By Matt McGregor – [email protected] – Contributor | April 20, 2015
Gary Ettari’s writing begins with a feeling.
When he listens to Bruce Springsteen, the feeling starts at his kneecaps, moves up through the groin, then out through the chest.
“I swear I found the keys to the universe in the engine of an old parked car,” recited Ettari, associate professor of language and literature, quoting a lyric from Springsteen’s song “Growin’ Up.”
The image of the engine and its power, drive and motion, inspires his life, teaching and writing. He speaks with an infectious enthusiasm for music and literature, even comparing poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to Jimi Hendrix.
“It’s the vital, creative spark that animates all of us,” Ettari preached, in his Led Zeppelin shirt and jeans.
Though a college professor, Ettari dislikes abstract, philosophical writing. He wants to tell a good story with plain language.
“It’s why I don’t like Pink Floyd so much. It’s just rock ‘n’ roll. Just have three chords, a guitar, and a decent vocalist, and you can express anything that the human soul has ever felt,” Ettari said. “I’m the same way about prose. I want to write an interesting story with good characters and I don’t want to have to have an 80,000 word vocabulary to have to do that.”
Ettari told the story of Johnny Suede, whose sister fell into a river and drowned when he was 8 years old, as he watched his father fly fishing. His father never spoke to him again. Carrying this guilt and loss, Ettari said, he becomes a detective who specializes in finding missing children to bring families back together.
“The detective novel is about two things: finding the truth, which, I suppose we are all on that journey, and finding what is missing,” said Ettari about his detective novel, Sentimental Over You. “My entire life has been a search for that what I think is missing. A detective novel is a metaphysical search for truth.”
Another story by Ettari involves romance. Casey, a Manhattan advertising executive whose fiance left her, just turned 40.
“When you turn 40, the open grave is in front of you, whispering of mortality,” Ettari imparted with an unusual expression and tone of glee, considering the statement.
Casey goes to a flying fishing lodge in Montana on vacation and meets Joe Wilson, fly fishing instructor.
“There is something appealing about getting together people who feel lonely and alienated,” said Ettari, discussing his romance novel Fish out of Water, which is a part of his Fly Fishing romance series.
“People make fun of romance novels partially because some of the writing isn’t that good, but also because in this culture we tend to be afraid of emotions,” Ettari said. “We are a culture that is very alienated from each other. I don’t like that. I move through the world because of my emotional connection to people and things, so I do not like moving through a culture that does not value that emotional connection. It makes me feel estranged.”
He said he dislikes the alternative music of the ‘90s because of this feeling of estrangement it produces. A poster of the Black Crowes on the wall emphasizes his dislike and the band members’ expressions seem to express agreement.
“Why would I listen to a band that has nothing but nothing but contempt for me? Tom Petty is a great example of this whole romance novel idea. He makes a connection. He doesn’t have to be Bach. He can break your heart with three chords,” Ettari proclaimed.
For Ettari, writing evokes an emotional connection made by the poetic rhythm and pacing of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Chuck Berry is right,” Ettari said. “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it.”
Ettari will read from Sentimental Over You, and Lori Horvitz, professor of literature and language, will discuss her latest book, The Girls of Usually, on April 16 from 12:20 to 1:20 p.m. in Karpen Hall’s Laurel Forum.
Horvitz started out as a photographer who did not consider writing until she traveled through Europe. Horvitz went back to school for her M.F.A. in creative writing at Brooklyn College, where she said she studied with Allen Ginsberg.
“Going to undergrad for art, I was creative with photography and printmaking, being messy with stuff and playing with different art projects. Now I like being messy with words,” Horvitz said. “It was actually traveling that got me journaling and writing poetry.”
She said Ginsberg taught her to be raw and to not censor herself.
“The Beat Generation inspired me as far as letting it all hang out, being raw, just getting it out on the page, not hiding behind metaphor and abstraction,” Horvitz said. “When I don’t censor myself, I can find something I did not know I had in me.”
As a child, before writing and photography, Horvitz worked as a magician, getting paid in attention, escapism, and a sense of control over the underrated brutality of childhood that is polluted with bullies and insecurity. Today, instead of waving a magic wand, she writes.
“I like to play with words in ways that are unpredictable,” Horvitz said. “Writing words have the capability perform magic on the heart and the soul. Writing also has the capability to heal.”
Horvitz writes about her lost dog Sunshine who came to her in a surreal dream, popping out of a cigarette vending machine to impart a message. She also writes about her time following the Grateful Dead.
“I liked the music. I liked the community. Although proud to associate with hippies and freaks, I was never a real Deadhead, only an observer, an imposter,” Horvitz wrote in her book.
Horvitz’s writing feels like a nostalgic journey into the past, seeing the bad and the good as equal. This includes, she said, her fond recollection of her stint as a Jack in the Box employee.
“I liked the fast pace, the challenge of taking orders, preparing orders, gathering up fries, mixing shakes, ringing up customers, all in record time. Every so often, before a customer opened his or her mouth, I guessed what they’d order, and more times than not, I’d be right,” Horvitz wrote.
From working at Jack in the Box to being a guest on North Carolina Public Radio’s “State of Things” on April 17, Horvitz’s creative life emerges in her writing. She said everyone has the potential to be creative and emphasizes the importance of being creative for everyone by pointing out the low recidivism rate for prisoners who are taught an art practice.
“Art and creativity are healing,” Horvitz said.
Katherine Min, associate literature and language professor, said it would be more constructive for her to become a fiction writer than a con artist, a job that might have allowed her to lower her own rate of recidivism by writing in prison. As a child, she loved telling stories. She also loved to get kids to believe these stories.
“I was an incorrigible liar,” Min admitted. “I was just born with my head in the clouds, and I was incapable of telling the truth exactly the way it happened because it was just not that interesting to me.”
The title of Min’s book, Secondhand World, came from the idea that people enter the world not as a blank slate but as an accumulation of the parents’ experiences.
“The main character is a 17-year-old girl. There’s been a house fire and her parents have died. The novel is trying to figure out how this fire came to be,” Min said. “I was really interested in this idea that when we are young, we sometimes have the most certainty, seeing in black and white, but as we grow older, the whole maturation process is being able to see things are greyer, and harder to define what is right. A lot of the novel is about youthful judgment in which that kind of certainty can be really dangerous.”
Min got her start as a journalist, studying journalism at Columbia University. She worked for alternative weekly paper The Boston Phoenix, and for an English language newspaper in Korea. However, she said the truth felt constraining to her.
“If I had stayed in journalism, I would have ended up like Stephen Glass. I would have gotten in trouble for making things up,” Min said.
It took her seven years to write her first novel. As an admitted binge writer, she confesses she writes in spurts. She wrote most of her book at the MacDowell Artist’s Colony in New Hampshire.
“They give you your own little cottage in the woods and nobody is allowed to bother you unless you invite them. It’s very monastic in a way,” Min said. “What’s really interesting about them is that they involve all different disciplines. It’s fascinating to talk to visual artists and composers, because the creative process is actually very similar though it involves different mediums. It can be very inspiring.”
Min seeks the unexpected and uncomfortable places in her writing. She said good fiction shows us a truth that we may not want to face. This seeking comes from her faith in the mystical, unconscious process.
“If you set out to write a story and nothing surprises you, nothing pops out from left field, then it’s not going to be interesting,” Min said. “Nothing that your conscious mind can apprehend is going to be half as interesting as what your unconscious mind dredges up all on its own. I let my unconscious mind work on an idea before I actually write.”
For Min, writing creates a sense of shared humanity, generated by a gentle and approach to reality. It allows for empathy, seeing the world from another’s perspective.
“I tell my students that fiction is the elegant lie that leads to the truth,” Min said. “We are alive on this planet right at this moment, so what does that mean? There is nothing like being able to embed yourself in the spectrum of humanity.”