heuringway

Linda Heuring's Blog

Tell Me a Story

img_0911Jessie as a nosy neighbor.  Photo copyright Linda Heuring 2006

 

I saw the original Star Wars in a movie theatre in Columbus, Ohio. It was amazing. From the pyramid-shaped introduction moving off into the distance to the battle scenes with highly maneuverable ships, the special effects seemed to usher in a new era in filmmaking. At least that’s what the critics said. For me, it was a fantastic tale with machines and settings I hadn’t imagined.

That was before Star Wars became such a franchise. Before they renamed the 1977 movie Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Before a jumble of prequels and sequels melded the dark side and the light side into a sea of gray fog I didn’t bother to navigate.

Last winter I sat in a Chicago theatre, in a much cushier seat, and watched those familiar graphics roll into the future for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was amazing. The dialogue at times was lame. I had to suspend belief, logic, and let the Force carry me along. Just like the first time. My heroine was there. My heroes. Even Chewbacca. The new kids were just as unruly and unbelievable as the old timers were in a galaxy far, far away. The storyline fit with what I remembered. The writers filled in just what I needed to know for this sequel to make sense. It was fun. It was Star Wars.

As the weeks count down to yet another Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I haven’t decided whether to see it or not, even though our movie theatre has added nice reclining chairs. I’m leery of the critics: not the journalists, but the critical fans.

After A New Hope, I got hammered for my ignorance. How could I possibly enjoy watching without knowing the details of all the other episodes? How could I not have read the Disney books? How could I refuse to read the spoiler-laden Huffington Post blog about the movie and the 40-point Facebook rebuttal by another rabid fan who swears the HP blogger didn’t even see the movie?

After all, I’m an educated woman, a writer, a person who displays an interest in how things come together, who points out incongruities in stand-alone movies and novels. Why did I chose to remain ignorant? I have no problem with people who want to dig into the details or follow every lead down every worm hole. In fact, I admire them. Every writer and filmmaker wants a fan base like that. I remained ignorant because what I do for a living makes studying Star Wars work. And sometimes I just want to be entertained.

I want to stay up half the night with Tim Dorsey’s wacky duo Serge and Coleman. I want to skim across the Gulf with Doc Ford in a flats boat in Randy Wayne White’s novels, and I want to pretend that Robert B. Parker is writing his Spencer novels from the grave and his German Shorthaired Pointer, Pearl, unlike my own departed GSP Jessie, is alive and well. (No offense, Ace.) I write, I read, I study, I dissect, and I write some more. And when I’m not working, I read for the pure pleasure.

That doesn’t mean I won’t try to pick out the references to past books in John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries or find David Mitchell’s Easter eggs. It doesn’t mean I won’t contrast the latest Chicago Shakespeare version of The Tempest with the Bard’s script or the Julie Taymor movie. It doesn’t mean I can’t participate in a critical literary discussion. It does mean that I should be able to choose when to get totally engaged and when to just enjoy the story.

It’s a courtesy we writers should extend to our readers, too. Sometimes they want to read for fun, not caring if this is really Hamlet on a dog farm or a trans Romeo and Juliet. All they ask is “Tell me a story.” Great literature and a great story aren’t mutually exclusive. If the reader enjoys the story you’re halfway there. Your true readers, those who buy your novels and read your short stories and poems, do so because they connect with your work. How they connect is their business.

Eat More Squirrels

Twin fawns frequent the ravine behind our house. They love the mulberry-strewn yard across the street and the sunny back yard next door, one of the few level spots in our neighborhood’s hills. The other night, they nursed beneath our living room window. Two at once, they faced the woods, white tails twitching like a hand pump bringing water from a well. Their mother, her coat a luscious butterscotch, watched her watchers, even though we were a story higher and behind glass and no threat. I attempted to video them, but the result was jerky and out of focus. The back of our dog’s head popped in and out of the frame like a prairie dog.

“What are you watching?” his cartoon self would say. “A bird? Where’s the bird?” He’s only interested in birds.

Later that night, in the floodlights off their deck, my neighbors watched as a coyote attacked and killed a fawn. Watched is not the right word. They tried to scare away the coyote, but it was determined. The fawn became food. I was not a witness, but the scene haunted me nonetheless. Did the mother push the other fawn to safety? Save the one she could? Or did she fight? Stomp her hoof into the ground and snort that hissing sound deer make when confronted? Scares me. Not the coyote.

It’s nature, and I know that. Each doing what she can to survive, feed the pups, the kits, the babes. How do I know the coyote’s pups weren’t crying in a den close by, waiting for a meal?
We see a lot of nature in this wooded suburb, and not all of it is pretty. Loud bluejays steal eggs. Hawks snack in the trees, squirrels hanging from their talons. A pile of hawk feathers appears in my daffodils. A fox rips apart a squirrel in the snow as I look out my office window. An escaped pet canary swoops through the neighborhood, more canny than expected for one raised in a cage. And the raccoon family living in the tall hollow tree crawls onto my deck at night to drain my hummingbird feeder if I forget to take it inside. Ok, so that’s not natural, just annoying.

The deer are different, though. I know many by sight or personality. A scar on a shoulder, a dark clown nose, a particularly frisky young buck who runs in circles like a hyperactive child. Still it’s a wary deer/human relationship. When my husband walks the dog on a leash mornings and evenings, the deer look up from feeding, but don’t run. The fawns are curious, step forward a few inches, a foot, a yard, until mom stamps her hoof and they retreat.

As a journalist I once covered a hunt in a state park. The deer population was burgeoning, and the hunters were brought in to weed out the herd. Protesters, carrying signs equating this hunt to the holocaust, stood outside, cursing and accusing the hunters of cruelty. The hunters I interviewed weren’t there for sport. They saw no sport in killing an animal so tame and emaciated. Overpopulation had decimated the midlevel vegetation that they, and other species, needed to survive. Biologists from the DNR weighed and cataloged the carcasses. Seriously underweight, low on the height scale, a population in trouble. Natural predators had been removed. The deer thrived beyond the land’s capacity to sustain them.

Here, where a mix of houses, farmland, and woods straddle the Fox River, the deer find plenty to eat for now. And there are predators. Unnatural ones like cars and trucks, and the four-legged ones who howl in the night.
This week I saw the twins again, sunning in my neighbor’s yard. When their mother approached they ran straight to her and began to nurse. I was relieved they were still alive. Then yesterday a third fawn joined them, and I wondered about its mother. Car? Coyote?

No one appointed me judge of which animals should live, but I do have a preference. I choose to eat salmon and not dog, chicken not horse. And if I could choose the animals to save, I’d harbor fawns not our seemingly endless supply of squirrels.

The Chick-fil-a restaurant franchise has for years now run a clever advertising campaign where cows, often 3-D sculptures of black and white bovines, perch on roadway signage with poorly rendered lettering that reads “EAT MOR CHIKN.” Would that the fawns’ now-fading spots could spell out “EAT MORE SQUIRRELS.”

To the Honking Boogerhead at Lake and Harlem:

To the Honking Boogerhead at Lake and Harlem:

I probably shouldn’t have given you the finger. I drive a tiny ragtop. You drive a monster black BMW. I was headed to the grocery story to feed my Cheez-it addiction. You must have been late for a meeting with the President. I’m a generally gracious Southern woman yanked up by the roots and transplanted into your not-so-fair city, so it was actually out of character for me to flip off someone at a busy intersection. At least that’s what I tell myself. And you? You’re not. Not a woman. Definitely not Southern. And far from gracious.

Turning left at Harlem and Lake is no picnic. There are always busses, which means an ample supply of pedestrians. And, that, my honking boogerhead friend, is the issue. You see, I drive that route a lot, so I know the ancient woman with the Albert Einstein hair and the four-pronged aluminum walker will make several false starts to cross there. It’s a short light, and she will step into the street then hobble back onto the curb several times. At the last minute she will forge ahead, taking what’s left of this green light and more. I imagine she’s sweating with exertion and fear in that faded plaid wool coat. If I live in Chicago when I am that age (God forbid!) I would hope someone would be looking out for me as I screw up my courage to cross four lanes of traffic with a shopping bag and a walker. You, however, even with your superior view from your luxury automobile, decided that honking at me would speed things along. She froze like a deer on a country lane, and you laid into your horn for all you were worth. Evidently you are in the one percent.

What is it about the horn, anyway? I used to spend some time in the Caribbean, and people honk there all the time. It’s more of a toot, though. A short, friendly blast to say hello, to begin a traffic version of Chip and Dale: “After you.” “No, after you. I insist.” Here it is bossy, angry, annoying. Sometimes you are the tenth car back at the light and feel compelled to honk the instant the light turns green. Good reflexes, dude. Practicing for Jeopardy? I’ll take Illinois laws for $500, Alec.

When I moved here I had to take a written exam to trade in my South Carolina license. It made sense. Out-of-state drivers need to know the nuances of Illinois law. Did you know we must STOP, not just yield, to a pedestrian until they’ve crossed? I bet you think holding your cell phone flat in your hand and shouting into the speaker is talking hands free, too. On page 82 of the official driver’s manual it lists the signs of aggressive driving. “Repeatedly honking the horn” is one of them. Inappropriate hand signals to another driver is too. Ok, you got me there.

I considered a honking Boogerhead website where I would post license plate numbers for you and your ilk. The honking Boogerhead in the green Jeep SUV with his palm on his horn who sped around me only to block the US 41 ramp. The Boogerhead who waited until the last four feet of “one lane ahead” to cut in and blasted me as if I were the unprepared one. You’re multiplying beyond all comprehension. Think Invasion of the Boogerheads would kill at the box office?

“It’s the City that makes people that way,” a woman from Rome told me last week, as if cold plus cloudy plus congested equals childish.

So, childish it is. Boogerhead. Like fartface, it’s a playground insult, the worst word a three-year-old can muster up. I can see you in your Spidey briefs, knees level with your chin, spinning those big wheel tires on the sidewalk. You drive with one hand. The other is clamped to that bulbous horn between the handlebars, honking at anything that moves, or doesn’t. Above the rumble of plastic on concrete, you may hear buzzing. That would be me chanting “Boogerhead, Boogerhead, Spidey is a Boogerhead.” Now go on home to your momma.

Sips of the Seventies

Linda under duck sign

In the ravine outside my window I usually see a deer, or twelve. Newly spotless fawns. Big black-nosed does. Twice now an eight-point buck. But every single day a dray, or if you prefer, a scurry, of squirrels prowls my yard looking for buckeyes or walnuts or a seasonal assortment of acorns. Fresh or buried, a veritable feast.

Beside me here at my desk is my new favorite mug, white ceramic with a simple message in black type: “It’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers” from McSweeney’s.  It’s steaming with honey crisp apple cider made locally and seasoned with a dash of cinnamon, peeled from a tree somewhere in Vietnam and shipped, at great cost no doubt, to Chicago. It is impossible to drink hot apple cider without a crust of cinnamon floating on the top, and it is impossible to drink hot apple cider without thinking of Maybelle Hamm.

Mrs. Hamm, none of us ever called her Maybelle, was a French woman somehow transplanted to Greencastle, Indiana, where she owned and operated a dark and cozy coffeehouse called The Fluttering Duck. She lived in the building, too, her home behind a mysterious cloth-curtained doorway. She served coffee and snacks, but it was the hot cider that stuck with you, a golden concoction eternally simmering in a glass carafe. When she poured, you could see swirls of cloves and cinnamon sticks on the bottom, once in a while a lemon seed. Some swore she never washed the pot, just added more. No matter. It was the early 70s, and The Duck was a refuge for those of us who wanted a quality DePauw University liberal arts education without the cashmere-sweatered conservatism of the sorority/fraternity crowd.

The Duck was the place to be heard, whether in a political discussion or to try out your latest composition on the small raised stage. I spent a lot of time there: in class, performing my songs and covering Joni Mitchell, Cat Stephens and James Taylor with a cup of hot cider on a wooden stool beside me, on stage in Elaine May’s Adaptation, watching my future husband watch his roommate perform in Jules Feiffer’s Feiffer’s People, or interviewing artists and not-to-be seen officials for the university newspaper.

The Vietnam War wasn’t over, and a lottery draft sent friends from The Duck to Canada, or home to await the inevitable letters from Uncle Sam. We argued for our version democracy and freedom of expression and freedom from anything we didn’t like, appreciating those professors who’d schedule their classes in the big tables in the back. Sociology professor Saad Ibrahim, who’d later spend years as a political prisoner in Egypt, held some of his classes there. It wasn’t unusual to find a 6 or 8 member history or philosophy or sociology class huddled around a table littered with ashtrays and coffee cups, someone poking the air with the chewed stem of a pipe for emphasis. We debated ethics, the morality of war, the existence of God, and the future. Though all of this, Mrs. Hamm was a bystander, a gracious host, a quiet presence who gave us a safe place to navigate the minefield that led to adulthood and independence in the early 70s.

The Fluttering Duck sat on a prime piece of real estate the University wanted, but Mrs. Hamm wasn’t interested in selling. Before the end of the decade, however, The Fluttering Duck burned to the ground. The University built a hotel on the site, then a conference center. Today the huge round wooden sign, The Fluttering Duck in yellow paint, its red-bonneted duck still serving up a blue pot of tea, hangs at the entrance of the conference center’s sports bar they named after Mrs. Hamm’s coffeehouse. How ‘bout those Colts? Or Bears.

In my yard there are no bears, but the squirrels still scurry. It’s supposed to be spring, but I need a sweatshirt to sit on the deck, and some of my daffodils succumbed to a killing frost. But in here, with my mug of cider, I had a few minutes of warmth. Sips of the seventies.

How I Met Your Mother

For Beth Siciliano, on the passing of her mother, Louise Shivers

It was years ago now, and I am such an English major it’s just too much of a bother to try and count back that far. I had driven to Athens for a UGA writer’s conference, where I didn’t know a soul. An editor there had the first chapter of my just-finished novel for a critique, and I was nervous.

I mingled at the reception, balancing a flimsy plastic cup with a shot of Jack, and I asked a woman nursing a Coke what she was working on. I was soon sorry. Her novel in process, as best I could tell, was a re-telling of the Bible, and she was determined to give me a blow-by-blow. Desperate to escape, I told her I had to meet someone, and I pushed through the glass doors onto a patio. Afraid she’d follow me and take offense at my ruse, I spied two men at a table with an empty chair.

“May I join you?”

The playwright Dawson Teague and the aspiring poet John Handy told me to have a seat. Turns out we were living in the same town, and John had an informal group that met for coffee to talk about writing.

“You should meet the famous writer, Louise Shivers,” he told me. And that was that.

Over the years we met for coffee, with the group, with her writing partner Tom Turner, and once with you as part of our quartet of Fury’s Ferry Writers. She braved a road trip in my tiny convertible to visit Callaway Gardens and the Little White House, shared barbeque at a roadside shack and posed for a photo at a Warm Springs gift shop in her Raquel Welch wig. I baked her cheesecakes, and she shared her pies and your dad’s perfect tomatoes. She sat in her living room or in quiet coffee shop corners and listened to me read my stories, always picking out the perfect phrase to show me she understood what I was doing. Kindred spirits. What she would call “back porch friends.”

She told me how her first novel, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, became the movie Summer Heat, and I ordered it on DVD from someone on eBay. When it arrived, instead of a Southern drama with Anthony Edwards, I found a Japanese soft porno film, proving I really should read the fine print on eBay. She gave me a VHS copy of the “real” one for Christmas.

We both had a thing for John Irving: I studied under him for a bit, she met him at a publisher’s do. We had other authors in common, and she picked out Southern writers for me to study. “I thought of you…” we told each other hundreds of times as we read a novel or a story or watched a film that moved us. She gave me The New Great American Writer’s Cookbook, and I could just taste her gumbo and cornbread and her mother’s potato salad. She introduced me to John T. Edge through his book, Southern Belly, and on the 4th of July we followed his advice to Gus’ near Memphis for fried chicken. I didn’t get to tell her about that, but I know she’d have loved it, too.

We exchanged hundreds, maybe thousands, of emails. When I moved to Chicago our coffee times dwindled, but not our friendship. I told her of a quick glance in the mirror where my lip was temporarily caught on my eye tooth. “I look like Elvis,” I wrote to her. “Not the young Elvis, but the old fat Elvis who just wanted another jelly donut.”

“You have to put that in a story,” she told me, and I did. And it was published. And another, and another. Louise helped me mine my life for the phrases and incidents that made for good fiction.

As her health problems became more frequent, our correspondence experienced major gaps, but always there’d come that welcomed note from louisebiz with some sincere congratulations, a bit about too many tests or doctor’s visits, and a determined plan to write some more. Sickness and health. Her memoir, finished and published. Her civil war novel, with its delightful character July, whom I met in an early draft, still in the works. I wasn’t too worried about the latest silence. I knew she’d build up her strength, send a note, but the email I expected from Louise was about Louise instead.

How I met your mother is one of those coincidences that isn’t. Whether you call it fate or kismet or the plan of the universe that some of us should be drawn together in a lifetime doesn’t matter. What matters is that we meet, and we know it was meant to be.

Sitting in my office in Oak Park, longing for the Georgia sun, I watched huge flakes of snow float down to accumulate on my balcony. I worried it would never end, just cycle in and out.

“I feel like I’m living in a snow globe,” I wrote Louise.

“Put it in a story,“ she told me, and a few years later, I did. And it was published. And I thank Louise.

A Sense of Place


My parents’ hometown was the setting for a short story printed in one of my favorite national magazines recently. At least that’s the name the writer used.  Specific.  Spelled correctly.  He repeated the name in the story, and each time it jumped out at me, like seeing my own name on someone else’s website. It just didn’t ring true.

Don’t get me wrong, I do know the story was fiction.  I write fiction.  I didn’t expect to see people I used to know traipsing through the story, doing the things they would have done in real life in the 60s, when I last spent any quality time there.  I wasn’t insulted by the decadence of the residents or any of the plot points. I thought he was a skilled writer.  I was disappointed in the writer’s sense of place.

He took a town that rests squarely in Southern Indiana and slid it so far east and north it was closer to Michigan than Kentucky, and with that move it took on the character of the large northern cities. The early 1900 setting was filled with immigrants from the wrong countries, and I could get picky here, but that’s not my intent.  It’s a story.  My point is that even fiction brings with it a responsibility to be honest with the reader.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, “What Good Is a Story?” from her 2002 book Small Wonder, she writes of serving as guest editor of a special short story collection and the trials of selecting the right stories.  “For me to love a work of fiction, it must survive my harpy eye on all accounts,” she writes.  “It will tell me something remarkable, it will be beautifully executed, and it will be nested in truth.  The latter I mean literally;  I can’t abide fiction that fails to get its facts straight.” Trained as a scientist, Kingsolver goes on to mention “botched Spanish or French,” and “books in which birds sang on the wrong continents.”

Maybe there are only two people, myself and a family friend now settled in New Mexico, who know something about that little town, and subscribe to this particular magazine, and actually read the fiction selection each month.  Maybe the author picked the name because of how it rolled off his tongue. Maybe he didn’t own an atlas, an Indiana map or have access to the Internet. But maybe he underestimates his reader.

On a research trip to Florida for a novel I’m writing, I heard over and over again why the local fishermen and liveaboarders love Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford novels.  He gets the sense of place.  They read him because he knows the waters of Sanibel and Ft. Myers.  He knows the creatures that inhabit the area, finned or footed.  But even Doc Ford lives in a fictitious marina.

Reading this small town story was a lesson in location.  Everyone’s from somewhere.  As writers, we’d do well to remember that.