June 3, 2009
As I drove up the Natchez Trace to Nashville for the taping of a PBS show, I did the usual prep work of reducing and framing the Sultana story for a specific venue: Nashville was the point of entry into the war for many of the Sultana passengers, Tennessee had the second highest number of casualties as a result of the disaster, etc. After three months, this process has gotten fairly routine, and to be honest, a little mundane. What really interests me is not the local angle so much as how, specifically, each audience or interviewer will interact with the story, and on a more personal level, how the story just tags along everywhere I go, as if it were riding with me, watching out the window for anything interesting or familiar. For the most part, the story is looking for trouble, usually.
The Natchez Trace was not at all monotonous this time. On the contrary, it was strangely stimulating, so much so that I found myself scribbling notes -- something that is not possible while dueling with 18-wheelers on an interstate. Taking notes while driving is ill-advised, I know, and at one point I scared myself by honking the horn inadvertently as I scribbled with my pad resting on the steering wheel. I confess that I have ample experience at doing this. Normally there’s not a lot of depth to such notes; they’re just details that float to the surface and highlight a free-form theme. “Why does death make you think of sex?” for example, and: “Lots of uprooted trees from tornadoes. (Natchez Trace) pretty but can be a terrifying place, too. Like Andersonville?”
In his wonderful book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, author Geoff Dyer wrote that he particularly liked Lawrence’s stories that were written without benefit of notes because, he said, the experience was created during the course of the writing rather than being framed by it. In those stories, Dyer wrote, “You are drenched in a spray of ideas that never lets up. Impressions are experienced as ideas, ideas are glimpsed like fields through a train window, one after the other.” The narrative is the shape of the experience. I was taking notes, but I was also drenched by a spray of ideas, many of them glimpsed like fields – or even actually AS fields -- through the window of my Toyota pickup. When the ideas got too complex for the steering wheel, I pulled over at a picnic area (most of the notes were fleshed out at a stop known as Witch Dance, somewhere near Okolona, Mississippi; the Park Service sign said bare patches of ground reputedly represented where the dances took place – “See if you can find one!”).
I was traveling to Nashville for an interview with John Seigenthaler, who at 82 is one of the elder statesmen of journalism. He has a syndicated PBS book show, “A Word on Words,” filmed at the studios of Nashville Public Television. My last visit to Nashville failed to tap the mother lode of book tour publicity. There were seven people at the Barnes & Noble signing, including the store manager and two people who got trapped in the reading area. So, really: Four, not counting me. It was fun, but hardly a healthy return for the investment in time and money, from a book tour perspective. As a result I almost missed the chance to appear on Seigenthaler’s show because the publisher didn’t want to spring for a return trip. The odd thing is, this was a much greater opportunity than a run-of-the-mill B&N signing.
Seigenthaler has had some heavy-hitting authors on his show, including John Updike, Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Kinky Friedman, Studs Terkel, Al Gore (who worked for Seigenthaler as a reporter at The Tennessean newspaper), Gail Sheehy and Deepak Chopra. Seigenthaler also has his own bonafides. He was founding editorial director of USA Today (as a former Gannettoid, I have to forgive him that) and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt, and is chair emeritus of The Tennessean and a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He also served as administrative assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy (and was one of Kennedy’s pallbearers following his assassination); is the author of a biography on President James K. Polk; and chairs the selection committees for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profiles in Courage Award and the RFK Memorial’s Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He was born in Nashville and worked at The Tennessean off and on from 1946 to 1991. His son, who goes by the same name, is also a journalist (until recently, a correspondent for NBC).
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the mysteries of the current publishing environment is that a publisher like HarperCollins, when faced with dramatic declines in book sales, would choose to drastically cut their publicity efforts. Yet that’s what the company (among many publishers) has done. In the case of Seigenthaler, his people had to persist to even get HarperCollins’ attention, and ultimately the company’s publicity director decided she was not interested in ponying up. Because I felt the show was worthwhile, I decided to travel to Nashville on my own. A further incentive was that my friend Irem Durdag, who lives in Istanbul, was simultaneously passing through Nashville on her American vacation. She’s part of the reason I was drenched with ideas. While being serenaded by a Radiohead soundtrack, I pictured the moments that Irem and I have shared over the last six or seven years: Swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean in Olympos, Turkey, where the beach is made of marbles and the cliffs are riddled with ancient Greek tombs; standing beside a Turkish motorway at night, with car lights streaming past, while a pregnant dog foraged around a gas station parking lot for bugs and my friend Brahim knelt in the station’s roadside prayer room; arguing during a late night wedding reception at a castle in France; lurching through a jammed intersection in Istanbul as Irem cursed every other driver; waking up in a silent, darkened bus at sunrise, on a ferry crossing the Sea of Marmara.
Irem and I met while she was visiting in the U.S., working at a summer camp and dating my friend Josh, and ours has been a sporadic, serendipitous relationship; alternately, she comes to visit in Mississippi, I travel to Turkey, we meet somewhere else. On this trip she’s visiting a friend in Nashville whom she met at a yoga ashram in India, whose name is Chandelle. We’ll be staying at Chandelle’s house. Like Irem, she’s a beautiful, slightly whimsical woman – smart, funny, and dedicated to world peace.
Driving along, I passed through a landscape counterbalanced by storm-tossed trees and a perfectly clear and vivid blue sky. Signs pointed to places like Mantee and Montpelier. There were a lot of stories tagging along, some of which concerned my mother, who died in January at the same hospital where she gave birth to me. I was there when she died, which meant that, in a sense, I escorted her out of the world at the very place she escorted me in. Because I didn’t know how long we would be at the hospital the day she was admitted, I took my laptop, and at one point I showed her a slideshow of pictures from my visits with Irem. I had an agenda here. My mother had told me, years ago, that she did not want to leave this world without knowing that I had someone to look after me. She said she wanted me to marry Irem. So here we were; she was about to leave this world and I had no one to look after me. I thought of Irem and decided that she could, under the circumstances, serve as a stand-in. It wasn’t too far-fetched. Irem knows this story, by the way, and approved it retroactively. My mother had trouble seeing the pictures because her glasses wouldn’t fit under her oxygen mask, and she couldn’t talk, but she got the point. She blinked slowly, once, in approval.
One of the themes of the Sultana story is that we never know what lies ahead and we never know how much we can take. Over time we craft an acceptable song of our life, based on what we discover lying ahead and what we find we're able to take. We’re all inching toward death, of course -- it chases us down the parkway. There’s plenty of evidence along the otherwise scenic Natchez Trace – skidmarks and twisted, fallen trees -- to remind us that attractiveness does not preclude horror. Think of the flight from Rio to Paris – how sexy would that have sounded, before the crash? But there’s a lot to see and experience along the way. True, a spot on your leg could have killed you at Andersonville, just as it could have killed me a month ago. Your heart can kill you, for that matter. The point is to keep a level head and enjoy your life. Keep calm and carry on. Add to your retinue of stories.
Somewhere in Tennessee I passed 50 or so buzzards circling on an updraft, approximating the shape of a gentle funnel cloud, which was exactly what it was. A half-mile away I passed a hilltop recently wrecked by the more violent version. Next came the Meriwether Lewis Death and Burial Site, where the famous explorer mysteriously died in 1809. It’s a pretty place.
I’m a little tired of belaboring Sultana, but each event opens a new vista on the “horrific tale,” as it was headlined in this month’s review in Beachblvd magazine, adding further nuance along the way. Just as beauty does not preclude horror, horror does not preclude beauty. A lot of people see the story of the Sultana as one long tale of woe, but I see flowerings of poetry and grace standing out against a long tale of woe. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Also I am dragging it along.
Today Irem and I, and Chandelle’s charming boyfriend John, will visit a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, after which I’ll do Seigenthaler’s show. I look forward to hearing what interests him about the story.