Can You Go Home Again, Writer?

May 30, 2019

In Look Homeward, Angel, novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote about how hard it was for his writer-protagonist Eugene Gant to ever return to his hometown of Asheville, NC. Recently I jumped at the chance to return to my hometown of Princeton, WV, to present a poetry workshop at Hatter’s Books. 

However, it was not to be. When owner Tammy Dotson let me know that only two people had signed up, I decided to cancel, since the gig would entail driving 10 hours, round-trip, from my southwestern Ohio home. At 67, I find driving long distances isn’t as easy as it once was. But I regret the lost opportunity to connect with those who might’ve shown up, whether seasoned or aspiring poets. And to meet with the Book Club, which was discussing my novel The Psalms of Israel Jones prior to my workshop.

“Israel Mania”

When Tammy told me she’d sold out of my novel and needed more copies because the Book Club had chosen it, I was thrilled. I joked in an email to my old friend Freddy Modad, of Mercer Street’s Modad Music, that Israel-mania had come to Princeton (a riff on Beatlemania, without which I doubt I would have written a book focused on a rock legend or that Freddy would be the consummate guitarist he is today).

To My Lost Audience

To say I was looking forward to meeting the Book Club and responding to their questions and comments is an understatement. I’d hoped to deliver a heartfelt Thank You to them for completing the writing process  by reading my book. I’m hoping to slightly compensate by asking myself a few of the questions they might’ve asked. Here goes:

So what made you write a novel about an aging Bob Dylanesque rock star and his estranged Christian pastor son?

I wanted to explore how insulated, even lonely, such a world might be beyond mere fame, when one has become a legend, an icon, and in many ways a has-been. I didn’t know it would eventually focus on a father and son (much less young people who publicly cut themselves).

So it’s a book about rock and roll?

Not really. It uses rock and roll, but I think its truth extends to any human endeavor which isolates one from “normal” life. The novel is about a father and son, a shared tragedy and loss. And there is redemption. Personally, I wouldn’t ask readers to take such a hard journey without hope.

Did you do research? For instance, how do you know about rock and roll?

I did do research. But a lot of it was experiential. My rock chops were honed in WV of the 1960s. I played bass guitar in bands from ninth grade through college, with, first, the King’s English (featuring Freddy Modad on drums!), then the Visions. We played not only the infamous Memorial Building dances but throughout southern West Virginia (even Iaeger, Tammy!). I read several Bob Dylan biographies, along with the excellent Neil Young bio, Shaky, by Jimmy McDonough. Plus, I researched stroke and heart attack, since Israel’s declining health is a big issue. Research is seldom a burden; research is the fun part of novel writing, which I do right alongside composing fictional scenes.

Is the book at all autobiographical?

I believe all novels have autobiographical components, regardless of an author’s attempts to weed them out—but Israel Jones is much less so than my other two published novels, I Was So Much Older Then and The Measure of Everything. I have much more in common with Israel’s son Thom than with the legend himself. I know what it’s like to grow up with an absentee father and a deeply wounded mother—and I’m very interested in religion. I did, like Israel and Thom, attend a men’s retreat years ago; however, aside from the fact that we had to tell the truth about ourselves in an introduction lasting three whole minutes (an eternity!), there are no other resemblances between my life and the novel’s events.

Who’s your favorite character?

Probably Mim, Thom’s estranged wife. Her response to her personal tragedy was to do the hard, necessary work to re-invent herself—and do it alone, since her spouse was preoccupied with his own troubles. She gets one of the best lines, I think, refusing Thom’s offer to quit the tour and come home: “No, you’ve got to walk all the way to Calvary.” She should know; she’s doing it, not perfectly, maybe, but very bravely.  

Sequel?                                                       

No, I’m not writing a sequel to Israel Jones. My current project is novelizing the final two years of the life of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote 60 books before being accidentally electrocuted in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968. Talk about research! But it’s been (and continues to be) a real joy. I just finished the fourth major draft and anticipate trying to find a publisher by the end of this year.

But will I get another chance to literarily engage the Princeton community?  I sure hope so. But maybe I’ll focus on fiction rather than poetry writing next time. As my old Concord prof David Roth used to say, Stay tuned!

And support your locally-owned independent bookstore. Ink, paper and people talking:  it all happens at Hatter’s and other independents with dedicated and knowledgeable book-lover owners like Tammy Dotson. J