You Can’t Say That!
October 1, 2013 by Keith Lee Morris
I'm from north Idaho and most of my fiction is set there, so last month I met up with several old friends in my hometown of Sandpoint, where Tin House Books helped my friend Denise organize a book launch party for The Dart League King.
It was at Pend Oreille Winery, a very nice place owned by a high-school friend of mine. My high-school English teacher, Mrs. Love, was there, and lots of other folks I hadn't seen in forever. My friends are gracious to a fault in playing host. They all buy copies of my latest book and ask questions about it and buy me drinks afterward... basically it's an ongoing conspiracy to humor me by pretending that I'm special when the truth is, as everyone in town who's paying any attention knows, the real writer from Sandpoint is Pulitzer winner Marilynne Robinson, whose book about the town, Housekeeping--has, mmm, well, it's done a little better than any of my own.
I once took a workshop from Ms. Robinson, whose fiction I admire immensely (Housekeeping really is one of the most beautiful and intelligent novels I've ever read). At the end of the week-long course, I had an individual meeting with MR to talk about my work. I envisioned it as a literary milestone of sorts, the passing of the torch from one highly respected Idaho author to a highly promising (this was my view, at any rate) youngster from the same neck of the woods, a scene that would be recounted years hence by serious biographers.
It turned out, though, that she doesn't like the sort of thing I do as much as I like the sort of thing she does. I had this short story with a character who cussed so much that even I was offended, and we had a discussion about it (him) that after roughly twenty years or so I remember this way:
"You can't do this," Marilynne Robinson says to me.
"Huh?" I say to her.
"This won't work," she says.
"What?" I say to her.
"All this cursing."
"No one talks this way."
"No one uses this much profanity," she says to me. "No one talks this way."
"What?" I say.
"What's wrong with you?" Marilynne Robinson asks.
"Look," I say, "I know this place called the Capricorn Lounge. Come down there with me tonight. Every single person in the Capricorn Lounge talks this way."
"No, thank you," Marilynne Robinson says to me.
She was probably right, about all the cussing, I mean, and I probably should have learned my lesson way back then, but no, apparently I did not. The Dart League King, I found out recently, has already been sent packing by one angry bookstore owner due to its excessive profanity (it's really just one character, and I would think a bookstore owner could tell the difference between a profane character and a profane novel, but all right, whatever).
The nice lady who owns the store in Spokane, Washington, told my publisher that even though she had agreed to schedule a reading for me, that was before she'd actually read the book, and now she wouldn't be requiring my services. Maybe she wanted my writing to be more like that nice young man's she had in the bookstore once, Chuck Palahniuk--he has a really interesting anecdote about his visit to her store, which you can read here.
That's it for now--next time I think I'll talk about Sarah Palin, who's also from my hometown. And maybe about why I still have such a strong bond with my old friends from there and what that has to do with writing, if anything