Monday, August 03, 2015

Buell Hollister: A Novelist with a Head for Shrunken Heads

Buell Hollister: A Novelist with a Head for Shrunken Heads
 By Doug Holder

Buell Hollister has a normal sized head, but one of his main characters in his new novel “Leeram in Fordlandia” has a decidedly shrunken one. Hollister, formerly the head of the august St. Botolph Club in Boston, has written his first novel “Leeram in Fordlandia.” I spoke with Hollister on my Somerville Community Access TV show, “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: So how does a shrunken head by the name of Leeram come into play in your novel?

Buell Hollister: At the beginning of the book a shrunken head makes an appearance. Actually, this has some basis of fact in my own life. A dentist friend of mine once showed me a prized shrunken head in his possession, and then put it away. Over the years I had the head in the back of my mind. A couple of years ago I used the head as a starting point for a short story I wrote. The protagonist in my novel Gilbert Greenbush helps the widow of the dentist to clear out his possessions after his death. The head happened to be high on the list of things she wanted to get rid of. So Greenbush agreed to take it. And that’s where the story begins. Greenbush keeps it around his house, and he slowly gets used to it. He says to himself that it is a perfect roommate. It doesn’t drunk his liquor and it doesn’t need food. Soon it becomes apparent that the head has a personality—a wise guy, like a New York cabdriver. And this head turns out to be a catalyst for change. Greenbush was the type of guy who would have spent his life as a barista at some out-of-the-way coffee shop—if not for this shrunken head.

DH: Was he fashioned after you at one point in your life?

BH: Well…maybe for a short period of time. I was jolted out of that state of inertia. This character is someone with enormous potential but he needed a situation that would propel him. Leeram was his alter ego.

DH: Also the women in his life propelled him, right?

BH: Several did, Laura, who was gorgeous and younger and Suxie, whois an Amazon. I envisioned Suxie as being six feet five inches tall—a larger than life figure. She has a very commanding presence. People do what she tells them to do. He meets both of these women at an anti-fur protest, where the protesters are wearing, literally nothing. Lisa and Gilbert wind up as a couple and, Leeram and Suxie wind up as sort of a couple.

DH: They all wind up in Fordlandia in Brazil.

BH: Fordlandia is a real place, with a real history. Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company, wanted to have control over everything. They had their own steel mills, etc… but they didn’t have their own rubber production. So Ford decided to have a rubber plantation. He took the plans for a typical Midwestern town: the architecture, the bandstand, the church and transplanted it to the jungles in Brazil. It was very strange. He believed that he could do this better than the natives. It was a disaster; it never worked. He eventually gave Fordlandia back to Brazil. So this band of friends in the novel wanted to operate a self-sustaining community in this abandoned space.

DH: You are 76 and this is your first novel. What took you so long?

BH: I started to write short stories a few years ago. At first I couldn’t get published; later I got published in a number of literary magazines. Someone told me, “The way you learn to write a novel, is to write a novel.” So I did. I worked with a good editor. He helped me organize my work. And of course I wanted to publish my novel. Publishers were telling me that it was well written, but because it is so off the wall— they wouldn’t be able to sell it. I found Merrimack Media. Since I was 76 I didn’t want to wait for years to publish. Most publishers stop pushing a book after three months and it is put on the remainder list. But a Merrimack book remains on sale, there are no deadlines; it remains on Amazon. Now I am working on a sequel to the novel.

DH: You were president of the prominent St. Botolph Club in Boston—a big supporter of the arts.

BH: The St. Botolph Club is an old, venerable institution. There are many accomplished members. It is located in the Back Bay of Boston on Commonwealth Ave. Its mission centers on the arts. It celebrates visual arts, music, the written word, etc… Such writers as Saul Bellow, as well as musicians like Yo Yo Ma were members. There are also scientists who are members. I can think one of one retired MIT physics professor, who is now into sculpting. I was elected into the position. I had the time to do it, and I found it very rewarding.

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