Our hometown of Sisters celebrated the reading life this month. The inaugural Sisters Festival of Books October 18–20 was a success on every level. Craig Rullman and I were honored to be asked to participate in the kickoff event, which featured a dozen local authors.
There are few things more worthy of celebration than books and the strange and wonderful people who create them. In that spirit, Craig and I are fixing to launch a new series of Running Iron Report podcasts titled The Stories That Shaped Us. (It’ll be a special feature interspersed among our regular podcasts — stay tuned).
Writing a book is a damnably difficult business, and far more books are started than are finished. Inspiration can give you a good start, but only discipline can carry you through to completion. And that’s to say nothing about all the work involved in getting a book out into the hands of readers, whether you are traditionally published or are doing the work yourself.
It’s a giant pain and best to be avoided, if you can. Thing is, most writers just… can’t. They HAVE to write. David Joy, who was featured at the Sisters festival, described the overwhelming compulsion to get a story down on paper and out into the world:
“It feels almost terminal, like if I don’t get the words out then it’ll be the end of me.”
Well, I, for one, am grateful that these intrepid souls are so driven, for they have given me gifts beyond price.
Books made me. Reading the propulsive pulp stories of Robert E. Howard and the gritty yet romantic frontier novels of Will Henry made me say, “I want to do THAT!” and set me on the path to making my living with the pen. My brother’s gift of Allan W. Eckert’s historical novel The Frontiersmen introduced me to the Kentucky woods-ranger Simon Kenton, and the Shawnee resistance leader Tecumseh. From that seed grew a lifetime of frontier studies — and my own book.
Non-readers often think that we readers aren’t actually doing anything when we’re reading — but they are oh so wrong. We’re living a thousand lives, right there on the couch. My wife, Marilyn, once had to shout at me to get my attention while I was reading Tim Willocks’ brilliant novel The Religion, which depicts the 1565 Great Siege of Malta by the Turkish army of Suleiman the Magnificent. She laughed at me as I tore myself from the page and stared at her blankly, like I’d just woken up from a deep slumber.
All I could tell her was that it takes some time to get back from 1565 to the 21st century. A good book does that to you. It carries you away, and returns you home changed, like Bilbo Baggins returning to The Shire from the Lonely Mountain.
That immersiveness can be intimidating. In a recent palaver, I was forced to acknowledge that I haven’t yet read Ruth Beebe Hill’s Lakota novel Hanta Yo — despite Craig’s fervent recommendation — at least in part because I have this sneaking suspicion that’s it’s going to upend my world. To reference Mr. Baggins one more time:
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Nevertheless, I should plunge in, and plunge in now, because it will pair so well with Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America.
As you’ve no doubt deduced, my tastes run heavily to blood-and-thunder — and that’s true of both my fiction and non-fiction reading. My poor, dear mother early on gave up trying to elevate my barbaric tastes — and defended them when I got in trouble in sixth grade for bringing Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels to free reading day.
Not that anybody’s tastes need defending, but that blood-and-thunder section boasts some extraordinary writers. When you combine 100-proof storytelling with writing chops honed to a razor’s edge, you’ve got something that makes the blood sing, something as timeless and soul-stirring as Beowulf. Willocks has it; so do James Carlos Blake and Cormac McCarthy. And so does David Joy, who tore himself away from his beloved forests, streams, and mountains to carry the coals of Story to us here in Sisters.
The “studio” where we record the RIR podcast is actually Craig’s office and library. It is a wonderful place. There is a strange sense of comfort to be found where book shelves run from floor to ceiling and more books are stacked on tables and cover every available space.
This winter we’ll gather in that electronic Great Hall to hail the spinners of tales, the creators of worlds. We’ll try not to break the mead benches.