A Book That Changed My Life

I was in Texas at the time but a very long way from writing a novel about a series of gender crimes committed against a woman. I was maybe four years old. The book was a worn, hard-back children’s book, about an inch thick, bound in dark blue cloth and frayed along the edges. It was *Cobi Camel,* by Nell Smidell Nesbitt, not a picture book, rather the kind now called a “chapter book”—that might’ve been why it intrigued me—and it was published, as I learned just now online, in 1944.

I had seen this book around the house long before I was allowed to see inside it. It belonged to my older sister, who was protective of her things and her prerogatives against my encroachments. Though we weren’t poor, we lived in an economy of scarcity: our parents had come of age during the Great Depression, didn’t know how long the good times would last, and—though both educated at UT-Austin—were strict, Victorian, and emotionally restrained.

On this day, possibly because I coveted this book and certainly because our mother was busy, she set my sister, who was in first grade, to read to me from it. We were in a chilly, scarcely furnished downstairs room we called “the sewing room,” where my mother’s sewing machine sat on a card table. This was in a house in Ft. Worth my parents were buying on my father’s slim salary working as what, back when all journalists were print journalists, he called “a newspaperman,” though he, and we, knew women reporters.

I remember a neatly made-up Army surplus cot in the room, of the sort we children also had in our shared room upstairs. I remember the dusty smell of an organdy curtain, although anything dusty in a house my mother kept is hard to believe.

I was sitting in a child-sized Mexican chair, on a woven raffia seat with a back of slats and turned posts, painted red and yellow with green twining leaves and red and blue flowers. My sister sat on a small chair beside me. I remember nothing about Cobi Camel or his adventures, no word of the book except the word, and. “See,” my sister said—I knew the alphabet—“those letters make the word, and.”
And at that moment, I got it, what reading was, and how I could do it for myself: all I had to do was know what the rest of those words meant. I speak as a writer when I call it the most important discovery of my childhood.

I became a reading child, that familiar type of the dysphoric escapist: denizen of the Book Mobile, haunter of neighbors’ houses where the children were grown and their books remained on shelves, devourer of books I got for Christmases and birthdays and by the stack from the children’s book reviewer at The Ft. Worth Press, when she was through with them. In memory I spent whole summers—when I wasn’t at the Girl Scout Camp, Timberlake—lying in a chair reading, and my parents, who tried to control many things about me, never said word one against anything I read. My mother was confident that if it was too old for me, I wouldn’t understand it. Her belief opened the world to me.

Virtual Book Tour

coverartThis Sunday! I kick off my virtual tour at Writer’s Chatroom, responding to chatters’ questions about my new novel. Amid gender conventions of 1930’s Texas, a rural woman sexually harassed by a neighbor finds herself invisible to her husband as she tries to enlist his aid. What is rape? What is free consent? What does she believe it is, traumatized by a dreadful experience? Logon Sunday night at 6 PM CDT from http://www.writerschatroom.com/schedule.htm.

View my entire itinerary at

Places You’ve Learned Things About Writing

by Elizabeth Harris

[From an earlier version posted in discussion of “A Criminal Plot (Redux)” by Kathy Crowley, http://beyondthemargins.com/2014/12/a-criminal-plot/#comment-115427]

It’s never surprising to learn from a writer like Michael Ondaatje but *The Cat’s Table,* beloved by many readers, led me to think about how different genres of plot can extend each others’ limitations. *The Cat’s Table* combines plot forms of memoir and of mystery or detective fiction.

And first off, it led me to think about the potential for fictional memoirs–though you’d think a person who read Defoe’s *Robinson Crusoe* as a child would’ve thought of that already. But learning to write something often seems like remembering to apply things you know already.

Certainly there are different kind of memoirs, some gripping–like parts of Defoe’s novel–but I think of memoir plots as slowish, reflective, maybe finding connections that were not apparent among experiences as lived, and deriving their momentum mostly from the progress of “then” towards “now.” Their strength seems to be in tonality and depth about character and experience. By contrast, the plot form of mystery, or its variant, detective fiction, is typically fast and powerful: a quest plot that gallops like a racehorse, hauls like a train. Their strength is in their excitement and engagement of us as readers–or audiences in whatever medium.

*The Cat’s Table* adopts  the fiction of a memoir, creating a still-colonial boy-character on a sea voyage to the center of what is still Empire. But gradually his and his friends’ shipboard explorations stumble into mysteries about fellow passengers, some but not all of which involve the planning and escape of a political prisoner being sent to London in chains for trial.

And one of the things that impressed me about this novel as how the mystery of the escape plot pumped excitement and momentum into the fictional memoir–especially in the middle, where it might’ve lapsed–while the memoir form provided a shape that allowed the narrator character’s reflection, years later, on what it had all meant, insofar as that was possible to know.

This book also hit me at the right time, when I was struggling to write a story in which two stock farmers in 1936 castrate a third over an action involving a woman–the character I was most interested in–and trying to keep the story from lapsing into “mere” melodrama. (We love melodrama, a lot of us, but it needs support to attempt Art: a musical setting with great voices, as in opera; lush photography and first-class acting, as in “Downton Abbey.”)

I learned from *The Cat’s Table* to look to other genres of fiction for support, and the result was my own *Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman,* which combines melodramatic action and fictional memoir and is now–hallelujah–forthcoming from Gival Press.

Thank you for the lesson, Michael Ondaatje. His *The Collected Works of Billy the Kid* suggests a more radical version of the same, combining genres of poetry and prose.