Saturday, June 29, 2013

Richard Bissell Revisited

Almost a year ago I wrote a blog post, an appreciation of my favorite writer, Richard Bissell. Here’s the link, if you care to have a look, or another look, at this writer I have enjoyed and admired since I first began reading him, when I was a teenager:

(If you’d rather not be side-tracked into another post, at the end of today’s post is a mini-biography I wrote of Bissell for Tin House Magazine.)

This week, I received an email from my blogspot telling me that I had received a new comment on my tribute to my literary hero. I was thrilled to read this note from Sam Bissell, Richard’s son. It touched me deeply, so I’m quoting it here: 

Many thanks for sharing the above about my Dad. It's great to know that there are more writers out in the world, who, like you, were inspired by him. Besides Elmore Leonard, another luminary who enjoys and collects my Dad's works is Dan Rather; I recall seeing him on the tv several years ago, talking about who most inspired him to write the way he does.

Yesterday marked the 100th birthday of my Dad. While I didn't read any of his works to celebrate, I chose to enjoy the music that filled our lives as we were growing up. So, I spent most of the day playing the music he loved, among them Jimmie Rodgers "The Yodeling Brakeman", Meade Lux Lewis, Benny Goodman, Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Crosby and the Bobcats, Louis Armstrong, Lotte Lenya, Glenn Miller, Bix Beiderbecke, Sidney Bechet, and many, many more. 

I say with a smile on my face that wherever my Dad is now, what he did today included doing as many things as possible near any body of water including boating on it, swimming in it, looking for places where no one else is so he could enjoy the serenity of the river, and building bonfires on beaches that are buried deep within sloughs off the sides of the Mississippi, which we did so many times when I was growing up. 

Thanks again for sharing the reasons why you were inspired by him, along with the mini-bio of him.
All my best-
Sam Bissell

It was of course a pleasure to hear from Sam, whom I’ve never met in person but whom I remember with pleasure from his father’s book of travel memoir, How Many Miles to Galena? In that book Richard Bissell presents his son Sam as a witty kid and a cheerful travel companion.

Sam didn’t leave his email address in his post, so I have no way to thank him directly. Perhaps he’ll find this, and if he does he’ll know I consider his father’s taste in music superb. Another reason to admire the person who wrote those wonderful books.

Here as promised is the short bio of Richard Bissell, which I wrote to accompany an acrostic puzzle I made up for Tin House magazine, Spring 2002.

Richard Bissell (1913-1977), like Mark Twain before him, was a Midwestern humorist who also held a pilot’s license for tonnage on the Upper Mississippi River. Like Twain, Bissell traveled the globe, pen in hand. His literary career and success took him to the East Coast, where he joined and skewered the New York literary establishment.

But Bissell never gave up his home on the Mississippi, a houseboat in Dubuque, and his best books are all about the Midwest: A Stretch on the River; 7-1/2¢ (which became the smash it musical, The Pajama Game); High Water; Good Bye, Ava; and his memoir, My Stretch on the River, Or Why I Am Not Mark Twain.

Elmore Leonard once said that he learned most of what he knew about writing from reading Richard Bissell. I feel the same way, and I dedicated my first published novel to Bissell. In recent years his books have been out of print, and thanks to collectors like me he’s even hard to find in second-hand bookstores; but he’s worth the search. He is the best Midwestern humorist in American literature—and that includes that other tugboat pilot.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Celebrating Joy!

Want to know the reason I didn't post on this blog on this past Saturday as I usually do?

It's because Susan and I spent most of Saturday in a redwood forest, miles inland and uphill from the village of Mendocino. There among the trees and surrounded by a crowd of friends, family, lots of children, lots of musicians, a minister (my son Ben), a beautiful bride Hannah, and her fine and lucky chosen partner, Tyler.

It was a ceremony and a party to cherish forever. So forgive me if this week I don't write about the Joy of Story. Instead I post here a joyful picture, worth a 1,000-word story. Please greet this happy couple with a smile.

This proud and sentimental grandpa sends

Love to all...

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Back in the early 2000s I contributed acrostic puzzles to Tin House Magazine. An acrostic puzzle, in case you’re unfamiliar with the genre, “consists of two parts. The first part is a set of lettered clues, each of which has numbered blanks representing the letters of the answer. The second part is a long series of numbered blanks and spaces, representing a quotation, into which the answers for the clues fit. The first letters of each correct clue answer, read in order from clue A on down the list, will spell out the author of the quote and the title of the work it is taken from.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) It’s a giant, complicated anagram puzzle, addicting to the solver, thrilling to the constructor, and a giant, pleasurable waste of time for both.
I made up four literary acrostic puzzles for Tin House, lifting quotations from four books on my shelf of old favorites. On a separate page of the magazine, I gave the solution, and then I added a short essay about the source and the author of the quotation. I had as much fun writing about the solutions as I did constructing the puzzles.
Here they are: all four of them: the quoted passages and my annotations.
From The Thundering Herd, by Zane Grey
Milly gazed back over her shoulder. The Comanches had gained. They were not half a mile away, riding now in wide formation, naked, gaudy, lean, feathered, swift and wild as a gale of wind in the tall prairie grass.
   “Better death among the buffalo!” cried Milly.
Zane Grey (1872-1939) was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. His books sold thousands of copies, and he seemed to write thousands of books. (Actually he wrote about 90, of which 60 were westerns.) He is considered one of the architects of the American Western novel genre.
But by 1962, when I had a summer job in a used bookstore in Dallas, nobody was reading Zane Grey anymore. We had a whole shelf of his novels, in hardback, priced at ten cents each, and we never sold a one. At the end of the summer, I splurged and spent a dime (less my employee discount) on The Thundering Herd. I finally got around to reading that book about thirty years later. It was…well, it wasn’t all that bad. The writing was terrible and the politics were atrocious, but it was a ripping good yarn. That’s gotta be worth something. Speaking of worth, I recently saw a copy of The Thundering Herd offered for sale on the Internet, priced at $295.00.
Dang. I should have bought the whole shelf.
From The Trojan Horse, by Christopher Morley
It’s the dressing room where some Trojan warriors are cleaning up after the day’s fighting. Through the fog we see their naked athletic bodies under the spray. They shout to each other as gaily as college boys, or golfers at the club.
Christopher Morley’s 1937 novel about the Trojan war focuses on the bittersweet love story of Troilus and Cressida, in which a naive young soldier falls for a sophisticated divorcĂ©e, learns the joys of physical love, gets his heart broken, and dies in battle. It’s a sad story, but thanks to Morley it’s also warm and wise, gently erotic, and fabulously funny. It’s peppered with hilarious anachronisms, like taxicabs, tuxedos, martinis, and a sports announcer who broadcasts the daily battles over the radio. These “modern” touches seem a bit outdated now, but then that’s just another literary layer resting on the legendary town of Troy.
Morley’s novel tells us more about America in the 1930s than it does about ancient Troy, but then Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Chaucer’s Triolus and Creseyde are more about Elizabethan and Medieval England, respectively, than about Troy. For that matter, the Trojan war was relatively “ancient” history by the time Homer wrote The Iliad.
So it’s a tale for all times, and whichever version you read, you’ll be reminded that there’s nothing ancient about war, nor was there ever anything new about love.
From My Lady Nicotine, by J. M. Barrie
I gave up my most delightful solace, as I regarded it, for no other reason than that the lady who was willing to fling herself away on me said that I must choose between it and her. This deferred our marriage for six months.
J. M. Barrie (1860-1937) is best known as the creator of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. In the late 1880s, he wrote a series of newspaper stories about a group of London bachelors, young bohemian chaps who had nothing in common except their devotion to a particular smoking mixture. These stories were gathered together in 1890 and published as a book, My Lady Nicotine, which is considered the finest literary tribute to pipe-smoking. It is even more a hilarious satire of late Victorian society, and it is also a fine celebration of bachelorhood. Like Peter Pan, the nameless narrator and his goofy friends (who could have taught Bertie Wooster a thing or two) have no intention whatsoever of ever growing up.
From Good Bye, Ava, by Richard Bissell
In Clyde’s houseboat why you can set up there with a cold bottle of beer and look at the river and let the rest of the world go bye-bye, believe me. Some day were are going to try that but it takes quite a while for the rest of the world to go by, at least half an hour.
Richard Bissell (1913-1977), like Mark Twain before him, was a Midwestern humorist who also held a pilot’s license for tonnage on the Upper Mississippi River. Like Twain, Bissell traveled the globe, pen in hand. His literary career and success took him to the East Coast, where he joined and skewered the New York literary establishment.
But Bissell never gave up his home on the Mississippi, a houseboat in Dubuque, and his best books are all about the Midwest: A Stretch on the River; 7-1/2¢ (which became the smash it musical, The Pajama Game); High Water; Good Bye, Ava; and his memoir, My Stretch on the River, Or Why I Am Not Mark Twain.
Elmore Leonard once said that he learned most of what he knew about writing from reading Richard Bissell. I feel the same way, and I dedicated my first published novel to Bissell. In recent years his books have been out of print, and thanks to collectors like me he’s even hard to find in second-hand bookstores; but he’s worth the search. He is the best Midwestern humorist in American literature—and that includes that other tugboat pilot.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


This week it gives me great pleasure to present Robin Winter, a writer I’ve known and admired for years. She writes stylishly and is a wizard storyteller. As I routinely do with my guest posters, I asked Robin to tell us a bit about what “the joy of story” means to her.
She responded generously and sent me a wise love story to share with you. Here it is:


Story makes everything matter; nothing matters without it. I never realized how far that idea reached until the first time I heard my possible husband-to-be give a lecture to his class.
 Introductory Evolutionary Biology— Bruce waited at the front of the dark classroom with the hundred-year-old rows of oak seats curving up to the back of the lecture hall in Osborne on the Yale campus. He was six feet tall, but he looked shorter standing below in the stained wood pit. The only light fell on him, incandescent, warm. The students rustled, mumbled, restless.
I’d come to watch and gather more data about the man I thought I loved. A gentleman, looking suddenly comedic, like a gingery version of Abraham Lincoln. He gazed up at the class, spectacles glinting. The way he held himself spoke of laughter waiting inside, and the kids hushed.
He began with a recap of last lecture, made a small joke about the evolution of the horniest, then paused, as though he wanted to pull together everything, from the students’ attention to his own thoughts. Then, he told us a story.
He began with the story of the widow Maria Sybilla Merian. He barely glanced at his notes—he spoke to us as though he felt we were his companions around a fireplace in a living room, and he invited us into memory and meaning. Here was the extraordinary courage of a single woman, traveling in late 1600s to paint the insect and plant wonders of Dutch Surinam. Then he recounted the Job-like endurance of Rumphius, a difficult, surly man, struck by Fate again and again to the point of absurdity. Wrecked, blinded, his illustrations burned, wife and child drowned in a tsunami, his shipload of notes and specimens sunk, then publication of his rebuilt body of work denied when the East India Company determined his work held sensitive information. Bruce evoked past giants of evolutionary biology, gave us personal histories and habits, trials and tribulations, quarrels and accidents.
I sensed a motion repeated in the rows that I didn’t understand, but it struck me, so I looked around, and saw three or four young men wiping their sleeves across their eyes. Tears, for men and women long gone to ash and dust.
Evolutionary Biology. I’d anticipated drowsing in the back. I didn’t cry but Bruce made me blink, hard, and I’m a cold-minded audience if there ever was one. He made my heart hurt for scientists who fought for the world of knowledge on which we all depend, and he managed this because he saw character, conflict, action and resolution in every life and experiment. Beginnings, middles and ends. Each end a new beginning.
We’ve been married more than thirty years. He keeps teaching; I keep writing. But that September lesson shapes every piece of writing I set down. Without the invitation, the intimate act of sharing a story arc of power, there is no science, there is no art, because all we do must be communicated so that it matters. We must pull each other into a deep, darkly sweet place, where story makes fact memorable.

Robin Winter was born in Nebraska over half a century ago. She's lived in many places, including Nigeria, is a professional painter of landscape under the name Robin Gowen. Robin married her evolutionary biologist and they have a daughter who writes under the name Isobelle Winter. Robin blogs at, and her books Night Must Wait (Imajin Books) and Future Past (Eternal Press) can be found on Amazon.

I’d like to say a few words about Robin Winter’s Night Must Wait. This polished, fast-paced first novel has the speed of an animal in flight. Her technique is seamless and brilliant: she propels the plot, using short chapters, each with a driving plot turn and a consequence; she alternates points of view among her four very different but closely bound female protagonists; she develops these four characters by showing the dramatic changes in their fierce passions. Winter's description of Africa's beauty is lyrical, and her picture of war and starvation is horrifying. I learned from this novel more than I ever knew or expected to know about the tragic Biafra war of the 1960s; but this is not a history lesson. It's a lesson in madness, obsession, power, and betrayal. Most of all, Night Must Wait is a thrilling entertainment: hard to put down, it will haunt the reader long after the novel is finished.

Saturday, June 8, 2013



How far back in the past does a novel have to take place for the work to be called a historical novel? As Kathy Lynn Emerson suggests in her fine book How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, the answers to this question are numerous. “If you want a specific date—x years ago is historical; more recent than that is not—there are several available.” Some rudimentary Googling yields a lot of similarly inconclusive rules. Two that I find most intriguing are:
1. The plot must take place at least 50 years prior to the copyright date of the first edition of the book; and
2. The writing process must rely more on research than on personal experience.

The reason this question concerns me is that I have written and published (on Kindle and Nook) a family saga trilogy based very loosely on my own family history. I hasten to say that it’s primarily a work of imagination, but the inspiration for the central character of the first book, who is also a secondary character of Books II and III, is my own remarkable uncle. I call him Fergus Powers.

The first novel, Geronimo’s Skull, begins at the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904, when Fergus is nine years old, and ends shortly before the Stock Market Crash on 1929, when Fergus is thirty-four. This novel is a ghost story, a love story, a war story, a modern western, and a tale of high finance. It’s clearly dated more than 50 years prior to its copyright date, so I’m safe on that count. I’m in the clear about the research part, too. I wasn’t alive during that era, so I had to do extensive research on the life and death of Geronimo, the St. Louis World’s Fair, Skull and Bones, World War One, Paris in the 1920s, the history of Route 66, and much more. So yes, Geronimo’s Skull is a historical novel.

For more about this novel, see's_skull.html

The second novel in the trilogy, Elephant Lake, takes place entirely in the summer of 1950, which satisfies the rule that the plot take place 50 or more years prior to copyright date. However I flunk the other requirement. I did no research for Elephant Lake, other than to mine my crystal-clear memory (don’t ask me what movie I saw last Friday night, but I’m certain of what a Pepsi cost in 1950). Actually, I relied not so much on memory of factoids, as on memory of my dreams of flight.
I suppose the novel, though it takes place 63 years ago, isn’t a historical novel, then. It’s based on my first summer living on my uncle’s country estate outside Dallas. It was a summer full of loneliness and fear, and confusion about the adults in my life; but it is buoyed up by an ability to escape. My fictional eight-year-old hero flies—literally—and rides an elephant, slays a dragon, and rescues a future President of the United States from drowning.


I’m afraid the third book in my Fergus Powers Trilogy is not historical in either sense. It is made up of three novellas that take place entirely in the year 1963. Historically 1963 was an important year for our nation and for the world, and as of now that year is fifty years ago; but Promises, Promises, was copyrighted and epublished in 2011. As for research, again I relied on my memories of that year, fictionalized by imagination, and I didn’t do much research except to check when the moon was full.
It was a big year for my uncle, and for Fergus Powers. He/they got married that year for the first time, at the age of 68. A big year for his sister, who had to leave her home at Elephant Lake. A big year for Fergus Power’s nephew, now 21-year-old artist spending his first summer away from home, painting a mural for a movie star. And 1963 was a horribly big year for the United States, when President Kennedy was killed and the world spun out of control.

Here’s more about Promises, Promises, Promises:

So is my Fergus Powers trilogy a work of historical fiction? Book I is historical on both counts. Book II is historical time-wise but not in terms of research. Book III is disqualified on both counts.
I’ve just done the math. The Fergus Powers trilogy is semi-historical. I wonder if there’s a contest for semi-historical fiction…?

Saturday, June 1, 2013


For this month’s invitational post, I challenged writers to send me stories that began or ended with the sentence: “Take your hand off my knee,” said the Duchess.
Only three writers took the challenge, which disappointed me a bit, but I’m happy with the stories that came in.
Here they are:

by Augie Hicks
The Queen of Spades threw down her card, while the Jack of Diamonds looked on. She looked upon his burly chest and plucked a hair or two.
“Why do you do such mean things?” He covered his chest.
She smiled into his eyes and spat.
“You chose her in place of me, and now you are to die.”
“I never once looked upon her face.” He smiled as though peas wouldn’t spread across his teeth.
 “You cad!” The Queen of Spades glared down from her throne when the Duchess stirred.
 “Take your hand off my knee,” said the Duchess.


By Jerry Giammatteo

“Take your hand off my knee,” said the Duchess to Jonathan.
She was called “The Duchess” because she carried herself through high school like royalty, was pretty, and was the biggest snob in school. If anyone who was beneath her standing (in her eyes) dared to woo her, she put him down.
Like Jonathan.
Tyler entered. The Duchess liked Tyler. Captain of the football team, he definitely qualified in standing. He was nicknamed “The Duke” because he was cool.
The Duchess walked over and put her hand on Tyler’s shoulder.
“Take your hand off my shoulder,” said the Duke.


by Christine Viscuso

“Take your hand off my knee,” the Duchess said.
“You had no complaint last night, Catherine. In fact you wanted my hand on places other than your knee. I wish to marry you and make you the Duchess of Fife.”
“Barrington Middleton, are you not aware that I am already the Duchess of Westminster?”
“You led me to believe that you were free. You are a flirt, Catherine. I didn’t know you were married to Lachlan Aldan. You can divorce him.”
“No, I will not. You, Barrington, are merely a Vice Duke. Lachlan is the Arch Duke of Westminster.”


What about next month’s story challenge? Well, July is a month we celebrate independence, so:
Write a story about how you once stood up to authority. If you didn’t actually stand up to authority, but wish you had, write the story as if you had.
Here are the rules:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot, and conflict.
4. The deadline: the first of the month.
5. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: