The Bi-polar World of the Somewhat Successful Writer: Breakthrough for the week of 3/20/2017

The Talker was reviewed in the New York Times a few days ago. Perhaps more accurately it was mini-reviewed by a women who clearly had not read the whole book. Here is the review, followed by my letter to her. It is definitely not professional to send a pissy letter to a slip-shod reviewer, but, then again, I’ve worked hard to not take on the teflon of “professionalism.”

Short Stories
By Mary Sojourner
217 pp. Torrey House, paper, $14.95.
[ images/2017/03/19/books/ review/0319-BKS-Short3/0319- BKS-Short3-master180.jpg]The characters in Sojourner’s second collection are often down on their luck; more likely than not, they turn out to be heavy drinkers and substance abusers with a lot on their chests. They like to talk and pour endless cups of coffee. They live in trailer parks and crummy apartments and take road trips in primer-patched old Broncos and elderly Malibus. They have a knack, it must be said, for making bad choices. Downhill is their customary direction.

The author of novels, memoirs and a book of essays, Sojourner lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and many of her stories are set in the West and Southwest. Her sense of place is by far her strongest suit, and her descriptions for the most part ring true: The “Mojave Desert burn-you-to-a-crisp sunshine,” the “saguaro rising up like guardians,” the “faint whine off the far highway and the scrawk of a raven,” the clear air of a “blue-brilliant Colorado afternoon.” If only her characters felt as real and specific as her locations. Instead, they can veer dangerously close to caricature. In “Nautiloid,” a tough-talking older woman dying of colon (Oops, Ms. Ferguson, it was liver cancer.) cancer doesn’t want anyone to make a fuss over her. In “Cyndra Won’t Get Out of the Truck,” a depressed young housewife turns a weakness for Palm Springs slot machines into a full-blown gambling addiction. Heavy on the folksy charm, the dialogue never feels quite as right as Sojourner’s deftly rendered settings. “Me? Standard getting-by getting-older single chick in a one-horse town,” one woman says, by way of introduction. (Does anybody anywhere really talk like that?) Note: Ms Ferguson actually wrote that.

Despite the often corny locutions, Sojourner’s stories contain moments of real feeling. The abiding theme is that mistakes will be made, losses will pile up and yet – by accident or luck or sheer determination – most of these characters will manage to endure. Those who fare the best seem to be the people who find some solace in the landscape and the great outdoors. Sometimes, as one of them points out, you’ve just got to get out of the truck.

Sarah Ferguson has written for Elle, Vogue, The Guardian and New York magazine, among other publications.


Dear Sarah,

I don’t know you. I don’t know your age or your social class. I can only construe them from your stunning review of my short story collection, The Talker. I was stunned by its provincialism and dismissiveness.  You lumped a collection of distinctive people into mostly “heavy drinkers and substance abusers with a lot on their chests…Downhill is their customary direction.” I was puzzled by that categorization, then wondered if you had lifted it from the PW starred review. And, I continue to be baffled by your focus on only two of the stories in the collection.

I am a book reviewer for KNAU, an Arizona NPR affiliate. I know how it can be to be on a deadline, in a busy busy busy life , when my producer hands me three books to review. There is always the temptation to skim through the book, grab a few quotes that will support my basic critique, perhaps a few examples of the writers’ strengths. Is that what happened, Sarah? Did you get to The Talker with too little time and too little professionalism? Did you read all the stories? Did you read all of all of the stories? If so, how did you miss David and Jacob; Jen, her mom and Red Billy; sweet Jerry LeBeau. How did you miss Jinella, a precociously wise college girl on her way to her cousin’s memorial service? And, how could you have read all of Cyndra Won’t Get Out of the Truck and not known that it was not about Cyndra’s gambling addiction, but about two young broken people brokenly finding their way to grown-up love.

As for corny locution, when was the last time you were in the presence of ordinary people with ordinary lives, people who don’t read Vogue or Elle or New York? Many many Americans talk exactly as my characters do. In fact, I wrote the stories in The Talkerfor those people, people I’ve met and talked with on road trips, in camp grounds, in the supermarket and the laundromat –  because contemporary publishing seems to have dismissed them. It was one thing to piss on my book or me. You pissed on a big chunk of America.

I wonder what would have happened if you had reviewed a collection by an African-American writer and written this: “‘Yo, girl, omma go find my auntee and tell her fa ril.’ (Does anybody anywhere really talk like that?)” The African-American Studies folks would be all over you. I wonder too: would you have pissed on my characters’ ways of speaking, if I had been a male Western writer – think Jim Harrison, think Larry McMurtry?

I doubt we will every meet, but if we did, I would have only one thing to say to you: “Honey, you might want to get the fuck out of the truck. There’s a big world out here.”

I’m curious to hear from you. Fa ril.  Mary Sojourner

I’d love to hear from any of you who want to respond to this exchange and to the notion that there is in fact a tyrannical myopia operating in the New York literati. And here, on a far more creative note, is Lynette Sheppard, in response to the March 13 Breakthrough prompt:

Hey Mary,
It’s all true, every word. But so what, right? What role does truth have to play in this scared new world? Dunno, but I’m going to speak it until I’m hoarse and write it until my fingers blister and and and….
Love ya,
The days and nights had been ponderous. And, in a breath, they were over.
President Trump Gave Me Herpes
No, this is not the tell-all piece you’ve been anticipating. I wish it was. Then again, if it was, it would simply merge seamless into the circus, this reality TV show we’ve been forced to watch, where each day new lies, broken promises, and tweets subsume events from the previous 24 hours.
November gave way to December and early January. I felt that I was handling the shock of Donald Trump winning the election fairly well. I was prepared to be vigilant and push against any policies that seemed at odds with the America I knew. I was feeling strong, committed, alert.
In retrospect, I was in denial, that first stage of grieving a profound loss.
My sanguine hypervigilance slipped on Inauguration Day when the unthinkable became a harsh, solidified reality.  I unknowingly tumbled into the abyss of depression, stage two of grief. While I wasn’t looking, my immune system packed her bags for an extended vacation. Seems she didn’t react well to the stress of the workplace (aka me). 
Meanwhile my little viral friend, H, also reacted poorly to this new development. H ordinarily lives a peaceful existence at the base of my spinal cord. We’ve been together for years and cohabit with little drama. I keep him happy with good food, exercise, and a glass of wine just about every night. I may even have subscribed to cable for him at some point; I’m not sure. 
The departure of my immune system awakened and irritated H to the point where he decided to leave his cozy cave and wreak a little havoc. Nearly ninety Acyclovir horse pills later, H retreated to his lair. I welcomed back my immune system with no recriminations. After all, who could blame her? I’d have left too.
I feel like I’m just waking from a long, unrestful slumber. I almost feel like me again. Depression is lifting like volcanic smog. If it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum, then the next stage is filling *my open crevices.
I’m on the fast track to anger and I have a feeling this stage is going to last a long, long time.
     Lynette wrote me later: “BTW my husband loved the piece but suggested that “filling the crevices” might not be the best description when talking about herpes. Soooooo I rewrote that part.  Here it is again, corrected: *I feel like I’m just waking up from a long, unrestful slumber. I almost feel like me again. Depression is lifting like volcanic smog. If it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum, then the next grieving stage is filling the vacancy left by my despondency.
     I’m on the fast track to anger and I have a feeling this stage is going to last a long, long time.


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