THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles, From Issue 720 By: Robert E Martin
10th February, 2011 0
It is said that the most important sentence in a novel is the first, and for Bay City author James Crissman, the first line in his debut novel, Root Cause: The Story of a Food Fight Fugitive, nicely frames the onus of his literary journey: Bruce Dinkle’s world had shrunk.
For the protagonist in Crissman’s sprawling yet concise story of a modern day Don Quixote searching far & wide for the right way to live, pursuing his goal of local food consumption turns into an obsessive quest that results in alienation from the family closest to him, while leading into a wider yet equally tunneled scope of Michigan farmers, vegetarians, and characters that ultimately weave a significant morality tale for our times.
Recently I engaged in a detailed exchange with Crissman about pivotal issues raised within his literary debut, challenges involved with nurturing themes to fruition, and most significantly, what he learned and took away from his exercise into nourishment and the creative process.
Review: I’ve often thought the great French author Marcel Proust showed us how the act of writing is measured by one’s ability to document the details of one’s life, whereas the art of writing involves the ability to engage a reader in the nuances of why those details matter. Within this context, can you tell me a bit about the evolution of ‘Root Cause’? How did the ideas and thematic thrust of the book come to germinate?
Crissman: I’ve gotten in the habit of writing a story with bicycles in it for the annual Dirt Rag Magazine literature contest. I won it in 2007—got a gorgeous Gary Fisher full-suspension mountain bike that I love to ride—and that was all the encouragement I needed to shift from writing mostly poetry to mostly prose. Root Cause: the Story of a Food Fight Fugitive started as a short story written for that contest. And when I saw very little paid work coming my way in 2009, I decided to turn it into a novel.
And sure, details—carefully chosen details of narrative, action, and dialogue—are what make any scene come to life in a convincing way. One of the many ways fiction can go bad is to push an idea without adequate context.
The idea for Root Cause, as I recall, came from hearing a review on NPR about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a journal of her family’s experience eating locally for a year. They have a small Virginia farm with a big garden, and spent lots of time canning, freezing, and drying through the growing season, and that’s what they lived on in the winter—no fresh fruits or vegetables. They did make an exception for coffee, and I expect for spices, but it was pretty rigorous.
It got me thinking: What might it be like to live with an autocratic guy who imposed a strict locavore regimen on his family? That means all food from within a hundred mile radius from home: no rice, no citrus, no avocados, few nuts, no sea food except what comes out of Saginaw Bay—and no coffee, tea, or exotic spices. Boom!—you’ve got instant conflict, and that’s the beginning of a story.
Unlike the Kingsolver family, my protagonist Bruce Dinkle’s family was not fully on board. Additionally, with a keen eye toward further reducing his family’s carbon footprint, he sold their idyllic farmette in Edenville on the Tittabawasee, moved the family to Bay City, sold their cars, got rid of their TV and freezer, and began gardening on a vacant lot and raising chickens in the basement. Of course his family hates him for this, and he’s even driving himself nuts with all the self-imposed restrictions, so by the end of Chapter 1, he’s depressed and restless, and abandons them on a quest to learn where food comes from. Plot is people behaving badly, even when their motives are good.
I figure if people want to learn details of how to live the locavore lifestyle, they can read Kingsolver’s book. If they want to learn a lot more about where America’s food comes from, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is excellent. Both of course are non-fiction, but I think neither fully faces the dilemma that we’ve gotten ourselves into: In order to feed the seven billion people in the world (headed for nine billion by mid-century) we are almost entirely dependent on industrial agriculture, which is completely dependent on fossil fuels, which are going to run out.
For the great mass of humanity, the local, organic, and slow food movements are almost completely irrelevant; though I also think they are the seed of what will sustain us in the post-fossil-fuel age. For now, I’m very glad that small scale farmers are out there offering some delicious diversity in food sources, and developing new and keeping old techniques alive—we will need them—but they are, unfortunately, a drop in food bucket. My vision of the world a hundred years from now is not rosy.
So Bruce Dinkle wrestles with the critical issues of food, energy, land use, and all the related environmental questions, as he goes on his bicycle-powered quest. These are hard questions and not fun to ponder, so I let Bruce ponder them for us as he makes a perfect mess of his life—which is how a writer can make hard questions entertaining. You take a guy who is obsessed, let him follow his obsession, and keep throwing shit at him. You lean back in your chair, stare at the ceiling, and think, what can I dump on this poor bastard next? All the while you test the legitimacy of his arguments against the realities he and we face. That’s how I think you get the medicine to go down: make people laugh and cringe while considering existential issues with a poor long-term prognosis.
Review: I find it fascinating that you started your focus in life as veterinary pathologist. How did your work in that field inspire or influence any of the themes carried forward in ‘Root Cause’?
Crissman: Well, I grew up on a beef and sheep farm, and my career actually started as a large animal veterinarian. Food production was what I felt and still feel is the highest calling for a veterinarian, with all due respect to my colleagues—almost all of them, including my wife and me—who are doing something else. I read James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small when I was in vet school and wished it could still be like that. When I got out in practice—a busy four-vet, mostly dairy, mixed practice in Ohio—I found that to a large extent, on the human and animal level, it still was a lot like Herriot’s Yorkshire Dales.
But I didn’t find that making $17,000 a year while working 60-70 manure-covered hours a week was all that idyllic. My sense of humor failed me. So when I had the opportunity to enter the veterinary pathology program at Cornell, I jumped at it. But my years on the farm and my one-year in veterinary practice were absolutely crucial for the book. I’ve lived some version of all those animal scenes.
Of course the five Cornell years, culminating in a PhD in experimental pathology, really taught me to think like a scientist. I’m naturally pretty right brained—emotional, intuitive, and creative—but now I’ve trained up my left side so it regularly beats the shit out of the right side, depending on the day of course. I can empathize with true believers and people who go off on crazy tangents, but my scientist side is a lot more analytical and always there. Obviously, there are plenty of these gut-feeling-versus-objective-analysis conflicts embedded in the book.
Review: Over the years I’ve written many investigative pieces centering around the compromise of our food supply, the most obvious being the impact of dioxin in our flood plane; but more important, larger national policy decisions that have been underplayed in the media – specifically, how back in the Reagan years the FDA loosened the regulatory structure sufficiently to allow Monsanto to run roughshod over the landscape with genetically modified seeds. What are your thoughts about the political and human implications of these decisions? Advocates of the practice argue it’s the only way we can feed exponentially increasing numbers of the worldwide population.
Crissman: Yes, well, I’m afraid I side mostly with the technology advocates, but with the large reservations alluded to above and below. I’m sure genetically modified foods are safe to eat, and the reason that farmers grow them is that they can increase yields while using less fossil fuel. Economics dictate efficiency. And while it’s true that currently by far the most common form of malnutrition in the developed world is over-nutrition—we’re killing ourselves with calories and inactivity—this won’t last.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were at least partially fueled by rapidly rising food prices due to increasing fuel costs and weather-related crop failures. It’s not hard to connect the dots: we’ve reached peak oil and peak coal, fuel is getting more expensive, the earth is getting hotter, and the population continues to explode. And the majority of the world’s people live in huge cities where they have almost no opportunity to grow their own food.
So, to feed all these people, yes, we need all the high technology and huge tractors we can muster. But the whole system depends on oil: from fertilizer production, to seed distribution, to pesticide manufacture, to land cultivation and weed control, to harvesting and drying, to the manufacture and distribution of food. Improving technology and efficiency is the only way we can feed more people, but the system will eventually crash—the only question is when.
And, yes, the very efficiency of the industrial scale enterprise makes it impossible for small farmers to compete in the global commodities market for major crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat. Small farmers have to find another niche, like appealing to small boutique markets for organic or local food where they can charge a premium price. We tend to think of small as more virtuous when it comes to farming, but using smaller equipment doesn’t mean greater efficiency. Gas powered garden rototillers can’t compete with diesel tractors pulling field cultivators 30 feet wide in terms of fuel efficiency. Unless you’re talking about grass fed animals, I’m quite sure the fossil fuel burned per unit of food produced is higher for most small farms, unless they rely on small armies with hoes, scythes, and baskets—which we’re doing our best to keep out of this country.
So, like a Hummer in a swamp, our all-wheel-drive oil dependence will get us stuck in deeper mud—fatally deep, I fear. Some have estimated the post-oil sustainable carrying capacity of earth at one-to-two billion. I don’t know how to check those figures, but they seem about right to me, and I don’t need to explain that going from the current seven billion down to a small fraction of that will be ugly—really ugly. I predict that the Secretary of Agriculture in 2084 will be Amish—feel free to check me on that.
Review: How long did it take you to create ‘Root Cause’ from start to finish and what was the most challenging component for your creatively as a first-time author?
Crissman: The first draft took about ten months, revisions for at least six months after that. A good day is a thousand words, but not every day is like that. There are research breaks, and sometimes you just have to cogitate for a week or two while you figure out how the hell you’re going to write your way out of this mess. I write intuitively—no outline. So you just keep throwing complications into the story, and it’s a matter a faith that somehow one of these threads will lead you back out. I definitely had that crisis about 200 pages in. But then there was this hallelujah moment, and I wrote like mad to the end. The whole process was immensely satisfying. ]
Review: How has the reception been to ‘Root Cause’ and where is it available for purchase, both online and in our area stores that still have physical walls?
Crissman: Well, it starts with your friends, and they have loved it. Lots of positive feedback like, “I couldn’t put it down,” and, “Jeeze, it’s a page turner!” which of course I lap up like spilled beer. The only negative comments have been about the sex and bad words, which of course most of us expect and demand in a novel. A few have posted reviews on line, especially on Amazon.com, and these make me swell up to unseemly dimensions.
And it is selling well locally. I have signed copies on consignment at all the bike shops in Midland, two coffee shops there: Espresso Milano and Coffee Chaos; and in Saginaw at the Red Eye. And of course I have a big cardboard box of them in the back seat of my car. Also, it’s available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and Google Books in hard cover, soft cover, and eBook forms. There are also copies on the shelves at Horizon Books in Traverse City and Shuler’s Books in Grand Rapids. And the Midland Public Library accepted a donated copy for their shelves.
The challenge with a self-published book is to break out of that small geographic home circle and either somehow get a larger buzz going or get picked up by a conventional publishing company. I’m flying by the seat of my pants on this one, but have transitioned into the shameless self-promotion phase of authorship perhaps too easily.
Review: Who are some of your favorite authors and did they influence or impact your writing in any way?
Crissman: I have a lot of favorites. Like most Michigan writers, I have a special place for our best authors, Jim Harrison foremost among them, and I recently discovered Bonnie Jo Campbell; she is terrific. There is nothing like a great local writer to make you realize that where you live can be made to seem as exotic and interesting as anywhere on earth.
Annie Proulx has a tremendous feel for the earthiness of life and writes with great force. I read Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full while writing Root Cause, and I found his style infectious—so fast and loose and full of dashes and ellipses. I tend to pick up accents and verbal ticks from people, and apparently writing is the same. I love the imagination and irreverence of Carl Hiaasen and Tom Robbins, as well as Pat Conroy, John Irving, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
Non-fiction-wise, E.O. Wilson’s Consilience was one of those rare books that changed the way I see the world. I have Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth series on tape—interviews with Bill Moyers—just great. And Carl Sagan, that great bringer of science to the people—he’s such a strong advocate for rational thinking; please read The Demon Haunted World. I wrote an elegy in the form of a long poetic rant for him. I loved that guy.
Review: Many of the characters in ‘Root Cause’ seem to be searching, in various ways, for truths & realizations – codes, if you will, for journeying through life. Perhaps we are all like Don Quixote in that sense. For you personally though, I am curious as to any lessons or conclusions that you might have drawn about life through creating this work.
Crissman: The novelist E. M. Forster said, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” Writing forces you to complete your thoughts, and then, if you’re honest, to take them apart and examine them - lots of revision until the nuance is right. If you first decide what you believe, and then write only in defense of that idea, you get a polemic or a political platform—a lousy and probably dishonest piece of literature. But if you start with an idea that you wish to explore, whether in an essay or through the characters of a story, you get something much better, and you will learn things in the process.
We are all works in progress, and to the extent that life is pointless, all our journeys are quixotic. Meaning is something we humans assign to things, to other people, and to our lives; some through religion, some through a guiding philosophy, and some unconsciously through their habits, good or bad. What has meaning, has value; and for me the highest value is family and human connection, so, in the end, I wanted the story to pivot on those values. I think those are the values that will sustain us through the terrible challenges we face.
Jim Crissman will be doing a reading and book signing at The Red Eye on Hamilton Street in Saginaw on Thursday evening, February 17th at 8:00 PM.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)