What a delight it is to be invited to blog on Powell's website. When my first novel, The Outlander
, was adopted by Powell's Indiespensable
in 2008, I realized in what good company I'd found myself — so many of my literary heroes are here. I asked someone at Powell's how they handle such a torrent of orders and mailing. From the answer, I formed the image of my book travelling through this mechanism, each copy set upon by an arm carrying cellophane, mailing box, tape, string, Styrofoam peanuts... much like Charlie Chaplin riding enormous cogs in Modern Life
. So when they got behind the reissue of my story collection, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau
, I clicked my heels. (But I did not run around with wrenches tweaking people's buttons off. I leave that to Chaplin.)
I wrote HMJC years ago. Looking back on it, I think I was either foolish or daring to take on the subject of my rather peculiar family. How in the world did I think I could make sense of that bunch of oddballs? Of course, anyone who does this ought to feel at least some ethical distress: "Should I hang so-and-so's cheese out in the wind, or is that unfair? Will they want to kill me? Do I care?" There is considerable anxiety around that issue, believe me.
My solution was simple. I took real stories, real people, anecdotes, sad tales, embarrassing mishaps, real neighbours, real dogs, real secrets, and put them all in the food processor and pressed chop. Nearly everything in the book is true — it just didn't happen that way... well, not exactly, anyway. To my enormous relief, no one in my family recognized themselves. Personally, I think they were too busy recognizing other people, and laughing. The disclaimer on the original edition says:
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is not only coincidental but also a damned lie, according to my mother.
One detail in this book that is actually true (i.e., isn't a chimera made of true things) also happens to be the most ridiculous. In the story "Fear Itself," the bullying and unpleasant Uncle Castor, who has collected a menagerie of white animals, decides to play a game to cheer everyone up. He takes one of each animal (cat, dog, horse, goose, duck, etc.) out in the rowboat and lets them all go at once in order to see which one makes it back to land first. I won't tell you which animal wins, but I will say that anyone who owns a cat knows which animal is most motivated to get-the-hell-out-of-the-lake. The truth is, my great grandfather did exactly that. He was back from WWI, where he'd spent nearly the entire time at the front. His survival was way past miraculous. I think he had slowly but predictably become bored with civilian life. He had a rowboat, and a lot of white animals, and time on his hands. So he did it. He played his game. And the cat won.