Monday Mar. 9, 2015

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There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon,
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.

It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

“Happiness” by Jane Kenyon from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It’s the birthday of one of the 20th century’s best-selling novelists: Mickey Spillane (books by this author), born Frank Morrison Spillane in New York City (1918). He grew up in an Irish-American family in a rough New Jersey neighborhood. His father was a bartender, and his mother made sure that her children had a good education. He claimed to have read everything written by Herman Melville and Alexandre Dumas by the time he was 11. As a kid, he invented ghost stories that were so frightening he would scare the kids who wanted to beat him up. He went to college but never finished, and spent years working as a lifeguard because, he said, women liked it. During the 1940 holiday season, he got a job selling ties at Gimbels department store. One of his coworkers had a brother who was an editor at a Manhattan comic book publisher, and although he had never done anything of the sort, Spillane decided to try his hand at writing comic stories. The publishers liked his initial work, and he began writing an eight-page story every day, chronicling the adventures of superheroes like Superman, Captain Marvel, and Batman. He said this writing was “a great training ground for writers. You couldn’t beat it.”

He joined the Army the day after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. When he was stationed in Mississippi, he fell in love and got married. The couple wanted to buy a country home in Newburgh, New York, but couldn’t afford the $1,000 down payment. Spillane had written a few intense, violent stories about a tough comic book character named Mike Danger, but they didn’t sell. In the hopes of making enough money for his down payment, Spillane took the character of Mike Danger, renamed him Mike Hammer, and in just 19 days he wrote a novel called I, the Jury (1947). His editor was not convinced, but agreed to publish it anyway in the hopes that it would go over well with a post-war public looking for plots with action and violence.

I, the Jury was a huge best-seller, eventually selling more than 8 million copies. Time magazine wrote that I, the Jury “put sadism within reach of the average pocketbook.” The novels that followed were no less violent. In One Lonely Night, Mike Hammer guns down 40 Communists; the number was originally 80, but his editor thought this was too much and suggested he cut it in half. After publishing six books in six years, Spillane became a Jehovah’s Witness and took a break from crime writing for almost 10 years. He published The Deep (1961) and divorced his first wife, soon remarrying a beautiful blonde who served as the model for one of his book covers — she eventually posed nude for the cover of his novel The Erection Set (1972).

Spillane claimed that he never reread manuscripts or looked at the final proofs. He also said that he never had characters with mustaches or ones who drank cognac because he couldn’t spell either mustache or cognac. When his car was stolen, and with it one of his manuscripts, he was only worried about the car — he claimed that the manuscript would only take three days to rewrite.

By the year 1980, seven of the top 15 all-time best-selling fiction books were written by Spillane.

When critics complained that his books were garbage, he said, “I see that — but it’s good garbage,” and he described his own work as “the chewing gum of American literature.”

Spillane wrote more than 30 novels, including The Big Kill (1951), Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), The Deep (1961), The Twisted Thing (1966) and The Killing Man (1989).

He said: “I’m not an author, I’m a writer, that’s all I am. Authors want their names down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.”

It was on this day in 1913 that Virginia Woolf (books by this author) delivered the manuscript for her first novel, The Voyage Out, to the Duckworth Publishing House. She had been working on it for almost seven years. She first mentioned it in a letter to her friend Violet Dickinson in 1907, full of excitement at the thought of a future, however uncertain, as a writer; she wrote, “I shall be miserable, or happy; a wordy sentimental creature, or a writer of such English as shall one day burn the pages.”

By 1912, she had written five drafts of the novel, including two different versions that she worked on simultaneously. Between December 1912 and March 1913, she rewrote the entire novel one more time, almost from scratch, typing 600 pages in two months.

The book was finally accepted, but the extensive revision process took its toll on Woolf and may have contributed to a mental breakdown that delayed the novel’s publication. The Voyage Out was eventually published in 1915 and received generally favorable reviews. The London Observer remarked that the book showed “something startlingly like genius ... a wild swan among good grey geese.” It sold slowly in spite of its reviews; it took 15 years to sell 2,000 copies. The novel does show glimpses of what would become Woolf’s Modernist style, and what’s more, one of its characters — Clarissa Dalloway — would stick in Virginia Woolf’s mind for more than a decade, until she wrote an entire novel about that woman called Mrs. Dalloway (1927).

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