Apr. 8, 2010

On the Phone

by Michael Milburn

That whooshing, watery,
radio-being-tuned sound
tells me he's outdoors
on his way somewhere
and I'd better talk fast.
I can't remember
the last time I phoned him
without dreading that countdown
to when he says, "I'm going
into the subway, Dad, got to go."
Lately, he even calls me from the street—
a convenient way to keep
his keeping in touch short. He's right—
I'd talk to him for an hour,
marching through my pent-up questions.
It tires me, wanting him so much,
the resistance with which he responds.
I bet there's a girl out there
he'd duck into a lobby
to keep speaking to
as long as she desired. Instead,
he tells me that I'm breaking up,
and there's a sound
as if he's dropped the phone
into a rushing river, which then
pulls him in too, his life.

"On the Phone" by Michael Milburn, from Drive By Heart. © Word Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, (books by this author) born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955). She grew up in a house in an alfalfa field in rural Kentucky, where her dad was the county doctor. When she was seven, her father moved the family to the Congo for a year so he could work as a medical missionary, and she started keeping a diary. They came back to Kentucky, and she kept writing in her journal, eventually writing stories and poems. She was tall and thin and bookish, and she felt like an outsider at school — she said, "I wanted to read Anna Karenina and everybody else wanted to do stuff in the back of cars."

She was a good writer. She was also a good pianist, and so she got a scholarship to DePauw University for piano. Even though she really wanted to be a writer, she didn't think it was any more lucrative than music, so she switched her major from music to biology. She moved to Tucson and wrote a thesis on termite behavior for her master's degree at the University of Arizona, but she decided academia wasn't for her and she didn't want to finish her Ph.D. She got a job doing technical writing for the Office of Arid Land Studies at the university, and she wrote stories on her own, but she didn't show them to anyone. Finally she decided to enter a short-story contest sponsored by an alternative weekly paper in Phoenix. She never heard anything from them, and it was more than a year later that a friend mentioned reading her story, and she realized that she had won and the paper had forgotten to tell her.

So she kept writing stories, and then she got pregnant, and she developed insomnia, so at night she took her typewriter into the closet and wrote, because it was the only place in the house where she wouldn't wake up her husband. She realized that she was writing a novel about a young woman desperate to escape her life in rural Kentucky, who moves to Tucson and ends up with the custody of a young Cherokee girl named Turtle. That novel was The Bean Trees (1988), and it gained a steady following and got good reviews, and she wrote two more novels, Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993), as well as books of essays and short stories.

But for all those years, she had the idea for another novel in mind, about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo. She had a folder on her desk that she called the "damn Africa file," and she just kept adding to it. She looked back to the journal she had kept as a girl in the Congo, but she said: "The entries were basically 'Got up had breakfast. Later we had lunch.' For me the whole experience was like 'Yippee I'm missing second grade.'" So she did research — read self-published memoirs of missionaries in the '50s, studied the Kikongo language, read the Bible over and over, traveled to Central Africa. And after many years, she published The Poisonwood Bible (1998), and it was a huge best-seller, selling more than 2 million copies. In 2007, she wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's year of eating only food that was produced locally or that they raised themselves on their farm in Virginia. And most recently, she published The Lacuna (2009), a novel that moves from the household of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky in 1930s Mexico to the mountains of North Carolina during the height of the McCarthy era.

When someone asked her what her background in science has given her, she said: "A passion for research. The best research gets your fingers dusty and your shoes dirty, especially because a novel is made of details. I had to translate places through my senses into the senses of my readers. I had to know what a place smelled like, what it sounded like [...] There's no substitute for that. I've been steeped in evidence-based truth."

It's the birthday of the investigative journalist who broke the story of the My Lai Massacre to the American public: Seymour Hersh, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1937). After college he tried law school, but he didn't like it so he left and got work as a copy boy for the Chicago City News Bureau. He worked as a reporter for various wire services, including the Associated Press, and eventually as a Pentagon correspondent. But he kept trying to push the limits of his job, reporting on things that the military was trying to cover up, and when he wrote an extensive piece on chemical and biological warfare that the AP cut to just a fraction of its original size, he quit to become a freelance investigative reporter. He got a tip from a lawyer that a lieutenant, William Calley was being court-martialed for killing innocent civilians in Vietnam. Hersh decided that he was going to get that story no matter what. He drove around from base to base, waking people up to ask them where Calley was, pulling all his Pentagon strings, and finally he found him and got Calley to tell him what had happened. Hersh couldn't get the story published at first — big places like Life and Look refused it. But his neighbor ran a small syndicate and helped Hersh sell it. And when the story hit newspapers, it made a huge impact on the public perception of the Vietnam War. Hersh became famous, and in 1970, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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