Friday, June 05, 2015

Talking with Michael C. Keith, author of the memoir “The Next Better Place”

Talking with Michael C. Keith, author of the memoir “The Next Better Place”

Over the past year or so I have become acquainted with Michael C. Keith, a professor of Communications at Boston College, a scholar of talk radio and other media, and the author of the memoir “ The Next Better Place” ( Algonquin Books). His memoir, as described in a review on is: 

... a heartbreaking memoir of staggering mileage. In 1959, 11-year-old Keith and his father set off from Albany, N.Y., for the shining El Dorado of California, hitchhiking, hunkering on Greyhounds when they could, sleeping in cars, rooming in boarding houses (and skipping town without paying the rent). Keith’s adventure quickly degenerated into babysitting his alcoholic dad, pushing the boundaries of personal hygiene, and flirting with the law. It’s the shabbier side of America, but the sense of freedom Keith tasted comes through loud and clear, as does his affection for his father.

Keith is a prolific writer in many genres. He is also on the board of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center in Newton, Mass. I plan to use his memoir in my creative writing seminar at Endicott College this fall, and have him lecture as well.

Q: Why did you use first person narrator?

A: I mulled it over for quite a while, but in the end I felt it would be the most authentic way to convey the account. I believe a memoir works best when it is told in the present tense. That is to say, not from the faraway past. It also occurred to me that it would be the most colorful way to tell my story. I selected an 11 year-old narrator because at that age a person understands a lot but certainly not everything. So it struck me that the naiveté’ or innocence of the kid could work to enrich the perspective of the dominant character. Eleven year olds are very quirky. I was very quirky at that age. I wanted to capture that.

Q: How hard was it to capture the voice of the 11 year-old as a middle age adult?

A: Surprisingly easy. I believe I had retained that 11 year-olds’ voice in my head my whole life. From the beginning, it was just there. It came effortlessly. It wasn’t something I really had to work at. I never did try to write the memoir from the POV of an adult. I think that would have been much more difficult and less effective.

Q:   Malachy McCourt advised memoirists to stretch things and not to get caught up in exact facts. What are your thoughts on this?

A: The writer Tony Early observed that: “A memoir is a combination of memory and imagination.” I agree with that to the extent that one must first and foremost recall things as clearly as possible and when there are gaps in one’s recollection, invention may be acceptable and necessary. However, that invention should be confined to specifics and details and not the manufacture of things that never happened. Let’s say the invention part should be confined to coloration (perhaps modestly enhancing the quality of a character’s personality) and the reconstitution of names and dates that elude memory. A memoir should never be fiction, not even partially fiction. I think that is a corruption of the genre. Tell it like it was, was my mantra and she should be so for any memoirist. If you have to fictionalize a memoir, call it a novel, because that’s what it is.

Q: How would your father have reacted to the book?

A: I think with mixed feelings. He would have resented the parts wherein he was depicted as a drunk or con man. On the other hand, I believe he would have been pleased that the story had been captured in book form. He would have been somewhat in awe that I had published it. Still, he would have had many gripes, just as he did when he was alive.

Q: Explain the book’s structure, the short chapters, for example:

A: It’s chronologically framed to reflect our hitchhiking odyssey to California from Albany, NY, and back. The book’s narrative is spread across 15 months but is really a compression of 12 years of road travel. This took some consideration, but for the sake of plot and tension, condensing the dozen years into several months made the best sense. The memoir consists of some 69 mini-chapters and 7 sections. Each chapter depicts an incident of some sort. It made sense for me to structure the memoir this way, since I like to write in increments––short bursts. The idea, too, was to reflect the passage of miles––to create a feeling of motion/movement. Early on, I was taken with 70s counterculture author Richard Brautigan’s use of short (micro) chapters and the titling of each of those chapters. For me, this approach allowed for greater creativity. Each chapter title serves as a sort of précis for the content of a particular chapter. Holding with the idea of movement, the titles are road markers, if you will.

Q: Why the movie references?

A: Movies were an integral part of my life on the road. Whenever I could, I took in a movie. In many respects they became my classroom, since I spent little time in actual school. They primarily served as an escape from the hardships of the road. In the movies, everything was perfect and all things seemed possible. They had a profound influence on me. I wanted to be like the good and righteous heroes depicted in the films, and the heroes were typically people of accomplishment. I took great inspiration from the stories and their plots, and I think they had a profound impact on the direction I took as an adult. For the two hours I spent in the darkness of a theater, all seemed right with the world. Movies also fanned my desire for adventure and kept me longing for the next better place that may exist down the road.

Q: How many times did you rewrite the memoir?

A: It took a numbers of years to produce the penultimate manuscript. I’d write a few pages and then move on to something else. A year or two later something would motivate me to begin again. At one point, I thought I’d write it as a screenplay, but that was a genre essentially unfamiliar to me as a writer, so I’d return to the book form. The first version of the manuscript was 320 pages. It contained a prologue and epilogue. The first section was kind of an account of my early adult leading up to the recollection of my days on the road with my alcoholic father. The epilogue attempted to convey the rest of my life up to now. In the aggregate, the two sections accounted for about 40 pages of the manuscript, with the mid-section numbering about 280 pages. It still didn’t seem right to me at the time, so I set it aside yet again. I’ve always read a lot of memoirs, and it was the reading of “Angela’s Ashes” that caused me to return to my memoir. I had an epiphany that clarified for me the problem with my manuscript. I realized I did not need the prologue and epilogue; that the manuscript’s mid-section was the book and as such complete and perfectly organic. It ended up being the book Algonquin published and with virtually no changes or revisions. The diamond had been there all along but obscured by unnecessary pages.

Q: What does all the reference to open space symbolize?

A: The potential of God, I could say––although I’m not religious. The high plains with their unobscured vistas filled me with a sense of sublime freedom and possibility. In a story I wrote about the power of the high plains, the protagonist observes, “It’s like standing on the forehead of God.” I really did feel like I could make contact with the cosmos . . . touch the heavens. That feeling has never gone away.

Q: What makes your book cinematic?

A: It’s highly visual and the characters are unusual and, to a considerable extent, pretty fascinating––two things important to any film. Furthermore, it’s the story of a unique relationship, one possessing universal themes. It also mixes humor with pathos to give it great texture.

Q: What are the 5 most important elements of a memoir?

A: 1.) A good story, 2.) engaging narrative, 3.), colorful description, 4.) clear theme(s), 5.) satisfying outcome/conclusion/resolution.

Immigrant Model By Mihaela Moscaliuc

Immigrant Model
By Mihaela Moscaliuc
University of Pittsburgh Press
Pittsburgh, PA
ISBN: 13: 978-0-8229-6334-9
94 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Like mythological werewolves rising from musty crypts, these passionate poetic lines of Mihaela Moscaliuc’s Immigrant Model prowl over page warmth feeding from the flesh of grim fables and drinking the metallic blood of modern mechanistic life.

Moscaliuc mixes unfortunate history, the unhappiness of others, and bleak folklore in her labyrinthine journey into the heart of gothic darkness. Along the way her persona develops a survivor’s surreal logic of alternating stoicism and fear, tempered by acute powers of observation. The poet’s major pieces are cosmopolitan in nature, set in Madagascar, Romania, Spain, the Ukraine, America, and even Ireland.

The first poem after the introductory piece Moscaliuc entitles Self-Portrait with Monk. She describes a monk festooned in garlic and pushing a wheelbarrow. Then the poet invokes that strange novel of murder and mysterious mayhem, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, for atmospheric effect. The narrative quickens, alters its flight, and changes into something wicked or wonderful that comes our way. The poet describes her ownership of the action as follows,

He cooks and feeds and scrubs but never eats, my monk,
spends lunch elbow-deep in suds or scratching the bellies of cats.

No wonder he’s so famished by the time Cassiopeia arrives.
Then black chiffon and ivory flesh stream upward,
shape-shifting in flight: raven, whiskered bat, pricolici, varcolaci.
At dawn, he lands between two rose bushes, soot in his mouth,
weeping who knows why, my celestial monk,
torn cassock glistening with spent saliva, rapture in upturned eyes.

In Turning the Bones, Moscaliuc uses straightforward narrative to relate a seemingly ghastly ritual practiced by villagers in Madagascar in which the shrouded bones of relatives are temporarily disinterred and danced with. The occasion calls for good food, local brews, and colorful dress. Carthusian monks would understand this ceremony of remembering death and examining mortality. Here is the heart of the poem,

… bundles heaved up
onto woven straw mats, names coursing the cheering crowd.
Perfumed and swathed in new damask, bodies are invited to dance.
In this hummock of tall grass, in the eye of the Indian Ocean,
the living and the dead reclaim themselves, flowery skirts
flapping against the bouquet of bones, bones reshuffling
as they warm to the tunes of trumpets and clarinets.

The lengthy poem Ana to Manole reinterprets a chilling Romanian folktale that certainly rings true in the art world of today. Eyes wide open, the artist—here a mason—sacrifices his family to the needs of his patron, his ego, and his audience. He walls his pregnant wife up, betrays her for the ephemeral, only to be destroyed himself, turned into a cheap tourist destination. The poet describes Manole’s fate through the eyes of Ana,

You raised the wall till it cinctured me whole,
silt shored against carcass, and for the glory of what?
A toe ring in the god’s trinket box, this masterpiece
you then bragged you could outshine.
I say it was the jaded gods having fun.
To think you could win their grace
with gilded turrets, dream yourself
a welder of shadows.
You fashioned the voice out of fear
you’ll stay a mason, master bricklayer
instead of Creator, so here we are:
you, water fountain fed pennies by tourists
too sated to invent their own myths

For harrowing detail and lyrical fury very few poems can touch Moscaliuc’s sectional poem entitled Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling.  Divided into two major parts the poem first relates the Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986 and its aftermath and then tells a fictional tale based on real events that occurred at an infamous Romanian orphanage. Both sections deconstruct misery into detail packed with dread, often lyrical. Consider this comment from the Chernobyl section on government helpfulness,

All books disappeared, all important ones,
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on X-rays.
The medical bulletins too, vanished.
Those who could took potassium iodine.
For that, you really needed to know someone.

A sign we could follow, live by:
as long as there were sparrows and pigeons in town
we could nest there.

My favorite poem in this haunting collection, Memoir, combines righteous anger with passionate celebration. Nothing surreal here, the nerve endings are too raw. Moscaliuc portrays the despicable and wealth-besotted dictators of Romania, Elana and Nicolae Ceausecu,  after twenty–five years of terrorizing their people, denying the obvious. Dragged before a firing squad of machine gunners they collected their well-deserved rewards. And, yes, Elana, did indeed actively participate in the countless atrocities. Both the abbreviated show trial and the execution were filmed. The piece ends in catharsis and relief,

You may have understood the story of the firing squad,
how, fearing clones, we measured and re-measured the corpses,
shot and reshot them. We each craved a bit of dried blood,
a frayed cuticle, an eyebrow stump, a finger
on the trigger, so we replayed the execution all through Christmas,
kissed our informers, broke bread with strangers,
stopped stoning strays, begged Gypsies for forgiveness.
We loved as only people who cannot get enough of death love,
we loved unconditionally for one long day that Christmas of 1989.

Immigrant Model, the final and title poem in this collection works wonderfully. The poet infuses her protagonist with mystery and sensuousness. Models, at least the very best of them, channel natural processes in ways unknown even to them. They connect with an artistic perception and stoke it further. Add in the immigrant’s complex and sometimes fluctuating identity and an interesting, often darker, dynamic occurs. Model perceives her artistic interpreters and then seeks to judge them in these lines,

… as students sketch, she re-roots:
the desiccated belly of her Moldavian village creek
toothed with rocks, eyed with shriveled minnows,
but she can still feel their eye, the hammock of her body
swayed by the screech of charcoals’ smooth incisions.
Tonight she steals in to see herself in various stages
of completion, looks for the hand knowing enough, kind enough
to release her…

Bats flitting in from the night sky, Moscaliuc’s poems may startle. Mornings after, one remembers only their magic.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Aurorean (Spring/Summer 2015): The Weight of the World We Hold

The Aurorean (Spring/Summer 2015): The Weight of the World We Hold

“They fall like an uncountable rain/on the field of remembrance,/and here you are again/ old friend of fabric and pole,/ keeping me dry,” Gus Peterson writes in his poem “Tent,” featured in The Aurorean’s Spring/Summer 2015 issue. Peterson’s poem, rich with images of rain, love, and the feeling of yearning, is a prime example of what this issue of The Aurorean encompasses as a whole. Each poem, no longer than a page, tells a story, captures a scene, and makes us think differently about nature.

In the poem, “To A One-winged Owl in a Cage,” George Young creates such a sharp, intense feeling and image. Young writes:
I know you can’t row

a boat
with one oar, old Yellow Eyes.

But nights

do you still

over fields sparking with frost, wear

your cowl of moonlight?

By comparing the one-winged owl to a boat with one oar, Young makes it possible for us to see ourselves in this disadvantaged being. We don’t just feel sympathy for this owl—our hearts completely ache for this owl. Whether someone has a disability, a disorder, or is going through a hard time, everyone feels like a one-winged owl at some point in their life, and dreams of being able to fly again.

    One of the showcase poets in this issue, Ellaraine Lockie, writes about observing nature, and shows how its simplicity is enough to move someone’s soul. In her poem, “Imposter on the Prairie,” Lockie writes:

By my feet on the graveled roadside
a line of ants carries a grasshopper
beside an empty aluminum bottle
A five-hour extra strength
grape energy drink
with painted mountain scene

In this instance, nature is moving around an unnatural, man-made item. It is moving how creatures that are as tiny as ants can work together, and become a larger force that is strong enough to carry a grasshopper. It’s interesting to think how humans drink energy drinks and rely on caffeine for fuel, when ants can carry 10-50 times their body weight with their own strength. The mountain scene that is painted on this energy drink makes nature feel artificial, and like it’s just a piece of aluminum. Yet, next to this drink the ants are experiencing a moment of ecstasy—dinner is on its way home.
    At the end of this issue, there is a collection of haikus written by Creative Writing students. James Lautermilch writes:

    summer day
    a bee looking for pollen
    searches my ear

In this haiku you can feel and hear the bee, and imagine the tight knot in your chest as you try not to breathe, hoping you don’t get stung. In just three lines, Lautermilch is able to create strong emotions and a vivid scene. Like all of the poems in this issue, this haiku leaves the reader thinking about how nature and humans interact with each other, and what role we play in the world.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

“Somerville writer Lan Samantha Chang to become Iowa Writers Workshop director.”

****  The summer is a time to look back at my archives and pull up some interesting interviews I have conducted over the years. Lan Samantha Chang is the head of the Iowa Writers Workshop, but before that she taught at Harvard and lived in Somerville. Here is an interview I conducted with her in the offices of The Somerville Times, when we were based in Davis Square.

Lan Samantha Change


“Somerville writer Lan Samantha Chang to become Iowa Writers Workshop director.”

I remember leafing through the “other” paper, “The New York Times,” when I came across a story that reported a Somerville writer by the name of Lan Samantha Chang was appointed to head the noted Iowa Writers Workshop, at the University of Iowa. Chang, 40, is a resident of Davis Square, a lecturer at Harvard University, as well as a well-regarded short-story writer and novelist. Her own work often deals with the Chinese immigrant experience, and the problems assimilation into American society presents.

Chang, who first took writing courses at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and later attended the workshop in Iowa, will be replacing Frank Conroy as director. The Iowa Writers Workshop is probably the most prestigious in the country, and has trained writers like: T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and others of that pedigree. I spoke with Ms. Chang in the offices of The Somerville Times in the heart of Davis Square.

Doug Holder: Were you surprised that you were selected to be director?

Lan Samantha Chang: I certainly did not go into the process expecting to get the job. There were so many qualified people. The finalists were all quite good. I did know going into it that I care enormously about the program; having been a fairly recent graduate.

DH: Is 40 a young age to head this workshop?

LSC: I think it is. I’m not sure who was the youngest. I know 40 is relatively young. I think Frank Conroy began when he was fifty.

DH: How do you find the Somerville writing community?

LSC: A lot of writers live in Somerville. It is very rich. Elizabeth McCracken lived here for years and years. At this moment James Wood and Claire Messud live in Somerville. There is a sense of community here. There is a sense of laissez-faire that every writer needs in order to feel productive. In Somerville I don’t get the feeling that I am being bugged. I can walk down the streets of Davis Square and nobody will bother me. In that way it is like a big city. I have many friends who live around here, so I feel at home. I live right down the street from a bowling alley and for some reason it is a real pleasure to know that many people go there on a regular basis.

My sister visited last summer and we stopped in the Square for ice cream. There was a festival going on. Tons of people were in Davis Square; they were relaxed and having a good time. Everyone seemed alert, smart and happy. My sister said:" I can see why you want to live here.” It’s similar to Iowa City. It’s a relaxed, literary community.

DH: You were the managing editor of the Yale Daily News. I know that Hemingway, Crane, and others started out as journalists. Do you think this is valuable experience for a budding writer?

LSC: One great thing about being a journalist is that it makes you aware that much of the struggle of writing is sitting down and producing words. That can be comforting and enlightening to a beginning writer.

DH: There was a documentary out recently titled “The Stone Reader,” that concerned an Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, who wrote a great first book, had a breakdown, and disappeared. How hard is it to be a writer? How hard is it to be a writer in America?

LSC: You know what I thought the movie revealed? It is the amount of heart it takes to write a really serious book, and how it can drain a person. I don’t think people realize this. I think people think writers sit around and words flow out of them in some sort of inspired process.

DH: It is felt by some people that in Europe the government supports the artists to a greater extent than the States. What’s your take on this?

LSC: Government could do a lot more. The government underestimates the importance of the arts in our society.

DSH: Detractors of writing programs often say it produces technically proficient, but uninspired writers. How do you answer that?

LSC: Going for my MFA was the best thing I ever did. I came into Iowa and I was immersed into this rich and inspired literary culture. I learned enormous amounts about writing and reading. I had wonderful peers, many of whom are still my readers. I was given time-- seemingly endless time, in which to think and dream about what I wanted to do. It was really great.

It’s easy to criticize any sincere endeavor. Writers give up their lives for two years to devote themselves to art.

DH: Any favorite Somerville writers.

TSC: Steve Almond. I think he is great actually. I saw him read at the “New England Art Institute.” Poet Peter Richards, and D.A. Powell, are others who I admire.

Doug Holder