A Literary Doubleheader

While having coffee with my friend Bob a few weeks ago, he mentioned somewhat offhandedly that his cousin had “just written a book on Kurt Vonnegut.” Say what?! (Somehow I avoided a spit-take of my hazelnut coffee.) It turns out that author Greg Sumner, a Professor of History at University of Detroit Mercy had written the biography, “Unstuck in Time,” subtitled “A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels.” Yes, there was little doubt I would read this book.

A few days later, I learned that the author would be giving a talk and book-signing at the Carmel Public Library. Though inconveniently scheduled in the middle of the work day (I sometimes wonder if those in the literary world think that the only people who read books are retired…) at 10 a.m. I made the sacrifice of going into work early and using my “lunch” hour to drive up and attend. I’m so glad I did.

Author Sumner is an Indianapolis area native and graduate of Carmel High School. He shared many gems and quotations from his book and encouraged those in the audience who had met or known Vonnegut (and there were several) to share their stories as well. He noted that Vonnegut was popular amongst the younger generation as well, and “called on” a young man (who was 19) in the audience, asking him how he came to become a Vonnegut fan, etc. Later, Sumner also mentioned that some fans had even tattooed key phrases or quotations of Vonnegut’s on their bodies. The 19-year old, almost as if on queue, rolled up his left sleeve to reveal a “So it goes” tattoo. Nice.

Several of my colleagues from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club were in attendance as well, and when I excused myself “early” (but not before getting a signed copy of the book) one jokingly mentioned, “Oh, I forgot some of us still have to work for a living.” Yes, that is darned inconvenient.

So, back to work and to dealing with the stress of a month-end close process, I struggled dutifully on until exactly 5 p.m., when I dashed out the door and sped off to the east side of town. My final destination was actually downtown at the KVML, which has a “First Friday” program at 6 p.m. each month, usually featuring a guest speaker or author. Since this month’s guest was best selling Indiana author, James Alexander Thom, I had invited my Mom to go with me as she has read practically all of his books. After gathering Mom up, we made it downtown with time to spare (I’m still not sure how I did his, with traffic the way it is at rush hour).

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(authors Thom (left) and Sumner discussing Kurt Vonnegut at the KVML)

The program was a little late getting started anyway, so we had some time to browse the library, which my Mom hadn’t yet seen. Anyway, a small crowd of locals (and Sumner from the morning event) were delighted by Thom’s tales about his writing and about his association with Vonnegut, with whom he was friends – but “not close friends,” as he was careful to point out – even though he related that they talked on the phone often until near Vonnegut’s death in 2007.

Thom spoke a lot about history and a recent book he published titled “The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction.” It turns out the book’s title was not his preferred choice (his was “Once Upon a Time it was Now” which those in attendance also liked better.) Thom talked at length about the nature of history – how most view it as linear, flowing like a river. In that analogy, it’s fair to say he has himself certainly plumbed the depths of its eddys and currents in his decades of writing. He offered the alternative that it could also be viewed as circular (past, present, and future are all “now” at some point.)

He said he could “not remember a time when I didn’t know how to read,” but shared the joke that, when he was little and couldn’t reach the dinner table, his father would stack a dictionary or encyclopedia volume or two on his chair as a booster seat. He then paused, smiled and said, “So I learned to read by assmosis…” :-)

He also related that some of the best advice he received from a writing teacher was to “Write to their senses,” meaning ALL the senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. The fact that the comment from readers which he is most fond of hearing, and apparently often does hear, is “I felt like I was really there!”

When he had wrapped up his remarks and asked for questions, I inquired as to how he felt about the rise of electronic books and e-readers and such. Not surprisingly, he said he preferred real books, but that he was beginning to appreciate their value, noting that a niece or granddaughter’s (I can’t remember which) reading had “increased fivefold” since getting a kindle. He also said that after he had heard that all of his older novels had been released in electronic format, he noticed that his royalty statements, which had been steadily declining over the years, had taken a swing upward again, to the tune of a forty percent (I think he said) increase. That’s nice to hear. He was less impressed with the self-publishing industry, though.

While Mom and I were waiting to talk to him afterward, we spent a few minutes talking to his wife, Dark Rain, a full-blooded Shawnee, who is also an author. Since I had enjoyed my recent reading of Thom’s book, “Sign Talker,” about George Drouillard, a half-French Canadian “Indian guide” on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, she recommended I also read Thom’s “From Sea to Shining Sea” on the same topic. I think I’ll put that on my March list. :-)

(below: Mom talking with Thom’s wife, Dark Rain)

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Since there weren’t a large number of people in attendance, we were able to spend a little more time talking to the author than is usual at events like this. I found him very gracious and open. I already mentioned that Mom is a big fan of his and I’m sure he could sense this and was especially kind and friendly toward her. Going to this event really made her day. She has a personal tie with his writing as well, since his story “Follow the River” deals with the true story of Mary Ingles, who was captured by Shawnee Indians in the New River Valley area of West Virginia. Mom grew up in that area.

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Events like this often don’t live up to expectations. One never knows how the writer will interact with “his public.” For someone who has sold millions (yes, millions) of books, Thom was absolutely accessible and charming. Somewhat soft spoken but consistently thoughtful in his responses to questions and in discussion. For my part at least, he has added a new fan to what must be a long list.

Are you familiar with author James Alexander Thom? Do you have any other favorite writers of historical fiction? I’d love to know…

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14 Comments

  1. Melody said,

    March 5, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Sounds like some satisfying experiences. I haven’t gone to many author events, although that may change–I had a wonderful time seeing Louis Zamperini (subject of Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand) and it made me more open to such experiences. (I told my dad that it didn’t sound like ‘my thing’ and he replied that I wouldn’t know until I tried it–of course he was right!)

    I haven’t read any of Thom’s works but you’ve got me curious. Have you read any Irving Stone? What I’ve read of his is more ‘biographical novel’ than ‘historical fiction’ if that makes any sense, but enjoyable all the same.

    • Jay said,

      March 5, 2012 at 7:18 pm

      Hi Melody,
      I’m not a big fan of crowds, so I don’t often go these things either. (maybe half a dozen in my life) Both of these were rather small, though and within my comfort zone. :-)

      I’m not familiar with Irving Stone. Is there a work of his you’d recommend in particular? I’m willing to be guided…
      -Jay

      • Melody said,

        March 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm

        Stone’s most well-known books are probably The Agony and the Ecstasy (about Michelangelo) and Lust for Life (about Van Gogh) although I haven’t read those yet. I really enjoyed Love is Eternal (about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln). It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by him, unfortunately.

      • Jay said,

        March 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm

        I’ve heard of those titles, but never looked into who the author was. Lincoln is a favorite study of mine. Perhaps I’ll make room for that one. Thanks for the suggestion. :-)

  2. Scott said,

    March 5, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I love Thom and have gone to two of his book signings and talks. I’m not surprised he has mixed emotions on e-books. He prefers the simpler life. When I last went to one of his signings he admitted he didn’t use cell phones nor write his books on a computer. Things may have changed since then. He and Dark Rain seem very nice, and I’ve enjoyed listening to her speak about her Native American heritage. I have his most recent book on how to write historical fiction, but it is still in my tall “to read” stack. I think I will move it to the top of the stack. Can’t say that I’ve engaged him in conversation. I have difficulty carrying on a conversation and definitely didn’t know what to say. Got my books signed, nonetheless. You’ll enjoy From Sea to Shining Sea.

    • Jay said,

      March 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Hi Scott,
      There was “a tint of the mystical” in our conversation with Dark Rain. She was talking about the tradition of “singing with our ancestors” – a ceremony where a dozen or so people seclude themselves and begin singing ancestral songs. After awhile, apparently, the participants begin to hear other voices besides the dozen or so known ones. Thom had also participated in this ritual and said “I swear I could hear hundreds of voices.” Dark Rain said knowingly that “most of the voices are really here,” tapping her head, but threw in the caveat that at least one or two seem not to be. Interesting stuff.

      She and Mom were talking about the whole “circular nature of time” thing, and how many things were circular in nature, like the orbits of the planets for example (I know the orbits are actually technically ellipses, but very close to circular anyway). I mentioned to Dark Rain that I’ve often thought about birthdays as being more of a point in space rather than a point in time, and in theory we could be celebrating our orbital “return” to the place (well, relative to the sun, anyway) where we were born. She looked at me in sort of a stunned silence for a few moments and said, “I’d never realized that before!”

  3. Dale said,

    March 6, 2012 at 8:56 am

    I think I now have to put Thom’s writing on my list! They sound great!

    • Jay said,

      March 6, 2012 at 9:17 am

      I was reminded a little of Frazier’s “Thirteen Moons” by my Thom reading – mostly due to the setting/time period. He really won me over (personally) the other night, so I will be reading more of him too. :-)

  4. Alex said,

    March 6, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Interesting, his response to your question. When this ebook thing started not a lot of people believe it would actually increase reading time, but I’m finding it otherwise. I wonder if there’re already any statistics available.

    • Jay said,

      March 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm

      That’s an interesting question. While it would seem logical that more books are being purchased due to the relative ease and, usually, lesser expense of purchasing e-books, but. Does this translate into more of them being read? I don’t know…

  5. loribenton said,

    June 30, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Hi Jay, I’ve stumbled upon your site, and this post, having just last night finished reading the last of Thom’s 18th century historical novels (written to date) that I had yet to read, which for me was From Sea to Shining Sea (incredible book, just wonderful, glad I saved it for last). I woke up this morning thinking of it, and a little sad that there are no more of his books set during my favorite historical time period left to read, so I thought I’d write a blog post about it and googled a bit and here I am. I’ve never met Thom, though I have read his book on writing historical fiction too. Great book on the subject. I wrote a review on it if you are interested: http://loribenton.blogspot.com/2012/01/review-art-and-craft-of-writing.html

    I would love to meet him, and his wife, one day. His writing has been a huge inspiration for me in my own writing journey. Thanks for recounting your meeting with him.

    The silver lining in having finished Thom’s books is that they are so huge and richly detailed in plot, character, and setting that they will stand up to being reread. Probably multiple times. First on my reread list? Panther in the Sky.

    • Jay said,

      June 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm

      Hi Lori,

      So glad you found Bibliophilopolis, and happy to hear of another blogger who is a Thom fan. I purchased From Sea to Shining Sea shortly after I finished The Sign-Talker which, as you know, also deals with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Haven’t started it yet, but look forward to reading it some day. Panther in the Sky is the next Thom novel up in my TBR list. I’d hoped to get to it this month, but alas it is already the 30th…

      I think you’re right in that his novels would hold up well in re-reading. I am fortunate to have many of his to go before I reach that point. I’ve bookmarked your blog and look forward to following your writing adventures.

      -Jay

      • Lori Benton said,

        December 8, 2012 at 11:51 am

        Jay, did you ever read Panther in the Sky? Here it is December and I’m about halfway through it, rereading. I decided to read The Red Heart again first. That might be my favorite of all Thom’s books. Unless it’s Sign-Talker. It’s like choosing between one’s children I think. I love them all for slightly different reasons.

        • Jay said,

          December 10, 2012 at 5:45 pm

          Hi Lori,
          Nice to hear from you again! I must admit, shamefacedly, that I still haven’t read Panther in the Sky. But your comment has stirred me to action and i started reading it yesterday. :-)
          -Jay


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