An excerpt from the novel The Last Baby Angel, by Sam Calvin Brown. Music by The Cons of Formant, who will be playing at the book launch on September 6 at Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro. Film and production by Randy Randolph
An excerpt from the novel The Last Baby Angel, by Sam Calvin Brown. Music by The Cons of Formant, who will be playing at the book launch on September 6 at Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro. Film and production by Randy Randolph
Flannery O’Connor supposedly said that “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” I would say there is more than a bit of truth in this statement, at least in my lowly and short-lived opinion. It seems to me, and O’Connor might agree, that writing consists of two rhythms. The first is a white hot, free jazz ecstasy. It works, and we don’t know how or why, but we just go with it. We run with it. It’s getting drunk without the fear of a hangover. I love this kind of writing, and those who write more than likely do so for this endorphin-charged side of the creative process. But alas, there is another and darker side to writing. It’s that self-loathing that O’Connor alludes to and all writers, great and small, must face. It’s the hangover price the writer must pay, and it comes at different times for different people working on different projects. For me and The Last Baby Angel, it came around page one hundred. I hit what I now call The Hundred Page Wall, and I shut my laptop. And I stared at nothing while I tried to figure out what had just happened.
It’s the worst feeling I have ever encountered, and it almost kept me from finishing the novel. Allow me to attempt to recreate it. It’s a sinking sensation that occurs when you realize that you are in the midst of a piece of writing that you cannot finish, but cannot bear to leave. It was so beautiful, and it was working so well. You were in the pages, your eyes looked past the ink or the graphite or the pixels into some story or scene so real you had to believe it existed somewhere outside your head. You paused to take a breath, and you raise your head to look around for a moment, just a moment. You needed a moment to see where you were, and to admire the beauty you somehow created. Just a moment’s pause. You look back at the page. Uh oh.
You look back at what was a page, and you are staring at a wall—high and wide and despairingly thick—and it is staring right back at you. The Hundred Page Wall. It doesn’t make any sense, and you try desperately to find the thread you were following. You go back to page ninety-nine and read it over, and over, and over again. Nothing. You jot down some ideas, places to go next, hypothetical dots on your plot. Nothing. And a surge in your empty belly (you have written right through supper) lets you realize that you have successfully built characters that you truly love and want to be around, and you have placed them in a setting that is rapidly becoming a second home to you. You have set up tension, created conflict, and readied yourself for a great and wonderful ride. But you—yes, YOU—now stare at a dead idea on a dead page in a dead world on which you just wasted so many hours and so many emotions. Exhaustion and frustration replace the excitement you felt only moments earlier. You stare at The Hundred Page Wall.
Might I suggest a break? I promise it will quickly turn into a tasty metaphor, if you’ll only come into the kitchen with me. Come on. Get up, buddy. Come on, and let’s go make some oatmeal. Yes, oatmeal: oats, water, butter, brown sugar, maybe some raisins and pecans. Mmhmm. Oatmeal is one of the tastiest things in the world to me. It not only fills your stomach with its gooey warmth, but it also fills that spot somewhere between your body and your soul, makes it warm and gooey too. I love oatmeal. But oatmeal can also be a very tricky substance, particularly when you microwave it. In fact, oatmeal can be downright snotty. Demonstration, please:
You put your water with your oats and pop it into the microwave, and you stare as it spins slowly around, and around, and around. And does absolutely nothing. You take it out, and you stir it with a spoon, and you put it back in the microwave. Around. Around. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Stupid oatmeal. But you let that oatmeal’s hypnotic spin lull you into a false state of security. Yes you do, and then you make a fatal mistake. You turn your back on the oatmeal. Maybe you go to the fridge to get a glass of orange juice, or maybe you go flip on the TV to catch the weather. It doesn’t matter what it is, because you turned your back on the oatmeal. And when you come back, it is a growing, pulsating, sticky living blob that’s quickly crawling out of the bowl. In a flash, you have half your oatmeal splattered inside the microwave, a hot, sticky insulation that you now have to wipe up before it sets up like concrete. The oatmeal caught you off guard. If you’d watched it, you wouldn’t have it boiling over like crazy while you rush to pop open the microwave door to stop the madness that’s occurring in there. It really puts a damper on that warm feeling between your body and soul.
And now for the metaphor.
It’s bad to turn your back on oatmeal. But for the same reason, sometimes it’s good to turn your back on a story. A story is like oatmeal because sometimes it won’t do anything if you stare at it too hard. Sometimes, you have to turn your back on it. When you look back, it could be bubbling over the sides. It could be a sticky mess of creative oatmeal. Maybe. You also might not have a story. You might have, as you say, “wasted” some hours of writing. You may have to start over. You can’t tell the future. But you can and should give yourself the opportunity to turn your back on your work, let it simmer and see if it boils. All creations and creators deserve that chance. Now, eat your oatmeal.
The Last Baby Angel is a hard story, a sad story, a gritty story. But, to me, it is also a story about love. I have always maintained that for me, the story is ultimately about a relationship between a daughter and a father. Mattie’s father, Nathan, tells her stories. One story that is very important to the novel, and to Mattie’s relationship with Nathan, is The Farmer Story. I have lifted it from the pages of the novel and included it below. I hope you enjoy it, and remember that you can order the novel today at http://www.stanleypublishing.com/shop/the-last-baby-angel/.
Daddy told stories. He told them to me at night, me curled up on my pallet and him sitting with his back against the wall. Momma was asleep in the bed, and it was just him and me. He told me stories about princesses who lost their way in the woods and learned to talk to animals. The princesses were always saved by a dashing prince. When I asked him what ‘dashing’ was, he said it meant the prince wasn’t lazy. He told me stories of when he was little, how he fished in the Arkansas River all night long and the bats swooped down to catch the bugs that bit his neck. He always said thank you to the bats. One time, he caught a catfish that was bigger than him. It took three days to cook. But there was one story I liked to hear most because it was just for me.
“There was this old farmer who lived out in a place called Grapevine. The farmer didn’t grow corn or carrots or squash. He grew angel wings. Each spring, on April twenty-first—that’s the best day to plant, because there’s no worry about frost—the farmer planted thousands and thousands of angel wings. He kept the rows clean and tilled and he sat out there every night, all the way through the early summer, singing into the dark.
“That old farmer had the sweetest voice, Mattie. And when he sang, the stars shone brighter. They were singing with him. You can’t hear stars sing, they’re so far away. They shine brighter so you can hear them with your eyes. With the farmer and the stars singing to them, those wings grew. They grew so tall and big that God couldn’t see dirt underneath, only their whiteness down on the earth. Then, on the very last day of July, before the weather got too hot, God sent his angels down to pick the wings for all the baby angels born that year.
“One year, something terrible happened. The farmer got sick from the wetness of spring. He got so sick he couldn’t plant the angel wings. There was no singing, no tilled rows or whiteness on the earth. The stars grew dim, and some started falling to earth like tears. It was a sad time in Heaven.”
“What happened to all the baby angels?”
“The farmer was real sick, Mattie. And up in Heaven, God looked over at Gabriel, his best and smartest angel, and He asked him, ‘Gabriel, what must we do? How will we get wings for all the new baby angels?’ Now, God knew the answer to this. He always knows, but sometimes he lets us wonder. That’s what Gabriel did. He wondered, and he wondered, and he wondered. Then he snapped his fingers—Just like that!—and said, ‘God, I know what to do. All the sparrows down on the earth, the ones you keep your eye on, they are the very best seed pickers. Command the sparrows to plant the angel wings for the farmer.’ God said, ‘That is good, Gabriel. The sparrows will plant the wings. But who will tend the wings after the sparrows plant them? Who will weed and till the rows? The farmer is too sick.’ Gabriel knew this was true. He wondered, and he wondered, and he wondered some more. Then he snapped again—Just like that!—‘God,’ he said, ‘command the grasshoppers to eat the weeds. Grasshoppers are the very best weed eaters. And You can command the worms to burrow through the rows. The worms will till the soil and the wings will grow. The grasshoppers and the worms will do what the farmer cannot.’ ‘Good, Gabriel,’ said God. ‘The sparrows will plant. The grasshoppers will eat the weeds and the worms will till the soil. We will have our wings.’
“So the sparrows planted the wings. The grasshoppers did the weeding, and the worms kept the soil loose so the wings could grow fast and strong. When the farmer was well enough to get out of the house and visit his field, he saw angel wings under bright stars. He just stood and stared. ‘My, my, my,’ he said. ‘The Lord is a mystery.’ And He is, Mattie.
“The farmer stayed in the field that night, singing more sweetly than he ever had. He fell asleep under the stars. And then the angels came down, and they harvested the wings and took them up to heaven. They gave wings to all the baby angels, working until the sun came up. Everyone in heaven was very, very happy. Until…” Daddy always paused here.
“Until…they came to the last baby angel, and there were no more wings. The angels searched all of Heaven, and they couldn’t find so much as one angel wing. God, sitting on his throne and seeing the angels shake their heads and look around, called to Gabriel. ‘Gabriel, is this the last baby angel?’ ‘It is, God.’ ‘And are there wings for the angel?’ ‘No, God. There are no more wings.’ Just then, a sparrow flew past. ‘Sparrow!’ God called. ‘Are there any angel wings left in the farmer’s field? ‘You know all things God,’ replied the sparrow. ‘Only you know if there are any wings left.’ ‘This is true,’ God said. ‘There are no more wings.’
“Everyone in heaven was very sad, and the angels brought that last baby angel to God. God held the angel in his arms, and he stared down into its face. It was the most beautiful of all the baby angels, more beautiful than any that had ever been born in Heaven. This was the best baby angel, but it had no wings. God smiled down at its pretty little face, and then he looked up at Gabriel. ‘Have peace,’ he said. ‘I know what will be done.”
“What did God do, Daddy?”
He leaned down and kissed my forehead. “God gave the baby angel to the farmer.”
When I began to write The Last Baby Angel, I wasn’t at all sure where I would end up. I wasn’t even sure how to get to page two. I remember sitting down at my eighty dollar roll top desk (I had recently bought it from a flea market. It’s pine, but its mine, and it makes me feel smart) and thinking to myself, “Okay.” That’s what I thought. “Okay.” And that was as far as I could get on my own. But I did have a first line, because it was given to me by a dear friend one night when he and I were walking through Downtown Little Rock. I say it was given to me, but it was really pointed out to me. I was the one who said it to him. We were talking about how violence can sprout up in strange ways, at strange times, in strange places. It was one of those moments when you realize how precarious your safety can be, anywhere. I told my friend, “Little Rock’s safe until something happens.” I meant it as a sort of a bad joke, but he hung onto it until the night I called him up to inform him that I was working on a book. “Use the line,” he said. And so I did. I wrote that line down, and I stared at it for a while. I knew that it was a useless line on its own. It didn’t really mean anything. Something’s safe before it’s not safe. That doesn’t say anything about Little Rock or anything else. It’s just a line.
But after I had sat there for a while, I began to hear a voice in my head. It came to me out of nowhere, really. And it was like it had been there all along, on repeat, just waiting for me to turn up the volume and listen. It was a young female voice, and it was recounting something that was very, very painful to remember: “Little Rock’s safe until something happens. Little Rock’s always safe until. Daddy said. Little Rock’s always safe until something happens, he said.” I listened to the voice, staring at the screen. When I finally wrote down what she was saying, it came out something like this: “I can hear Daddy’s voice, saying, ‘Little Rock’s safe until something happens.’ I don’t remember when he said it, or where, or why he thought I needed to know. I just remember his voice.” And I wrote for hours after that. Hours and hours, days and days. I can’t speak for every writer. That’s just silly. But I can speak for one, and I found a story only after I found a line, through which I found a voice. Mattie heard her father’s voice, and I heard hers. That’s my favorite part about this story. I can hear her every time I read the words.
Just a reminder to everyone that The Last Baby Angel is available for preorder on http://www.stanleypublishing.com. Preorders determine the number of copies in the first printing, and they really help the publisher predict the success of the book. Thanks to all who have preordered, and I appreciate any and all who can go ahead and reserve their copy. Until next time…
I am going to go ahead and break my promise, so that the people who have decided to follow this journal will sooner acclimate themselves to the fact that I tend to ramble. I do want to use this little nook of the web to talk about the writing of The Last Baby Angel, but I also want to have fun with my little digital yard. So a post shall come concerning the novel. But for now, I would like to tell y’all a story. It’s a story I wrote some time ago, and it has to do with a rather spotty spot in Snow White’s story. Like many of you, I remember Snow White as that sickly pale girl who lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, ever after rarely ever occurs happily. This story’s title is “Watercolor Love.”
Prince Charming and Snow White had hit on quite hard times, romantically speaking. It all started when Snow found that text from the Evil Queen. She didn’t think much of it at first. After all, they shared a past together. And who would suspect he would hook up with the Queen after what she had done to her. It was simply unthinkable for Prince Charming to cheat with her of all the other fairy tale women. But Prince became more and more distant, staying out on his steed until the wee hours of the morning; complaining that Snow needed to get out more, never wanted to go to balls or dwarf parties with him. He pointed to her lily whiteness as proof that she spent much too much time at home. Snow White became indignant, hurt, hostile at these accusations. Maybe she wasn’t as outgoing as Belle, who partied with the Beast at least every other weekend. Neither was she as adventurous as Ariel, who seemed always to be gallivanting around at some night sea life club with Prince Eric. But she was definitely no Sleeping Beauty either. At least she got out of bed in the morning and accomplished something each day. And she wasn’t nearly, nearly as snooty as that spoiled Princess Jasmine.
The two grew further and further apart, Snow White confiding in the dwarves when she could; they said the Prince would never cheat. He loved her and only her, a fact he had proven through his gallant efforts in their feature film. Snow White had her reservations as to the dwarves’ promise. She knew all too well the code of “Dwarf before Dame,” and wondered if maybe they were hiding something for their good timing Prince. She talked on the phone to Cinderella about it, and Cinderella immediately put her fears aside.
“Snow White!” she exclaimed. “That’s simply not the Prince! He would never do such a thing. Think of it! A prince charming failing to provide the necessary Happily Ever After to his beloved? You have nothing at all to fear, my dear. Why, my Prince and I have been together since our film debut, almost as long as you and yours, and we haven’t had so much as a tiff.”
Snow White knew that Cinderella was correct. These things just did not occur in fairy tales. She was just being paranoid because of all the newest films coming out, all the better and more sharply drawn princesses with their modern humor and more realistic singing voices. She should not let her imagination run away so. Prince had probably just texted the queen to make sure she was doing okay, doll that he was. The poor evil queen had been in terrible shape since that whole hag and apple ordeal, even though Snow felt that the woman somewhat deserved to be miserable, seeing as how she tried to kill her and everything. And the late nights? Just a 1930s prince being a 1930s prince, to be sure. So she told her Prince how sorry she was, how badly she felt about all of the accusations. The Prince was extremely forgiving, telling her that although he was a little hurt at her mistrust, he wanted her to know that he would never, never, never hurt his one true watercolor love.
All settled for a bit, with things staying virtually the same but with Snow White doing her best to understand the demands of princedom, how it could drive even the most traditional characters to a little bit of hard partying. She tried to sing more often, as she knew the Prince absolutely adored her singing voice, high-pitched though it was. And she even went to some of the dwarf parties with him, though she did not at all enjoy Dopey’s brazen advances.
But then one day, out of the blue, it all came crashing down. Snow was busy cleaning house, as many traditional princesses of her era are wont to do, when she came across a ticket to one of Cinderella’s balls. Snow knew of the ball, but she had been too tired to go after her evening woods walk, singing to the sparrows. Prince had said that was perfectly all right; he had to stay late at the castle that night anyway to finish up some pressing fairy tale business. He would be late, and she should not wait up for him. Snow had woken that night to the soft close of the door and the creak of Prince’s boots as he readied himself for bed. But this morning, while washing his red cape, she found the ticket.
“Strange,” she mumbled. She tried to calm her fear, her anger. She did not want to call up Prince right away and let her ladylike sensibilities fall away, so she called up Cinderella. Cindy would not answer, and so Snow sent her this text message:
Found ticket to ball in Prince’s cape, LOL. Wondered wuz up. He said had to work. So sorry if he promised to come. You know men. : ) TTYL.
Snow tried not to think about it that morning. Prince would be at the castle all day, and she would only drive herself to anger if she went fantasizing without knowing the facts. She was humming a rather higher than normal pitched melody when her cell rang.
“Hey. It’s me. Cindy.”
“Hey, Cindy! How was the ball? I hope it all went well. I know those stepsisters of yours have a way of ruining a good ball.”
“It was fine.” There was a silence. Breathing. “Snow, we need to talk.”
Snow tried to ignore the falling sensation she had. In fact, she was actually falling, and two sparrows had to swoop in to hold her up.
“Yes, Cinderella? Is something wrong?”
“It’s about Prince. He…He was at the ball last night.”
Snow tried to stay calm. “Oh?”
“Yes. He came to see…to see me.”
“I don’t think I quite understood you, Cinderella. The service in these enchanted woods is terrible. You said he came to see you?”
“Snow…” another pause, “I don’t quite know how to tell you this. I…I’m just going to say it. Prince and I…Your prince, not mine…We’ve been seeing each other for three months now.”
Breathing through the receiver as the cell phone fell to the floor. Snow dropped beside it, and there she sat for a long time. She did not even hear the sparrows as they sang their sad song. Sparrows always know when a marriage has failed. Finally, without a sound, Snow White picked up the cell. She held it in her trembling palm as she punched with trembling finger the following text message:
Tell me the truth : (
**Names, events, and certain characteristics have been taken from various children’s films and completely twisted for the sake of a silly short story. No harm intended.**
My name is Sam Calvin Brown, and this is my blog. I would like to point out from the very beginning that I am not a “blogger.” I have seen bloggers. They are cooler than me. They write very witty things and then get published and end up being portrayed by Amy Adams. I am not that. I am a novelist. This makes me, by nature, incredibly backward thinking when it comes to technology. Because of this, I choose to re dub my blog. It will, from this point forward and forever be known as “A Computer-Based Journalistic Chronicle of the Writing of Sam Calvin Brown’s First Novel, titled The Last Baby Angel.” You may also call it a journal, if you wish. Thank you all, and I will be posting very soon. Also, you can check out my first novel, The Last Baby Angel, on my publisher’s website. Just go to http://www.stanleypublishing.com. The novel is available for preorder right now, and I appreciate any and all purchases. Y’all have a good day.
“Sell yourself first, if you want to sell anything.”