How would you react if you lost a child? What is the appropriate reaction for a parent who has lost a child? These are the questions tackled in Breathing Out the Ghost. Moving on after a child has disappeared or has been murdered is unimaginable, but life does move on; but how it moves on is up to the family impacted by these tragedies.
"From inside the cab of the combine, Pete watched the reels of the header bat down row after row of soybeans. As the stalks fell backwards, their stems snipped clean by a line of saw teeth on the header's bottom cutter bar, the bean pods scratched against the metal of the machinery, making the sound of a whisking broom on carpet." (page 244)
This passage signifies how both Sis and Pete Pruitt and Colin and Kimm St. Claire tackle their grief and pick up the remnants of their lives. The process of rebuilding is a series of fits and starts and restarts; it's not pretty and it's never complete. Like the stalks cut down in this passage, lives are halted and lives are skinned raw. While Sis and Pete continue with their lives as best as possible and become a source of selfless comfort for others hit by tragedy in their town, Kimm is left to her own devices when her husband Colin, who calls himself a modern Ahab of the highway, sets out on a journey to find their lost son, A.J. Both stories are separate and connected, but only begin to intersect when St. Claire finds Sis Pruitt at a local fair where she and her group, Parents of Murdered Children, share their photo quilt.
Curnutt doesn't bob and weave around the anguish these families feel, but he does ensure that each member of these families expresses sorrow and loss in their own way. He's masterful at creating believable characters, even complex players like Robert Heim, who chose to leave behind his family to save St. Claire from himself.
However, this novel is more than a look at loss, it gauges the inability of control over life and what we as individuals do with that realization. The inability to control life is most evident in St. Claire's actions, but it peeks out from behind Sis' veil of normalcy as well. When Sis works with her community members to provide food for volunteers searching for a lost boy, she loses herself in the kitchen conversation, almost fooling herself into believing she's normal. It's only when she expresses herself and her memories of her dead daughter, Patty, that she realizes normalcy is not hers.
Through masterful language and description, Curnutt paints a vivid Midwest landscape in which these characters languish in grief and yet flourish in it. From Michigan to Indiana, readers will picture the asphalt highway that becomes St. Claire's home, office, and escape and the Pruitt's farm that provides them with order in a town where they feel they have been branded by the murder of their daughter.
One of the best passages in this book is found on page 219, where St. Claire is recording his thoughts on cassette tape for his lost son:
"When I see myself I don't see anything organic, anything original. I steal my aphorisms from outside sources. My actions pantomime the exploits of others. I'm all imitation, a gloss of a citation. Somewhere along the line I began compiling myself from the excerpts of better men."
Many of these characters are looking for ways to fill the holes inside them left by loss. And this novel is not just about the loss of loved ones; it is a novel about losing oneself in that loss, allowing it to swallow you whole. The introduction of Sis' grandmother, Ethel, who has dementia, is a nice addition to the cast. Not only has she experienced the loss of loved ones, but also her own memories and sense of self. However, she is less tortured by that loss, as she is not bound by time lines or turning points that she would like to have a chance to do over. Regret and a lack of control over life can sometimes be more powerful than actual loss. While there are some graphic details involving sexual predator Dickie-Bird, St. Claire's mythical white whale, this novel is an insightful look at grief, family, and perseverance.
Here's my short interview with Kirk regarding his writing and advice for amateur writers. Click on his photo to check out his Website.
1. Writers tend to be drawn to a particular genre and style. What would you consider your style? What genre are you most drawn to when writing and when reading? How do the genres you are drawn to when reading and writing differ or are they the same?
I like to think of myself as a lyrical writer. I'm very much influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald in terms of colors and textures. I also like the way he described emotions. A lot of his stuff is romantic in that it stops just short of sentimentality, and I find myself drawn to that border too. So I like writing with a density to it: Toni Morrison, for example. And Moby-Dick is a biggie for me. I love to get lost in "The Whiteness of the Whale" chapter. I'm not a big fan of stripped-down prose and simple sentences, despite the fact that in my other life I'm a Hemingway scholar. Hemingway is great for aspiring writer because you can learn a lot about how to write landscape.
Because I teach, I read a wide range of books, though mostly 19th and 20th century American novels. I suppose I'm drawn to sadder books these days, but only because I find the characters a bit more complex than in comedy. A lot of humor anymore is satirical, meaning the dramatis personae tend to be stereotypes of predictable behavior. This gets particularly irksome in gender comedies. One of my favorite contemporary writers is Thomas Sanchez, who did a great book about Key West called Mile Zero about twenty years ago. His writing tends to be over the top. I also like Andre DuBois II―you can tell he cares about his characters. I try to balance out the more literary stuff with crime books, too. I'm a huge noir fan, and I read all the Hard Case Crime paperbacks when they come out, though I enjoy some more than others. Noir is tricky to do because it's so stylized―it can come off a little too jokey if the characters aren't compelling.
2. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any "writing" books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)
I think you can learn practical steps from manuals and workshops, but really, a lot of development depends upon being an honest observer of your own strengths and weaknesses. I took several writing workshops when I was in my twenties, but I didn't particularly find them helpful because people were too competitive and there was a lot of posturing instead of work.
I have a small circle of fellow writers who share their work in progress, and it's the best thing in the world because we're mutually supportive. We can call each other on deficiencies without hurting each other's feelings. I also tend to read a lot of literary criticism and narrative theory for ideas and techniques. I loved James Wood's How Fiction Works, even though I disagree with a lot of his orthodoxies.
3. There is a great deal of poetic prose in your novel, Breathing Out the Ghost. Have you written poetry or have you considered it? Why or Why not?
No, I've never tried poetry, in part, I think, because I'm too attached to plot. I do love poetic prose, however, and I think a writer should test the limits of language. That's part of the reason that I love folks like Melville, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Morrison, as different as they all are. I read and teach modernist poetry regularly―I love Hilda Doolittle, for example―and it's taught me a lot about imagery and symbolism. What a dash of poetry can bring to the prose is simply greater sensuousness. So much of the world feels flat and simplified today; we've gotten a bit of a tin ear when it comes to metaphor. So the poetic part is just there to challenge myself to appreciate the richness we tend to overlook.
4. A great deal of writing advice suggests that amateur writers focus on what they know or read the genre you plan to write. Does this advice hold true for you? How so (i.e. what authors do you read)?
I think the "write what you know" dictum is the worst thing that ever happened to writing. It's been bad for two reasons: it's encouraged people to believe that personal experience is the only font of knowledge that's worth exploring, and, as a result, it has discouraged people from learning new things. To me a far better philosophy would be, "If you want to write about something you don't know, go out and learn it." And the reality is that professional writers do this on a daily basis.
In my own case, I knew zilch about farming except for some embarrassing memories about how useless I was when I was a child and I would try to help my grandparents milk and harvest. I wanted to know the language of combines and hogs, however, so I went out and educated myself, both by visiting farms and reading books. I'm fortunate that I have a very tolerant uncle who entertains a lot of my stupid questions.
The other downside of only writing what you know is that writers tend to create characters that are only variations of themselves. As much as I love Hemingway and Fitzgerald, they and their generation are to blame for this tendency. At its most reductive, the idea gets boiled down to the notion that men can't create convincing female characters and that women have the same problem with men. I think what actually happens is that sometimes we as writers don't extend our characters the courtesy of empathy: we create them as foils whose behavior is the axe we want to grind.
Take the two spouses in Ghost, for example. It was very important to me that readers be able to identify with the dilemmas of both Pete Pruitt and Kim St. Claire as much as the narrative sympathies encourage them to care about Sis and Colin respectively. In essence, I wanted the audience to see the lack of generosity in my main characters' resentments toward their families, because otherwise all I would have is an unemotional husband and an unfaithful wife. Motives are more complex. I guess the key word is empathy: I think challenging yourself to write about people who aren't you is both artistically and ethically beneficial. It teaches you a bit of humility about your own opinions, and it allows you to feel for the things other people have suffered without pity or condescension.
5. If you were to create a playlist for your novel, what are the top five songs on that list?
This is a great question! I actually had a group of songs I would play as I was writing. Music is great inspiration because it's such a different medium and it's a productive challenge to try to translate its effect into words. The top songs would include:
a) "Yer Blues" by the Beatles. From The White Album, of course. I actually imagined Colin St. Claire listening to this song in the opening chapter, if only because I have memories of listening to it when I was in my very early teens. The Beatles may have been my first earphone album―you know, the kind of record that you end up spending heaps of time listening to in your own little world. Years later I read a quote from Eric Clapton talking about how hard it was for him to take this song seriously because it was so intense it seemed like a parody of the blues. I mean, the lyrics are way over the top: Yes I'm lonely / Wanna die.… etc. etc. Whatever John Lennon's feelings for it were― and I don't think he really cared for it―"Yer Blues" has always struck me as that kind of primal scream that's as much about showing off one's desperation as it is actually experiencing it. In that way, it seemed to capture for me the solipsism of Colin St. Claire's quest for his lost son. Here is a version from the Rolling Stones' Rock 'n' Roll Circus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?
I just love the Beatles! I have to go out and find this song...perhaps the next time I'm at my parents. My dad has the White Album on LP!
b) "You R Loved" by Victoria Williams. This is a great bit of horn-tinged gospel that's always embodied for me generosity and redemption. Victoria is often depicted as a sort of hippie kook, but there's a deeply caring side to her music that makes me think of the word healing. I love the chorus: Jesus walked on the water / He turned the water into wine / He went down to the drunkards / To tell them everything is fine / You R loved, You R loved, You R loved. This is the song St. Claire's daughter would sing to her father. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
c) "Little Bird" by the Beach Boys. Yes, the Beach Boys. I'm the world's biggest BB nerd. There's a real dark side to their late-60s music that only folks who can see past "Surfin' U.S.A." are aware of. This song, which appears on their extremely weird 1968 LP Friends, was the first song Dennis Wilson wrote. He later went on to make one of the best albums of the seventies, Pacific Ocean Blue. It would probably upset his fans to know this was the song I had in mind for the villain of Ghost, Dickie-Bird Johnson. "Little Bird" is often described as a gentle, child-like song, but to me it was always creepy. I mean, it was written while Dennis was hanging out with Charles Manson. It doesn't get creepier than that. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
I have to interject here that I would think that writing a song while hanging out with Charles Manson would indeed be very creepy!
d) "Every Grain of Sand" by Bob Dylan. Not really well-known, but a beautiful song about humility that appeared in the early eighties at the end of his Christian phrase. I snipped a couple of lines for dialogue here and there in the book. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
e) "If I Should Fall Behind" by Bruce Springsteen. To my thinking, a great love song for people who've been together long enough to be disappointed and yet forgiving. I played this over and over while I was writing the scenes between Sis and Pete. There are several versions of this song; it's been recorded by everybody from Dion (doo-wop) to Linda Ronstadt (jazz). My favorite is the version Springsteen did with the E Street Band c. 2000. Each member of the group takes turns singing a verse, even Clarence Clemmons. It's a really effective arrangement―way better than the 1992 original. Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true / But you and I know what this world can do―that's my favorite line. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
6. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?
I'm pretty good at compartmentalizing, so my friendships really haven't changed in the years I've been trying to write seriously. I do have four or five really close friends who are in this game, but the majority of my friends have their own interests. Some are painters, some mechanics, some farmers, some Air Force lieutenants, some bartenders. I think it's healthy to have a wide circle of folks who aren't writers. You learn more by hanging out with people who aren't like you because they know things you don't. Friends are great sources of knowledge.
I also agree that having friends who aren't writers is a benefit!
7. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
I have what's called a "hidden room" in my house. It's basically a half-attic that's been converted into a spare bedroom. I use it for an office. I keep it pretty stark: a little computer table, bookshelves, and a table to hold my coffee cup. I'm usually up in it by five so I can write before work. For years I had a laptop and worked anywhere I could: sometimes at Panera's or Barnes and Noble, sometimes in my room, sometimes in the car. What's most important is that you keep up your schedule by being able to write wherever you're at. Life is going to conspire to mess with your schedule, so you have to adapt.
Thanks so much for these questions! Thank you, Kirk, for graciously taking the time to answer my questions.
About the Author:
Kirk Curnutt is the author of eleven books of fiction and criticism, including the forthcoming thriller Dixie Noir (Fall 2009); Coffee with Hemingway (2007), an entry in Duncan Baird’s series of imaginary conversations with great historical figures: and the story collection, Baby, Let’s Make a Baby (2003).
Breathing Out the Ghost was named Best Fiction in the Indiana Center for the Book’s 2008 Best Books of Indiana Competition. It also won a bronze IPPY from the Independent Publishers Association and was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards. Curnutt’s other awards include three consecutive Hackney Awards for short-story writing (2004-2006) and the gold medal in nonfiction in the 2008 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition sponsored by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society.
A passionate devotee of all things F. Scott Fitzgerald, he is vice-president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society and a board member of the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
Now for the giveaway information: (Don't forget to leave me an email or working blog profile)
1. One entry for a comment left on this post regarding why you want to read Breathing out the Ghost.
2. A second entry if you blog about or mention this contest in your sidebar, don't forget to come back here and leave me a link.
3. A third entry if you comment on a previous or subsequent tour stop and leave me a link to the post you commented on.
Deadline for entries is Jan. 17 at Midnight EST
Here are the other TLC Book Tour Stops:
Monday, January 5th: Diary of an Eccentric
Thursday, January 8th: Crime Ne.ws, formerly Trenchcoat Chronicles
Monday, January 12th: Savvy Verse and Wit
Tuesday, January 13th: Educating Petunia
Wednesday, January 14th: Michele- Only One ‘L’
Thursday, January 15th: Book Nut
Friday, January 16th: Anniegirl1138
Monday, January 19th: Caribou’s Mom
Tuesday, January 20th: Lost in Lima, Ohio
Wednesday, January 21st: A Novel Menagerie
Monday, January 26th: Catootes
Wednesday, January 28th: Bloody Hell, it’s a Book Barrage!
Thursday, February 12th: She is Too Fond of Books