Tag Archives: writing

Ricardo J. Quinones: 1935-2019

My dad died early Friday morning. He was a great father, loved his boys fiercely, a beloved and tempestuous literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, a husband, scholar and author. 

I’m only beginning to understand how much I’ll miss him.

Here’s my obituary for him, which I’ve submitted to the newspaper in our hometown:

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Ricardo J. Quinones, a long-time Claremont resident and retired comparative literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, has died from complications of a many-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Prof. Quinones was also founding director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at the college, which now has a distinguished lectureship in his name. For several years, he served on the board of directors of the National Council for the Humanities, appointed in 2004 by President George W. Bush.

He died in hospice care at his home in West Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 2019. He was 83.

Prof. Quinones and his young family arrived in Claremont in an old Buick station wagon in 1963, straight out of Harvard University, where he earned his PhD under renowned literary scholar Harry Levin.

Over the years he became a fixture on the small, growing campus, a beloved teacher for generations of students, in love with his subject. He was chosen Professor of the Year in the mid-1970s. He was also at times a tempestuous figure. He protested the Vietnam War, supported the Civil Rights Movement, loved Robert F. Kennedy and voted for George McGovern. Years later, with increasing encounters with a stifling political correctness in academia, his politics veered away from the Democratic Party, believing it had left him, though his favorite presidents remained Harry Truman and John Kennedy.

He was one of the first presidents of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers – which formed in 1994 in opposition to the politicization of debate in the humanities and as an alternative to the Modern Language Association, the mainstream organization of literature scholars.

Through it all, he loved reading and literature and all kinds of stories, baseball and basketball, movies, especially gangster movies, and The Godfatherabove all. He was as delighted by Bird and Magic as he was by T.S. Eliot and King Lear. During the 1963 move to Claremont, he entertained his then-two young sons with the stories of Odysseus, and his office was a famous chaos of books and papers piled in seemingly incoherent stacks, in a filing system only he could decipher.

In his long career, he wrote nine books of literary criticism, including three in retirement while battling Parkinson’s. He was a noted scholar and expert on the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and James Joyce.

His last book, North/South: The Great European Divide, in 2016, was a discussion of Protestant and Catholic Christianity and their effect on economic development. His first book,The Renaissance Discovery of Time(1972), is considered a standard of literary studies of the period.

Novelist Charles Johnson used Quinones’ book, The Changes of Cain, an exposition on the Cain-Abel theme in literature, to influence his 1998 historical novel, Dreamer, about the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In retirement, he also wrote five books of poetry. His poetry tended toward storytelling. He wrote a poem about the plane that went down in that Pennsylvania field on September 11 – Shanksville– and another about his memories at age 10 of the men returning from World War II.

As the disease withered his muscles and twisted his fingers and toes, he nevertheless held poetry events, with actors reading his work, combined with a cellist or a violinist.

Ricardo Quinones grew up in Allentown, PA, the second child of Laureano and Maria Elena Quinones: He an immigrant from Galicia, Spain and a worker in a brewery; she a worker in a sewing factory, born in America to a large family of immigrants from Calabria, Italy. Growing up, he was an altar boy and a copy boy at the Allentown Morning Call newspaper. A friendly priest channeled him into college, something rare for kids from Allentown’s teeming neighborhoods of southern and eastern European immigrants. 

He attended Northwestern University. Originally intending to be a journalist, he fell under the mentorship of Donald Torchiana, a Northwestern literature professor, and from there his career focus shifted to academia. 

At Northwestern, he also met his first love, Lolly Brown, a student from Des Moines, Iowa. They were married in 1956. Their early days were spent in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying in Italy, Germany, and France, where he played basketball for a club in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. 

He came to Claremont as the town was morphing into a place of great musical, artistic, and cultural effervescence. His friends were poets and artists, then later political scientists and economists. His sons attended Oakmont Elementary, El Roble Junior High, and Claremont High School, and he sent them to Berkeley, Yale, and CMC.

He encountered death too young. His mother died when he was 11; his father when he was 22. His second son, Nathanael, died at 18 in a car accident in February, 1979, followed by his wife, who died of cancer that May.

After that, he raised his two youngest sons – Ben and Josh – alone. They went on to become attorneys. His oldest son, Sam, is a journalist and author.

In the late 1990s, he met Roberta Johnson, a literature professor at Kansas University specializing in Spanish women writers. They fell in love and married in 1998. One of his books of poetry is titled Roberta. She cared for him through his illness, along with his wonderful caregivers, Anthony, Marlon and Ferdie. 

Up until his death, he was working on another book, this one undefined except that its focus was on the 1800s. His stack of reference books on the dining room table included Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, and biographies of Napoleon and U.S. Grant.

At his last Christmas dinner, he read to his family For the Union Deadby poet Robert Lowell.

A public memorial service will be scheduled in Claremont, with a date to be announced later.

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An Outline In Storytelling

I’ve always wondered how novelists come up their books. Do they just start writing with a hunch and let the inspiration flow, taking them where it will? That seemed unlikely, given what I know about writing as a daily job, with inspiration playing only a minor role. (Or better put, inspiration flowing from consistent daily toil.)

Or, I wondered, do they spend days ahead of time blocking out their stories scene by scene? (Which is how my mind works.)

Each writer is different. Each follows a different path.

But I was cheered to see this outline that Joseph Heller came up with (presented in OpenCulture.com, a wonderful website, which I support financially).

It’s a chronology of events he describes in Catch-22 and it helped him keep track of the story he intended to tell in wildly non-chronological order.

(Full disclosure: I started to read the novel years ago and couldn’t finish it.)

I tried something like this with Dreamland – putting pieces of paper up on a mirror in my garage office, each representing a different chapter, which readers of the book will know are mostly 2-6 pages in length.

At one point my wife walked into the garage, saw this blizzard of paper taped to the mirror, and left thinking I’d lost my mind. But the papers helped visualize where the book was going and track the different storylines I was telling. It helped also when it came time to rearrange the order some of the chapters came in. I’d just untape a chapter and move it somewhere else on the mirror. At one point I had six rows, each with 5-7 chapters per row.

Apparently other writers find this visualizing necessary first before telling a story.

“Every great novel—or at least every finished novel—needs a plan.”

I think it’s true in nonfiction as well.

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Librarians and the Beauty of Surprise

On National Read Across America Day, I’d like to give thanks for local public librarians.

I find one of the great things to do is walk into a library and see what they’ve displayed as book suggestions. Mostly, what I love is the surprise. These books are almost always something interesting, quirky, something you hadn’t thought to read, or even ever heard about.

For writers, I think this is an essential endeavor. Reading widely, I’ve found, is so important. Putting yourself in the way of all kinds of ideas, people, modes of expression.

The library is where I find that. Mickey Spillane novels, nonfiction about municipal governance, biographies of some Japanese artist. I once read part of a book about the history of the word “Okay” because it was on display at my local library and the history of the word hadn’t occurred to me.

I don’t always finish these books – sometimes I take a brief excursion through them, is all.

But is it so worth it to stop in and see what’s on display!

My latest chance I took was on John Banville’s Time Pieces, which is an excellent piece of writing about Dublin, partly about his childhood, and some other stuff. I will finish that.

But I’m grateful that this community asset is available to me. So keep it up librarians, and many thanks for what you do!

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DREAMLAND, “Best of” lists, & New Rules for Authors

I don’t think I’ll have a nicer time, as an author, than I’ve had in the last few weeks.

For starters, one morning Entertainment Weekly selected Dreamland as among the year’s 10 best books (“like a David Simon TV Show gone cosmic”). That afternoon, Bloomberg Business ran a piece with Princeton Prof. Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner for economics, recommending the book as his favorite of the year.

Both ends of the culture endorsing a book on the same day – I don’t think that’s happened before.

I appreciated that because when I began this book I thought I was writing a drug-crime story. Midway through, I realized the book was really about where we are as a country, about what happens when, as a culture, we shred community, export our jobs,  build isolation and call it suburbs, claw at government and forgive the private sector its trespasses, and exalt consumption and seek pleasure and call them happiness.

Heroin is simply the embodiment of values we’ve fostered for 35 years. Isolation is its natural habitat. Doesn’t have to be that way. The antidote to heroin isn’t naloxone; it’s community.

Anyway … I thought I’d write to suggest my book to those of you looking for Christmas presents.

I know, it’s hucksterism. But the rules for authors these days are:

1) Write like hell; 2) Rewrite always; 3) Read a lot; 4) Talk to lots of different people; 5) Pay attention; and 6) Always be branding, marketing and promoting yourself because if you don’t, no one else will.

So, given No. 6, I’ll just quietly let you know that, in addition to EW and Bloomberg, in the last few weeks Dreamland was selected in “Best Books of the Year” lists by … Amazon.com, Slate.com, the WSJ, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Audible.

(In the two weeks after posting this, Buzzfeed, Daily Beast, Texas Observer, and the Guardian also added Dreamland to their Books of the Year lists. My thanks to each of them.)

Drug Czar Michael Botticelli named it his favorite book of the year – that was nice of him. So did the governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin. Nice of the governor to do that, too.

You can see links to all this at my website.

Okay, so that’s done. Please have a happy holiday season, walk a lot, and take care of yourself and others you love.

 

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William Zinsser Dies

William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, has died. He was 92, according to his NY Times obituary.51gR+4G5mJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

His book influenced me enormously. We learn to write by writing, but if there’s one book to read on writing in English, it’s his. I read it probably eight times, though I’ve lost count. Some parts of it, more than that.

His approach to writing is the correct one – that writing involves rewriting and more rewriting, each time with an eye to cutting words that don’t need to be there.

That through rewriting we achieve greater clarity, and come to know what we think.

He didn’t mean that all sentences should be short. Rather, that all sentences contain only words that are necessary. Same goes for sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a text.

He also said that if you pare down your prose to only what’s necessary and do this over and over, through a lifetime, you develop your own voice. That idea hit me as strange at first, but I know now that he was right.

His point, too, that writing is not to be done when you have inspiration, but treated as a job, something you get up and do every day – that was a revelation to me, as well. The anecdote with which he opens the book, about speaking on a writing panel with a doctor, is fabulous.

On Writing Well went through many editions, but the core of it – the first six or so chapters – remains always clear and relevant.

His essay on Clutter in language is probably more on point today than ever.

I wrote to him twice – once after my first book came out and the second time after we published the first Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles volume. Each time, he was kind enough to write back.

A good guy who changed English – by making those who write it do it more clearly.

Many thanks, Mr. Zinsser.

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A new Tell Your True Tale book

The new Tell Your True Tale; East Los Angeles book is out, the product of a workshop I did with a great group of eight new writers.FrontCover

The stories are again fantastic — about Albert Einstein in East L.A., a Czech “almost blind” boy growing up in a Communist boarding home, a young man going to Tijuana to help a deported friend return, a woman on her deathbed remembering the last time she saw her kids, and a girl on her way to Mexico, a child bride.

Check it out, on sale at Amazon.com for only $5.38 hardcopy or $2.99 as an ebook.

We present the book this Saturday, Jan. 24 at 3 pm at East Los Angeles Public Library, in the Chicano Resource Center.

Please think of coming.

My third TYTT: ELA workshop at the library begins the Saturday following that – January 31.

Over the next year, with the generous support of the County Library, I hope to be expanding the workshops to other parts of L.A. County – Compton, South Central and elsewhere.

TYTT draft cover JPEGBy the way, the first TYTT: ELA book, which we published last year, is also on sale, packed with very cool stories as well.

 

 

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Charles Bowden, dead at 69

I didn’t love everything that Charles Bowden wrote, but I did love the spirit with which he wrote – very much out on his own ledge of the world.

I didn’t agree with some of what he said about the border and Mexico, but most of it came from a life steeped in both. He was no dilettante, this guy.

His book on Juarez was damn good.

He spent a long time writing about the border, about drugs, about Juarez and I’m sorry to hear he passed Saturday in his sleep in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Read an interview with Charles Bowden here. And an obit here.

Find his book on Juarez – Murder City, it’s called – and read that. Pretty fine piece of journalism, and reflective of the guy and his take on his craft and the world. With the rough-edged, opinionated, cranky prose that made him worth reading, and listening to. I met him once, at a conference at Cal State Northridge.

There aren’t too many out there like him any more.

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Tell Your True Tale: A cockfighting story

Big news!!!!

Another story is up on Tell Your True Tale, my storytelling website.Tell Your True Tale

This one is by Armando Ibarra, a friend and longtime San Bernardino gang member, currently incarcerated, from where he wrote this piece.

The story is about a father and son at a cockfighting tournament.

Check out Armando’s cool story …

One of a Million: A cockfighting story.

And remember, send those stories in. I don’t pay but I do edit.

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DONE!!!!!

After many many months of traveling the country, reporting, interviewing, of writing and rewriting and more rewriting, I just turned in the manuscript to my book about the country’s epidemic of pill and heroin abuse.

YAAAAAHHHH!

It’s called DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s IMG_0638Opiate Epidemic.

120,000 words.

Comes out in April, Bloomsbury Press.

I’m still walking around in a daze.

Writing a book is a process of discovery, I found again to my delight.

This is my third book. It started out very differently than it ended up.

Quite unexpectedly, it became a tale about the country, where we are as America and Americans, about rural America, the Rust Belt and the country’s nicest suburbs, about what excess will do, and the value of community. About what we lose when we undermine that which gives us community.

None of that should have surprised me, because unlike previous drug scourges this one has permeated virtually the entire country – or at least all of white America.

The story’s about drug marketing, and about our belief that we are entitled to feel no pain.

It’s also about Mexico, and the Mexican town that has devised a system for selling heroin like pizza. Making heroin convenient, and cheap and potent, as well.

On one level, the story’s about Mexican drug trafficking, but it’s probably as much about the impulse behind immigration, andIMG_0546 the Mexican village, and envy and desire.

I didn’t start out thinking that parents of addicted kids would be  part of the mix. But if you keep your mind open, new directions present themselves. So they are now. I love this about journalism.

I belong now to a Facebook site called The Addict’s Mom, where parents write in daily about their addicted kids. So many have died recently. So many people are wrapped up in addiction or the addiction of their children.

It’s amazing that it’s so quiet, because this is happening everywhere.

Given how hard this dope is to kick, it’s going to be with us for a long long time.

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Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles — the book presentation this Saturday

TYTT draft cover JPEGHey all — An invite  to the presentation of a book that grew out a tremendously successful series of nonfiction writing workshops I gave to new writers at East L.A. Public Library.

The presentation of  TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: East Los Angeles takes place this Saturday (April 26) at 2:30 pm, at the library, which is located at 4837 E 3rd St, (323-264-0155).

The volume is stunning for the mosaic of East L.A. it presents, as well as the variety and quality of the stories: A vet returning home from Vietnam; a janitor in Houston trying to find her children in Mexico; of braceros finding their way north and back home again; a man learning confidence as he woos a woman; a bus rider in Los Angeles; a mariachi singing for a heartbroken family on Christmas Eve.

All by folks who’d never published before: Andrew Ramirez, Celia Viramontes, Olivia Segura, Manuel Chaidez, Jacqueline Gonzalez, Joanne Mestaz, and Diego Renteria.

I call my workshops TELL YOUR TRUE TALE. They attempt to excavate new stories from unheard communities as they help new writers over the intimidating humps that keep them from realizing their writing dreams, and push them to start thinking like writers — all by mining the stories in their lives or those of people close to them.

Hope you all can make the presentation this Saturday, and pass along the word to others who might be interested.

Meanwhile, grab the book at Amazon.com.

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WRITING: Marcus Aurelius and taking things bit by bit

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius probably wasn’t thinking about writing when he said this:

Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For thou wilt be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this.

But I’ve always found a sentiment like this to be enormously helpful in writing. Breaking down a task into little bits, isolating them, then doing that one task, and not thinking about all  you have to do to finish your project. Even if they’re not done in what would seem obvious chronological order, it’s better to focus on small, doable writing tasks.

When I’m on a larger writing project — as I am now, with a book I’m putting together on heroin and prescription painkillers, I usually spend a lot of time writing what I call “chunks.” Could be anecdotes, or stories shaped around a quote, or just observations or descriptions of a place or person — things that might well make it into the final draft of what I’m writing.

I was talking to a prison inmate the other day who wants to write a book about his life. I said, don’t set out to write a book. It’s like climbing a mountain. Try crossing the street — write a story from your childhood. Just one. then write another, maybe from adulthood. Next day, another. Never think you’re heading toward assembling a book. Pretty soon you’ll have a selection of pieces and can gather energy and encouragement from that.

Here’s what an author at The Atlantic had to say about Marcus Aurelius’s quote.

 

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TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: “How I Know” by Rachel Kimbrough

 

Tell Your True Tale

Up this week on Tell Your True Tale, my storytelling website, is a piece by Kansas writer Rachel Kimbrough.

Check out “How I Know” —  a story about doubt, faith, a child and a mother.

Rachel’s a great writer. This is her fourth TYTT story.Rachel Kimbrough author photo rsz

Remember, I’m eager to look at all submissions. I don’t pay, but I do edit.

So get writin’.

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LOS ANGELES: Cerritos College Thursday night

Very happy to be speaking to writers, students and storytellers at Cerritos College in Norwalk Thursday night.

I’ll be talking about storytelling and writing.

I’ll be telling some stories that I love and discussing students’ stories from their own lives — a little bit of my Tell Your True Tale workshops.

Hope to see you all there…

Thanks Library Club of Cerritos College!

 

 

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WRITING: Blocking the Internet

Salon has an article on novelists using software programs to deny themselves access to the Internet.

This is what I need. I wrote my second book — Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream — in a cafe mercifully before the era of Wi-Fi hookups.

My focus was deep, as I listened to music via headphones and wrote for 5-6 hours at a time for weeks. I remember reaching profound levels of concentration doing that.

Now, Wi-Fi allows us to cut away at any moment when the writing gets tough. Very frustrating and counterproductive.

 

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TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: Being Saved

This week on my storytelling website, Tell Your True Tale, a new story by Angelino writer Julian Segura Camacho.

Check out Being Saved – the story of how a young man from Inglewood was asked to convert to evangelical Christianity.

I’m very eager to read more submissions, so if you’ve got an inner writer, write a story of your own and send it in.

 

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