Apr. 24, 2004
Poem: "Weather Report," by David Budbill, from While We Still Have Feet. © Copper Canyon Press (forthcoming). Reprinted with permission.
The weather is horrible here on Judevine Mountain.
It's dark and cold all winter. Every day, rain and snow
beat on your head, and the sun never shines. Then
it's spring and more rain, and ice and mud too. And
after that, the black flies eat you alive, and then the
deerflies, and then the mosquitoes, and then it's fall
before you even noticed it was summer. Then there
might be a couple of weeks of decent weather and
then it starts to rain and snow again. It's just awful
living here. I don't think you’d like it here at all.
You'd better find your own miserable place to live.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of mystery novelist Sue Grafton, born in Louisville, Kentucky (1940). She's best known for her series of novels featuring the female private investigator Kinsey Millhone. She grew up with two alcoholic parents, and later said, "When you grow up in a dysfunctional household, you quickly tune in to what's going on under the surface. From age five or six, I was scanning, figuring out all the stuff not being discussed."
She started writing novels while she was working in a series of secretarial jobs and raising her children. Her first few published books were not mystery novels, and they got terrible reviews. She started writing screenplays for made-for-TV movies, but she hated how executives and marketing committees always rewrote her scripts. She said, "I finally reached a point where I felt that if I wanted to redeem whatever minimal writing skills I had left, I'd better get back to solo work."
She got the idea for her first mystery novel while she was in the middle of a custody battle with her second husband. She started fantasizing about murdering him, but she said, "I knew I couldn't pull it off. So I decided to just put this in a book and get paid for it." She took five years to write the novel, and she spent a lot of that time researching things such as insurance fraud, toxicology, how to pick a lock, and how to handle a gun. She finally published the book in 1982 as "A" Is for Alibi, and it was a huge success.
"A" Is for Alibi begins, "My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I'm thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind." Grafton has since published many more novels in the same series, and each book begins with the next letter of the alphabet—"C" Is for Corpse (1986), "D" Is for Deadbeat (1987), "E" Is for Evidence (1988), and so on. She plans to keep writing the novels until she gets to the letter Z; the last novel will be called "Z" is for Zero.
It's the birthday of poet, novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren, born in Guthrie, Kentucky (1905). Both of his grandfathers fought as Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, and he grew up listening to stories about battles. He went on to edit The Southern Review, and to publish many books of both poetry and fiction. He is the only writer to have won the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction—with his novel All the King's Men (1946)—and poetry—with his collection Promises (1958). He became the first official Poet Laureate of the United States in 1986.
It's the birthday of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, born in London (1815). His father was a British gentleman who had failed as a lawyer, a scholar, and a farmer, and the family sank deeper and deeper into debt. As Trollope was growing up, he was painfully aware of his social status. The children at school made fun of his worn, muddy clothes, and his teachers were exceptionally cruel. He later said, "[I may have] been flogged oftener than any human being alive." The only reason his family didn't fall into complete poverty was that his mother started writing books for a living, and he looked up to her so much that he decided to become a writer himself.
As a young man, he got a job in London as a postal clerk. He struggled to pay his bills, he had a series of unhappy love affairs, and nothing came of his writing. Then, in 1841, he was offered a transfer to Ireland, and he saw it as a chance to get away from the scene of his failures. He said, "There had clung to me a feeling that I had been looked upon always as an evil, an encumbrance, a useless thing. . . . But from the day on which I set my foot in Ireland all these evils went away from me."
In Ireland, Trollope developed a social life for the first time. He went hunting and he went to pubs, and he fell in love and got married, all within a few years. Once he had settled down to his new life, he began to write fiction. His first few novels were not successful, and he began to focus more on his postal job. He rode a horse over all the rural routes himself, to ensure that a letter could be delivered to the remotest possible areas. It was while he was riding across the countryside that a fictional English county called Barsetshire sprang up in his mind.
In just eleven years, between 1855 and 1866, Trollope published six novels about the extended families and parishioners and civil service workers living in that imaginary county of Barsetshire, novels such as The Warden (1955), Barchester Towers (1857), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866), all of them very popular.
For most of his writing life, he continued to work for the British postal service, and even helped invent the street corner mailbox. To turn out his novels, he woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. and wrote for three hours, producing about a thousand words an hour. In less than forty years, he published forty-seven novels, as well as many other books of essays and sketches.
The novelist Henry James said, "'Trollope did not write for posterity. He wrote for the day, the moment; but these are just the writers whom posterity is apt to put into its pocket."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®