Beyond The Pale

James Whitney, The Book and The Bean

I met James Whitney sometime in the winter of 1999-2000, while I was working on finishing up my MFA in Writing at Huntington University. Fearing that I didn’t have what it take to survive as a fiction writer, I had split my coursework between Technical/Professional Writing and Creative Writing, but when it came time to decide on a thesis or degree papers, I found that the powers that be (or were, I guess) in the Huntington Humanities department wouldn’t issue me both degrees unless I had written my final projects in both fields.

In a single track degree, the decision is usually between a thesis of, say, 60 pages or two shorter degree papers that together might add up to anywhere between 60 and 80 pages. However, because of the overlap in my coursework, I was presented with the option of writing a thesis for each track, or only three degree papers, one from each of my fields of study and a third one from whichever of the two fields that I chose. I decided to go with what seemed like the easiest of the two options and write degree papers.

The first two papers came easily enough. I did a study on how technical writers working in the field of robotics learn to modulate their voice and level of technicality to create end user manuals that are both user friendly enough to allow an operator to trouble shoot lower level problems and detailed enough to assist a trained technician both higher level diagnostics and repairs. It’s a fine line, and I felt that to really make my point, it would be good to bring a practical example into the arena, so for my second paper I wrote an example of what the finished product of such an exercise might look like using a piece of equipment that was being produced at the hot-tub company where my uncle worked. It wasn’t as technical as robotics, but the principles were essentially the same.

Not only was the board for the Technical/Professional Writing program very happy with my work, but I was able to sell the second paper to the hot tub company for enough that with careful budgeting of that paycheck and the stipend from my teaching assistantship at Huntington, I could afford to take my last semester off from my job at Border’s and focus strictly on writing my creative degree paper.

It turned out to be really good that I was able to take that semester off from work because that third paper turned out to be really difficult for me. I had a hard time coming up with a topic to write about. I always had, but usually if I chose a bad theme, I could just muddle through and no one would know the difference. This paper was a bit longer, and it wasn’t just going to be read by one professor, but by several. Over Christmas, I got it into my head that I would write a story about a soldier during the Persian Gulf War who dies in an accident, only to wake up several days later to find that he had been turned into a vampire.

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how I failed to see that this project was doomed from the beginning. The Vampire genre was fairly well worn out at the time, though recent innovations have since breathed new life into it, and I was neither creative nor brave enough to write something truly worth reading in the tired old framework of the undead yearning for his mortal love. What’s more, I knew nothing about war and even less about the Middle East. When I met with my advisor at the beginning of the semester to plan out how we were going to go about making the paper happen, I immediately found out that I had a third or fourth, depending on how you count, mark against me from the outset. I was dismayed to find that—though she never said it in so many words—she absolutely hated almost all fantasy and horror themes, and she found the words vampire and literature to be repulsive to each other to the point where only the name Bram Stoker could neutralize them into the same sentence, and that was an unfortunate accident in the history of literature.

My first meeting with my advisor should have clued me in that I needed a new concept to write about, but I can be fairly thick headed when I want to be and even more stubborn, so I doggedly plugged away on my laptop at Barnes and Noble, where I had taken up a sort of quasi residence since I quit working at Borders, that is, until events forced a change in my habits.

How I met James Whitney: the first week of February, my 1987 Dodge Duster, which had been showing signs of distress for some time, shuddered its last shudder, leaving me with the option of going back to work and using my saved-up money on a new clunker or using mass transit to get to and from class every day. I had signed up for six independent study hours to work on my degree paper that semester, and those could be done at home, but I was also teaching an teaching a section of Comp 101 and an introductory Technical Writing course, and I knew that if I went back to work, all of my free time would be spent grading papers, and I wouldn’t get the degree paper finished in time to graduate in the spring as I had planned. I chose the subway. The amount that I was spending weekly on gas essentially coequal with what the subway would cost, so I was good there, but the subway went nowhere near Barnes and Noble or Borders.

I would have to find a new place to write.

Now, the logical place to write seemed to be my apartment. After all, I didn’t have a roommate to bother me, and I owned a coffee maker, the only resource at Barnes and Noble that I explicitly made us of at my time there, but for some reason I just couldn’t make it happen. A week of evenings spent at home trying to write accomplished nothing but a burgeoning realization that I had chosen a terrible project to write about. Oh, and I also got caught up on numerous episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The X-files that I had missed when I was off doing other things—like writing.

That Saturday, I found The Book & The Bean quite by accident. It happened like this: I was on my way to the library to do some research about whether or not Kuwait, Iraq, or any other Middle Eastern country had an indigenous vampire myth, and at the same time I was thinking about whether or not I really wanted to even bother finishing this stupid project. I felt fairly certain that if I just gave up, seeing as I had already written two degree papers for the Technical/Professional Writing program, that I would probably still receive that degree and I could just write the Creative portion off my studies off as personal enrichment or time wasted or lessons learned when I mistakenly turned left where I should have turned right, and by the time I got back in touch with what my body was doing, I was standing in front of a window display for The Vampire Book: the Encyclopedia of the Undead, by J. Gordon Melton, so I walked into the store.

That day I walked out of The Book & The Bean with The Vampire Book under my arm and something called a “Hangover” in my belly. Years later, I would find that Starbucks serves a similar drink called a “Blackeye,” consisting of two shots of espresso dumped into a cup of coffee, but I swear that the Hangover was even stronger than that, like maybe they left the coffee burning in the pot for a couple of days before adding the espresso.

Before long, I was visiting The Book & The Bean as religiously as I had previously visited Barnes and Noble, and it was only a matter of time before I became acquainted with its owner. James Whitney had been a teacher at Huntington before some unspecified political troubles had forced him to step down. I got the impression that he didn’t like talking about it, so I never pressed the issue. Besides, after I got to know him, it was hard to imagine James as being at home anywhere besides in his store.

James was smack in the middle of what I would call “late middle age” when I met him. He was of average height and build, and he had a slight middle-aged pooch, though there was still evidence that he was probably an athletic man when he was younger. He had gray hair that was thinning on the top and a matching gray beard. It wasn’t until much later, as I was describing him in my journal for an exercise that he had recommended to me that I remarked on the color of his eyes, but I noticed almost immediately that there was something paradoxical about the way that the laugh lines around his eyes seemed designed to obscure a certain sadness to his glance. He smiled freely, and his laugh could often be heard bouncing off of the brick walls of the bookstore and running up and down between the shelves, but when his face was at rest, when he was reading or thinking private thoughts or writing in his journal, the sadness in his eyes would sometimes sneak down to pull at the corners of his mouth, even as his hand would sneak up to twist at a stray bit of beard.

James was uncommonly fond of hats, and he kept a coat tree by the door year round for hanging h hat on when he arrived in the morning. Most days he would wear a beat up old Fedora which was clearly his favorite, though it wasn’t uncommon for me to see a bowler, flat cap, or Gatsby hanging from the hat tree when I came to write in the afternoon. The strangest hat by far that I ever saw him wearing was not long after we met. It was February, and we were in the middle of the worst cold snap of the year. He had left an assistant running the store while he went for lunch, and I arrived while he was out. When he came in, he was walking with what appeared to be a collapsible ski pole and wearing a Peruvian Chullo, looking much more suited to head down to Vale for a weekend of skiing or snowboarding than for the half-block walk that he had taken from the pizza parlor where he had passed the last three quarters of an hour.

One Thursday morning the week after I found The Book & The Bean, I was sitting at the corner table by the window, which was quickly becoming my traditional spot when James brought over the drink that I had ordered a few minutes previously at the counter. I only taught on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so I planned on spending most of the day working on my story before a meeting with my advisor that evening. I had even set aside 25 bucks to spend on Coffee and a soup at lunch by way of paying rent on my table, so I was a little disturbed when James sat the coffee on the table and then pulled up a chair and sat down across from me.

“Judging by the amount of writing you do,” he began, “and your complete lack of reference materials, I assume that you are either writing a piece of fiction or something along the lines of a memoir. Am I right?”

I told him that I was working on my capstone project for a MFA in Creative Writing at Huntington College, and I explained about how the Technical/Professional Writing portion of my degree was done. I also told him that I was nervous because my advisor hated the project. When I started to tell him that I also doubted the validity of the project, he cut me off.

“Don’t tell me that.” He said. “The last thing a person needs to hear about a work he hasn’t read is the writer’s opinion about it.”

I trialed off, not knowing what to say.

“Let me read it.”

“Now?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“It’s not done.”

He looked at me for a moment, and then he said “Let me tell you something. Besides my affinity for hats, I’m espoused [he really said espoused] of one great eccentricity and one great conceit. My great eccentricity is that any time any of the Universities in the area sell an old Thesis or Dissertation, I buy it, no matter what it is about, no matter if it is good or bad, and I have a deal with one of the binders in town, the one that does most of the binding for Huntington’s students that he will run off a copy of all the dissertations and theses that he binds for me. No, of course it’s not legal. Shush and let me talk. I have a whole room of these, and I read them all. Maybe I’ll show it to you sometime. The great conceit of my life, well, that’s from my journal. No, there’s nothing conceited about keeping a journal. The conceit is that I write it under the assumption that someone will one day read it, that it will be used by historians or scholars to get some things unmuddled. Not only do I assume they will read it, I assume they will want to read it because I know what quality writing looks like, and I know there is value in my observations. You get what I’m saying?”

I didn’t get what he was saying at all.

“What I’m getting at is that I read a lot of writing, written for the same audience as you are writing for, and I know good writing when I see it. You know what my most discerning customers do when they come in here? They don’t browse the bookstore; they chat with me for a while and then ask for a recommendation. I can help you if you let me read what you’ve got. I can push you in the right direction.”

Still, I hesitated.

“Oh good grief, your next cup of that tar you drink is on the house if you let me read your story.”

So I found myself spending the next 15 minutes staring at a display full of National Book Award winners, and I eventually shuffled back over to the table with a copy of Cold Mountain, which would make me wonder why I had ever thought of becoming a writer. I sat and pretended to read the first chapter while he finished up. He was a fast reader.

Finally he finished and looked up at me from the screen. “Well? What do you think?” I asked.

“You have talent.” He said, and I heard the silent but.

“But?”

He eyed me for a second, probably deciding how much truth I could take.

“But this is garbage.”

I probably should have been offended or annoyed at the lack of tact, but he was just saying something that I already knew anyway, and it was good to have it confirmed by someone who didn’t just have it out for the genre, so I took the easiest route, considering. “What should I do?” I asked.

We talked for hours, about writing, about what makes for good writing and what makes for garbage, about my childhood, and his life, and he told me about where that sadness that I saw in his expression came from. We talked about teaching, about the city, about the bookstore. And somehow, even though we never really got around to it in our conversation, I arrived at my advisor’s office that evening with an idea for a completely different project, one grown from my own experience, from what the world looked like to me.

In the end, I wasn’t able to receive my degree in the spring, and instead I submitted my completed project in the summer. It was a series of ten vignettes loosely based on a boy that I had known growing up and the strange adventures that he always seemed to be having. That project looks very immature from the perspective of a dozen or so years, but it’s writing that I’ve never been ashamed of either, and the hundreds of hours that I spent in James’ bookstore writing it were hours in which I learned not how to write, but what to write about. Whenever I meet with James to discuss something one of us has written, or a book that we like, and we end up in his smoking room, the one filled with hundreds of blue-bound volumes, I’m not ashamed to know that mine is there among the masses, for in its creation I learned a bit of how to respect both myself as an intelligent writer and my audience as intelligent readers.

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September 3, 2009 - Posted by | Fiction

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