Eyrna’s English Essay on Orwell’s “1984”

Letter from Joseph Stalin to George Orwell

September 1949

Dear Comrade Orwell,

First, I would like to congratulate you on the impressive success of your novel, 1984. I obtained a copy of the book from one of my secret agents, who informed me that it is supremely popular in Europe right now. The young man managed to translate it into Russian for me, before I, unfortunately, had to have him executed. You see, the ideas in this book were too strong and corruptive to have them floating about in his young head. It will be necessary to eliminate anyone who currently resides in the Soviet Union who has been exposed to the book. I cannot risk a bold competitor using the ideas in this novel to overthrow me.
I must say, I love your invention, “Newspeak.” I have tried something like that in Soviet Russia but Russian is a much more beautiful and complex language than English. The three slogans you chose for the Party that decorate the face of the Ministry of Truth, however, I thought were wonderful and I am planning on stealing them and placing them all over the Soviet Union. “War is Peace” (page 4) will go far in helping my propaganda ministers in convincing the people that peace can only be achieved through the ruthless crushing of our enemies, and the deliberate and quiet infiltration of the West; and through hardship the proletarians suffer as our country works tirelessly to become a great industrial nation.
“Freedom Is Slavery” also pleased me greatly, for most of humanity is too stupid to rule itself. Only in blind allegiance to me, their Fearless Leader, can people be “free” to be entirely stupid. Which goes hand in hand with the concept of “Ignorance is Strength!”
I had Trotsky, that traitorous scum, erased from all photographs (as well as anyone else who offended my sensibilities), but it never occurred to me to show anti-Trotsky films. The way you described the People’s Enemy, Goldstein, was simply brilliant (Page 13). A few moments of good, solid Hating! That is what the people need. I have tried something like that in my show trials (it was much easier than you would assume, getting those idiots to confess to crimes they could not possibly have committed!); but I never considered using an actor to impersonate Trotsky committing violent crimes against society. “The dull rhythmic tramp of the soldiers’ boots formed the background to Goldstein’s bleating voice.” (page 13) Absolutely brilliant!
It had also never occurred to me to use video to terrify people, besides the obvious propaganda films, so that it becomes impossible for them to start a rebellion against me. I always went the way of phone-taps because it is untraceable, and much harder to start an uprising if people cannot speak to each other without the fear that their conversation is being heard and recorded. A closed circuit TV that has the ability to film the area in front of it while showing pro-Stalinist commercials and videos would be revolutionary. I must credit you with the idea, because without your “telescreens” it would have been hard to imagine. Although I must say, I would not allow anyone to turn them off, even if they were members of the “inner party” of the Soviet Union. I feel that is a flaw in your plotline. No sensible ruler of a country would risk having the people closest to him starting revolutions or attempting to take over his government, so allowing them the tiniest bit of freedom would be a cause for suspicion. If the person were truly a member of the inner party, what could he possibly have to hide? They should have no reason to turn off the telescreens, and if they did I would immediately have them sent away (in my case to Siberia to die in the work camps).
I do imagine devices resembling your telescreens would be more effective than wire-tapping. I plan on recruiting the best minds, like Albert Einstein, to come work for me in the near future. That will make manufacturing these telescreens much easier.
Unfortunately I have also yet to perfect the NKVD’s ability to infiltrate people’s minds and penetrate their deepest thoughts and secrets. My ultimate goal is to have a brainwashing center, similar to that of the Ministry of Love and Room 101. The cage containing the rats — Winston’s worst fear (Page 285) is something I will have to adapt to my peoples’ needs, because, come to think of it, Russians have grown so used to rats that they barely fear them at all. Nevertheless, when I have control and insight in to their minds, I will be able to present them with their greatest fear, until they break like twigs. I have tried psychics as a means of reading people’s minds, though this did not turn out to be effective. Psychics, I’m sorry to say, have no credibility as weapons of mass destruction either, though we were hoping to make strides in that area. They are much more effective as charlatans, or as workers in my Siberian camps. There were a few that seemed to have some sort of talent, but some of the things they said were too exact, so I sent them to Siberia too. I couldn’t have them reading my thoughts now, could I?
Lastly, I have an offer to make you. I’m sure you would be honored to come to work for me, as anyone would, and I have decided to offer you a job. If you come to the Soviet Union you could help me enforce and improve on the ideas that came to me because of your novel. I would make you Supreme Vice-President of Foreign and Internal Affairs, pertaining to your uncanny ability to understand the need to control the Soviet people and restrict their freedom. If you would kindly meet me in front of the Lubyanka building (it is a large yellow building, very hard to miss, on Dzerzhinksy Square) we could discuss your future in Russia. I have appointed various NKVD agents to post themselves around your home, in order to properly escort you to Russia. They will bring you to the Lubyanka, so there is no need to fret about directions.

Respectfully Yours,

Josef Stalin

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Earning My Second Degree Black Belt

Part of our Second Dan promotion test is to write an essay on What Earning A Second Dan Means to Me. Here is my essay.

There were a few things my Taekwondo instructor Mr. Bill Canegata told me before he died. One, was, “You’re a thinker. Thinking is what you do. So think. Stop beating yourself up for not being able to stop your mind. That is your talent.” Two, was, “Don’t quit martial arts, no matter what happens.” He was plugged into something I still hardly understand, as if he could clearly see the future — he knew my ego and big mouth would get me into trouble, which they did. I got into a battle of wills with my instructor who’d replaced Mr. Bill, forgetting for a moment that Mr. Sevilla is not only much stronger than I am, but also that he is my instructor. Walking home from the school in a blind rage, I decided to quit, but then I remembered what Mr. Bill had said and I changed my mind. Quitting was a perfect example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Next day, I went back an apologized to Mr. Sevilla for losing my temper.

Working out doesn’t get easier as I get older. I turned 50 this year. One of the most important things I learned in preparing for this Second Dan test was that I had to stop beating myself up for not being able to compete physically against students who are half my age. Or for not being as flexible or in shape as Anna, my partner, whom I love and admire and who has been on this journey with me from the start. Anna had a moment herself where she wanted to back out of taking the Second Dan test. She was having trouble with the form, one of the only areas I wasn’t struggling. I talked her out of it and we worked on the form together for months and months, until we had it down tight.

My first impulse when I look at the video and photos of myself during the test is to only see what is not perfect, what is not right. I should have done better, I think. I forget, of course, that we were already 90 minutes into a grueling endurance workout by the time we got to the form. Notice the gentleman guiding us and judging our performance — Mr. Eric Anthamatten — a Fifth Dan Black Belt in Taekwondo, a brilliant mixed martial artist as well, and a PhD student in Philosophy. He teaches Philosophy in the prisons. If you look carefully you can see the five red stripes on his belt.

If you ever saw him practicing forms, you would think he can fly. I am barely able to get off the ground in my tornado kick. But, hey, at least I am able to do a tornado kick!

I was looking on line for a tailor or martial arts equipment store that could embroider two gold stripes for Anna and me onto the ends of our belts. Right now we have two strips of masking tape. Many of the internet forums stated that it was ridiculous to have stripes on one’s belt — if you need to prove you have a Second, Third, or Fourth Degree, then you probably don’t deserve it. Real experts can tell from watching you. Well, I’m 50, and I’ll never look like I deserve a Second Degree Belt. But I physically worked harder for this honor than I ever have on anything in my life. Those strips mean something profound and everlasting to me. They are a symbol of the fact that Anna and I didn’t let Mr. Bill down; they are a symbol that Mr. Luis Sevilla and Mr. Eric Anthamatten thought we deserved to be promoted.

When they get angry at us in class, they yell, “Pull yourselves together! You look like a bunch of 40 year olds!”

“Thank you, Sir!” we shout back.

The fear of failure, of being laughed at, of being a fool for having the hubris to even consider attempting this — all these feelings I had to wrestle with right up to the moment I started the test. Then, a strange calm overtook me. I prayed constantly, and I didn’t look at the clock once. (Mr. Sevilla, naturally, shouted things like, “Only two hours and forty three minutes left!”) But here’s what getting through this test gave me: the courage to face other fears, like my fear of heights. Two days after the test, I rode almost all the roller coasters at Six Flags, terrified the whole time.

My daughter Eyrna received her Second Degree Belt a year before I did. Well, she’s 13, and not plagued with bouts of paralyzing bronchitis (from 20 years of smoking) and aching bones and joints. Next summer, she and I are going to China for a month to study Kung Fu with the Shaolin monks. How many kids can say their moms did that with them?

It sounds like a cliche to say that martial arts have changed my life. I’m sorry, but martial arts have changed my life. I don’t for a second think I could get out of, say, a knife attack or a violent rape, but I think I would not give in easily. I think my only chance would be the element of surprise. Hopefully I would be able to hurt the bastard enough to make him think twice before he did it to someone else.

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Sometimes We Can’t Help Them – But Sometimes We Can

Kevin and I, good parents that we are, went on the 8th grade class trip to Six Flags amusement park. There is a girl in the class who hates my daughter. HATES her. This girl told Eyrna she’d stab her in the jugular with a knife if she could get away with it. I don’t know what makes children this angry in life, but I doubt Eyrna is the only cause of this girl’s anger. It doesn’t matter — my child is suffering at school. Since February, every day has been hell. She doesn’t want to go to school in the morning. She can’t sleep at night. Her closest friend opted out of this class trip to Six Flags, so Eyrna was pretty much on her own. We decided that we didn’t want her confronted by this situation in a theme park, with so few parents watching. So we decided to make ourselves available to join the small group of parent chaperones.

The kids had a half-day of school so they only had 3 hours in the park. We let Eyrna go off on her own, but I was anxious. After about an hour, she called me. I could hear the misery in her voice. Her one friend on the trip, P., did not like rollercoasters and P. kept getting phone calls from Eyrna’s enemy, urging P. to leave Eyrna and join her group. P. was about to leave Eyrna on her own. Eyrna had not gone on any roller coasters, though she wanted to. We’d bought her a FlashPass so she wouldn’t have to wait in the long lines, and now one of us would have to go with her. Kevin and I are both afraid of heights. But, hey, I passed my Second Degree Black Belt test last Saturday, I could do this. And Kevin is the kind of man who would suffer the rack for his child.

The first ride she wanted to go on, naturally, was the brand new Green Lantern. Just looking at the neon-green tracks soaring into large loops up into the white-hot sky made me want to barf. With the 2-person FlashPass, Eyrna and I were at the front of the line in less than five minutes. As we were standing behind the metal barriers waiting to board, a dark-haired boy standing next to us started up a conversation. He’d been waiting in the regular line for almost an hour. He was alone. His sister didn’t like rollercoasters. They were from Colorado, visiting his aunt. Would we mind if he joined us on the ride? Each row had four slots, where you were strapped in vertically, like a person about to get launched into outer space. Join us, I said, we’d be delighted. Eyrna blushed, slightly embarrassed. The ride practically gave me a coronary. Flipped upside down, side to side, loops, drops, everything you can imagine they would do to an astronaut in training. As we staggered off, I pulled out the FlashPass; I’m not stupid, I know what counts in an amusement park.

“Oh, wow, you guys got a FlashPass, you are so lucky!” the boy said. He had a handsome, open face, a charming smile. I could tell Eyrna thought so, too.

“Hey,” I said to the boy, “how about the two of you ride the next one without me? I don’t love these rides, I have to tell you.”

“Mom!” Eyrna said, laughing, “We don’t know him and he doesn’t know us!”

“What do you need to know? My name is S., I’m from Colorado Springs, I’m sixteen, I’m in ROTC, I have a sister. I’m going to join the Navy.”

“I’m going to join the Navy too,” Eyrna said. “I’m going to do NROTC in college.” He wanted to know what she intended to do in the Navy and she gave him some long, complicated explanation about Tomahawk missile defense. I stepped a little away, giving them room.

“Have you been on Nitro yet?” he asked her.

No, she had not. She looked at me. “Go,” I said, “Daddy and I will wait for you at the exit.”

Off they went, running, with the FlashPass in Eyrna’s hand. At the exit to The Green Lantern, Kevin was waiting, holding my bag and my bottled water. He wondered where Eyrna was off to in such a hurry. I told him we’d met a boy from Colorado on the ride and he was going to go with her on the next one — the dread Nitro.

“Thank God,” Kevin muttered. “I’d pay him to go with her so I wouldn’t have to.”

We followed at a distance and waited for them at the Nitro exit. With the FlashPass, they were out in less than ten minutes. A group of boys from her class passed by. “Eyrna! Hey, Eyrna! Who’s your friend?”

“A friend,” she replied lightly.

Their last ride before he had to go meet his aunt and sister was El Toro, an old-fashioned roller-coaster on a high wooden scaffolding that soared into the sky. Kevin and I waited down below and listened to the passengers scream on their plummeting descent.

When Eyrna and S appeared a few minutes later, her face was bright red and she was smiling.

The boy shook our hands and thanked us. He gave Eyrna a hug.

As the boy ran off to meet his family in the parking lot, Eyrna whispered to me, “Thank you, Mommy. This was one of the best days of my life.”

Sometimes we can’t help them, but sometimes we can.

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Eyrna’s 8th Grade English Memoir Essay


THEY DO SERVE BEER IN HELL
By Eyrna Heisler

There is yelling and screaming and fighting upstairs, but that’s a given. I’m seven, in my mother’s old bedroom from when she was a teenager. I can hear my grandmother screaming at my mother, reprimanding, lecturing, as if my mother is sixteen again. My grandmother is offended that my parents think she can’t run her house anymore. “Get out of my house and never come back,” my grandmother shouts. “We’re finished.”

My mother is yelling back, while my dad attempts to calm her down. I know they love me, they all do. But it doesn’t help. My parents rush in, both disconcerted. I can’t tell if my mother is about to break down in tears, or throw something. I’ve never really seen my father upset, or ever cry. But he has a look of sorrow on his face. He gets our bags and starts to pack. I’m nervous.

“We have to go,” my mother says, bending down in front of me. “She said we have to leave.”

“No.” I don’t want to leave.

“Yes. Now.”

“No, no, no, no! She’s joking. She’s just kidding. Please, Mommy.” What I’m really scared of is that if we go, if my Grammy throws us out this time, I will never see her again.

“She isn’t joking.” My mother turns away. Going to her bag, shoving her clothes in, as well as mine, frantically.

“I’ll go start the car,” my father says, walking out the door, bags in hand.

“No, Daddy, she’d never make us leave. Daddy, stop. We’re staying.” It’s my last desperate plea for us to stay. By now I have tears streaming down my face. My grandmother walks in, glares at my mother, then takes me by the hand into the vast living room. There are wine bottles littering the pulpit bar.

“You are the best child in the world! Much better than your mother ever was. I have never loved another child as much as I love you,” she says to me. I inhale the strong smell of alcohol and cigarettes on her breath. “You don’t have to leave. I want you to stay. Your parents are who I’m kicking out. I love you. Stay with me.”

My mother is suddenly standing behind me. “Mom, you can’t do that. You cannot put her in a position to choose. She’s seven. And you can’t put me in that position either. It’s not your place, I’m her mother, I decide what’s best for her.”

My mother takes me by the hand, walks me through the enormous house, through the yard, and out to the car. The two-hour drive from the Hamptons to New York City passes in a blur of tears.

My relationship with my grandmother was a complicated one. When I try to remember what our relationship was like, nothing comes to mind. I remember the places, like the dark bar where she used to take me for lunch; or sitting in the front seat with her at Carvel’s, eating a vanilla cone with sprinkles; or the Bratz and Barbie aisle at the toy store. I see it like a story in my head, from above. I see the fat little kid and the faceless, silver-haired grandmother. I don’t remember her, or the things that she would say, or the way she would treat me. She’s like a character, mingled with the views of what other people’s opinions of her were, misshapen and contorted. The only problem is I can’t go back and reread the book to form my own version of it.

This incident when my grandmother threw my parents out of her house was the first time my parents realized she was no longer sober. She spent the next few years in various hospitals, until she finally died, two years later. But at that moment she was alive, and healthy. Well, as healthy as an old raging alcoholic could possibly be, while also being blind drunk. Turns out that wasn’t the first time my parents had been thrown out of her house. She threw them out the day after their wedding, too.

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My Father, James Jones, and Censorship

In 1950, when my father realized that Scribner was going to cut a great many sexual references along with four-letter words from the manuscript of From Here to Eternity, he grew calm and focused and reasonable–that is, reasonable for a man who was known for his hot temper. He wrote thoughtful, equable letters to his editor, Burroughs Mitchell (later collected in To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones, 1989), who’d taken over for Maxwell Perkins after Perkins died. Mitchell and the in-house lawyers had explained that the book would not get past the censors if they left it the way it was …

Read the rest on The Huffington Post’s Books Page.

By the way, Gina Misiroglu of Red Room put me in touch with the AOL people, which is one of the great ways she’s bringing traffic to Red Room and getting attention for Red Room’s authors.

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We Want to Do His Work Justice

This is the table in the house our parents rented in Skiathos, Greece, where our dad told us the story of THE ILIAD for the first time. He explained, to our great surprise, that Achilles was gay and Patrocles was his lover, and that was why Achilles got so angry when Patrocles was killed. I wrote about this in my memoir, LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME. My brother and I thought he was making it up.

Our father was 24 years old in 1943, when he decided he wasn’t going to fight anymore. He was disgusted and enraged by the army’s red-tape bureaucracy, by the fact that when the wounded soldiers came home from the war, they were treated badly and without respect. He went AWOL several times, until they threw him in the stockade. When asked by an army psychiatrist why he was acting this way, he said he’d killed an emaciated Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat on Guadalcanal and he never intended to kill anyone ever again. If that made him crazy, then so be it. The army finally discharged him as unfit for duty in 1944, and gave him a pension. When FROM HERE TO ETERNITY was published in 1951, the army took his pension away, because they decided that anyone who could write a book couldn’t be all that crazy.

We have the letters he wrote to his editor at Scribner, Burroughs Mitchell, fighting and arguing to keep every f-word and c-word; every reference to homosexual sex; every scene of masturbation, in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY – and more often than not, he was overruled. What he cared about was depicting the reality of life in the pre-war army. The US Postal Service would not ship the book if it contained “prurient” language or scenes. His response to his editor was: “The things we change in this book for propriety’s sake will in five years, or ten years, come in someone else’s book anyway, that may not be as good as this one, and then we will kick ourselves for not having done it, and we will not have been first with this … and we will wonder why we thought we couldn’t do it. Writing has to keep evolving into deeper honesty, like everything else, and you cannot stand on past precedent or theory, and still evolve … You know there is nothing salacious in this book as well as I do. therefore, whatever changes you want made along that line will be made for propriety, and propriety is a very inconstant thing.”

My brother and I have wanted to publish an uncensored, unexpurgated version of the original manuscript for a long time, and Open Road Media‘s enthusiasm and energy for the project matched ours. Over the last few days this new edition has gotten a good deal of attention in the press — in The New York Times; on BBC News; and Perez Hilton‘s site.

My father believed that there has been and will be homosexual sex in the armed forces since armies have existed, which means, pretty much since men figured out how to band together and club each other on the head. He didn’t think it was a big deal and wanted people to be open and honest about it. He also believed that who a person likes to sleep with is hardly the point when you are lying in a foxhole with the enemy advancing upon you; what matters is if the person will stay cool and focused under fire. He didn’t see much progress in this area in his life time.

There are also sections of a novel of his that never was published, a first attempt, that we are going to release to the world. It is called TO THE END OF THE WAR. His scenes of the home front in 1943 are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The soldiers, recovering from their wounds in a Memphis army hospital, are steeling themselves to be shipped back out overseas. They all know they’re being sent to England to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. They also know they don’t stand a chance of surviving this time. Some of their wounds are very serious, but the army doesn’t give them a break. And they are changed, psychically broken in some fundamental way. They can’t sleep at night, and would rather be back in the jungle with their old outfits, but their old outfits don’t exist anymore. They’ve kept track of everyone, and everyone is KIA, MIA, or transferred. The civilian population likes its heroes, just as long the heroes don’t act out, or talk too much, or need too much attention. So the soldiers learn to put on fronts, to wear the mask the world wants them to wear. My dad understood so much about human nature at such an early age, I can hardly believe it. There is only one writer I can think of who got this and took it a step further – Tim O’Brien, in THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. In his book, it’s the narrator who puts on the fronts, who lies, who tricks us, the readers, all in order to show us that there is no way in hell we, as civilians, will ever understand war.

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An Unexpected Look Into My Parents’ Lives

Yesterday I was sent a link to a YouTube video of a reading I did last summer at Southampton College Writers Conference. Up in the right hand corner of the screen was a link to a documentary on my father that I had never seen, let alone heard of: ““The Private World of James Jones,” made for Canadian TV in 1967.

I clicked on the image of my father, and began to listen to him talk. It was such a shock to see my parents so young, beautiful, rich, at the prime of their lives. I started wondering if I’m who I think I am, or some twisted projection of who I really was meant to be. After a few minutes I had to turn it off. I was afraid. I was afraid of discovering things I didn’t know about my dad. He died when I was so young (16) that we never discussed many of the topics he brings up here.

After sleeping like a person in a coma last night, I went back to the documentary this morning and watched it the whole way through. By the end of the third part, it’s late at night and my parents are at a dinner party and they’re both completely drunk. My dad is talking about his childhood, of being alone. About his Puritanical grandfather, a tea-totaler who was half Cherokee and raised his sons with iron-fisted harshness. “He destroyed his sons,” he’s telling his great friend, Jessie Wood, so beautiful, so young here. Then, my dad starts yelling at the poor editor of TIME Magazine, who looks perfectly baffled and stunned, and not nearly drunk enough for this onslaught. What my dad is saying is true, though. But what finally comes out is this pure, unadulterated rage at the injustices of the world. My God, through the whole documentary he is building to this — this explosion of rage. Again, I had to turn it off. And my mom in the background yelling, “You tell ’em, Jim!” Now, I recognize her. I recognize that unfocused look, that turn of the head. She’s so drunk she’s slurring. But … what he’s saying is true. The US always backs fascist dictatorships when they ‘help’ with a coup. True. And he thinks TIME Magazine defends the government’s choices. I feel sorry for the poor TIME guy. Oh, no worries, he’ll get my dad back with the next horrible review. I can see it in his face.

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Veterans Day

As I was walking back from our writers’ Virtuous Circle lunch at the Algonquin, I happened upon the Veterans Day parade. I took a photo of these young men, so young, really, as they marched by and I felt tears spring to my eyes. A combination of deeply complicated emotions surged forth. I am a WWII veteran’s daughter. I love the US Armed Forces. I hate war. And I thought of my good friend, Larry Heinemann, Vietnam veteran, writer, and National Book Award winner, who says that for him, Veterans Day is a day of mourning. He also says that when he got home from the war in Vietnam he was so radical he couldn’t leave his house. On Veterans Day, he stays home and contemplates humanity and doesn’t like to talk on the phone.

But I have some good news to share this Veterans Day, news that is deeply important to me.

Open Road Media is going to reissue an unexpurgated, uncut, uncensored edition of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY in 2011, the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and my dad’s 90th birthday. This will be the edition my father always wanted published, with the swear words he was forced to cut returned to the text; and with the homosexual sex scenes also back in place.

What amazes me is that it’s 60 years later and our government and military are still waffling about allowing gay people to be honest about their sexuality. I think this is a travesty and so did my father – 60 years ago!

I honor you on this Veterans Day, Larry Heinemann, and all the other veterans who still feel the scars – physical or psychological – that never seem to completely heal.

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Raising Her: A Walk in the Park

It’s sunset and Kevin and I take the dogs for a walk in Karl Schurz Park while Eyrna is at her martial arts class. This is my favorite time of day, twilight, and a huge amber harvest moon floats above the buildings on the other side of the East River. We walk past the children’s playground, where we haven’t been at all lately. Through the tall fence hang the bright red harnesses of the baby swings, empty at this darkening hour, and I say, “Do you remember when we put her on those swings for the first time?” Of course, he remembers. She was only a couple of months old, fearless even then. She laughed and laughed, not wanting to stop.

Eyrna LI_1999

We pass the toddler jungle gym, painted in primary red and blue, with its curving wood bridge that seemed such an obstacle to her at eleven months, when she first stumbled across it without holding on. I was scared she’d fall and tear open her face, but I let her do it on her own, trying not to hover. Across the way stands the elementary school kids’ jungle gym, colorful scaffolding with obstacles and levels and ropes and rope ladders, and a twisting shiny slide.

“Remember when I let her climb that one?” Kevin points, “And you were scared to death?” I was scared to death, it’s true. Having only this one child, I looked around to see if any of the other mothers or nannies were concerned. But Kevin never cared what other people thought. She was the smallest child on the jungle gym, and the older kids weren’t above shoving her out of the way. But still, she wasn’t afraid. Kevin stood underneath, watching, not saying a word. Would he be able to catch her if she fell? I had faith he would. But still, I held my breath.

She’s too old now even for the middle-schoolers’ park, which stands slightly away from the others, surrounded by its own gate. Ah, the hours we spent in there, watching, staying out of her games until she wanted us to play some part: tick-tack-toe opponent; pretend vendor; Frankenstein; time-keeper. Kevin reminds me of the day she made the transition to the big kids’ swings. “Do you remember?” I laugh. I remember that he pushed her so high in the air and she kept shouting, “Higher, Daddy! Higher!” until the chain ropes that held the swing lost their tautness and I thought she was going to go flying over the fence.

She’ll be starting high school next year. Where did the time go? Eyrna_dolphin_compr

“We did a good job, didn’t we?” I ask Kevin.
“I think we did.”

I grew up rich, in Paris, in a town house on the Seine. Eyrna had none of that. But we traveled a great deal, and took her with us, everywhere. We went to the Venice Film Festival and stayed in a Renaissance palazzo as guests of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. We went to San Diego and swam with dolphins.

She saw the sun set from the top of Montmartre as the nuns sang hymns inside the cavernous church, their high, innocent voices carried forth on the still air. “Eyrna,” I said, opening my arm in a wide circle, the city spread out below us, “I give you Paris.”

Eyrna_Kev Paris_2002

Once, a crotchety super down the street yelled at her while she was walking the dogs by herself. He scared her so badly she wouldn’t walk on his side of the street anymore. Kevin went out there and told the super if he ever scared his daughter again, he’d beat the crap out of him. The super said he had a gun. Kevin said, “Good, I look forward to the law suit.”

Next year she’ll start high school. We’ve told her many times, We’ll always be here if you need us. Even at three o’clock in the morning. If you’re ever scared, we’ll come get you. Only four more years and she’ll be off to college.

Soon, we’re going to have to step back and say, “Eyrna, we give you the world.”

Eyrna_Greek nymphet

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The 2010 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Winner

This morning, I got to make the phone call to the winner of the $10,000 James Jones First Novel Fellowship.

Every time we enlist a new judge, we give that person the privilege of making the call. I didn’t judge last year because my book was coming out and I was on the road; novelist Nina Solomon graciously took my place. She thus had the honor of phoning the 2009 winner, Tena Russ. Nina, who also teaches in the Wilkes MFA Program, said bringing Tena the good news made her feel happy for an entire month. It is one of the few times we, as teachers, as writers, get to feel powerful, as if we are moving boulders out of a struggling writer’s path. Nothing guarantees the novel will find a publisher, but our list of success stories is long. Our 2007 winner, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, was published last spring to critical acclaim and was chosen as one of Oprah’s top summer reads. my-name-is-mary-sutter-oliveira-james-jones-winner

Our past winners include Leslie Schwartz, who won in 1997 for JUMPING THE GREEN, which became a best-seller. I never got to meet Leslie, because during that year’s James Jones Literary Society symposium, I was nursing my newborn, my only child.
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Greg Hrbek, the 1996 winner for THE HINDENBERG CRASHES NIGHTLY, went on to become a Hodder Fellow at Princeton, and one of his short stories was included in The Best American Short Stories of 2009, edited by Alice Sebold.
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Mary Kay Zuravleff of Washington DC won the 1994 contest for her wonderful novel THE FREQUENCY OF SOULS, which went on to be published to rave reviews. Her second novel, THE BOWL IS ALREADY BROKEN, was published in 2005 by Farrar Straus & Giroux. She told me winning the Fellowship changed her life. These are just a few.
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Earlier today, upon having made our decision, I learned the name of this year’s winner. Gina Ventre. Up until that point, I only knew the working title and log number of her novel: #170, MOON’S EXTRA MILE. I called her and left a message to call me back as soon as possible. Then I sent an email, realizing most people check their emails much more frequently than their mobile phones. I received a response in about 5 minutes. Gina wrote that she was at work and couldn’t take a break to call me back until 1:30 PM. Where are you? I wrote back. She replied that she was at work behind a desk, at a hospital in Ohio.

At 1:30 on the nose, Gina called. I told her she’d won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Dead silence. Finally, in a timid murmur, she asked, “The whole thing?”
“The whole thing,” I replied.
After another silence, she said, “Holy shit.” Then she seemed to be catching her breath and asked me to hold on a second while she tried to process this news. “Can I tell people? I mean, is this for real?”
“It’s for real and yes, you can tell people.”

When I called Robin Oliveira and told her she’d won, she wept for 5 minutes straight before I could get a word in. She told me she’d given up. She was about to throw the book away. Now she’s on Oprah’s summer list.

When my daughter asks me about my father, who died long before she was born, I try to draw a three-dimensional picture of him, but my memories are confused. I can’t remember now what is purely true, and what has been embellished in my years of storytelling. One thing I know is true: he loved young writers. He wanted to help them. In 1973, he wrote a letter to a general he’d befriended while he was in Vietnam during the war, writing a series of articles for the New York Times Magazine. 4  JJ at work_1949He told the general to support his Hippie son, who wanted to become a writer. He told the general that it took as long to become an accomplished writer as it did to become a doctor or a lawyer. Why not give his boy the same chance he would give him if he was in graduate school for medicine? It’s because of this letter that I started the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. This link will take you to the Wilkes University site for information on applying next year.

And Nina Solomon was exactly right. Having the privilege of making that phone call to Gina Ventre, the 2010 winner, will keep me flying for at least a month.

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