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A Year Ago, I Published A Novel About White Supremacists, I Never Imagined What Is Happening Now

    The flag blocks the view for other drivers, an obstruction to traffic. The truck too seems too large for Charleston’s streets. They are heading downtown to join the Confederate Day of Flagging. A few weeks ago, the South Carolina Secessionist Party organized a “flagging” of Charleston during the Southeastern Wildlife Expo and parked this same truck atop a garage overlooking Marion Square. The flag drew the ire of local activists, and by the day’s end, the city of Charleston had released a statement disallowing flags or banners of any kind in parking garages. But groups like these were not stupid, not as stupid or clueless as I once believed. Before they drew attention for their stunt at Marion Square, they had spent the past few years posting men on the corner of Battery Park in south Charleston, and there they took turns carrying the flag. I used to work downtown in a restaurant and would see them every Saturday morning when parking my car along the Battery. They were still here, still dedicated to their cause. Years ago, when writing my first book, I interviewed several people like this. I wanted to know why people still fetishized the Confederate flag, while disavowing their connections to white supremacy.

    We’re not racists, they said, we just don’t like how things are going.

    And how are things going? I had asked in my initial interviews.

    The answers were often the same. The president was black. Mexicans were taking all the jobs. Muslims were infiltrating the US government, and they were always planning an attack. No, not New York. Here, and here! In Jackson, Orangeburg, Sparturnburg. They would blow up the water tower, the local factory, the beach boardwalk.

    I pressed these people, didn’t they think these views were racist?

    No, not racist, not them. They were, in their words, only pragmetists.

    I wonder if I spoke with the same people today if they would bother brushing off that title of “racist,” or more suitably “white supremacist.” I wonder if the Confederate flaggers, their trucks too big for Charleston roads, their stars-and-stripes banners blocking traffic, fluttering in the breeze as the truck presses forward, a mechanical roar escaping its hood, if they identified as “white supremacists?”

    When the hate crimes began, which are– maybe we agree– more heinous than the Confederate flagging, we asked ourselves, “But where did these people come from?” Were they not living in the woods somewhere, toothless hicks? How did they move from white-sheets meeting to Facebook groups? How did they gain such prominence and why have we been sitting around waiting for it to just stop, as if it will “just stop?”

    The problem, I think, is we fundamentally misunderstand what white supremacists look like, who they are, and how they are radicalized. In fact, I published a book in February 2016 that absolutely mischaracterized white supremacists, and one year later, after re-reading the book I wrote in high school, I am rethinking how to approach this concept.

But in writing about these people at all, had I somehow given them a platform? Does the desire to “understand” what makes them tick normalize their beliefs? Writing a novel, after all, is almost always an act in empathy. In order to write about these characters, I had to empathize. I had to think hard about what they cared about and how that motivated them. I assumed they cared most about family, that misplaced fear of immigrants and other races somehow fueled these people? Of course, these are underlying motives, but in construing them thus, I painted them as passive actors in a system they could not control rather than humans with agency and choices. White supremacy, especially the organizational variety, is not an ideology ones falls into. It is a choice, is it not? Or at the very least, conscious decisions play a crucial role in the person’s construction of the self.

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    In early 2016, we were still arguing about Hillary Clinton accepting $675K to speak at Goldman Sachs; progressives named Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as a “dangerous moment,” fearing the rise of social-democratic programs like free college tuition and universal healthcare. These were simpler times, when Donald Trump’s presidential campaign amounted to an amusing circus-like sideshow and white supremacists were visible only on society’s fringes. In fact, Ted Cruz had just beaten out Trump at the Iowa caucus, and liberals everywhere were scoffing at the absolutely bombastic notion that someone as unqualified and self-centered as Trump might ascend to the presidency. This was the world as-is when the book came out, and even then I still spoke– in lectures, readings, and Q&A’s– about how to construe white supremacy.

The reality, of course, is that the project of white supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives: public schools punish young African American students in a manner that funnels them into the prison-industrial system, job markets still favor white employees despite what affirmative-action naysayers might suggest, and the beauty and art industries continue to uphold whiteness as a standard. I was, of course, aware of the greater spectre of white supremacy, but I had been writing about a more visible and visceral racism– not the kind that is systematic and pervasive, but rather the human-embodied variety. In my first book, white supremacists wore white hoods; they feared the rise of immigrants; they manufactured and distributed meth from their trailer park homes; they committed hate crimes. This brand of racism I viewed as marginal, a vestige of Jim Crow era Confederate-loving Southerners still lurking in the backwoods. But I was wrong, because they were not some peripheral population. They were America.

In order to better understand how the visibility and saturation of white supremacy groups have evolved in the past few years, allow me to explain some details about my book, why I wrote it, and how I understood racism at the time of its writing.

In Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, published by PRA Publishing in 2016, a corporate lawyer and his son move to the mid-sized town of Lickskillet, so that the lawyer might defend a man accused of lynching the black ex-mayor. The novel is a satire about race, southern tradition, and backwoods upbringing, featuring a broad cast of characters who include drug-addled idiot savants, half-black soccer players, a trailer park genius, an ultra-rich sadist, a self-conscious granddaughter of a rock music mogul, and a boy who pretends to be someone new in each city he visits.

As the book evolved, I brought in new elements. I have a bad habit, even now, of weaving new narratives into already existing ones– a tendency I adopted from the post-modernist forms of fiction I read throughout my late youth. I began writing the book when I was sixteen years old, after a few years writing manuscripts set in exotic locations. I wanted to write about the South, with a capital ‘S,’ and because I had met the sons and daughters of white supremacists in my high school years, these characters became an integral part of the book’s plot. In the book, the group is named The Knights of Southern Heritage, and their main creed is to preserve the family-oriented, Christian values of the American South.

Family-oriented. Christian. Traditional. Alone, these words might seem innocuous, but they are the subtle signifiers of white supremacy. By promising to uphold family values, white supremacist groups do not mean to preserve families and contribute to education policies and fund agencies aiding single mothers; no, they mean they stand against LGBT rights. The phrase “Christian rights” too seems positive, but these groups are not seeking religious freedom for themselves but rather religious suppression for others. “Religious freedom” for these groups means the liberty to impose their religious will on others who might not share their beliefs. Harkening back to “traditional” values too is a vague precept– what is meant by traditional? Perhaps the nostalgic good-heartedness found in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show? Sadly, no. Traditional here is coded to mean “white” or “controlled by whites.” By evoking seemingly empty phrases, white supremacist groups may fly under the radar; they may defend their actions as justifiable by cloaking them in euphemistic language.

I made a lot of mistakes in writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, and the biggest mistake was painting white supremacists as marginalized people. They were poor, white, desperate. By the book’s end, I made a point of [spoiler] revealing that it had been a member of the elite rich who had murdered the black mayor, not the racist hick who had been first accused. What point had I hoped to make? That just because a man was racist, he might not be guilty of a hate crime? Sure, that’s fine, but it misses a bigger point, one I outlined earlier– white supremacy does not rely just on the individual actions of racist people, but rather the collective passivity of an entire white community.

I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County in 2010, and it was not published until 2016. In the time between writing the book and its publication, police and citizen brutality against black Americans had become a national talking point. Trayvon Martin had been murdered for walking through the wrong neighborhood. Eric Garner had been choked to death for selling cigarettes. In the year leading up to its publication, I lived in Germany; back home in Charleston, a police officer shot Walter Scott in the back and then planted a taser on his boy. A white supremacist, fueled by an online community, walked into a the Emmanuel AME Church one block from where I had lived and took nine lives. And all this time my ideas about white supremacy, about what constituted racism and its prevalence, shifted dramatically.

Because when I tell people today my book references a lynching, no one bats an eye. It is the opposite of shocking; it is expected. In fact, I was tremendously worried talking about the book because it inadvertently exploited black death in a way I had never before considered. In writing what was essentially a satire, I had resurrected the ghost of black trauma, the ghost of black death, the ghost in a white sheet. Not only does white supremacy operate as a systematic oppressive force in American society today, it operates also as a proactive force.

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Last week, gravestones at an upstate New York Jewish cemetery were vandalized (likely by white supremacist groups). Two days ago in Kansas, an Indian man was shot dead by a white man who believed him to be Iranian. Today in South Carolina, another Indian man was shot outside of his home. Hate crimes have been steadily on the rise since November, and while it is popular to link this rise with Trump’s presidency, the acceleration of hate crimes has been ongoing before Trump came onto the scene. What his rhetoric enabled, however, is the normalization of hate.

The Internet– that wonderful utopia and dystopia– is a source well for much of this hate. Log on to any news article related to race-related crimes or immigration, and you will see the outpouring of hateful rhetoric. What language before belonged only in the mouths of white supremacists– condemnation of migrants as inherent criminals, arguments blaming the black community for the terror facing it, blanket-statements concerning Muslim members of the country as universally linked to terrorist organizations. Recall the comments made concerning protesters blocking highways, calls to run them over. People who we might have viewed before as perfectly normal are now calling for the state-sanctioned murder of those who protest the status quo.

Furthermore, white supremacy has evolved, has worn new masks. Consider, for example, the vitriolic spewing of Milo Yiannopoulos or the neo-Nazi rhetoric of Richard Spencer; these men affix a modern varnish to a stale ideology. White supremacists are not simply handing out pamphlets in neighborhoods any more; they are making memes on the Internet. They are organizing via social media, using the same tools used by those who coordinated the Arab Spring. They are both grassroots and high-tech; they are not just hicks. They are web-savvy and able to spin their own narrative into one about free speech, not about the actual ideas they are trying to spread.

The level of intellectual hoop-jumping one must initiate is mind-blowing: even liberals are defending white supremacists in the vein of “protecting free speech,” when that really means “paying them money and giving them a platform to disseminate their racist notions.”

I finished writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County when I was eighteen years old, and little changed after that draft. Some scenes changed, of course, while I worked with the publishing company’s editor, and even more changed on a sentence-level. But after 2012, very little content in the book changed. It is a portrait almost of a young white psyche, blind to the vicious and infectious strain of hate spreading through the United States. And white supremacy is not a splinter ideology worthy of satire; it is a growing political reality worthy of extreme consternation.  

In 2016, no longer were white supremacists hiding in the “backwoods” or living in trailers. In 2017, this is even more true. In fact, they are living in The White House.

 

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“Banging at the Gates of American Literature”: I’m an Idiot, But Please Take Me Seriously

On Monday I wrote an essay about writing and acted as if I knew what I was doing. I don’t. But I wrote a book. That’s the good news. I wrote a book, but I’m not sure that necessarily means I know anything about writing books. Maybe ask me after the sixth book comes out. Maybe ask me in ten years, and I’ll have adopted a more seraphic ability to disperse writerly wisdom. Until then, I’m an idiot. I’m a very serious idiot who takes writing very seriously, if not many other things in life.

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Imagine I’m the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, and I’ve written enough that something I’ve written is rather good. Perhaps this is an accident, perhaps not. If you do anything for long enough, you get good at it. That’s old wisdom, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I would not know. I’m an idiot who got really lucky.

This afternoon (morning in my mind) I sat in my fiction writing professor’s office and listened to his criticisms of a new story I gave over to him. Too long, he said– he compared the plot to a dog escaping the yard and running into traffic. Keep the dog in the yard, he advised. And then he asked me to cut the story (over 8,000 words) almost in half (he is allowing me only 5,000 words). I nod, I nod. I am in this moment terribly inadequate at expressing what I want to say about the story. Or mention what the story’s about.

On paper, I can write sentences clean as a disinterred dinosaur bone. But I open my mouth, and the slugs of incomprehensible babble spill forth.

What I mean to say is this: I am a writer, but that does not necessarily mean I’m someone worth listening to. I’ve got a few stories to tell, and I hope you think they’re good. God, please like me. Please, just give me a chance.

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People keep asking, “Hey Derek, how do you feel now that the book is coming out?”

“It’s terrifying,” I tell them.

Of course I’m excited, practically electric with anticipation. But also I am struck with the terror that other people will finally read my work. And no, I cannot take back and book and rewrite it. I cannot, as I did this morning the office of my fiction writing professor, get back the story with comments. It’s done, cement, finito.

But no worries. I am proud of what I’ve produced. I’ve put several years of thought into the book. It reminds me of this idea I’ve been playing with lately. Whenever I speak to creative people, particularly those educated in universities, they tend to look upon “normal people” as boring. As robots pressing on and on, shackled by their pointless labor. These people are un-human, incapable of the higher thought available to those set free by the creative spirit. And that, to me, is such a stupid thought. So I claim not to be an intellectual, not to be interesting at the sake of others. I am an idiot. Just like you. We’re in this together, this trying to be better, this learning to be human. Our communal idiocy in the pursuit of meaning gives our lives meaning.

I think we too often dismiss the possibility that the inner lives of strangers are as fascinating and multi-faceted as our own. Often, I fall into the trap when writing of assuming that readers won’t get it. But I get it, and I’m an idiot! So please take me seriously. The plea falls from my mouth, limp and strange, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Richard Brautigan once wrote a story called ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ about three idiots attempting to write a shoddy novel. The last lines remain with me because they remind artists of the silly truth. And the silly truth is that no one cares what we do. I don’t mean that as a criticism, necessarily. I mean that the writer, the artist, the sculptor, he or she must care very deeply for the art he or she makes. Brautigan’s story ends like this…

 

“Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a flower flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.”

 

And that’s what I’m doing, who I am. Another idiot, drunk on words and muse-juice, “pounding at the gates of American literature.”

Unsettling the Narrative of “The South”

“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”

—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009

“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”

—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”

—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Welcome

Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.

Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.

Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.

When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.

Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.

In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.

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If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.

By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.

I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.

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I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.

Author Spotlight: David Mitchell

“Writers can sound rather mystical when they talk about these things. Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself. Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale. One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things. Literary composition can be a similar process. The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration. It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache.” – David Mitchell, Paris Review Interview Summer 2010

Read the entire interview here.

Although readers know David Mitchell best for his experiments in form, one must remain open to his indelible knack for telling a consciously-conflicted story. In his first novel Ghostwritten, Mitchell frog-leaps between different minds—auditioning different voices—to tell a story of causality in the aftermath of the Tokyo subway Sarin attacks. While the formal ingenuity of the novel is impressive, what might be more startling is Mitchell’s ability to embody humanity in each unique voice, whether the character be a financial lawyer or a doomsday cult member.

David Mitchell replicates this success in characterization in his later novels, including Cloud Atlas, which later became a film starring Tom Hanks and Halley Berry. The structure of Cloud Atlas resembles that of a Russian doll—once knee-deep in the first narrative, one leaps to the next and the next and the next, only to return to each narrative in the latter half of the book. While this sort of choice may easily come off as a gimic, Mitchell writes in such a way that one cares more about the greater story being told. One cares also about the smaller stories. Even in his 2011 novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (linearly straight-forward), one is overwhelmed by the smaller stories spinning like gears within the grander machinery of the book.

David Mitchell author of Cloud Atlas and listed for the 2006 Man Booker prize before speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2006. Scotland, United Kingdom 27th August 2006

David Mitchell author of Cloud Atlas and listed for the 2006 Man Booker prize before speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2006. Scotland, United Kingdom 27th August 2006

There are two things I want to emphasize about David Mitchell: his marrying of cultural narratives and marrying of formality with humanity.

In the first strain, one must look at the regional focus of his novels. Most of the stories take place either in the United Kingdoms or in Japan. Many of the novels leap back and forth from Japan to England, and this is not surprising when one understands Mitchell’s relationship with Japan. After meeting a Japanese woman (now his wife) in London, he travelled back to the island with her, where he lived for the next eight years.

I always carry the questions raised by Edward Said when reading a novel about Asia written by a white, European author—in what ways might he be appropriating these stories, in what ways is he dishonoring the culture? But Mitchell weaves Japanese history and cultural nuance into each narrative, and as little as my opinion on the subject holds, I think he is attempting to tell stories on Japanese terms rather than his own.

Mitchell’s second startling quality is the formalistic experiments he undertakes with each novel. A quick overview:

Ghostwritten: A globe-trotting tale in ten parts, each central character interlinked by seemingly coincidental events.

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Number9dream: A nineteen-year-old jazz enthusiast searches for his father in Tokyo. The novel is in eight parts, the promised ninth part never appearing, though the story ends in abrupt calamity.

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Cloud Atlas: Six narratives nested within one another, each ending halfway through and beginning again in the later half of the book.

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Black Swam Green: Each chapter tells a story of a month in the life of teenaged stammering Jason, who dreams of becoming a writer and avoids his bullies. A Bildungsroman that is partly auto-biographical. This is a personal favorite of mine, because though the story is simple, the book is incredible.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Stylistically simple, though the story leaps through the minds of many characters, especially toward the end of the novel. The focus remains de Zoet, a Dutch transplant in the mysterious city of Dejima (in the harbor of Nagasaki). Historical fiction.

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The Bone Clocks: A time-warping, mind-jumping tale of two immortal races, battling beyond the realm of time in order to save the souls of humans on Earth. The story, in fact, follows the same themes and situations introduced in Jacob de Zoet, though one might not need to read the book beforehand. All in all, probably the craziest and possibly the best David Mitchell work to-date.

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Mitchell’s ability to warp stories, to do as hardly any other author can do without a wrist-slap—mainly, forgo the protagonist and tell a truly sprawling story—is what makes him one of my favorite authors. Not only is he stylistically adventurous, he pulls off great stories again and again with aplomb. His virtuosity is astounding.

To discover more about David Mitchell, read here.

and here.

and here.

David Mitchell’s next novel will be released on October 17, 2015. Entitled, Slade House.

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Pilgrimage: To Taste Joy Again

Today I am practicing joy, allowed myself the grace and naivety of a child. I no longer want to feel self-conscious for child-like wonder; I seek to exorcise shame, to scrape clean my palette for awe where too long cynicism has calcified like plaque. Today I feel refreshed, the way characters in a Coca-Cola commercial appear. I am determined in the same way fictional athletes seem in inspiring sports films the morning of the big race or big fight or big race.

Recently, I have forgotten too simply the purpose of joy. Having allowed self-indulgent misery to conquer my mood, I have moped through my break, alone too often in the dingy dorm underground. For a week, I have been sequestered in my subterranean single room by torrential downpours. But today the rain stopped, and the sun peeked out its head. Emancipated from late May storms, I traveled with my mother and Oma across the state of Baden-Würtemburg to an ancient Danube-neighboring city. Ulm.

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Standing under the neo-gothic spires and buttresses of the Ulm Munster, a sense of awe dawned. There exists perhaps a limit to one’s ability to experience wonder, and lately, I’ve felt as if I reached that limit. Small joys, luscious landscapes, and even stark coffee failed to inspired in my the unnamable intensity for which I craved. Instead, I have betrayed my curious adventurous nature in service of irrational fear. I have spent too many bright afternoons working, subsisting on cream cheese and jazz. I am afraid of something, though of what, I’m unsure.

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So I must re-establish my purpose, an unknown direction, to experience each droplet of experience, to lick the dew of life from each blade of grass. Lately, I have been a man abandoned on an island housing the last block of ice, and I have watched the ice become a puddle.

But today I tasted joy. I balanced on the spine of the Ulm wall as we searched for food. The wall slithers beside the wide river, a twin artery, one red and the other a greenish-blue. The sun came out to massage our necks we stared across the Danube into Bayern. Swans soared above the water’s surface, wide wing flaps slapping the river. In that moment, I too recalled what it meant to feel wonder, to look upon something for the first time.

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Moment arrive again and again when we must re-affirm our faith in the beauty of living. This is a religion with no holy book other than the days we inhale. We must be reminded often that life is worthy of our presence—our conscious presence—our sense of being in the now, now, now.

I do not wish to imply that I must be constantly astonished to escape doldrums, but rather that I search for meaning in the quiet moments. This may mean the boring-in-between, the train ride, the wait at the bus stop, the long afternoons eating and drinking, but, if we wish, we may reclaim these moments as grandiose. We may experience even the familiar as new. In the mind-frame of now, there exists no nostalgia for any time frame other than the present.

There is always time for joy, which stares refreshing like a sliver of ice on a sultry summer day. But joy is no feeling, like happiness; it is instead a practice, a habit that must each day be reinforced. So today I am practicing joy, even if I’m writing emails inside, even if I’m doing laundry, or even if I’m experiencing the myriad dull rituals of the day; I will look back to yesterday and recall wonder, and I must think, it’s that simple. It’s really that simple, to wait and appreciate, and know I will feel this awe again.

Creativity Is a Muscle

“Art is craft, not inspiration.” —Stephen Sondheim

“Sometimes you’re writing to learn how to write a book.” -Julia Fierro

Writer's Group, circa 2011

Writer’s Group, circa 2011

Somewhere in the center of a dark forest stands a cauldron bubbling with black-tar potion. Magic-muse juice percolates within the cast-iron bucket, fumes of inspiration rising toward the night sky. Writers-become-pilgrims trek through this forest every year in search of creativity, the end-all-be-all-cure-all medicine for frustrating writer’s block.

Or perhaps we might imagine creativity in a lighter setting, a golden fluid imbibed by the gods of Olympia. The mind’s ambrosia. Perhaps a secret, clear formula hidden in the storage cache of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory.

When writers converse about creativity, we tend to mythologize the trait as something almost-unattainable, as something holy—manna falling from Heaven. Words dangling like strings from the fingers of God, alighting like snow on the tongue of a poet or novelist. We tend to engage with hefty, lofty metaphors in order to ensure others that creativity is a sacred attribute.

But creativity is a myth, indeed, if we cannot discuss concretely what we mean when we utter the word. Where does one acquire this magic muse-juice? Give me coordinates, longitude, latitude.

Maybe creativity is not a secret at all.

Creativity is a muscle.

Creativity is a habit that must be cultivated, strengthened through continuous use.

Much like the formal tools of writing—syntax, spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.—one becomes better at using creativity the more one engages with its practice. Practice being the operative term here.

I mean not to malign certain would-be writers, but I have encountered again and again English majors (with creative writing minors) who proclaim their intentions to float into the hallowed halls of author-hood post-graduation without having ever truly written anything. Maybe a story or two, a half-finished manuscript, but nothing more. They harbor the belief that one day, with degree and good juju, they will emerge as writers like a butterfly from a cocoon. Except that they never built a cocoon in the first place.

One must practice a craft in order to learn the craft. Creativity works the same way. I should preface also that “being a writer” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve published a book or will publish a book; publication is merely process validation for story-slingers, not the goal in and out itself. Writers write. If you write, then you are a writer.

When learning about writing—whether that means taking a creative writing course, interning at a publishing house, or reading blog posts like this one—one becomes aware only of the craft’s silhouette. This is akin to reading the autobiography of Michael Jordan in preparation to become a basketball player; a more playful analogy—a man reading the Kama Sutra so that he may become a master lover without ever having had sexual intercourse. Learning craft from a source outside yourself is merely supplementary education: writing will teach you to write better. Editing others’ stories, that’s even better.

Often, the first novel you will write is only going to be practice. Maybe you’ll get lucky and publish the novel, but this will be still practice for the next. I was about eleven or twelve when I decided I want to become a writer. On that day I sat down at a computer and wrote a book. Took about a year. A horrible, short, badly-plotted, cliché book, but hey, I was twelve! I forced my mother and fifth grade teacher to read said book, and looking back I can imagine their horror at the violence and pessimism of the story. A year later, I was bored with the manuscript, as children may be, so I wrote something longer, more complex. Still childish, but nevertheless, book-length. Ninety-thousand words or so. In about two years.

This trend of writing sloppy manuscripts continued throughout my adolescence. I was singularly determined to be published before the age of sixteen, and of course I’m overjoyed that I was not published. During that time, however, I learned about craft; I learned about characterization; I learned about the economy of words. I even learned to write query letters and write a decent synopsis. Although at the time my purpose was only to publish these stories, I realize now that these experiments informed my later writing. Even now, I recognize that I am still building up toward something better, a story more precise and beautiful than anything I could create now.

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A collection of lovely notebooks from my teenage years.

Around the age of sixteen, after having penned six or seven bad novels, I began The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (which was, I should mention, my first foray into realistic fiction after a string of fantasy and super-transgressive noir-crime). This novel too was a sloppy mess, and I spent about two years editing and re-writing before I began sending it out to publishers.

Three years later, I finally got the “yes.”

The above anecdote is not designed to brag on my adolescent ambitions, but only to provide a point. One must write to learn to write. Of course I took a few classes and workshops during these teen years; I scribbled notes while listening to panels at book conventions. But the experiences of story-telling, the ritual of always working on something new, created a habit of writing: now I write almost every day, clocking in particular hours of writing or editing to get the work done. Since writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I have written three other manuscripts (two of which are serviceable and that I’m currently whipping into shape). Through this, I mean to infer, I’m still writing. I’m doing work.

Naturally I still encounter “writer’s block” or a lack of inspiration, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my work done. Like a runner straining through the pain on his final lap, a writer can be creative without feeling any special inspiration. Therefore, the myth of creativity and the muse, of stories-come-God—I don’t buy it, not one bit.

Writing is hard work. Yes, it is an incredible fun, eye-opening, soul-searching experience, but at the same time, it’s work. The writer must first practice his free throws before he becomes Michael Jordan; for the record, I’m still trying. For the record, I’m still on the community court  throwing free throws. Dear aspiring writer: you are too.

There is no secret to creativity, then. There is only sweat.

You want muse-juice? Drink some coffee, some green tea. Chew gum. Crack your knuckles. Then get to work.

(Oh, yea, and if you want to learn more about the book I am using as an example, click here to read a synopsis. You can also read a preview here! The novel drops in November 2015)

Pilgrimage: The Big Sleep

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Today classes start back at Tübingen University after a one-week break after a preparatory German course. To call this course arduous would be a disservice to true labor the world over, however, though I did find the course incredibly helpful.  But now I begin tomorrow in earnest, begin a new semester of university at a new school, new country, in a new language, with a new culture to overcome. A tall order, no?

But today I would like to praise the benefit of my long break, or rather my “big sleep.” I have been in academic hibernation for some time now, though I find my time outside of the classroom just as instructional as my time inside the classroom. I have been, after all, working dilligently on a new novel and many poetic projects. Once I arrived overseas, I began helping to orchestrate poetry events back home in Charleston. I have been anything but idle.

I do enjoy my time off. It allows me to delve face-first into things I would otherwise never experience. I have been able to make tremendous progress writing not one, but two books; I have done a first edit of one book and managed and almost-complete first draft of another. In the meanwhile, I have been building a Twitter/Facebook/blog following in anticipation of the release of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Recently I decided to take up drawing, learning how to draw even simple things, which up until now has been beyond me.

I am feeling optimistic. Although a tidal wave of business approaches, I hope to continue writing and working with conviction, with a sense that I will accomplish much in the coming months. At the same time, I wish not to spend all my time with paper and pen in hand. I take advantage of this opportunity to live, to be free in cities I’ve never visited before, to speak with interesting people. These interactions will almost surely translate to new material in short stories and novels to come.

But today is the last day of utter freedom. I have finished writing almost 2,00 words today, though I intend perhaps to write more. Then I will take a bottle of champagne to the park and drink cheap mimosas in the warm tickle of sunlight with friends. I will speak German and look toward the sky. I will finish whatever book I’m currently reading with frantic helplessness as the plot kidnaps my consciousness. I will write, yes, but more importantly I will live. I will wake tomorrow at dawn with a new initiative, a broad, fresh band of obstacles to overcome.

Preview: Read Chapter One of THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY

Welcome to Lickskillet, South Carolina.

A town of enigmatic and wild people where five teenagers will confront their futures, their friends, and the town’s dark secrets.

I’m releasing sample chapters to my debut novel which appears in bookstores and Amazon in November 2015.

Follow the link to read chapter one: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/lickskillet-preview-declin-ostrander/

Read more about the book here: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/

Enjoy and share thoughts on the page. Share the chapters and news of the upcoming book release!

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On How To Become a Writer

Lecturing in a middle-school classroom two months ago on the finer points of poetry explication—in laymen’s terms, explaining that not all lines in poems are, in fact, literal—I fielded questions from the crowd of seventh-grade would-be writers, half of whom actually liked me (because I was young, the teacher insisted) and half of whom squirmed to be released into the wild frontiers of winter break. Hand shot up, “How do you become a writer?”

The question stumped me because—

1.) Am I writer? Do I get to call myself a writer now that my first book will be coming out soon or do I have to wait until I can pay the rent writing? Writers are mythical creatures, like unicorns, and I’m unsure whether I might call myself a unicorn just because I’ve strapped a spiraled horn to my forehead.

2.) I don’t know.

I tell the young girl the only answer that dings at the front of mind, like a mallet against a carnival strength-test. I say, “Write. Just write.”

Seems simplistic, sure, maybe a cop-out answer. I could hear already a collective groan as writers-block-guythe students perhaps anticipated an oncoming lecture on the virtues of hard work. But I could not lie: there’s only one way to become a writer, and that’s to write. Ever since beginning education at university, I have flagellated my ego for deciding not to enroll as an English major with a creative writing concentration. Makes sense, to study writing if you’re a writer.

In some sense, however, I have studied writers for years: I read books, essays, magazines, and poetry. Read, read, read, consume knowledge; write, write, write, spit that knowledge back out in a practical context. I mean not to demean the value of a good writing program, though, because if that’s what works, it works. In my experience, writing programs offer both an incentive and time to write. Studying at university as well as back in high school, I had both incentive and time: I wanted to write books and I made time to write books, stories, and poetry.

There are several paths that might help you become a better writer: taking classes, engaging in writing critique groups, or reading “On Writing” by Stephen King. Or you could read blogs like this. But none of that will matter if you never sit down to put in actual work. Morris L. West, author of The Devil’s Advocate and many other books, once said, “In a longish life as a professional writer, I have heard a thousand masterpieces talked out over bars, restaurant tables and love seats. I have never seen one of them in print. Books must be written, not talked.” (http://www.advicetowriters.com/home/2015/2/6/books-must-be-written-not-talked.html)

There ain’t no hocus pocus, no special pill, and no inspiring book: just write. All the rest’s just background noise. You could be a best-selling author or an amateur middle-school scribbler, but writing makes the writer. So you wanna be a writer? Then pick up a pen or place fingertips to keyboard and begin.

[Short Fiction] Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo

Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo

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Just start at the beginning please. Don’t leave anything out.

Pawpaw used to say, the ocean’s about the closest a human being gets to Heaven. ‘Cept the ocean killed his brother back in 1953—this was when Pawpaw and Great-Uncle Hank boozed around France post-war, picking up women and pissin’ into the Seine. Two weeks after Pawpaw met Memaw, they went for a small cruise in her daddy’s boat off the coast of Mallorca, and Hank stayed up deck while my grandparents did the nasty down below; soon, a storm comes and knocks his ass clean into the water, his arms flailing for help. But course Pawpaw’s flailing himself—if you heard him tell the story, you’d be cringin’ more than this—and Hank drowns beneath the vicious waves.

But Pawpaw still swore a love of the sea, could wax poetic about how the current of beauty pulls you under. When I was just six or seven, that’s when it happened—swear this is a true story. Back then, Pawpaw brought us to Myrtle Beach from Sumter on the first vacation we ever had—and I saw them for the first time. The mermaids.

No, real live mermaids. With fins and gills and everything.

And not like that redhead chick from Disney, I mean savage fuckin‘ mermaids. That’s why you came here, right, to ask about the storm of 1989? Well, I was there, just a child at the time. Wasn’t cleanin’ no place, tell you that. Wasn’t moppin’ up blood or vomit from the floor of this club after the high school seniors go home. This was the time of Hugo, ask anyone. For years after, all anyone could talk about was how that storm wrecked the shoreline, but some of us, we know the truth. The true truth about the mermaids and the sea turtles?

Hell yea, they rode in on these big-ass sea turtles. Swear on Jesus Christ, the bible, and Memaw’s grave. Now let me get on with the story: daddy and mama didn’t own no TV, so we thought we was supposed to have a nice, fine weekend. Rode up in the back of Pawpaw’s truck for about two hours, me and my brother hanging out the side of the bed with our arms waving. Loved the feeling of wind in my face, ‘cept the whole ride lasted too long. Daddy and Mama couldn’t come, so it was just us boys and our grandparents.

When we get to Myrtle, we post up in a hotel right on the shore. The Sandy Kingdom, this regal place. Memaw said the place reminded her of the Palace of Versailles, only The Sandy Kingdom was better because it had a water park. We got two big king-size beds, a refrigerator, and a window from which you could see the ocean. Pawpaw opened his arms wide and gestured to the water.

“Look, boys, he said. Just as beautiful as I remember.” Said it just like that. Told you I had a hell of a memory, I can recall it perfectly. “Just as beautiful as I remember,” that’s the exact words that fell from his lips.

Only when I peeked under his arm out the window, I didn’t think the ocean looked too pretty. Cloaked in gray-sky like some old antique smothered by dust, the tar-black ocean whipped the shore violently. The beach stood nearly empty, the wind whipping up belts of sand. “Dang, guess people don’t come round late summer,” Pawpaw said. “Guess we’ve got this whole place to ourselves.

My brother was around the age he started to play with himself and think about girls in a sense that didn’t involve them having cooties. You know: little hairs on his giblets and his voice doing that thing where it goes up and down, breaking like a ceramic plate. I didn’t like so much the idea of sleeping in the same bed as him, for obvious reasons.

“Grab your trunks, boys,” Pawpaw said. “We’re going down to the beach.”

Memaw decided to stay upstairs and read. “I just enjoy looking at it,” she said.

We changed into our trunks and headed down with Pawpaw to the beach, walking barefoot cross the parking lot. Once we got to the ocean, the sand lashed us something fierce. “Damn, that wind’s strong,” Pawpaw said. “Must be sandy season, and that’s why no one’s here at the beach.”

Not a damn soul in sight, not for miles in either direction. My brother Lincoln barged toward the waves that crashed huge and  swallowed chunks of sand like some hungry beast. Plastic shopping bags, empty aluminum beer cans, and torn bits of net swirled in the dark water before us, carried by the crests of breaking foam. The entire beach, littered with trash; we couldn’t figure out why. Till I saw Lincoln go in that water. Soon as he leapt into an oncoming wave, something threw him back out. Something with scaly hands.

I screamed. Pawpaw came round to tell me, there’s nothing to worry about. Lincoln seemed to think he got pushed back by water, didn’t see no hands. But I saw ’em, and they would too. Pretty soon, I realize all this trash, the ocean’s spitting the trash back onto the beach. Cigarette butts, glass bottles, and fishing hooks. Even a pair of lady’s underwear, the kind with a little string that sits in the butt-crack.

See, you wanted a story about beach conservation, well, this story’s just right for you. They sent you to the right man, oh boy. Because see, that’s what the mermaids wanted. To save the ocean. That’s why they came onto land that wretched day.

So I was sitting on a dune minding my own business, trying to rub the sharp grains of sand from my eyes, and Lincoln yells, “Someone’s coming!” Sure-nuff, there’s this pair of men riding up in a golf cart. Only it ain’t a golf cart but instead some kinda military vehicle, you know, like the ones from M.A.S.H. You ever seen M.A.S.H.? I miss that damn show. I recall, when we first got our TV, it was on some channel, and I kept getting all excited; only my Daddy says, M.A.S.H. went off the air years ago. Anyways, these men were driving toward us and screaming. I couldn’t hear what words they were saying, cause they was far off, but it sounded pretty bad.

“Looks like they want us off the beach,” Pawpaw said. “Best listen. Come on, boys.”

By this time, I was feeling pretty weird bout the whole thing: we ain’t ever been able to afford any fancy hotel room before or no vacation to the beach. But here we were, mid-September, at Myrtle Beach. All the kids at school, they used to say, I go to Myrtle Beach every Spring and every Summer. But family never got to go until the weekend of the hurricane.

We walked across the parking lot, and the two men climbed out the Jeep. They ran up to us and started yelling. “Get out of here?” “What the hell you think you’re doing here?” Stuff like that.

Pawpaw puts his palms on both our shoulders and looks the men square in their faces, says, “These here my grand-kids, and I’m showing them the beach.”

“Sir, you can’t be here right now. You know there’s a storm coming.”

Pawpaw pointed to them clouds black as death and said, “Them clouds ain’t nothing? Let me tell you about the clouds they used to use in trenches. Them Nazis… ” He trailed off. Pawpaw liked to claim he was in the Second World War, but he was only an ambulance driver working in Italy.

“Sir, it doesn’t matter what you think. You ain’t heard of this hurricane? Hugo’s supposed to blow this whole city away, and you wanna bring kids here. You got to get in your car and get out.” One of the military men began waving his arms wildly.

Then I saw the strangest thing. The waves began to break, split apart like the Red Sea at the hand of Moses. Two walls of water blast up into the air real tall-like, and then I saw ’em. The beastly creatures stood on their tails and slithered up the beach like humanoid serpents. Straight biblical beasts, them mermaids were.

Yes, mermaids only. No mer-men or nothing. Just mer-maids, and you could tell they was women cause they had—well you know, women’s parts. Blue nipples on their pale-gray skin, first time I ever saw a breast. Their faces were wicked, jagged teeth like skinning knives jutting from their crooked jaws. Their eyes green like granny smiths. They wore white-green hair long down their backs, braided together thick and intricate. And halfway down, their skin became scales; they became fish with these pronged fins that stuck out underneath them as they slid like slugs up the beach. And they chanted something, foreign words. Afterwards, I swore it was Russians—they must have been communist infiltrators sent by Gorbachev cause he was sore bout the wall that was gonna fall—but Lincoln said their words sounded more like one of them Arab languages.

Anyways, they were chanting or singing. Kinda like in church, a prayer with rhythm. In their hands, they held these long tridents. Like them fancy salad forks you see at Olive Garden, only bigger and pointier.

You writing all this down? It’s important.

So these mermaids came up onto the beach with their weapons and their fishy-bodies, and suddenly they stopped. One was in front, she was the leader, obviously. She moved forward alone toward the two men.

The one man who was mean to Pawpaw screamed into his walkie-talkie, “They’re here. The combatants have touched ground. I repeat, they have touched—”

Suddenly, this screech comes right out the Queen Mermaid’s wicked mouth. And then we hear something, not out loud but in our heads. Like she’s speaking straight to our minds.

This is your final warning, humans. Make amends now. Promise us you will discontinue your campaign of destruction, and we will allow you to live.

But the military men only leapt into the Jeep and began driving away. Suddenly, we heard the rumble of helicoptors overheard and the smack-smack-smack, tap-rapta-tap of bullets. The words from the Mermaid Queen made me shudder, but the gunfire got me running too. I sprinted toward the Sandy Kingdom hotel with Pawpaw in tow, Lincoln a few lengths ahead of us.

Once inside, we stormed the stairs to the third floor and found Memaw. She sat in bed with a book above her face. “Look, Marguerite, we’ve got to leave.”

“But I’m only getting to the good part.”

The entire building shook, wind slapping the walls of the hotel. Rain sprayed from above in trembling blasts. Have you ever got your friends to shove you in a foot locker and roll you down a steep hill? Like that.

We peered over the edge of the balcony. The beach swarmed with mermaids now, the one we saw earlier merely a vanguard. Now a bonafide army of the slippery creatures stood ashore locked in mortal combat with human soldiers. The mermaids moved fast, knocking guns from hands with swift smacks from their tridents. Some blasted lightning from the tips of their weapons, siezing men with electricity. Men tended to remain far from the water, because waves continued to lash forward and drag the men beneath the depths.

The wind picked up. The rain chattered against the window harder. We moved away, backing against the door. We could not go outside, not with the sky damning each building. I crawled forward and could see the expanse of the beach shredded by the destructive storm, the waves of mermaids descending upon shore. We could sea the turtles now too, huge terrapins stomping up the beach like tanks. You ever see that movie Finding Nemo, came out a few years ago, and there’s a turtle in it? Well, nothing like that. They had legs large as tree stumps, spikes rising from their concrete-thick shells.

onU8Y.AuSt.78                To our left, a pirate-themed mini-golf course, its astro-turf uprooted and thrown like a green-brown pawl against the face of One-Eyed Jack’s ceramic statue. Further down, a rollercoaster rusting against the relentless rain, its train bending under the power of sky’s rebellion. To our right, bright-neon signs crashing upon black pavement. Mermaids crawling up the light poles, wrapping their tails around street signs and breaking their stands like fragile toothpicks. They skewered car tires with tridents, overturning vending machines and spilling pinball machines from the arcade, which rode out like life rafts on the rising tide. As the mermaids overpowered the military men with lightning and brute ferocity, they advanced along the street. And the ocean followed them.

We watched as the entire city became Heaven.

Well, that’s it? That can’t be it. How’d you get out?

Oh, you believe me now, huh? Well, for awhile, the bottom floor of the hotel was flooded. We survived on provisions of snacks from vending machines upstairs. Pawpaw bust them open with can of corn we found. We stepped outside after the storm, and the whole city was wasted. Everything devastated in the mermaid’s wake. I seen tornadoes tear through trailer parks before, but nothing like this, nothing like how the rage of sea and sky could scorch a city so good, you wouldn’t recognize its fondest sites.

The amusement rides, broken and bent. The boardwalk crippled, boards ripped up, dock collapsed into the water. I remember seeing this stand, one of those fair-type places where you could shoot targets and win prizes. The whole thing sunk into mud, fluffy bears staring from the wreckage with gouged-out eyes.

Entire buildings collapsed, became a mess of concrete and sadness. Some houses got pushed off their foundations, even the ones raised up on wooden stilts. Church steeples toppled. You ever build a Lego-castle as a kid, a huge castle out of multi-colored blocks that gets taller than you, and then you take the whole structure and toss it to the ground, maybe from some height like the couch or kitchen table, and all the parts explode, blocks sliding across the floors? And you can’t recognize that magnificent castle you built? Like that.

Except there was one thing I guess people never tell about Hurricane Hugo, and that’s this. All the debris lying around the city, it all didn’t come from the buildings. Some came from the ocean. Piles of rotting, sea-soaked garbage. Just stacked in the streets like bodies from a war. Like a calling card or symbol. Or a warning.

[End Transcript]