On Writing Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

What Rick has to say about writing Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

Rick Skwiot AuthorWhile writing Christmas at Long Lake I re-read José Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, which helped me clarify what I was about in my memoir: depicting the last vestige of a folk culture as mass culture attained supremacy.

In my edition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985, with foreword by Saul Bellow, of all people), the translator, Anthony Kerrigan, writes in the introduction:

“Though the ‘folk’ tend to be sound, the ‘masses’ do not. These two distinct words evoke a robust distinction…Ortega wrote essays probing the ‘aristocratic’ nature (in the sense of preservation mostly) of  the folk and their lore…How often in democracies has not the sound instinct of the folk proven more viable than the elitist machinations of the politicians?”

In Christmas at Long Lake I write of an American family but one still very much European, a first-and-second generation American family yet ruled by folk traditions and values, with old world dignity and self-sufficiency, a benevolent monarchy unto itself.

But looming over it is the neurotic mass culture—in the first TV I see as a boy at a neighbor’s home, in the lurking migration of my father from manual work to paperwork and of my family from bucolic and esthetically rich rural America to denatured and sterile suburbia. I view Christmas at Long Lake as a microcosm of the final days of folk culture in America, documenting the death rattle of family life, independence, and freedom.

Along with that, I think I was influenced intellectually by my sociological reading,particularly C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956 or thereabouts, I think).

In it he posits that a fundamental power shift had occurred or was occurring in America, from power being vested locally in the family, the church, the community, and the school, shifting to large institutions: the government, the economy, the mass media, the corp-orations, etc.

I think that one thing that makes Christmas at Long Lake poignant for many readers is that it dramatizes that loss of power for one family, it being uprooted and twisted because of these larger institutions, particularly the post-war economy, and losing its own dominion. I think readers understand that loss of power, because it has happened to most fami-lies at one time or another, in one generation or another, the forced moved from self-sufficiency and control over the ruling aspects of their lives to powerlessness and dependency on larger institutions.

But intellectual considerations aside, what drove me to write this book was a visceral feeling of that loss for my family.

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FAIL – A Mystery By Rick Skwiot

(Pub date, Winter, 2014, Blank Slate Press)

image002Disgraced African American St. Louis Police Lieutenant Carlo Gabriel wants fiercely to return to the headquarters hierarchy from which he has been exiled to the city’s tough North Side. All he needs do is track down the missing husband of the mayor’s vivacious press secretary. Instead he unwittingly and unwillingly unearths a morass of corruption, educational malpractice and greed that consigns thousands of at-risk youths to the mean streets of America’s erstwhile murder capital. Worse, it’s the kind of information that could get a cop killed.

Fighting for life and his honor, Gabriel makes chilling discoveries that ultimately lead to a life-threatening and life-changing decision—a choice that could affect not only his own future but also that of the city and its top leaders.

Former journalist Rick Skwiot is the author of three previous novels—the Hemingway First Novel Award winner Death in Mexico, the Willa Cather Fiction Prize finalist Sleeping With Pancho Villa, and Key West Story—as well as two memoirs: the critically-acclaimed Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory  and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing. He also works as a feature writer, book doctor and editor. From St. Louis, he currently resides in Key West.

 

Alumnus writes memoir about Mexico

From the UMSL Newsroom

By Rose Postma

Today University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus Rick Skwiot is an award-winning author of several books, but in 1965 he was just a freshman beginning his education at UMSL. His unversity experience challenged and changed him.

“Many students were first generation university students like me – ethnic, eager to break from working class backgrounds,” he said. ”It was intellectually and socially stimulating. It made me think about living large, having a life of the mind.”

And live large he has. After earning a BA in sociology in 1970 from UMSL, Skwiot spent a large part of the 1980s in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, trying to understand the culture and find himself.

Those years in Mexico provide much of the basis for his new memoir, “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico: A Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.” His sojourn was filled with struggle, drama, seemingly supernatural occurrences, beautiful settings, humor and even a little sex and violence – the perfect subject for a memoir.

“In writing a memoir you get to use all your skills as a novelist and fiction writer, but you don’t have to spend all that time making it up and agonizing over plot, characters and causality,” he said. “Also, nonfiction has a certain credibility and accessibility for many readers who may not always buy into fiction. It’s simply another way at getting at the truth.”

Skwiot’s native St. Louis makes several appearances in the book as he periodically returned to Missouri in order to work to finance additional time in San Miguel De Allende. And even though he currently lives in Florida, he still makes it back to St. Louis several times a year.

“No living relatives left here,” he said, “but many friends and memories – of all sorts.”

Antaeus Books, which recently published “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico,” is a new publishing house founded in 2010 and is also reissuing Skwiot’s earlier published works in new editions.

“It seems committed to doing first-rate production of good literature,” said Skwiot.

Rick Skwiot has come a long way since those days as a freshman at UMSL and said a thousand things have shaped him, including his love of life and literature.

“Even as a child, I was interested in dramatic stories and books and hypersensitive – all helpful characteristics of a writer,” he said. “I’ve also learned self discipline and self reliance. Nothing good is ever accomplished without hard work and dedication, and no one else can do it for you.

More information:
http://www.umsl.edu/divisions/artscience/sociology/
http://www.rickskwiot.com/
http://www.antaeusbooks.com/

Unsolicited Reader Comments on Christmas at Long Lake

“I have enjoyed Christmas at Long Lake hugely…It is beautiful and cleanly written, and I admire it not only for its use of language but as well fro the ways in which, within the framework of the narration of events of a couple of days, it works outward to create a larger thematic universe of boyhood, family and America as manifested at a particular time through particular place. As a writer, it meets for me the ultimate test: I wish I could have written it.”

“I hated for it to end; I cried at times as it brought back so many memories of my own childhood…I gave this book to my daughter as a Christmas present, which she too enjoyed. Thank you so much for returning me (for a while) back to a time when life was sweet and uncomplicated.”

“…masterful, deep and moving. We all enjoyed reading it. It has all the components of a classic work of literature.”

”I read it straight through. A very pleasant experience. This is a fine book.”

“I just finished reading your book and must say it brought back a lot of memories of my own childhood. I really enjoyed the warmth and the love you expressed.”

“I really enjoyed it…I was transported back to my childhood…You were really able to recapture the wonder and awe of a child’s experiences and yet also make tangible the joy of life despite (or because of) a lack of material possessions. The melancholy and inevitability of change also came across powerfully.

“A walk down memory lane. Having grown up in the 50’s, I was especially moved. A reminder of how times and family values have changed. Mr. Skwiot, thank you for sharing your life with us. God bless you.”

“How exciting that some teachers are using your book at the high school! What a great lesson, not only in such lovely literature, but in the history of our area as well. Your vivid recall of the many details of your life amazed me while I read the book, but I understand as I read those last pages this morning that because your life took such a dramatic change, you kept those sweet memories close to your heart all of these years. Beautifully written, bittersweet book.”

“I picked up the book last night, read it until bedtime, picked it up first thing this morning and finished it just now. So charming, so magical, earnest, so touching and evocative of some elements of my own childhood.”

“Christmas at Long Lake” is a wonderful book and excellently written. It made me get nostalgic…”

“I am recommending the book to anyone who lives in the Granite City area. It was a well written book and kept my attention the whole way through and that isn’t easily accomplished. I have a very short attention span. Thanks for the memories.”

“I read your book this week and wanted to tell you how touching I found it. Some of your memories certainly resonated with mine growing up on a small farm…But I was most touched by your sadness in leaving that place, and leaving behind the persons your mother and father were on the farm. I wish your lucky rabbit foot and letter to Santa could have spared all of you from the changes that followed…Thank you for sharing this memoir.”

“…[W]hat a wonderful book… Thank you for a walk down memory lane.”

“A quietly beautiful memoir…Despite living in an old fishing shack in the middle of nowhere, Skwiot regards this part of his life as near Eden, as he writes of old-fashioned pleasures in simpler times as well as of the hard work of daily living. This is the story of Skwiot’s last Christmas in the country as he wrestles with possible consequences of his father’s recent job loss, but there are plenty of meanderings back to other seasons and other times that fill out the picture of blue-collar life in the early 1950’s… This book is a little gem that will be a special delight to those who remember simpler times or life in the country, but for others the descriptive prose just might bring up shadowy memories that never were.”

“It’s not often you pick up a memoir these days about a functional family; a family steeped in Christian values and country ways, straight out of Norman Rockwell’s post-war Americana–and yet human and fallible enough in character to hold a reader’s interest…Christmas at Long Lake does exactly that, reflecting on a boyhood Christmas in 1953 when his father loses his job at the Granite City steel mill and the family is forced to move to the still segregated city of St. Louis…The wonder of this quiet, quick-reading memoir is not the action of the story so much as the beauty of the language, and all that Skwiot manages to encapsulate in character, setting, and emotion within just a few days’ time. Growing up in virtual poverty, this six-year-old’s life was rich and downright blessed in many ways. A great read for anyone familiar with the St. Louis region, urban or rural–and a beautiful little book to stuff in any stocking.”

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Critical Praise for Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

 

“Rick Skwiot works his own magic…As usual, Skwiot’s writing is sure…And his tale has a gritty, blue-collar cachet…This is good reading.”—Kansas City Star

“Skwiot’s vivid descriptions of the physical and emotional landscape of this environment are poignant, entertaining, and instructional…There is magic in this depiction of a setting and a way of life that can be described only as Edenic.”—Library Journal

“Skwiot’s memories of the grandmothers are rich and poignant, and the descriptive detail shimmers.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A heartwarming, thoughtfully recalled, highly recommended memoir.”—Midwest Book Review

“Rick Skwiot has harvested his rich years of childhood in such a way that we can only enjoy, admire and wish for more.”—Solares Hill

“The memoir’s simple, elegant prose and eye for detail banish most sentimentality from the tale. Skwiot captures the magic of the moment…”—Portfolio Weekly

“…a memoir written with sure craft and true heart, a narrative of Paradise Lost, the story of a time when the details of an ordinary day appear to be magical.”—Michael Pearson, author of Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx

“…an elegant evocation not only of a particular time and place but also of the way childhood memories set up a permanent residence in our hearts. This a lovely, elegiac book.”—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

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Killing Mother

By Rick Skwiot

(First published in PortFolio Weekly as “The Crossing.”)

The call I’d been waiting for came in the middle of the night, waking me from a dead sleep.

“This is Nurse Something-or-Other from the Good Samaritan Home…Your mother’s passed away…Would you like to come down and see her?”

I’d been wanting her to die for some time, actually praying for it. More than that, I ordered it, told them to remove the feeding tube.

But it didn’t hit me until later, when I got the death certificate in the mail. My eyes went to the Cause of Death, where the doctor had written: “Dehydration.”

I sat staring at the word. Here was the woman who had borne me, nursed me, and spoon-fed me, who, in her delusional days after the stroke, had wanted to fix me dinner from her hospital bed, to feed and nurture me. And I had let her die of thirst, had sat by for three days as she parched, unwilling to extend to her what anyone would to a desiccated houseplant: a cup of water.

But when I told them to let her die, I’d been so beaten down by the years of her steady deterioration, by her endless operations, humiliations, and pain, by the ugliness and stench of it all, that I never asked any questions, just told them to do it, as she had stipulated.

*

But even as she is leaving you, others are taking her from you. When you visit it’s obvious that you’re the outsider, and that those who feed her, bathe her, and count out her pills have a greater claim on her. As much as she may love you, you are now but a mere diversion, a sporadic provider of rare luxuries, and these workers, along with the other old women winding down around her, this is her family.

You, however, are the chronicler of her deterioration—the sole constant witness among the passing parade of generalists, specialists, nurses, and neighbors—as she moves in and out of hospitals and hospices, and into wards providing steadily increasing care and decreasing independence.

You come to note the routines, the rules, the subterfuge of the House of Death. You mark the perverse, chirpy denial of death practiced by doctors and nurses, and come to practice it yourself. You perceive the protocols of death, as when you ride down the elevator with an aged man strapped to a gurney, his mouth open, eyes aglaze, obviously dead, but without the white sheet pulled up to conceal his face, so as to pretend old John’s merely off to the hospital for some miracle cure.

You note, too, the customary cheeriness and helpfulness of the orderlies and nurses who feed, bathe, cradle, and carry the useless, festering, and unaesthetic old bodies, who change the soiled diapers and the soiled sheets of these old women—all the ugly chores the women’s own children wish to avoid, seemingly at any cost.

You see how basic, and base, are our needs. In your darker moments you view human beings not as noble, Godlike creatures, but as devouring organisms putrefying plant and animal matter, infernal machines for producing feces. For that is the smell of any death house: feces ineptly masked by chemical disinfectant. It’s that odor you dread most, even more than the images of the defeated bodies, the wild cacklings of the demented, or the confused gazes of the old women you pass, sitting in their wheelchairs, thinking you their doctor or son. You can’t get the stench out of your head and your sinuses for hours after leaving, and miraculously it reappears days later as you once again approach the death house.

You note the etiquette for seating guests, the stares, and the stage whispers in the dining room, where you take Christmas dinner with your mother and a table of strangers. Out tall windows you see the brown river rushing by like irretrievable time, and across it black-trunked trees growing from bottomland like bruised fingers of Death.

But what you notice most are the old women eating alone, those without kin who care to visit. Why ruin a holiday with the smell of death, with awkward silences and mediocre food? You endure it but then, before sunset, rush away to bolt good liquor with cheerful friends, to kill the taste and dull the ache.

*

I understand how some people get worked up over capital punishment or abortion. But I think they’re missing the boat, the biggest boat, on which we all have a ticket. In places like the House of Death, it happens all the time, with everyone’s complicity—doctors, nurses, patients, and heirs.

It makes perfect sense in the abstract: Why keep alive folks for whom there is little hope of healing or even regaining consciousness, draining away life savings they’ve earmarked for their children?

The physical reality, though, is another story. In retrospect, I would have rather walked into my mother’s room and shot her, or something, just to know that she wasn’t wandering parched and demented in an endless desert for her last days as I stood by and watched.

Yet even now, five years since she’s gone, I think to telephone her with good news or a query about the past, then catch myself. That impulse to call tells me that she’s not fully gone and won’t be until I too cross the river.

Christmas at Long Lake Q&A

From a Sauce Magazine email interview.

Q. What sparked your desire to write this memoir? Was it something you’d been contemplating for quite a while?

A. I think one of the first short stories I ever tried to write, years ago, attempted to capture the ongoing sense of loss I feel for that place and time. The beauty and mystery of my early childhood still haunts me and guides me. And I think my mother’s death prompted me to write this, too, for while she was still alive that history was still alive…My parents, like many, lived largely anonymous lives and left little mark in the larger world—except perhaps on me. I wanted to write this book not only to honor them for what they gave me, but also so I could travel back to that time and place, and to be with them again as they once were.

Q. I think of you primarily as a fiction writer … how was writing a memoir like this different than writing a novel. In what ways was it more challenging?

A. First, writing a memoir is like writing fiction in that you want to structure a narrative around scenes and to write or recreate dialog that shows character and to layer in the sensory detail that will bring the reader into that time and place and the world of your book. (I’m sounding like a writing instructor here.) It is more challenging in that, in a memoir, you are limited to what you are given. You can’t concoct new characters or events to make it work better. So you have to dig deeper to mine better whatever riches you have.

Q. What research did you do for the book?

A. The greatest research I did was to dig down into myself, to go into my memory and commit it to paper. It was at the same time a gratifying and a wrenching task, for the whole book is about loss—loss of a way of life, of innocence, of family, or the irretrievable past. Often, as I sat at my desk writing the manuscript, I would be overcome with it, with the loss and the beauty of it, the warmth and goodness and solidity, and literally tears would be coursing down my face as I relived the sweetness of my early days. The only other research I did was for broader historical and municipal background.

Q. The beautifully described setting of this book was one of the most impressive parts, for me. How difficult was it for you to put the pictures in your mind of your childhood home into words?

A. The whole book was a labor of love, for the place and time as well as for the people. It was a pleasure to try and craft the sensory depiction of the physical world there, to recreate it so the reader can see it and smell it and taste it and hear it and feel it. That, for me, is the pleasurable part of writing. The structuring and architecture and such are agony, trying to figure out what your work ought to be. But the wordsmithing and layering in the sensory stuff and making it come alive—that’s great fun. I would put myself back there, for example, on the frozen lake with my father, and I could bring it all back: the smell of burning leaves, the sting of the cold air, the feel of the ice on the soles of my shoes. Then it’s just a matter of selecting the right details that make it vivid for you—they’ll make it vivid for the reader as well.

Q. Did the final book end up as you expected, or (as often happens in fiction) did the “story” change and evolve from your original conception?

A. It evolved a lot, mostly in terms of structure. I wanted to write a book that captured the place and the time but also wanted a compressed narrative that would keep readers with me. As it developed, my challenge was to compress the memories of four seasons over six years into a narrative that spans only 36 hours. To do that I used a variety of rhetorical devices, such as flashbacks, and “essays,” such as the chapter on my first grade experience, or the chapter on the rustic nature of the house itself, as interludes within the narrative. That was the most demanding aspect of writing it, that structuring, to keep it moving while still getting in everything I wanted to say about the place, to paint the picture while still telling a story.

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