Thursday, January 28, 2021

Greg Fields Interview - Through the Waters and the Wild

Photo Content from Greg Fields

Greg Fields is the author of Arc of the Comet, a lyrical, evocative examination of promise, potential and loss, published by Koehler Books and released in October 2017. Arc of the Comet explores universal themes in a precise, lyrical style inspired by the work of Niall Williams, Colm Toibin and the best of Pat Conroy, who had offered a jacket quote for the book shortly before his death. The book has been nominated for the Cabell First Novelist Award, the Sue Kaufman First Fiction Prize and the Kindle Book of the Year in Literary Fiction.

He is also the co-author with Maya Ajmera of Invisible Children: Reimagining International Development from the Grassroots. He has won recognition for his written work in presenting the plight of marginalized young people through his tenure at the Global Fund for Children, and has had articles published in the Harvard International Review, as well as numerous periodicals, including The Washington Post and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. His short nonfiction has appeared in The Door Is A Jar and Gettysburg Review literary reviews.

He was a presenter at the Central Coast Writers Conference, San Luis Obispo, CA, September, 2017, and the Virginia Writers Conference, August 2019. Greg also participated at the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, Beaufort, SC, October, 2017, the San Francisco Writers Conference, San Francisco, CA, February, 2018, the Twin Cities Literary Festival, October 2018, the Bay Area Book Fair, May 2019, and numerous other local and regional festivals.


Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling – Niall Williams

Our stories connect us – to each other, to the world we walk through, and to the collective conditions that mark our singular journeys. Storytelling reminds us that we are human, a state we share with all those around us, and that in this simple fact, we are not, are never, alone.

Tell us your latest news.
I’ve recently been accepted into Professional Membership at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin. This may not mean much on the scale of things, but to me it’s the validation of a long-held fantasy. With this, and the wonderful interactions with some of the most accomplished Irish writers, I can look at myself as at least a small part of a literary tradition I’ve always admired.

Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way?
In college I discovered the works of Thomas Wolfe, reading Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River, and I fell more deeply in love with the lyricism, the musicality that the written word might spin. After college I set about reading all those authors I should have read before – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Philip Roth, and so on – and each of them told me something about style and content and theme.

But the most influential moment for me was a chance meeting with Pat Conroy. My wife had bought me a ticket to a VIP reception after Pat’s lecture at a local literary club. Not knowing anyone in a crowd of 50 or so, I made my way to the hors d’oeuvres table so that the event wouldn’t be a total loss. As I loaded my plate with cocktail shrimp, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“We’ve not met. I’m Pat Conroy.” We ended up talking one-to-one in a corner of the room for about 25 minutes while everyone else circled about. We learned we shared the same birthday, the same literary influences and many of the same experiences. When I told him I was in the midst of writing my first novel, he asked if I could recite any of it. I was able to cite some of the Prologue, after which Pat became quite serious and told me that he would like to read it and, if it were all that good, he would be pleased to offer a jacket quote. We corresponded after that, he offered advice and insights, and helped polish what I had. Pat passed in early 2017, shortly before the novel was finalized. We’re all the poorer for it.

Niall Williams, the great and very humble novelist whom I’ve considered the Irish Pat Conroy, has since been quite helpful, offering encouragement in the development of Through the Waters and the Wild. I once told Pat that on my best day I couldn’t approach what he could accomplish on his worst, and I feel the same about Niall’s bold, lyrical writing. I’m honored and humbled by their friendships, and their constant inspiration.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
Since publication of my first novel, I’ve been overwhelmed by the collegiality of other writers. I’ve presented at writers conferences and, even as a newcomer, I’ve been welcomed as a peer by writers far more accomplished. Perhaps because every writer is a bit of a neurotic, there’s a commonality that creates some very real bonds.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I hope they think the book is worth the time and energy it takes to read it. Beyond that, I want readers to ask themselves the same essential questions that drive the central characters in both my novels, questions that define identity and purpose.

In your new book; THROUGH THE WATERS AND THE WILD, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it.
Haunted by lost loves and limping through a lifeless career, Conor Finnegan’s discontent mirrors the restlessness of his grandfather Liam, caught as a young man in the crossfire of the Irish Civil War. Drawing upon Liam’s wisdom and courage, Conor seeks to reinvent his character and reclaim passions made numb by neglect and loss.

Through the Waters and the Wild addresses the timeless questions, Where shall I go now? What shall I do?

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
I could have finished this book much sooner if I didn’t have to earn a living. During the day I’d work, during the evenings and late nights I would write. Common to most writers, I know, but still distracting, and a deflection of the concentration needed to complete a novel. We pick it up in bits and pieces as we go along, and then stitch it all together when we get the chance.

What part of Conor did you enjoy writing the most?
Conor matured greatly during the course of this novel. Disillusioned and dispirited at its start, immersed in the recognition of what he had lost rather than what he still possessed, Conor came to a realization that he could in fact reconstruct himself and face his world more realistically while still retaining his idealism. Much of Conor’s experience and growth mirrored my own, and there was a sense in writing all this that I was rediscovering myself.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
Conor Finnegan, meet Jack McCall (Beach Music, Pat Conroy). Jack will teach you a thing or two about reconstructing a damaged life. Or, if Jack’s not available, have a cup of tea with Stephen Griffin (As It Is In Heaven, Niall Williams), who set about his life with a firm confidence that doing the right things and remaining true to his quiet character would ultimately provide him all the miracles he would ever need.

What are you most passionate about today?
I love the written word, in all its forms. I’m currently an acquisitions editor for my publisher, and this gives me a window into the tremendous creativity and courage of writers who do what they do, not to be published or find any level of fame, but to create an honest reflections of their own thoughts and spirit. There’s nothing purer than that.

Best date you've ever had?
My first date with my wife was on a Thursday, 25 years ago. We met for drinks after work, just to get acquainted. Her beauty, sensitivity and brilliance dazzled me, but that was just a glimpse of what was to come.

Two days later, a springtime Saturday, we spent the day together in Stillwater, a picturesque town on the St. Croix River close to Minneapolis, where we were both living. Nothing special – rummaging through antique shops, a café lunch, a walk beside the river, then dinner back in town. But I knew at the end of the day that I had found something I’d been seeking my entire life. We were married less than a year later.

Tell me about your first kiss
Girls scared me to death throughout high school (still do), but as a senior I managed the nerve to ask a brilliant, beautiful girl to our Homecoming Dance. An evening of silk, corsage, soft light and close dancing that ended with an awkward kiss as I dropped her off at her door. Later she told me that I actually kissed her twice that night, that after the first kiss I went back for seconds. Perhaps I did. My head was spinning so much that I really didn’t know what I was doing.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Rather than think about what we might all do once, I prefer to consider the richness we can create day to day. I expect each day to think a bit, to laugh a bit, and to touch someone else’s hand. If I can do that every day, then the rest of it will take care of itself.

But beyond that, I think everyone needs to cultivate a dream and find the courage to take a dive after it.

What is the craziest thing you have ever done?
In college once, a group of us were drunk enough after a party to go swimming in the Raritan River in New Jersey. We were frolicking like a bunch of otters, but I sobered up pretty quickly as I watched the swaths of industrial sludge floating by with the garbage and the condoms. I may have actually swallowed some of that scunge. Fortunately, there were no aftereffects, proving again that I’d rather be lucky than smart.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
The incident I describe in Though the Waters and the Wild, in which Conor encounters a small girl in a Rwandan refugee camp who does not speak but refuses to let go of his hand is real. I met this child when I was working for the American Refugee Committee. She showed no emotion until I had to leave her. As I turned to wave goodbye, she was clinging to the fence I had just crossed with tears running down her cheeks.

I do not know this girl’s story, or what horrors or traumas she had suffered. I’ve spent countless days wondering what her life might have looked like, and where she might be now. She taught me that we all share a common humanity, with common desires – security, validation, touch and connection. I’ve tried to honor her lessons to this day.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of?
The infinity of desires against the brevity of our days. There’s not enough time to get everything done that needs doing, and to experience all the things that make this life worth pursuing.

That, and snakes. Snakes scare me to death.

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer?
I held launch parties for Arc of the Comet shortly before and then after its release in 2017. I had grown up in Southern California, so the first party was at a wine bar in Claremont. I had no idea what to expect, but I was overwhelmed by the attendance, many of whom were old friends I had not seen in decades. I read a bit, and they applauded when I was done. And it’s the memory of that applause, and the tears that came to my eyes at the end of it, that I’ll forever remember.

  • 1. “And where are we, Miss Molly? Where is that?”
    “Why, we’re in Chicago, Mr. Liam. We’re both of us lost in Chicago.”
  • 2. “You have the best to offer there could ever be. You have a heart that is bruised and torn but stronger in the broken spots. You have kindness, whether you see it there or not. And, Liam Finnegan, you have more courage than any young man I’ve ever known here.
    “So, be courageous one more time, Liam. She’s precious. And so are you.”
  • 3. My age is neither reward nor punishment. It merely is, a condition no different than when I was five or fifteen or forty. Time is nothing but a vehicle. We count its value by what we carry within it.
  • 4. The light at Connecticut Avenue showed green when he got to the intersection. He signaled his turn and moved the car with its confused cargo around the corner. Already, the condo started to fade behind him. Even so, he knew beyond a doubt that, while this scene might fade, it would never, ever disappear.
  • 5. Liam believed in the majesty of Irish sunsets. He believed in the laughter of a beautiful woman. He believed that to lie in her arms was to come as close as mortal man could come to lying in the arms of God Himself. He believed that men were inherently inclined to do good, and that it was only the bad influences of other men who allowed them to do otherwise. He believed that his poor land’s predilections for rebellion and conflict only cursed it to more suffering. He believed that the political affairs of men amounted to little, that what mattered most were the internal affairs of men. He believed in the ideals of integrity, honesty, clarity, and hard work.
    But mostly, Liam believed in himself.
  • 6. It is summer yet again, and I am a stranger in my father’s land. I walk lanes I have known since my first teetering steps; they seem as foreign as the plains of the moon. I feel the warmth of a noonday sun; it burns my skin like acid.
  • 7. “Chicago. The city’s an island surrounded by fields of plenty, or so I’ve been told. You’ll need to change trains in Albany. That’s in New York, along the way. Two-day trip. Coach fare is seven dollars, with meals extra, unless you want a Pullman. But you don’t strike me as the luxury type.”
    “Coach is fine.” Liam drew the money from his envelope. “You’ve been a great help. When does it leave?”
    The clerk handed Liam his ticket. “You’ve got some time. Four thirty on Track Four. Check the boards. Now, get on to it, lad, and greet the cows for me.”
  • 8. No doubt you’ve spent too much time wondering about me. No doubt, too, that you’ve spent equal time cursing my name, or ruing the day that I first drew breath. I’ll not explain my reasons for going. That simple note I left said all that needed saying. The land is dying, and I was dying with it. A man is more than battles and work and struggle, of that I’m sure.
  • 9. What I have done with my life, how I have lived, is my province alone, and I take responsibility for its glories, for its failures and brutality, and now for the peace that comes to me at the end of it.
    I have felt the waters on my face and heard the wild cries of anguish, pain, and sorrow. In flight, I came to a quiet place, and there I stay until all sorrow has passed and breath itself is drawn down to nothingness.
    I am exiled no longer.
  • 10. He woke the next morning from a deep and dreamless sleep. He showered, ate a quick breakfast, and put his papers in order for that day’s work.
    Where shall I go now? What shall I do?
    Ready, then, and down the stairs, where Conor Finnegan stepped once more into the gently turning world.
Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from THROUGH THE WATERS AND THE WILD
One of the most telling scenes in this book is Conor’s encounter with the small, silent Rwandan girl. But what resonates throughout the subsequent narrative is the impact this girl had on Conor, and the ultimate decisions her brief presence in his life compelled –

A night in March, too soon warm and filled with the discontent of an unsettled mind. I settle now into a chair in the quiet. Always, there is the quiet, and I share my space with no one. I hear the tick of a clock, the whirr of the refrigerator, and take a glass of wine with me as I sit in a room with no pulse. The only rhythms of this place are what I can lend to it, grudgingly and joyless, until I absorb them back into my own restlessness. I sip the wine, surrounded by music I cannot hear, and think back to better days.

I see her again and again, but her face is interchangeable with others I have known, others of different colors and different contours. I feel again the touch of her hand as I held it there, or rather, as she held it in lock with mine. I could not let her go; she would not let me. Now, she has me still in her grasp. Votre chérie indeed.

Always the questions come back the same way. Where is she now? What has happened in that place where fate lay down with human nature and bred a misshapen childhood? Who was she, really? What in her young and tatty life had already died, and what could be reborn? What do I do? What, please God, must I do?

The wine burns its way through the immutable, unwavering questions, and I come back to her eyes, which never left me. Her eyes, which regarded me with wonder, and suspicion, and chance, and loss, and so much more than I could ever discern because I could never burrow myself behind them to see what was really there. Her eyes, that have seen panoramas that can dwell only in the realm of my fantasy and fancy. Her eyes, again and again, larger than what befits a tiny girl. What have they seen that I need to see?

Votre chérie.

Please, God, what must I do?

Later, Conor finds an answer to this compulsion, and fully commits himself to an act that will satisfy it–

In the heart’s deepest caverns, dreams dance with fantasy, and the dance goes on, even if the music should stop.

Votre chérie . . . you dance inside me still. Dance, child, and reach your hand to me, across all time and through the deepest distances. I shall grasp it again. This time I will not let go.

And one more – Grandfather Liam Finnegan’s final evocation of an indomitable spirit –

Be willing to forget for a time, even within the certainty that the cold days will come again, that nothing on this earth ever truly dies, that power and beauty and grace and strength and pleasure and love itself are forever haunted by flesh that grows weary, by spirits that seep into nothingness, by souls turned as numb as uncovered hands on a snowy winter night.

Be willing to forget for a time the lost faces left behind through a comet’s fleeting arc.

Believe for an instant that the virtuous and the holy hold sway forever in the newborn warmth of springtime, that gentility governs each action, that an abiding nobility beats within each breast and welcomes each new face into a community that will never die. Grasp the hand of God Himself, clasp His shoulder, and look deeply and fully into His infinite eyes.

Do this in the rebirth of the warm and breathlessly golden days. Nothing on this earth ever truly dies.

I was hungry, seeing myself starving for want of something I could not define. I sought it constantly, sought it at every turn, searched every face I met for hints of it, looked everywhere I could conceive. I lost time trying to slake this unquenchable thirst, trying to satisfy an endlessly burning hunger. But in the end I knew precisely what I had been after all along. It is the folly of the young, part of their particular curse, to be so unaware, to be blind as well as hungry. To be in exile from themselves and not know they are away.

Haunted by lost loves and limping through a lifeless career, Conor Finnegan's discontent mirrors the restlessness of his grandfather Liam, caught as a young man in the crossfire of the Irish Civil War. Drawing from Liam's wisdom and courage, Conor seeks to reinvent his character and reclaim passions made numb by neglect and loss.

Through the Waters and the Wild addresses the timeless questions, Where shall I go now? What shall I do?

You can purchase Through the Waters and the Wild at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you GREG FIELDS for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Through the Waters and the Wild by Greg Fields.