What does the future hold?
Inspired by a Facebook prompting by this week’s guest author (and by the excerpt from his second book which I’m about to share), next week’s posting will be my own Works Cited list, with ten books that have had an impact on me.
But without further ado…
I went to college with Brandon Schrand. Or at least we lived in the same place for the same span of time, during which at least one or the other of us was attempting to go to college. I could go on for some time on the stories, but for the purpose of this introduction, perhaps all you need to know is that at some point in our friendship we considered ourselves a pairing something akin to Hunter S. Thompson and Dr. Gonzo. There’s a great quote by Hunter Thompson which I think fits my current situation perfectly:
“Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist… You have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you’re writing about before you alter it” (Associated Press, 2003).
Brandon has told me before that I should write nonfiction. I haven’t completely disregarded this idea (and there is a way back burner project simmering), but with a few exceptions, I don’t know that my past, my stories, are interesting enough. And again, I’m a horror writer; I can barely fathom the idea of even writing straight literary fiction. Another fitting quote from a professor of mine, Bill Ransom (who did some co-writing with Frank Herbert, creator of Dune) was that “the great thing about fiction is that you can take something that really happened to you, and if you don’t like the way it ended, you just change it.” Add in some real life characters, and that pretty well sums of most of my stories. But in Brandon’s writing, I find stories that support the age-old axiom that truth is often stranger than fiction. Or at least more entertaining.
Brandon’s first book, a memoir entitled The Enders Hotel tells about his life growing up with his mother and stepfather, living in the family run Enders Hotel in Soda Springs, Idaho. It has been optioned for a feature length film. His second book, Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem, Misbehavior and How a Good Book Can Save Your Life; Or, an Anti-Kindle Memoir will be published in Spring of 2012. You can see from the title why I chose this as a response to my last week’s post (To “e,” or Not To “e”). But more than anything, I think you should be reading Brandon Schrand, so I offer up the following excerpt from this upcoming memoir.
From Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem, Misbehavior & and How a Good Book Can Save Your Life; Or, an Anti-Kindle Memoir by Brandon R. Schrand.
Brinley, Bertrand R. The Mad Scientist’s Club. New York: Scholastic Books, 1965.
When I was eleven and in that sunset year of childhood when it took actual concentration to discern the diaphanous line between daydreams and reality, when the stories I read so fully colored my day-to-day loafing in rural Idaho that I seldom knew where the page ended and the world began, I picked up a particular book about a gang of goofy kids whose lives I wanted to be my own so badly that it left me aching in the joyous way books often leave us: high, yet abandoned somehow. The feeling, when you have it, is tactile and intoxicating. It is like love or victory or surrender.
Set in the nostalgic and quaint town of Mammoth Falls, The Mad Scientist’s Club centered on a group of boy geniuses whose singular occupation was to hatch harebrained schemes to save their town (or themselves) from one kind of danger or another. Led by Jeff Crocker and the bespectacled Henry Mulligan (the main brain), the club met daily in their headquarters, which was outfitted in the loft of Jeff Crocker’s barn. They had an in-house laboratory complete with microscopes and vials of solutions and compounds. They had telescopes. Transmitters. Toolboxes. Plenty of books. And endless days to fill. It was a world that to me felt actual, a realm whose cinematic stories stamped my imagination, and I never wanted it to end.
Lee Smith said somewhere that as a girl she would write out additional chapters when she reached the end of a book, conjuring alternate endings that would sprawl on for pages. Because I grew up in a working-class family of little education, I was more apt to grab tools or weapons—a torque wrench or crossbow, say—than I was a pencil or typewriter as a way to extend the story at hand. But I see now that our hunger was the same. So while I didn’t draft my own narrative addenda, I did enact the stories as a way of physically inhabiting, re-creating and living in my impromptu mock-up of what I imagined to be other worlds, or in this case, Mammoth Falls.
I formed my own Mad Scientist’s Club. I enlisted four of the smartest kids in my school. I secured a workspace in the basement of the old hotel my family owned, plus I had claimed a stone clubhouse outside, whose former life had been as an aboveground root cellar. I bought a telescope. I gathered tools, rope, pocket knives, drafting paper, pencils, protractors, a Commodore VIC-20, walkie-talkies, everything. We were in business. I called the meeting to order, explained my intentions, my conception of what would surely be summer after summer of endless adventure, and then we started tossing out ideas, the mischief that would unfurl. But the first meeting seemed forced and stilted. Few if any of the ideas had legs. The short list of agreed-upon projects looked something like this:
• Build a small, unmanned rocket. We started with some basic blueprints that involved an old water heater I salvaged from our basement, an oxygen tank my grandfather used on account of his emphysema, a sledgehammer and a football helmet (for safety). The project, though, never got off the ground, so to speak.
• Hack into the NORAD defense system mainframe using the Commodore VIC-20. We spent hours in front of the “computer”—a keyboard hooked into a television set—running any number of commands that would, we were sure, destabilize global defense centers everywhere. We typed words like NORAD and missile and defense and top secret, and for each entry we jabbed into the keyboard, the television screen spat back its unwavering response: syntax error.
• Build a satellite that will intercept alien communications. I remember monkeying around with a coffee can, some parts from my Erector Set and some speaker wire, but the project did not live past a crude prototype, and we never intercepted anything but an all-Spanish radio station and dust motes.
I was so taken with the club and its promising future that I bought T-shirts and had Mrs. Jensen at Keith’s Department Store affix three felt iron-on letters—“ M.S.C.”—on each shirt. But nothing—not monogrammed T-shirts, not cloud-high ideas or the books that inspired them—could prolong that age and that time, and soon the inevitability of girls or other tinseled distractions had eclipsed the Mad Scientists’ Club, and that line between daydreaming and the actual world widened in a way that was both liberating and cruel.
Fadiman, Anne. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
Nearly two decades later, I found that my particular place in the world had widened in a different way. I was in graduate school and had begun hoarding books like they were stars to be gathered from the twilight, each one a point of light on some vast cartography of fate: read this book, learn how to live. It sounds foolish now, but that was how I saw books—as secrets, scrolls inviting imitation. I was in my first semester of a master’s program and teaching my first class—freshman composition—and could not have been happier, buried as I was in work. But I was out to prove something, to make up for years of trouble, time in jail, and flunking out of college.
Because my undergraduate GPA was abysmal, I had been accepted into my program on a conditional and probationary basis; to my thinking, it was a miracle that I was even there. It was unthinkable, for example, that I had a desk in a shared office, a key to that office, a grade book and some fifty students who showed up to hear me talk about writing. One of those students turned out to be a college friend’s younger brother. This student was smart and edgy (or as edgy as a young Mormon man can be without surrendering his faith). His hair was large and bushy and unkempt in a way that was stylish. He wore baggy pants and was never seen without his longboard. He preferred punk shows over school, or listening to jazz while longboarding around campus at night. And so his parents were guardedly concerned. They felt, and perhaps rightly so, that he “lacked direction.” In my class, he demonstrated direction—sort of. He loved reading and writing and couldn’t seem to get enough of either. But his final essay, which I recall as an “argumentative essay,” lacked legitimatesources and was logically soupy, what with its wandering and ultimately untenable thesis statement: “Tom Waits is the Greatest Musician in the History of the World and All Mankind.” I encouraged him, demanded in fact that he change his topic or at least ground it in some concrete way. I made such demands because they needed to be made but also because I saw some version of my former self in this student.
One day after class, and after all the other students had cleared out, he handed me a copy of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. “It’s from my mom,” he said. “You know, like a gift or something.” I was at once stunned and delighted. He was embarrassed, muttered something and ducked out with his longboard under one arm. Inside, on the flysheet, his mother had written how grateful she was that her son was in my class. She then wrote: “This book is something all lovers of writing and language can appreciate! We hope you like it!”
I loved it. I hadn’t yet heard of Anne Fadiman (though I would become a devoted fan), but I remember thinking, This is what I want to do. I had fallen in love with the essay as a form, though I never really thought of it in quite those sentimental terms. This thin, mint-green volume was a glimpse into the world of books and bibliophiles, and I felt at home between its covers. But I also felt cheated. She lived in New York, and her father was Clifton Fadiman. I lived in Idaho, and my dad was an electrician, and so I fought the impulse to feel sorry for myself for having grown up in the workaday country.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Life in a Country Town.
As an only child who tended toward melodrama, I very often felt sorry for myself for any number of things. For a broken shoelace, a flat bike tire, a failed relationship—for having grown up in a blue-collar family in Idaho.
Read the rest of this excerpt here: The Missouri Review
What do I want from you?
If this excerpt wasn’t enough, I want you to trust me and check this guy out. His stuff is worth the time. You can find his website at www.brandonschrand.com and The Enders Hotel can be purchased by clicking here (this also gives a much better description of the book than my simple one-liner above).
And make sure to check back next Friday for my own Works Cited list, ten of my most influential books.