Serpent Blog

Writing as Religion - The Book Passage Blog 
Dear Readers:

I am re-posting here my daily blog entries on, which I am doing courtesy of Book Passage leading up to my appearance there this coming Sunday. Please forgive the duplication, but I would like all SerpentBlog readers to have a chance to read what I feel is an important thread...

Hello Book Passage readers. As a writer fortunate enough to live in Marin County I have the unique privilege of living near one of the world’s truly great book stores. Book Passage is a bastion of words and ideas, stories and passion, community and ideals, that embodies not just what it means to be a reader, but what it means to be a participant in life itself. For it is through books that human thought and the human experience flow between us and connects us all.

This coming Sunday I have been granted the distinct honor of reading to you from my debut novel Serpent Box. I will be blogging here all week in hopes of sharing with you what the book means to me, but before I do that I hope to convey to you not just plot and theme, but the very essence of writing and reading as I have come to understand those twin pursuits.

Two days ago I read from Serpent Box to a small group of readers at Lee Booksellers in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a small store, tucked away in a strip mall and overshadowed by large chain retail establishments all around it. As I entered the store I quickly felt at home. I immediately sensed the pulse and unique personality of the place, and as I wandered the stacks I began to feel the tingling sensation of joy I get when surrounded by books and people who love them. Independent bookstores, to me, are churches. They are holy places. Each has its own aura of divinity and grace, and though this small store possessed no physical beauty, it radiated a light all its own. Though I get very nervous before a reading, I soon felt buoyed by what I can only describe as a shared bond of understanding for the importance and beauty of books.

At the end of my reading, one of my listeners asked me why and how I wrote my book. It is a question I get constantly and one whose answers always seem to change slightly in the telling. That is because the more I read from it, the more I reflect back upon it, and the more I speak with readers, the more I come to understand what I believe is my calling.

What I told this woman can best be summed up in a quotation I had posted above my writing space during the long and grueling years I spent crafting Serpent Box. It is from Seymour – An Introduction by J.D. Salinger, the single most influential writer in my life. The quote is an excerpt from a letter written by one brother to another, whose faith in his ability to write was waning, as is often the case during the creation of a book that one hopes will have meaning. Here is what Seymour told Buddy, and what I read back to myself almost every day:

“(When) you wrote down that you were a writer by profession, it sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It has never been anything but your religion. Never…..(and) Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? Let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form when you were writing it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished…I am so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”

I often feel lost and lose track of my true intentions, my original reasons for writing. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? Why do I spend all my free time dedicated to books and words and sentences?
It’s remarkable how often I re-discover the answers in you, the readers. I believe the readers in this world are the great hope of it. Readers, who are, more specifically, seekers, are people who care about other people.

If you are a reader, if you love books and stories, then you love the mystery of being alive, and of being human. It is the reader’s inherent curiosity about the human condition that drives her to stories about people, characters, and fictional human beings who are mosaics of herself, and who are struggling with the same questions about love and loss and faith and hope that we all struggle with.
Serpent Box is about faith, but not just religious faith. It is about faith in oneself and how we must all strive for it, fight for it, pray for it, work for it, every single day of our wonderful, terrible, miraculous lives.

It is hard sometimes, being alive. It is hard to grapple with the great questions that can never be answered within a mortal life – Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Thankfully, we have books to guide us. Thankfully, we have words and people who struggle with them, so that we can understand that we all have so much more in common with one another than we realize.

Books are my life. Words are the blood of my soul. Stories, as Tim O’Brien says, can truly save us. I write so I can live and so I can save myself from what can sometimes be a very sad world and a very destructive state of mind. But I am a reader first and a writer second. I could never have written Serpent Box without great writers, who came before me, and showed me how to live.

I imagine that some of you feel this way too. I look forward to meeting you next Sunday. Thank you Book Passage.

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Nebraska, After the Rain 
People will often ask me, why did you write this book? Why did you put yourself through that? And those are difficult questions, and all the more difficult when I ask them of myself, for I often feel lost and lose track of my true intentions, my reasons for writing. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? Why do I spend all my free time trying to simply make people aware of Serpent Box?

It’s remarkable how often I re-discover the answers in you, the readers. For it is the readers in this world who are the great hope of it. Readers, who are, more specifically, seekers, are people who care about other people.

If you are a reader, if you love books and stories, then what you really love, in essence, is the mystery of being alive, and of being human. It is the reader’s inherent curiosity about the human condition that drives her to stories about people, characters, fictional human beings who are mosaics of real human beings, struggling with the same questions about love and loss and faith and hope that we are.

So, here in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a non-descript strip-mall, in a small independent bookstore with no outward charm, nothing particularly alluring about its veneer, I found Kathy Magruder, a reader, a book-lover, a fellow passenger on the ride to gnosis. Kathy’s warmth and hospitality, as well as the genuine warmth of those who came to see me read yesterday, helped me greatly to reconnect with myself, and to discover again why is I write and why I have chosen to endure the pain of writing and publishing a novel.

People who patronize small bookstores, and who keep places like Lee Booksellers alive, are my people. People like those readers who sat and listened to me, a stranger, with no provenance, no history, read for thirty minutes, those are the people I love and admire. In the midst of that reading, I realized again why I endure.

Kathy, I write for you, and for all your loyal customers, and for all you readers out there. It is a great, great privilege to write for you. I truly believe that God has given me a gift when I stand in front of you, and read to you, and share with you my little take on the meaning of life, which is to give and connect with others.

Thank you Lee Booksellers, and thank you Nebraska, a great state filled with warm and friendly people. I sure do hope to return some day.

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Welcome to Tornadoville 
I spent my first night in Nebraska under a tornado watch, with the rain blowing sideways and hail the size of lima beans. Much of southeastern Nebraska was under tornado warnings until late last night and we were not far from that boy scout camp in Iowa. The storm was spectacular. I stood outside beneath the portico of the Hampton Inn in Lincoln and watched the lightning against a black sky. It rained so hard that the water from the downspouts off the gutters blasted out like fire hoses. I haven’t seen such rain since I lived in Maryland. I think it’s good to be reminded often of nature’s power and terrible beauty.

Welcome to Nebraska Vincent.

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I am going back to Nebraska. I was there one time, on my second journey cross country. I had with me then my dog and two cats.

I pulled over at a truck-stop off of I-80, probably just inside Kimball County. I remember it was a Sunday morning but the place was packed. I sat alone of course, but I was the only one doing so. Whole families had gathered here for what seemed a weekly tradition. Mostly the folks were older. They looked to be sturdy people. The men were likely farmers, their wives hard-working mother’s. The men wore foam ball-caps and chewed toothpicks. I could see their hands were broken, their joints swollen. They walked hunched over, nursing various ailments of the back and hips.

The restaurant was a bustling hive of chatter and joy. I had eggs and bacon and coffee and juice, and they were fine. I was treated well and served fast and finished before I wanted to, because in this little corner of nowhere was where I wished to stay.

The men and women I watched were animated in their gestures and interested in each other’s words. Their were children there – young men and young women, and babies and all wore smiles beneath a veneer of resolve.

Why can I not forget this, my first moment in Nebraska? I know it had something to do with the people. They were alive in ways I don’t observe in other places. Not a single one of them looked angry, lonely, stressed, bitter or concerned with anything at all that was not occurring right in front of their eyes at their table. The place had the feeling of some bingo night gathering, with all camaraderie and personality of a church picnic.

Why do I remember this? Because these folks cared about each other. They were, clearly, a community. They enjoyed being together. And for thirty minutes they made me feel, not so much a part of them, but certainly welcome.

I can still remember the color of the sky and the color of the surrounding fields that morning. It was a slate-gray snow sky. The fields were a rich kelpy green. It was a chilly morning when I stepped back outside to continue with my journey east. I turned up the collar of my coat and moved on.

This Sunday I go back to Nebraska, with my heart as wide open as the plain…

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Being BEA 
Imagine being surrounded by thousands and thousands of books. Envision yourself browsing through books that nobody has seen yet – novels, art books, books of gorgeous photographs and prints. There are dictionaries and encyclopedias, Bibles and Koran’s, books on comic art and movie art and cooking and crafts. The smell of new books. The feel of them. And all around you are people like you, people who love books, people willing to talk about books for as long as you want. It’s Heaven. A world of books, many given away for free (the novels, not the expensive picture books). What is this place I speak of? Is it a land? A dream? No, it’s BEA.

BEA stands for Book Expo America, and it’s the big, must-attend, trade show for book publishing and buying professionals. It was held last week on Los Angeles and on a whim I went. I was not featured in my publisher’s vast booth. I did not have a signing set up. I had no meetings arranged and no one to see. I went simply to learn about the business of selling books, and unlike a sausage factory, this is a process you do want to see.

I wandered the halls like a ghost with my purple-coded badge, a badge that signifies me as one of the unwashed, the untouchables – a writer. No one wants to talk to writers at BEA. They all want to talk to buyers, and they are ever on the lookout for their blue-coded badges. They, being the publishers and book marketeers. They treat them like royalty and lavish upon them free books and gifts. There is tons of schwag at BEA, the most popular being the shoulder-bags these buyers use to carry their piles of free books. The most sought after item was the huge McGraw-Hill shoulder bag – a giant crimson sack big enough to hold a child. The Mcgraw-Hill toadies handing out these bags would only give them to book buyers or librarians, so when I queued up to try and get one I was told by a mean McGraw-Hill lady I’d not get one because I was a writer. Thank God for John, a very nice librarian ahead of me in line. He helped mask my badge and planned to vouch for me should I be queried by the booth-Nazis as to my lack of status. But I got a bag without so much as a glance at my badge.

I saw all around me not just books, but book people, and book marketing campaigns and the amount of money spent to promote certain books. You’d think that I’d be depressed, but I’m not. You’d think that NOT seeing Serpent Box anywhere would bring me down. No. I am filled with joy. That’s right, joy. The HarperCollins booth was one of the big ones, and there was a ton of promotion given to books coming out this Fall and I couldn’t help but think that if only Serpent Box could get some of this push, some of this visibility, then people might actually know it exists and pick it up. I admit, I was jealous and a little angry at first. But then I spoke to two people at HarperPerennial who really helped me to gain a new perspective. Carl Lennertz and Cal Morgan took the time to tell me how much they liked Serpent Box and Cal especially gave me a wonderful and much-needed boost of confidence. All it really takes is a few kind words, you know? All it really takes is one person reaching out to help another. And that’s what the book itself is all about.

So I left BEA feeling like I remember why it is I wrote Serpent Box and why it is I have dedicated myself to this mostly thankless often brutal task of putting my heart on paper for you to see.

My good friend, the talented writer Bob Thurber sent me this today. It is a quote I used to have posted about my writing desk when I had an office. It is worth posting here, now, because it is what I believe above all other reasons to write and I will close with it.

“From things that had happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of.” Hemingway

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