Here are a few images from a recent article on my work that appeared in the magazine “Shoutout Miami.” I enjoyed being interviewed, and it gave me a chance to articulate some things I had never shared, at least not in an organized way. It also gave me a chance to talk about my writing, painting and photography and how I used them to accomplish my goal to–
…make peoples’ life richer and also encourage people to take care of their surroundings and preserve places and history to give our lives context and make our lives more enjoyable.
Prologue: Last year on New Year’s Eve, I was walking along Carondolet and had a strange feeling just as I passed the old police station on the corner at Saint Joseph Street. I had a strange feeling, as if I weren’t alone. As I stood there trying to figure it out, a streetcar came by. I snapped this picture and decided to write a short story vaguely inspired by what I was feeling.
I studied the ring the mug left on the wooden bar. I studied the few remaining bubbles fighting their way to the surface. It was almost finished. I wanted this beer done.
I didn’t know what came next though as I sat in the dark bar. The two televisions, open door and neon lights provided some light. It was just me, the twenty-something bartender washing glasses, a couple fawning all over each other in the darkened corner, and a rainy New Orleans at dusk out that propped-open door. A soccer game from somewhere in the world, a muffled version of “Don’t Stop Believing,” and the occasional tires splashing on the street outside provided the soundtrack.
I had just left him for what felt like the last time. It had to be. His eyes, damn his eyes. So sad. Nothing sadder than to see a nice man, a genuinely nice man, cry. He didn’t deserve to be sad. I didn’t like myself for doing that to him.
“Ma’am, you wanna ‘nother?” I peered around to the bartender. Why’d he call me ma’am? I couldn’t be more than five years older than he. What did he see in me? Was I looking that old? I still had my looks, bastard.
“How about a beer and a shot, you know, the special?” Who said that? It dawned on me that I did. I guess a lonely shot and beer was okay. The rain kept coming down.
“Coming up.” He swung into action.
As he presented the drinks on the bar before me he said, “You waiting on someone, or for the rain to end?” He smiled.
“Not sure, really.”
“Pretty woman like you?”
“Kind of you to say. I’m just chilling as they say. Thinking through stuff.”
“Let me know if you need a sounding board. I’m even a law student at Tulane. Cheers.” He winked as he drifted off to serve a customer just coming in out of the rain. The law student bartender seemed a tad flirtatious. I studied myself. I admired my legs. I did look good in this black dress. Simple, not long, not short. I took pride in still “having it.” I noted the rain still coming down.
“Can I sit down?” I turned around to see an attractive man standing to my left. I hadn’t seen him come in. He was about 6’2”. Medium build. A few specks of gray in his dark hair. Handsome strong face.
“Sure, I’m about to shove off.” He smiled but looked a tad confused. I quickly added, “Wait, you’re welcome to have a seat though.”
“Sure?” His smile immediately put me at ease.
The bartender changed the ambient sound. More classic rock, less soccer announcing.
“You live around here?”
“Yes, for now.” He was getting a bit nosey.
“About to move?”
“Not sure. What about you?”
“In town visiting my mom. Grew up here. Metairie. You?” He was maintaining a lot of eye contact. Confident.
“I lived in the Lower Garden growing up.”
As he ordered a drink, he turned to look at me, “Doing okay on drinks?”
“I’m good, but thanks.” I was feeling the shot.
“No worries. Just nice chatting with you. No need to rush off. I figured you were from here. You somehow just got the look.”
I studied the white line around my finger where the ring Doug had given me once sat.
“How do you mean?”
“You know, this city makes some of the most attractive people. Maybe it’s more than just looks, maybe it’s a certain attitude. An openness, confidence, an abandon.”
I smiled at him.
“No. I mean it. It’s really a thing. It’s like an openness to having fun no matter the circumstance. Believe me, people back east aren’t always like that.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. You may have that too, whatever it is.”
We sat quiet for a moment. He even smelled good.
“The rain is slacking off.” I peered into the now damp night awaiting me outside that door.
“Hey, you want to grab dinner somewhere?”
I turned around to look at him and started to say yes, then found myself blurting out, “Not tonight. Sorry. But I’ve enjoyed visiting with you.”
“I’m Wes. Wes Hughes.”
“Pleasure meeting you, Millicent.”
“Notice, I said ‘meeting’ you, no need for the evening to end, huh?” He did have that New Orleans air about him. A confidence. I liked it.
I smiled and stood and started putting on my raincoat. Wes arose to help. A gentleman.
“Millicent, can we by any chance see each other again?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean. I’m not sure. It’s complicated.”
“Sure, no worries. Just enjoyed our chat.”
I studied him a second. Nice dimples. His glasses gave him an intellectual look.
“Me too, Wes.” I paused a second, and before I knew it, I blurted out, “Say Wes, what’s your favorite Albert Camus novel?” I felt idiotic right after I said it.
We looked at each other a second. He slowly smiled, and replied, “Well, it’s a tie, The Stranger and The Fall.”
His reply was almost an aphrodisiac. I was almost ready to take this guy to my place right then. I quickly regained my senses.
“Say, what do you do Mr. Hughes, why are you here in town, just visiting?”
“Well, a book signing at Tulane and a bookstore here. Just published a book. Really, I’m a lit professor in New Jersey currently.”
That explained it. “I’m impressed. When’s the signing?”
“Already happened. Leaving in a few days.”
“Well, thanks for making my evening better, Wes.” Not sure why I felt to need to leave. Internally, I was very conflicted. Sometimes, you just defer to your inner voice.
“You too, Millicent.”
I noted his leather satchel on the bar. Crazily, I mused whether it’d smell like leather. So much to like about this guy. Why was I walking away?
“Sure on ‘no’ to dinner?” He added, “I’ll explain my Camus selections.”
I hesitated then replied, “Wes, when do you leave town?”
“Okay, let’s see. Today’s Thursday. I leave Sunday afternoon.”
“Tell you what. Let’s agree to meet back here Saturday at 6:00. If you or I don’t show, no hard feelings. I’d explain more but it’s too complicated and I’m too tired.”
“It’s a date…I hope.” He lifted his eyebrows and smiled.
We shook hands and I was quickly out the door into the damp, cool night. I liked the feel of touching him.
The rain resumed just as I neared where I was staying. My place was close by, just a little further down Saint Joseph Street. I could see flashes of lighting and faint rumblings of thunder toward the river. As I went up the wet stairs into my funky apartment my mind was racing with so many things. How I felt when I touched Wes’ hand. Doug’s smiling eyes when he brought me coffee in the morning.
I had just moved in a couple of weeks before. The place consisted of about a fifteen by twenty-foot room with a tiny bathroom, but the balcony was nice, even if I shared it with another unit. It was a weird place. Seemed like it was just half a building. The red and black bricks looked so old. My window frames were metal and rusted, but somehow lovely. A small, noisy window AC unit was my climate control. My plug-in air freshener was keeping the musty smell a bit in check.
I slipped my shoes off and plopped down on the small loveseat. There was only room for a chair, loveseat, my small bed, and a tiny kitchenette in the corner—a miniature fridge, sink and small cabinet. My other possessions were back at my mom’s house. I didn’t miss them. I felt freer with less stuff. I moved into this apartment on a whim. I just needed space from Doug as soon as possible.
I had lived with Doug for three years.
Three years of my life spent gradually realizing we just couldn’t connect the way I wanted. The way I needed. I’d share an insight I thought powerful, and he’d just give me a quizzical look. I needed more. Even if he’d said, “You’re full of shit!” Anything! I craved a passionate reaction. I had been entertaining self-doubt, thinking I was expecting too much. Were my observations not that profound? Doug was an intelligent guy overall. Very successful. Was I the problem? But over time, I had ultimately had enough. I needed more from my lover. I regretted it took three years.
I looked about my room. Rain was beginning to pelt the two windows on the end of my unit. A flash of lighting streaked across the sky. Just me, my two suitcases of clothes and a few books. I turned on my lamp and picked up my copy of The Sun Also Rises. I was on my third reading of it. I read a page or two then tossed it to the side. I needed to figure out why I was being so haunted by my decision to leave Doug.
I was so restless. Soon I was back in my raincoat and headed down Carondelet Street in the direction of the Ace Hotel. I had texted my friend, Stephanie, to meet me at the hotel. As soon as I walked in the bar, I proceeded to the quieter back rooms, behind the bar.
Stephanie was already seated looking at her phone.
“Hey girl! How you doing?”
“C’mon girl, we been through all that. You did what you needed to do.”
“I know. Why am I so sad though? Shouldn’t the right thing feel good?”
The waitress put a drink before me.
“I ordered for you, something stiff,” Stephanie said.
“Thank you, Steph.”
“What’s a girlfriend for, huh?”
I looked her in the eye. “Thank you.”
“Okay, Mil you need to go find another man or take a trip or do something.”
“Look, it’s hard. Doug’s a good man. I broke his heart. I fear I broke him period. He’s too good for that.”
“He is a good man. You’re right on that. But…he isn’t good for you. You know that.”
“I know. Been doing a lot of thinking on this. He was good. He was wholesome. He would have been a great husband, great father even. He was safe, you know? He loved me. He almost worshiped me. I now feel so alone. I feel so bad I hurt him.”
“I get it. But, you gotta let him go. Let him meet the right person for him. He deserves that. You know you two had been growing apart a long time. You told me that you had gotten to where you had nothing to talk about.”
The music was getting a bit louder next door. The crowd was getting louder too. Steph reached out and put her hand on mine. I noticed she was dressed up a bit. Very pretty.
“Steph, you’re all dressed up. You ready to go partying or something?”
“I wanted to be ready Mil. You know me. Always ready for some fun.”
“Thanks for meeting me. Being here for me.”
“Let’s go dance. Let’s forget all this relationship bullshit!”
“Maybe in a bit.”
“Steph, why did Doug and I drift apart? It was so good at first.”
“Look, Doug’s a good guy, but you’re an intellectual. You light up when you’re talking to me about books, travel, adventure. You love editing books. It’s how you make your living. You love ideas. You need a man who can keep up with you. Challenge you. Grow from.”
She paused to put some fresh lipstick on and peered over at me, “Shit Mil, you’ve been trying to get him to go to France with you for over a year. Get your ass over to Paris and meet you a Frenchman. You’re hot girl. You’d have a blast in Paris.”
“Maybe. Maybe I could eventually have gotten Doug to start reading more, to want to travel, to explore.”
“Now you’re talking crazy. His passion is Saints’ football and watching movies. Didn’t you tell me he never reads?”
“Not much anymore.”
“Girl, you need to move on!” She paused a second and exclaimed, “Let’s go dance. They’re some cute guys here. Do I need to buy you another damn drink?”
“Wait. What if I give him one more chance, and I tell him what I need from him. Be super clear. If he doesn’t change, then I’m out. I feel so guilty. Did I really give him a chance?”
“You’re crazy. Three years!” Steph looked at me with big eyes and “that” look, waiting for me to agree. I didn’t.
She broke the silence, “You’re wasting your time Mil but suit yourself. Let’s go dance.”
As I walked home that night hearing my heels click on the wet sidewalk, I was resolved to give Doug one last chance. I enjoyed dancing with Steph and whatever guys waded into our dance space. It was fun, but something was missing. My mind raced wondering whether I had ever really told Doug what I needed versus just assuming he’d get it?
As I neared the corner of Saint Joseph Street, I saw a figure standing in a dark, shadowy doorway of the old police station. I got a strange feeling. I walked along the curb to keep my distance. As I went by the shadowy figure, I heard a woman’s voice whisper, “Set him free.”
I didn’t fully process the words until I had rounded the corner onto Saint Joseph. Part of me wanted to just keep going, but another part tugged at me to go back. Who, or what, the hell was she? I froze.
In a few seconds, I mustered the courage to go back to the corner. I slowly peered around the building. The doorway was empty. I looked up and down Carondelet Street. Nobody. I started thinking maybe I was imagining things. My head was buzzing from the loud music and too many drinks. Just then I saw a streetcar turning to come rumbling down Carondelet. I looked again at the doorway. Nothing.
As the streetcar clanged by, there she was: staring at me out the streetcar window. I shivered as our eyes briefly locked. She looked a thousand years old, like a witch, or maybe wisdom personified. I felt very strange. Was any of this real? Had I conjured her?
I shut my eyes hard to try and clear my vision. The streetcar was just a fading, rumbling sound as it passed under the red neon Ace Hotel sign in the distance. Soon all was quiet again. Just me, my buzz, my ringing ears, and the corner. A couple was laughing and staggering down Carondelet in the distance. Soon, even they were gone. All was wet, dark, and quiet, except for the ringing in my ears.
I sheepishly smiled at the same bartender from earlier in the evening. “Yeah, I guess so. I was just walking home and saw the light on. Next thing I knew I was sitting here. Same stool even.”
The surreal feeling lingered. The soccer had been replaced with basketball. Muted Hip-hop had replaced the classic rock. The red neon signs were still casting a glow about.
“You did look a little startled when you came in.”
“Yeah, something strange happened out there.”
“Well, I was just walking down Carondelet and…” I was watching for his reaction.
“Oh, nothing. I think I was just seeing things.” The bartender gave me an all-knowing smile.
He handed me a little pony beer. “Here’s a beer. Help calm ya down.”
“Just have a few sips. You still look a bit shaken.”
“C’mon…tell me. What happened?”
“I think I was just hearing things.”
The bartender looked at me with his eyebrows lifted and said in a conspiratorial tone, half-whisper like. “Okay, no worries. Some say that corner is haunted. Ain’t the first time I’ve heard stuff like this.”
“Everywhere is haunted in New Orleans!”
“Good point, Millicent.”
“Hey, how do you know my name?
“We bartenders, we hear things.” A wink and that flirtatious smile again.
The music suddenly was turned way down. Brighter lights coming on. The place was thinning out.
“Hey, thanks for the beer. I gotta get home.”
As I got to the door, I called out to the bartender, “Hey, y’all are open Saturday night, right?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?” He asked looking over his shoulder at me while washing glasses.
“Good. I’ll see you Saturday.”
“It’s a date, hon.”
I kind of hoped it would be. I was still dreamy about his knowing Camus.
Over the annuls of history, numerous products were successful at one thing but created unanticipated impacts.
Invented in 1885, Coca-Cola made people feel good. It was billed as a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage.” It initially contained cocaine. It was addictive. Cocaine amounts were reduced over the years and eventually eliminated by the late 1920s.
DDT was billed as a miracle insecticide. It was promoted by the government and industry for many applications. It was used by farmers and mosquito control authorities. It was popular because it worked. Over time, thanks to the work of Rachel Carlson and many others, we learned that it was leading to rapid declines of numerous birds, such eagles, pelicans and peregrine falcons. Turns out that DDT persists in the environment for a long time and has many harmful impacts likely to all living creatures. Its use was largely banned in the 1970s. We have seen a significant rebound in these bird populations.
I could list many more products that had to be pulled off the market. You get the point. Something that is really good in some ways can be problematic in others.
Recently, I’ve been applying this concept to our being hyper-connected to the digital realm. Since at least the 1980s, we’ve each year become more reliant, some would say addicted, to the internet and its various products.
Like the products described above, the internet has offered so many benefits. Obviously, we have more data at our fingertips. Some of the data is accurate, some not. It has made so many things we do more efficient. We use far less paper and energy to do many tasks. All in all, it has produced many substantial improvements to our life and perhaps even the environment.
But is it a little like Coca-Cola or DDT in that there are negative impacts? Impacts that are real and perhaps warrant mitigation? Can such potential impacts even be mitigated?
I’ve recently been asking myself was I happier pre-internet or post internet? I don’t really know when the pre-internet period was. Personally, I’ve experienced a gradual increase in screen time since the 1980’s. I sense I was happier and felt more connected “pre-internet,” whenever that was. I think I sought out more in person contact and human connections. More walks, more outside, more reading, more hiking, more just sitting around with friends and listening to music and talking. I had more time.
My generation may be the last that can attempt to answer the pre-internet versus post-internet question. Does my generation have a unique responsibility to share our insights?
Has screen time eroded my doing the things listed above? Aren’t those things important to feeding community, feeding one’s soul? Are we now happier? If not, why do we surf more, binge more, post more?
Has this addictive, consumptive technology just snuck up on us so we didn’t note the changes in our world, our community and our personal happiness?
Since humans evolved in a tribal setting, do we need in person contact and support to feel comfortable? In other words, is the virtual world able to give us what we need as a species to thrive? Is it that our virtual world doesn’t meet our habitat and evolutionary needs? Animals in degraded habitat experience stress. It isn’t just happiness; it is health as well. Persistent stress leads to health declines.
But it is not just a question of whether we are as happy and healthy. Has it affected our safety?
I really feel less connected to my countrymen. Now 30 to 40 percent of my countrymen concern me. The digital realm has accelerated that. There are so many people I feel like I have to be careful what I talk about for fear they will shut down. Facebook technologies feed you more of what you have consumed in the past. If you consume content about birds, you get more content about birds. That seems harmless. But if you consume extreme political or hateful content, you may get more, similar extreme or hateful content. That is proving to NOT be harmless. It may be radicalizing people. Since they live in an often virtual, tailor-made world of supporters, it appears to embolden them to act out on fringe theories.
I don’t have answers. I’m just sharing thoughts. One step would be for Facebook and other social media platforms to stop engineering what we are exposed to. Facebook should stop trying to figure out what we want to see, especially for content that will lead to radicalization. We are divided enough as it is!
Food for thought.
I welcome feedback. I may be missing something; I probably am…
If you enjoy having your world paradigm challenged a bit, you might enjoy “Pauline” and “Beach” in my new novel, The Sommières Sun. Check it out.
Some people seem to just let experiences come and go. Little conscious effort is made to keep a part of what just happened to them. Life is just about experiencing things and that’s it. What’s next?
There’s nothing wrong with that. It is a way to travel “light” through the journey of life. These people can be very pleasurable company. They are experiencing new things, as others are pausing to process, document or reflect.
Those of us who attempt to process or document, however, are often good story tellers. We use the experiences of our lives to develop a personal narrative. That narrative is part of our conscientiousness. As long as we are alive, that narrative is always growing.
These experiences can be most anything, such as a great meal, like the one I enjoyed in Spain in 2013.
The good story tellers (and many writers) try to cling to a memory or two of many experiences–what something smelled like, how a person smiled, the taste of a steak or wine, how a person laughed, or the speckles in a lover’s eyes. The photos above will aid me should I ever write about that magical meal.
Photography can be an enormous gift to writers, especially when writing a scene from the past. (My favorite approach is to write in situ. Think of it as writing en plein air, but that is often not possible.) A well-taken, iconic photo can really open the memory floodgates. Writers can use journals and other tools as well. I find photographs and a few notes in my pocket journal of what I was feeling often works best for me.
By documenting a memory, it gives people something to latch onto and often many others aspects of the memory will flood back. That is a gift for writers, especially writers seeking to deploy what Hemingway termed “true writing” or “knowledge of life” as I discussed my novel, The Sommières Sun.
“Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be.” ― Ernest Hemingway
I used the memory of my favorite steak place in Paris to create a scene for my protagonist, Steve, and his friend, Beach, to really bond. Food has a magical way of letting people relax and build relationships. I wanted the food to be phenomenal to intensify the bonding experience.
I used a couple of photos I of mine plus a discussion with my daughter to prepare to write this scene. I reflected on how I felt the times I ate at Le Relais de Venise, especially the first time in 2010. The following quotes share a bit of what I wrote.
A few minutes later…
I don’t believe I could have captured this scene without having experienced it, but the photos and conversation enriched the prose a great deal and made it even “truer” writing.
It doesn’t have to be just the big moments. Just capturing a simple scene or two can be so pleasurable as well…
But it can be bigger moments…
I probably took 100 pictures that night. I will never forget how cold and beautiful Trucadéro was that night in January.
Whether you are a writer, a story teller or a person who just enjoys reliving and reflecting on special moments, capture those moments you value. It is a balance. Obviously, experience the moments too! It is just that a photo here and there and a few notes in a journal can make a big difference.
Many of my friends are changing. They are reading less and watching (or binging) series on Netflix, Amazon or similar services more. I don’t altogether like it. It is making my world a bit less interesting.
First of all, I feel a bit of pressure to watch these series in order to maintain cultural touchstones. After I watch a series, they strike me almost like mindlessly eating a bag of potato chips. I enjoy it immensely at the time, but feel a little sick afterward. Now, that’s an overstatement. I don’t actually feel sick after watching a series (normally). What really bothers me is how much less interesting my discussions are with friends about these series versus discussing a book.
Why do I find the discussion less rich? Maybe it has something do with that old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Maybe through the use of pictures, actually moving pictures, the viewer inserts less of herself into her perception of the story.
Reflect on this passage just a bit. We’ll come back to it.
Think about it like art. I find paintings that look almost like photographs less interesting than paintings that deploy a degree of abstraction. With a degree of abstraction, the viewer projects a bit of themselves into interpreting the subject.
Compare looking at this painting with looking at a photograph of a woman and a glass vase.
Just reflect on the vase.
Again, think of how much different a discussion would be with a friend concerning this painting versus a photograph. Not to say photography can’t be abstract or interpreted as well. I do love photography, but you get the point.
That is the beauty of reading and books, writers are never able to completely describe a scene. The reader always has to robustly use his imagination to supplement the words on the page.
In a sense, the reader forms a partnership with the writer to visualize what is happening. As a result, when you discuss a book with a friend, your perception will be different than theirs. You are comparing your interpretations versus literal scenes that a video series explicitly prepared for your consumption.
When you discuss a book with a friend, you are in a sense, discussing a bit of yourself with them. Your experiences, your imagination, colored and helped shape your perception of what happened. That’s generally less true when you discuss video productions.
Okay, to illustrate, think about what you envisioned from the above passage at the start of this post. Did you see anything like this?
Probably not precisely. You injected your imagination, your knowledge of monuments and France or whatever, into your perception of the scene.
Here’s another example.
What did you see?
Think about what you really saw in your mind.
Did it look like this?
Probably not exactly. But that gives us a glimpse of why discussing books is so interesting, so rich. We are in a sense discussing ourselves a bit as well.
Of course, writers selfishly want you to read. That’s a big reason why we write. But we also think the world is a more interesting place when you do. It can, just like abstract art, transform the consumption of art away from a spectator sport to a participation sport. I like that.
The Ken Burns series on Hemingway will begin airing on PBS on April 5, 2021. The promos to his series got me to thinking about what was going on in my mind as I was writing A Moveable Marfa. The series looks like it is going to be incredible and honest.
I worked on A Moveable Marfa during the years I lived Paris, 2010-2013. I knew additional books might also emerge from this experience. Which is now happening. The Sommières Sun, my next novel and a sequel to A Moveable Marfa is in the final stages of pre-publication editing. In telling of my story of protagonist, Steve Miles, both novels feature content on Hemingway’s life in Paris and his philosophy on writing.
In 2011, I challenged myself to visit and document many of the sites in Paris Hemingway identified in Paris. I visited where he and Hadley first lived and the nearby writing studio he rented. A portion of the episode I describe in Chapter 21 of A Moveable Marfa really happened. I still vividly recall the downpour that began as I was admiring the location of Hemingway’s old writing studio at 39 rue Descartes. Slightly drenched and standing under an awning, I really did chat with a man of African descent there. I think in reality we conversed in French, even if my character, Steve, chatted with him mostly in English.
Anyway, I visited and wrote about many sites Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast, including the places he lived, Gertrude Stein’s flat at 27 Fluerus, Michaud’s (now Le Pre Aux Clercs), the original location of Shakespeare and Company at rue de l’Odeon, Hotel Venitia, and the Dingo Bar (now Auberge de Venise), among others. In a A Moveable Marfa, I described Steve’s feelings as he visited these places seeking inspiration to write his novel.
Throughout A Moveable Feast, Hemingway described so many places we can visit today. Here’s his description of the fountains at Place Saint-Sulpice.
I visited this fountain numerous times.
Of course I hung out at the Jardin de Luxembourg numerous times and wrote parts of the book there. Hemingway referenced this park many times and wrote of going to the Musée du Luxembourg to see the Cézannes, Manets, Monets.
In Chapter 22, I describe a scene in the below bar, Le 10 Bar. Right next door, was the original location of Shakespeare and Company. I describe a scene that Hemingway reportedly made on this very street after receiving a bad review.
The Sommières Sun will be out soon. If you haven’t read a A Moveable Marfa now is a great time. The Sommières Sun is a sequel to a A Moveable Marfa. Reading A Moveable Marfa is not essential, but reading it first will make reading The Sommières Sun all the more enjoyable.
I wanted to do short reviews on a couple of books I recently enjoyed. I find inspiration in the American West. I love the beauty, the isolation and the mystery. Having lived in the West multiple times, I have feelings there I seldom have elsewhere. The West offers the absence of people and distractions, the abundance of beauty and sunsets and the palpable sense there are some aspects of those sweeping landscapes that our conventional five senses cannot fully detect.
As an example, I was once poking around the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in Otero County New Mexico just as the sun was about to dip below the horizon. My world was bathed in orange light with foreboding shadows coming from the petroglyph-covered boulders surrounding me. I had strange a sensation I was in a sacred place similar to what I experienced when visiting the Chartres Cathedral. Hard to explain unless you have experienced it. I had been there earlier on other days, and it didn’t have that feeling. It was as though the sunset “activated it.” The photo section of this site (under the New Mexico tab) has a couple of pictures I took of this place on other days.
But I digress, let’s talk books…
Let me start with Abandoned New Mexico by John M. Mulhouse. Having lived in New Mexico for three years, I explored the remote corners of this magnificent state as often as I could.
Mulhouse does an excellent job of documenting places across the state that have been largely abandoned yet still have many great stories to share. Though Mulhouse doesn’t necessarily emphasize this, it is a persistent story of the futility of man working against mother nature. Mulhouse’s main emphasis is what brought people to a place, what was built to support civilization and, typically speaking, how precious little still remains of that struggle.
The book is filled with incredible photos documenting what remains of ghost towns and near ghost towns across the state. I actually visited the above structure in 1996 and documented it myself. There used to be other buildings around this structure. There was no sign of them even in 1996 when I visited. Now, the building sits in splendid isolation out on an Eastern New Mexico prairie.
Sadly, other images of this structure in the book reveal that the building has deteriorated a great deal from the time I visited. But, I digress (again).
Mulhouse’s book does an impressive job of documenting so many forgotten places across the state.
Simply put, I loved this book. Having lived in New Mexico and having explored its backroads, this book brings back so many good memories and gives context to many of the lonely, beautiful places I visited. I loved the way Mulhouse coupled his stunning photography with just enough history to give context without overwhelming the reader. His occasional dry humor adds much as well.
Another thing I liked is that he offers explorations in parts of the state that are seldom discussed but have rich histories and interesting stories to share.
Now, I’ll provide a brief review of a second book concerning the Southwest. It is a totally different kind of book.
Desert Oracle by Ken Layne explores some of the mysterious aspects of the Southwest. It shares a number of stories, some short, some long, that describes mysteries surrounding disappearances, cults, murders, UFOs monsters and other desert mysteries. The stories are all based on accounts from several sources about these strange occurrences. Layne balances “keeping it real” and keeping it interesting quite well.
One of my favorite stories was about a mysterious Swedish fellow named John Samuelson who left his life philosophy carved on some stones now part of Joshua Tree National Park. The man led a bizarre life including selling the rights to his (possibly true) life story to Earl Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason.
The book has an old school feeling to it and is ascetically very pleasing. The stories are well written and interesting. All the content is presented in a plausible fashion and will likely hold your attention. Once finished, you will step away from the book wanting to go experience some of these mysteries of the Southwest yourself.
“Wow! You changed.” I stared in her wide open eyes. “I feel so alive too, I feel so alive when I am with you, hurricane or not.”
“Moi aussi mon cher!” and she dug her face into my chest. The rain was so hard, the wind so strong, you could no longer see out into the distance. It was just a swirl of black, gray with a few city lights appearing at times. Lightning towards the Gulf occasionally made a strange greenish light in the distance.
–The Sommières Sun, to be published spring 2021
If you’ve ever been through a hurricane, you may understand the above conversation between Steve and his friend from my upcoming novel, The Sommières Sun. Hurricanes can be scary. If you feel like you could die, you might be too terrified to feel “si vivante” or “so alive.” However, if you can experience a storm from a place where you feel relatively safe, you can have an amazing experience just as Steve and his friend find out as they are visiting New Orleans. From the 9th floor of the Ace Hotel, they witness the awesome power mother nature can unleash.
There is something very primal about witnessing the awesome forces of wind and rain coming together at such a force. The feeling of the wind making it being hard to stand up, or the pelting of horizontal rain or even the smell of a hurricane affects one viscerally.
The scene I describe in The Sommières Sun is based on what I witnessed during Hurricane Zeta in late October 2020. As the video I captured shows, it was a force to be reckoned with. I tried to capture my characters encountering the forces described above and depicted in the video below.
And going through something like this with a person you care about can somehow make you feel even closer, like you shared something really important or even “cheated death” together.
I invite you to experience this scene this spring upon publication. It is one of my favorite scenes in the book!
I just finished the first draft of The Sommières Sun. It now goes on to editing and it is still on track for a spring release. I thought I’d take a short break from the book to blog about why I write.
I write to entertain, educate and inspire. I also write to provoke thought. I find many of us lead lives, myself included, that don’t often offer time to think. I mean time for us to reflect on what we actually think about something. Far too often we “outsource” our thinking to others, political commentators, journalists, celebrities, pastors or, even worse, propagandists.
In the past, many of our jobs featured time to be alone and offered moments of reflection. What else could you do walking behind a mule or sitting on a tractor or the like? I know my grandparents, who were farmers in Deep East Texas, had much time to think. Many of their daily tasks were performed alone without any distraction other than the task before them, often a task that didn’t require a great deal of attention. They had no internet or radio to “keep them company” as they went about their tasks out on the farm. They had a newspaper and some fuzzy television of three channels if the weather was right.
I loved talking to my grandparents because their ways of thinking didn’t fit into any box. They didn’t let anyone do their thinking for them. They certainly didn’t organize their world view around what a political party told them to think. I didn’t always agree with them and frankly a few of their views were farfetched, but the beauty of it was that they were were “their” views. Nowadays, tell me what networks or media outlets you follow and I can probably accurately guess your views on things ninety percent of the time or more.
Okay, so what’s this got to do with writing? I like to entertain and inspire people, but I also like to provoke the reader to think about things from a different perspective. In both A Moveable Marfa and The Sommières Sun, I use people from other cultures to provoke Steve, my protagonist, to think about things from other perspectives.
Travelling and truly listening to people from other cultures is another way to help people to develop “their” views. Often times, the “pre-packaged” views we embrace don’t in reality square well with the complexity of the real world. So, I have sought to journal or somehow record the moments where my worldview was challenged.
I have also attempted to record or at least remember things that have happened to me that I found interesting, challenging or surprising. Hemingway offered–
“Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be.”
I strive to keep my writing “true” by writing from my “knowledge of life.” I work to avoid writing pure fiction. I weave my knowledge of life and enough informed fiction to make a story flow and enhance the reader’s experience. I really feel like a fraud when I write about something of which I have no personal experience. It makes my writing feel less “true.” Probably most writers share this feeling.
Whether it is the taste of an incredible steak-frites meal I had in a Paris steak house, the emotions I felt during a hurricane, the curiosity that filled me when I experienced a good Tiki bar or my reaction to a beautiful West Texas sunset, I try connect the reader to the beauty of these experiences for the reader’s enjoyment or inspiration. However, as appropriate, I also use experiences to provoke thought on the part of the reader by sharing different ways of thinking about things. Of course, readers have the sovereignty of their own thoughts and feelings.
My upcoming novel, The Sommières Sun delves into the tiki culture of Paris and New Orleans.
“The philosophy, if you will, is living moments of a peaceful life. Let the magic of the ocean and the breeze heal you and wash away your cares. Think white sand and the smell of an ocean breeze. It’s primal.“
The above quote is from “Beach” Roberson, Steve’s new acquaintance in Paris in The Sommières Sun. In the novel, Beach owns one of Paris’ hottest bars, Tiki-Paris. He will have much more to say about the importance of tiki culture in the American experience. For him, it is literally spiritual.
Perhaps, you might wonder, “What’s tiki?” It is a complex question to answer. One could start with tiki bars. Donn Beach (He was born Ernest Gantt, likely in New Orleans.) is often considered the “founding father” of tiki culture. He opened the first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, during the 1930s in Hollywood, CA. It was later expanded and additional Don the Beachcombers opened in the United States.
What makes a tiki bar a tiki bar? Traditionally tiki bars are south seas-themed drinking establishments that serve elaborate cocktails, especially rum-based mixed drinks such as the Mai Tais, Zombies, Nui Nuis, Suffering Bastards, etc. Tiki bars are aesthetically defined by their trappings of Polynesian culture. Most bars also incorporate general nautical themes or aspects of retro culture such as 1960s iconography.
Purists will point out that the tiki iconography didn’t surface until the mid-1950s and that the initial “pre-tiki” bars mostly featured decorations that evoked south pacific island life (vestiges of straw huts, bamboo, driftwood and palm trees) and nautical items such as Japanese glass floats, fishing nets, nautical lanterns, etc. The tiki statues, such as representations of Moai, the statues of the Easter Island, and many other forms started to appear in the mid-1950s.
The history of the whole tiki cultural phenomenon is rich and complex. Urban archeologist, Sven Kirsten, has written some outstanding histories of the culture. Book of Tiki and Tiki Pop are both impressive. He goes into some of the earliest literary foundations of the culture as well as other aspects such as the impact of movies of the era and the once close realtionship between tiki bars and the Hollywood film industry.
In recent years, tiki bars have begun to resurface on the American landscape. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of the excellent New Orleans tiki bar, Latitude 29, is a highly regarded “mixologist” and tiki anthropologist. He has published numerous popular books on vintage tropical drinks. Sippin’ Safari would be a great one to start with.
Popular American artist, Josh Agle (Shag), has incorporated tiki themes into his work and captured the imagination of a lot of Tiki fans. Pictured below is sample of his work. It was for the opening of a new tiki bar in Kansas City, Tikicat. Click here for more samples of Josh’s incredible work.
There is also a great magazine, Exotica Moderne, to keep one abreast of Tiki culture. It covers many aspects of the Tiki scene, including music, drinks, food, bars, “Tiki Lit” and art.
I look forward to you delving along with Steve, my protagonist, into tiki culture in The Sommières Sun this spring. Meanwhile, search out a good tiki bar near you, imbibe a couple of great cocktails and see if the “tiki” vibe affects you the way Beach suggests above.
In the coming weeks, as a bonus to those of you who enjoy a good tiki bar, I’ll review my two favorite tiki bars in the Big Easy–Latitude 29 and Tiki Tolteca, both of which are featured in The Sommières Sun.