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Monday, 13 February 2017

A Fall tour of Nebraska

Australia is on my mind, of course; as is the launch of the novel (Cody, The Medicine Man and Me) at the beginning of April. But I wanted to give advance notice of a trip I'll be making to Nebraska at the end of September. How could I not? It is, after all, 150 years since the achievement of statehood. I've been planning this for some time, and now the pieces are beginning to slot into place.

I have several speaking engagements lined up. On September 30th I will be giving a talk at the Mari Sandoz Conference in Chadron entitled 'Getting in Touch with Mari Sandoz'. It'll be based around my experiences in the Red House (2011) and how that time alone in the Sandhills deepened my appreciation of this great author's work, the bonds that tied her to a remarkable landscape.

In addition, I have a return date at the Willa Cather Memorial Foundation in Red Cloud (provisionally Thursday 12th October), and two others that will open up new territory as far as I'm concerned. Since I joined the Nebraska Writers Guild, some time ago, I have forged some helpful links. Now they have invited me to address their Fall Conference, in Aurora, some time over the two days 20-21 October.

Finally, on Weds 18th October, I will be giving a luncheon address to the 150 or so delegates at the State Tourism office's conference in Omaha.

In between there will be a handful of talks at various libraries across the state. I'll have more details as the year unfolds.

'Amen rays', Cherry County

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Setting my sights on Mary Wesley

Some weeks have passed since I finally emerged from the jungle of projects that have paid my bills for ten years and stumbled, blinking, into a clearing.

I really wasn't sure what to expect. For so long the jobs have been lined up, sometimes two and three deep, and in many ways I have revelled in it. After two decades of uncertainty, punctuated by spells as a barman, a bookie, a writing tutor and a lab assistant in the sugar-beet factory, my future was mapped out. As I worked through the various commissions, occasionally finding time for some of my own work, I would pause now and then to think about what I would do when I reached my modest target. That was, to accumulate enough money to allow two, maybe three years in which I could write what I wanted.

Out into the sunlight, French Pyrenees, 2008
 
And now, here we are - with just a few odds and ends to clear up. First, a couple of book launches: on April 1st,  the history of the York Brewery, which will happen - where else? - in said brewery. 3 o'clock in the p.m. if you feel like showing up. Then, two days later, my novel, Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, is published by Ouen Press (watch this space). Just this evening I have received a copy of the cover, and am still adjusting to the jolt it sent through me.

It'll be odd to find oneself a debut novelist at the age of 67. It's not unheard of, of course: think of Mary Wesley, who startled the literary world at the age of 71. But did she have a thirty-year career in writing and two dozen non-fiction books behind her? I think not - and, yes, Wikipedia agrees.

As well as bracing myself for those two events, I have been trying to sell a couple more projects, both undertaken for other people, as well as discussing a follow-up book with Robert Stone (Chasing Black Gold: (amzn.to/2kYOiFp). 

But now, at last, I am free to arrange my planned work in an orderly fashion. I have a memoir that I wish to turn into a novel. I have a series of fifteen journals from western road trips waiting to be disentangled and woven into some kind of comprehensive narrative. I have a growing list of notes about my slow discovery of, and engagement with, natural landscapes over sixty years. I have a novel, written thirty years ago, that needs to be interrogated mercilessly, overhauled, possibly destroyed... but may just turn out to be worth saving. I have the first forty pages of another novel, set in the nineteenth-century American West. Twenty-five years ago it was condemned unceremoniously by a bunch of academics. But, now that I look at it afresh, I see that it ain't so bad after all - and have garnered sufficient self-confidence to be able to tell myself that they really didn't know what they were talking about. I even have a sci-fi novel, written for a private client (don't ask!) which I'd like to reclaim. It may have been buried for three years but it still smells pretty fresh. And then there is the half-baked notion that I might write a novel about the rich, I mean the stinking rich, and the unspeakable things that we might do to them.

Next week we fly out to Australia for six weeks. Upon our return, my future kicks off. Mary Wesley produced nine more novels after her 1983 debut, Jumping The Queue. She lived to be ninety. It's looking as though I need to do likewise. 

 

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Western Classic: Linda Hasselstrom's Windbreak




In the Introduction to this wonderful book, the author wastes no time in preparing her readers for the rigours of the ranch life they are about to experience (and I use that word, ‘experience’, deliberately). She tells us about a neighbour who falls sixty feet from the top of a silo but survives, despite suffering many injuries – skeletal and internal. He remarks, as he lies recovering, ‘If I’d known how bad I was hurt, I’d have died.’ As a friend of mine once remarked, a propos some random example of the offhand humanity you encounter daily out there beyond the Hundredth Meridian, ‘Cowboys. I tell ya.’

 
Windbreak – which was published thirty years ago and has been on my ‘to read’ list for about fifteen - is a day-by-day account of one year in the author’s life as a writer, rancher and activist in South Dakota in the mid-1980s. The book takes you beyond the meat to the very gristle of existence out there in the wind-blasted Plains. It covers you in cow-shit, slobber and blood, regardless of whether you’re freezing or frying (and you’re generally one or the other), and thrusts your nose smack bang into the brute realities of calving, round-up and fencing under the naked sky, exposed to everything the Great Plains weather machine can brew up for you.
 

I don’t know whether Linda Hasselstrom chose this particular year for its long, bitter winter and towering snow-drifts and cruel summer heatwave, but I’d like to think that not every year is quite this tough, not always this dramatic. Although to speak of the dramatic - that is, the range fires, the hailstorms, the floods, the passing stranger who asks to use the phone and turns out to be a felon on the run – is to overlook the sheer tedium of those airless days, slow as cold molasses, when the temperature sticks resolutely in the low 100s, or the long droughts which persuade even the mosquitoes to look for a  change of scene, or the months of trudging through snow drifts alternately ice-crusted or rotting in a brief thaw - only to find that that missing cow is now a pile of bones gnawed clean by the neighbourhood coyotes.

 
This book is an education. If you wanted to write a novel set in cattle country this would be a good place to start. The place. The landscape is a living entity. Its fauna become characters, its flora a rich back-drop. Its moods engender fear, delight, awe and an occasional moment of poetic abstraction.

 
It is also deeply personal. Through the year the author grabs any reflective moment – driving to Rapid City for supplies, riding her horse across the range in pursuit of some errant calf, mowing a frazzled alfalfa crop and fretting over the cost of bought-in hay – to sketch in a few more details about her health, her two marriages, the ranch, and of course its management.

 
Not that there are many idle moments. No sooner is calving over than there are fruits to harvest and freezers to fill – with pies and chutneys and apple butter; or a steer to butcher and consign to the freezer; or a surprise crop of buffalo berries discovered in some quiet draw that demands an afternoon of scratched hands under a blistering sun, an evening of pie-making – with just the briefest of pauses to savour the aroma. And even in the quietest times there are under-currents, murmuring away like some hidden water-source: her husband’s cancer; the erosion of land values; the ageing ranch population; the constant passage of trains across the range there, every one a threat to the tinder-dry grasses.

 
This particular year the snows came in October and didn’t really clear until May. The business of staying dry (dream on) and warm (you might get lucky) dominates page after page. The daily weather reports with temperatures dipping below zero catch your attention. Then, after seven weeks of more or less continuous cold, comes Winter. -30 at night, -10 at noon – and still all those cattle to find, corral and feed.


I was both captivated and exhausted by this book. I felt I was very much there, watching the weather, worrying about potential disasters, eager to find out more about the practicalities of this tough breed of people. I knew I was ‘experiencing it’ when we all got away to a black powder camp for a short break in the cool of the mountains and I had a palpable sense of the tension easing its grip on my body. For a brief moment we were away from the day-to-day worries, cooking over camp-fires, mingling with mountain men and their gals – although even here a fire broke out and it was all hands on deck. No peace for the wicked.

 
I could talk at great length about what I read. I loved it. I felt bereft when it was over. However, this is a review, not a grad school essay. I have selected but half a dozen of fifteen key moments I tagged as I galloped through twelve gruelling months in 48 hours. Sometimes, they tell you, less is more.

 
As I said, Windbreak has been around for a time; but it still feels significant. Not a great deal will have changed in the thirty years since it came out. The land, the weather, the beasts, and the temper of those who engage with them -  the important things - will be pretty much as they always were. Inasmuch as those elemental factors are timeless, so is the book – and I’d rate it a classic.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Why I Love Autumn in England - even at the end of November

I saw what the sun was up to. Busy as I was with this editing task, I just had to pop my coat on and take a 45-minute walk along the old railway line and back across the fields. You can see why:

Heading south along the disused railway line, oak trees glowing.

Scots pine and larch

Just larch. Not the greatest definition via my phone lens, but ... the colour!

Winter barley, emerald green.
 

Friday, 11 November 2016

100,000 hits

Well. Five years, over 400 posts, and my blog has just received its 100,000th hit. Perhaps some reflections are in order.

I started this in 2011 just before taking off for Nebraska, where I spent six months, mostly alone, in a hunting lodge on a cattle ranch. That was a fantastic learning experience. It satisfied my curiosity about life on the Great Plains as a pioneer might have experienced it, and yielded a book that has been very well received, The Red House on the Niobrara (amzn.to/1Pfivgx)

Right now I am waiting to receive proof pages of my novel, Cody, The Medicine and Me. I first wrote it 20-plus years ago, sold it once, had the plug pulled, shelved it, then re-wrote it completely while resident at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, last year. I am  also waiting for the proofs of the brewery history (provisionally titled, A Piss-Up in a Brewery - yes, it's not as dry as your average company history; it even  has cartoons). The bounty hunter manuscript is out and about, and I am now up to my neck in the life of the man who wrote Lassie (or, more correctly, Lassie, Come-Home).

When all those projects are brought to rest I plan to heave a big sigh, and have a few weeks away from the keyboard. After 12 books in seven years I think I've earned it. I'm planning to indulge myself, putting together a photo-book based on the many road trips I've taken in the American West over the past thirty years. A lot of the material is already in electronic form - I bought my first digital camera in 2004 when I was appointed Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence in Orlando, Florida. Previously to that, I used a conventional camera and collected transparencies. I have tracked down an outfit which converts them, and when they're done I shall enjoy compiling a single volume, for my own satisfaction, chronicling over a dozen journeys and some 50,000 miles.

     
On the road, Nevada, 2006