By popular request, Q & A returns! Can’t say I blame you for taking control of this column. Your emails are much more interesting than any direction I would head solo. As always, I appreciate the many personal glimpses and thoughtful things you pose. I do try to select questions that are unusual or that represent persistent themes and inquiries from those always intriguing shares.
Q [?, WI]: I collect bookmarks and I was wondering if you have a favorite.
A: Mine are mostly paint chip samplers and dental floss – yeah, dental floss stays in the book and is unobtrusive. I do have a cherished bookmark, however, given to me by the love of my life in a copy of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and other poems. It’s a metal strip with a mermaid on it and a quote from Emerson: “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.” The gold chain has tiny beads as well as a fish, a seashell and a seahorse attached to it. Profound significance to all of it…I’d explain, but then I’d have to kill you.
Q [Davenport, IA]: What do you think makes a good book?
A: Each reader’s opinion. Unless you want to include the author’s opinion, in which case he is just another reader at that point. How can it be otherwise? There is no objective standard based on what the author wants to deliver. It’s all about the receiver – the reader. Example from consumerism: let’s say you want a basic yo-yo. Couple of disks on a spindle with a string, goes up and down. So, I make a yo-yo that has twinkling lights, sings “Dixie,” and has a watch face on one side that plays “The Bells of St. Mary’s” on the hour, while the other side contains a miniature holograph of the crucifixion. Clearly I am a master of yo-yo making. If I want, I can make a basic yo-yo, but I’ve gone way beyond. Well, that’s nice. But you want a yo-yo. Just a yo-yo. Disks. Spindle with a string. Goes up and down. Who am I to tell you what makes a great yo-yo, if that’s all you want? You aren’t going to buy my yo-yo when all you want is basic. Why should you? If I ask you what a good yo-yo is, you aren’t going to tell me about something that sings “Dixie.” So, too, I may have a great grasp of books, language and the elements of fiction, have an ingenious plot and deep characters, and present everything in a style that is infinitely clever, witty, profound, moving and thought-provoking; but if that isn’t what you want, then your reaction to me is “so what?” It’s my choice whether to write for you or not. But you get to choose whether to read what I do come up with or not. Good is what you say it is, what you want or what you need.
Q [Here’s a heartfelt follow-up (condensed) to the thread about rejection, I think, that last appeared in May’s column from a woman who doesn’t want her location mentioned]: …you gave some good advice, but that doesn’t always work. If you let someone treat you badly, they treat you worse. I blamed myself and wasted my life. It’s wrong to love someone like that. Unfortunately, I still do…
A: A woman once confided in an email to me, “How can it be wrong to love someone? I don’t think it is.” No one can tell you whether or not that other person is worthy of your love, but the fact that you still acknowledge your feelings even though they’re not reciprocated touches me and sparks my respect. Can a person decide not to feel? Which would you rather live by – a decision or your feelings? “At heart,” love is a feeling. But it is a feeling in response to what one sees and knows, so in that sense it is already informed by thoughts. If you try to brainwash yourself by letting a decision trump true feelings, you’ll always be living that much of a lie. I applaud your courage and honesty for following your heart. If there is a solution, it will happen with the other person. You just have to know where you stand with yourself if it does.
Q [Baton Rouge, LA]: I had a little success a few years ago…quite a few actually, and I don’t know what happened. I think I’m a better writer than I was then, but I’m going nowhere. I just feel [stale]…afraid to go in another direction and give up what I have.
A: What do you have? Add that other direction. Freedom is restored when fear is ignored. You have to do that now and then. Like a pacemaker it can kick-start you back on line. Leaving your comfort zone, your cocoon – your cell – is how you get your individuality and your freshness back. This is how I put it in the March, 2012, Sullygram:
Life is like a train, and sometimes I ride in the caboose to visit my past and speak again to that passenger named Hope. And sometimes I ride the engine where the roar and the wind and the sheer molten passion of the heated pistons vibrate my soul and make my heart pound. But I never ride the middle. The middle is where people sit in proper cars for proper passengers to watch the scenery go by. The middle isn’t what’s happening live. The middle is cargo — freight being carried along by life, by the moving train — packaged by regulations and sealed in conformity and façades. If you’re trapped in the middle of the train, and you’re feeling like a number on a shipping manifest you didn’t authorize, maybe you need to visit the caboose or the engine. Those two ends are really the same thing as far as freedom from being boxed in and an open-ended perspective go. The caboose is where the engine was just moments ago.
Q [Castlebar, Ireland]: Are you Irish, and does national heritage ever figure into your work?
A: Father Irish, mother Scotch. Other than THE WATER WOLF, it hasn’t figured directly into my novels. My father used to say that if the Irish hadn’t invented the wheelbarrow, the Scots would never have got up on two feet, so I suppose there’s a debt there. Bono of U2 says it better, if I may paraphrase…that to be Irish is to be an island person. Ireland is a little rock in the ocean that would be underwater if its people weren’t smart and didn’t know how to go out to survive. Dunno about smart, but I need a rock from which to go out and explore, discover, survive. I came last from Michigan to Minnesota to reestablish an island for myself, a sanctuary from which I can go out and return each day. Guess that makes me Irish and an island person regardless of heritage.
Q [Harrisburg, PA]: You should get married. Do you want to die alone?
A: I don’t want to die at all! But sometimes I think about that, i.e. if you don’t let someone in, Sully, there will be no one for you at the end. If I stumble, that’ll be it for me. So I won’t stumble. Not for a long time. Anyway, all relationships have to end with a lone survivor, don’t they? And that would likely be me. Longevity is a family trait – both my parents lived into their 90s, and on the male side my paternal grandfather outlived the first two of his three wives. Most of all, I’ve always been way the hell off in the matchup of years, because my lifestyle seems to be about 30-40 years younger than my chronological age – and the gap keeps expanding. Sorry for the statistical answer, but you ask an actuarial based question. Maybe more to the point is my romantic survival. When you don’t see any marriages that have what you require, that’s a pretty good reason to stay free. But I’ve already had the right female fantasy walk into my life, so knowing that could happen affirms my ideals.
And that’s a wrap for this issue’s zinger Qs, good friends and fans! Probably a wrap on the summer too as I take one more trip – cut me some slack please if I can’t be reached for a while – in order to catch up to yesterday by tomorrow. Time is the only thing that flies faster than light. I know that one or two of you have made July and August of 2013 benchmarks in your life. Still others are struggling with one conflict or another. Whether your cup is brimming or half-full/half-empty, it will all evaporate faster than you can gasp with delight. So what better way to consume the contents than to toast life large as September rolls in?
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan
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