What are you working on? What’s on your desk?
Hiding among well-shuffled stacks of paper junk, which I’m afraid to recycle because there might be something valuable, I have my eye on these nuggets:
- Polaroids of the players who immigrated here from all around the world and now play on my Papi League soccer team—the raw material of a new monologue/story I’m writing.
- Rawhide dog treats to keep the barking down.
- Printed-out-email correspondence from 200 inspiring yet ordinary people who have started on second lives—who I’ll go see in person if I’m ever in their city.
- Noah Hawley’s unpublished, great new solo CD, which he recorded and mixed in his apartment during a recent spell of insomnia.
SARAH STEWART TAYLOR
At the moment, my desk is covered with various reference works I’m using on the latest pass through my second, as yet untitled mystery, a follow-up to O’ Artful Death, about an art historian who specializes in gravestone art and mourning objects. They are, from top to bottom: A book of epitaphs from New England gravestones called Epitaphs to Remember collected by Janet Greene (page 32: “Molly tho’ pleasant in her day / Was suddenly seized and went away / How soon she’s ripe, how soon she’s rotten / Laid in her grave and soon forgotten”); The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry by C. Jeanenne Bell (Page 10: “In the sixteenth century it became fashionable for widows to wear rings that were embellished with skulls or death’s heads”); the excellent Howdunit: How Crimes are Committed and Solved, edited by John Boertlein (page 28: “The responsibility of the first officer at the scene of a crime is to preserve its integrity until the patrol supervisor can arrive”). Also: the aforementioned, untitled novel, in manuscript form, distressingly unfinished; an extremely large bowl of paper clips (various colors); nail polish (Cover Girl Cabernet Frost); a cat (white and gray, of an embarrassingly fancy breed, who appeared in woodshed a few months ago and has made himself at home on said desk, and is tolerated on desk despite predilection for crapping in dark corners of house).
To name a small percentage of what’s on my desk: I have galley copies sent to me in hopes that I would blurb them, herbal remedies and antibiotics in hopes that I can get rid of my Lyme disease, a stuffed gorilla toy named Koko and her kitten, a photo of my grandmother that was used as the cover of my last book, a clock with dogs at each hour with a second hand that jerks forward with a heartbeat sound, a box of bits of Greenies for my dogs, a scatter of souvenirs I bought from Asia including antique inkwells, my computer in front of me, my spiral-bound manuscript to my left with its shiny red Kinko cover.
I am doing the first round of revisions on my first nonfiction book, The Opposite of Fate, which is to be published at the end of October 2003.
My second novel, Lostland, has just left the protective cocoon of my desk and hit my editor. Among other things, Lostland is about a thirty-five-year-old alcoholic coping with a difficult sobriety, a vicious dog attack on her niece, an eleven-year-old stalker, and golf. Now I’m in the dreamy honeymoon stage with my third novel: falling in love with new and exciting people, traveling to inadvisable places, and nurturing all the delusions necessary to sticking with it.
I’m just finishing edits on a nonfiction book about my travels through the world of obscure regional candy bars, meaning the Twin Bing of Sioux City, meaning the Goo Goo Cluster of Nashville, meaning Valomilk, Big Hunk, and the blessed Idaho Spud. I am not making this up. Providing I don’t screw things up too badly, Algonquin will publish the book in spring 2004.
You don’t want to know what’s on my desk: books, floppies, drug store glasses, clippings on racketeering and extortion in my native city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a Saigon Grill take-out menu, a mouse pad picturing the Morgan Library, pleas of worthy (I presume) organizations, postcards of Virginia Woolf, Ben Bulben and a drawing done by my nephew some years ago, title: “A Face of Pure Evil.” Take this clutter as a reflection of my distraught mind, or just the working day, but best take the books—The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, The Sound of Early Cinema, Hollywood Glamour Photography, The Complete Poems of Henry Vaughan, The Theory of the Leisure Class—all having something to do with the novel in progress, Pilgrims, which takes place in summer as I work my way through the four seasons. Having something to do with my cousin, who once lead retreats much like the one in Portrait of the Artist, who quit the Jesuits, packed himself off like Stephen Dedalus, though no longer a young man. And having to do with a star of silent movies who chose not to cross over to sound, but I don’t like to say much about what’s in progress unless we are in a bar and it’s late; then, in my cups, I might say, “Let me tell you about my novel.” As for Vaughan, my poet of contemplation, he sets the tone for my nose-to-grindstone summer in which this book must be written: “They are all gone into the world of light! / And I alone sit lingering hereÖ.” Or, in the debased language of my teendom: “Plant you now, dig you later.”
The artist of evil will graduate from the eighth grade next week, having designed a website for a struggling little church in Vermont. Let’s talk about transformations.
Fear of failure keeps me from talking much about writing-in-progress (and some might wish that it kept me from writing altogether), but I’ll mention some of the books I’m reading, which relate to what, on my better days, I can claim to be working on: Supplement to Forchheimer’s Therapeusis of Internal Diseases, The Year the Red Sox Won the Series, Five Hundred Delinquent Women, Cheap Amusements. I’ve also got Richard Yates’s screenplay for Lie Down in Darkness sitting here, begging to be read, because I’m on an obsessive, out-smartypants-the-world crusade to read not just his novels and stories but everything the man wrote. (Anyone have his old grocery lists? I’ll pay top dollar.)
In addition to trying to kill a couple screenplays that WILL NOT DIE, I’m in the thick of a research phase on what I hope to be a soup-to-nuts telling of the life of John the Baptist. Yes, yes, we all know a thing or two about the death—or at least what Oscar Wilde would have us think—and some of us are familiar with John’s ministry and the role he played in identifying Jesus as the Messiah, but a closer look at all the relevant texts prompts too many disturbing questions to resist, and as far as I can tell, no one has yet made an effort to distill all of this material—the secular, the orthodox, the gnostic, the sacred and the profane—into a single, lucid, inclusive and well-told account.
In attempting such, I am not aiming anything that might be called biography, nothing remotely scholarly, definitive, or authoritative—no “search for the historical John.” Rather, I am imagining as inclusive a “harmony” of the texts as I can possibly manage—incorporating psalm, song, scriptures, pulp, gospel, esoterica, poetry, interpolation and elaboration—a no-holds-barred pastiche that trades bumps for speed and looks to John Keats for editorial guidance; meaning if it’s beautiful, it stays, and it’s all pretty beautiful. Sources will include Matthew, Mark, Luke, John the Evangelist, various prophets, James, the Ebionotes, the Nazarenes, “tradition,” Josephus, Mallarmé, Flaubert, Renan, Wilde, and perhaps most intriguing, a sixth-century text titled the Book of John, which still serves as a sacred scripture among a gnostic sect in southern Iraq called the Mandeans, who believe John to be the true Messiah, while Jesus and Moses are treated as deceivers and corrupters of the Truth.
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