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Editor’s note: In the September 1, 2008 issue of Booklist, Donna Seaman got the Story behind the Story, from author David Rhodes and editor Ben Barnhart, about Rhodes’ return to publishing after a 30-year hiatus following a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed. (Barnhart’s Milkweed Editions is not only publishing Driftless, Rhodes’ new novel, but also reissuing his three earlier books.) We found the story so fascinating that we’re offering this edited transcript of Seaman’s interviews with both Rhodes and Barnhart. Read on as they talk at length about the reasons Rhodes kept writing—and discover why he’s still worth reading.
BKL: Did July Montgomery, the protagonist in your 1975 novel Rock Island Line, stay in your mind ever since you first wrote about him? Or did he unexpectedly return to you much later?
RHODES: I will never forget about July. His character in some ways personifies the way I used to feel—and still feel now—when I look out at the world and wonder how I will ever be able to fit into it. His essence is of raw hope, the belief that tomorrow will somehow be better (for us all), despite the many undeniable facts arguing against that future wellness. His story celebrates what in old-fashioned terms might be called the triumph of the spirit over the law.
BKL: Were you surprised at the man July became?
RHODES: Not exactly, though the latest version of July took a long time for me to discover. I tried casting him into different, more conventional roles, and he kept refusing them. I wanted him to put on the clothes of a heroic figure, but he always complained they didn’t fit. When I would force him onto center stage, give him wealth and the crown of social admiration, he would run away and hide. He simply wouldn’t bear that kind of weight. He was a private person.
BKL: Are you a midwesterner by birth or a transplant? How important is place to your writing?
RHODES: For better or worse, I’m midwestern to my bones. I was born in Iowa and lived there throughout my younger years. Then in 1972, I moved a short distance into southwestern Wisconsin and have remained here ever since. A sense of place is very important for me in writing, or at least the kind of writing that I’ve done up until now. Character, story, place—these three are mutually dependent. Remove one, and the house falls down.
BKL: What is it about the midwestern landscape that inspires your writing?
RHODES: Natural beauty and boundless space are the ingredients that inspire me in the midwestern landscape. Beauty requires the acceptance of boundaries, yet just beyond the boundaries that make beauty possible lies something too vast to be held, too deep to be contemplated. The tension between these two forces produces stories.
BKL: Rock Island Line is such a dark novel. Driftless is a sunnier work, in spite of its losses and sorrows. Can you talk about the evolution in your work during the years that separate these novels?
RHODES: In most ways, Rock Island Line is a young man’s novel. It inhales with young lungs, wild, fanciful, and inexhaustible. It is also more traditional in the sense that there is one main character. True, he has a family that launches him into the world, and someone he later finds to dearly love, but the overwhelming concern is with him. Over the years, I became increasingly interested in the enormous influence that others have on us and we on them. I wanted to try to break the lock—the single point of view that constrains the imagination and controls perception itself. I wanted to write a love story, only with many different characters and many different kinds of love, and show in some small way how they all resolve these passions individually yet together. And what I discovered is that the real story of the individual, me, is intrinsically dark, but the story of us is joyous.
BKL: You kept writing after your accident. Is the need to write different from the need to be published?
RHODES: Absolutely. I couldn’t have managed to stay alive without writing. It’s just the way I’m put together. Publishing was secondary.
BKL: Do you think in some way you benefited artistically from being able to work at your own pace and in your own way without the pressure to conform to a schedule and marketability concerns?
RHODES: I don’t know how to answer this question very well. Schedules are always important in one form or another, and without them, we’d never accomplish any future-oriented project. But the imagination knows nothing about them and can’t be taught.
BKL: Were you surprised when Milkweed’s Ben Barnhart contacted you?
RHODES: His knocking on my door was a sound I thought I’d never hear again. And to open it and find such a kindred spirit on the other side—I’m still overwhelmed.
BKL: You live in Wisconsin, the land of dairy farms. Do you have a sense of loss as family farms struggle to survive? Did concerns about farming and rural life shape Driftless?
RHODES: The disappearance of the old things and the old ways sometimes brings a sadness that is crippling in its hold over me. What we’ve lost and continue to lose is our sense of community. I guess it helps me to occasionally try to see these things in a longer perspective. Nothing starts or ends. The same forces we contend with today were, in different forms, contended with by people before us. We must decide, as individuals, like we’ve always decided, which currents to swim with and which to swim against. And one benefit of swimming against the current is the good company there. Ultimately, the way we choose to live defines us more than the ideals we proclaim.
BKL: Animals play important roles in Driftless. Do we underestimate how important animals and other species are to us?
RHODES: I think the psychological evidence is overwhelming that the attitude we hold toward animals and plants will be reflected in the attitudes we hold toward each other. Once again, this is one of those choices we must make—Do we seek to come into conscious harmony with the natural order, throw in with the animals and plants and, in general, “the other,” or try to separate them from our circle of concern? As individuals, we must choose.
BKL: Are we losing our awareness of nature and our dependence on it?
RHODES: The awareness of nature, like other things, must be nurtured or it will wither. I think we also carry “nature” inside us and try all our lives to come into some amiable relationship with it. When we glimpse for a moment a deep connection with other forms of living creatures—animals and plants—we experience a healing wholeness. Our inner struggles for peace and our outer struggle to find a satisfactory fit with the natural world are two sides of the same evolutionary coin.
BKL: Is it a challenge to balance the art of fiction with the impulse to comment on society?
RHODES: I’m not good at commenting on society. It’s a moving target, and I prefer still shots.
BKL: Olivia is an amazing character. Does she hold a special place in your heart?
RHODES: You bet. More than any other, Olivia simply ran away with her part. I couldn’t believe the outlandish thoughts she wanted me to write down for her or the actions she wanted to take. She simply broke all the rules I tried to set for her as a character. Out of control, that Olivia. I had no idea she was going to be what she became, and I remember my wife, Edna, saying, “Don’t you dare rein her in.”
BKL: May we look forward to more new work?
The Editor’s Story: Ben Barnhart
Ben Barnhart, an editor at Milkweed Editions, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, shared his side of David Rhodes’ joyous return to print.
BKL: How did you “discover”David Rhodes? Did you just happen to read one of his long-forgotten novels?
BARNHART: The person who deserves the credit for “discovering” David is my good friend Phil Christman, who ran across a passage that refers to Rock Island Line in John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. Phil found a copy at the library and read it and then began badgering me to read it, too. Like any skeptical editor, I put him off for a few months but then fell immediately in love with the novel when I started it. Phil and I became a sort of Minnesota chapter of the David Rhodes Fan Club (I’m pretty sure we were the only chapter) and quickly set out to read the rest of his books (The Last Fair Deal Going Down and Easter House) and ponder the mystery of why David Rhodes wasn’t the most well known novelist writing from the Midwest.
BKL: What inspired you to track him down?
BARNHART: Initially, my intention was simply to let him know how much I admired his work and try to surmise why he hadn’t written anything since 1975. I had a vague hope that I might be able to convince my publisher to reissue his books, and I hoped that he would be agreeable to that plan.
Phil and I spent quite a while scheming about ways to contact David and had even tracked down his address in Wisconsin (thank goodness for the Internet). I had reservations, though, about contacting him out of the blue and decided to make the initial contact through his agent, Lois Wallace, who worked with him back in the 1970s. It all seemed like a long shot (the letter I sent Lois was more akin to a freshman fawning over their favorite band than anything of high literary merit), so I was a little surprised when I received an enthusiastic call from her a few weeks later.
Lois filled in the story of David’s motorcycle accident and subsequent decades of silence, which answered a few of my questions. She’d also been in touch with David and let me know that he was interested in hearing from us. I got in touch with David right away, and he extended an invitation for Phil and me to visit him and his wife, Edna, in Wonewoc.
That weekend in the summer of 2005 still resonates with the memory of their generosity and the wonderful conversations that ran late into the night. Phil and I met with him at his lovely old farmhouse outside Wonewoc, which is about an hour west of the Wisconsin Dells. They live in the middle of farming country, and their house backs up to a wooded hill and overlooks a sort of marsh. The house is beautifully restored, and they’ve installed a lift so David can move from the bedrooms on the top floor to the first floor. After meeting him and talking with him about his writing, I was convinced that he was exactly the kind of writer I wanted to be publishing at Milkweed.
BKL: Did you hope that David had a novel in a drawer, awaiting publication?
BARNHART: Nothing had led me to believe this would be the case, and I really had no idea whether or not he was still writing. Then, shortly before I visited him, Lois called to let me know that he had a new novel and wondered if I was interested in seeing it. I can’t tell you how excited I was to learn this, both personally and professionally. Personally, I was thrilled to continue the experience of reading David’s work, which I can’t get enough of. Professionally—if this new novel was something we could publish—it would make a much stronger case for reissuing David’s older, out-of-print titles.
BKL: Did you talk with David about the accident, his disability, and his long absence from the book world?
BARNHART: I went into that first meeting with a bit of trepidation as I’d spent several months trying to imagine how I’d feel if I’d experienced initial success only to have my work neglected for the past three decades—and I assumed I’d feel pretty bitter. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. David and Edna were so generous and open and completely immersed in their community. David did talk about the accident—a little reluctantly. It was, and remains, a dark time in his life. But he’s a born novelist, and in the same way that you or I might go about our daily routines in order to restore some semblance of normalcy to our lives, David writes.
He wrote through the aftermath of the accident, and even after Harper & Row turned down his fourth novel (which was under contract), he continued to write. Each time he finished a novel, he’d put it away and begin working on another one. I hope, one day, to have the good fortune to read as much of that work as David is willing to share.
BKL: Initially, I was struck by the parallels between your quest to find out what happened to David Rhodes and the documentary film Stone Reader, which is about Mark Moskowitz’s search for Dow Mossman, who wrote one highly acclaimed novel, The Stones of Summer, which was published in 1972, and then disappeared. Mossman and Rhodes nearly crossed paths at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Were you aware of the similarities in their stories, even though their lives ended up going in opposite directions?
BARNHART: I was certainly aware of the parallels and also points where our stories diverged. I remember watching Stone Reader and wondering why Mark didn’t do a search for Dow Mossman on the Internet. Of course, we wouldn’t have all those remarkable interviews if he had—nothing I know quite compares to watching Bob Gottlieb talk about neglected books or Betty Kelly describe reading and editing The Stones of Summer.
I’ve seen Stone Reader several times, and I love its ability to draw attention to that central publishing conundrum—Why do some books succeed, while others fade away? I believe that with the publication of Driftless alongside Rock Island Line, readers will be able to encounter an author who never stepped away from the writer’s desk, though he had set aside his hopes for publishing another book long ago. In a way, I think of our story as a sort of Stone Reader with a happier ending.
BKL: Did you have to fight hard to convince Milkweed to reissue Rhodes’ earlier works and publish Driftless?
BARNHART: No, it wasn’t difficult at all. I brought Driftless and Rock Island Line to our publisher and presented them as a package publication deal. They’re the kind of books you almost can’t describe; you simply have to press them into someone’s hands and say, “Read this.” After Daniel Slager, our publisher, had read them, both he and I agreed that Milkweed was an ideal house to reintroduce David’s work.
BKL: Had all rights to the earlier works reverted to Rhodes long ago?
BARNHART: The rights had all reverted. None of his first three books had ever appeared in paperback, so I think it’s safe to assume that they were effectively out of print by the early 1980s. The first book, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, came out from Atlantic-Little, Brown in 1972, followed quickly by Easter House (Harper & Row, 1974) and Rock Island Line (Harper & Row, 1975).
BKL: Whom did you talk to about Rhodes? What were the reactions to your interest in bringing him back to print?
BARNHART: I talked to everyone I knew about David’s books. I had a strange worry that perhaps I was singularly affected by these books and that no one else would experience the same rush of affection for these novels. But as friends, and friends of friends, read Rock Island Line, each person responded with the same breathless enthusiasm for his work. So I quickly became confident that the republication of David’s work wouldn’t be met with silence, which was my single largest fear. I had no desire to run David through the out-of-print gauntlet twice.
BKL: Was Driftless ready to go? Did you work on the manuscript?
BARNHART: Driftless was very polished and nearly complete when it first arrived. David is a master craftsman of sentences and character description, none of which needed more than a little touch-up. He’d been living with this novel for several years, though, and some of the individual stories had begun to accumulate more weight than the others. So we thoroughly reorganized the contents in order to keep the novel moving throughout the large roster of characters. David is the kind of author who constantly challenges himself with each new work. So while there are similarities between Rock Island Line and Driftless, the form is quite different, and I had no desire to ask David to duplicate Rock Island Line. David and I had several conversations about the shape of Driftless over the course of a little more than a year, and I feel very fortunate that he was open to my suggestions.
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