Seven long years. Six complete versions. Yo: Shepherd: A Memoir.
Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life. As if the strong feelings they stir prove their validity, dreams propel the dreamer through an indifferent world. Which explains how I, a guy who grew up in a Florida beach town, find myself crouched beside a suffering sheep in an Appalachian pasture.
—Shepherd’s opening lines.
Otterbein University, in Westerville, Ohio, is chock-full of the nicest kids I’ve ever known. And Paige Schortgen and Haley Young, former writing students of mine, are two of the nicest. Which makes them, in fact, two of the nicest girls in the entire world. (Good writers, too.) Their geeked-out celebration selfie above is the best reaction my book has provoked so far. (Other readers, your mileage may vary.) My little world is so much larger and warmer with such folks in it. Girls, you are funny, kind, and definitely keepers.
Though Amazon began selling the book on or about April 15, the official publication date of Shepherd: A Memoir is today, May 1, 2014.
I’m not sure I can send the treasured photo of my student friends to booksellers as proof they should stock my book. So Shepherd’s review in Kirkus carries a tad more weight in the book world.
Kirkus calls Shepherd: A Memoir a ‘sagacious elegy.’
Here’s a chunk of what Kirkus said:
Gilbert ruminates warmly on his artisanal flock, seeing the hidden beauty of his sheep. He also recalls his collection of farm implements: an old post pounder, a used cultivator, a small tractor—accompaniments to the never-ending work that was especially backbreaking for someone with a day job in town. Gilbert is especially astute in his portrayals of his Appalachian neighbors, who were mostly good folk. His farm logs are studies in animal husbandry, proper fencing, house building, birth and decay. His prose is pungent: In a sheep barn, he notes, the air was humid with an amalgam of “mellow musk, tangy manure, bitter urine, sweet hay.” He writes of digging out aged offal, of tenant rats, and of the hundreds of natural shocks that man and beast may encounter. . . . In a sometimes-earthy, sometimes-prolix and ultimately sagacious elegy, Gilbert speaks of descent into pain and fear as well as of the beauty of bucolic nature and the diverse traits of agrarian man.
A thoughtful memoir of rams and ewes, farmers and family, life and death.
What a wise and gracious review. Dad used to say of such outcomes, “That’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.”
Indeed. And as such matters go, it’s almost a rave. So “sometimes-prolix” didn’t make me wince. A writer friend remarked, “Most people won’t know what ‘prolix’ means and will think it’s a compliment.” Prolix: “Extended to great, unnecessary, or tedious length.” That’s me all over. As any reader of this blog can confirm. One of my writing defaults seems to be that storytelling is like selling ears of sweet corn by the dozen at a farm stand: you throw in extra!
I’m grateful to and rather in awe of the anonymous reviewer. S/he managed generously to overlook topics s/he might have harped on—what I might be fairly said to harp on—and instead pulled way back to see the story entire and to summarize it without undue distortion. That’s hard. Especially in a review that’s anything but prolix.
On the heels of this favorable notice, comes an excerpt in Utne Review. They ran my book’s Prologue in its entirety. As an excerpt, it would seem to leave readers hanging—the Prologue is designed to send readers deeper into the book—but maybe they’ll click on over to Amazon and order it, just to relieve their unbearable narrative tension. Or to satisfy their morbid curiosity.Writers tend to think excerpts will just happen when their book appears, but in my experience in book publicity, they’re rare. Magazine editors don’t know your book, and won’t take time to patch something together. (Hence Utne’s approach with mine.) Even if an author or publicist hands them a cohesive excerpt, it must then compete with any other piece clamoring for their attention. Just being from a book won’t help, and in fact may hurt, unless the author is famous or the book extremely newsworthy.
Shepherd: A Memoir called ’emotionally harrowing.’
Over at Sunny Room Studio, Daisy Hickman has run a wide-ranging interview with me about Shepherd, farming, writing, teaching, and spirituality. She titled it “Emotionally Harrowing,” which I love because of the pun. To harrow, in farming, is to break up rough clods left on the surface from deep plowing, making the land ready to grow a new crop. But for better and worse, farming is now exotic, despite great interest in it, and I fear Daisy’s wit scares the heck out of people—my book’s not that dark.
With Shepherd’s dribs and drabs of attention, maybe independent bookstores and even Barnes & Noble will stock it. If so, look for it in the gardening or nature section. Although it’s a literary memoir and not how-to (more like how-don’t), it is categorized on the back cover Nature and Animals / Horticulture / Memoir. Those are the labels that influence booksellers regarding where to shelve it. I asked my publisher to use such codes because I’ve noticed that memoirs come and go rather quickly in stores, and I believe it may sell if back-to-the-land types come across it.Tonight I read at Paging Columbus, a literary event series in Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space downtown. It’s a sleek gallery venue, rife with talented poets. The host and organizer, Hannah Stephenson is author of the poetry collection In the Kettle, the Shriek, and I share the stage with two other accomplished young poets up from Cincinnati, Rochelle Hurt, author of the prose-poem and verse narrative The Rusted City, and Julia Koets, author of Hold Like Owls, winner of the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Rush-hour traffic and parking angst precede my appearance. (Kathy’s driving.) On Saturday I’m part of the Westerville Public Library’s Local Author Book Festival. And on Sunday I read and sign books at Courtright Memorial Library of Otterbein University.
Later this month my book and I participate in one of Ohio’s greatest cultural assets, the Ohioana Book Festival. I’ve always envied the way the South gets behind southern authors’ books—while in Ohio, Cleveland is apt to ignore a book by a Cincinnati author—but the Ohioana book fest and The Ohoiana Quarterly, which solely reviews books by Buckeye-inflected authors, are glaring exceptions.
Meantime, I’ve mailed some early author copies to family and friends. And been made aware that about half the time, busy filling out envelopes or jotting the recipient a note, I forgot to inscribe the enclosed book! What’s happening to me?
Oh, I’m pleased, sure—yet somehow terrified by attention. No biggie, I tell myself. Just a blip in so many phases in this life. Mere moments, really. Chances to celebrate. Sometimes a tad much, though, for an introvert. Despite how willfully, carefully, and officially he’s dramatized himself.
Well, heck. What did I expect? Author Michael Perry likens writing to cleaning out calf pens on his father’s dairy farm: if you keep shoveling, eventually you’ll have a pile big enough that folks notice.
But it’s hard to believe. All those solitary years at a desk led to this? Upon consideration: Thank goodness they led to something.
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama, rock me . . .
Rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey mama, rock me.
—“Wagon Wheel,” written by Bob Dylan & Ketch Secor
[Listen: Old Crow Medicine Show plays its epic “Wagon Wheel”—there’s hardly anything more heartbreakingly lovely than these boys’ banjo-inflected harmonies and their old-timey fiddle. What a joyous, resonant tune. It makes me proud to be an American, a Dylan fanatic, and a once and future southern boy.]