Archive for February 19, 2010

Music Video Weekend/Poetry Friday Combo Platter: “Gentle On My Mind”

While I was writing it, if I had any idea that was going to be a hit, it probably would have come out differently and it wouldn’t have been a hit. That just came real fast, a blaze, a blur.”
—John Hartford

Here’s another one of those songs that I recall hearing in my earliest years — a song that was not chosen or selected by me, it was just there, leaking through the airwaves — a song that I only gradually came to recognize as a work of genius. Again: This improbable hit, written in 1967 by John Hartford, struck my tender self as fairly uncool. This was not the hard rock blasting through the walls of my brothers’ rooms. For starters, Glen Campbell had huge success with it and used it as the theme song for his cornball variety show; hell, my grandmother liked Glen Campbell — and she didn’t have teeth! We forget nowadays just how uncool — how reviled — country music was at the time. It was Redneck Music, hillbilly stuff. Those were the people who actually liked the Vietnam War. Or at least so we, the Lords of Popular Opinion, thought.

An aside: It’s another reason how stunning and courageous it was when Dylan went country with “Nashville Skyline”; he was showing respect to a form of music that rockers of the time openly mocked. But we’ll push that big topic aside for another day, the Dylan book I’ll probably never write.

The song has aged extremely well. “Gentle On My Mind” has been covered by everybody, including hipsters of all varieties. One of my favorite versions, not available on Youtube, is by Mark Eitzel, formerly of the San Francisco-based band, American Music Club. Fans of the song might want to track down Eitzel’s version off his covers CD, “Music for Courage & Confidence.” Available on iTunes for 99 cents.

Another favorite artist, Lucinda Williams, recorded it for the odious movie, “Talladega Nights” (it played while the credits mercifully rolled).

Scroll down a second and take a look at those insane, long-winded lyrics. What a mouthful. How does a singer deliver all that? You get those incredible rolling lines, a sense of naturalistic movement aided by Hartford’s artful use of enjambment. The lyric moves and flows like the Mississippi River that John Hartford loved as a child. There’s surprising turns of phrase everywhere, flashing moments that grab my ear: ‘It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me/Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking.”

I love that crazy collision of almost archaic poesy crashing against the syntax of the common tongue; “something that somebody said” indeed. As my buddy Craig Walker used to say, “It’s the damnedest thing.” And I’m sure he must have loved that song, because Craig loved those moments whenever high art and low art met. After all, his favorite movie was “Five Easy Pieces.” But again, thinking of Craig, I digress.

Here’s a few versions for your enjoyment (or mine, I suppose).

Dean Martin:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Jim Ed Brown:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

John Hartford & Glen Campbell:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Elvis Presley:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking
It’s just knowing that the world will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re moving on the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind

Though the wheat fields and the clotheslines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s crying to her mother cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see you walking on the backroads
By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurgling, crackling cauldron in some train yard
My beard a roughened coal pile and a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands round a tin can I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re wavin’ from the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind

A Comment from Geoffrey Hayes: Books for Boys

I don’t usually highlight a reader’s comment in this way, but comments to old posts tend to get lost in the slipstream. I recently heard from author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes, recent Geisel Award winner, in response to something I’d written a while back.

Commented Mr. Hayes:

Dear James,

I just happened upon your site and was surprised to find my book “PATRICK AND TED” mentioned so warmly. It seems like I wrote this story so long ago, but you reminded me that I’ve always written from feelings and emotions first. I never thought of this as specifically a “Boys Book”, maybe because it doesn’t focus on those things that one traditionally finds in books for boys. In my opinion there is a narrow view in today’s publishing world about just what boys will and won’t read — stories with a female protagonist for one. For every generality you can apply to boys (and girls) we tend to forget that each child is an individual and therefore multifaceted. Thanks again for your kind words and fond memories.

Geoffrey Hayes

I agree with every word, and it’s a message I’d like to shout from the mountaintop.

But mountains are so darn high, and so awfully hard on the tootsies, let’s save our strength and just blog about it. Besides, if I’m up on a mountaintop, I can shout ’till my lungs burst and nobody’ll ever hear me. Why? Because I’m up on a mountaintop! That’s the last place you’d go to spread a message. Who makes up these ridiculous expressions anyway?

Thank you, Mr. Hayes — and congratulations on the well-earned award.

Fan Mail Wednesday #77

Let’s cut the preamble and get right down to it.

Dear Mr. Preller,

I am an English Major. Your novel, Bystander was brought back by my professor as a ‘prize” when she attended an annual English Teacher Conference. I didn’t get the book then, but I had a chance to read the inside description, and asked for it for Christmas.

I only just now began to read the book, and I’m on chapter 8.

In addition to having an interest in English/Writing, I’m a filmmaker also. And, I wanted to know if you have thought about selling the rights to your book. I’m pretty intent on writing a screenplay based on your book. But, in order to even show it to people, I need the rights to do so. This may not even be possible, as I know rights can be very expensive and after all, I’m only a college student.

But, it’d be really cool if I could write a screenplay of your story.  My family thinks I’m crazy, asking you, but I thought I could at least try.

If this request can not be fulfilled, I totally understand.

But, at the very least, I am enjoying your story immensely and think it really has the potential to make a great film.


I replied:

Dear Eric,

You flatter me. And if you think I’m vulnerable to cheap ploys like that, then you’re exactly right. I loved your letter.

Business first: I don’t have film rights to give. It’s something that’s handled by my publisher, Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. You can write to them at: Feiwel and Friends, Rights & Permissions, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. I don’t know how they handle that stuff, but I’m guessing you’re right, it’s probably involves money (but much less than you’d think).

Regardless of how the legal folks respond, I’m honored that my book inspired you. I’ve often had similar thoughts when reading stories, “Man, I can see this as a short film.” I think it would be a worthwhile project for you, going through the process of moving a story from paper to film. You’d learn a lot, I’d think. Even if you just tried to figure out one scene, made a little three minute film, it could only help you grow as an artist.

I recently visited a few schools and gave the older kids, grades 4-6, my quick “Show, Don’t Tell” lesson. We discussed how a successful writer attempts to paint a picture with words, and how as readers we see that movie in our heads. Good writing is extremely visual, concrete; it conjures images. Now I’m not saying that I’m an accomplished writer by any means — though I’m trying my best, and still learning — but your reaction really touches me because it speaks to my goal as a writer. I want readers to see it. And if they see, then they will feel.

I was an English Major in college, like you. I went through a phase when I walked around with a tape recorder, documenting conversations between different people. Then I’d go home and type them out exactly as I heard it on tape: people interrupting each other, speaking in half-broken thoughts, fragments, the conversation working in layers, backtracking and taking sudden leaps forward. I wanted to understand how dialogue really worked, Eric, so that I could one day write fictional scenes that sounded realistic, true. It was a great time in my life, feeling all those possibilities opening up to me. Maybe you feel some of those same things.

Oh, and hey, while I’m thinking of it, I’m LOVING the new Patti Smith book, Just Kids. It touches on those same feelings, the artist as a young man or woman. Recommended!

Back to my book and your film: I think you should do it anyway. Just a scene or two. Don’t get bogged down in the whole book. But go through that process, honor that inspiration, even if it only leads to nowhere much. Every time you make something new you learn from the experience; you grow. Don’t worry too much about where it will all end up. That’s not the job of the artist. Your job is to follow your enthusiasms, take that path into the deep dark woods. And let’s not completely forget food, clothing, shelter, all that good stuff. You’ll have to figure that out, too. And the thing is: you will.

Again: Follow your enthusiasms. And remember, like Basho said, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

My best,


P.S. Stay in touch!

Children’s Books That Address Intolerance . . . On Several Fronts

Kendal Rautzhan, a nationally syndicated columnist, recently ran an article about children’s books that addressed intolerance. The article featured three books:

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Bystander by James Preller

Of my book, Rautzhan wrote:

Expertly written and rich on multiple levels, “Bystander” weaves a realistic tale of the bully, the bully’s targets and the physical and emotional pain that the victims suffer. It explores what might happen when someone decides to no longer be a bystander and to do something about the bully’s behavior.

Thank you, Kendal. I’m happy for this book — and this topic — to receive some attention. And it’s great to be in such fine company!

Dear Teacher: An Author’s Take on School Visits

I have been enjoying school visits for the past 15 years. I’ve played a role in great successes and I’ve had visits that have felt flat and, for me at least, unrealized.

Same guy. What was the difference?

Which is another way of asking, “What makes a successful author visit?”

Here’s a clue: I don’t think it’s the author. I’ve given talks when teachers have walked into the room enthusiastic and eager — curious to meet me, to hear my talk — and I’ve seen teachers arrive late, who appear put-upon and vaguely annoyed. They flip through papers, check their watches, see it all as an inconvenience rather than something germane to their mission as teachers. Students feed directly off those attitudes; it’s what they are taught. I’ve seen kids enter a room bubbling with excitement. I’ve seen it in their eyes. They were going to meet a real, live author. Someone whose books they’ve talked about and read. Other times, other groups: it’s more like, “Why are we here again?” They may not even be sure.

Here’s what I’ve concluded: A school visit isn’t something that happens to a school. It is something that a school does.

Let me put that another way:

Authors don’t “do” school visits.

Schools “do” author visits.

It’s an important distinction. An author visit is not passive for the school. It’s active. And it requires a lot of work, with a lot of different people pulling on the same oar. Schools make these visits happen — and by “schools” I mean the principal, librarian, teachers, service workers, and PTA/PTO. The author showing up? That’s after most of the real work’s been done.

At least 85% of what transpires for a visit is up the school, not the author. In fact, it’s not that much about “the event” itself, which happens in a flash and is soon over. A small part of a given day. The author comes and goes. Then it’s P.E. and lunch and recess and the math quiz. What endures is what happens in the school before and after the visit.

For an author visit to make sense, it has to be part of some greater context, a school’s emphasis on literacy, it’s fundamental belief in the value of reading and writing. The author is part of something much larger. Or else, seriously, don’t bother. Save the money.

Schools should think of a visiting author as a distant uncle they’ve invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve been preparing, shopping, cleaning, and cooking long before Uncle Jimmy ever shows up. Sure, he’s funny and nice and will add to the festivities, might even help make it a wonderful afternoon. But without all your work — if there’s no turkey! — then it’s not going to be much of a visit. And guess what? Uncle Jimmy isn’t going to hang around to do dishes. He won’t be eating the leftovers either.

What you get out of an author visit is in direct proportion to what you put into it — just like everything else in life.

There’s a wealth of practical “how to” information out there addressing every aspect of the successful visit. For some easy tips, try starting at these sites:

* How To Have Great Author Visits — from Pamela Curtis Swallow and Deborah Heiligman

* Planning, Fundraising, & Tips — from Scholastic

* Terri’s Tips for Terrific Author/Illustrator Visits — from Theresa Finch, Librarian

* Visiting Authors Dot Com — lots of good stuff here, start digging.