Changing the Subject: It’s Art and It’s Arduous

IMG_2634 - Copy

Reading an advance copy of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, who directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the literary journal AGNI. The book from Graywolf is due for release Oct. 6.

It’s offers an erudite meander around the social and cultural implications of the digital age. In the collection’s opening essay, “On or About,” Birkerts suggests that, in a world with too much information and suspect filters, we should safeguard our inner selves from the onslaught by turning from the “full embrace of our networks and reconnect to the one-on-one circuitry of art.” He says, “Art serves the soul not least by demanding and creating attention.”

While the essay winds over some well-worn trails of the obvious or subjective, the essay contained a kernel of insight that’s helpful to me as a novelist. I’ve written one book. It took me four or five years to finish it and self-publish. There are many reasons I chose to focus my creative attention on this one, long narrative project, but, as is probably the case with many writers who finish a first novel, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a sustained piece of prose, wanted to experience the process and decide if there was any hope I could master the form. I needed to assess if ultimately I could create art in that medium and then continue to produce long-form fiction. My self-answer remains equivocal.

Relating a moment of epiphany, Birkerts put his finger on one of my deepest fears — “Works of art are feats of concentration.” And then a moment later he added the thought, “Imagination is the instrument of concentration.” My fear is about how deeply I have to imagine to concentrate a long story, how disorienting it is to go in and out of the fictive dream to function in daily life. My second novel has been stalled at the half-way point for several years, can’t get it to go, have lost the spark and can’t release into the level of concentration needed to reach completion. On some level, I fear the blurring of my inside/outside life. As a beginning novelist, I’m afraid of  “going down in the diving bell,” as teacher/writer Alan Heathcock, author of the story collection Volt, also from Graywolf, recently described in an online post about the act of immersing fully into his writing.

I recognized my fear of going deep in Birkert’s insightful comment, understand the implications for reader engagement, and that helps me understand this block. I know from reading novelist John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters that after the fevered writing of Grapes of Wrath, he was sick in bed for weeks and in a letter to his editor Pascal Covici, said “I think I worked myself past the danger point on that book.”

I’m not pretending my freshman efforts equal the concentration of literary masters. But, I do know what it feels like to be fully immersed in the process of creation, to follow the imagination into disturbing places and attempt to capture and shape the experience. For me, there’s this illustration: a difficult, disturbing piece of writing from my novel Adrift in the Sound:


An after-work crowd, mostly men in dark work clothes, stuffed the Twisted Owl, where a haze of blue smoke hovered above the bar. Lizette looked for Fisher, scanning faces in the bar mirror, hoping she’d find him sitting in tonight with the house band.

She took her time pushing to the bar, consciously breathing through her mouth, guarding her nose against the smell of sweat and wet wool. She knew the longer it took to get a pitcher of beer and find a place to squeeze in, the longer she’d be warm. She wanted to stake out a spot to hear the band, maybe talk to Fisher about the Dogs, get his advice on how to get back into the house, brushing a memory wisp of Rocket aside like a tendril.

She bought a pitcher, the barkeep tossing her a “what’s up” nod, and pulled out of the body press. She staked out a table, setting two glasses next to the pitcher as bait. It wasn’t long before a barrel-chested young guy sat down, probably a dock worker on his way home. Marvin Gaye blasted “Let’s Get It On” from the juke box, but loud laughter and pool clatter made it hard to hear him. She poured a glass of beer, handed it to him as he lounged in the spindly wooden chair. She tried to follow what he was saying, smile at the right times, but felt out of sync.

She undid a button on her flannel shirt and bent over to dig in her bag, knowing the man’s gaze would follow down her chest. She sat up, leaned back, grinned. He touched her thigh, signed her to dance. He clutched her to him, smelling of axel grease and BO. She gagged and warbled softly against his shoulder, feeling his hands slipping below her waistband. She moved in closer, wrapping her thin frame onto his body. She started sweating from the contact, feeling sure she’d have a warm place to sleep tonight. Peeking over his shoulder, she saw a man watching them. It took a second but she placed him. The counter clerk at the Pequod who shooed her for panhandling. He caught her eye and smiled, pushed toward her in the crowd.

Then a tall, bearded man cut in, easing the chubby guy out. He squeezed her roughly to him, making it hard for her to breathe. Pressed against his chest, she couldn’t read his face, but didn’t like the feel of him, rough and hard edged. She was suffocating, his big hand on her ass, ramming her pelvis against his groin. She could feel the lump of his cock and tried to pull away, but he held her around the waist and jammed her head harder against his shoulder, almost lifting her from the floor. Lizette struggled, but the man had her arms pinned in a wrestler’s hug. She started screaming and a big commotion broke out by the tavern’s front door. Her voice got mixed into the anxious sounds and drowned out by the jukebox.

She heard snatches of angry yelling, Shot! Fucker’s are shot! The crowd rushed the door. The man turned her loose and moved with the crowd. She slipped to the side wall and threaded her way to the window, angling a spot that looked onto the street. A man was lying on the ground, his legs twisted, blood from his gut running thin across the rain wet sidewalk. Another man staggered to the window, leaning against the glass where she stood and laid his hand on the pane, blood leaking through his fingers, smearing the window. Lizette turned and pushed back to her table, got her bag and headed for the rear door, pausing for an instant to catch her breath. The knob turned. The door swung out. She looked over her shoulder and up and down the alley to make sure it was clear. She stepped outside, deciding on the long way to the next street to avoid the crowd on the corner. She heard sirens in the distance. The buildings felt close and slimy, boarded up windows and doors looking blindly into the darkness. She moved toward the streetlight at the end, rain sprinkling in the glow.

He shoved her into a doorway from behind, black overcoat, humped like a whale, breathing the smell of hot fish guts onto the back of her neck. He ripped her loose jeans down. She screamed Help! He pulled her sideways and hit her open-handed, full force on the side of her face. Stunned, she shook it off and put her arms up. A bone crack, then a jab to her side took her breath away. Flattened against a metal door, hips pulled out, an unholy fire exploded inside her. Sirens coming closer. Then cold and greasy moss on the pavement against her cheek. She puked scrambled eggs and hash browns. Before she blacked out, she saw a dog lapping vomit and then felt it licking her bare thighs, its tongue warm and comforting.

IMG_2622 - Copy

Waltzing With Birdie

Uncle Doug was a bachelor. He wore thick, black-rimmed glasses that greatly magnified his watery blue eyes. At 35, he was short, bald and chubby. After World War II was over and his typing stint at Fort Benning, Ga., ended, Uncle Doug came back home to San Francisco. A year later, he and my grandmother used the GI bill to buy a bungalow way up on the hill in Noe Valley. The three-bedroom house, with a tunnel entrance seemed like it was built on stilts, a promontory to the only world I knew – the Mission district down below, the neon Dutch Boy paint sign waving mechanically in the Potrero Districts, and ships, like tiny logs, anchored in the bay beyond.

My mother and father moved the four of us kids into the house’s cavernous basement when my father’s drinking led to the bank’s foreclosure on our tract house in Pacifica. Upstairs, Uncle Doug, Great Aunt Eva and my grandmother slept in the three small bedrooms, huddled together at the end of the long hall. Sunshine flooded in through three big skylights, which eased the despair.

Uncle Doug collected girlie pictures and pasted them into loose-leaf binders like recipes in a homemade cookbook. He kept them on his bureau with all the stats – bust measurements, age, height, weight, other magazines they’d appeared in. Before going to work in the afternoon, Uncle Doug would pace the floor of his bedroom listening to baseball games, calling the plays out loud before they were made. He had a record player and sometimes sang along with Frank Sinatra when the Giants weren’t at bat.

My grandmother said Uncle Doug had “shell shock” from his experience in the war. That was what made him so odd, she said. That was what made him talk to himself and pace like a big cat. My mother rolled her eyes and held her tongue whenever the shell-shock theory was presented. She leaned toward the brain-damaged-at-birth notion.

Sometimes Uncle Doug would go to the basement. There was an old, black upright piano in the back corner, shoved against the cement foundation wall. Our beds were arranged there too. He’d beat the keys, pound out hymns and sing in his thin tenor voice about the love of Christ. My mother would usually take us kids down the street to the park until the music died.

Uncle Doug loved to dance. He went folk dancing on his days off. He’d wear a plaid shirt and tie with a frayed tweed sport jacket. He had high blood pressure and anemia, which he tried to cure by eating raw liver. He picked the ear wax from his ears with a bobby pin and ate it. He smelled like the inside of an old shipping trunk. He never missed a day sorting mail. He turned over his paycheck to my grandmother without discussion.

Everyday payday, my grandmother would add things up and tell him how short we were. She’d go through the bills, figuring how much we could get away with not paying each month. Because we did have a car, we carried paper shopping bags with rags wrapped around the handles when we walked to the grocery store. The rags kept the weight of the food from cutting into our hands when we walked back up the hill. Sometimes Uncle Doug would take my bag and carry it for a while, adding the weight to his own load.

I never heard my uncle complain. He hugged us kids and tickled us, grabbing our legs just under the knee cap and wiggling them back and forth giving us what we called “shinnie, shinnies.” Once he took the four of us children to the Fun House at Playland-at-the-beach. Another time he took us to a roller-skating rink. One time we went with him to watch the Fourth of July fireworks through the fog at Marina Green. He spaded the garden when asked and carried my great aunt to the living room so my grandmother could change her bedding. Then he’d gently carry her back to bed again.

Sometime in 1958, when I was 10, my grandmother began to get phone calls from a bill collector. She’d argue and cry and hang up the phone. She and my mother would go in the kitchen and close the door. We could hear their agitated tones over the sound of the radio. Once I heard my mother say, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard! Is Doug out of his mind?”

Then I overheard my mother talking to a friend. She said Uncle Doug had signed a contract for Arthur Murray dancing lessons. They wanted the $1,500 right away, and Grandma had finally borrowed the money on the house to make the bill collector go away. My mother said they took advantage of Doug, that he wasn’t bright enough to understand what he had done.

Uncle Doug wasn’t home much after that. Once in a while he’d spend an hour with us kids. He showed us how to rumba and cha cha. I tripped over his brown wing tips trying to waltz. He had rubber footsteps he’d lay out for us to follow on the living room floor. He’d play Frank Sinatra records so we could dance. He bought a black tuxedo with a blue cummerbund. He started to smell like Old Spice and White Shoulders.

One day I found his collection of girlie pictures in the garbage can in the basement. Ants were crawling all over the women’s bare breasts. They got on my fingers and marched around my wrists. I shook them off. I closed the lid.

Not long after that Uncle Doug brought Birdie home to meet us. They were ballroom dancing partners, he said. Birdie showed up with false teeth, a lot of rouge and a powder-blue chiffon dress with a fake fur stole. Uncle Doug’s cummerbund matched the blue in her dress exactly. He put his arm around Birdie when they sat on Grandmother’s burgundy chesterfield. My grandmother flinched when Uncle Doug called Birdie “Mama.”

My mother said Birdie was as Okie as the day was long. Killed her first husband with greasy Southern cooking. My mother said the poor man died of a heart attack while they were in the act. To no one in particular, my mother pointed out that Birdie had six grown kids. My grandmother said Birdie didn’t have the brains God gave a parakeet. Birdie ran a mangle and folded sheets in a commercial laundry. Uncle Doug said he loved her.

They were married at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in 1960. The reception was held at my grandmother’s house. We served a buffet of boiled ham and potato salad in the dining room. Then they sprinkled cornmeal on the basement floor and we kids sat on the wooden steps and watched as Birdie and Doug waltzed and tangoed on the open space near the washing machine. My mother said the marriage would never last. My grandmother said Birdie was old enough to be his mother, that she’d die first and Doug would come back home.

Uncle Doug and Birdie bought a singlewide house trailer in a park in Santa Rosa. For years Uncle Doug took the Greyhound bus to San Francisco to sort mail at the post office at night. He bought Birdie a new washer and dryer. They made payments on a refrigerator-freezer combination from Montgomery Ward.

A few years ago I drove up to tell him my mother had died. He’s retired now. He has a deep scar on his cheek where they took out a cyst. His magnified eyes are dim and he has dandruff and gout. He asked me if he was mentioned in my mother’s will. I said no. He asked if I wanted to hear some Frank Sinatra. I asked if he and Birdie still danced. He said yes.

First appeared: San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Punch Dec. 11 1994

Novel Excerpt: Adrift in the Sound — A tale of lies, loss and the redeeming power of love

DSC_2680“So . . . You’re here.” Einar Karlson spoke to her through the screen door on the back porch. “When did you get out?”

Lizette stood at the bottom of the backstairs and looked up at her father swaying behind the rusted mesh, saw his wariness and stiffened her own guard. She pulled a wad of damp envelopes from the metal box beside the steps. He put her mail there so she could pick it up whenever she liked, avoiding him if necessary. She sorted out the county disability checks and dropped them into her lumpy canvas bag then studied the postmark on a mildewed envelope—December 1972. “What’s the date?” she asked, without looking up.

“Come in?” he suggested. “Have some tea?”

Lizette shrugged, continued sorting, mostly junk—art school ads and half-off sales from Christmas. She realized the holidays were over, that she’d missed them, but since her mother died, she hadn’t felt like celebrating anyway.

“It’s February 2,” he said. “I presume you know it’s 1973.”

She climbed the steps, paused on the narrow porch. The screen door swung out and her father held it open while she hesitated. The wood felt spongy under her feet, softened from years of Seattle rain and a lifetime of entrances and exits.

He took the pipe out of his mouth, cupped the bowl protectively in his hand as she passed. She noticed gray rime on the pipe’s stem, smelled the cherry tobacco on his blue plaid shirt. He smiled a pained welcome. What am I afraid of? she wondered as she moved past him into the kitchen. He’s old and weak. A pang of sorrow popped up in her chest. At least her mother would never be old like him, she thought, and a ripple of comfort passed through her. She also knew she’d never hear her mother laugh again, not that it happened all that often in this nut house. She looked around the kitchen at the sad walls, at the old cuckoo clock, oddly out of place in a house filled with sculpture, paintings and historic Indian artifacts.

The kitchen felt warm, not from cooking, Lizette realized, but from more than twenty-five years of memories that heated the surfaces – the old green Formica kitchen table and vinyl chair seats, the canisters and potholders. Recollections radiated from the cabinets and walls. Clicks and pings, sounds of her childhood, came from the house’s furnace, the heat closing in on her. She watched her father’s bony shoulders work as he ran water into the tea kettle, thought about how big he used to seem, how shriveled he looked now. His shirt hung from his clothes-hanger frame, its fullness overlapped under his cinched belt. He settled in the chair across from her, his presence too close, pressing on her diaphragm, making her pull for air.

She crossed her arms over her chest and recalled the rumble of his voice when she was a child, sitting on his lap and resting her head against him, hearing the stories, feeling his resonance. Always stories. He told tales of the first people. The Indians who lived here before the explorers came, about Chief Seattle and his people, about the animal spirits who ruled the world. She conjured the energy of the university students who’d gathered in her family’s living room in the evenings, who’d talked earnestly about their theories and research, and she remembered how her father, the famous anthropologist, would listen to their ramblings, amused. They were finding out things he’d known and written about before many of them were born. Her mother would appear at those times like a spirit, offering plates of Swedish cookies, her blonde hair braided and coiled into a crown. Then she’d glide out the kitchen door to her art studio in the back garden.

Lizette remembered sitting cross-legged on the floor beside the couch. He’d bring little treasures out of his study—totems, the two-headed soul catcher that was carved from a bear femur, dance wands, rattles, skin drums with thunderbirds, and finally the chief’s headdress with long ermine pelts attached. He’d always offer to let someone else try on the chief’s headdress, never fitted the elaborate piece to his own head, held it out, acting like an acolyte with ancient sacraments.

Most of all Lizette had waited to see the mask of Watches Underwater. Even after centuries, the colors leapt from the carved cedar, Watcher’s unflinching eyes eternally scanned the upper world for danger, vigilant and prepared to warn the creatures in the sea below of any threats. The mask’s red puckered lips showed the legend perfectly, she thought, and pictured the beautiful woman floating on her back just below the water’s surface, watching, supping air with those voluptuous lips, watching, and she ached now to put the mask on her own face, but knew her father wouldn’t permit it. “It’s not a toy,” he’d said when she was small and tucked the artifact back into its box. She knew he’d deny her now so she let her desire fade. The tea kettle whistled. Her father went to the cupboard and pulled down two mugs.

“What kind of tea?” he asked.

“Uh . . . orange spice,” Lizette said, looking at the blue and white plate above the sink with her name written around the rim: Elizabeth Lena Karlson—April 10, 1947. Her nursery totem. Her middle name, her mother’s name, Lena, cried to her from the Delft ceramic. The plate had hung there for more than a quarter century, she thought, an artifact displayed like it had been dug from an ancient midden, a Swedish custom that announced her presence to those who ventured into her parent’s kitchen. She remembered that when she was small her father had called her “Little Liz,” sometimes “Liz Bit,” eventually transforming her name playfully to Lizette. After that everyone called her Lizette—teachers, neighbors, playmates, and the clerk at the art supply store where her mother had worked and sometimes taught painting classes in the back room.

The store manager had framed some of Lizette’s paintings and hung them behind the work table where the clerks made picture frames. A couple of them sold, and her mother took her for ice cream, told her she’d put the sale money in Lizette’s college account at the bank, that she was going to the Pratt Art Institute in Chicago or the Sorbonne in Paris and she’d grow up to be a famous artist, if she studied and developed her own technique, if—her mother added in an acid tone—she’d stop copying others. Lizette had asked for a double scoop of pistachio and felt she’d somehow done something good and wrong at the same time. Her mother ordered plain vanilla and they sat on wire chairs at a small table, silent, licking their cones.


She snatched herself back and watched her father reach for a blue tin on top of the refrigerator. He popped the lid and took out a handful of cookies, dropped them on a plate. Lizette picked up a cookie, pecked at the edge, set it down, scattered powdered sugar on the table.

“Where will you stay?” Einar said, sitting down and reaching a veiny hand toward her. Lizette did not reach back. She sensed he wanted to say something, but instead of speaking to her truthfully, she watched him shift away, felt his dodge. “Have you made plans?”

Lizette doubted his interest. “I’ll be on Orcas Island, at Marian’s,” she said flatly. “She has the ranch now, since her father died.”

She looked up and saw his stunned expression. He didn’t know Hal Cutler had died, she thought, and realized how isolated he’d become in the years since her mother died, his life narrowed to an occasional faculty meeting, TV at night, maybe an ambitious teaching assistant between the sheets once in a great while.

“He’s been gone over a year, I think. You know the cabin by the water, below the main house?” He nodded. “That’s where I stay. Marian said it’s mine as long as I want.”

“That old shepherd’s shack?” She heard the judgment in his voice, winced. He tried again. “Good spot. Not the best light, though. Kind of rough. No running water or electricity. But, I guess it’s better than hanging around downtown.”

“It’ll do.” She felt the disapproval in his voice, almost added that it was none of his business what she did, decided to avoid an argument, studied her ragged fingernails, switched tempo.

“Spring’s coming and the sun will move higher,” she said. “A lot of my things are stored out there, some canvases I’ve been working on and I can help out around the ranch.”


“What happened this time?” Einar tried to keep his face blank, voice flat. “How long did they keep you?”

* * * 

Cover 300 dpi

Set in the Pacific Northwest during a time of great tumult in America, Adrift in the Sound is the story of Lizette’s journey through this troubled era, it’s about madness, betrayal and the redeeming power of love.Adrift in the Sound was a Mercer Street Books finalist for best novel in 2011, rated 5-stars by Amazon readers.Orangeberry button

Order online in paper or e-reader formats. Available to international readers in English where online Amazon service is offered. For a limited time in the U.S., get the Kindle Edition free when you buy the new print edition of this book. Learn more about Kindlematchbook.

Everything We Need to Know

The earth is our first teacher.

Everything we need to know
about how to live in this world comes from the
teachings of the earth.

Vi Hilbert, Upper Skagit elder, 2003

Adrift in the Sound: A tale of living
and loving  

Moment of Truth in the Garden

It’s time to tell you the truth, not that I haven’t been honest all along. It’s that some things haven’t been fully talked about — subjects have been changed, details omitted, opportunities to step away have been taken. People have stopped asking me: “So, how’s the book selling.” My usual answer is “OK. You know how it is with first books. It takes time to build audience.” My exit lines.
A friend on Facebook said tonight a royalty check had come from her publisher, just in time, as usual. The truth is I’m the publisher of my book, Adrift in the Sound, which came out about a year and a half ago in e-reader and print formats. My last royalty check from Amazon was for $11.
IndiBound Store Locator

Adrift in the Sound, which I worked on for 5 years, is now ranked about 850 out of Amazon’s 7 million or so books, not an awful ranking this long after publication, but it’s nothing to brag about. I’m not counting on a royalty check anytime soon that will pay the mortgage. I’ll be lucky to get a royalty check that buys a loaf of bread and some bologna.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I made choices. I knew what I was doing and I’ve learned a ton about publishing and the book business. I’ve earned back the cost of producing Adrift and then some. But, let’s face it. my book was on the Amazon best seller list for about 8 hours — topped out at about #27 in historical fiction, #35 in literary fiction before plunging to the basement like an elevator with the cables cut.
My friend’s Facebook message got me to wondering about the status of Adrift. It has been a while since I checked the ranking and found I’ve forgotten how to access my Amazon sales data. I settled instead for scrolling through the book’s reviews and realized there are reviews I’ve never seen. Yes, the truth is I’ve been feeling bad about my lack of literary success and haven’t been too eager to give my Amazon site close examination. 
 But, tonight my feelings of disappointment changed. I want to share this Amazon review. It really cheered me up. This reviewer, I honestly don’t know him, got so much about what I was trying to do artistically with Adrift — got the art and imagery, got the humor, felt sad in the right places, saw my main character the way I’d hoped.No matter what, if I can connect with even one reader on this level, I’m happy, and that’s the truth.
 5.0 out of 5 stars
The best story I’ve read for a long time
July 24, 2013
Pete Barber (Lake Lure, NC) – See all my reviews
This review is from: Adrift in the Sound (Paperback)
Lizette is a gifted abstract painter with severe personality issues–perhaps bi-polar–although I don’t believe this was stated. Pressured to achieve as a child, when her artist mother committed suicide something snapped inside Lizette. Estranged from her father, she drifts into bad company, and makes unwise life-choices. The story follows Lizette as she struggles with mental illness and searches for meaning in her life. Although set in the Seventies, no attachment with that era is required to connect with this story.

I read because I love to lose myself in another world and experience life vicariously through someone else’s eyes. Also, as an aspiring writer, I read to learn. For me, reading Adrift in the Sound was tantamount to attending a fiction writing master class.

Tactile scene settings sucked me into a story as multi-layered as one of Lizette’s beautifully described oil paintings. Ms. Campbell colors her scenes with fine details, often transforming the settings into another character to add emotion. For example, after an argument with her father, Lizette turns her back on him and the house and takes the path in the rain toward the small cabin her mother used as her artist’s studio. Lizette perceives the cabin like this: “Two big windows stared into the tangled garden, watching the house through rain-streaked eyes.” Or her view of the car ferry that will take her to Orcas Island in the Puget Sound, where much of the story unfolds: “The wide-bodied boat nudged the dock, bounced against the pylons, settled into its berth like a lumbering beast nestling into a safe burrow.” Or the way the ocean appears to her: “The afternoon sun scattered silver sequins across the water.” I confess I have a ton more highlights on my Kindle; so many I had to stop myself. Unable to choose which to use in the review, I simply chose the first three–they’re all exceptional.

Lizette’s world is populated by a cast of complex, multi-faceted characters. Many are unpleasant. All were real to me. A brutal sexual assault early in the story permanently scars Lizette and scarred this reader along with her. It happened because she takes crazy chances and trusts the wrong people. But don’t see her as a weakling. On a number of occasions she does significant harm to those whom she perceives as a threat. Although, as I watched Lizette become a danger to others, I was never quite sure of her intentions. That’s a measure of how off-balance the author kept me, and how hard I was rooting for Lizette.

Lizette’s affinity for the native Indians who live on Orcas and form her support group provides more wonderful characters whose lifestyle grounds the story in history and in nature. I have no connection with Native Indians or their customs, but I found their lives and beliefs and plain commonsense added to the palette of an already colorful story.

The novel is a deep, slow burn, and not without humor. One particular scene involving a large snake and an unpleasant junkie had me laughing so loud I woke my wife (I read at night). A larger-than-life character–self-described poet, Toulouse–is described in the eyes of Lizette’s friend, Marian thusly: “Toulouse moved off with a flourish, tipping a goodbye from the rim of his foolish hat. Marian watched him go, his self-importance shoved up his ass like a mop handle.”

Complex, troubled, and gifted, Lizette connects with the natural world on such a deep level that she pulled me along until I stood beside her marveling at the natural beauty of an ocean wave, or the fearsome power of the killer whales as they hunt in the Sound, or the subtle simplicity of an old Indian woman dancing in a mask of feathers and bear skin. She broke my heart as we watched a seal taken by a predator, or a pet dog injured. I know, as she does, it’s natural. You can’t interfere, you can’t help–but still, you share the stab of her guilt.

With more “Oh, didn’t see that coming” moments than I had any right to expect, Adrift in The Sound is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Check it out. You won’t regret it.

This review was originally written for “Books and Pals” book blog. I may have received a free review copy.

I haven’t thanked Pete Barber for this review, for lifting my spirits, for getting what I was aiming at artistically. He won’t be unthanked for long and that’s the god’s truth.
Honestly, thanks for visiting the Word Garden. It means a lot to me.
Adrift in the Sound Available from Amazon

How Killer Whales Were Made

Haida Orca
Todd Jason Baker
From Adrift in the Sound

“The whole world is not like Sebastopol,” my college professor Alvin Hunter said as he prepared to school us in the particulars of cultural and physical anthropology. In the darkened auditorium of Santa Rosa Junior College in the 1970s, Hunter proceeded to show us the variety of ways we are human and how we came to be. He opened our eyes to a world of mysteries and magic.

Today, I smile to think of Hunter’s claim about Sebastopol. He meant, I think, that the world is not like small-town California. But, his perhaps intentional irony is that the place name he cited—Sebastopol—is a historical vestige of Russian colonization in America at Ft. Ross, now a state park on the Sonoma County coast. The former supply village is west of the charming town where I went to college, not far from the Russian River. Today Sebastopol is known for wine grapes and organic farms, but once served other purposes.

In 1812, the area was unsettled and became an supply point for the outpost of the fur-trading Russian-American Company, based in Alaska, after the area was claimed for the Czar. Perhaps Dr. Hunter’s joke is that the world is indeed like tiny Sebastopol–foreign and familiar at the same time, an amalgam of the larger world.

This knowledge explains, in part, my delight in finding Dartmouth anthropologist Sergei Kan’s new book, A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country: Vincent Soboleff in Alaska. This 288-page photo book from the University of Oklahoma Press offers for the first time more than 100 images taken by amateur photographer Soboleff of Tlingit village life at the turn-of-the-century. The images, archived in the Alaska State Library, capture the everyday lives of Russian and American settlers who lived among the tribal people.

What’s of interest to me is Soboleff’s documenting the intertwining of these diverse cultures in coastal Killisnoo and Angoon. He photographed the community around him as an insider and also as a journalist. The images are unposed and natural, unlike the photography of his contemporaries. His photographs include the names of his Tlingit subjects, not just labels like “old woman,” “boy” or “Indian.” He knew and respected his subjects.

I did considerable research into Coastal Salish tribes for my novel, Adrift in the Sound, which includes Native American characters and incorporates traditional tales, from the Tlingit, Lummi and Haida nations. The melding of contemporary culture with historic traditions of Native Americans, which is depicted in Soboleff’s images, has been fascinating to me since college days, and is an underlying theme in my book. I remain fascinated with ways culture shifts and is absorbed to create  new and larger societies.

 Russian-Americans posing in Tlingit canoe
Tlingit Tale: How Killer Whales Were Made

Excerpt from Adrift in the Sound. as told by Lummi elder Poland, a life-long friend of main character, Lizette Karlson. The ranch dog, Tucker, has been badly injured in a confrontation with a killer whale that beached itself to grab a seal off the sand. The attack on Orcas Island has left Lizette shaken and Poland takes her to the barn to calm her while visiting new born lambs. They sit and he tells her this story:

“My cousin married a Tlingit woman,” he said. “Lives up north with her, got three kids, all girls. Grown up, married now. My cousin, see, he said his wife tells a story about how, in a time before killer whales, there was a hunter and totem carver named Natsilane. See?”

Lizette nodded, but didn’t see, felt blinded by grief after the orca attack on Tucker, and sniffled at the thought of the innocent pup’s rowdy ways, always clowning, she thought, wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She feared he’d die from his wounds and clutched the lamb she was holding to her chest.

“So, he got a wife on Duke Island.” Poland cleared his throat, got her attention, relaunched. “A chief’s daughter. Beautiful. Big chest.” Poland put down the lamb he was feeding and bobbled his hands in front of him. Lizette giggled.

“So,” Poland continued, “he lived with her people. And, at first the village people didn’t like him, but they saw he was a good hunter and he shared his kills with them. His wife’s brothers didn’t like being shown up by an outsider.

“They decided to get even, teach him a lesson. On the day of the big seal hunt they paddled near rocks, and Natsilane climbed out of the canoe and plunged his spear into a big bull seal that bellowed into the wind.” Poland suddenly trumpeted like a seal, startling Lizette and the lambs, making her burst into tears again. Poland hugged her, stroked her hair.

“Sorry,” he said. “I got excited. So, his spear point broke off in the seal.” Poland showed how it snapped with his fists, scaring the lamb cradled between his arms again. “The sea lion charged into the water. But that wasn’t the worst part. The brothers were paddling away as fast as they could, leaving Natsilane stuck on the rocks.”

Speaking softly now in the half light of the barn, Poland said, “What they did broke his heart.” He reached over Lizette and tucked the blanket tighter around her legs. “He pulled his cape over himself and slept on the rocks, but woke up when he heard his name whispered on the wind. He saw a sea lion a ways off that looked like a man and followed him into the water, down beneath the waves and into the Seal Chief’s house.”

“Where was Watches Underwater?” Lizette asked and snuggled tighter against Poland, letting the lamb suckle her fingers. “Couldn’t she help?”

“I told you. It’s a Tlingit story, not Lummi.” He cleared his throat. “No one’s watching in this story. Now, when they got to the great house down below, the chief asked Natsilane if he could help his injured son. Natsilane pulled his spear point out and sewed up the wound. The seal son healed and, later, the chief granted Natsilane the power to create life. The sea lions formed a raft with their backs and took Natsilane home.”

Lizette shifted the lamb on her lap. “Then what happened?”

“Well, the boy carved a fish out of spruce, the first killer whale. It was big and beautiful and no one had ever seen anything like it. When he put it in the water, it came to life and swam out to sea, sleek and black with a white saddle. It came back whenever Natsilane called.”

“This is a long story,” Lizette said, yawning.

“No, it’s a good story,” Poland said, putting down his lamb and standing up. “I told it to your father once. He wrote it down. It was the first orca and Natsilane taught it to hunt and help the people. It brought schools of fish to the families and they feasted every day.”

“Then what happened?” Lizette asked

“Happened?” Poland looked disappointed that she didn’t get the point of the story.

“Nothing happened. Now orcas live in the water and help the people. I’m telling you this so you understand the orca’s job and don’t get scared. Seals eat the fish, orcas eat the seals. We eat everything. Sometimes we work together, sometimes not. They’re hunters just like us, just like dogs. Just like Natsilane, that pup will learn and become a hunter.”

“My father used to tell me stories when I was little,” Lizette said. “But, his stories were shorter.” Poland pursed his lips, suggesting he didn’t approve of abridgement, and took the sleeping lamb from her.
 Tlingit woman in her Killisnoo home

Here’s a modern story of a young killer whale

Thanks for visiting the Word Garden, come back soon or sign up to follow this blog and get automatic notices when posts go up, share with friends. We’ll all thank you.

Boom Time for Books

Book reviewers are saying it’s time to create a new category of books likely to appeal to Baby Boomers, a term generally referring to people born between 1946 and 1964. Here’s the basic pitch Claude Nougat (she’s an author, a painter, a economist and a blogger) made when she started a GoodReads group on the subject:

“When baby boomers reached their teens in the 1950s/1960s, the Young Adult (YA) novel was born as a genre, dealing with coming-of-age issues. Now that baby boomers are 55+ and embarking on their second life, most of them in excellent health thanks to medical advances, it is time for writers to come up with Baby Boomer novels, or BB novels.”
A BB novel deals with “coming-of-age issues”, and just like YA novels, it can be tragic, romantic, suspenseful, humorous, ironical but always compassionate.

Book experts say the category could be defined somewhat more broadly than coming-of-age stories, without losing its appeal, to overlap, not only with various fiction genres, but also with several nonfiction categories including biography and memoir, personal finance, and self-help.

There also are movies that might fit into this newly defined genre: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” comes to mind:  based on the 2004 novel These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach. Admission: I watched it twice during the holidays in private moments. And, there’s the king of Boomer movie genre, Jack Nicholson. Think “Something’s Gotta Give” about successful 60-something and 50-something, who find love for each other in later life.


As the BoomerCafe website noted the other day in the introduction to an article by Ms. Nougat on the subject “baby boomers are the biggest, richest demographic in the world today.” Boomers buy books, lots of them, and they enjoy movies relevant to their experience. If only they had more to read and a category to list them and make Boomer-centric literature more accessible.

Interesting idea. Are writers creating a new book category? Are producers creating movies that reflect Boomer experience and sensibilities? What books would you call “Boomer”? Which ones might make good “Boomer” movies?