The Story Behind the Story: Dead Man’s Revival

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Like many of the chapters of my novel, Hot Season, the epilogue started off as a short story. “Dead Man’s Revival” was a story within a story, built around the sort of thing I think of as a traveler’s tale.

A traveler’s tale is an anecdote of a certain strangeness, a certain staying power, told by a person either currently in transit, in transit at the time of the story, or in transit at the time the story was told to them.

I shared this thought with writer, photographer, tow-truck driver, Northern Arizona Book Festival director, and all-around literary outlaw Jesse Sensibar last November in Flagstaff. (A photograph of his, via Instagram, appears above.)

Sensibar, who has spent some time in transit himself, added this caveat: Such tales are only told to those the teller deems worthy. Like the choice places to pitch your tent down some nearly illegible Forest Service road, like the name of a friend with a spare room in LA, the location of a pure roadside spring around the back side of Sedona, such stories are not given lightly.

But they are also the coin of a certain kingdom, and you can absolutely count on them to be passed on.

To my mind, anyone who has reached the end of Hot Season has traveled far indeed, and so I offer up this coin: A true story told to me by an old friend, the story of the man who walked off.

That old friend of mine was staying at his buddy’s house when he discovered an abandoned car at the end of the road, which backed up to the National Forest.

Inside that car was a young man’s artwork, a young man’s journals, and a young man’s wallet. A young man no one had heard from in a year.

What was his name? you ask. His name was John, Jeremy, David, Damien. His name was Dyson Lathe.

Of course, that’s not true. Either I didn’t ask the young man’s name or I didn’t remember it. As a fiction writer, I am prone to fabrication–I’m bad enough about my own memories, never mind the memories of others.

But that particular traveler’s tale, its circumstances, stayed with me over the years–and, ultimately, found its way into the final pages of my first published book.

Black History Month, Week 1

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This month on Twitter, I’ll be celebrating Black History Month by posting one Black American author each day who has blown my mind, touched my heart, and opened my eyes to the ongoing struggle for justice in this country.

Here’s a round up of my posts from Week 1:

1.James Baldwin

Black, gay, outspoken, and still, four decades later, cutting-edge in his observations on race and gender–I think it’s immensely telling that we’ve seen so many quotes from James Baldwin on protest signs of late (“The only way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.”).

Baldwin wrote, “On one side of town I was an Uncle Tom, and on the other, an Angry Young Man.” That’s what nuance looked like in the 1960s, apparently, because activists and scholars are still turning to Baldwin’s essays for answers–he was a writer for our moment as well as his.

Writing is time travel, magic, a conversation across the generations–and man, was this guy a brilliant conversationalist.

2. Octavia Butler

Science fiction is considered a visionary art form, but the genre would have had some serious blind spots without one of the founding mothers of West Coast sci fi, Octavia Butler.

In books like Parable of the Sower, I think, Butler showed us the future we’ll get if we fail to come to terms with the past as a story of conquest, of land and of people. A story in which wealth, and the technological progress so exuberantly celebrated in this genre, have always come at a price.

A recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, Butler also garnered two Hugos and two Nebulas–a science fiction heavyweight for the ages.

3. Eldridge Cleaver

Black Panther, Communist, born-again, Mormon, addict, men’s fashion designer–dude was COMPLICATED, for sure, but I’ll never forget the way Soul on Ice made me consider, as a teenager, the way our sexuality and attractions can be shaped by a toxic culture.

“In the black leather coat and beret the Panthers wore as a uniform, Mr. Cleaver was a tall, bearded figure who mesmerized his radical audiences with his fierce energy, intellect and often bitter humor.

‘You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution,’ he challenged, in one of the slogans that became a byword of the era.”

I love the way this New York Time obit traverses the varied territory of this iconic figure’s life, which is really no less bizarre and complicated than, say, the history of the United States of America.

Interview with Between the Covers

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Recently I had the pleasure of talking with one of my favorite literary conversationalists, David Naimon, host of the Between the Covers podcast. (If you’re not already a listener, I highly recommend subscribing to the podcast, whose archives include interviews with everyone from George Saunders to Maggie Nelson.)

In addition to discussing my debut novel, Hot Season, we talked activist lit, the rise and fall of the West Coast eco-radical underground, brain science, book marketing, and more. Listen in!

Between the Covers Interview - Download This Episode

The Women’s March and the Arts: Benediction for the Artist in a Time of War

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Yesterday, *rump had his inauguration parade–though not, apparently, the North Korean-style extravaganza he would have preferred, and apparently not the number of attendees he would have preferred either. Today, over 500,000 women are expected to descend upon D.C., and upon cities around the country as well, to protest his policies.

Needless to say, it’s strange to be watching all of this from a hotel room in Tehachapi in the course of a cross-country road trip. I wish I could be there with my sistren of the pink pussy hats, with all the nasty women gathered in such a fierce show of force.

But in recent days, asĀ Tabitha Blankenbiller pointed out, the *rump team has made it clear that two of their first two targets will be our national parks and the arts–two of the causes closest to my heart, and, I imagine, to the hearts of virtually anyone who enjoys my work, which is and always has been centered in the natural world.

In such a time, with so much at stake, the urgency can be paralyzing to the creative impulse (as John Scalzi recently pointed out). Making art can feel self-indulgent, unnecessary. But I’m convinced that history will be written by the people with the most beautiful, most compelling narratives, the ones that resonate with the lived truth of these times, and those narratives cannot be created by activism alone.

And so, in solidarity with the real and necessary action being taken–today and tomorrow and beyond–to stop the fascist, racist, late-capitalist death cult that threatens to destroy both our planet and our democracy, I’m sending out a benediction to those taking less obvious actions to win the imagination.

Which is to say, the future.