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).
(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)
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.
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…