CWW continues to recognize its 2015 award winners with the introduction of Judith Claire Mitchell of Madison, whose novel A Reunion of Ghosts took top prize in the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award contest.
Mitchell, a UW-Madision English professor specializing in fiction writing, preceded A Reunion of Ghosts a decade earlier with her debut novel, The Last Day of the War.
She didn’t have prepared statement when she accepted the Edna Ferber Award at the May Banquet, so she recaptured her remarks for this post with this:
“When I accepted the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award at the Council of Wisconsin Writers awards banquet, I spoke extemporaneously and emotionally. To be honest, then, I’m not exactly sure what I said when I stood behind the podium in that beautiful room and looked out at the members of the Council of Wisconsin Writers, this array of talented poets and authors and book lovers, some of whom I’m lucky enough to consider friends.
“I know I spoke a bit about Edna Ferber herself. Ferber, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, was a close friend of George S. Kaufman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The two also teamed up to write the plays The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door. As it happens, George S. Kaufman was my husband’s great-uncle and his legend looms large in the family. So receiving an award in Ferber’s name has double meaning to me: not only is it a tremendous honor to receive an award named for a great woman novelist, but this award has won me lots of points with the in-laws.
“But, of course, the more overwhelming and humbling aspect of receiving the Edna Ferber award is that it places my novel among works by the incredibly talented Wisconsin writers who have been acknowledged by the CWW over the years. Thinking about the work of such writers—including my fellow faculty in the UW-Madison Creative Writing Program, such as Ron Wallace, Sean Bishop, and Amaud Jamaul Johnson, and my former students, such as Lydia Conklin and Chloe Krug Benjamin—and looking out at the audience of awardees and writers, I couldn’t help but be mindful of the abundance and quality of literary talent in this state. To be welcomed into this club by the CWW and judge Lee K. Abbot whose comments brought tears to my eyes, is something for which I’ll always feel grateful”.
In selecting A Reunion of Ghosts as the winning entry, the Edna Ferber Award judge wrote:
“Lordy, what an artfully accomplished novel this is, not least because Ms. Mitchell has masterful command over two important features peculiar to the “willed word,” tone and point of view.
“First, consider her material: chemical warfare, The Great War, the Holocaust, adultery, dementia, mass shooting, the plague that is AIDS, a species of incest, murder by samurai sword, and suicide, lots of suicide. In the hands of a less savvy writer, such calamities, large and small, are but grist for the mill that is bathos, a sophomoric sentimentality and clumsy melodrama. For Ms. Mitchell, however, such is a chance to test the moral balance of the “imagined real world” through an unexpected instrument, humor. Yes, the book is by turns mordantly wry, even slyly cynical—not a laugh-riot, exactly, but rueful and arch bemusement, a kind of fatalism served up in puns (“no noose is good news”) and badinage and slapstick and linguistic hijinks and pointed but all-too-common absurdity. Charlie Chaplin, methinks, would approve.
“The point of view is likewise artistically felicitous, first person plural. No, not the fey rhetoric of royals of yore. Instead, Ms. Mitchell synthesizes, or fuses, the sensibilities of the three sisters at the heart of this instance of the “liar’s art.” Such a strategy occasions distance and intimacy, a way of examining the long-gone and the painfully present with fidelity and honesty. Furthermore, it permits her to conflate time in ways that remind us that structure, too, can be another way to make meaning. It gives her access to venues known and not, through diaries, news clippings, letters, historic documents—well, to anything that turns the world, no matter its era, into language.
“I am enthralled by this novel. I am beguiled. I am charmed. And, to be sure, I am humbled. A Reunion of Ghosts is a sterling example of what Updike argued was the work that fiction did best: to turn the there and then into the here and now.”
Here is the excerpt of Mitchell’s winning work she read for Banquet attendees:
“note: A Reunion of Ghosts takes the form of a voluminous suicide note being written by three depressed but nonetheless wise-cracking sisters who plan to kill themselves as soon as they’re done writing. The scene I read at the banquet occurs when one of the sisters briefly stops participating in the project:
Vee has stopped writing. All these months, while we’ve worked on this project, Vee’s been the most reluctant, not to write, but to write about Vee. “Can’t we just skip me?” she asks.
“You have to tell your story,” Delph argues. “That’s how these things work.”
Vee scowls. “Who are you?” she says. “The Emily Post of suicide notes?”
Even this evening, when we started writing about Vee’s marriage to Eddie, Vee sighed with great weariness. “All right,” she said. “Fine. Let’s just get through it fast.”
But now she’s stopped. “What’s the matter?” Lady asks. “Don’t you feel well?”
No, Vee says. It’s not her health. It’s what we wrote. It’s the last thing we wrote, the phrase “but then.”
“ ‘But then,’ ” Lady repeats.
“I know,” Vee says. “It’s ridiculous.” The word ‘then.’ ” But she’s never really thought about it before, she says. And now she has. The word then. It’s captured her attention.
Lady and Delph regard Vee with a sisterly blend of compassion and contempt. “You’re not suddenly taken with the word then,” Lady says. “You’re just avoiding writing about what we were about to write about.”
“No,” Vee says. “Really, I’m serious. Think about it.”
“Think about what?”
“Think about then.”
“I would like to think about then,” says Lady. “I would like to write about then. You’re the one who won’t think about it.”
“I don’t mean think about the time then. I mean think about the word then.”
“I know what you mean,” Lady says.
“Who’s on first?” says Delph.
“Then,” says Vee. When you think about it, she says, that four-letter word, that most quotidian of adverbs—it’s kind of astounding.
Then as adverb: I married my husband then. Then as adjective: I married my then husband then.
Then as noun: I married my then husband then and after then, I was happy.
“I can’t believe I’ve never focused on this before,” Vee says.
“No more gin for you,” says Lady.
Vee is drunk, it’s true. But so are we all. It’s only Vee who’s this animated, gushing, alive. Then! This amazing, enchanting little word. See the adverb then travel in two directions at once! Watch it spin around, encompass both the past and the future!
The past: I hadn’t noticed you then.
In this example, then means long ago and far away, it means a few seconds before I did notice you, it means that fall semester of college, that English class at Columbia where the professor, forced to admit Barnard women for the first time, refused to call on said women, thus reasserting the masculine hegemony, or as we put it back then, his male chauvinist piggery. And this boy on the other side of the classroom, this funny-looking boy with long hair and big ears, he raises his hand, ostensibly to comment on the use of kenning in Beowulf, but instead—ambush!—he goes, “Professor, you just called on me now, the very moment my hand went up, but you haven’t called on that woman over there who’s had her hand raised for half the class. How come?”
The future: And then I fell in love with you.
Here then means “next,” which, by definition, means in the future, means later, as in one breath later, the professor getting hot, growling, “I’ll damn well call on whoever the hell I feel like calling on if and when I feel like calling on them,” and the boy gathering his books, then walking out, and the girl who’s been raising her hand feeling obligated to gather her books too—the sound track to all this: Revolution has come! Time to pick up a gun!” as sung by the perennial protesters outside Schermerhorn—and then the girl chases after the boy, into the hallway, where she says—awkward and stammering, a disgrace to second-wave feminism, or, as we called it at the time, women’s lib—“Thanks, I guess.”
Then the boy proclaims, in a voice that echoes through the empty hall, “The dick-swinging dog shall sleep the sleep of the sword,” thereby doing a little kenning himself, and the two of them walk to their respective registrars’ offices together, first his at Columbia, then hers at Barnard, both the boy and girl dropping the English class and signing up instead for an introductory class in pre-Christian religion where they will learn that the Egyptians worshipped the scarab beetle because it laid its eggs in shit.
“From shit!” the professor will exclaim. “From shit came life! And then . . .”
Two phrases of note: and then and but then.
And then, Vee has decided, is positive. It implies something to look forward to: and then the girl went back to the boy’s dorm, and then the girl lost her virginity to the boy in the top berth of his rickety bunk bed while side one of Surrealistic Pillow played repeatedly until the guy in the room next door shouted, I get it, Glod, you’ve got somebody to fucking love, and then the boy and girl blushed and looked into each other’s eyes and made the same gargoylish grimaces of embarrassed horror, and then they began to laugh, eventually so hard they were crying and their faces turned red, and then, when the boy was capable of speech again, he raised himself up on one elbow and looked at the girl’s crimson and blotchy face, and then he said, “Wow, I always thought falling in love took longer.”
[Photo credit: Nick Wilkes]