Diary of a First Book: Entry 1, An Ode to Turtle Sundaes and My Unsung Literary Hero, Hal DareffJune 13th, 2009
by Suzanne Burns
“Now the fun begins!” one of my publishers, Dan Wickett of Dzanc Books, told me on the phone this afternoon. My debut collection of short stories, Misfits and Other Heroes, is on its way to me, priority mail from Michigan to Oregon. Tonight we went out to celebrate, half high-end with a dinner of farmer’s market vegetable risotto, half low-end (My favorite half. To steal from Nabokov, “my sin, my soul.”) with a heartburn-inducing, gut-busting Shari’s Turtle Sundae.
I have to admit I am in a minor state of shock. Expecting this surreal feeling to turn to bliss, I am experiencing the sort of an…tici…pation I haven’t felt since my teens, being patted down by the burly security guard before my first Cure concert in Seattle or in my twenties on the eve of my first Dead show. There is something musical in the air around me.
Scary and satisfying and self-indulgent. Knowing my first book is on the way brings with it a vanity I haven’t dealt with before. I am stocking up on moisturizers and hair dye. Eye wrinkle cream. Unknown manicure implements. Curiously strong breath mints. Summer and winter scarves. I have purchased an insane amount of ridiculously terrible songs off i-tunes with lyrics like, “toss that ham in the frying pan like spam” and “my humps, my lovely lady humps, check it out,” to run on the treadmill, to get in shape both physically and mentally for my big debut.
It’s because I am an introverted extrovert, or an extroverted introvert. Going through life as a writer—first of dumb little kid ditties involving talking flowers and friendly aardvarks to teen existential love poems to this collection of short stories with characters that include a woman in love with a wax figure of Robert Wadlow and another woman who burns down her house while attempting to bake the perfect cake—I am used to observing, sketching, doodling with words while the world goes on beyond my notebook and pen.
But a book, a real, live book, means other people will finally be listening. This is where a little bit of self-doubt creeps in. What if no one likes what I have to say? What if no one comes to my readings? What if too many people come? What if I look like a dumb dork in my new black dress? What if, worst of the worst, people think I am a poser, spelled with a “u” the way Kurt Cobain used to spell it, the penultimate insult. None of the other aging hipsters I know, clinging to their collections of vinyl and their tattered copy of The SubGenius Psychlopaedia of Slack—The Bobliographon, have ever approved of the phrase, “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Before I cared about what other people who pretend they don’t care what other people think of them think about me I loved words. Purely. Simply. Adoringly. That magical alchemy of reading and writing. I am old enough now to have either abandoned or forgotten many of the joys of childhood, but some you can never forget. After visiting a local bookstore and laughing at an intriguing children’s book about a pigeon and a hotdog, my husband asked about my favorite childhood book. I answered without hesitation, Fun with ABC and 123 by Hal Dareff (1965).
Oh, the complete deliciousness of this book. Who knew I had such a fascination with words so early in my life. That I had already not only fallen in love with, but began to build my life around, words.
Fun with ABC and 123 isn’t any ordinary letter and number book. It is a wonder of kitschy illustrations by Marilyn Hafner combined with very clever verse. Who knew, all those years ago, my subconscious would file away one of my favorite pages in the book, a pair of very dapper llamas standing in front o f a Parisian patisserie. The letter “P” page proclaimed, “Across the sea in far-off France there lived two well-dressed llamas. By day each wore a pair of pants, at night, pink-striped pajamas.” Did this simple passage begin my lifelong fascination with a city I finally visited last fall where, standing under the Eiffel Tower, I lost all words but, “Wow!”
Of course not every page in ABC and 123 caused an epiphanic moment, but all are memorable. There is Sammy the Spook, “ a hungry ghost [who] ate 10 slices of buttered toast.” How about Juggler Brown, a circus clown or Peter Bright, a brave young knight?
By far my favorite page in Fun with ABC and 123 is dedicated to the letter I. It shows a children’s tea party, three girls walking around in their mother’s heels while, in the kitchen, we observe this: “An ibex is the strangest beast. Don’t dare invite him to a feast. He likes the most peculiar drink—an ice cream soda mixed with ink!”
With this I realized, even at 5 or 6, that words create images, images create thought, thought creates ideas, ideas create action, action creates magic. Hopefully I have harnessed a little bit of that magic, Fun with ABC and 123 living in my mind this whole time, one step in a million towards the milestone of a first book. Maybe it isn’t so important if my roots show or I have a few wrinkles around my eyes. I want to lose my vanity and focus on inspiring other people through words. When asked to list my favorite authors, I always say Hemingway, Henry Miller, Nabokov. Well, on the eve of my first book entering the world, hats off to you, Hal Dareff, author of Fun with ABC and 123. God bless you, wherever you are!