October 9, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Cara Siera
I’ve heard it said that every middle-grade girl has a “horse phase.” Whether that generality is true or not, I know that I certainly did. I grew up on five acres in the rolling hills of Tennessee. My dressing table was covered in model horses, my bookshelf full of titles like The Black Stallion. At fourteen I learned how to work, mucking stalls and tending horses and sheep on a neighboring farm. Often, I was up before daybreak to complete my chores before school or out at the barn in the middle of the night, having come home late from weeknight religious services.
One afternoon, my equestrian employer asked me to pay her a visit outside of my normal working hours, and portentously commanded, “Bring your walking shoes.” We trekked across the pasture, over a grassy knoll that gave way to a deep valley.
There, alongside Cocoa, the brown quarter horse mare, stood a knobby-kneed foal. “She’s yours,” my employer crooned.
It’s that type of speechless elation that drives 13,712: A Journey. In his debut work, J.D. Massey provides a warm and intimate invitation, in a rambling rural style, to witness some of life’s wonders: the birth of a foal, new heads of grain emerging from the soil, and taking into his arms a long-awaited son.
But, alas, these moments of ecstasy are but commas amid life’s sentences. The journey, despite its joys, is rife with tragic human challenges—the death of a parent, debilitating mental illness, a first love suffering from addiction, family strife, an unwanted abortion, the inability to conceive a child, and the long road to successful in vitro fertilization.
These latter aspects distinguish 13,712 as offering unique insights. In 2019, one BBC news article described the perspective of would-be fathers as “a voice rarely heard among the passionate multitudes in the U.S. abortion debate.”
But the presentation in 13,712 would hardly register as debate in the general sense of the word. Never do the pages seem to brashly declare that the reader must take one position or the other. Rather, it is as if the author is saying, “This is what happened, and this is how it made me feel. Make your own moral judgment.”
13,712: A Journey is deeply, yet subtly, grounded in time and place. Mentions of events like the death of Elvis Presley, the release of a classic Gordon Lightfoot ballad, or a 60 Minutes television interview with abortion provider Dr. Susan Wicklund anchor the narrative, linking it to the reader’s own experiences. Where were you when 9/11 happened? That’s the kind of flashbulb memory we can all relate to.
And, although I wish to leave you to experience the surprise of it, a summary of 13,712: A Journey would not be complete without a mention of its vacant pages. These empty pages do not occur at the book’s frontmatter or backmatter, nor are they a printing error. Rather, it is an invitation.
Even when a nonfiction writer is willing to lay bare his or her soul in bitter ink and brittle paper, some words are just too painful to pen. Yet the author told me via email, “It struck me yesterday that there will be people, none of whom I will ever meet, that will use those blank pages to write their own story or at the very least fill it in with their own thoughts.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is that the story continues. The book’s cover image is an actual snapshot of a farmer-father watching his ten-year-old son follow in his footsteps, making his first solo round on the combine. His joy at this momentous event was tempered by the reality that the beautiful-looking crop itself had been irreparably damaged by weather and that its value was depleted by half.
That setback gave Massey the final push to pen and publish 13,712: A Journey. Massey chose a print on demand publishing option rather than waiting on the mercurial moods of the traditional publishing house. Why? It is an attempt to save the beloved farm he writes about. American farmers have seen a number of lean years. Since the book was published in February of this year, 2020 has further burdened the agricultural breadbasket with economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating weather events.
So, Massey writes on. His forthcoming collection of short stories, entitled Daddy, Tell Us a Story, is set for publication later in 2020.
Cara Siera is a freelance writer and photographer. She is the author of Life Is Stranger at Worthington High and Captivated. Her work has appeared in The Red Mud Review, Fearsome Critters: A Millennial Arts Journal, and elsewhere.
May 12, 2014 § 7 Comments
An interview with Richard Gilbert, author of Shepherd: A Memoir, discussing the hard work of finding a book’s center, being a first-time author, and the beauty of farming.
Dinty W. Moore: I know that Shepherd took many years to write, and that you worked your way through numerous revisions. How did the core of the book change over time? Are the questions at the heart of this book the same questions you had in mind the day you started?
Richard Gilbert: At first, the book amounted to linked essays straining to become a narrative. It was partly a critique of academe and Appalachia, partly family history, partly how-to, partly farming memoir. I had much to say, and was in good voice, but created a herky-jerky experience for the reader.
Buried in this welter was my intuitive sense, from the start, that the core of this story was my relationship with my charismatic, distant father—especially the twin legacies of his farming adventures and his father’s suicide. As those aspects slowly came into focus and prominence during the writing, I saw that my own temperament and portraying it were related puzzles that needed more conscious attention. I struggled to weave these elements into the foreground narrative about my own farming in a lovely, challenging region
After I’d written three versions, I hired Bill Roorbach as a book doctor. He taught me how to use my retrospective self a bit more, resulting in a wiser and more sympathetic persona; how to drive more narrative threads through more chapters; and how to more fully dramatize my experience. Later, structure played a huge role, specifically in where and how my father was deployed. I learned a lot in that regard from studying Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild.
By the end, I was repeating the mantra, “This book is about dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood.” I had to get a lot down on the page to see those focal points. Leslie Rubinkowski, one of my MFA mentors, once told me, “I keep working to make it simple.” I learned what she meant.
DWM: You had worked in publishing for many years prior to starting Shepherd, and so you already knew plenty about how books come to be written, placed with publishers, edited, and sent off to bookstores. What did being on the author end of the transaction teach you that you didn’t know before?
RG: How in the dark you feel after handing your book off, how the process is mysterious and moves on mysteriously and with minimal input from you. This is partly incidental on the part of publishers and partly intentional.
When I was a publicist at Indiana University Press and later marketing manager of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, I was far too busy to educate authors. Looking back, maybe I was impatient sometimes because I was overly wary of stirring up “difficult” authors. In that case, I’d let them know that we wanted the best for our book. I didn’t realize how thoroughly serious writers know their books and also welcome fresh ideas, though I did try to tap their knowledge with an extensive questionnaire.
As an author, it felt odd when my input, if it was sought or offered, wasn’t in any way binding—and might not even be responded to. It was their book, and thanks very much.
Overall, however, Michigan State University Press was incredibly receptive to my ideas. I got to choose between two covers, which is unusual, got the back cover I wanted, heavily influenced the book’s interior layout, and enjoyed working with editors to revise my sentences. At the same time, I now wish press staff had protected me from myself in some instances. I supplied the catalog copy, but probably revealed too much plot, my pitch having been based on my book proposal for editors. And my one-line bio that appeared in the catalog was too minimal—that’s what Amazon.com and others will use. Duh! A crisp three-line bio is a strategic promotional asset. So a dialectic between author and publisher is ideal.
Although I’d had a lot of publishing experience, I was rusty. And I’d never been a book author. Everything looked and felt different from that side of the fence. The learning curve principle applied: in a new situation, your usual competence is at first diminished.
DWM: What do you miss about farming?
RG: In the spring, when the trees bud and there’s that gold-green haze on the domes of the woods, the landscape grown soft again, I get the fever. Which is somewhat weird to me, because spring stressed me out terribly. So much to do. In the book I write about deciding that, for farmers, there really are only two seasons—winter and summer, with spring and fall as mere transitions. And transitions are killers. You have to quit what had been working. Reposition. Start over.
But I miss lambs and baby chickens! How I miss the lambs, their soft warm bodies in my lap as I tagged them, their frisking about, their baaing at their mothers to come to them. And there was always such a potent secret drama going on that nobody else knew about. You got caught up in it—miracles happening everywhere you looked. And problems to attend. By the end of lambing you were exhausted, and the lambing pasture was trashed with drying and rotting afterbirth attracting flies.
Yet there were fresh fields coming on, full of tender grass soaking up solar energy, and the cycle felt so forgiving. You danced with such elemental forces.