|Rich Chiappone and a writing companion|
A few days ago,
I got an email from Tom Kizzia, saying he was back in Homer after an extended
trip that, in part, included events promoting his recent book, Pilgrim’s Wilderness. I live fifteen miles north of town, on the
fishing report. Our sport fishing season runs from late May when the kings show
up at the river mouth on the beach, to the end of October when the dollies and
steelhead trout have settled into the good holes and runs behind my house, five
miles upstream. For the twelve years that I’ve lived here at Anchor Point, Tom
and I have fished together frequently each summer. But, this year, I hadn’t
seen him since mid July when the book was launched.
good word for it; the success of the book sort of launched Tom out of Homer and
into an orbit that took him down one American coast and up the other and
finally back again to Alaska just in time for the last week of steelhead
fishing—only to find the river high and heavy with rain water
from our recent October monsoon. With nowhere to fish, we did what people who
don’t fish apparently do with their free time: we had lunch.
at Maura’s Deli, in the old Homer business district, Tom talked about his
travels, still vibrating with the satisfaction that publishing a book gives a
writer. It takes a very long time to write a book, most of it spent in
isolation. Then, when the book is published, this private creation the writer
has been nurturing into existence for months, or even years, is suddenly thrust
into the world for assessment and judgment.
The obvious metaphor is gestation and birth. So, no one can fault a
writer for enjoying the nice things people are saying about his baby. And Tom’s
baby is being very well received. In fact, that very day, he had been notified
by his publisher, Crown, that they were releasing a third printing of Pilgrim’s
Wilderness. Knowing how much work went into the book, I was (and am) very happy
this is because we are both fishermen and know full well that, even on the very
best days, the fish will stop biting sooner or later—in spite of the
celebratory mood of the lunch, our conversation turned to the subject of the
painfully short life span of most books’ popularity and their perceived value.
The last time I’d seen Tom this past summer was at a book launch party in a
private home in an
several tax brackets above mine. I didn’t even know there were private streets
donated his magnificent home for the signing, but his neighbors were not
thrilled. As I parked my old F-150 at the curb (the only pickup in sight on the
street), a woman pulled alongside in a shiny SUV of some sort and demanded an
explanation for my presence there.
stack of books, looking like the winner of the World Series of Poker beaming
from behind piles and piles of chips. The thing to remember is that they were
all Tom’s books, and they were the only books in the room. On that day,
everyone was there to see, or buy, or talk about that one book. Tom’s book.
That’s the way it should be. And that’s the way it feels—for a while.
Some books, of
course, become classics—but that takes a long time, and the author might not
even be around to enjoy the fame. Moby Dick received “mixed reviews,” a polite
way of saying Melville’s massive effort did not earn him a lot of props in his
lifetime. The Great Gatsby was similarly a disappointment to Fitzgerald, a guy
who really didn’t need another reason to drink.
the rhetorical question: would you rather write a book that is hugely popular
in your own time, or a flop that becomes required reading after you’re
dead? Anyone who chooses B is either
lying or crazy.
our lunch date, I’d been at the Homer Library during the annual used book sale,
a fundraiser organized by the hard working Friends of the Homer Public Library
organization. There, among the hundreds and hundreds of books donated by the
well read people of Homer, I saw titles of Pulitzer Prize winners, National
Book Award choices, and other highly acclaimed books. There was Jeffrey
Eugenides’ Middlesex, a huge and complex novel that took him nine or ten years
to write, now squished into a cardboard box between two paperbacks. There was
Jonathan Franzen, Annie Proulx, Don Delilo; there was the Old Guard too: books
the Afternoon, a tribute to the transiency of things if ever there was. There
was even a dilapidated copy of (fittingly) Homer’s Iliad that looked old enough
to be the first known paperback from Ancient Greece. They were all crammed
together on folding tables like craft show tchatchkes. For sale, for nickels
Tom and I agreed that even the big bookstores
are a little depressing. Seeing thousands of books piled into one huge room
like that does not make any one of them seem very special, or
valuable—especially your own. A single gemstone on a chain around a woman’s
throat can be breathtaking. If you unload a dump truck full of them into a pile
at the end of your driveway, it looks pretty much like any other load of gravel
sits down to write hoping to land on the sale tables between the front doors at
Barnes and Noble. Writing a book is an essentially hopeful, optimistic
endeavor; you probably won’t get rich, but you might get readers, and the more
the better. For me, it’s like tying flies. Every time I clamp a hook in the
vise and start lashing feathers to it, I believe, on some level, that this fly
will haul fish in like a pollock trawler.
of short stories and essays were produced by small presses and of course sold
nowhere near as many copies as a major book like Tom’s will. But, even so, I
greatly enjoyed the warm local response showered on me by Alaskans for each of
them. I wouldn’t trade all the trout in the Kenai for the joy of reading from
them or hearing people say they read them (note: not that they liked them, just
that they’d read them). I got an email out of the blue recently from a writer
somewhere in the Lower 48 saying he had read my first collection—now more than
ten years old. Made my whole week.
run in Homer before heading home to Anchor Point, I left Tom at the deli, still
fielding questions about Pilgrim’s Wilderness from other diners he knew one way
or another. (He may still be there.) My first stop after lunch was the
electrical supply shop. There I would pick up a transformer I needed to repair
our kitchen’s under cabinet lighting.
owned by an electrical contractor, and is more a warehouse than a store. It’s
mostly a grouping of rough shelves stacked to the ceiling with boxes of
fixtures, conduit, and wire spools, that sort of place. Not really a
homeowner’s retail store. But I worked in construction a long time, and I felt
very much at home there. Standing at the counter, paying for the transformer, I
caught a glimpse of something familiar, yet strikingly out of place: the
brightly colored cover of my second collection, Opening Days. In a dusty corner,
on top of an old file cabinet, the book stood propped upright, almost hidden by
paperwork and other office scree. I could read my name across the top of the
book,” I blurted out, shamelessly.
turned and glanced at it, nodded, went back to our transaction on the counter
pointed to my name at the top of the invoice and said, “See? Same name.”
“Steve, the owner, read it and brought it in—in case any of the other guys
wanted to look at it.”
stapled the credit card receipt to the invoice. And in that several seconds of
time, I saw his next words before my eyes as clearly as if they’d scrolled
across a teleprompter above him:
for a couple years, but I don’t anybody’s looked at it.” Then, apparently
feeling guilty about his unintended callousness, he added, “Do you want it
“Leave it there. You never know.”
like this is a great way to avoid one’s own writing. But now I have to get back
to work on something I’m feeling very optimistic about. In fact, it’s starting
to look like a real blockbuster.
program at UAA, and at the
in Homer (where he is offering an online fiction writing workshop for the
Spring 2014 semester). His fiction and non fiction are appearing in the current
issues of the
Review, and Fly Rod and Reel magazine, respectively. He lives in Anchor Point
with his wife and cats.