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Below you can listen to my reading of “Sanctuary,” a story in my novel-in-stories entitled Horseshoe. The catalyst for writing this piece probably first came the result of the death of a high school friend from cancer approximately fifteen years ago. I remember that there was a church service in relation to her illness. It wasn’t a service I attended, and I never talked with my friend or anyone else about what happened there. So the events of this story and the thoughts of the lead character are from my own imagination.
I was interested in the subject matter because of my interest in what it means to be a person who believes in God and what it means to pray. I also drew on my experiences of the death of my grandfather and father in law, both also from cancer. It’s a story I couldn’t have written ten years ago before I met my wife and learned what it is to live in the world with daughters. It’s a terrifying and wonderful experience. Music is by the Jeremy Vogt Band. “Sanctuary” first appeared in the literary journal Sakura and was published most recently by Cherokee McGhee Press.
Click on the following link to listen:
Horseshoe is a novel in Southern Gothic tone stirred with Midwestern sensibility that churns the waters of the Tippecanoe River that embrace the town of Horseshoe and its inhabitants. The novel’s stories are told from multiple characters and points of view. Each chapter can be a standalone story. But when read as a whole, the book produces a rich, multilayered tale of life in a small town.
“The town of Horseshoe is modeled somewhat after my own small hometown of Winamac, Indiana,” Torgerson admits.
“Once I moved out of Winamac to bigger cities such as Fort Wayne in Indiana and Charlotte in North Carolina, I came to realize that it was a really unique feature of living in a small town that everyone knows everybody else’s business,” Torgerson says. “If you’re from Winamac and marry a person from Winamac, then you likely know that person’s entire history. You know what they did in the park when they were twelve, and you know the details of their first divorce. My friends here in New York City do not tend to have the same sort of experiences. They meet strangers and date strangers and there are parts of those people’s history which remain eternally hidden.”
The “knowing everybody else’s business” feature of his small hometown was an aspect he strived to illustrate in the stories. “I knew I wanted to have a grocery-store story but I couldn’t imagine what would happen there,” Torgerson says. “Oh sure, I had ideas, but the story surfaced for me when I was browsing a Bible concordance where I was looking for words connected to love, marriage, divorce, and adultery. It was the verse from Leviticus that unlocked the story for me, that gave me the idea for the Biblical egging of Uncle David and Aunt Barb. I think stories need that sort of unexpected turn or surprise, and so I guess I could say in a way that God delivered that part of the story to me.”
Torgerson explains that once he thinks he has an idea of where the story might go, he gives himself over to the language and uses it as the mode of transportation to find the conclusion.
“There are almost always surprises,” Torgerson says, “but I like to know where the story is headed when I begin. I wrote using similar processes with ‘The Bloody Bucket’ and ‘The Secret,’ the latter story inspired by a student who told me his mother had tried to kill him. Of course he’s not the only person to whom that had ever happened. It seems like I hear that story every once in awhile, and my story allowed me to experience a bit of what it must be like to be mother and child.”
“Welcome to Horseshoe, Indiana,” Bryan Furuness, author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, states from his reading of an advanced copy. “In the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio, William Torgerson’s new book links stories about big doings in a small town. With a style that is always engaging and often hilarious, Torgerson has written what Sherwood Anderson would have written if he had a sense of humor.”
Jane Roper, author of Eden Lake, says, “As I read, I felt as if each character’s longing, anger, lust or regret were temporarily my own. It hurt—in the best possible way.”
Horseshoe is available now at bookstores and on-line at Amazon.com and BN.com from Cherokee McGhee Publishing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William J. Torgerson is an assistant professor in the Institute for Writing Studies at St. John’s University in New York. His first novel Love on the Big Screen tells the story of a college freshman whose understanding of love is shaped by late-eighties romantic comedies, and his adaptation of that novel won the Grand Prize of the Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival Screenplay Competition.
William’s work has appeared in numerous literary and scholarly journals, including his article “Learning to Surf the Sea of Conversation,” which is forthcoming in the Journal of Teaching Writing. Over an eleven year span of teaching and coaching, William worked with students ranging from grades six through twelve in the public schools of Indiana and North Carolina.
Media Kit available at: http://www.cherokeemcghee.com/Torgerson/mediakit/MediaKit.htm
I’ve previously described myself as a Christian who doesn’t go to church. This may or may not be a permanent part of my life: not going to church. Sometimes I miss the sorts of sermons that are like the best classroom lessons I’ve experienced, or I miss the lift in spirit I have previously felt when I raise my ugly singing voice within a congregation.
Recently, I attended a writing conference at Wesleyan University in Connecticut where O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners was often invoked. It’s book I had somehow not yet read, and while I waited for the copy I’d ordered to arrive, I browsed the library collection at St. John’s University in New York and came across O’Connor’s “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” It’s an essay that interests me from the standpoint of being a Christian who writes stories which often contain curse words, sex, and people doing ugly things to one another. It’s subject matter that might be tricky if I was teaching somewhere such as my fictional Pison Nazarene University and it’s also subject matter that is tricky when I’m talking with my parents about my work. As some of you might know, parents often weigh in with their thoughts no matter how old you get. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I imagine O’Connor possibly responding in her essay to questions such as these:
- Why can’t you write a happy story? Why does there have to be cursing, violence, and sex?
- Why does there have to be so many shadows from your own life? Why can’t you just make everything up?
- Why do you have to write so much about the place you come from?
Here are some lines in bold I’ve plucked from O’Connor’s essay and a few of mine own thoughts which follow.
“The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is.” Life works with my mind to give me ideas, people, and situations about which to write. I have those to choose from. I try to become the characters and report what happens in and out of minds. I try to point to spots in life that are interesting to me and so might tend to be interesting to some of you.
“A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it.” No matter your belief in God or no God, life is happening in front of you. Art such as O’Connor’s helps me to pay attention to life that I would have otherwise missed.
Perhaps partially in response to, “Why can’t you write about happy things?” O’Connor wrote this: An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him (the writer) without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.
What would make a person fearful of reading fiction? It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life… O’Connor’s line evokes for me those who would never read Barack Obama or Bill O’Reilly. If they are one side, they can’t stand to hear the other.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works. Comp. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988. Print.
A note about the assignment:
The class is with Joshua Henkin. He directs the MFA program at Brooklyn College, and right before coming to the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference, I bought his book Matrimony. Glancing over the opening pages, it looks promising.
The first sentence of the piece below isn’t mine. We were given eight first sentences (some of which Josh says he made up and some of which he took from stories) and we were told to evaluate them and then choose one of them and try an opening.
Here are the two paragraphs I wrote in response to the prompt:
My daughter Josie said she’d found God in New Mexico. Said she met Jesus after drinking some Ayahuasca. I looked the concoction up on the internet, and I’ll tell you this: I can’t see how my Josie met any God I ever believed in. As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing is just another excuse to get blown out of your gord on drugs, that’s what it is. She was supposed to be down in Santa Fe teaching drama to middle school students. She was supposed to be staying under her aunt’s supervision. What a crock.
My wife’s sister hasn’t got an ounce of work ethic or discipline on her little hippy body. From what I can tell, she mostly sits around listening to The Dead while she dabs paint on a canvas. Now Josie says she isn’t coming back up here to French Lick, but that’s where she’s wrong. She’s only nineteen and there’s no way my little girl is going to go down that path, not if there’s anything I can do about it. I’m going down there to get her, and I’m leaving first thing in the morning.
I think I usually resist writing exercises, but the possible conflict between the father and daughter could be interesting to explore via a story or novel.