Blame my night job.
After spending an incredibly exhilirating -- and incredibly exhausting -- evening/early morning in the newsroom, I slept through most of the day and failed to write my review of local author Charles Colley's slightly creepy, lovingly crafted and uniquely Baltimorean Sisterbaby's Monkey.
So tomorrow, I will share my thoughts on this new piece of Baltimore culture. For now, I leave you with Colley's story, best expressed by the author himself. Take heed, budding authors: Here's a man who had a dream and worked until it came into fruition, on his own terms. How's that for inspirational?
Some folks ask how it feels to be a 20-year overnight writing success. Others, and I can see it in their eyes, though they’d never say it out loud, wonder why I kept trying, why I didn’t just let it go, after all the heartache, all the fights with my wife when the money was gone, great piles of it, gone because I was holed up writing instead of going back into business, doing what I should have been doing, hoeing that row, toeing that line, doing what was expected of me. I’m not saying I was right to do it. I’m saying I had no choice. If you are a writer or an avid reader, you may know what I mean. It’s a disease.
I have written many novels and none has meant more to me than the first, Sisterbaby’s Monkey, because, while a true fiction, it is grounded in my own family, their history, and the stories that I grew up hearing. When I was 12 and my sister was 10, our mother contracted cancer that ultimately killed her by the time I was fifteen. During that time, I replaced her at her manual typewriter, editing my father’s attempts at fiction writing, using the white out bottle until I had to retype the entire page. I typed hundreds of pages, helping in his attempt to get published, which never happened. I was bit by writing’s bug back then, infected for a lifetime, hoping I might do what all those novels did for me while she lay dying downstairs. Reading fiction distracted me from life so totally, that when I lay the book down, I was surprised I was still lying in my bed in the attic, reading with a flashlight until dawn, my fears and sadness closeted for a time.
After our mom was gone, our grandparents showed up most days as we got off the school bus in Timonium. Nana put a good dinner on the table and caught up the laundry. They both tried hard to get us past the tears and wailing that always let go, once we were back home. Their lives were tough, and the characters in Sisterbaby’s Monkey reflect that; my Nana, her true name, Jesse, like the book, as a child sweat shop worker at Clipper Mill in Hampden, my JoJoe as a little bull, carrying hundred pound sacks of coffee beans, one in each hand, up and then down four flights of stairs to the roasting machine in an old pile of bricks along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
They had no skills to help us through our grief. All they had were their own stories. They sat me and my sister down in those days and weeks following mom’s funeral, and told us of their early times in Baltimore together, during World War I when they dated and all the years afterward as they aged together. Uncle George in the Navy during the Great War. JoJoe installing direct current electricity in his mom’s home, the first on the block to get it. His grandfather, killed by his own men outside Frederick during the Civil War, the Flu Epidemic after World War I that killed so many in Baltimore and across the globe. Nana feeding the bums off the back porch during the Depression. Aunt Alice and her polio. Listening to the short wave radio during World War II, and calling folks all across America, to tell them that their loved ones were alive, their names read aloud on POW or wounded lists. Not happy stories, but enthralling, everyone with a message of determination, of right conquering wrong, of patience winning out, and, above all, The Golden Rule, and Keeping Your Promise No Matter What. That is what Sisterbaby’s Monkey is ultimately about, when you get past the ghosts and the voices, the Great War, murder, and a Baltimore that is no more.
Those stories, coupled with our father’s, shaped my outlook on life, got me through that grief, bonded me to those old people, who, in Nana’s words, ‘were ever 18 on the inside no matter what story the mirror told’. When JoJoe passed at the hospital, during a snowstorm when Nana was unable to visit him one last time, even though they had never been apart in over 60 years of marriage, my father and I were determined that she not stay alone in her home the rest of her days.
A convent down the road from our first horse farm in Long Green Valley had been changed into an old folks’ retirement home and we pushed her to visit there. She wasn’t buying, saying that JoJoe was in her home, in the wood floor that he had laid with his own hands, in the shade of the red brick that she had picked for their new home in 1950, in the azaleas and flowers that he planted just for her. They had saved all through the Depression and World War II for that house and he was in there, talking to her from every corner, even though he was gone.
I was saddened at her decision, made as soon as we got in the car to carry her back home. I went to bed that night and dreamed the novel, twenty long years ago. Though I was not Catholic, there was the ghost of a nun driving the tale, there was the convent as it might have been, long ago. There were Jesse and Jim, morphed from my grandparents into Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the next night’s dream. I began handwriting this dream, so vivid upon my retinas, so complete in my memory, like no other dream I had ever experienced. The characters evolved with the writing, the excitement grew, I was outside myself somehow. I wanted to tell Nana about the dream but I could not, so I asked her for more stories, all that she could give.
They’re in there, most of them, and if not, they will be in subsequent tales of Jesse Mayo and Jim McPherson. The twenty years, from then until now, saw endless rejections from agents and publishers, but, so what? I’m here and the story is better than it ever was, because of all the others that got writ while this one percolated, refusing to go cold, like the hot bags of coffee ground only an hour before, that I retrieved from JoJoe’s old top coat pocket, each Wednesday when he and Nana visited our Northwood row house for spaghetti.
Please visit my Web site at www.charlescolley.com. Read some sample pages, send me a blurb if you like it. Ask for it anywhere books are sold and help an old guy get famous! I’m determined to print all the recommendations that everyone sends me-on the site, in the book, on the cover, however I can, to prove that readers’ opinions matter more than critics, more than other writers. As soon as Sisterbaby’s Monkey is selling well, all the rest of my novels, mentioned at the back of the book, will be printed.