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Two Writers Look at Weird

From: Polly Horvath
To: Jack Gantos

Roger wants us to answer this: “People — some people — say your books are weird. Do you think your books are weird?”

This is what I plan to say.

No, I don’t think my books are weird, and it hurts my feelings when people say they are. I was particularly hurt recently when someone described one of my books as “weird even for her.”

Right after reading that comment, I sat down to watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? It wasn’t really my choice. My daughter was home visiting, and she forced me. I love the Coen brothers, but the first time I tried to watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I gave up because it was…too weird. In fact, it irritated me that the great American filmmakers would waste their time making such a weird little film.

I settled in anyhow because I wanted a place to sulk and frame responses to “weird even for her.” I figured I’d just ignore the movie. But to my great surprise, I no longer found the movie weird. I’d seen enough Coen brothers by that point to gain a facility with the language Coen. I was no longer sitting there as I had the first time with my arms crossed, muttering, “Oh, you’re just being too weird.” There’s a wonderful scene in the movie where a flood comes and sweeps up everything and everyone in its mighty waters. And that’s what it felt like. That I had volunteered to leave the comfortable footing of my familiar shores and get swept into a Coen flood that carried me somewhere I would not otherwise have reached.

I once read a book about language acquisition that said that people with the strongest egos have the hardest time learning a new language because they’ve already found something that works for them. They are not anxious to give it up to the unknown and where it might take them. When a person becomes fluent in a second language, they actually develop a whole new personality. They are a different person in English than they are in French. This is why people who have experienced trauma or heartbreak often find themselves with a compulsion to learn Italian. It not only gives them a new way of looking at the world and a different frame of reference — it changes who they are. And that is primarily what I think we mean when we say something is weird. We are saying, This is scary because it might make me see things differently and that would change who I am. That is the scariness of weird and also its strength.

From: Polly Horvath
To: Jack Gantos

Hi, Jack. Martha and Roger want to know if we resent being pigeon-holed (if we think we are) as quirky, offbeat, zany, etc.?

This assumes that we view our own work as weird. But weird is a judgment by someone on the outside of a work. The writer has the first experience of the story and must necessarily be inside of it. Nothing is truly knowable except from the inside. And anything truly known isn’t weird.

But of course it isn’t always easy for either the writer or the reader to move from the outside to the inside. They have to leave behind, in creation or response, all that is fake. Art is, as Sister Wendy says in an interview with Bill Moyers, “a great tester of the fake because it must be the real you that creates or responds. And the more the real you dares to create or respond, the more the real you is there.” This is the great reward, the great moment of being for either the writer or the reader.

For a long time when I got letters from people saying that one of my books had moved them, I couldn’t connect. It bothered me. It seemed ungrateful to feel I didn’t even really care about these letters, that they had nothing to do with me. Recently, I have understood that what I was feeling (although I didn’t understand it) was that these readers were thanking me for creating a catalyst for something deep within them to show up. They weren’t really delighting in me. They were delighting in themselves. And since I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, I was right: there was no connection. Not in that sense. But there was the work. And that is what art is. The middleman.

From: Mrs. Bunny
To: Jack Gantos

Hi, Mr. Gantos,

The Horn Book asks the following: “Jack has a book about obsessive mother love/taxidermy. Polly has a book about bunny detectives. Have you ever had a novel turned down by a publisher? Have you ever been asked to write something with broader appeal?”

Polly has turned this section of the discussion over to me because once again someone has not read the jacket of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny — Detectives Extraordinaire! and is attributing the book to her. Humans! What are you going to do? Can’t live with them and can’t eat them. (Without the proper condiments.)

Well, to begin, this was Mrs. Bunny’s first book, so she has yet to get the “please write something with broader appeal” kind of rejection slip that has caused so many rabbits to hang themselves by their ears from the nearest light fixture. Secondly, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny has very broad appeal in both the human and bunny market and even among foxes — although there it is being marketed as a horror story. And we all know the many-specied popularity of your books, Mr. Gantos.

But let Mrs. Bunny put her thinking cap on. It seems to her that the Horn Book is setting things up as weird vs. mainstream. Mrs. Bunny would ask herself, having delved into a certain amount of human popular fiction, Are bunny detectives stranger than owls delivering letters or some godforsaken creature called a Dementor? Is obsessive mother love/taxidermy weirder than adolescent girls being infatuated with young men who want to suck their blood (never Mrs. Bunny’s idea of an attractive courting ritual) or television shows where the object is to kill everyone else and be the last one standing? I mean, objectively speaking, are they, Mr. Gantos, are they?

So! Mrs. Bunny thinks perhaps we are not talking about weird vs. mainstream. We are talking about something else here. We are talking about a kind of nervousness some books evoke. A kind of apprehension. Some suspicion that one is going to have to work for one’s dinner.

Sister Wendy calls this not weird vs. mainstream, but pure vs. comfort. “Comforting art,” she says, is art that is easy to react to. “Everyone knows exactly what they think about it…Feeling I know I can judge without having to look, without having to take trouble. That is comforting.” You don’t have to dig deep within to show up for it. Sometimes Mrs. Bunny finds she wants this. Sometimes she wants to read Bridget Jones’s Diary. But sometimes she wants to read American Pastoral. It reminds Mrs. Bunny of the time she put a water feature in the garden. Mr. Bunny was not a fan. “Don’t you find it soothing?” she asked Mr. Bunny, but he replied, “Mrs. Bunny, I do not ALWAYS wish to be soothed. Sometimes I like to be WORKED UP!”

Of course Mrs. Bunny is not sure that you or Polly Horvath could call your books pure as opposed to comforting. That is a judgment that must come from others, and only as time will tell. In other words, you’ll be toes up fertilizing the carrot bed, Mr. Gantos, before anything definitive is decided. Mrs. Bunny is sure only that her own book must be of the pure variety because Mr. Bunny is always declaiming that her writing career has been no comfort to him whatsoever.

From: Some anonymous person over there at the Horn Book named, oh, say, Fred
To: Mrs. Bunny

So if it’s weird and difficult, it is art?

From: Mrs. Bunny
To: Oh Say Fred

No. It may not evoke any response in you. Twin Peaks was to Mrs. Bunny’s greatly discerning eyes weird, but Mrs. Bunny thinks it is not art, because when she got inside it, it was no longer weird — but it wasn’t really anything else either. There seemed a definite lack of there, there. There, there is a must.

From: Oh Say Fred
To: Mrs. Bunny

Well, then, what if everyone says it is art, but yet it doesn’t awaken a flowering within you? No sudden understanding that this is something magical and mysterious that you are now in contact with.

From: Mrs. Bunny
To: Oh Say Fred

Yes, but it could be that you are not ready for this story. And maybe never will be. Your response alone doesn’t define its artiness.

From: Oh Say Fred
To: Mrs. Bunny

Well, frankly then I don’t know what you’ve been going on about.

From: Mrs. Bunny
To: Oh Say Fred

I didn’t say this was going to be simple. Leslie Fiedler used to say that when he came upon something that didn’t awaken a flowering within, he would say to himself, “What is lacking in me that I fail to respond to this?” But try that one on some editor slogging through the slush pile.

From: Polly Horvath and Mrs. Bunny
To: Jack Gantos

Jack, help us out here.

From: Jack Gantos
To: Polly Horvath

Thank you, Polly, for your thoughts on the subject of not being weird. (And please thank your colleague, Mrs. Bunny, for her thoughts as well.) I fully subscribe to Polly’s point that the more you understand a piece of art, and the more you empathize with the world within a book, and the more you give yourself over to an external experience, the more it radiates within you in a genuinely transformative way. This is not weird. It is as profound as early Homo sapiens painting portraits of themselves on cave walls. They discovered their other selves, and thus self-dialogue was born and blossomed. Which was fantastic! Where would we be as a species without self-reflection?

As for me, I can’t say that anything I’ve published thus far is intentionally weird, as I think weird is a very calculated result of a writer’s intent. I certainly don’t want my readers to be weird as a result of reading my books, but if something I write ignites them to reflect on themselves or others, and causes meaningful change and understanding, then I am gratified. When I publish a book, it is a form of sharing myself, and given the range of my publications (from picture books to a prison memoir), I don’t think any of my books are weird.

Besides, to be truly weird I believe a book has to live in the dark full-time, unexposed to readers’ spying eyes. In other words, a truly weird book is an unpublished book — a rejected manuscript, in fact. So let me take you to Bates Hall in the Boston Public Library — a 218-foot-long, forty-two-foot-wide room with a fifty-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling, with 224 numbered seats around twenty-eight oak tables. In this room is where, since 1974, I have written the majority of my forty-five published books. Here I have also written three full-length unpublished and thoroughly rejected and unrehabilitated novels, which remain in manuscript form. It is these three cadaverous novels I wish to write about in response to Roger’s query: “To some people your books are weird. Do you think they are weird?”

In Bates Hall I always name my novels after the seat number in which I sit during the writing of the manuscript, and I always change seats with each new manuscript. Recently, I drifted into Bates Hall. Looking out across that vast room is like looking out at an old New England graveyard, with the tall, rounded backs of the captain’s chairs rising up above the tables like flinty, skull-carved headstones. I love this room, and so one by one I visited seat #37, seat #57, and seat #117. I think of the manuscripts written there not as the dead but as unique books that have been buried alive within me, and in this way I think of them constantly as my greatest private works — books so rare that only I will ever know them.

Many years ago, before electronic burglary detection, I used to hide inside a long hollow coffin of a bench with a hinged seat just outside of Bates Hall in the Pompeii alcove. I would wait until the library closed and for the guards to give a final “all clear” to the darkened rooms, and then I would push upward on the seat, crawl out, and quietly creep into Bates Hall. In those days I only had two failed novels, the ones written at seats #117 and #37, and I would sit for hours in those seats without pen or paper. There was no reason to take notes. As I thought about the novels, I was no longer attempting to rewrite them, but to re-remember them and reset their type in the doing. “Seat #37” was rejected many times. At first I used to take out the red-inked and hand-typed manuscript, which lived in a file cabinet I affectionately called “The Triage.” I know this manuscript better than any of my published books because I dwell on it as a wound that won’t heal, and I am not looking for a cure. I wander the familiar streets of sentences and blocks of paragraphs and towns of chapters. I love the labyrinth of misplaced words, decaying architecture, dead-end story lines, and jaundiced weather. “Seat #37” is an exceptionally rare book for me because it is the most flawed, and thus a traveling museum of woeful double chins, gimpy phrases, forced adjectives, excess rants, and corrosive promises masquerading as true love. But for editors who had read “Seat #37”…well, it is as if I took a mighty oak tree in the fullness of summer and painted a letter on each leaf, and then when they dropped in the fall I gathered them up and taped them onto large sheets of paper (seventy leaves to the line and twenty lines to the page, which equals 1,400 leaves). The serendipitous text, with words more unknown than Esperanto, created nothing but chaos. Though this book was rejected by all, I still love it. I wake up at night from a dream and realize I’ve been walking the alleys of the sentences in my sleep.

Over at seat #117 is a manuscript that, like Chernobyl, is encased forever inside my own dome. It is the story of a situational mute touring the Amazon rainforest in an effort to communicate nonverbally with indigenous people — something along the lines of how termites communicate as described by E. O. Wilson in his great book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and in Karl von Frisch’s book that decodes the language of dancing bees. It would be best to pulp this manuscript and instead affix a book binding onto a small mirror so that the reader could open the cover and stare into a ready-made dictionary of gestural language. Or not. This book is difficult to pin down.

“Seat #57” was written after motion detectors were installed, and so I could never sit at that seat overnight and ponder its endless manifestations. It is a flawed manuscript fitted out with a broken rudder like the wounded German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic, which could only steer in circles like a carnival marksmanship game while the British Navy pounded it into submission and sent it to Davy Jones’s Locker. This book is about quantum physics and the micro-implanted levers of a charade government scheming within the president’s mind. “Seat #57” was rejected, and because it was the manuscript I submitted to Farrar right before Dead End in Norvelt, the words are still freshly painted on the inside of my skull. It is odd to “abandon ship” on a manuscript and to sit in a lifeboat and stare at the listing hulk as it drifts in and out of sight but never goes away. It never sinks.

I imagine all my rejected books, petting them as I page through and nurture them. They are my abandoned litter of kittens—runts to some but tigers to me, prowling under my skin, their very own Eden where my mind is their lair and my heart is the prey that nurtures them each day. Whenever I sit at seat #57 (where, incidentally, I am writing this), I quietly promise, “I will never submit you again. Inside of me you will always be pure.”

The above ordinary slice of life is what is within the mind of this writer. What is beautiful to me is the fabulous Lovecraft of impossible landscapes where, within each person, the extraordinary resides. The rare-book-room of the mind is a tonic compared to the outside world, which is unrelentingly predictable. Each day I read three newspapers. I can count on the consistency of hate, prejudice, anger, death, cheating, ignorance, crime — all cancers spawned by the foul reign of pulp social behavior. What people think of my books is not my concern. What is beautiful to me is beautiful to me. The undiscovered tombs of Egypt prefer to remain undiscovered. They know that, once opened, their murals will slowly fade to white like skulls bleached out by the sun.

Don’t open the tomb. Close your eyes and imagine it. Nothing could be more beautiful than what you can’t share. Is that weird?

From the March/April 2013 special “Different Drummers” issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Polly Horvath and Jack Gantos

Polly Horvath’s latest book is One Year in Coal Harbor, and she translated, from the original Rabbit, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny — Detectives Extraordinaire! (both Schwartz & Wade/Random). Jack Gantos won the 2012 Newbery Medal for Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar).

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