“Be regular and orderly in your life,
so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

-Gustave Flaubert

It’s Friday the 13th! This year is almost two weeks old, and I am at last prepared to announce my New Year’s Non-Resolution. Instead of resolutions–which I resolve to do one day but forget to do the next–I come up with an idea, theme, or guiding principle. A word or phrase that sets the tone for the year. I’ve blamed everything in the last two months on the fact that I came down with Mononucleosis immediately after my last post in November about my book launch, and I am tempted to blame it on this untimely announcement. But the fact is, I tried out several ideas for 2017 and none of them felt right.

Until now!

Since I have already waited almost two weeks, I’ll just out with it. My theme for 2017 is Order.

Order is not a very sexy theme; perhaps it’s the least sexy theme ever. But look at the quote by Flaubert at the top of this post. Order may not be sexy, but making violent and original work/art/writing is.

Backstory: A week ago, I thought my theme would be “meander.” I was feeling stressed by my constant desire to getthingsdone compounded by my procrastination, so I liked the idea of letting myself meander about, slow down the pace. I even painted a river with lots of meanders (from a photo of one in California).

meander

But it didn’t settle right. Then I hit on “Wabi Sabi,” a phrase I think I could say multiple times a day and feel delighted, and which means, basically, “nothing is permanent, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.” I love this so much, and I tried it out this week, but the problem with both Wabi Sabi and meander is that they both already speak to my aesthetic, so I felt they weren’t really pushing me in a new direction.

I needed a word that I don’t already sort of do. 2016 my phrase was “Own It” because I had a book coming out, and I have a tendency to apologize for things. (“I’m so sorry I wrote a weird book.”)

I’m a pretty productive and reliable person. I get a lot done in writing and teaching. But it ain’t pretty; in fact it can be pretty chaotic. And it often takes its toll on me in terms of stress. What I need is ORDER.

Each day of 2017 I want to take small steps each day toward ORDER in my life. And I want to be WILD in my art.

(What are your resolutions and non-resolutions, dear reader?)

 

Book Launch Party!

November 16, 2016 — Leave a comment

for The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová! There will be Czech beer, snacks provided by Evil Czech Brewery, and trippy video footage of Prague. Thursday, 11/17/16 at 7pm at Langlab in South Bend, Indiana.

bozena-book-party

“Parker Ervick has transported me to Prague and shown the blending of fairy tales, history, and cultures laying the groundwork for Kafka’s surrealism (and exported far away, magic realism). With a touch of her magic, Parker Ervick plays with the shrouds of mystery surrounding Božena’s life and origins.”

– Josip Novakovich
author of April Fool’s Day, finalist Man Booker International 2013

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

James Baldwin

On election day I was weepy all morning. My Facebook feed was full of images of friends in pantsuits and suffragette pins, of women bringing their sons and daughters to vote, of Susan B. Anthony’s stickered grave. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the potential history-making moment of electing a woman President, but I was.

Election night was obviously a very different story. I had an essay about women’s lives – how we write and talk about them – scheduled to be published the next day at LitHub, and I was asked to write an introduction that linked it to the election. Some protest words. Here it is:

How We Talk About Women’s Lives

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life is a case study in the limits imposed on even the smartest, most driven of women. Arkansans had never seen a First Lady like her, and she quickly learned to get rid of her glasses, use some hairspray, pluck her eyebrows, and take her husband’s last name (she had kept her own until then). Today, the most experienced Presidential candidate, man or woman, has lost to a philandering, pussy-grabbing, name-calling, interrupting, disability-mocking former pageant owner.

But perhaps Hillary Clinton’s life narrative is the true embodiment of Miss USA: the most qualified woman is forced to compromise her goals, change her name, and smile prettier—and she still gets called a Nasty Woman.

I wrote this essay a month ago, as the tapes of Donald Trump’s comments about grabbing women were being revealed, as women were coming forward with sexual assault lawsuits. Back when it seemed impossible that he would be President of the United States of America. All of which is to say: this essay about how we talk about women’s lives reveals only a fraction of the fury I feel today.

* * * *

Growing up I had a boy’s life. Or least that’s how I think of it now. I played co-ed soccer and basketball. I was the first one picked for gym teams. I could throw a perfect spiral, and I kicked home runs in cul-de-sac kickball. In college I was goalie and MVP of a nationally ranked Division I soccer team. But a year after I graduated from college, I got married, and a year after that I got pregnant. My life as a woman had begun.

The rest of the article is at LitHub.

Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake.

 

fresno-saroyan-statueDear William,

You’re everywhere and nowhere. There’s an elementary school named after you. There’s a bronze statue. A dedicated society perpetuates your name. Your signature, rendered in huge silver letters, adorns the Saroyan Theatre at the Fresno Convention Center; the stage has hosted countless concerts by the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Grand Opera, the Fresno Ballet, and performers from all over the world, in every artistic genre. To the visitors passing through, your legacy in the San Joaquin Valley must seem mighty indeed.

william20saroyanYou divided your last years between Paris and Fresno. I can’t think of two more different cities, at least in how they appear in one’s imagination. A decade ago, when I felt trapped in Fresno, its heat and flatness and provincialism combining to make a prison I longed to escape, I took comfort in the idea you kept returning here from Paris. I searched for what brought you back. I needed it, whatever it was, for myself.

Now your former house sits vacant, in a neighborhood turning beige: the faded stucco, the grass, the heavy dust. It’s sad to see. Not as sad, however, as the state of Fresno’s bookshelves. Your books, those odd, funny, beautiful books, which you wrote quickly and with the rarest of literary attributes—with heartbreaking joy—where are they now? How is it possible to see your name everywhere, to grow up knowing your name, but never read the words that made you famous? I fear that if it weren’t for exhumation via the internet (thank you, AbeBooks) I might only know your name. What does that mean for writers? Especially for writers who come from the other California, the San Joaquin Valley?

What would you say, William? In the title page of My Name is Aram, you wrote:

The writer returns these pleasant memories to the world of Fresno, California, from the year 1915 to the year 1925 (from the time he was seven years old and was beginning to inhabit the world as a specific person to the time he was seventeen years old and had forsaken his native valley for some of the rest of the world), and to the members of his immediate family in that world during those years. That is to say, to the ugly little city containing the large comic world, and to the proud and angry Saroyans containing all humanity.

A little, ugly place. A proud, angry people. I think there’s something like a reason in these lines for why you’ve fallen out of print, especially in your hometown. And yet, the memories are pleasant.

I can tell you what I’d like: I’d like you to cast the same long shadow over valley writers as Faulkner casts over writers from the ethically challenged state of Mississippi. I want to arm-wrestle a literary legacy of your quality and quantity, though I would be beaten before for the contest begins. I would like the contest, in losing it, to leave my voice a little bruised, a little twisted, much as the fight with his William left Barry Hannah’s voice crooked and deranged. Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake. One must find the words that led to the statue being made in the first place. And with you, my William, that’s not been easy.

img_0765

I suppose by now I’ve let you down. I’ve included none of the things in my letter to you that make your stories so rich. There’s been no food to eat, no trees to shade us from the warm day, no sunny rooms in which to enjoy conversation. I’ve talked, instead, about fighting and cynicism. Violence, when it appears in your stories, is seldom the bleeding knuckle kind, but rather the spiritual kind: a death in a distant war, hitting home in the form of a telegram; the pain of displacement and genocide, rendered in narrators who speak hilariously of uncles, cousins, and friends. Your characters refuse to believe that evil deeds cancel out the beauty of good people. In fact, they work to insure that it never will. It must speak to the privilege and relative peace of my time, compared to yours, that I welcome violence and cynicism in my writing, whereas you guarded strongly against it. I’ve done the unforgivable, I think: I’ve complained.

Let me try to redeem myself. It’s May 2003, and I’m in my classroom at Kerman High School, twenty miles west of Fresno. The door stands open, and that hard valley light manages to coax a shine out of the asbestos tile floors, unwaxed since last July. The students move between periods. I hear snatches of things as they walk past, talking with friends. Here only outcasts must walk to class alone.

The most gifted student I’ve ever taught comes in carrying a purse large enough for a woman three times her age, which, I suspect, in her soul she truly is, and from my desk she picks up a copy of My Name is Aram. It’s the Laurel Edition from Dell Publishing, an economic paperback with illustrations by Don Freeman. She thumbs the pages then presses her nose into the crack, breathes deep.

“I’ve never read him,” she says.

“Borrow it,” I say. “Bring it back when you’ve read him.”

She lays the enormous purse at her feet and begins lifting out binders, textbooks, a spiral bound journal, more things than I’ve ever considered carrying around with me, and rearranging the contents so your book won’t be mangled in a landslide of bigger, meaner books. As she does this, she holds My Name is Aram in her mouth. A few days later, when she brings it back to me, I notice that the soft cover holds the semi-circular imprint of her teeth.

Since that day in my classroom I’ve been struggling to understand something important, which I’ll try to put down here. It’s good to have memories of Fresno, but it’s a hard place to live. Perhaps that’s why you chose the word forsaking to describe leaving “for some of the rest of the world,” because the same things that make the valley hard for us also tie our hearts there. I left the valley ten years ago, but I write about it every day, walking the family vineyards and the streets of Caruthers in my imagination. I also still have that cheap, chewed copy of My Name is Aram to remind me what it feels like to be bookish in a small valley town. Hungry, that is, for something to explain the conflict of loving and hating your home. Your books help me make sense of my place and my impossible feelings for it.

I hope the next daydreaming child of Fresno who reads your name on a sign won’t have to wait so long to find out the writer you really are.

—–

[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

 img_0408

John Carr Walker’s first book, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007 and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2012 he was awarded a Fishtrap Fellowship for an early draft of his novel-in-progress, “Get.” A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.

William Saroyan (1908-1982) was born and died in Fresno, California, and many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family.

 

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelcey Parker Ervick
is one of the least bitter, most loving books I have read in a long time,
and it’s beautifully made.

– Kate Bernheimer
author of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales

booksnbeer

Still Life with Books and Beer

 

Today is publication day for The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová! My journeys in the Czech Republic and Slovakia took me to this book, and this book has taken me on its own journey. It’s my first book-length work of nonfiction, and it includes a series of postcards I wrote to Němcová about my travels, my Czech language class, my Slovakian family, and, well, my failing marriage. I quote from my favorite Prague-based letter-writers: Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Bohumil Hrabal’s Letters to Dubenka, and Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga.

What I am probably most amazed about is that this book also includes collages and paintings I made, published in beautiful full color. The first two here are images from my travels to Česká Skalice, where Božena Němcová grew up. I was lost, and these were the not very helpful signs. The third image is of a photo on a bulletin board at Shakespeare and Sons in Prague that addresses anxieties one might feel about publishing a strange hybrid beast of a book such as mine.

But you can help make the book a bestseller! It is now available for purchase from Rose Metal Press, Small Press Distribution (SPD, where it is a Handpicked selection, 20% off in November), Amazon (ugh, this will update soon!), Amazon’s Kindle (live and ready!), etc. It costs $17.95, which is pretty amazing considering the color images.

If you read and like it, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. If you’re even thinking of reading it, you can mark it as “want-to-read” on Goodreads. All this helps libraries and other potential readers know about the book, and make it an even-better-seller.

I want to end with a major thanks to Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney at Rose Metal Press. I’ll say more in a future post, but they did SO MUCH GOOD WORK  make this book the beautiful object that it is. And thanks to Heather Butterfield for her stunning design work.

fullsizerender

Fifteen years ago, a group of unpublished, aspiring writers met in McMicken Hall at the University of Cincinnati and spent the next several years drafting and discussing stories, reading and analyzing literary texts, drinking and smoking, dissertating and job-marketing. One by one we got jobs and moved away and kept writing and started publishing, and whenever we can, we get together to celebrate one another’s accomplishments (and catch up on our personal lives!).

Last night was one of those nights of celebration, in this case of Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, which has been featured in, oh, you know: People, Elle, O. Magazine, and, last week, in the NY Times book review, which called it “deft and lovely.”

fullsizerender-1

To which one might add, smart and magical and IMPORTANT in its emphasis on the lives of a group of girls at a transformative time of their lives. (I think of the line from Kathryn Davis’s Hell: “Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience […] with universal radiance… Mightn’t we then permit a single summer in the lives of two bored girls to represent an essential stage in the history of the universe?”) Sarah endows her Guineveres with universal radiance, and the lives of girls is great literature indeed.

As we toasted several times last night: Cheers to The Guineveres!

fullsizerender-2

First, I tried to get someone else to make my book trailer.

When that didn’t work, I got other people to HELP me make my book trailer. As I writer, I don’t often get to collaborate on creative projects, and it turned out to be a blast.

But you should watch it first:

Now that you have seen the trailer and know that The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is about a Czech fairy tale writer, you will understand why it is important that I happened to be in Prague this summer taking students on a study abroad trip. I was accompanied by my gentleman friend, whom I dragged around the city with a camera, and he helped me film moving shots of still statues (check out the opening pan up), and still shots of moving statues (Kafka’s swiveling head at minute 1:05!). We got footage on trams and of trams, on bridges and of them. We got a lot of footage.

Next, I wrote a script. Then rewrote it a few more times.

In the meantime, I contacted the Indiana University South Bend Instructional Media team and asked, “Can somebody please help me make a book trailer?” And they were like, “Sure, we can do it.”

Joel laid the ground rules. Joe would record the voices. Sky went to work on sorting through the video footage.

But we still didn’t have any background music to set the tone.

One night my gentleman friend and I watched a weird German movie, The Strange Little Cat, and we loved the music. So I did what you do: I googled the band and emailed the record company asking permission to use the music in my trailer. No answer. I wrote again. This time I got a response from Kim at Monotreme Records: “Yes, that should work!”

A few more email exchanges, a small fee, and the next thing I knew I had the rights to that hauntingly awesome music that plays throughout: “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows.

Meanwhile, we recorded the voices, which include my daughter (the first and last voice), my gentleman friend, and me. Sky was making great progress on the video editing, and the next thing I knew it was almost done. We just needed some audio for the credits.

Luckily, back in Prague, when I filmed Božena’s grave at the National Cemetery, I recorded the church bells as they rang and rang throughout the cemetery.

Did you watch all the way to the end? The bells are so beautiful.


The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is now available for pre-order at Rose Metal Press. Free shipping!