"When You Find a Writer as Powerful as This, You Await Their Next Work"

Atelier26 publisher M. Allen Cunningham had the pleasure of introducing Harriet Scott Chessman at her Powell's Books appearance in Portland, Oregon in mid-February 2014. Here are his remarks.

Until August 31, 2015, help us reprint Chessman's glorious The Beauty of Ordinary Things and Someone Not Really Her Mother.

There’s one hallmark of the reading life that any serious reader is familiar with, and it’s a thing I’ve come to think of as a literary equivalent of homesickness. This special kind of homesickness is a wonderful, mysteriously gratifying feeling. It’s the very particular and impossible wish, in a reader, to be able to relive your first experience of certain books. You envy your earlier self for its indescribably enriching communion with this or that work of literature. You could say that as readers we actually seek this homesickness from one book to the next.

Since around 2001, Harriet Scott Chessman has produced a series of slim, luminous novels, each of which has been that kind of rare and unforgettable reading experience for me. If you already know Harriet’s work, you know what I’m talking about. 

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, Someone Not Really Her Mother, Ohio Angels – each of these short books is a singularly beautiful tone poem of kinds, each one wistful, elliptical, and lit with late-summer or autumnal tints, touched on every page by the light of life as seen by characters facing profound transformations, eyes wide open. Always there’s a tinge of tragedy, but always it is tragedy born of the very beauty of existence. A Chessman novel is a story that says what all great poetry says: to live is glorious, and to be alive is to change, and change is painful, and change is life-giving. Lydia Cassatt, chronically ill sister to the lauded painter; or Hannah, in Someone Not Really Her Mother, an elderly woman whose mind is wandering uncontrollably back to her youth and the war in Europe; or Hallie in Ohio Angels, a young struggling artist and would-be mother visiting her Ohioan hometown, where her own mother suffers manic depression – these are characters radiant with consciousness and yearning. When you find a writer as powerful as this, you await their next work.

I first met Harriet in 2004. We were seated together at a bookseller dinner. I was twenty-six and very new to this “literary world.” I found her to be very nice, easy to talk to, a good listener, genuinely humble but in all ways serious about writing and literature. Great personal attributes, all, and pretty rare (I would soon understand their exceeding rarity in the world of writing and publishing). That evening, Harriet inscribed my copy of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, “To Mark, Traveling in spirit. Keep writing and writing!” I looked at these words and thought: “I am traveling in spirit. Traveling in spirit is exactly what I’m doing. How did she know this?”

Harriet and I crossed paths a few more times over the course of the next few years. While we were chatting on one of these occasions, I told her a bit about the way my second novel was shaping up, mentioning that it employed first, second, and third-person perspectives. Instead of the sidelong pitying look so many others had given me when I shared this fact, Harriet’s eyes actually widened in delight at the weird idea. I still don’t know if she knows how encouraging that was. When that novel was published, I sent Harriet a copy. Rare soul that she is, she not only read the book, but responded at length in writing. Still more encouragement from a novelist I so admired.

We kept in touch by e-mail. Harriet was working on her fourth novel, I my third. Now and then I would send her a note of greeting, usually with a word about my book’s progress. In the main, I was eagerly hoping to learn the publication date for hers, and I would always take care to fold the question in amid the padding. 

My own notes grew gradually more grumpy. My book was done, it was being “shopped around,” as they say, and the wide indifference, occasional dismissiveness, and across-the-board irrelevance of the editorial responses was starting to get to me.

Around us, the publishing world seemed to be imploding. All this chatter about e-books and self-publishing, Amazon’s thuggish discounts; the Big Six oozing into Five like a deflated soufflĂ©; the legendary Knopf saving its bacon by picking up a series of Swedish potboilers; all those unpaid publisher invoices when Borders went down.

Apocalyptic days. You could hear in the Zeitgeist, like an icy, cosmic echo, the words tossed off in those horrid conference rooms at the top of the world: “Midlist? Wha’ the hell is that? Who needs it?”

About this time, Harriet dropped a passing hint about that fourth novel of hers, something that led me to understand that it was finished, had been finished a while, and that the new publishing status quo had looked and seen not.

Harriet said she’d been told the book was “too quiet.” (What the hell does that even mean?)

I started to get angry. Even Harriet Scott Chessman’s glorious work had been put adrift!?

What do you do when you’re a novelist and you’re angry? Start a micropress, of course.

Here’s an example of how screwed up the mainstream publishing world is: they let The Beauty of Ordinary Things, the sublimely gifted Harriet Scott Chessman’s most powerful novel yet, be published by me!

Or maybe there’s something more Providential at work in all of this. Maybe it’s got something to do with “Traveling in spirit.” Maybe, a full ten years ago, Harriet called it.

When I first read the manuscript of The Beauty of Ordinary Things, and when the Irish/Boston voice of the young Vietnam vet Benny Finn began to live so richly, so honestly, and so movingly in my readerly head, it was a voice I recognized, unmistakably. Here was another one who was traveling in spirit.

Harriet has called this book her most personal novel. Benny Finn, she says, is “so much like me, sometimes I cannot distinguish between us.” She said she thinks of the book as “an homage to those who overcome challenges and find grace in their lives … I wish for grace in mine every day.” She says, “I wanted to do what I could to tell the truth, without bells or whistles.”

For almost two years now, I’ve lived in the pages of The Beauty of Ordinary Things, and I still cannot tell you how a novelist achieves such honesty on the page, such an exquisite emotional accuracy, or how a book can resonate in such – yes – quietude, and rise to such profound affirmation. One of the early notes of praise about The Beauty of Ordinary Things proclaims: “This book will open your heart.” Another says: “It would be hard to close this book and not feel changed.” They’re dead on.

I can hardly believe what good luck the collapse of literary publishing has been for me, to have been given this privilege, of working with such a magnificent writer and such a genuinely wonderful human being.

What an honor to welcome Harriet to Portland tonight. Please join me.