Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dan Blum's Interview, Part Three

Welcome back to Dan Blum, in his third and final segment of his interview.  Speaking of interviews, I'll be on the Twin Cities' WCCO's Midmorning Show tomorrow morning, Wednesday, May 25, about 9:40.  Not surprisingly, I'll be talking about my own books and their continuing rise in readership.

Dan's second book, The Feet Say Run, is being released by Gabriel's Horn Press this fall.  Having read it a few times myself, I highly recommend it.  It is the journal of 85-year-old Hans Jaeger, telling both of his life on a deserted island with 6 other castaways, and of his own, long life, from his youth in Nazi Germany and the Jewish girl he loved, through his post-war years in Germany and his older years in Iowa, trying to come to terms with his decisions of the past.

It is a fantastic book for its rare ability to tell a deep and profound story while still capturing the humor of life, our foibles, and quirks.  I loved every page of this book.  It is available for pre-order at Smashwords, and will soon be available for pre-orders elsewhere.

Dan Blum Interview Part One   Dan Blum Interview Part Two

What writers have had the greatest influence on you as a writer?

I would say mostly they are from the previous generation – Updike for his prose and vision of America, Marquez for his surrealism and sweep of history, Barth for the humor that seems completely missing from contemporary fiction, also Nabokov for a very different kind of humor and surrealism.

These were some of the big names when I was starting to write, and I still think they were a remarkable generation. Going back further, there is Faulkner, who I was mesmerized by in college and in the years immediately after, and Henry Roth, whose Call It Sleep is still one of the unsung masterpieces, and showed how it is possible to be emotionally riveting in a highly literary, often stream-of-consciousness narrative.

I have also greatly admired, and been influenced by, more commercial writers who told wonderful, engaging narratives – Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove, and E.L. Doctorow in Billy Bathgate, for example. Also Scott Turow, who constructs masterful plots around strong, interesting characters.

What about current writers?

There are definitely some excellent writers out there, but overall I find myself pretty critical of the state of the novel as an art form these days.

T.C. Boyle is one of the current writers I really enjoy.  Drop City was a fantastic read. Donna Tartt’s, The Secret History was excellent, and The Goldfinch was also vastly better than most of what I pick up. I have also liked Jennifer Egan and Ann Packer and Elisa Albert. Patty Marx’s novel was the last really funny novel I’ve read, and it is great to see that the comic novel is not entirely dead. I’m sure there are many others I am not thinking of.

But truth be told, many other writers, even more celebrated ones, I don’t really understand what the excitement is about. Sometimes I find the reviews so over-the-top full of praise for books I find mediocre, I wonder if the critics are even being honest with themselves, or have lost the capacity to judge, independent of a writer’s reputation. I find this really troubling. A novel’s number one task is to engage. To not be boring! Isn’t that what the craft, and skill, and art is about? I truly feel we have forgotten this.

You have not been shy in your blog about criticizing other writers, including some highly-respected ones. You have also been critical of book reviewers. Do you regret that now?

Certainly, I have not done myself any favors if I had hoped for a review in the New York Times. But I said what I felt needed to be said, and what many writers are afraid of saying. And it was interesting that I received emails from a couple of fairly well-known novelists about how much they enjoyed and agreed with what I’d written. The NY Times Book Review is a great institution. I would never deny that. But it should not be immune to a bit of richly-deserved teasing.

As to criticizing other writers, my one regret is some worry about hurting feelings. I am not a mean-spirited person. I can imagine seeing something I had worked on for years lampooned by some upstart, and the genuine pain that would cause, and I do think of that. But honestly, I also feel that overall, and with some exceptions, our literature has taken a turn for the dull. And I know many others also feel this. So if we never criticize, if we accept the canon of contemporary literature that is handed to us from on high, in my view we are doing a disservice to literature itself.

To me it feels like recent National Book Award winners and nominees are largely of a particularly type: they have all gotten A+’s in English since they were eight years old, got a creative writing MFA from some distinguished institution, but have not necessarily lived, experienced, and suffered, and often the stories just feel flat to me. Prudish and humorless and stagnant. Perfectly crafted sentences that amount to nothing.

So, there is a serious point I am trying to make in my snarking. And it is one I feel needs to be made.

Thank you, Dan, for being here!  

If you would like to connect with Dan, he is at

His Blog

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Skye Boat Song, Hermitage Castle

Skye Boat Song, played at Hermitage Castle.

The melody of Skye Boat Song has been used as the theme for Outlander, with slightly altered Robert Louis Stevenson lyrics.

[Chorus:] Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Mull was astern, Rùm on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?
Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that's gone!
Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

The original lyrics do have to do with Bonnie Prince Charlie, who plays a part in the time in which Claire finds herself--the time of the Jacobites.  Here are the original lyrics:

[Chorus:] Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclouds rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.
Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean's a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.
Many's the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden's field.
Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.
More on Hermitage Castle and its connection to The Blue Bells Chronicles in future posts!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Water is Wide, Turnberry Castle

Readers may notice I play many of the same songs on these videos.  This is because I'm steadily working on memorizing a whole repertoire of Celtic folk songs, and also because I specifically play the songs that make up the titles of my books: Blue Bells of Scotland, The Minstrel Boy, The Water is Wide, and Westering Home.  

This was recorded April 20, 2016, on the shore beneath Turnberry Castle.  Lovers of Scottish history will know this is where Robert the Bruce was born.  There is very little left of Turnberry.  You can see the stone wall rising on the cliff behind me and in front of the lighthouse.

More to come on Turnberry!