Thursday, December 1, 2016
Git back in the back by the cypress knees
I love this descriptive sentence from Samuel Snoek-Brown’s novel Hagridden:
They held their weapons perpendicular like circus artists on a tightrope and walked swiftly along the narrow ridge of earth until they came to a shallow lake, a lonely cypress rising from water at the edge, a tribe of woody knees surrounding the trunk like a congregation.
The phrase “a tribe of woody knees surrounding the trunk like a congregation” brings to mind fishing among the cypresses in the swampy end of Lake St. John in Louisiana when I was a child—dark, peaceful, and mysterious; those cypress knees worshipful like congregants in a Southern Baptist prayer meeting. It also brings to mind an experience when trying to market my first novel that was both funny and frustrating—a real pisser at first, but funny now that I look back on it.
I was lucky, or thought I was, to have a family connection with a successful and well-respected New York literary agent. She agreed to look at my book and offer advice but said she couldn’t handle it herself because she did not represent novelists, but only non-fiction authors. But she did read it and even sent the manuscript to a fellow agent who represented novelists, and she reported back that he said he couldn’t sell it. Sorry.
She did offer three bits of advice. The first was that the main character was not likeable and that nobody is going to read past the first few chapters if they don’t like the main character. Looking back, I’m not so sure how helpful that criticism was. The character in question was Red Warner, who proved to be one of the most popular of all the characters I have peopled my novels with.
The other critical comments were just flat-out wrong. She said she had never heard of a cypress knee, said there was no such thing in nature. Maybe they can’t be found in Manhattan, but they sure as hell exist in the lakes and streams in Mississippi and Louisiana.
And she objected to my use of the phrase “back in the back.” I wrote about a boy shoplifting. When he got caught the store employee took him back in the back of the store. I guess she thought that was illiterate or redundant or something, but it’s a phrase I’ve heard all my life. Is it colloquial? Perhaps, but when you’re writing about a particular time and place, colloquialisms are just things everybody says. I must admit, I felt a little insulted by that criticism. I wonder if any insulated New York literary agent every criticized William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy for their phraseology. I remember one critic praising McCarthy for writing that one of his characters said he got something “at the gittin place.” I suspect the gittin place might be back in the back.
I think that’s enough bitching and moaning for now.