This Week in Literary History: Nov. 9-15
Recognizing the births of Kurt Vonnegut, Wanda Coleman, and Liane Moriarty
|Nov 9, 2020|
Welcome to a new edition of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. Below are stories and notable literary births and events for Nov. 9-15. Enjoy!
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A Writer Who Championed the ‘Every Man’
For a man who endured the horrific fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany in 1945, Kurt Vonnegut retained a quirky sense of humor and lightness throughout his life and writing career. He turned an event - in which 135,000 people died in a matter of hours - into an approachable philosophical discussion.
Slaughterhouse-Five appears on high school reading lists to this day, and Vonnegut shrugged over the constant praise and applause. "I write in the voice of a child," he said. "That makes me readable in high school. Not too many big sentences."
Vonnegut laughed at himself as he made the statement, though, going on to clarify his position, "But I hope that my ideas attract a lively dialogue, even if my sentences are simple. Simple sentences have always served me well."
An admirer of every field of art, Kurt Vonnegut embraced his literary gift as a way to awaken and inspire the readers that picked up his books. He often said, "I always say to people, practice an art, no matter how well or badly, because you have the experience of becoming and it makes your soul grow. That includes singing, dancing, writing, drawing, playing a musical instrument."
Vonnegut scorned the arts' erasure from school programs, encouraging public and private education systems alike to keep music, theatre, and art alive.
"One thing I hate about school committees today is that they cut arts programs out of the curriculum because they say the arts aren't a way to make a living," Vonnegut said. "Well, there are a lot of things worth doing that are no way to make a living. [The arts] are agreeable ways to make a more agreeable life."
The appeal of Vonnegut's novels, short stories, and essays centered around a twisted sense of humor twining around a combination of imagination and the fatalistic view of post-war fiction. Vonnegut wove himself into his work, adopting the persona of Kilgore Trout - a mediocre author struggling to define himself in the imaginative worlds of Vonnegut's mind. His distinct style spoke of genuine human nature - which is why Trout isn't famous and admits his shortcomings. Vonnegut didn't attempt to present people as "good" or "evil;" he created characters as people are.
While human nature is often brutal to witness, Vonnegut's sense of humor kept his writing from descending too deep into despair. When questioned about his methods, his answer was simple: "It's just the way jokes work. You build tension first, speak about something frightening - get them uneasy, change their bloodstream - then you say this isn't really serious, so you give them permission to laugh. It's tension and release."
It's the reason Vonnegut's novels received such wide acclaim - that constant tension and release, ebb and flow.
Kurt Vonnegut championed the "every man." While admiring the world's artists, he also held scientists, mail clerks, and carpenters in high esteem. Many labeled him a champion of Humanists for his words. While humble beneath the praise, Vonnegut explained his view in concise terms in an interview with PBS: "I asked my son Mark what he thought life was all about, and he said, 'We are all here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.' I think that says it best. You can do that as a comedian, a writer, a painter, a musician. He's a pediatrician. There are all kinds of ways we help each other get through today."
Vonnegut continued to imbue words of hope throughout his writings. Timequake, one of his final books, gave Kilgore Trout one last stage upon which to speak and carry Vonnegut's messages. In a way, the book summarized all of Vonnegut's work for his readers, displaying a single underlying theme. The book speaks of a man who saw beauty and inspiration in even the darkest moments.
So, despite the bleak landscape portrayed, the words bring promise and hope. "I feel and think as much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone."
Born on Nov. 11, 1992, in Indianapolis, Ind.
Died on Apr. 11, 2007, in New York, N.Y.
A Poet Who Helped Establish L.A.’s Literary Scene
Poet and author Wanda Coleman emerged in Los Angeles in the 1970s and completely transformed how L.A. thought and wrote about itself. Coleman was a lifelong Los Angelino. Although she never served as Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, she was largely regarded as the unofficial literary spokeswoman and conscience for the city from the 1980s-2000s.
Before Coleman's arrival on the literary scene, immigrants and exile writers, such as Maritta Wolff and Kate Braverman, made up much of L.A. literature. Their works, including Wolff's Sudden Rain and Braverman's Lithium for Medea, feature protagonists who are outcasts from the social scene and disenchanted by their options.
But Coleman lived deep in L.A.'s literal and metaphorical trenches, and her poetry immerses the reader instantly into her personal experience.
In her poem “Scratch Me,” Coleman writes of the city:
beached again. i hate being beached. the affirmation of my
poverty, stranded on an inner city cement dune as white as
the center of the sun, cold as iceberg.
In “In that Other Fantasy Where We Lived Forever,” she writes:
we were never caught
we partied the southwest, smoked it from L.A. to El Dorado
worked odd jobs between delusions of escape
drunk on the admonitions of parents, parsons & professors
Coleman frequently read her poetry at public events and often collaborated with local musicians and artists. Although the term didn't yet exist, she was the forerunner to the “poetry slam” as we know it today.
Readers welcomed Coleman as soon as she appeared on the literary scene with her first full-length book, Mad Dog Black Lady, in 1979. Coleman strengthened her reputation during the subsequent years in the 1980s. According to poet and New Yorker contributor Dan Chiasson, Coleman had an “almost chaotic originality” to which her generation responded.
Coleman's soul-crushing, humorous perspective of the average, mundane existence is what makes her descriptions pop off the page. As a single mother of two, and a black woman living in the 1980s, Coleman lived most of her life in near-poverty despite her obvious talent. She wandered from job-to-job, often winning awards for her work but always finding herself back out on the street looking for a new gig.
Coleman's careers included writing for the soap opera “Days of our Lives,” for which she won an Emmy Award, and for the TV drama “Starsky and Hutch.” She also worked as a Peace Corps recruiter, a waitress, medical secretary, radio host, and university lecturer.
Coleman resented her inability to find constant work and for the persistent racism she experienced in Los Angeles. “She had an intimate view of racial animosity, hatred, misunderstanding, envy, misinformation, and more,” said book critic John Yau.
Coleman writes in “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead:”
wanda why aint you rich
wanda you know no man in his right mind want a ready-made family
why don’t you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
how come your feet are so godd—- big
As New York Times Book Critic David Ulin once said, “[Coleman] taught us to write about the city we saw, the city in which we lived, to turn our backs on the stereotype and stare down the reality instead.”
And what is that reality, for Coleman? It is racist. Weary. Dirty. And the way that Coleman confronts that experience is fast and raw. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. (“i was half naked so they didn’t come inside / figuring they’d caught me mid-f--- / they were right / coitus interruptus LAPD is a drag,” she writes in “They Came Knocking on My Door at 7 A.M.”)
And if you have thought to yourself that these poetry snippets remind you a little bit of Charles Bukowski, you wouldn’t be wrong. A lot of Coleman’s poetry plays off, sounds like, and pays homage to other poets, authors, musicians, and artists.
Like Bukowski, Coleman is confrontational and uncompromising. In her poetry and real-life, Coleman was prone to being argumentative, violent, and in-your-face. She has “gone after people / with guns,” and also with rocks, fists, and poems.
Coleman's longtime friend and colleague, poet Terrance Hayes, noted, “One of my mentors, a black female poet of Wanda’s generation, recently flatly said, ‘She was mean.’ She could be mean. It was a sharpness she honed over her years outside of the care of poetry collectives, coalitions, and institutions.” He goes on to say, “Imagine how mean the famously mean Miles Davis might have been had no one taken his horn playing seriously, and you will have a sense of Wanda’s rage.”
Coleman didn’t try to downplay her rage or hide it in flowery, pretty words. Coleman herself threw political correctness right out the window, saying once in an interview, “What ‘political correctness’ (not to mention its do-goody but insidious partner, multiculturalism) is a deeply flawed psychosocial mechanism which substitutes for the embrace of a truly open American culture. It cripples and aborts many of the disenfranchised writers it is ‘designated’ to help.”
There were no tissues for Coleman. Just no-apologies living.
Born on Nov. 13, 1946, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Died on Nov. 22, 2013, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Why Liane Moriarty No Longer Feels Like an Imposter
As a little girl, Liane Moriarty liked to express her imagination through storytelling. Enough that her father commissioned her and her younger sister to write stories for him. He paid $50 for every exercise book filled with words – with an advance of one dollar.
“He basically gave us our first publishing deals,” Moriarty told Elina Reddy for Sputnik TV Australia. Moriarty wrote a three-volume epic called, The Mystery of Dead Man’s Island, for her father.
As puberty and self-awareness came into the forefront, her father’s encouragement wasn’t enough, and Moriarty lost confidence in her writing. “I wrote less and less,” she said. “You feel a little bit silly writing your first novel, thinking, ‘What’s the point of this?’”
Moriarty didn’t think real people could get their novels published. That changed in 1999 when her younger sister, Jaclyn Moriarty, called to say that her book, Feeling Sorry for Celia, was set to be published.
“Of course I was very pleased for her because I love her dearly,” Liane explained. “But I was also filled with envy. To be honest, it was sort of a rage, really. The rage was directed at myself because she’d gone ahead and achieved our childhood dream, and I hadn’t even given it a try.”
Fueled in part by sibling rivalry, Moriarty rushed to the computer to write. She worked on a children’s book called The Animal Olympics, which publishers in Moriarty’s native Australia rejected.
But Moriarty didn’t give up. She enrolled in a Master’s degree program at Macquarie University in Sydney. As part of her degree, she wrote a novel titled, Three Wishes. It became the first book Moriarty published, released by Pan Macmillan in 2003.
Instead of using sisterly fury as her source for inspiration, Moriarty is now using the world. She likes to listen in on conversations at coffee shops and between parents on the playground. For instance, her novel Big Little Lies – published in 2014 and later reproduced as an HBO series in 2017 – came from the phrase “three little sparks” in a story told by a friend.
The friend had picked up her daughter from her first day at kindergarten. To all of the parents’ surprise, two girls came out with bite marks on their arms, which led to the parents lining up the boys along the wall.
“(The story) just made me laugh so much,” laughed Moriarty. “It had the drama of imagining if you were one of the parents and thinking to yourself, ‘I hope it wasn’t my little boy who did the biting,’ and also just the comedy of it because it was like a police lineup.”
It turned out the girls had bitten themselves. Mystery solved, kindergarten problems averted. But the story inspired Moriarty to write what became Big Little Lies.
When it comes to structuring a story, Moriarty doesn’t plan.
“I just flail about a lot at the beginning,” she said. “Obviously by the end, I’ve worked it all out, so then I can go back and put in some little red herrings.”
While some authors write profile folders on their characters, Moriarty likes to develop them as she writes.
“In the beginning, they’re quite wooden, and I can’t make them move properly, and I sort of get to know them by writing,” Moriarty explained. “I go back again to the beginning and say, ‘OK, Madeline wouldn’t say this, because now I know her.’”
Moriarty no longer feels as if she’s an imposter, faking being a writer.
“It’s those readers who ‘have given me the confidence,’” Moriarty said. “There are so many intelligent articulate women from all walks of life that it actually feels like it would be wrong of me to say ‘oh I don’t know if it’s any good or not’ when all these people are telling me what my books have meant to them.”
“I’m doing something right, so I should just take some pride in it,” Moriarty added. “Why call myself an impostor?”
Born on Nov. 15, 1966, in Sydney, Australia
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"Lack of Seriousness - The Last Interview with Kurt Vonnegut." Tim Ferriss. The Tim Ferriss Show. Nov. 29, 2007.
"The Best Jokes are Dangerous: An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut." J. Rentilly. McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Sep. 16, 2002.
"Interview with Kurt Vonnegut." Alicia Ritchey and Evan Brooks. The Lantern. Feb. 27, 2006.
"Kurt Vonnegut: Interview." David Watts Barton. Feb. 15, 1996.
"Kurt Vonnegut Interview Mashup." Center for Artistic Activism. Aug. 1, 2008.
"How Kurt Vonnegut Found His Voice and His Themes." Jess Walter. The New York Times. Oct. 9, 2017.
“Wanda Coleman, the Great Poet of Los Angeles.” John Yau. Hyperallergic. May 23, 2020.
“In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Forever.” Wanda Coleman. Poets.org.
“Wanda Coleman Biography.” James M. Manheim. Brief Biographies.
“The Fearless Invention of One of L.A.’s Greatest Poets.” Dan Chiasson. The New Yorker. May 11, 2020.
“Remembering Wanda Coleman.” David Ulin. The Los Angeles Times. November 23, 2013.
“They Came Knocking On My Door at 7 A.M.” Wanda Coleman. Afropoets.net.
“Wanda Coleman.” Pat Hartman. VirtualVenice.info.
“The Wicked Candor of Wanda Coleman.” Terrance Hayes. The Paris Review. June 12, 2020.
“Q&A American Poetry: Wanda Coleman.” Poetry Society of America.
“All about Liane.” LianeMoriarty.com.
“Interview with Liane Moriarty.” Regan Stephens. Goodreads. Dec. 5, 2014.
“Liane Moriarty Holywood Angst: It’s Complicated.” Damien Cave. The New York Times. Nov. 1, 2018.
“Sputnik TV Australia Liane Moriarty.” Elina Reddy. Sputnik TV Australia. Oct. 5, 2019.
Notable Literary Births & Events for Nov. 9-15
Maud Howe Elliott
Arthur Davison Ficke
John P. Marquand
F. Van Wyck Mason
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Shirley Graham Du Bois
Rubén Bonifaz Nuño
Robert Louis Stevenson
William Bradford Huie
Frederick Jackson Turner