It’s pouring this Sunday morning in Mississippi. But I am listening to spring peepers from Missouri on Dan Bush’s website, Missouri Skies (http://www.missouriskies.org/). Bush is a really wonderful photographer from Albany, Missouri, a way up north from the Ozarks. His photograph, Milky Way and Fairview Church, McFall, Missouri, 2009. Photo © Dan Bush, is the anchor to the front cover of Some Kinds of Love: Stories, published at the end of April 2013 by University of Massachusetts Press and winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize in Fiction.
Finding Dan’s photograph counts as one of those moments when Grace, in the Catholic sense, operates even in the pursuit of art that may have very little to nothing sacred about it. I find this all the time in research and study. I will have a pressing question on my mind, and often isn’t that what prayer is? The question circles, adumbrates, and then like starlight piercing vapor, sparks, and the answer arrives in some kaleidoscopic turn of the universe of experience.
It is notoriously hard to find illustrations for the front covers of essay collections and short story collections. Sometimes authors can be so far off base with what they suggest! I recall an author long ago (not one of University Press of Mississippi’s authors) demanding that the publisher use a terrible snapshot of the author pointing to a giant, goofy, miniature golf statue of an elephant. There was not an elephant or even a glancing reference to mini-golf in the whole essay collection. But this was an age when some authors felt the divine right to ride a small publisher to exhaustion, like a Caliph with a stick to the back of some poor pachyderm. So I had some baggage to carry, some hesitancies about what image to request for my collection of short stories, if it ever could be published.
If the collection has a theme in common that can be a help, or a hindrance to the publisher. With the title, Some Kinds of Love, I could envision some really sappy misfires, and some other images that might fit one story but not any of the others. The twelve stories are very different in theme, atmosphere, even time (1833 to the near future) and distance (Niangua, Missouri, to New Orleans, to West Point, Mississippi, and back home to the Ozarks again).
I had a solid idea of the order of the stories early on—the collection had to begin with a story published in North Dakota Quarterly and written fairly recently. With the opener, “Starfall,” I stole two narratives from The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo. In one a hapless fellow is trudging the banks of White River, having crashed his dealwood raft encumbered with a millstone, a foiled early Ozarks entrepreneur! In another, Turnbo interviews several villagers who experienced the starfall of 1833, a celestial event which had them all, for a whole night, believing that this was the end of the world, so intense was the meteor shower. Combined with family lore—my Grandfather Yates’s first name was Roma; and my grandmother’s people were led by a blacksmith, Great Grandfather Wing—and the name Pretty Polly from a song by my favorite band in the world, the Ozarks greats, Big Smith, “Starfall” seemed a right overture to all the coming themes: love, sex, arrogance, betrayals, the end of the world!
The collection is then closed out by another end of the world saga, this an old story for me, one that started in W.D. Blackmon’s workshop at Missouri State in the late 1980s. In it, a seer, who perceives all reality as a messy mish-mash of the next sixty minutes all compressed into one instant of consciousness, begins to struggle because the Biblical end of time is due that evening in the middle of an all-night softball tournament. Fiery orange horizons, seven bronze pillars, the whole sky and mountains ripping away like some great flag vanishing… the Biblical end of the world. These two stories seemed perfect bookends.
A habit of homesickness, in the morning when I check the Jackson, Mississippi weather forecast and radar at http://www.weather.com/, I also have a link set to check the weather where my mother and father and my in-laws live, home in Springfield, Missouri. Maybe there the weather is better? Or maybe I’ve got it made in Mississippi! The good people at the Weather Channel did some nifty code writing on the website. When you shift your area of interest and seek radar in Missouri, all of a sudden spectacular photographs flash to the screen as decorations, scenes from Missouri.
And, no kidding, one morning a heart-stoppingly beautiful starscape comes to the monitor from some outfit called Missouri Skies dot org. I had never clicked one of the proffered pictures at The Weather Channel, but this one threw me over and transported me back to evenings when Tammy and I, courting, sat on the warm hood of a Chevy Blazer beneath an emulsion of stars over the dome of the Ozarks, and I showed her how to spot satellites and name constellations. Oh, how I miss the stars over our rivers and lakes!
The photograph on the Weather Channel took me to a whole collection of photos by Missouri Skies, a website with a slideshow. Then boom. Probably not more than three photographs in I hit Milky Way and Fairview Church, McFall, Missouri, 2009. Photo © Dan Bush. It was as if a voice came over me, undeniable in its force, This is the cover of your first book of short stories.
Orange skies, the Milky Way, the lonely cedar, the flagpole and its nighttime reverence when the flag of the empire comes down and the Almighty takes over the skies till dawn. And the orange blazing, as if Mila Handrillill were sharing his vision from the last story in Some Kinds of Love. The church and its tiny hillside of graves.
I saved the link and stared at that photograph again and again as 38 times the collection was rejected or made finalist in short story collection contests over and over, a place horse if ever there was one.
Finalist for the 8th Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, 2012
Finalist for the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award
Finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Book Award
Finalist for the 2009 Bread Loaf Bakeless Literary Prize
Finalist for the 2009 Iowa Prize in Fiction
And there were more, too many to list, finalist, finalist. I even entered the Juniper Prize twice, with no discernible result, just one more sap with postage and perseverance. But I looked on Dan’s photograph again and again, thinking, It has to happen. Every one of these twelve stories published in a literary journal of national renown, one listed among the 100 Distinguished Stories by Richard Russo and the editors of Best American Short Stories, one a national contest winner, one nominated for the Pushcart. Dan’s photograph became a kind of assurance.
After learning I had won the Juniper, right about this time in April 2012, once I recovered from the shock, I got up the nerve to email Dan Bush. Who knew what he would say: some mysterious madman emailing out of the blue, with a Juniper what? Short stories? People still try to write literature? And only the recompense of being on the cover and whatever herald that might mean…? I could sure imagine a photographer saying, NO WAY. What a blessing that he did not!
I’m also thankful that the University of Massachusetts Press and director Bruce Wilcox fell in love with Dan’s photo immediately. Bruce recognized right away the orange sky and hearkened to the two stories in which the world seems to end or does end, the bookends of the story collection.
I count this recognition by another as even one more helping of Grace on a sodden Sunday in Mississippi. All my best wishes to Dan Bush and http://www.missouriskies.org/!