Shelf Talks #9: Dan S.

Dan's bookshelf

Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Dan Stumpf is a writer in Blacklick, OH. He has written several novels of adventure under the pen name Daniel Boyd including Easy Death, The Devil & Streak Wilson, and Nada (you can find them wherever fine books are sold). The interview explores the topic of two classic authors, Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad, and what draws the Dan to their works. Dan discusses his personal affinity for these writers, noting their storytelling abilities, memorable characters, and ability to evoke a sense of truth. He also shares his enjoyment of the sense of adventure and exploration that is present in Conrad's works in particular. The interview concludes with a discussion about the appeal of stories told in different settings, whether it be around a campfire with a cowboy or on the high seas with a sailor.

OLEG: You have many shelves of books and an impressive collection of sundry objects which could inspire an interview all their own, but I chose a shelf filled with Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad. Admittedly, I've only read a single book by each of them (Heart of Darkness and The Razor's Edge), but I know both were prolific storytellers who were appreciated for their talents during their lifetimes. I'm curious about what are traits unique to each of them that make you keen to collect (and read?) their works?

DAN: Maugham and Conrad, eh? Well at least those are writers someone may have heard of.

Maugham is pretty much passé these days, but I have a thing for actors, painters, writers and poets who went out of fashion before I was born, and I enjoy his stuff on two levels: aesthetic and personal. He’s a superb story-teller, fun to read, and when he evokes a moment of sheer truth, he doesn’t wallow in it. There’s a passage in The Moon and Sixpence (a take-off on the life of Gauguin) that has stayed with me, and if I’ve remembered it wrong, please don’t correct me: Charles Strickland has deserted his wife and children and gone to Paris to paint. Maugham asks him if he is any good, and Strickland replies something like, “When you’re thrown in the water, you swim. You don’t ask yourself if you’re a good swimmer, you swim because you must,” which has always struck me as true of the creative mind. We create because we must.

And then there’s The Razor's Edge.

I have a friend I’ve known since High School, through college and beyond his divorce and the death of my wife. He married a fascinating woman, raised a fine daughter, and studies abstruse works of theology quite beyond me, but he’s never been a success in the material sense. Indeed, he demonstrates a genius for finding churches, activist causes and community organizations that pay meagerly if at all.

Back in High School he gave me a copy of The Razor's Edge. I read it, found it deficient in car chases and explosions, and didn’t think much of it until I picked it off my shelf a few years ago. Then, as I re-read the very same book my friend gave me in 1965, I realized that this story of a man who ignores worldly gain in search of spiritual knowledge was the story of my old friend, his future laid out for us before we were born.

That means something, but I don’t know what. Meantime, I love the trashy covers they put on his books in the 40s & 50s. Joseph Conrad don’t need me to pimp for him. There’s been a lot of ink spilled over his works, and a lot of trees died in vain making learned books on the subject. Compared to Maugham, his prose is a whole different kettle of soup, all dense prose and rich texture, and his view of the universe is so complex that you can come away from his books wondering what was he trying to say?

Look at Lord Jim and An Outcast of the Islands, both about men who disgrace themselves in the white man’s world and take refuge in native societies, where their innate nature finds expression. One of them does a world of good, the other a world of harm, but both make a dreadful muck of it all, and end up dying in the disgrace they fled. Now what was all that about?

What I enjoy, really enjoy, is Conrad’s feel for adventure in a hostile world. I grew up on stories of knights and musketeers, then spies and private eyes—which led to some dreadful life choices, but no sense going into that here. I’ll just say that now, twenty-five years after I said goodbye to that sort of life, very few writers of adventure seem to know what they’re talking about, and Conrad is foremost among them.

They teach Heart of Darkness in schools, but it pales in comparison to the horrors of An Outcast of the Islands, the fearful tension of “The End of the Tether” or the grueling action of the unfortunately-titled N— of the Narcissus.

The most enjoyable Conrad is Victory, followed closely by Nostromo, both tales of what flack writers call “gripping suspense” with colorful bad guys, resourceful damsels in distress, and unlikely heroes rising to the occasion and then… but that would give it away the plot twists at the heart of Conrad’s darkness.

OLEG: Well, now, you've given me a nice reading list there. Which I don't mind at all. What I gather also, is that the draw of both Conrad and Maugham for you seems to be a combination of memorable characters facing devastating circumstances, astutely described, without much fanfare or fuss. And it doesn't hurt if they remind you of an old friend or two. Continuing in the way of adventure, would you rather hear a story told around a crackling fire by an old cowboy, eating beans from a tin, and unwinding after a running cattle the past day-and-a-half, or a yarn spun by bearded, crag-faced sailor sitting across from you with a tumbler of cheap whiskey in cozy cabin on a rare calm night on the high seas?

DAN: Lately when I listen to NPR interviews, all I hear is “That’s a good question,” or sometimes, “That’s an interesting question,” so I’ll just say your question surprised me. As for your observation, “it doesn't hurt if they remind you of an old friend or two,” as I grow older, I find I relate my reading to my experiences more and more.

Hmmm… old Cowboy, or crag-faced Sailor? Well, I’m partial to Westerns, maybe because the best of them (or my favorites anyway) put the hero outside civilization, in a situation where he has to define Right and Wrong for himself, and in so doing define himself. I hadn’t thought of it before, but that’s one of Conrad’s themes as well. How about that?

But “trust the teller, not the tale.” Or did I get that right? The narrator often interests me as much as the tale he tells. After I quit my low-down ways, I spent twenty years driving elderly and disabled people to medical appointments for the Red Cross, and it seemed like each of them had a story to tell. I talked with a lady who knew John Steinbeck, a lawyer who fished with Hemingway and helped him keep the house in Key West when the locals tried to drive him out, and a Hungarian woman who fled the Soviet invasion in 1956, with her husband, carrying two children across rivers and fields. But the most memorable tale was from a man who used to deliver ice door-to-door for iceboxes before everyone had refrigerators. Go figure.

I also learned that one of the most valuable tricks a writer can pick up is to listen. There was an old black man I used to take in for cancer treatments, and he never used the word if; It was always, “No one asked me did I want to…” or “Do you go there, sit close by the door so you can get out does anyone start trouble.” I used that voice for my second book, Easy Death, and it’s still earning me nice royalty checks.

OLEG: I'm intrigued by a few things in your response: The low-down ways you've referred to twice already, the theme of determining right and wrong outside of society's influence (I think The Razor's Edge fits in here, too), the well-worn feeling of the books in the image I chose, but also in all the other photos you'd sent me, which might hint at your preference for, or at the very least comfort with, the feelings conjured by the past. I've got other combinations floating around in my head as well, and am trying to fit all of these together into a single, coherent question. I guess one thing I'm curious about is your opinion about how the role of the author has changed in the past hundred years -- if you compare society's view of writers from, say, in 1921 and 2021? And maybe consider it from the lens of novelist as ethicist.

DAN: Good to hear I’ve piqued your interest. On the other hand, I’m getting curious about your story. What led you to this project?

Me, I’ve always been drawn to things that went out of style before I was born. Probably from reading a lot of Dumas as a kid. Made College a bit difficult, since I was listening to Sinatra while everyone else was grooving to Dylan and the Stones.

As far as my low-down ways…I was a wimpy kid who dreamed of growing up to be Shane or James Bond. Joined ROTC in college (another unpopular move) in the hopes they’d teach me to fight & shoot, but was judged to be not quite sharp enough for the military. After graduation, I became a police officer, a career for which I was manifestly unsuited, and spent 25 years forcing myself to excel at it. It must have worked, because they kept promoting me (and I did learn a little bit about fighting and shooting) but these things take a toll on the psyche. By the time I retired, I’d had quite enough “adventure,” thank you, and settled into a life of doing simple, uncomplicated good deeds for the Red Cross. In time, the mental scars of police work faded, and I started writing fiction, action-oriented but with an awareness (I think) of resounding echoes.

Which brings us up to the present, and your question about how the role of the author has changed in the past hundred years. The basic functions of an author are unchanged: express yourself, enchant the reader, and enrich the publisher. Fashion and technology have had their effect on just how it’s done, but the song remains the same. The Handmaid's Tale, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have their cults. So did The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Pilgrim's Progress, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I don’t know if Conrad or Maugham inspired cults per se, but they retain the power to touch the reader who seeks them out.

More important, to me, anyway, is the function of Author as Narrator. Maugham is an observant character in many of his books and short stories, and Conrad’s Marlow is an obvious stand-in for the author. As such, their narratives made no bones about the fact that they were books, written to be read, and they felt free to break the fourth wall and address the reader directly. Likewise Dostoevsky and Mark Twain. But of late, it’s a rare author indeed who would dare to try it.

Which of course leads to the issue of author as ethicist. The writer of fiction perforce abandons objectivity to present a view of the universe, and that entails at least an implicit sense of right and wrong, along with civic responsibility, personal hygiene, and good grooming. But I never thought it imposed any other responsibility, except to express myself, enchant the reader, and enrich the publisher.

OLEG: Thanks for asking about Shelf Talks! It originated from a freewheeling conversation I had with my friend Ezra where I mentioned how much I enjoy interviewing people and he made the intriguing connection (as he often does) of me asking people about their books and, by extension, themselves. As it happened, he was my first interviewee! In general, as a librarian and book lover, I naturally gravitate towards people's bookshelves, and also people with bookshelves, because they are (dare I say it?) more interesting. As I've done more interviews, I've only had this feeling confirmed. And so, another question for you: As a police officer for a decade-and-a-half, did you find it challenging to turn off your role-vested authority when you were off-duty? Or was it a relief to not have to be in charge?

DAN: Thanks for the link to Ezra -- fascinating! -- and the background on Shelf Talks. When I visit anyone for the first time I am immediately drawn to their bookshelves!

Minor correction: I was a Peace Officer for two-and-a-half decades. And I didn't find it hard at all to give up the Authority Role.

Was I relieved? Not exactly. I felt real relief, as I define it, when my wife of 40 years died after a long illness, or when I quit handing my writing in for grades. But when I quit carrying a gun, it was like someone had been standing on my foot for 25 years and finally got off. Nasty things, guns.

OLEG: Final question: What, for you, lifts a book to the status of a classic?

DAN: I'm glad you threw in that for you -- it saves me from making pretentious observations about Timeless Truths and Lasting Beauty.

For me it comes back to what Jimmy Stewart said about movies: They give a viewer moments, which he called "pieces of time," that stay with them all their lives.

A book is a classic for me if it leaves moments like that, moments that stay with me. I remember the ruin of the wilderness reflected in a man's soul in The Big Sky; Pogo Possum's simple observation: "It's enough to make a man think." The ironic fate that won't be cheated in Oedipus, Gatsby's rejection, Rudolf Rassendyll crossing blades with Rupert of Hentzau, the melding of Greek Tragedy and the Great American Novel in Sometimes a Great Notion, Walter Huff recognizing Evil in Double Indemnity, the way Hemingway seemed so meaningful in High School...They're pieces of time I carry around with me. And keep on my shelves.