The San Jose Mercury News calls Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans by this week’s guest author, Alison Owings, “Occasionally startling, often humorous, and always thought-provoking. A captivating book about contemporary Native American life.” The same can be said about her story of getting into print. Alison is also the author of Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray, and Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. – Meg
At a local bookstore (Book Passage in Corte Madera) recently, I listened to a wonderfully nuanced reading by Louise Erdrich from her new novel, The Round House. By the vagaries of seats switching, I ended up in the front row, then became the first person to have her sign my copy. I had also brought along an advance edition of the paperback of Indian Voices as a present to her. I had been told she liked it, but didn’t know.
Then, I told her my name for her to sign in my copy of her book, slid the copy of Indian Voices toward her, was about to explain… when the most gratifying thing to a writer happened. Her eyes shot open, she jumped up, leaned over the signing table, and gave me an enormous hug. Then (as I inadvertently held up the line) she went into how she loves Indian Voices, loves that people are laughing on the cover, about my approach in one chapter after the other… that they sell a lot of copies at her store, Birchbark Books, in Minneapolis. And on it went. I managed to scrawl a couple words in my book for her, while she elegantly penned in hers very nice words about my work, and Indian Voices. Embarrassing to say, I then slipped away, unexpectedly teary.
The encounter was one of my top Author Moments, the top of the top right now. And it was a long way from “The Lost Puppy.”
Huh? You rightly ask.
I was in a third grade. Fairmont Avenue Elementary School, Chatham, New Jersey. Assignment: write a story, now. My pencil kept going and going, as Betty hears a yap and gets down from her swing. “Sure enough, it was a puppy. Was it hurt? Betty did not know!” What, you think I’d toss such a treasured tale? (It’s in a file I labeled “Early.”) Betty names the puppy Chip and cares for him. Three mounths (sic) later, a man knocks on the door. Betty, the fool, invites him in. Then her father appears. “He said: Why how do you do and the man said the same thing. Then Chip barked for now he could.”
I cannot tell you how this first foray into storytelling ended because I do not have the ending. I could not get to the ending because the class was over. I can tell you, though, that I decided to be a writer.
Credit may go to my mother, who around then praised something I’d written, maybe “The Lost Puppy,” maybe not. She always influenced me, for better and worse. “You’ll meet your demise in the kitchen,” she once intoned. Am I known for my cooking or my cookbooks? No. For burning things while I finish just one more paragraph? Yes. For cherishing the Crock Pot as a writer’s best friend? Yes.
“The Lost Puppy” not only started my enjoyment of writing, it also proved emblematic of my most vexing writing challenges; keeping things brief, or speedy.
Each of my three “major” works took eight or so years. Okay, there were interruptions such as getting married, moving, and so on. Oh, yes, and work, a raft of free-lance writing and editing.
Yet before I blame genetics or my mother for writing long, slow books, I must acknowledge that I spent years, unforgettable years, smack dab in the middle of writing the most demanding and shortest prose imaginable to me. I was a writer for CBS TV News in New York.
“Hey, Alison,” a producer might yell, while we are on the air (italics definitely mine) and I am sitting yards from Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or another of the CBS big guns, while a story ran about someone’s campaign event, “give me 20 seconds on an explosion in Cleveland, copy is coming over the wires now.” I take a deep breath and roll paper into my typewriter, as the producer adds reassuringly, “We’re coming up on a commercial. You have almost three minutes.”
I could only blame myself. Believing, as I still do, that a more informed world makes for a better world, I majored in journalism. Then in a rather ladylike way, I climbed the news ladder, trying to ignore such things as ABC News in Washington, DC, not allowing women to wear slacks to work, even under our miniskirts in snow-whipped blizzards, or trying to ignore a dictum passed on to eager news assistant me (with my freshly minted BA in Journalism!) that “New York doesn’t think women can write news.” It was more difficult to ignore, after I moved to New York, what a fellow CBS male writer mumbled as I arrived for my first day to write for the Evening News with Walter Cronkite. “A woman has no place in a newsroom.”
Although I did, and do, savor serious journalism, and the craft of writing news clearly, understandably, accurately, and well, there came a time I decided to write my own stuff.
I took yet another deep breath, honed my mantra, and walked into Cronkite’s office. I told him I was quitting, because “I do not want to do that which will get done if I am not there to do it.”
His genial Uncle Walter response, “Harrumph.”
And I was gone, off to live cheaply (as one could then) in southern Spain to write a too long novel, an unfettered explosion of what I didn’t know how to do after the discipline of what I did know how to do. Then it was back to the U.S., a typewriter-toting gypsy of sorts, writing and re-writing the novel that wouldn’t die. Eventually, I abandoned the third draft to return to non-fiction. Within merely a decade Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich was published. Years later, at the funeral of a CBS colleague, Cronkite walked up to me and whispered, “You wrote a damn fine book.” Yikes! An Author Moment! (I had no idea he had even heard of it, nor did I know, a bizarre gap, that he been covered a war correspondent in Europe.)
He did not know, of course, nor did anyone beyond me and my lovely publisher, Rutgers University Press, that Frauen was about twice the size of the manuscript agreed to in my contract. Twice. The. Size. (I did get it in on time, precisely the day it was due. Newsroom training, I told my astonished editor.) Rutgers accepted it all, every single Frau I profiled and proffered. The design department adjusted font and margin and page thickness so the book didn’t seem quite so, well, large.
My next work, Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray was long, too, and a year late. The University of California Press accepted the delay, but not the length: nearly three times (!) what was asked for. My jokes about not being good at math went nowhere. I sliced and sliced, then hired an editor friend I termed the Slasher, to slice some more. (The cutting room floor waitresses may rise again, however.)
Indian Voices would have been on time, had Rutgers, again my publisher, repeated its largesse from Frauen, and accepted, oh, what was it, 65,000 words instead of 30,000? Nope. Different times, different economy. Cut, slice, slash. This got finite. When I realized that ending a chapter # # # added three words, I changed to ###, one word. Spell Check got only a fraction as much attention as did Word Count.
Now the belatedly realized trio, or trilogy, is finished, and will stay in print, thanks to one of the advantages of university presses. Shall I expand the trio into a quartet, and maybe interview… No. No. No. Enough of the epic time grabbers.
Then what next? Louise Erdrich asked me that, too. Flattered but caught up short, I hedged, mentioned that I am preparing for the launch of Indian Voices in paperback. I didn’t want to tell her my line nobody believes, that after three long intense projects, I’m going to try a French farce.
Or maybe it’s time to revisit Betty and Chip. Could “The Lost Puppy” find the end of its tale?
One thing is for certain. I’m not stopping now. But I might write faster, and shorter.