Monday, January 24, 2011

Shelby Foote's Pipe

The photo above is of a pipe that once belonged to Shelby Foote. It's a meerschaum by master carver Beckler in the image of Robert E. Lee.

In a past life I owned a small pipe & cigar shop in downtown Memphis and Mr. Foote was a regular customer (William Faulkner was a customer before my time, but that's another story). I acquired this pipe when Mr. Foote's son came around selling off some items after his father had passed away. I bought it with an eye toward profit, of course, but then found I couldn't part with it. How would I prove its authenticity anyway? I can't even prove it to you, so you'll just have to take my word.

I inherited Foote as a customer. His routine was that every six weeks or so he'd call and tell me he would be down that day, and I'd put his order together - two pounds of a tobacco I called Mello Mix and a few canisters of Edward G. Robinson pipe tobacco. He handled the blending himself. Sometime that afternoon, he'd pull up to the curb in his little white BMW, come in and pick up his package and then leave. I'd include an invoice and he'd mail a check within the week.

It's how he'd done business with the previous owner for decades and I saw no reason to alter the arrangement.

But then I did. Or, I tried to. One day he called to say he'd be down and I said, "Mr. Foote, your house is right on my way home in the evening, why don't you let me take this tobacco to you so you don't have to make the drive downtown?"

My thinking was that when I showed up at his doorstep, he'd show me in and ask me to sit for a bit. Maybe we'd have a drink and talk about writing and reading and whatever he might want to discuss. I'd get to see where he works, where he wrote the three volume The Civil War and some of his novels.

Instead, he thanked me and told me just where, outside of his front door, I could leave the package.

Be sure that, after pulling into the Footes' driveway that evening, I made my presence known. I got out of my car and slammed the door as loudly as I could and took my time walking to the door, hoping for that spontaneous invite. I left the tobacco and, as I was getting back into my car, I heard someone calling to me. I looked around, and then up, and saw the old man leaning from an upper window, from his turret, waving down and thanking me. I waved back.

Shelby Foote did not cotton to visitors or small talk with strangers. But he did, at some point, allow interviewers from The Paris Review into his home and I've just read that interview. It's fantastic. From the beginning when the interviewer writes, "Dressed in his regular writing attire (pajamas and bathrobe) Foote opened the door, a rambunctious chocolate Lab retriever named Bird barking and leaping behind him" to his tales of time spent with Faulkner, his writing process, the evils of Hollywood and, of course, the Civil War.

I took to heart, though, the answer he gave to the poorly-worded question, "What kind of advice would you give young writers?"

To read, and above all to reread. When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author’s going and seeing how he goes about getting there—and that’s learning creative writing. I would tell a young writer that. Of course I would tell him: work, work, work, sit at that desk and sweat. You don’t have to have a plot, you don’t have to have anything. Describe someone crossing a room, and try to do it in a way that won’t perish. Put it down on paper. Keep at it. Then when you finally figure out how to handle words pretty well, try to tell a story. It won’t be worth a damn; you’ll have to tear it up and throw it away. But then try to do it again, do it again, and then keep doing it, until you can do it. You may never be able to do it. That’s the gamble. You not only may not be able to make a living, you may not be able to do it at all. But that’s what you put on the line. Every artist has that. He doesn’t deserve a whole lot of credit for it. He didn’t choose it. It was visited upon him. Somebody asks, When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? I never decided I wanted to be a writer. I simply woke up a writer one morning.  

I love to read known, established writers' advice to those of us sitting at our desks, sweating. It makes me think that what I think and do with my pencil and paper each day may, one day, amount to something.

I count myself lucky having known Mr. Foote, as much as I could know him. There was the odd time or two that he lingered in the shop and we talked. We talked, not of writing or the Civil War, but about pipes. He loved his pipes - the Canadian was his preference with its short mouthpiece and long, straight shank - and, by his count, he had thousands, many sent to him by fans.

I'm a fan and I appreciate having a pipe of his now. It sits across the room atop an old Underwood typewriter, perfect for me to look up to for inspiration and to remind me to stay right where I am and to work, work, work.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Cool Kids

When I was first asked to write The Memphis Flyer's cover story, "20<30" - a look at twenty twenty-somethings who do good work, are artistic, entrepreneurial or just cool, my first thought was, "Why am I not on this list?"

And then I remembered that I'm 40.

40 Years Old
My next thought was, "What did I do in my twenties that might have been noteworthy?" Good question. I got married when I was 23 and moved away briefly. I came back to Memphis and worked for The Commercial Appeal. My first child was born when I was 27 and I bought a business at 28. I'm not sure any of that would have put me on this list.

But this story isn't about me. It's about them. So I settled in for interview after interview after interview. A friend recently read the piece and asked if writing it felt like a marathon. The work was more like a bunch of quick sprints. The length of each little bio - 150-200 words - didn't require an hour of interview, so I found myself trying to find the hook, figure out who these people are, what they do, why they do it and why they love it, in as short a time span as possible.

I wanted to know why Mary Phillips enjoys growing greens in Binghamton, how Sarah Petschonek finds the time to do everything she does, what it is Brad Phelan finds satisfying in the realm of film and video. I thought readers would be curious as to how Kat Gordon got into baking, what Tal Frankfurt did in Israel and Amanda Mauck did in Haiti, and how Shayla Purifoy decompresses after her workday. I wondered what Josh Belenchia's favorite meal consists of.

After the first couple of interviews, I learned what to ask to get them to open up about what I needed to know. They were all great about it and eager, forthcoming and open. I wish I could have taken more time with each and they are certainly deserving of more words.

I love writing profiles of interesting people, and this was rapid fire interviewing and writing.

Earlier this week I interviewed an 82-year-old man (it's not a "1<90" story) who learned to fly airplanes at 17 before he dropped out of high school. He joined the Air Force and went to Korea, then joined the Army to fly helicopters and found himself in Vietnam. After military service, he flew corporate planes and trained others to fly. It's a fascinating story and I get about a thousand more words to use on him. Look for that story soon in The Commercial Appeal.

All of these stories are about passions and what drives the individual to do what they do. Many are just beginning on the adventure while others are winding it down and reminiscing about life. Either way, they're good stories that are fun and enlightening to write. I count myself as lucky to be able to do so.

[The great photos in The Flyer story (including the ridiculous one above) are all by Justin Fox Burks (you can see more from him here and here. I got to watch some of them being taken and it was a blast getting to watch Justin work.]

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Music of Chance

I want to visit Brooklyn.

I want to go there and find out where Paul Auster lives and just hang out in front of his house. Maybe sit on a stoop and read while I wait. I hear Brooklyn is lousy with stoops. And then, when he leaves to walk up to the corner store, or to the office I've read he keeps nearby for writing, I'll walk with him. I'll tell him thanks for what he does and for his imagination.

That's all.

I won't wait for him to buy his cigarettes or beer or light bulbs, or whatever he's getting at the store. I won't hang around until he finishes up his day of work because, as much as I respect what he does, I respect his need for solitariness. It's what he writes about so much after all, men who are alone, either by choice or the will of someone or something else.

That's how it is in The Music of Chance, which I've just finished. The reader gets inside of the main character, Jim Nashe's, head because that's where so much of the story takes place. From the very first when his wife leaves him and he comes into an inheritance allowing him to drive across country and back again, as though it's a compulsion. And it is, to keep moving forward, alone, becomes an addiction for Nashe and the first third of the book is his travels. And then he meets young Jack Pozzi - Jackpot, as he's known - and things change. Things stop.

And I'll stop there because to say more would give away too much of this story.

I love reading Auster because he puts us so much in the mind of a writer. He makes us feel what it's like to sit in a room alone with a typewriter and imagine a man and a wager and a stone wall.

I love, too, that he's written so much (more than a dozen novels, collections of poetry, screenplays, essays) and I've read relatively little of it. It's exciting to know there's so much more out there for me. I found my copy of The Music of Chance at Second Editions, the used bookstore inside the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, recently when I stopped by for work. It's a very good condition hardback Faber and Faber Limited edition that was published for Great Britain.

I don't seek out an Auster novel, but I keep my eyes open for them in any used bookstore I happen into. That's the best way to discover his work - in a dusty bookstore, among stacks and stacks of old books, all alone.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Ages and Stages of Music

We're a musical household. Any time we're home, whether lounging around reading, cooking dinner, doing laundry or dishes, or disciplining children, there is music playing.

Some of us (me) are more intent on having background music than others and usually end up picking the music. If it's up to me, it ends up being a shuffling of Elvis Costello, Jack Johnson, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones or, if the mood is different, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Dean Martin and Lester Young. Either way, Kristy and Andria will listen to it and rarely complain out loud. The kids have no choice.

In the interest of fairness, however, I decided some time back to create a Pandora station with the top picks from each of us to share so it could be accessed from any of our phones or computers.

With a third leaning towards Dylan, Springsteen, Prince and Lyle Lovett; a third interested in Garrison Starr, Nick Drake, Coldplay and Al Green; and a third of Black Crowes, Paul Simon, U2 and Velvet Underground, I thought we'd have a pretty interesting mix, a radio station made just for us.

I put it all together and took it live. It was awful. I don't think I even made it through a sink full of dirty dishes before I had to stop, dry my hands and delete the whole damn thing. I can't even remember what songs it threw out at us, but I didn't care for them, any of them.

We can tolerate, even enjoy each others music when we get to pick the artists, songs and albums, but Pandora should stay out of our business. And now we've got another coming of age with his own music tastes. C used Christmas money to buy himself an iPod Touch and, having turned 13 a couple of days ago, he's been given album downloads and an iTunes gift card. I helped him set up his own iTunes library and store account.

The first album C ripped from our household's collaborative CD collection was Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (a great choice). After that, I had  him go through my iTunes library (some 2,439 songs) and make a list of what he was interested in so I could copy it over to his account. His list included all of the Jack Johnson because Jack sings about the sea and C is my son, and I can't help but think a part of him would rather be on the bow of a sailboat, watching the whitecaps disappear beneath the hull and racing a pair of playful dolphins. He picked out some Beatles (though no Stones, which concerns me), Spoon, Louis Prima, Coltrane, Cory Branan and the Beastie Boys. I chose Costello's My Aim Is True because he lives under my roof.

He also had "Nightrain" off of Appetite for Destruction. I asked him about that and he said they'd played it in band. C plays alto sax with his school's concert band. I laughed at him and told him they probably played the Duke Ellington/Jimmy Forrester composition, "Night Train."

It's all a learning process, though, and one not done so much with the head as with the heart and gut. I'm interested to see where his musical tastes lie and where this explorations will take him. He perused the iTunes Store today with his store credit but he said, "I couldn't find anything." And yet, they have all. the. songs.

It takes time, I know. When I was his age, it was 1983 and I was blaring Def Leppard's Pyromania, Quiet Riot's Metal Health and Prince's 1999 through my jam box.

Only time will tell what he clings to and what tunes end up coming from underneath his door or, Lord help us, mixed into our home Pandora station.