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Vonnegut Birthed THE BONE TRENCH

When I was in high school, I favored the library located in the small strip center that also held the hardware store where I bought tomato plants, thinking them to be flowers . . . but that’s another story. The library was cozy, the line of shelves beginning as soon as you walked in the door. From my weird spatial perspective, the books were arranged backwards—the cataloguing began at the front desk and the fiction authors whose names began with letters from the end of the alphabet were closest to the door. I remember this because I’ll never forget squatting on the floor and finding on the bottom shelf Kurt Vonnegut.

By that time, I was in the twelfth grade, participating in the Advance Placement English class. Part of the deal with that class was earning extra credit for reading books not on the required reading list. Can you believe that? They gave you extra credit for reading. Much of my life, reading had been something I was doing when I should’ve been “outside getting fresh air.” Or making my bed. Or eating. I was a pig in slop in that library, doing my favorite thing, fully sanctioned.

This world or another?
This world or another?

So, anyway, I found Vonnegut. His were small books, at least relative to Moby Dick, which we read in English class, so I checked out a couple of them. Slaughterhouse Five, of course, and either Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions, I don’t remember. The class had an approved “Outside Reading” list; anything off that list had to be approved by the teacher as meeting certain unnamed standards. I took my finds to school for perusal and acceptance. This had not theretofore been an issue. It was this time.

The teacher took my request under advisement. She was older, in real life, I mean—looking back from an adult perspective, you realize everyone seemed older when you were young. But this teacher’s hair was gray, her face heavily wrinkled, her hands trembling. She accepted the books from my hand, and, corralling stray wisps of hair back into the bun that swept dramatically from her forehead, she said she’d let me know.

Alien life?
Alien life?

Several days later I received her verdict. My choice was not conventional, she said (imagine that!), but she believed it could be approved. The language, the scenes—the book contained objectionable material; I, however, was probably mature enough to handle it. The book simply was not her cup of tea, she sniffed, but she didn’t want to discourage me from reading works that tried new approaches, even those that hovered on the edge of literature.

The year was 1975. Slaughterhouse Five came out in 1970. It was not yet a classic, to say the least; no one had yet put it on multiple “Best Of” lists. I was left with the distinct impression the teacher hadn’t even read it; hence, the delay of several days. But thanks to this open-minded teacher, I was an early reader and fan.

I do have one complaint: I blame Vonnegut for creating my lifetime inability to distinguish fantasy from plain ol’ literature.  Maybe this defect was birthed years earlier when my mother read us the Narnia Chronicles as bedtime stories, us girls snuggled in the covers, me hating to see the white space that signaled the chapter’s end. Later in my senior year, I had my Asimov phase, and one summer I devoured Lewis’s Space Trilogy; my mother talked so much about Perelandra, I had to read it myself. In college it was Lord of the Rings; later, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and every Arthurian legend book written. I came late to American Gods and the Outlander series, but arrive I did.

Space plants, perhaps?
Space plants, perhaps?

None of these classic fantasies did I consider “fantasy.” They were just great books, no different from Moby Dick or William Faulkner, for that matter. So I guess it’s not surprising I never considered I was writing a fantasy when I wrote my own novel The Bone Trench. Yeah, the central characters are Mother Mary and her guardian angel Little c, both of whom have superpowers. Also Mary’s son Jesus, who grumbles about having stripped himself of his superpowers prior to his return to earth. And while the book is Urban Fantasy set in real-life Memphis, The Bone Trench’s Memphis has the phantasmagoric qualities of Tim Burton’s Gotham City.

As you can tell, these early reads also made the combination of fantasy and spirituality I created in The Bone Trench feel natural. Hell, C.S. Lewis was primarily a religion writer. Furthermore, to get a bit metaphysical, who’s to say the world doesn’t exist as the fantasy books portray it? Don’t lock me up, but where actually does the line between fantasy and reality run? I’ve told several people The Bone Trench is fantasy, only to get the response, “Well, I guess.”

Alien spirits
Merry Christmas!

So, of all the legacies Kurt Vonnegut left the world, in a way The Bone Trench is another one. In any event, I thank you, Mr. Vonnegut, for leaving me free to write whatever in this—or any—world I feel like writing.


AP English reading list, definition of fantasy, fantasy as literature, Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, The Bone Trench, urban fantasy

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