Home and Away: Stories that Ripple

Today (4/11) at 6 p.m., Murray State University will host a minor literary event in the Murray Room of the CFSB Center. For those unfamiliar with the Murray State campus the CFSB Center is the basketball arena. It’s located near the intersection of highways 641 and 121 in Murray, Ky.Home.and.Away.Cover

I say a minor literary event because of the venue and probable local and regional attendance. The work being released is anything but minor.

Monday night marks the release of Dr. Duane Bolin’s new book Home and Away: A Professor’s Journal. It’s being published by Acclaim Press www.acclaimpress.com.

I’ll tell you a bit about the work and its author.

Home and Away is a collection of essays that grew from Bolin’s weekly newspaper column. The book has been more than a decade in the writing. I know from my friendship with the author that it has been a struggle at times, a frustration at others, but mostly, a joy. The tone is homespun, but in a quiet, polished sort of way. The essay is one of my favorite literary forms and done correctly, it is akin to a small pebble tossed into a still pond on a summer evening: not much plunk but far reaching ripples. These stories ripple.

Most impressive, however, is what you won’t find in Home and Away. You won’t find sarcasm, cynicism or profanity; hate, bitterness or ugliness; jealousy, resentment or revenge. The stories are about family and friends and places and the things that get us from here to there. In many of these essays the people and places are local; the themes are universal.

Duane is a husband, father, brother and friend. He’s also a scholar, a gifted teacher, and a skilled writer. He talks about Home and Away with his local public radio station, WKMS, here. It’s worth a listen.

See for yourself Monday night. Come if you can. Check out the book if you can’t.


Notes on Literary Agents

I’d been thinking about writing a couple of books (a collection of fishing related essays and a travel journal). And while I have a fair amount of editorial experience I have very little experience with the business end of book publishing. So I thought it would be wise to contact an agent. I did some research and compiled a list of agents whose data indicated they had handled or at least had a general interest in the type of books I was proposing. A couple of agents were suggested by colleagues but by and large I learned that writers who have contracts with agents keep that information close to the vest.

It proved to be an enlightening experience.

I quickly learned, for example, that most agents don’t respond unless they are interested in your ideas, which means that most don’t respond at all. I understand agents are busy people – everyone I know is busy. But in today’s age of instant e-communication not responding doesn’t translate that an idea has been rejected as much as it says that you’ve simply been discarded. Forget about courtesy. This simply does not seem like a wise business practice. A simple return e-mail of “no” or “not for us” is an answer.

I have received a few responses. In an exchange of e-mails one agent said she actually liked one of my ideas but already had a writer under contact who was working in “a similar area of expertise” and couldn’t take on another. This seemed fair, if a bit fuzzy. I was encouraged.

Another responded with an e-form letter rejection and I actually spoke with two agents by phone. But most simply remained silent.

Then, a few days ago, I received this, via e-mail:

The agent said he was “drawn to outdoors and fishing material” but couldn’t get excited about my ideas because so few publishers are doing outdoor books. I thought this over and decided to make another pitch, strengthening my argument by noting, among other things, that fishermen are readers and there are 50 million of us in the United States. I’m not a marketing specialist or analysis but that seems like a fairly strong potential audience. And of course one doesn’t have to be an angler to enjoy reading angling related materials. I sometimes enjoy reading murder mysteries but have never killed anyone.

This was his reply. I’ve omitted the names of the two publishing houses he listed, but they are well-known publishers you would probably recognize and that I would be proud to be associated with:

“I appreciate your response,” he began. “But I don’t prefer to do business with PUBLISHER A or PUBLISHER B, the two places I know with lists that cater to this audience. Advances are small, royalties are poor. It’s just not worth the time, sad to say.”

I read this with stupefaction. Any book that I would write might not sell 10 copies. I wouldn’t debate that. But to essentially disregard a potential reading (and book buying) audience that includes millions of people of all ages and crosses gender, racial and socio-economic lines seems, well, short sighted if not plain goofy.

Fishing in Absentee with Mr. Lyons

I’ve been re-reading Spring Creek by Nick Lyons.

Published in 1992, it is a delightful tale recounting a month that Mr. Lyons spent on Spring Creek, angling for trout and learning much about himself. It is exactly the type of book that can easily be stained with smugness and overblown with an author’s air of self-importance. This one is not. It is simply wonderful and the work of a master craftsman who works as hard (or harder) at his writing as he does at his fishing.

I especially enjoy the chapter titled, “Big Fish,” a subject in which I have much interest but little experience. Lyons has caught a few and lost a few and admits that big fish “nibble” at his brain, adding that these are usually the fish that got away. I know how he feels; although in my case “nibble” is an understatement of the first order.

Twenty plus years ago I was fishing another Spring Creek, this one a thousand miles removed of Lyons’ waters but memorable nonetheless for a fish that I didn’t catch. At the point where I was fishing the river is wide and shallow. A long pool rises into an even longer riffle which was and is usually good for a trout or two. There may have been a low head dam here at one time. It’s that kind of rise and break.

This fishing is primarily for trout and smallmouth bass. The bass are natives; the trout arrive via hatchery truck and were fairly easy prey even for my meager spinning skills, this being before I picked up a fly rod.

At one point near the far bank the river sluices into a narrow, twisting channel. It is a challenging area to wade and I rarely approached this rough water if for no other reason than fish could usually be caught in the calmer, easier-to-reach pools. I wasn’t particularly interested in difficult fish. Married and struggling through college, catch-and-release would come later. The fish I caught filled our dinner plates.

Several fishermen were already on the river so I made my way to the head of the sluice water, found some fairly stable footing and flung a Little Cleo spoon up and across the channel and just off the shoulder of the fastest water. The spoon tore through the channel then stopped with such suddenness I first thought it had snagged on one of the moss-covered rocks. I set the hook and the line didn’t budge. Then to my shock it began to inch downstream; slowly and without alarm. Line ticked off the reel, the willow stick like rod bent nearly double. Snags don’t move. My nerves and heart rate both shifted in high gear.

Now, years later, I can recount every detail of that fish fight, right up to the moment when my impatience and inexperience coupled with the power of a mysterious fish I could only imagine combined to defeat me. I never came close to getting a look at the fish. I didn’t think it behaved like a trout but up to that point I had only caught a few trout and never anything of any power or size so how I thought a big fish would behave was only a guess. I later heard that the river had once been stocked with tiger muskellunge and fancied that a muskie had crushed the spoon, although this somehow does not seem likely. I’ve since caught (and lost) thousands of fish. Only a handful have left a lasting impression but none so much as the one lost on the Spring. Why this fish fight remains so vivid is a mystery. But it does and I am thankful.

Lyons ends his “Big Fish” chapter by watching his friend Herb lose a big fish following a protracted fight. Herb doesn’t seem troubled by this. Lyons admits he would have “punched himself silly.”

I know how he feels about that, too.

The Fish’s Eye

I don’t like reading and writing about fishing more than I actually like to fish. But I do like it a lot and am delighted when I discover a literary fishing gem.

Found one the other day in Ian Frazier’s “The Fish’s Eye,” subtitled, “Essays About Angling and the Outdoors.” The book was published in 2002 from previously published works.

I am familiar with Frazier’s work from his book “Great Plains” and essays and reports in The New Yorker and Outside, where some of these stories first appeared. I stumbled across “The Fish’s Eye” in my local library.

I’m glad I did. It is simply delightful but in one vein is only something a fisherman could love. Parts of Frazier’s “On the Ausable,” for example, must ring of nonsense to a non angler, who might read this story and think, “This couldn’t possibly be true.” But a fisherman would read it and think, “The same thing happened to me on (name the river).”

I like it so much I ordered a copy from Amazon for my library.

Affairs of the Heart

My friend Duane Bolin is a literary man; a scholar; man of letters; and a family man. He has no visible vices aside from his love of, and over indulgence in, good food; a failing shared by many, myself included. Why he occasionally hangs out with me is anyone’s guess. But he does and I’m glad.

We’ve fished together a couple of times. Duane is a guy who likes the idea of fishing a little more than the actually act of stringing a rod and wetting a fly. I would guess that he is not alone in this. His idea of fishing hinges around images drawn from Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories and Norman Maclean’s forays on the Big Black Foot River. Duane lives in the land of bass and bluegill but he is a man emotionally attached to bamboo and trout. I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a character flaw.

Duane will not be fishing for a while. A couple of weeks ago he decided to take an afternoon jog. He was once a dedicated runner and ran daily for several years, regardless of weather or location, but in recent years had laid aside his running routine.

His afternoon jog ended in the ER of the local hospital. A battery of tests lead to another short ambulance ride, this time to a regional heart care center. About a week later he went home with a new aortic heart valve, manufactured, unbelievably, from tissue from a cow heart.

A full recovery is expected and for this I, his wealth of other friends, and his family are thankful.

Of course, I have viewed all this from the outside looking in but my friend’s ailment has caused me to experience some mild self-centered distress. Duane and I are the same age. We are both gainfully employed. We both worry more than we should. We each have two beautiful and well-adjusted children.  We are each married to wonderful women. And we are acutely aware of how one’s tidy little world can be turned upside down by something as harmless as a jog about the block.

Duane will probably make a few adjustments (worry less, relax more; eat less; exercise more) and return to the classroom (he’s a teacher) and his well-ordered life.

I think I’ll string up a bamboo rod and go fishing.

Mere Christianity, white bass and other stuff

I’ve been re-reading Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

What does this have to do with fly fishing, camping, bass angling, hiking, waterfowling, bird watching, deer hunting, bluegill, trout, carp, catfish, marlin, tuna, fly tying, backpacking, quail hunting, rabbits, squirrels, canoeing, rod building, kayaking, rafting, climbing or anything else remotely related to outdoors?

Well . . . nothing really; or everything, depending on your point of view.

Mere Christianity (which Lewis compiled and edited from a series of radio broadcasts he’d given) is a near perfect book in that it is a dazzling example of a purely logical and nearly flawlessly persuasive argument. Genius, simplified.

I happen to agree with Lewis. But whether or not you agree with his argument (which is difficult to refute, by the way), nearly 50 years after his death and more than 65 years since Mere Christianity first appeared, it remains an astounding work.

I wonder if C. S. was a fisherman? I hope so.

# # #

Stopped by Kentucky Lake recently and found some white bass within casting distance of the shore. The lake was still several feet below summer pool so walking the shoreline was easy. The whites were friendly, as they usually are, hitting a minnow imitating hard bait with regularity.

The bait – a 3 1/2 inch double jointed Magic Swimmer by Sebile www.sebile.com – was what I’d actually stopped to try. The Magic Swimmer is a sinking bait that affords excellent wounded minnow action. Try a stop and go retrieve with a twitch.

I was also using the latest spinning reel from Ardent www.ardentreels.com. The model S2500 feels like what it is: a well-made piece of fishing equipment. Aluminum frame and 5:1 ratio. Comes with a good warranty and can boost of something few products can these days: being made in the USA.

Hatteras Blues

I’ve been re-reading Hatteras Blues: A Story from the Edge of America by Tom Carlson.

If you are unfamiliar with this splendid book, published in 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press www.uncpress.edu, it’d be worth your time to find a copy. It is part memoir, part personal quest, part history, part love story, part survival story, part fishing story; tightly woven and keenly written. With this effort Carlson matches the best in the business: Hemingway, Melville, Maclean . . . anyone.

For the sake of full disclosure I have a little history with the author. Dr. Tom Carlson was one of my English professors at the University of Memphis (Memphis State, when I attended) and he was as masterful in the classroom as he proved to be on a trout stream. He made American literature spring to life and did the same for fishing stories told around the campfire.

Beyond the classroom we became friends; fished together and camped together.

The first time I read Hatteras Blues I thought it was basically a book about the Outer Banks and the evolution of that unique region and fishery. And it is that. But it’s more. It’s a family story (Carlson’s and the Foster’s).  It’s about death and survival; emotional and physical.

But at its core Hatteras Blues is about the men who make us who we are. For Tom it was Jake Sanwald, Doc Meeker, Rocky Luciano, Stan Osborne, Bart Osborne, George Minier and Ed Frazee. For me it was Sam and L. D. and Jack and Ralph, Archie and Archie Jr., and a few others.

As you read Hatteras Blues – especially Chapter 7 and in particular the story on pages 124-5 – you’ll undoubtedly recall your own list of souls who helped mould yours.

Hatteras Blues is available in hardcopy and paperback from the publisher, Amazon www.amazon.com and other booksellers.