Take the Cake – Literature


From October 21 – December 15th, ArtPatch and the Henry Art Gallery presented a survey of past and present The Stranger Genius Award recipients. I took some pictures before my reading last month and the curator, Sara Krajewski, along Matthew Stadler’s text. His text was displayed on placards next to past winners of the lit prizes in History and Industry-style cases. I didn’t realize I couldn’t take pictures, although judging from the blurry nature of the photographs, I think I must have realized I could be booted. Museum guards make me nervous. In the last year I’ve been to museums in Baltimore, San Francisco, and New York, and invariably I am instructed to move my laptop bag to the front of my person. At the Henry, my furtive shots caused a guard to duck her head in and instruct me: no photographs. So I didn’t get a blurry shot of John Olson’s interesting box of things. All I have are a mound of his journals. But, here it all is if you are at all interested.


briggs_stranger_sm.jpg(Near the open notebook):
Before laptops, Matt Briggs wrote in notebooks at cafés. He kept a notebook “because I wanted someone to accidentally peak over my shoulder and see what I was working on — and I would make things that were kind of interesting to look at.” Many scenes in his stories first took shape in these notebooks, as sketches and conversations, and records of dreams.

(Near the stack of manuscript pages):
In his writing, Matt Briggs has covered thousands of sheets of paper. He remarks that “writing is merely a matter of production. Everyone thinks all of the time, but a writer has a compulsion to put those thoughts in some kind of form on paper. Blogging has perhaps changed this problem and in many ways resembles thought in a better way than paper.”

(Near the computer):
Despite a full-time job (technical writer) and a family (wife and six-year old daughter), Matt Briggs has always written a lot. He produced 700,000 words on this 1991 Mac Classic computer. That’s about 10 novels of average length (230 pages) or 4 Matt Briggs novels (Shoot the Buffalo is 520 pages). But, he cautions, “these 700,000 words resulted in one collection of short stories (60,000 words) and a draft of a 100,000 word manuscript that was still being revised in 1995, when the computer was replaced.”

(Near the copies of Shoot the Buffalo and Personal Archaeology):
Shoot the Buffalo, Matt Briggs’s first novel (winner of the 2006 American Book Award) was published in fits and starts. Begun in 1992, the novel was completed in 2000. Shortly after that, an earlier version of the book, titled Personal Archaeology, appeared for sale on Barnes & Noble’s website, from an Irish publisher using print-on-demand technology. The publisher turned out to be a former literary agent who had converted the manuscripts she could not place into a list of available books. Briggs, who had never been advised of this plan, ordered one. A lawyer advised him to threaten a lawsuit, and the book was withdrawn from the market. Clear Cut Press acquired the finished novel, now called Shoot the Buffalo, in 2002 and published it in the summer of 2005.

(Near the note with directions to a lake):
This note from Matt Briggs’s uncle, Fred Briggs, contains directions to a secret lake from a secret cabin in the Cascade Mountains. Fred Briggs killed himself in 1981 on Capitol Hill. He gassed himself to death in his station wagon.

(Near the family photo album):
The Briggs family, with father Fred Sr. and wife Laura (Matt Briggs’s paternal grandparents), moved west from Maine in the late 1950s. They traveled from town to town, kiting checks and skipping rent until they finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1960s, where Fred Senior worked as a carpenter building the suburb of Lynnwood. These are photos of this period. Fred Senior drank heavily and often disappeared and lost jobs. In the late 1960s, Laura left him and the children in Spokane. His oldest daughter worked as a go-go dancer. His oldest son joined the US Army and left for Vietnam. Laura moved to Ephrata, Washington, where she worked as a cashier at Sprouse Rite. Fred Senior died in 1969.


raban_stranger_sm.JPG(Near the ashtray):
Of the cigars Raban comments, “how I wish I didn’t, but I do.”

(Near the notebook):
This notebook was a gift from Raban’s daughter Julia, who also decorated it. Raban says that “most of [the novel] Surveillance is roughed-out in it. I get intensely attached to my notebooks, or rather sketchbooks (can’t write on lined paper); the more battered they get, the more precious they become. I can’t think how I allowed this one to leave the house.”

(Near copy of A Handful of Dust):
Waugh is among Raban’s favorite writers. As Raban explains, “Waugh had no ear at all for music, but the best ear of anyone writing in English in the last century for the music of the language. I love Waugh for his pitch-perfect linguistic craftsmanship, his sheer lucidity, his ironic grace, and there are always Waugh novels scattered around the house. Funnily enough, I used to hate him: he was a—very distant—relation (I think his mother was my great-grandfather’s sister… a Raban). He used sometimes to show up at our house, a village vicarage, to settle the wills of my father’s cousins, aunts, and uncles. As a teenager, I thought of him as a monstrous right-wing reactionary hyena and used to absent myself from the house whenever he came to tea. I became a convert when I was 26 and heard an actor reading Put Out More Flags in daily fifteen-minute installments on the radio. After listening to two episodes, I bought every Waugh novel that was out in Penguin and read them all within a week. I must have read A Handful of Dust thirty times at least, and each new reading brings fresh pleasure and fresh admiration. As a soldier in World War II, he was the officer from hell, but wrote wonderfully about that war. Writing Surveillance, I kept on asking myself what on earth EW would have made of the ‘war on terror.’”

(Near copy of Our Mutual Friend):
Jonathan Raban lived most of his adult life in London. Among his favorite writers is Charles Dickens, the great chronicler of 19th-century London. Raban calls Dickens’s 1868 novel, Our Mutual Friend, “another book I keep on going back to; Dickens’s greatest single novel, I think; a created world so ample, lavish, intricate and funny that it makes the real one seem tame by comparison. Half my dreams seem to take place inside Dickens’s London.”


brown_stranger_sm.JPG(Near manuscript pages for Danger Signal):
Book defacing is an important art. Rebecca Brown does it with friends as a kind of group craft project and as way to make new books: “I started doing ‘cut N paste’ books many years ago, inviting friends to my house for defacing parties. It was all done in the spirit of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, altered texts, etc. Danger Signal is by Phyllis Bottome (a pseudonym!), who was a prolific writer from the early mid century. Interesting ideas in her work – and dreadful, awful prose. I collect her work and ‘revise’ it significantly into my own work. I ‘edited’ her book The Mortal Storm into The MortalS after my parents died – during a time when I couldn’t write, but I could deface books – and did so to find therein the story of my own loss of my parents.”

(Near copy of I Want a Lady):
Rebecca Brown also defaced a novel from the 1930s called I Want to Be a Lady. “I bought it to give to a somewhat male friend of mine because I thought it would, uh, speak to him. But I became selfish and kept it to turn into an autobiography of a doomed love affair I had with someone I fell in love with when I was 17.” The result is Brown’s cut N paste book, I Want a Lady.

(Near origami crane and homo bottle cap):
Rebecca Brown writes in a small studio building behind the house she shares with her partner Chris. The studio brims with art and kitsch, a mix of icons and images, precious things and personal ones. Among them, an origami crane (“an 8-year-old friend made this for me…Having friends like him makes my life very good”) and a plastic milk bottle top. About the milk bottle cap, Brown explains: “I am a homo and virulently so. I hate closeted artists. I think they are liars and cowards and I hate it when they get goodies in their career. I won’t name names but all of those wimpy closeted or discreet lesbos should be ashamed.”

(Near dog eraser and dog statuette):
Dogs, represented here by a handful of objects, also appear in her fiction, notably in an intense volume of prose called The Dogs. She explains: “I wrote The Dogs from about l986 – l996. Part of that time I lived in Europe and went around to look at images of the Dogs of GOD, as the Dominican order were called. There are lots of images of these mean, nasty, toothy black dogs devouring people and sheep and stuff. I felt like those dogs were biting and pursuing me so I got all these little dog toys to try to diminish the power of that image. I think it worked.”

(Near postcards of saints):
Catholic imagery, especially its gore and the refiguration of the body, have played an important part in Rebecca Brown’s writing and in her imagination. She describes herself as “a kind of wannabe catholic. I love the stories of the saints and really need the story of the Resurrection — redemption and second chances and ends to suffering. That whole Christian myth is very important to me in deep, serious way. Plus Christianity is so full of great kitsch and cheesy gross things too.”


(Near a stack of John’s notebooks, with one opened up):
This is a small sample of John Olson’s notebooks. By his own estimation, he has filled “3,345 notebooks written in a special ink developed in Reykjavik using the gall of a eucryphia glutinosa.” Olson explains that “the notebook is where I do my initial writing. I need a space where I have permission to be as stupid, daring, playful, outrageous and ridiculous as possible. The notebooks provide the raw ore which I can later smelt into metals and metaphors.”

(Near the feather quill):
“Writing implements fascinate me,” John Olson says. “I have always pictured Shakespeare writing by candle light with a quill such as this, but he was probably more apt to use a pencil, which allows for quick revision, particularly when working with actors. The pencil came into use in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, shortly after a deposit of graphite (pure black carbon) was found at Borrowdale in Cumbria in 1564. I bought the quill at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato, California, in 1972.”

(Near the glass paperweight):
Almost anything can become a space of thinking, a place for the mind to enter into and occupy. John Olson keeps this paperweight, not to hold down papers (“for that I prefer accordion folders and paper clips”) but to stare into. “The yellow flower frozen inside fascinates me. It is like a fetus for the birth of repose.”

(Near the glass axe):
Sometimes writing — applying language to the wordless stuff of living — is like using a glass axe to split wood. “This was a present from a friend, David Piasecki, who got into glass blowing in the early 70s. He built a furnace in his backyard. He had a wonderfully earthy, Rabelaisian sense of humor, which is apparent in the testicular bulges of the glass, and the phallic shaft. David has always been a very generous man. I first met him in 1966, at San Jose Central Community College, after he had left the seminary. He had wanted to be a Catholic priest, but after wrestling with the issue of celibacy, decided to become an artist instead.”

(Near Kandinsky poster):
The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky is an important influence on John Olson’s writing. “I like to call him ‘Inkandinsky,’” Olson says. “His wild abstractions have a spiritual basis. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he remarks: ‘The more abstract is form, the more clear and direct is its appeal… As every word spoken rouses an inner vibration, so likewise does every object represented…There is no “must” in art, because art is free.’”

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