Writing historical fiction about a time prior to your birth is tricky. I spend a lot of time rummaging through newspapers from the 19-teens, trying to understand as much as possible about what life was like during this period from which no reliable witnesses remain. A few months ago, one of the characters in my never-ending novel borrowed several biting definitions from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911) to compose a letter to a friend.
So I loved it when Jake Silverstein started talking about his quixotic quest to discover what happened to Bierce during a recent reading from his “chronicle in fact and fiction,” Nothing Happened and Then It Did, at The Twig Book Shop. This search for a sensational storyline, among others in his book with chapters alternating between fact and fiction, did not end as Silverstein had hoped. During her introduction of Silverstein at The Twig, Jan Jarboe Russell described the book’s theme as “thwarted ambition,” even though its author, editor of Texas Monthly, seemingly would be unacquainted with failure.
Silverstein’s early approach to finding topics magazine editors would deem worthy of publishing was unusual:
One day I unfolded a map of Mexico and looked for a place to live…. I had the notion that it would be good, both financiallly and journalistically, to live someplace where there was nothing happening. That way, when something did happen, there would be no one but me to write about it.
In Nothing Happened, the author wandered from one potential feature story to another, with none materializing as planned. But his book itself stands as proof; the stories were there all along.
There is always a story (Although readers of my blog might suggest I rethink this theory.). The story might not meet a writer’s preconceptions, but it is there nevertheless, an omen as defined by Bierce:
OMEN, n. A sign that something will happen if nothing happens.
The story sometimes is merely dormant, waiting to be awakened by an author, who is, as Silverstein wrote in his introduction, willing to permit:
…the real to mingle with the imagined, as it does in the deserted labyrinth of the mind.
Silverstein’s first book is a good omen (as defined by Merriam-Webster not Bierce) of writings yet to come and for Texas Monthly, where he can bedevil reporters with assignments to uncover memorable stories where, at first glance, there are seemingly none. Don’t let any of them remain untold, like Bierce’s death, “reductus in pulvis” (pulverem) (RIP as defined in The Devil’s Dictionary).
Note Added on June 1: Interview with Jake Silverstein