Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.
Peter Leach in 2011 won the Gival Press Award, its prize the publication of his first novel, Gone by Sundown, which is also the winner of a bronze medal from the IPPY independent publishers association. Set in St. Genevieve, MO in the 1930s, this vivid, class-conscious story is based on a real murder trial and resulting eviction of all the townâ€™s black residents, ordered to be â€œgone by sundown.â€
Leach stayed productive while his novel inched toward publication; he has 16 more books in manuscript. Peter Leach was born and grew up in St. Louis. He studied playwriting at Yale Drama School, had an NEA Grant for creative writing, and his fiction has appeared in many literary magazines. His short-story collection Tales of Resistance won the George Garrett Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 1999. Gone by Sundown is available through Amazon.com and on the shelves at Left Bank Books. Leach says, â€œI donâ€™t have a lot to show for my efforts. There were long patches between very modest publications and awards. I keep at it because it gives me satisfaction. It is what I do. I would become demented by strong drink, behave badly far more often than I do, and who knows what, if I were not writing fiction.â€
Q: Your fiction is rooted in real events and you research your books like a historian. Why not present these stories as nonfiction? Theyâ€™d be easier to publish.
A: Itâ€™s certainly true that nonfiction sells more readily. Many agents wonâ€™t touch fiction. Let them pry the poetic license from my cold dead hands. Fiction is what I do.
Q: You have 16 completed books in manuscript. What are you working on now?
A: I am now working on White Folks Bearing Gifts, about Cookie Thorntonâ€™s murderous rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, February 7, 2008.
Q: Tell us how you wrote Gone By Sundown.
Someone in St. Genevieve, I forget who, mentioned the driving out of the black people from St. Genevieve in the 1930s. I used as sources two weekly local newspapers, the St. Genevieve Herald and the Fair Play, reading on microfilm all the issues from 1929 through 1941. The two black men and the black woman accused of murdering two white limestone workers and inciting the eviction are real, as are the novelâ€™s â€œold French Coloredâ€ characters, the Ribeau brothers. Attorney Sidney Redmond is based on a man who later headed the St. Louis NAACP. The excursion train that people took to see Holt Hardyâ€™s hanging is based on actual events in Sedalia, Missouri.
I prowled Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding rural landscape with topographic maps, talked to people who had some memory of the events, took pictures, and toured the Mississippi Lime works on the edge of town, immense caverns eighty feet high, and their kilns.
The novelâ€™s working title had been Negro Clean, to suggest analogies to the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda. My then-agent sent out ten copies of the manuscript, re-titled St. Genevieve 1937. The first replies objected to the dialect. A favorable letter came from a man at Ecco Press, who suggested making the character Redmond more central. I went through three extensive rewrites. After parting with that agent I finally changed my first-person narration to close-in third person. That was when I put it through yet another revision, to just about what it is now.
But where would I send it, when the ten most likely publishers had already seen it? Finally I went through the last two issues of Poets and Writers and submitted it to six or seven contests. I almost did not send it to the contest it won, because the entry fee was $50.
Q: What started you writing fiction?A: I won fourth prize in a city-wide contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine when I was 14, and at 15 won second prize. My father dreamt of writing like Sherwood Anderson but ended up in advertising. He cherished an encouraging handwritten rejection from the fiction editor of Esquire. He subscribed to Story Magazine, a monthly. It had stories by Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Starting at age 14 I read through every issue he had. My catching the bug to write fiction pleased my father no end.
While your professional editor finalizes your book manuscript, begin seeking possible publishers. Taking one afternoon to do the following simple steps will save you days and weeks of scattershot effort.
1. Find books similar to yours in your personal library, public library and bookstore, and write down the names of the publishers. Don't quit until you have at least 20 names (there are so many publishers nowadays!!).
2. Take this list and find each publisher's website to see whether the publisher is still in business, has a current catalog, and, under "Writers Guidelines" or "Submissions," read about what kinds of books or authors they are looking for; and YOU decide whether it looks like a publisher YOU would like to work with. Make a note of your best finds.
3. While you are on "Writers Guidelines," check whether the firm likes to correspond 1) by snail mail or 2) by email; and whether your first contact should be with a) a query letter b) a query letter with sample chapters, synopsis, or table of contents ("T of C"), or something else, or c) if they want you to send the full manuscript. Write down the editor's full name so you will have someone to address your correspondence to.
4. Having now narrowed your list of possible publishers, Google each to find any news, reports, reviews, complaints, or other material confirming the reputation or economic health of this publisher.
5. Browse amazon.com or the shelves for recent books similar to yours. Make note of any books strongly resembling your own. These are "competing titles," and your publisher will want to know how your book differs from the books already available. That will be an important selling point.
Tripping and cursing, hurrying to the bleating phone and grabbing it, I'd gasp "Hello" to some solicitor who'd reply, "Ms. [butcher my name], how are you today?" Or it'd be a recording telling me to crab to my state senator about some issue. Friends and family no longer called my land line, because I'd gradually disclosed to ever-widening circles my cellphone number, a series of digits never printed, closely guarded, granted only to the chosen. I gave up hoping for an eager call from an old flame or potential employer; they could find me on Facebook or LinkedIn. And the two-page bills embroidered with exotic taxes annoyed me. Finally I gathered the nerve to phone American Telephone and Telegraph and say, "Please cancel my land line."
I had to have someone else in the room with me to actually do it. I was scared. I've had land lines all my life. Without a land line, 911 responders couldn't locate my house; I was cutting it from their map. Also, I had liked my phone number. They're assigned randomly, but some of mine have been more graceful or memorable than others, or were more fun to say, or suited me spiritually. This one had come with the dwelling and seemed like its foundation. I was fond of it. But my cell number is fabulous. It trips off the tongue and walks on air, and if forced to choose, I'd choose the cell number. So goodbye.
Reports about brain cancer and salivary-gland cancers from cellphones -- I believe in them, and had wondered how to handle long cell conversations, but there's an app for that: a speakerphone function, so I needn't clamp it to my ear. Unlike the land line, the cellular phone sometimes drops the call, but we all understand that it happens and forgive each other in advance for the inconvenience.
The phone company's employee surrendered without argument, saying only not to pay the current bill (because they bill in advance for the month to come; why aren't I ever paid in advance for the month to come?) and they'd send a prorated final bill. He said "Service will terminate within 24 hours." I then made one three-minute call to family, and after that the phone was stone silent. Dead. It was chilling.
The system had "hung up" on me.
I moved furniture and released the wire from the jack. Eleven years had yellowed it and dust made it sticky. Bagging the phone was like bagging a body. Never again would I dangle its receiver in the air to unravel kinks in the coils, watching physics in action in its wobbly spin. Never again to hear its dial tone, that warm wordless whine, a sound of the twentieth century, pitched to resemble a human voice.
The second-person "You", usually conjoined with present tense, as in (example)
"You take your mother's wedding dress from your closet,"
appears way too often in poetry drafts, including my own. Contemporary poets seem worried that using "I" is too "confessional" or too assertive. Some years ago poets wanted to be assertive, but currently it's important to seem humble and modest while practicing this most egoistic and self-indulgent of professions.
A "you" implies that there is an "I" but doesn't say so. I say, if it's an "I" poem, please come out of the closet and use "I."
The second-person "you" is technically an address either to the readers or to a specific person the poet knows. The "you" poem very often addresses an impaired, unlovable, absent or somehow guilty person. Therefrom comes the pleasure of using the "you," because you can expose him without naming names. "You" could also be the poet addressing himself or herself, especially regarding a past self such as the one who made a bad marriage. ("You put on the dress and veil/dreading your walk down the aisle to your father" usw.) Why should the rest of us read a poem addressed to your ex or your former self? Please be conscious of addressing poems to "You." It is bad if it is a habit. I catch and correct myself in later drafts.
The other alternative to "you" is the third-person pronoun "he" or "she." Here is where it's clear why the "you" is such an attractive option. Both "I" and the "he/she" demand greater nerve and attention to detail. The "I" should bare it all and articulate the unpleasant truth such as "I didn't want to marry him, but I was pregnant and married him for the sake of the child having a father and so my parents wouldn't harass me." The third-person "She" and "He" indicate people -- characters that must be detailed so as to resemble real people with mixed thoughts, feelings, and experiences. "You" is an outline, a faceless shadow figure -- to the audience. The poet uses "you" to hint at an entity rather than taking the trouble to describe it. It's just easier! The reader must figure out from the poet's dropped hints whom "you" might be -- an ex, a dying grandmother, a former self. I wonder what cultural rule poets are upholding when we could be direct and forthright but choose not to.
If you're not careful you can end up with a line such as "Something happened and things changed," and it will sound so much like everyday speech you won't even notice it until "someone" in your workshop points it out! Especially, red-flag the word "thing" wherever you see it!
There are two "things" to do with these words (or rather, here are two suggestions for improving upon such wording when you find it):
1. Be precise; replace the vagary with the truth of the matter. Is it true that "There was nothing there"? Or was it more like, "The room had no furniture"? Was it "Somehow she got the money someplace," or "She tapped her relatives for money and borrowed from her friends"?
2. See if you can excise the word. Example: "I will see her again sometime."
Rhetorical poetry in the U.S. becomes common during periods of social unrest and comes from poets standing (for the duration of the poem) for some sort of movement or viewpoint. I am a rhetorical poet. Usually in school we say "Oh it's political poetry, we don't like that." We are taught to say that there are three kinds of poetry: Lyric, narrative and epic. They forgot "rhetorical." Because we don't name rhetorical poetry, we can't see it, although when you read or teach Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," or Robert Pinsky's "The Shirt," a rhetorical poem is what you've got. It's there but unnamed. It's like eating grilled cheese and a pickle for lunch and not realizing it was a vegetarian meal.
Rhetorical poetry is not simply writing a poem about the cause of the month. Carolyn Forche said, "To become a political poet, change your obsessions." You have to have something to say, feel it deeply, and take a stand on an issue. It helps if you're a good writer. It helps if you're part of a "we." "We" makes a poem political.
Here are some of my favorite knockout books of rhetorical poetry:
The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche (about the U.S. in El Salvador; a highly honored book for good reason)
Power Politics, Margaret Atwood (sexual politics)
Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner (by U.S. soldier back from Iraq; Publisher's Weekly review begins, "The verse in this book is not good, but....timely"; sorry, PW: It's good.)
"A Woman is Talking to Death," by Judy Grahn (a single, powerful long poem, one of the great underground poems; collected in the book The Work of a Common Woman)
Crime Against Nature, Minnie Bruce Pratt (about how the poet lost custody of her sons because she's a lesbian; a book that richly deserved the award it won)
Dangerous Life, Lucia Perillo (about the threat of violence in women's lives)
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen (soldier killed in World War I)
And many, many more. Yes, such poems have lyric and narrative elements. But they're also rhetorical poems. Don't leave home without them!