Writing in Columbia, MIssouri
Columbia, Missouri, I’m discovering, is full of good writers. A retired court reporter from New York City, I’ve moved back to my home state where I not only have met good writers and readers in this university town, but, virtually speaking, was put in touch with my editor and publisher. In England.
How can this be? Isn’t New York City the headquarters for book contracts? And isn’t England a long, long way from Columbia?
At a meeting of the Missouri Writers Guild, I sat down next to Susan Finlay, a mystery and suspense writer, who told me about her editor at Holland House Books whom I wrote that very day with a query letter and attached manuscript. It wasn’t long before a contract was signed and edits and revisions began flowing in both directions across the virtual Atlantic. The Absent Woman was about to be published.
Since then I’ve met Columbia writers Gladys Swan, Keija Parsinnen, Alex George, Daren Dean (now teaching out-of-state), Laura McHugh, and others who are published, unpublished, about to be published, with contracts and without contracts, all aspiring to the completion of the present book and the start of the next.
Let’s start with Gladys Swan’s novels and short stories in which she depicts a wide variety of people, social classes, and geography. In her collection, The Tiger’s Eye, she places colorful characters in landscapes made poetic by her inner vision. (In “News from the Volcano,” she writes: “Rising up from land flat as sheet metal, the rock, sheer and huge, unprecedented, is a ship moving across the desert, its dark shape bearing straightaway, wherever it is headed, not to be put off course. Aeons ago it rose towering above the land, lava overflowing from the molten core.”) Beneath their mundane, often eccentric lives, her characters are engaged in a fundamental search for the meaning of their lives. Swan’s stories are edgy and existential, The settings are fascinating: carnivals, circuses, places in the desert that no one would call an oasis. She writes about animal spirits and primitive layers of consciousness. She is a painter as well, with a studio on Orr Street, the street in Columbia that has a splendid cohort of artists working in all media.
Laura McHugh’s novel, The Weight of Blood, will be published next year. On the surface, this Columbia, Missouri writer’s fiction seems quite different from Gladys Swan’s. But judging from an excerpt I heard her read in public, McHugh also creates characters whose lives are lived in remote, haunted places and where dark spirits inhabit ordinary people and the towns they live in. A young author, McHugh writes in a contemporary vocabulary of superstition, dread, and fantasy-touched reality as her characters explore little-known corners of their minds.
On the other hand, Columbia authors Keija Parsinnen and Alex George work in the realm of the traditional novel. Avoiding phantasm, Parsinnen and George create characters who seek meaning in visible events and grounded relationships. Parsinnen’s large canvas vividly explores the cross-cultural life of Rosalie, a Texas woman who marries a powerful Saudi and lives her adult life in Saudi Arabia. The conflicts her children experience in the mixed values of their parents are movingly dramatized. The troubled love of Rosalie and her husband, Abdullah Baylani, haunts the reader. This is a beautiful novel, rich in poetry and deeply embedded in the Saudi culture. The psychological exploration of intercultural love resounds strongly in our newly global world.
Turning from intensity and psychological angst, we come to Alex George’s novel, A Good American. This book, too, is about the mingling of cultures. In its stately, measured prose we approach the German immigrant story in retrospect through the narration of a grandson who, looking back, is outside the framework of the novel’s scenes. Like the grandson, we calmly survey the historic immigration to America as represented by Jette and Frederick Meisenheimer who leave Hanover and, after a trip up the Mississippi, land in a small (fictional) town in Central Missouri called Beatrice. With the same calm interest we observe the traumas this immigrant family must endure. The scenes are quiet, compassionate, often amusing, and peppered with colorful characters. Alex George treats us to authentic period storytelling, always stabilized by his well-paced, well-controlled narration.
Daren Dean, no longer a Columbian, but still maintaining relationships in the town, attracted me to his writing by a piece he posted on Facebook. I bought his novel, Far Beyond the Pale, on my Kindle and was charmed by the author’s Missouri voice, Missouri characters, and lyrical description of Missouri towns, woods, and fields. The energetic storytelling pulls the reader effortlessly along (through a profusion of unfortunate typographical errors and chapters at the end that perhaps go on too long). Honey Boy, the red-neck adolescent who encounters almost ceaseless meanness, violence, and abandonment in his world, is unforgettable in his mix of naivete, spiritual awareness, and adolescent shrewdness. The poetry and characters of this coming-of-age novel still engage me with their emotional impact. Dean’s talent and richly detailed story are as sweet and viscous as the main character’s name: Honey Boy.
Modesty prevents me from describing my novel, The Absent Woman, to be published in early April. Besides, I can’t be objective about my own work. I can only say it is a pleasure and an encouragement to be living in a town full of good writers. And let’s not forget the readers. Without good readers, where would we be?
(Marlene Lee’s novel The Absent Woman will be published in April 2013 by Holland House Books, http://www.hhousebooks.com.)