Donezel Washington

The Mechanic is finished! Sasha is now Ana. The word count dropped from 84,000 to 80,0000. My mom is reading the latest draft and said “it’s tighter,” which is maybe all I’ve ever wanted to hear about my writing. I don’t plan on making any changes unless an agent or editor tells me to. I have started querying, but that’s a long, slow, demoralizing process. Updates to come.

To give you a sense of where my brain has been since I finished the book, I have a blister on my right index finger and I’m not at all sure how I got it. I also bought three mixing bowls at Target last weekend and two of them have completely vanished. I also went to Costco and thought, “ooh quinoa salad, that sounds good!” I was watching TV the other night and had an idea for my next novel. Right now it’s about cults, dementia, time travel, and bank heists. Should be dope.

Many thanks to all of you who read various sections and drafts of The Mechanic. I’d especially like to thank my friend Miriam, who had to listen to me try to explain what this book was about before I’d written much of anything. Her thoughtful questions were crucial in helping me think through so many parts of the story. In no particular order, I also need to thank Sara, Jean, Marissa, Kerry, Julianna, Andy, mom, and dad. The feedback from all of you was so so helpful. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’m gonna go turn into a werewolf now.

P.S. I stole the Donezel Washington joke from Brooklyn 9-9 which is a great show that was and then wasn’t canceled and you should definitely watch it.

So you want to talk about race

Well, probably you don’t, but that’s why we should talk about it. I know I’ve mentioned it at some point, but for as long as The Mechanic has existed, the titular character was an African-American woman named Sasha. I recently decided to revise the book for Sasha to be a white woman with a new name.

I wanted Sasha to be an African American because it’s important that my fiction be representative of reality. Not all of us are cis-gender heterosexual white people, and neither is good literature. To me, Sasha has been black from the moment I first thought of her. Regrettably, it was only recently I stopped to ask myself why I’d imagined her this way.

Once I’d finished the first draft of The Mechanic I knew I would need people of color to read it and to pay attention to their feedback. I also knew that if I was lucky enough to ever be interviewed about this book, the conversation would include my decision to write a novel whose central character is black when I so clearly am not.

Before asking any person of color to read The Mechanic, I read So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo, which is great even if you’re not struggling to write characters of color. Oluo’s book gave me ideas for improving The Mechanic, and I felt confident about moving forward. Not long after that, I asked a person of color to read The Mechanic. I knew this person from school, was confident they would provide frank feedback, and I genuinely thought it was a story they’d enjoy. In my request, I included a synopsis and an offer to pay them a dollar per page for their time. They respectfully said no, expressing concern over “reading about rape and assault – especially violence against black bodies.” 

My initial reaction was, “Don’t you want to see how I’ve handled this as an artist!?” which is the wrong response and thankfully remained unsaid. It wasn’t until my friend declined to read The Mechanic that I was honest with myself about why I’d written Sasha as an African American; she’s an inherently angry character, and I didn’t think readers would believe that level of anger in a white character. This is racist and plays on the stereotype of an angry black woman, for which there is no excuse.

Using race to render characters more believable is dangerously lazy. Once I realized this I knew I had to remove Sasha in favor of a white character. This will ultimately serve the story far better, forcing me to write effective characters regardless of race. The book will certainly be different, but it will also be much better.

I am still passionate about writing compelling characters of all races, and it was difficult to realize I’m not yet a strong enough writer to do so. Good intentions don’t mean shit if it leads to bad, offensive writing.

Sorry to get so heavy after last month’s whimsy, but my only other idea for this newsletter was to send an inflammatory email full of “would” statements, and then send a follow-up correcting all of them to “wouldn’t” statements. I’m not sure that’s any less depressing, to be honest.

To end on a cheerful note, here’s a song I really enjoy by Wild Pink, whose new record came out today.

Cover of Ryan Adams’ “Dear Chicago”

I thought I lost this recording a couple apartments ago, but found it buried in my Dropbox. “Dear Chicago” was too difficult for me to learn on guitar, so I came up with this piano arrangement. It’s a bummer, but ultimately hopeful, and one of my favorite songs by any artist.

It’s My Birthday, I Can Write What I Want To

Looking at the title you might be thinking, “Isn’t that what Evan does every month?” You are correct, but I typically write about things most people are interested in. Today, in honor of the 29th anniversary of my birth, I will be writing about my most cherished of obsessions, the music of Ryan Adams. Specifically his album 29, and the song “Carolina Rain.”

29.jpg

Adams’ 29 is the final installment in a trilogy of records he released in 2005, and it is by far the weirdest record of the three, and maybe even of his entire career. Adams has claimed the album is a loose concept album about his twenties, with each song about a single year. That’s like saying Batman comics are about a guy whose parents were killed; there’s much more going on, and it’s a bit of an undersell.

The album opens with the blues burner “29” and ends with the fragile and biblical “Voices.” In between the record ranges between lush piano numbers (“Nightbirds”), Spaghetti Western flourishes (“The Sadness”), and the murder balladry of “Carolina Rain,” one of my absolute favorites of all of Adams’ songs.

On one of my live recordings of this song, Adams introduces it by saying, “This next song is about a ghost, and several people that… die.” The characters include a waitress, a dead landlord, Caroline, her husband Alderman Haint, Caroline’s sister Percy, Percy’s husband the narrator, and a recently deputized sheriff.

The song relates the story of a drifter who arrives in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, falls in love with Caroline, and then marries Caroline’s sister “if only to be closer to you, Caroline.” Along the way we learn Rose is a prostitute who reveals the truth of Caroline and the narrator’s relationship to Alderman. Alderman is subsequently murdered and thrown into the quarry, where his misplaced rosary alerts the sheriff that something is amiss. Oh, but before that, both of Percy and the narrator’s daughters die. Then the narrator is killed outside the banquet hall as the song ends.

To say that I’ve become obsessed with this song since first hearing it is a bit of an understatement. In college, I attempted to adapt “Carolina Rain” into a short story. My writing workshop responded with, “This doesn’t make any goddamn sense.” To which I said, “I know! Isn’t it great?”

It’s unclear who exactly killed Alderman Haint, and sometimes I’m convinced he’s the landlord offed by Rose at the song’s beginning. Other times I think the narrator killed Alderman, and the nameless landlord was murdered only to set the stage for the bloodshed to come. But that would mean the narrator was killed for a murder he didn’t commit, which seems to defy the song’s fated logic. I’ll never be sure either way, which is what draws me back to “Carolina Rain” again and again.

Somehow, Adams manages to reinvigorate a traditional folk song form with all sorts of postmodern weirdness, and the result is utterly lovely despite its abundance of death. Death is one of 29‘s major preoccupations, which isn’t surprising since it was written by a man on the cusp of his thirties. The album’s cover is a painting by Adams, seemingly showing Death leading a group of people to a house to do God knows what. I like to imagine Death’s three followers as Alderman Haint, the song’s narrator, and maybe the landlord or Rose, all of them following Death hoping to learn who exactly killed whom. Whatever they find in that house, I bet it doesn’t make any goddamn sense.

The Mixed-Up Files of Mr. Evan W. Stoner – October Sux

Out of the numerous shitty months we’ve had thus far in 2017, October is well on its way to being the shittiest of the year. What happened in Las Vegas is horrifying, but this isn’t the place nor am I the person to tackle the issue. (Ta-Nehisi Coates? You there?) I’m far more qualified to talk about October’s other major bummer: the passing of Tom Petty.

For most people my age, Tom Petty was a legacy rock act you didn’t need to seek out because his music was so ubiquitous, sort of like seeing Coors Light stashed in the cooler at your neighbor’s backyard barbecue—it’s always around and you enjoy it on occasion. The Beatles have a similar status, but while the Fab Four tend to foster wild devotion, Petty instead had legions of people who maybe didn’t love all of his records but loved at least one of his songs.

I first recognized the excellence of Tom Petty’s songwriting when I was seventeen or so. My sister was in involved in her college’s equestrian team, and a prospective student had sent Allison a video of her horseback riding chops set to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” For some reason I watched this shameless self-promotion over Allison’s shoulder, probably to see if the rider in question was attractive. The video had been edited so Petty sang the line, “Loves horses, and her boyfriend too,” right as the rider and horse landed a jump in slow motion.

I said something like, “That’s a bit of an obvious song choice.”

To which Allison said, “But she loves horses before her boyfriend. That’s important.”

That moment has stuck with me every time I’ve sat down to write anything. The details matter, especially in what order they arrive, and few songwriters understood that as well as Tom Petty. In that one line he said far more about this “she” than maybe the whole rest of the song put together. It’s those details that give listeners and readers a world to inhabit, characters they’ll never meet but who feel intimately known. Tom Petty could’ve only written “Free Fallin’” and I still think he’d be one of the greatest songwriters America ever produced. The lines “All the vampires walking through the valley / Move west down Ventura Boulevard” offer the kind of immortality no heart attack will ever take away.

Part of Tom Petty’s charm for me was that he was so goddamn good without being particularly attractive. His voice was just whiny enough to remind you of Bob Dylan, but his songcraft was so impeccable he was equally loved by critics and the little kid sitting in the back of the minivan.

My favorite Tom Petty song is probably “Learning To Fly.” Like most of his work, at first blush it sounds so familiar you’re half convinced it’s a cover of something much older. More than any musician I can think of, Tom Petty’s songs sounded classic from the first listen. Plus, the instrumental break at 2:54 always makes me feel like I can fly, or at least levitate, which is more than I could ever ask for from a piece of music.

Hang in there, folks. Maybe the rest of October will be totally dope.

Until next month,
Evan