Sayre Olson

Timelines Converging

I’ve been really lucky this week in that I had the opportunity to go home to North Carolina for a little while and visit my family, who I miss a lot! It’s been a great few days so far.

My mom, the biggest fan of the novel even from the time my grandfather was writing it, helped me to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of my grandfather’s life (complete with a free 30-day trial at ancestry.com). She explained a lot of the circumstances surrounding his brother Claxton’s death that I never knew. Claxton died when he was just 20 from a blood infection, a complication of an injury he sustained from jumping a train into the next town. What I didn’t fully understand is that jumping trains would have been the only affordable way for young people to make it out of the town to find work, which is what Claxton was doing. I also didn’t realize the degree to which his death divided the family. My grandfather’s mother felt that it was her husband’s fault for not earning the family enough money and therefore leading Claxton to do something desperate and reckless in search of an income.

I’ve been thinking that maybe the most notable part of this family history is the degree to which the book differs from it. The older brother, who is named Daniel in the book, dies a hero in WWII, a death that, although painful, both his parents take pride in. It’s an idealistic version of the real scenario, in which his brother’s death means something, and neither of his parents resents the other. Moving forward, I’ve wondered whether it’s more important to honor my grandfather’s wishes, and keep the novel plot as is, or whether I should alter the plot to be based more clearly on what really happened. In all honesty, I find the real story–the story of the train, the infection, and the money–to be more interesting, and I think it would make a fantastic novel plot. But I’m afraid that by changing the story, I would lose what it meant to him.

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I think it's going to eat me.

I think it’s going to eat me.

Do I look calm in this photo? Maybe I do, because I’m bad at taking pictures, and I don’t know what to do with my face, but in reality, this is cause for a little bit of freaking out.

The short stack of handwritten papers that you see on the right is all of the papers that, so far, I have read, typed, and categorized. I’ve come up with a process where I label individual sheets of paper with a number and label folders with a letter. Then I’m able to save them on my computer in the order that I read them, although they have yet to be sorted according to their order in the actual plot of the story. So far, I have over 300 full, single-spaced pages saved on my laptop. I was slightly in denial about how much this actually is before I realized that it’s basically the length of a full-sized novel already.
As you can probably guess, the stack that you see on the left is all of the pages that I haven’t read or typed yet. And good God, it’s huge.

I’m going to be honest here: at this point in the summer, I should be over a third of the way through these papers, and clearly that isn’t the case. So I’ve started looking at ways to cut back on the amount that I actually try to type. There’s a bit of a catch 22 in the fact that typing pages that are already written is almost ridiculously easy, but so much so that it’s hard to motivate myself to actually do it. I’ve told myself that even if I do manage to type every one of these sheets into my computer, it would only make my life harder, because I’ll have to wade through hundreds of files in the later stages of the process.

An additional consideration is the fact that my grandfather was always a little bit of a peculiar person, as they say, meaning that he tended to be a tad more uptight, methodical, and generally unusual than your average guy. When he developed brain cancer, a lot of these weird sorts of behaviors were intensified. This made him even more likely to, for example, write the same passage twenty or thirty times over, only changing a few words or only changing the style of handwriting. This makes it really difficult for me to figure out which drafts are the best or most important.

But as I’ve gotten more used to the process, I think it’s starting to become easier to come up with strategies for how to move through the material more effectively. My main strategy has been to tackle the longer and later drafts first. That way, if I come across earlier versions of those passages that aren’t as good, I can skip over them. It’s not completely foolproof, because originally, I convinced myself that I needed to go chronologically through the drafts in order to really understand my grandfather’s process. Unfortunately, even having the whole summer doesn’t give me enough time to do that, so I’ve had to compromise by reading the later drafts first.

To be honest, I’ve spent a little too much time with these papers, which I’m especially realizing now because of the fact that I’m pretty sure I could continue this conversation for several more pages. But that wouldn’t be enjoyable for anyone. So I believe it’s come time for me to go put all those folders back in their boxes–for now, I’ll say goodbye! Thanks for reading.

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Writing A Book To Which I Do Not Know The Ending

My name is Sayre and I am writing a book to which I do not know the ending. Perhaps this isn’t so unusual. I know of several real adult writers who aren’t sure of how a certain story will turn out from its beginnings. But my case is slightly different, being that this book indeed has an ending, however the only person who really knew it died of brain cancer almost seven years ago.

This single enlightened person was my grandfather, Chick McKinney, who was writing his first and only book: a novel that in many ways mirrored his own life. It was essentially a memoir, disguised as fiction. Unfortunately, what now remains of the so-called novel is a collection of handwritten fragments. It’s possible that there’s an ending written somewhere amid the approximately four thousand loose pages that I have stacked in boxes in my room, but so far, I haven’t seen it. In fact, a lot of the middle is a mystery as well—iffy at best.

I came across one page that is labeled by my grandfather as “story line.” The entire contents of the page are the following sentence: Young boy vows to pick up where his dead brother left off and live his life for him but finds that fame and glory is a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, although I’d like to think that all of the answers are still on the pages in the boxes, I know that I’m going to have to look beyond the obvious or the tangible. I hope that my grandfather’s own biography, for one thing, will provide some answers.

Adam, the book’s protagonist, has a good amount in common with my grandfather simply in the fact that they both grew up in small Appalachian towns. My grandfather’s town had a population of a few hundred. In order to go to high school, he moved away to “the big city,” Raleigh, with his older sister. His sister Wilma offered to take in one of her younger siblings after their older brother died, as a way to help their mother, and so she chose Chick.

Below are some photos to give more context to the story of my grandfather’s upbringing:

Chick’s father at work

Chick’s father at work

Chick and his older brother

Chick and his older brother

Chick and three sisters

Chick and three sisters

Chick’s parents

Chick’s parents

Although I’m very convinced that my grandfather’s relationship with his own brother played a large role in his construction of the story, I’ve sometimes doubted whether it’s appropriate or even correct to assert that his cultural upbringing also plays a role. It’s probably true that there was an unintentional influence of actual memory in my grandfather’s writing, because of his increasing confusion as to what was true and when it had happened. But a part of me likes that idea even more. Take the following passage, for example. Originally, the protagonist was just a “he,” and I changed it to “Adam” to fit with the book. But it could just as easily have been an actual memory that my grandfather had of himself and his brother. An ambiguous passage like this might not belong in the book, and perhaps I had no right to change anything about it. But at this point, and I hope I’m right, I believe that moments like this will be the best thing about the book.

It was still dark when they turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road. There were a few ramshackle houses perched on the steep banks to the right, and three junk cars sat in a patch of tall weeds in the flat next to a small branch. Further on, the road narrowed, became rocky, and laced with gullies. “You’re going to shake every bolt loose in this old track” said Adam. They crossed over the shallows of Sassafras creek to an old logging road grown up with waist high pine seedlings. The Chevy groaned in low gear up the steep grade.

“You’d better have some g-r-u-b” said Daniel, mimicking the slow drawl of a good ole’ boy he had seen in a western movie. “Yew’ve got a l-o-n-g h-a-r-d day ahead of yew.”

            Adam laughed. “I don’t want to take your lunch.”

            “Not to worry, my good buddy. We’ve got enough to feed a couple of bears for a week.”

            “Well then, I’ll take you up on your offer.”

            “There’s a bottle opener in there somewhere.”

[…]

Down there’s your birthday present, Daniel said with a chuckle. I told papa that I was going to bring you here when you were old enough, say thirteen.

            “I told you I was only eight.”

            “Yeah, I keep forgetting that.”

[…]

            Then, a sudden strike. Adam set his hook the instant he saw the flash in the water. He let the fish run, but guided him gently into his net. It was a nine-inch native brook trout.

“What a beauty,” Daniel said. The fish was a male with a dark back and colored spots on the side. The belly and fin had an orange tint.

            “The locals call that speckled trout,” said Daniel.

            “They’re really not a trout,” said Adam. “They’re actually char.”

            “Mama always said you were a prodigy.”

            “Mama also said you were an adventurer and a romantic. But I say you’re a poet.”

            “I’ll settle for any of the three.”

            What a glorious day that was.

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