Thursday, December 26, 2013

New York, 1981

an excerpt from
THE ICE LENS, A Heathen Romance
by Paul West
a novel coming soon from Onager Editions

ONCE  YOU KNOW what you’re doing you can start all the way up at the Arctic Circle. I did once. Then, as the season changes, you work your way downriver and, as it gets warmer and warmer, even in that time of year, you keep your nose and head clear by chewing a strong mint. One of those that burn. I always ask my employers for a long scoop with plenty of flex in it so that, when I bend over the pool to scoop up the frogs. I can get the right amount of traction, if that’s what it’s called. The moment arm is long enough, anyway, between where you apply the force and the place you hold the pole at. Then in one graceful lunge you can fling the frog high into the trees, out of the pool into the greenery. Yes, my beauty, there’s an art even to that. I see them now as they soar, catching the sunlight on their backs, and I sometimes hear the birdlike flutter they make as they fall through the branches and the little plop as they land, wondering what the hell happened. They’re not tree frogs after all, they know that.
  The trouble is, they keep on coming back. It must be the same frogs. How many frogs can you have in the area of one pool? And it took me a while to figure it out. Then I saw. They weren’t coming back for the pale blue water, ever more lucid than I was, which might rank as bubbly in the kingdom of the frogs, but for the flight. They really liked flying, sweetheart, but what bit of them registers anything at all told them it was grand to sail through the air like that, not having to swim or to try. So, all down the Hudson, there have been frogs starting little flying clubs, soaring clubs, until of course winter closes everything down. Not that they have clubhouses or lapel pins. These are frogs after all, with proud and trivial imaginations. It may take them a day to get back to the water, only to be fished out again and launched; but it’s worth the long haul after the concussion of landing, then the tussle through long grass or bracken, and the night march up the lawn until, plop, there they all are, ready to be sent into space. The chlorine water can’t be that nice, can it? You can tell the old hands from the beginners. The old hands try to get on to the mesh of the scoop before you’ve landed them whereas the others dive away, not having known the joys of flight. If the word can get around among frogs, it never seems to. Only the old stagers know what’s coming, and all the others must think they’re pure wacko, heading for the pool only to be thrown out of it. Time and again. I guess their landing gear is good, from long practice. Kind of rubbery anyway: that’s what they are. They bounce and they look quite streamlined whereas your toad makes more friction in the air. It is mainly frogs, anyway.
So you see, precious, as I work my way back south from late August on, there’s lots of frogs for company, and I sometimes feel like the president of All American Airlines as I go about my chores, getting some of them up to two hundred feet. The wait for the little dry splash of their landing can be really long, and you sometimes wonder if they’re coming down at all. I like this better than the movement northward, when I have to leave at the beginning of the season as all the pools open up their hearts and begin to twinkle. Heading north with a cold heart is a wild thing to have to do each year. Or it was. I never worked on indoor pools. And outdoors are hardly worth it, only for the frogs, I suppose, although there are certain effects of light, I mean light-effects, I might give an arm and a leg for on a temporary basis. When big lozenges of skyblue float on the bottom as if they were breeding or just jostling one another. When toward evening the water surface looks violet and you could go lick it and get a purple taste. That kind of thing. Maybe that’s what the frogs come for first of all, until they get to fly. North or south, it’s confusing.
Sometimes I’ve seen half a dozen of them waiting by the pool wall for me to net them and hurl them skyward. Six in one go? You may well ask. I have never done it, maybe because being a bit simple-minded or at least single-minded I can attend to only one frog at a time, although a group launch isn’t out of the question, honey, if I could only get those already in the scoop to sit still while I catch the rest.
Those frogs amaze me. They wait all night for an airlift the next day. The pool owners amaze me more though. They ask if they can use the skimmer after me, but most of them don’t have the knack, the timing, the muscle coordination, that sweep of the pole I have developed over the years like a fisherman casting far out over the waters. Then, of course, you have kids and they want to stand under the trees to catch the frogs when they fall. But how would they do that? A frog will pitter and patter from branch to branch, going this way and that, before it reaches the ground, and you can’t tell them apart from the leaves, except when the year is well on its way. If I was going to stay in the job, precious, I’d buy my own skimmer and then I’d always get it right instead of being at the mercy of whatever pool things you find from home to home. When there are no frogs I move on fast. When there are a lot, I tend to linger, overcleaning the pool, fussing with baskets and the pH.
I go upriver slowly, but, rejoicing, I come home fast, back to the city, which is always a winter place to me, whereas I associate the river with summer. I open their pools, I find the leaks, I fire the boilers, I trim the filters, I fold up the covers and stow them away, I clean up the ladders and the floats. I hardly have time, in May and September, to write my sweetheart saying I am overcome with work; but you never bug me, do you, you leave me to my job. You are hardly likely to unstick yourself to come and help. That'd be too much, you'd be too much of a honey if you ever did that. I like being alone with the frogs.

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PAUL WEST is the author of 50 books. He has received awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lannan Prize for Fiction and the Halperin-Kaminsky Prize. He was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. He has also been a runner-up for the National Book Circle Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

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Monday, December 23, 2013

A Letter from Richard Russo

An Open Letter to My Fellow Authors

It’s all changing, right before our eyes. Not just publishing, but the writing life itself, our ability to make a living from authorship. Even in the best of times, which these are not, most writers have to supplement their writing incomes by teaching, or throwing up sheet-rock, or cage fighting. It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.
Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here. Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that sell pirated (read “stolen”) books, and even by militant librarians who see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to “lend” our e-books without restriction. But those of us who are alarmed by these trends have a duty, I think, to defend and protect the writing life that’s been good to us, not just on behalf of younger writers who will not have our advantages if we don’t, but also on behalf of readers, whose imaginative lives will be diminished if authorship becomes untenable as a profession.

I know, I know. Some insist that there’s never been a better time to be an author. Self-publishing has democratized the process, they argue, and authors can now earn royalties of up to seventy percent, where once we had to settle for what traditional publishers told us was our share. Anecdotal evidence is marshaled in support of this view (statistical evidence to follow). Those of us who are alarmed, we’re told, are, well, alarmists. Time will tell who’s right, but surely it can’t be a good idea for writers to stand on the sidelines while our collective fate is decided by others. Especially when we consider who those others are. Entities like Google and Apple and Amazon are rich and powerful enough to influence governments, and every day they demonstrate their willingness to wield that enormous power. Books and authors are a tiny but not insignificant part of the larger battle being waged between these companies, a battleground that includes the movie, music, and newspaper industries. I think it’s fair to say that to a greater or lesser degree, those other industries have all gotten their asses kicked, just as we’re getting ours kicked now. And not just in the courts. Somehow, we’re even losing the war for hearts and minds. When we defend copyright, we’re seen as greedy. When we justly sue, we’re seen as litigious. When we attempt to defend the physical book and stores that sell them, we’re seen as Luddites. Our altruism, when we’re able to summon it, is too often seen as self-serving.

But here’s the thing. What the Apples and Googles and Amazons and Netflixes of the world all have in common (in addition to their quest for world domination), is that they’re all starved for content, and for that they need us. Which means we have a say in all this. Everything in the digital age may feel new and may seem to operate under new rules, but the conversation about the relationship between art and commerce is age-old, and artists must be part of it. To that end we’d do well to speak with one voice, though it’s here we demonstrate our greatest weakness. Writers are notoriously independent cusses, hard to wrangle. We spend our mostly solitary days filling up blank pieces of paper with words. We must like it that way, or we wouldn’t do it. But while it’s pretty to think that our odd way of life will endure, there’s no guarantee. The writing life is ours to defend. Protecting it also happens to be the mission of the Authors Guild, which I myself did not join until last year, when the light switch in my cave finally got tripped. Are you a member? If not, please consider becoming one. We’re badly outgunned and in need of reinforcements. If the writing life has done well by you, as it has by me, here’s your chance to return the favor. Do it now, because there’s such a thing as being too late.

Richard Russo
December 2013

This posting courtesy of The Authors Guild, 31 E 32nd St., Fl 7, New York, NY 10016  

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