April 15, 2011 | by Maud Newton
To be a fire lookout, Norman Maclean once wrote, isn’t a matter of body or mind, but of soul. Philip Connors should know. He’s spent a third of each year for nearly a decade watching for smoke in the Gila National Forest. His new book, Fire Season, which started as a diary in The Paris Review, is at once a fascinating personal narrative, a history of "a vocation in its twilight,” and a poetic tribute to solitude and the natural world. Connors examines the wilderness and his experience of it by turns from a remove, dispassionately, and up close, with great feeling, and evokes a whole world in charming but disciplined prose. He’s funny but not self-indulgent. He’s plainspoken but not condescending or tinnily folksy. Without being didactic or blinkered, or even obvious about what he’s doing, he offers an impassioned defense of a life and place he loves.
Your lookout tower stands on a mountain that rises more than ten thousand feet. From it you can see the first wisps of smoke below, but you can also—when things are calm—write. How much of the book came into being up there in your seven-by-seven-foot glass box in the sky?
Once I signed the contract, I had romantic visions of feeding a giant roll of paper into my typewriter and cranking out a record of events as they happened that season in the lookout, writing it all down the way Kerouac wrote On the Road. Foolishness! As I sat there that summer, the thought of immortalizing my experience between hard covers paralyzed me. I couldn’t get started. So I developed strategies to generate raw material I could draw on later. The most successful of these involved typing long letters to my editor, Matt Weiland, about everything I was seeing, everything that was happening, and just trying to stay unself-conscious about the writing. On my days off I’d hike down with the letters, make a quick photocopy for my files, and drop them in the mail to New York. Anything that moved him or intrigued him eventually led me down a fruitful path. Anything that left him cold I abandoned. This meant that I didn’t start writing the book until fire season was over and I was back in town. I needed time to sift through what of the experience was worth recounting and what was not. The goal became to write a book about watching mountains that left out the boring parts—easier said than done.
June 10, 2010 | by Maud Newton
This is the second installment of Maud Newton's culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
8:07 A.M. I don't work on Wednesdays, but I'm up early anyway, mildly hungover and with tea in hand, to write. The dinner scene looks clunkier now; commence line-edits.
9:30 A.M. Online grazing: Garrison Keillor publishes an infuriating death-of-publishing op-ed. Kingsley Amis argues that Keats isn't a great poet. Graydon Carter says that Kingsley Amis was “an accomplished womanizer, drinker, and conversationalist” who was “funny and raffishly rude, and had the thinnest, whitest skin I've ever seen on a man—like a condom filled with skim milk.” The NYPL and the Brooklyn and Queens library systems are beginning major layoffs; protest by joining the postcard campaign.
10:30 A.M. More writing, further consultation1 of Memento Mori.
12:30 P.M. For lunch: bagel with tomato, onion, lox, and cream cheese. I've set aside a little time here because I'm excited to take a look at the galley for my friend Amitava Kumar's A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb2, about the U.S. terrorism-detection machine/industry.
2:00 P.M. Back to work on my novel draft.
8:12 P.M. After six hours' work, I'm feeling more optimistic about the way all the hullabaloo with the dogs leads into the dinner scene.
8:45 P.M. Sushi and drinks with Max. Lately when I drink gin, I've been doing it Kingsley Amis' preferred way, with a little ice, lemon, and water. It's growing on me. I don't know why3 I'm drinking the things he and Muriel Spark did.
11:00 P.M. Time for another episode4 of Damages (second of Season Two).
1:23 A.M. Amis on owing to/due to: Never say5 “Due to lack of interest, the carol service has been cancelled"—only “Owing to...”
- After reading Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor last year, I internalized her (and Elizabeth Hardwick's) prohibition against allowing the same word to appear twice on a page, and my prose strains in places as a result. I wonder: did O'Connor read Muriel Spark? If so, confronted with such hilarious and inarguably brillliant repetitions—see, e.g., the sticks—how could she have continued to adhere to her rule? Also, how did Spark reuse words so imaginatively? She built humor through the sameness but somehow made the descriptions fresh every time. I wish she could revise this scene I'm getting ready to work on now, the one with the dogs in the car.
- I'm especially fascinated by the section about the Bangladeshi-born, New York City-raised Muslim artist who was detained in June 2002 after returning from a residency program in Senegal, on suspicion that he'd fled the country on September 12, 2001, and left a bomb behind in a locker. After being detained for questioning and then subjected to a six-month investigation that included nine polygraph tests administered in one day, the suspect launched The Orwell Project, which includes photos of and details about all the meals he eats, the urinals he uses, and the products he buys. "His aim,” Kumar writes, “is to overwhelm those who have him under surveillance... With the information they need.”
- I have no (conscious) belief that doing this will have any talismanic effect.
- Maybe I'll be happy about all the plot points later, but right now the story is starting to feel cluttered—not to mention seeded with coincidences. Obviously Patty had some sort of relationship with the scientist whose wife was just murdered, and I have the feeling we're supposed to wonder if he is the father of her son. Did he really have to be carrying on an affair with General Counsel for the Evil Energy Company, too? And then there's all the drama with Rose and the “fellow support group member” who obviously has something to do with Frobisher and who's going to get her into bed. The FBI plot is fine, but it's getting buried amid all this other stuff.
- I would like to think I would avoid using either in this formulation, but a quick run through old entries using Google might prove otherwise. Rather than worrying about this, I prefer to focus on the ancillary question of the double “l"; when did we stop writing “cancelled” or “travelled"? When did the single “l” become the default?
June 9, 2010 | by Maud Newton
9:47 A.M. Wake early (for a Sunday). I still haven’t replaced the French press that shattered week before last, so I make tea the Muriel Spark way: warming the pot first, measuring out loose leaves, drinking from china. Absurdly precious, I know, but I give myself a pass because, really, if you’re going to start the day without coffee, you’re going to need to distract yourself somehow.
10:15 A.M. Pick up Memento Mori for dialogue inspiration and involuntarily become engrossed again. If I read to the end, that will make four times1 in as many months.
10:45 A.M. Open novel draft2 file on laptop.
10:48 A.M. Embark on the inevitable Sunday morning boondoggle: the outline is not only possible, but imperative. Purchase and download an iPad note-taking application. Pass an hour training myself to write with index finger.
11:55 A.M. Outline the story in this fashion.
12:45 P.M. Email PDF of “handwritten” outline to myself; notice how late it’s getting; castigate myself for wasting weekend writing time.
1:00 P.M. Return, with egg sandwich, to draft. Assemble revisions and notes. Set MacFreedom to shut down Internet access for four hours. Begin writing.1:45 P.M. Read assorted culture news—new mummies unearthed, Mark Twain’s unexpurgated bio to be published, oil still pumping unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico—on Twitter.
2:00 P.M. Half the day is gone now. Resume work on novel; work diligently for four-and-a-half more hours.
7:00 P.M. Max (husband) suggests leaving the apartment before the sun goes down. We walk to the local market and buy fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese, and chocolate—the five major food groups.
9:30 P.M. Dread resumption of office job in the morning. Regret all choices and circumstances that have led to necessity of having a day job. Recall A.O. Scott’s hilarious (yet sympathetic) indictment of Generation X in last week’s “Week in Review” piece on Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask. Track it down and reread. Reflect on the ultimate pointlessness of trying to escape the slacker mindset.
9:40 P.M. Begin drinking (bourbon).
10:45 P.M. Sit down with Max to watch the first episode of the second season of Damages, which arrived yesterday courtesy of Netflix.
11:55 P.M. Get into bed. (So virtuous! So old.) Start into Kingsley Amis3’ The King’s English, his (out-of-print) guide to modern usage.Read More »
- By now there are passages I could almost quote from memory—especially the post-funeral scenes involving the writer with rheumatoid arthritis slouched over “two sticks,” making his way among the funeral flowers as the other elderly characters goggle at him. The novelty of the Scottishism ("sticks” rather than “canes") tickles me, of course, but it’s the perfect, deadly repetition of the word—all the glimpses of the “clever little man doubled over his sticks"—that makes this section so funny.
- Recently I realized that the project I’ve been working on for several years is actually two different stories, so I’ve hacked it up and am aiming to finish the first book by the end of the summer. Now that the scope of the thing is more tightly defined, I’ve started to wonder if an actual outline—something I haven’t attempted for a couple years—may now be possible.
- Although his Lucky Jim is probably one of my top ten comic novels, I didn’t fall in love with Amis until recently, when I started reading Everyday Drinking, a reissue of his essays on one of my favorite subjects. That collection is as witty, and as straightforwardly, intelligently, and unpretentiously written as the best of Twain’s nonfiction, and now I can’t wait to read about all the “linguistic barbarisms” that set old Kingsley off. Tonight’s highlights: correcting Fowler, usage God, on the difference between “ale” and “beer"; an attack on “the one-word travesty” alright, which is “always and altogether all wrong."