Thursday, June 11, 2009


The manuscript of the book I’m writing with Tim Barrus is complete. Now comes the hard part. It’s easy to generate a lot of print -- high quality and exciting -- from Tim because he’s like a volcano throwing out lava. My job has been bricolage and writing the interstitial transitions. He’s the stained glass, I’m the lead caning. Actually, it’s been a lot of fun. Tim’s ramrod, Eavan, thinks he’s also writing this book, but the truth is that he’s not, at least not this book -- there are others. However, some of his writing is included as well as some of the writing of the other boys, assuming they’re real. The words are real.

While I’m still trying to figure out the last editing and thinking ahead to queries, Tim has already leapt to publicity, his favorite part. His idea of how to entice media coverage is to insult and mock them, on the premise that they’ll want to set everyone straight. Maybe. He describes an interview with the genteel Jackie Leyden in which she failed to perceive that he wasn’t Native American, although all good liberal intelligentsia are supposed to know their stuff about Indians. (archived at

When I listened to it, I laughed, because he DID sound Indian! I know Jackie was sitting at her mike with a paper prepared by someone else that told her what to ask, which parts to ask him to read, and what topics NOT to raise. Also, she undoubtedly had a Borgian earpiece guiding her if things went too slowly or quickly. On his end, in a different city, Tim sat in a little room alone with a mike and tried to respond to someone he couldn’t see, without even knowing her appearance much less her body language and responses. He came across as meek and gentle, which is hardly his normal mode.

Bill Houff, author of “Infinity in your Hand,” an overview of his near-Buddhist religious philosophy, used to wax indignant over the many radio interviews he did. Someone in some other place, intent on looking good to a cadre of devoted listeners, would ask questions without ever reading the book. Based on their limited understanding of religion, some would attack and some would interpret what Houff had written, but he was basically there as a stooge. The point of the interview was to make the interviewer look good.

My experience with George Cole at Yellowstone Public Radio was much better. To hear the interview go to Look for “RealTime,” George’s program, and then the Archive. This link might be a shortcut: We didn’t know each other, but we met and chatted for a while beforehand and had the advantage of sharing some of the same worlds: Montana, Unitarians -- he’d even met Bob Scriver long enough ago that Bob hadn’t sunk into old age yet. We were in the same small room, looking at each other’s faces. George had a cheater in front of him to remind him of names and events, so he’d get them right, and I knew he was watching my face to see how far I would go on some topics, though he’d cautioned me that if I got too far off the rails, it would be edited. We had been VERY frank beforehand. Much useful information was exchanged! George hasn’t been a king-maker, but close: a governor-guider, you might say. I was in my devoted wife persona and trying not to pound the table for emphasis because it goes into the mike as thunder.

It sounded like the most relaxed and spontaneous of conversations and some people, including some of my relatives, considered it very daring because George asked me if I still loved Bob Scriver and I said yes.

Well, you know, define love.

One of the continuing themes of “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs” is love and the other is death, which you might expect if you read mythology. Because the real subject matter of the book is boys with HIV, “at risk,” which means they die. In fact, some of what is included in the book is now posthumous.

But, you know, define death.

This morning (5AM in Montana is a good time to talk to Europe) Tim and I had an exchange about the above thoughts and death. This is what we said:

TIM: RE: “Do you still love. . . I would have said: he's dead.”

MARY: “As long as someone remembers you vividly, are you dead? Dead is if you never existed in the first place. Lots of people are walking around looking undead, but they are dead.

“Dead is in how you feel about someone. He doesn't feel dead to me. If you don't like that answer, ask someone else. Anyway, George loved having a romantic answer. It was a romantic question. I was there to sell books, not pass a lie detector test.”

TIM: “I like that answer.”

That’s how the whole book goes. Our problem is to keep a balance in the book as well as our own sanity as authors and peace between us. One of the best loved of Tim’s little community recently died. I never met the boy but he was real to me. I grieve but he’s not dead to me.

It is also a problem to fight off Tim’s critics and accusers, a weird collaboration of jealous gays and resentful Native Americans. The two realms, gay and NA, do intertwine in a shadowy and sometimes illicit way on reservations and in big city ghettoes, mostly through the underground artifact trade.

I once asked Sherman Alexie whether he liked “Fancy Dancer,” a novel about a gay priest and the gay motorcyclist (Leather Man) who teaches him to be proud of his sexuality. I haven’t read it for a long time so I don’t quite remember which one was Indian -- I think the priest. Alexie did like it. I’ve wondered how much that book influenced his “The Toughest Indian in the World,” which some thought was about being gay but which I believe is about the “Mythic Indian,” the one that Jackie Leyden thinks is real and believes she interviewed. That Indian has been killed over and over, but constantly resurrects.

This book that Tim and I have written will not tell you who the real Tim Barrus is. Nor the real Mary Scriver either. In the first place, like all fully alive humans, we’re both many personas. In the second place, define real.


Todd said...

Can't wait to read it.

Art Durkee said...

You know, editing is the hardest part: it's like killing your baby. But it has to be done. When I write, I spew, and I don't edit. I edit when I revise, and re-write, later. It's harder than the writing itself, for me. But I've also been in publishing, both book and magazine, and I might not always like a cut to my writing, but I can recognize when it's necessary. Unless a book is all digression and discourse by its very nature and structure, it's usually good to cut the digressions, sidebars, and excursions, and keep the focus tighter. Most poetry that I encounter in workshops I've been involved with is over-written, and needs to be compressed. Compressing a poem gives it more poem. Compressing poetic prose likewise.

You probably know all that, of course.

I worked in marketing, advertising, graphic design, and media for decades. I can say this: sometimes leaping ahead to publicity works, if the material is really really strong and unique and unlike anything else out there. But most of the time I've seen in backfire. It can create hype that nothing can live up to, no matter how good it is. But then, confrontation is not my default media style, or interaction style. Truth-telling certainly is, and I have no doubt that the book will contain a LOT of truth-telling. And I find myself ostracized somewhat regularly for truth-telling. But what that doesn't do is make me confrontational; I refuse to censor myself, but I've somehow managed to learn the lesson—mostly by observing people in the marketing arena—that the best thing to do is just repeat myself in the same level tone, not yell.

All I can offer is my experience and observations. I make no presumptions about what will work for your book. I look forward to reading it someday, regardless.

prairie mary said...

The tricky part of this editing is that we ended up including some of the boys' writing. It's one thing to edit ruthlessly one's own work, another to do the same for another mature writer, but still another to do it to a young person's writing. I flinch and then I delete whole paragraphs. It's a good thing I'm far far away so I can't see his face.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

If the mythic Indian keeps coming back, maybe he's not really dead