Author Archives: Jerry Dennis

The Moment When a Book is Born

PictureSometimes you can pinpoint the moment exactly.

Glenn Wolff and I remember the genesis of our first collaboration, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, which was originally published in 1992. It began when our mutual friend, the artist Bernie Knox, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to the telephone in her house. She placed the receiver in my hand and said, “Say hello to Glenn Wolff. He just moved back from New York. You guys need to meet.” Of course I knew who Glenn was. We were a year apart in high school, where he was the star of the art department, and for years I’d been enjoying his illustrations in the New York Times and elsewhere. Lately our work had begun showing up at the same time in Sports Afield and a few other magazines. I remember saying something like, “Hi Glenn.  I guess we’d better have lunch.”

During that lunch, at Stacey’s Restaurant  in downtown Traverse City, Michigan, we began to brainstorm and during the next couple hours outlined an idea for a series of books about wonders of nature. Glenn still has those original notes and sketches (see below). We decided to begin the series with wonders of the sky, with water and earth to follow, and over the next few days began developing the idea and outlining chapters. Next we arranged a meeting with a literary agent and made the pitch to her. With her encouragement we wrote a proposal and a sample chapter with illustrations. Then we sat back to see what would happen.

What happened exceeded our wildest dreams. The book went to auction, with three major publishers bidding on it. We chose HarperCollins, flew to New York to meet our editor, the wonderful Hugh Van Dusen, and the rest of the Harper team, then dove in and worked closely with copy editors, designers, and publicists to launch the book into the world. It went on to become a national bestseller (though it never quite cracked the top ten of the Times list). It was “the surprise hit” at the Frankfurt Book Fair, according to Hugh Van Dusen, who told us that the Japanese delegation stayed up all night to read it and made a generous offer for translation rights the next morning; in time it was translated into Japanese, Chinese, German, Portuguese, and Czech. It was a main selection of the Nature Society Book Club (who paired it with my next book, A Place on the Water, on the inside front cover of their monthly newsletter). It was featured on a wild and wildly popular Japanese game show that flashed the word “Power!” on the screen every time an amazing fact was quoted from the book — making that expression a permanent part of my family’s lexicon.

Now, after all these years, we’ve produced an updated edition, available now as an ebook, with a paperback coming soon. And today Barnes and Noble is featuring it as a Nook First and promoting it across an array of platforms in the e-world. It’s enough to make a father blush with pride.


Picture

GETTING LOST

PictureHere’s what turns my crank: Free-flowing rivers in wild country, ponds hidden in tamarack swamps, campsites under white pines swaying in a breeze, trout gulping mayflies. I like pushing off in a canoe. I like slinging a backpack onto my shoulders. I like knowing that if I find a woods or a pond or a stretch of river that suits me I can stay put for a few days or a week. And I like going my own way, at my own pace, and stumbling upon beautiful and interesting places.

So of course I like Michigan. After a lifetime of exploring it, my appreciation just keeps growing.

For one thing, we’re never more than a few miles from water here. And with so much of the two peninsulas protected by state and national forests there are thousands of miles of two-track roads and hiking trails to explore. The opportunities for adventure are endless, and you don’t need to go far to find it.

On summer weekends Gail and I like to throw some gear in the back of the car, strap our canoe to the racks, and head for the woods. We take our time and drive the trails slowly, with the windows open, so we can spot berry bushes and smell sweet fern and more easily catch glints of water through the trees. On the seat between us we keep a county map-book open so we can make notes in the margins – “Good bluegill lake,” “Grouse cover along this creek,” “Lots of blueberries here, 2009.”

In a radius of fifty miles from our home are more streams, lakes, and ponds – and more forests, swamps, bogs, and dunes — than anyone could explore in a lifetime. There are birds and wildflowers to study, fish to catch, berries and mushrooms to gather. Meandering trails will lead us to them, and they can get us happily lost, too.

And isn’t that the point? Get lost, so we can discover new places. Get lost, so we can forget about work and money worries and the latest political scandal. Get lost, so we can learn more about the places we love – and maybe learn a little more about ourselves, as well.

[Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine, special Adventure Travel edition, summer 2012.]

The Best Thing I Read Today

“It is possible at last for Masa and me to imagine a little of what the ancient – archaic — mind and life of Japan were. And to see what could be restored to the life today. A lot of it is simply in being aware of clouds and wind.”

– Gary Snyder, final lines of Earth House Hold

On the Eve of the Opening of Trout Season 2013

“I don’t know why I need to fish so much. For the good of my soul? The question makes me skittish. I prefer to think of fishing as a restorative to some vital thing — maybe soul, maybe heart, maybe vitality itself – that dwindles when we spend too much time working, attending to family and fiscal emergencies, driving in traffic, and watching television. I don’t know much about the soul, but I know that the twin benefits of fishing – the combination of physical activity with cerebral engagement — serve to flush impurities from my system. When I haven’t been out for a few days I suffer from a buildup of hideous poisons. My joints ache. My muscles cramp. My fingernails get brittle. If I sleep, I dream of forest fires and exploding trains. Tears stream down my cheeks, leaving trails of toxic salts. I pace the floor and sigh until Gail kicks me out of the house, which is all I needed in the first place.”

– From “Simplify, Simplify,” in The River Home, by Jerry Dennis

A Cure for Writer’s Block

PictureWriter’s block is your body’s way of telling you to go fishing*.

But if you’re in a northern latitude in March and it’s 19 degrees outside and the wind is gusting at 25 mph and snowdrifts are thigh-deep across your driveway, your body is telling you to cook. So pour a glass of wine, turn up the music, and get at it.

Yesterday’s cure: Spring Fever Chicken and Bean Soup

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place a pound of dry northern beans in a cast-iron kettle and cover with water an inch or so above the beans. Cover with a loose lid and place in center of oven. Cook for one hour.

Brown a pound or more of chicken thighs (or breasts; but thighs are better) in a tablespoon of olive oil. Add as much chopped garlic as you’re comfortable with, then add fifty percent more. Stir frequently to prevent garlic from burning. When cooked through dice or shred the chicken and set aside.

Chop onions, carrots, celery, and any favorite vegetables. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large soup kettle and add chopped veggies. Saute until the carrots begin to soften.

Add small mountain of rough-chopped kale or spinach, stems and all. Saute until the greens shrink down and soften. (If necessary add a quarter cup of water or chicken broth to keep veggies from burning.)

Add 32 oz of chicken broth, crushed or diced tomatoes (with liquid), and the chicken. Bring to soft boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes.

Add beans. Cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes or until perfect.

Serve  with grated cheddar and fresh cilantro or parsley to defeat scurvy. Add salt and pepper to taste and a dash of your favorite hot sauce. You want your tongue to shout, “I’m alive!”

Serve with red wine or hearty beer and a loaf of artisan bread. Enjoy the adoration of your loves ones.

After dinner retire to a comfortable chair or couch and read something beautiful for two hours. Go to bed early. Dream of tropical birds and waterfalls.

In the morning, presto! Writer’s block cured.

*or  go skiing, snowshoeing, hunting, kayaking, photographing, dancing, or searching for lost civilizations. My body usually wants to fish.

The Most Interesting Thing I Read Today

“I’m really trying to make people’s minds move, you know, which is not something they’re naturally inclined to do,” she told me. “We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But it’s really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That happens partly because the material is mysterious or unknown but mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence. And it’s that that I’m more interested in doing, generally, than mystifying by having unexpected content or bizarre forms. It’s more like: Given whatever material we’re going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we’ve never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head. I think it’s a weakness to fall back into merely mystifying the audience, which anybody can do. You know, throw in a bit of Hegel. Who knows what that means? But to actually take a piece of Hegel and move it around in a way that shows you something about Hegel is a satisfying challenge.”
– from “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson,” by Sam Anderson , New York Times Magazine, March 17, 2013

The Best Thing I Read Today

“Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them, and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for.”

– Saul Bellow, It All Adds Up

CABIN FEVER!

Alaska’s shotgun divorces are rare here in northern Michigan, but our fever can still take alarming forms. Now that we’ve passed February and begun the brutal home stretch, my friends and neighbors have begun exhibiting a variety of symptoms:

– dragging the canoe into the living room, setting it on sawhorses, and spray-painting it yellow.

– signing up for intensive but ultimately fruitless online courses in The Great Books, Spanish, and astronomy.

– engaging in all-night internet and Facebook searches for people not seen in 30 years.

– cooking nonstop all weekend to produce, package, and freeze fifteen gallons of white chili, forty stuffed peppers, a stack of personal-pan pizzas, and a dozen batches of chocolate brownies with walnuts, then going to bed Sunday night with an intense sugar buzz and dreaming about trains going over cliffs.

Picture

Cabin Fever, the Movie

– reviving hobbies abandoned in childhood: Ham radio, soapbox derby, clipping clothes for paper dolls from magazines, hand-painting toy soldiers organized by the wars they fought in, Monkeys trading cards arranged artfully around perimeter of bedroom mirror. Then abruptly abandoning them again.– inventing deadly new cocktails like the Bloody Monday, Instantaneous Annihilation, Gut Bomb, and What, Me Worry?

– drinking the above-mentioned cocktails while sending emails of apology to everyone they ever wronged.

– dressing the dog in sweaters and socks and filming its hilarious antics for distribution via YouTube.

How about you? Any symptoms yet?

Cabin Fever Whiskey

Cabin Fever Maple Flavored Whiskey

THE FRIDAY LIST: BORGES’ ANIMALS (AND THE BEST THING I READ TODAY)

I’ve been studying the history of taxonomy lately and reading Aristotle, Pliny, Linnaeus, and others who have labored mightily to make order in the universe.

But no study of the systems of classification would be complete without mentioning the Jorge Luis Borges story posing as an essay, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” In it Borges mentions a taxonomy of animals that he claims can be found in an old Chinese encyclopedia called The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If you know Borges you know this encyclopedia is (probably) whimsical, was discovered by a  (perhaps) imaginary scholar, and that the list is as much a commentary on our urge to classify the things of the world as it is a playful exercise in the combinatory agility of words:

According to Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia, animals are divided into:

a) those belonging to the emporer
b) those that are embalmed
c) tame or trained ones
d) suckling pigs
e) mermaids and sirens
f) those that are fabulous
g) stray dogs
h) those included in the present classification
i)  frenzied ones
j) innumerable ones
k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
l) other ones
m) those that have recently broken a water pitcher
n) those that from a long way off look like flies

***

The Best Thing I Read Today

This morning I grabbed a favorite book, Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, opened it at random (my favorite way to read Barthelme), and read the story “Rebecca.” It is about a woman who petitions the court to change her last name from “Lizard,” then visits a dermatologist to see if he can do anything about the slight greenish color of her skin. When both efforts fail she goes home and takes out her anger and frustration on her female lover. Her lover punishes her in turn, saying that she does not find Rebecca’s green skin as beautiful as she once did. They argue, they push each other away, they begin to regret the argument, and they finally make up. This strange and strangely beautiful story ends this way:

“The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.”

Items from a Literary Junk Drawer

Every writer has such a drawer. A repository of miscellaneous fragments, discarded first drafts, odd midnight jottings.  A seed bin. A garden plot starting to sprout. A cabinet of literary curiosities.

I have many such drawers. One is an actual drawer. Another is a wire in-box tray  stacked high with hand-written and printed pages stratified like a geological record, with 21st-century layers near the surface and those from the Pleistocene at the bottom. Another is a pile of pages on the floor next to my desk. Half a dozen others are in electronic files with names like NOTES/IDEAS.doc and MISC-ESS.doc.

Why so many junk drawers? Only one reason I can think of: so I can dig into them now and then and discover something surprising.

Today I pawed around a little and found a few items in storage that will probably never make it into print yet give off some faint scent of promise:

…He nurtures heat and rapture. Exults. Sits smugly in his corner. Wolfs, devours, consumes, splays his bird-of-prey shadow over the earth. Carries his urgency with him like a warm pie or a gift.

…I was having recurring malarial dreams of exploding boxcars and talking animals and daylong sleepwalks punctuated by glimpses of distant mountains so clear and intense that I shuddered as if from electric shocks. Much of that year I didn’t know if I was suffering a profound depression or had been graced with a state of purifying clarity. I remember grasping the hands of strangers at the bus station and being instantly aware of the hidden interconnectedness of us all and of everything around us. We are made of the same molecules that once made maple trees and beachstones and snowflakes and snapdragons and will again. The words we speak today will echo in the ears of a child in Zambia a hundred years from now.

…write an essay on the subject of something situated precariously in an infinity of nothing…

…Researchers studying the stages of sleep labeled 3 and 4, or “deep sleep,” say that electrical waves in the brain “roll as slow as mid-ocean waves.”

…What a young writer at the conference told me: “My dad discovered eBay, and, bye-bye my kid brother’s college fund. If you ever need it we have Marilyn Monroe’s driver’s license, a lock of Mick Jagger’s hair, and a signed copy of every album ever made by Abba.”

…The particular is composed of particles that prove, upon examination, to be general.

…We sat on the riverbank and watched a barge heaped with old trombones and tubas go past. The potential for clamor was great. Then it began raining cast-iron skillets and we ran for our lives.

They’ll try to convince you that you aren’t smart enough to grasp their mighty explanations, not educated in the proper universities, not read in the officially sanctioned books, not conversant in the consensually accepted vocabulary. In short, that you are a subject of the king’s culture. Tell them to fuck off. We’re the cognoscenti of existence.

…Often I would jerk awake in the night or break off during meals or in the middle of a conversation and rush to write sentences that announced themselves urgently, insistently, unbidden…

…Make a patchwork of words & images. Start with strong subject, place/activity, story, compose companion list of associated or random words, ideas, images. Thus: the arch, a trail as an invitation to a destination, the barred owl’s call, the wind breaking through, the surprise around the corner, the destination and what that means. Now weave it into whole cloth…
But where is the flow? Where is the river of words carving a channel through the world?