Sunday, November 20, 2011

All the Bad Things silenced!

The Warren Times Observer, my hometown newspaper, has been publishing articles about the alarming number of instances of statutory rape in Warren County.  Certainly, this is a conversation that has needed to happen for quite some time as my story is roughly based on what happens when a young girl falsely accuses someone of this heinous crime.  Thinking that the WTO would be eager to include the viewpoints of one of Warren County's native sons, I contacted the newspaper to share with them that I had, in fact, explored this very topic in a work of literary fiction, All the Bad Things. 
Was I welcomed?  Invited to participate in the conversation?
After first being accused of trying to promote my book using the WTO, I was then told that my viewpoint had already been shared in a letter to the editor I wrote over two years ago and that mentioning anything about my book would result in tipping the scales of the topic in the wrong direction.  Simply put, the WTO was not interested in hearing the side of those who have been falsely and maliciously accused of statutory rape.  It was interested in maintaining the popular perception that being accused of this crime makes one guilty -- that regardless of what the girl says, the accused is always at fault.
I was shocked by this response.  I had never expected to be silenced or banned by my hometown newspaper, but there it was: All the Bad Things was not welcomed in the discussion.
I, too, am all about eradicating this horrible crime, but I belief that to do so properly, a community must consider all aspects.  Sure, we must ask ourselves what is it about a culture that produces so many statutory rapists, but we must also ask ourselves why the same culture produces so many liars.
Perhaps this is why the WTO chose to ban me.  I wanted to hold a mirror up the Warren County's face, and Warren County wanted none of it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

All the Bad Things strikes a chord!

This past Thursday, I spoke in front of a crowd of about seventy students, faculty, and staff.  My website with the book trailer had been pulled up and was on the large white screen behind me.  After the trailer was played, I read from parts of the book, explaining along the way how I came up with the story and the characters.  Afterwards came the Q and A session.  To my great surprise, that session went on for about twenty-five minutes, hands going after each question was answered.  It appeared that Robbie Toe's story had struck a chord with the audience.  They were appalled that Robbie Toe was incarcerated because of a lie and, beyond that, they were astonished that All the Bad Things was, in part, based on a true story.

When I finally left the stage and went back to the table where my books were, there was a line of folks waiting to purchase a copy.  And, of course, I was pleased, but what mostly astonished me were the few young men waiting to tell me that they had known of other men like Robbie Toe who had been imprisoned because of a false accusation.

What I am learning is that those who would classify themselves as nonreaders like the book just as much as those who would classify themselves as the opposite.  Is this the nature of a good story?  One that appeals to readers and nonreaders alike?  I think so.  And I hope that All the Bad Things falls into that category.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Writer and what is written: John Donne's dilemma

Recent readers of All the Bad Things have come to me and made comments like, Gee, I can't believe YOU wrote this!  What they're no doubt getting at is the fact that some of the scenes/language in the book are raunchy, even distasteful.  How is it that a married, Christian man with three little girls can produce a work with parts that could make the Marquis de Sade blush?
I look to the poet John Donne for an answer.  Here was a pious man of the cloth who crafted brilliant poems, not just about lofty, spiritual topics, but also about topics of a baser, sexual ilk.  This fact illicited the name, Bawdy Jack Donne, as, undeniably, others cocked their heads in disbelief of Donne's literary capacity.  To be sure, this dichotomy in Donne has been and continues to be the impetus for many an interesting conversation.  What do these polar opposite writing inclinations say about the author?
I think it says that we're human beings living in the real world with all of its goodness and badness and that authors, particularly, are responsible for portraying the truth as it is and not as an idealist (or pessimist) would like it.  My character Blue Jean does what she does because that's who she is, and as such, any authorial intervention would be exactly that: an intrusion into the truth of the character.  I tell my readers that, beyond "writing" the character, I channeled the character onto the page.  Blue Jean, in other words, dictated, and I simply wrote down her words.  I had to be absent from the book for the characters to speak and move freely.  Otherwise, my values would crowd out my characters, and like anybody who is talked over, my characters would just choose to be silent and walk away.  That, as an author, is that last thing I want.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On writing: the place between reality and imagination

I recently had an exchange with another Lucky Press author, Madeline Sharples, whose memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, I had the pleasure of reviewing.  I said something to the effect that there is an interesting distance between what inspires us to write and the writing process itself.  She, sadly, lost her eldest son, Paul, to suicide.  This event was the impetus for her choice to write through the unspeakable anquish to produce a memoir with the hope that sharing her trial could help someone else work through his or her own trial.  I shared with her (and I'm elaborating upon the feelings I had) that there is something cold, maybe clinical about writing a review of such a work as hers.  Here is a woman who lost her son, HER SON, and here I am, an academic, dissecting her thoughts and words to produce an analytical response.  I felt like a medical examiner. 
Perhaps there is no other way to respond.  If anything, this is something to consider at length.
My continual struggle to impart the love of literature to my students, I think, has at its core the dilemma of getting my students to respond emotively to the works.  Understanding the components of "good" literature, recalling plot structures, character motivations, and the like can never be the full breadth of what it is to appreciate literature.  One has to laugh, cry, feel anxious -- in a word, empathize -- with the characters.  The ability of a work to do this is the measure of its status as "literature" and not just some clever words on a page.
My book, All the Bad Things, is loosely based on a true story (as, I suppose, most works borrow heavily from real life).  If I could have any wish granted regarding my book, it would be that readers empathize with Robbie Toe -- feel with him the cold, hard jail floor, the angry looks, the fear, the bewilderment.  If my book is able to do this, then what it will accomplish is, in essence, a parlaying of the initial reality that was the inspiration to the reader.  In other words, there is the event or inspiration (reality), the creative retelling of that reality, and, in the end, the reader experiencing that same reality through the author.  If I am able to recreate the reality for the reader, even if I have only ten readers, then I will consider this work a success.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How many Robbie Toes have we all known?

I remember when I was in junior high school, there was this older boy we all called Peachy King.  My few friends and I thought he was the cat's meow because he had a mustache -- hence, "peach" -- but we were the only ones.  He was tormented daily.  It wasn't that he was slow or odd; it was something different, something I could not then nor can I now place my finger on.  He was a bully's target, one who is just born to stand out in that regard.

We were in the locker room, changing out of our gym clothes when some of the older, more developed boys stormed in carrying Peachy King by the arms and legs.  I remember how red his face was, how he was crying for them to stop.  The bullies laughed like devils.  They ended up trying to cram him into a container that was used to store sundry gym equipment.  Peachy King held on for dear life, his legs sticking straight up out of the container like two crossed straws.  The kids finally relented and left him there crying.  He was crammed in pretty good.  It took us a while to pry him out.  It took me years to forgive myself for being nothing more than an afraid bystander.

I have known Robbie Toe.  I grew up with him, watched him eat alone in the cafeteria, looked away with everyone else when he was pelted with peas.  Robbie Toe was shunned, ignored in dark corners at school dances.  Robbie Toe wore the same Dollar Store clothes almost every day.  I have seen the light go out of Robbie Toe's eyes, perhaps the last light among us all as we fell headlong from the simplicity of childhood into the torments of adolescence.  Robbie Toe was both the last boy and the first man.  Loneliness is never so sharply felt than by someone who could never figure out why his only purpose was to be the butt of someone's joke.

Perhaps this is why the ending of ALL THE BAD THINGS must be what it is. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

As the day approaches...

I suppose I have known for a while that I subscribe to a certain notion about what a writer should be like.  In college (both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student) I was in love with the author mystique -- the quirky, larger-than-life stories that make legendary writers legendary.  There was Hemingway fishing for trout in Spain and Steinbeck drinking wine with Ed Ricketts along the Pacific coast.  But in the process of becoming a writer -- not just writing, per se, but creating the "brand" that is "J. Michael Dew," I have come face to face with the writer fantasy. I am at a Holiday Inn in Pensacola, Florida.  I just finished reading some comments about All The Bad Things.  I am drinking wine.  My three girls are restless and won't go to sleep.  My mother-in-law and wife are chattering away in Spanish.  And I am writing.  Like I always do.  And there is nothing larger-than-life about it.  In fact, I think it's quite the opposite.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

All The Bad Things

I remember four years ago when a play I had written was performed at the college where I work.  It was the week of the birth of my first daughter, but I got the go ahead from my wife to attend my play's premier.  I watched the characters and heard the dialogue, and all of it felt pretty surreal.  Here were my inventions being brought to life by a couple of actors, and here was this audience reacting to the performance.  It is a feeling that has stuck with me.
I anticipate similar feelings when All The Bad Things is released September 1.  Already, I have colleagues, friends, and family asking me for a copy, and I can't help but feel a little nervous about what they might say or think about the book.  I am releasing the book into the world, and I will be incapable of determining how folks might react to it.  This is simply how it works, and it has always worked like this, but the experience is very new to me.  I sat alone with these characters, this story, for hours upon end.  I listened for what they were to say next, and I tried to be quick about getting their words down onto paper.  When I revised, I did so, first, as a gardener rips out huge clumps of weeds, but, later, I did so as a parent might clip the fingernails of his or her children.
It is much to think about how a writer experiences the letting go of his or her work.  I have much to think about with the upcoming release of my own work.  But, as any parent knows, I did my best, and so I will release the book into the world with the shaky resolve that it'll be able to stand on its own two feet.