Dive! Dive!

From the Department of Redundant Self-Promotion Department:

  • Reading and talk at South Portland Library Saturday 5/13 at 2 PM
  • Panel with Kate Flora and Lea Wait Thursday 5/18 at Gray Public Library
  • Signed contracts this week for In Solo Time, the prequel to Solo Act, for publication in 2017.

Now on to our regularly schedule programming . . 

I was watching that great documentary movie of hippies at sea and fly-fishing in Key West in the 60’s, Tarpon, the other night and heard my spirit bear, the great big one-eyed boy Jim Harrison, declaim the following:

“Age brings us a diminished portfolio of enthusiasms.”

The fact that he was somewhere in his twenties robs this of some of its authority but the phrase stuck in my mind nevertheless. I suspect my interpretation is not what Harrison intended in his louche and world-weary cry to the losses of age. I took what he said as a warning not that getting older narrows the set of things you care about, but the reverse, that lessening the number of things you are enthusiastic about ages you before your time. But as someone sniffing at the early edges of old age (I can but hope . .) I don’t feel a need to expand or diminish my range of enthusiasms as much as I want to deepen the ones I have.

I’ve always been catholic about the writing I’ve taken on (though I refuse to perpetrate poetry any more). But an idea will occur to me that needs an essay or I’ll get interested in something factual like a biodegradable six-pack ring developed by a Florida brewery and want to learn enough about it to write a nonfiction piece. And always, of course, the stories and novels, crime-focused and not.

But thinking about Harrison’s words brought me to the realization I need to widen the scope of my reading too, which is turning out to be more difficult than I thought. I have to make a conscious effort to expand my attention to places and people I don’t normally attend to. Which I suppose is the point.

I started reading very young with the adventures of Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, then graduated to Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Magazine. For me the age of paperbacks was golden and even now, the rotund silhouette of Nero Wolfe on a cover promises joy, if a completely familiar one.

Except for a brief and unfortunate attempt to read (and write) like an honest-to-god English major, my choice of reading material has always been crime stories, murder mysteries, thrillers. You can imagine my joy after reading The Deep Blue Goodbye at discovering that Travis McGee had twenty other adventures and that John D. had written scores more books for me to read on streetcars, family car rides, and in summer cottages.

And when I started writing crime fiction seriously, I was mad for help, reading and rereading all my heroes for their virtual mentoring, learning everything I could without being taught directly. Lessons from Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, John Sanford. Marcia Muller, Patricia Highsmith.

Until I realized the narrowness of my reading was squeezing my writing. I knew how to make some things happen on the page, in certain ways, in certain tones and colors. But there are things that are beyond me. Many things. One of my mentors, the great Thomas Williams Jr., told his students once of receiving a note from John D. MacDonald himself, complaining mildly about the fact that he was constrained to certain ways of writing, both by his success and by long practice.

Well, look. If you are a writer, some things are always going to be beyond you. If you don’t know that, you don’t know a thing. But it doesn’t mean you don’t want to reach for them.

And my deliberate strategy for reaching beyond where I am is to try to read things that don’t attract my shiny magpie attention: authors I don’t know, genres I don’t know, or even—gasp—books out of genre altogether (whatever genre means any more).

It piques me in some interesting ways, forces me to broaden and deepen the characters I write about, work a little harder at creating stories that are better, larger, richer than I’ve been able to do up until now. It’s an attempt to intensify one of the enthusiasms I already have (preferably without losing any of the others).

But if the portfolio must diminish over time, as my boy Jim suggests? What I want then is that each remaining enthusiasm allows me to go deeper and be as engaged as my efforts can make it. Or in the words of that other great seagoing movie, Submarine Command? Dive! Dive!

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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2 Responses to Dive! Dive!

  1. Kate Flora says:

    So enlighten those of us who are curious, Dick…in which direction does your embrace of a wider circle of reading take you? What are you reading now?

    I used to have a pretty strict rule about not reading crime fiction when I was writing crime fiction, but that’s hard when most of my dear friends are crime fiction writers and I want to keep up with their work.

    I’m currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow. Not crime fiction. And just finished Hillbilly Elegy. Not crime fiction. But before that, two John D. MacDonald’s, which confirmed that while I love his writing, his sexism is sometimes unpleasantly dated.

    Next up is The Happiness Project, since I don’t want to suffer all the losses of old age. It seems to me, though, that part of the beauty of aging is possibly having time for MORE enthusiasms.

    • Dick Cass says:

      Suggestions welcome! Here’s what I’ve been into the last couple weeks:

      And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Frederik Backman (who also wrote a Man Called Ove)–lovely semi-fictional meditation on age and families
      Room for Improvement by John Casey (endurance sports memoir)
      A Really Big Lunch by Jim Harrison (roving, raving gourmand essays)
      Dark Money by Jane Mayer (Koch Bros, et al take over the country from inside)
      Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus (Essays by Dubus pere)

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