my way up I probably couldn't find a comfortable nook to hold this creaky body, I'll settle instead for one 68-degree afternoon, a shady corner on a lawn of new grass. I haven't found the perfect new novel, but I've got a pile of new books from publishers, including Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair, Mary Midkiff's She Flies Without Wings and the recently released paperback edition of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Life is good.

And I'm still looking for that perfect novel


Stuck in Dja Vu

Dave Eggers' memoir about losing both his parents as a senior in college and being left with the task of raising his 8-year-old brother was the literary sensation of last year. The bestseller was named a "Book of the Year" by Time, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a host of other publications, and was an Editors' Choice in the New York Times Book Review. On nearly all fronts, the 31-year-old Eggers has been celebrated as an inventive and powerful new voice.

Atop the list of reasons for the notability of A.H.B.W.O.S.G is Eggers' constant and clever use of self-conscious, self-critical techniques that inform the book's tone and style. This starts right with the title, and continues on the copyright page (where Eggers explains that his publisher is owned by Viacom Inc., a conglomerate whose "influence over the daily lives and hearts of individuals ... is very very small, and so hardly worth worrying about") and throughout the book. Perhaps most famously, there is a 20-page Acknowledgements section where Eggers, among other things, lists the book's themes and essentially out-criticizes the critics ("The author wishes to acknowledge your problems with the title. He too has reservations.").

For all such techniques, Eggers has been singled out as the new bearer of postmodern irony. This, Eggers will tell you, is not the title he was seeking. In the recently released paperback version of A.H.W.O.S.G., which includes a 15,000-word appendix titled "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making," Eggers uses the new copyright page as an opportunity to explain the old one--and, presumably, all of his other techniques:

"The author wishes to reserve the right to use spaces like this, and to work within them, for no other reason than it entertains him and a small coterie of readers. It does not mean that anything ironic is happening. It does not mean that someone is being pomo or meta or cute. It simply means that someone is writing in small type, in a space usually devoted to copyright information, because doing so is fun."

Something else Eggers is doing for fun is publishing the literature that he cares about. Having previously edited the now-defunct magazine Might, Eggers now edits McSweeney's, a quarterly literary journal. And as of this year, McSweeney's is becoming a book publisher, but with an interesting twist: They aren't trying to make any money. McSweeney's, it seems, simply wants to publish artful books that people will enjoy. As their Web site explains (www.mcsweeneys.net), they're fixing the prices of their books to ensure that this can happen in such a way that no one--except maybe the authors--makes a dime.

Recently, I sent Eggers a short list of questions on these and other matters by e-mail. The author agrees to interviews only on the condition that the interview transcripts are printed in their entirety, unedited. What follows is our cut-and-pasted conversation.

Dear Mr. Eggers,

I know your time is short these days, so I hope to ensure your response to these interview questions by limiting them to six.

1. I'd like to start with McSweeney's, specifically the new book-publishing arm. What you are doing is unique in many ways, but I'm particularly interested in the economics. Your site notes that the authors will receive every penny of profit from the sales of their titles published by McSweeney's. That is incredible. Can you speak to your reasons for doing that? An artful and benevolent criticism of conventional publishing, perhaps?

Eggers: The basic thing is that we don't need to make any money. I have some money now, and it just didn't make any sense to take a buck or two from every book by a new and poor young writer. We're just interested in getting the books out there. If we can do that while breaking even, we're content.

2. What kinds of voices are you interested in publishing?

Eggers: We have no agenda at all, really. We publish stuff we like. So far, we've published books by writers who I either knew or had found through the quarterly, all of whom who had or might have had trouble finding or working with major publishers. And with the addition of Lydia Davis, we're getting to work with one of my very favorite writers alive -- who already had a publisher, but who we thought might benefit from a new and possibly larger audience.

3. Along the same lines: the McSweeney's Web site mentions that you asked for writers to submit proposals on the topic of the electrical engineering of boats. Odd, that. Where did it come from?

Eggers: In Iceland a year or so ago I bought a book about that subject, and thought it might be fun to publish one of our own. But the winner of the contest, Amy Fusselman, took electrical engineering on boats as a leaping-off point only. Her father was a pharmacist, actually, and was in the Navy in WWII, and the book is about her trying to get pregnant while her dad was dying. It's a really moving book, extremely warm and emotionally raw very different from what I had envisioned (charts, graphs, engineering arcana) when the contest was announced.

4. What other kinds of topics do you want to see pursued, both in the pages of the quarterly and in the books?

Eggers: If I had my druthers, we'd publish much more in the way of science-related stuff. I'd kill to publish a book about the metaphysical implications of the slowing of the speed of light (which they did a year or so back). But it's hard to find writers who both know what they're talking about, and can communicate that to the layperson.

5. I have to admit feeling -- much to my shame -- a sense of jealousy while reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I'm 26 and feel I am light years from finding my own voice in writing. When did you begin to focus on writing, and when and where did you discover the style that is on display in the book?

Eggers: I was probably your age or older before I had any idea how to write anything that made any sense at all. I had taken one creative writing class, and I was awful in it. It took me a long time to forget what I'd learned and heard in class and just start blurting. All writers should blurt.

6. In the Acknowledgements section, you list the major themes of the book. I'd like to submit another and hear your thoughts: THE AUTHOR AS INDICATIVE OF THE MENTALITY OF HIS PEERS (OR GENERATION) ASPECT. I saw not only myself (i.e., my own thought patterns) in your memoir, but a host of my friends as well. Take all the scenes where you're going through something tragic or meaningful, such as dealing with John's suicidal tendencies, while simultaneously thinking of how this will play out later in your writing and recreation of it for others. That phenomenon, whatever it is, is something we do even if we're not working on a memoir. Going through this stuff reminds us of that one time in that one movie, and we imagine ourselves playing out those roles even while tragedy is happening around us.

Eggers: You forgot to ask a question, I think. But I'm glad you find some similarities there between yourself and the narrator. It's a weird sort of curse, I think, to think about thinking and have that constant sense of dj vu--being in a car crash and immediately noting how much it was like the one on the public service announcement. But we don't have much choice in the matter, now that shock treatment is so out of vogue. We're stuck.

Luminous Locks

Besides being a favorite visiting instructor at Colorado College, Russell Martin is best known for his book-length creative nonfiction works on a variety of subjects ranging from autism to cowboys to the color orange.

This time around, Martin tackles a titanic historic figure, Ludwig Von Beethoven, approaching him via a circuitous route -- through a lock of hair, snipped at his death by composer Ferdinand Hiller, passed on eventually to Denmark and finally sold at Sotheby's Auction in London to two American enthusiasts, Beethoven aficionado Ira Brilliant and physician Che Guevara (no kidding).

The result is part detective novel, part musical biography, part scientific investigation -- all melding to produce an affectionate homage to the great composer and his fans.

Martin says Beethoven's Hair has been the most commercially successful of his books, in spite of mixed reviews from critics.

"Some have loved it," said Martin in a recent telephone interview. "Others have said it's an attempt to make the lock of hair more interesting than it could ever be."

Critics be damned, Beethoven's Hair is an inventive romp through time that follows the trajectory of honor and devotion across oceans and centuries.

Here's what Martin had to say about the book, its subjects and his next project.

Indy: How did the idea for the book come about?

Martin: I saw a short two-paragraph piece in the Denver Post about two Beethoven enthusiasts buying the lock of hair at Sotheby's auction. I got in touch with Ira Brilliant, and he was full of great enthusiasm, if not to say passion, about what [he and Guevara] had set in motion. They felt they would be able to fulfill one of Beethoven's great wishes, put forth in some of his writings, to tell the world about the cause of his hearing loss (by scientifically analyzing the hair).

Indy: Before you began writing the book, how much did you know about classical music and the period of Beethoven and his contemporaries?

Martin: I had a very passive interest in classical music in general. Beethoven interested me, and I had listened to all the symphonies. I knew that he was pivotal, but not why he was pivotal. I eventually became hugely interested in it, particularly in the chamber music. I didn't know anything about how influential Beethoven was to the romantic composers.

That's pretty typical of the way I work. I feel it's a strength, not a weakness, to approach a subject not knowing much. When you know a lot about a subject, there's the danger of relying on insiders to verify what you already know, rather than learning from a fresh perspective.

Indy: How important is the scientific work outlined in the book, the analysis of the hair showing lead poisoning?

Martin: Initially, that's what attracted me to the subject. I had done a couple of books that dealt with medical-related issues, disability of one sort or another. But I think the heart and soul of the book, ultimately, is the enormous affection for the man and the long trip of that lock of hair.

Indy: This is a small book, packed with research. I imagine there are thousands of pages of research for every chapter in the book.

Martin: That's true. The Beethoven literature collection is just massive. Ferdinand Hiller, because he held a key position in the city of Cologne for 30 years, was massively documented as well. I hired a researcher in Cologne, and I hired a researcher in Salt Lake City, one of those excellent genealogical researchers. Had I not been able via the advance to hire people to help me, I wouldn't have been able to do it. Because of the Cologne researcher, we were able to find that Edgar Hiller, Ferdinand Hiller's grandson's last will and testament showed that the estate went to Marcel Hillaire (formerly Edwin Hiller, brother of Edgar), who died in America after a career in the movies.

I'd never done any sleuthing before, and I like it.

Indy: You've structured the book by jumping back and forward in time, alternating chapters between the present and the distant past. How did you decide to do that?

Martin: It seemed essential to provide a mini-biography of Beethoven, because readers needed to have a sense of why he mattered so much to other musicians of the time. But my agent, the editor I worked with and I agreed that if we put the Beethoven bio at the front, the book would take off very slowly.

I proposed a chronology of the travels of the lock of hair with glances back at Beethoven's life. In the end, it seemed to be a good decision. A book that's this short needs a certain briskness of pace. If the book is about a lock of hair, and you don't see the hair being snipped until late in the book, that's a problem

Indy: I wasn't even aware there was a Beethoven research institute in the United States. What's the Center in San Jose like?

Martin: Ira Brilliant endowed the San Jose Beethoven Center in the mid'80s. It's the only Beethoven research center in North America. It's located in the library next to the Steinbeck Institute which was endowed long ago. The Beethoven Center interior is very nice, but quite modest compared to the Steinbeck Institute. Bruce Springsteen is a huge Steinbeck fan, and although Ira Brilliant has plenty of money, apparently Bruce Springsteen has more.

Indy: What's your next project?

Martin: I've signed a contract to write about Picasso's great but controversial masterpiece "Guernica." I visited the town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain as a boy in high school, with a great teacher. The book will be written in the first person, so I'll be able to connect the reader to the subject matter, which is very political, through this high school experience.

To be truthful, I've always just worked in such a way that whatever interests me is what I pursue.

Dancing with Horses

"When I was six, I was a horse."

So begins Boulder author Mary Midkiff's charming reverie on the horse-human relationship, She Flies Without Wings. Midkiff, a championship horse woman raised in the bluegrass thoroughbred country of central Kentucky, honors the horse's connection to the natural world, and describes a symbiotic relationship that can nurture both woman and beast, built on compassion and mutual respect.

If all of this sounds a little too New Age-y, be assured that Midkiff's prose raises it above most of the animal wisdom schmaltz out there. She Flies Without Wings ventures toward the spiritual while maintaining a steady trot, feet firmly connected to the ground. The author's horse sense shines through even the most lyrical passages.

We caught up with Midkiff last week, early in the morning before she made her daily visit to the stable and her longtime horse-companion Theo.

She Flies Without Wings will be released on April 17.

Indy: I liked how you captured little girls' fascination for horses, even girls who have no actual contact with a real horse but play with model horses or play horse with each other.

Midkiff: In the introduction, I talk a little about the intangible and the tangible. Horses address both of those for girls. They fulfill a physical, tangible urge as we groom them, as we comb out their tails, just as little girls do with each other -- fixing each other's hair. It's such a tactile, soothing, relieving experience, cleaning, unknotting the mane and tail, getting burrs out. So part of the fascination is the tactile experience of working with horses. In the wintertime, you've got this thick hair; it's like a beaver or a mink. And in the summer, it's slick like a seal.

And horses fulfill an intangible need as well. There is romance in this creature, it tickles our fancy, it's a fantasy animal. It's an animal that we can literally get on, that can carry us somewhere. I think that is there from the very beginning -- the power of imagining being carried away by a big, strong animal.

Indy: You talk in the book about the power of conquering fear when it comes to women and horses.

Midkiff: Yes, there's that fine line of conquering something, working with something that weighs 1,200 pounds, that could crush you if it stepped on you or fell on you. On the other hand, it can deliver you away from all your tensions. So in working with a horse, you are always treading that fine line.

Indy: I was struck by a passage where you describe the honor you feel when you come up on your horse, Theo, and she's lying down and stays prone in your presence. Can you explain that?

Midkiff: Because of fears, real or imagined, horses are always ready to run or defend themselves. Horses are a part of nature and still react instinctively whereas we (humans) have overridden any natural tendencies and operate pretty unconsciously in life. Horses still live in a sensory and conscious world -- they still rely on their innate behavioral tendencies first. The human partnership comes second in the horse relationship. Ideally, you try to find a balance where your partnership and your horse's sensory awareness are equal.

Where my horse's initial reaction, when approached while resting and vulnerable, would be to get up and run -- maybe I'm representative of a tiger, a wolf -- that's her natural instinct. But because we have developed a trusting relationship, an intimacy, I feel deeply honored that she trusts me, that she has put her faith in me.

Indy: Would you go so far to say that a horse responds to love?

Midkiff: I certainly have seen the difference when they are not loved. In the book, I use the example of the homely Appaloosa that came into my care -- it's the beauty and the beast analogy; through being loved, things bloom. I've seen it so many times with horses that come into my care -- they go from being shut-down livestock to a being that's funny, cute, interesting, expressive. It's so fulfilling to see a horse's personality emerge. They're all different, like human beings. Some are extremely vain, like Theo, some are grumpy in a funny way, some are cute and playful.

Those things emerge when love and compassion are involved. When those things are not there, they become a four-legged, hooved creature eating grass.

Indy: Do you teach the techniques that you talk about in the book?

Midkiff: I don't hang my shingle out as an instructor. I decided that through my book, through presentations and clinics, that would be the best way to get the word out. I don't just go out to the barn and brush Theo, throw the saddle on, jump on her. I work hard to keep our lines of communication open and flowing, and that takes a commitment on my part. I really believe that if horses were treated this way they would live longer, more fulfilling lives.

Unfortunately, that's not a large part of the horse world. Many people choose to invest only by paying the vet bills, the boarding fees. And that may be a reflection of how they live their own lives.

Indy: What do you mean?

Midkiff: Think of it this way. In a rating system of 10 -- 10 being when a wolf comes into a horse's space, 1 being when he is near death, malnourished, shut down completely. You want a horse living somewhere between 5 and 6. When horses don't have love and compassion as part of their lives, they live at a 2 or 3. When they have humans who are abusive to them, or use them as ego tools, spur them a lot, then they're living at 8 or 9. Their health will the picture of what's going on in their systems. If they're living at 5 or 6, their weight is good, their feet grow at a natural rate, they don't have imbalance in their hoof shape.

It's the same with humans. Why do you want to be a 10? A 10 is a wigged-out, road-rage person, waiting to go off. Five or 6 is where a natural human body wants to be.


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