Monday, June 13th, 2011
oin me in welcoming Bill Peschel to Highlighted Author.
Hello. I’m Bill Peschel, and I’m a writer.
That makes up most of me. Pretty simple, and, I guess, shallow. The great writers do things that inform their works or make them noticed.
* Ernest Hemingway was an outdoorsman, but while I can appreciate nature, I prefer to do it from the balcony of a very nice hotel, preferably with a beer.
* Virginia Woolf wrote bitchy things in her diary and killed herself. I write bitchy things in Writers Gone Wild, but leaven it with humanity and good humor. I’m also still alive, so that’s a strike against me.
* Edgar Allan Poe got into feuds with other writers, acted out in public and also died well. I’m one of those “nice guys” who tries not to get into trouble. Public speaking gigs are a trial, complete with sweaty palms and spiking blood pressure. Fortunately, audiences see high energy and passion.
Which is kinda why I wrote Writers Gone Wild. I wanted to be a published writer ever since I was a teenager. I wrote short stories in high school for credit. I wrote role-playing game materials, book reviews, stories and novels. But what really caught my passion was collecting these stories about famous writers to learn how they did it, how they blew it, and how much fun they had along the way.
In the meantime, I worked in journalism as a reporter, editor and book reviewer in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania, developed computer games (back when you had IBM, Apple, Commodore and Atari duking it out), delivered bread, renovated houses and married and raised a family.
Along the way, I discovered that cynicism and optimism are two sides of the same coin ─ extreme cases in both lead to cynicism ─ and that the world is made of stories. Facts are important, but we remember the stories and we feel anxious because we’re so separated from each other ─ in actual distances, in the lack of time we spend together, and in the many worlds we visit throughout the day ─ that we don’t share the same stories. We’re isolated.
Culture is built around the stories we tell each other. You can be a Greek if you know your Homer, English if you can recite Shakespeare, American by appreciating Mark Twain.
The Internet may be made of cats, but we’re made of stories. And, I find, so am I.
And some hot air, too.
Writers Gone Wild
Virginia Woolf Punks the Royal Navy (1910)
It was a cool February day when Virginia Stephens, then 18 and two years before becoming Mrs. Leonard Woolf, dressed up for a special outing: caftan, turban, false beard and a healthy dollop of blackface. At the top of her to-do list that day: portray a royal Abyssinian and prank the flagship of the Royal Navy, the H.M.S. Dreadnought.
Inveterate prankster Horace Cole had organized the stunt. He recruited a few friends, including future Bloomsbury painter Duncan Grant and Virginia’s brother, Adrian, but when several people dropped out, Adrian talked Virginia into portraying the emperor’s crown prince. With the help of theatrical costumes and beards, there would be four “Abyssinians” in all, plus Adrian playing an interpreter and Cole an official from the Foreign Office.
They sent a telegram to the ship, signed with the name of an Admiralty official, and talked the railroad into setting aside a special VIP coach for the trip to Weymouth. At the port, they were met by a ship’s officer who escorted them by boat to the Dreadnought. As they neared the ship, the sailors stood at attention along the side of the ship and the band performing the national anthem. True, it was of Zanzibar, but lacking an Abyssinian flag and music, the British Navy made do.
For 40 minutes, the party of six were given a grand tour of the battleship. They talked among themselves in a mix of Swahili and Latin tags from Virgil and Horace, and at every new British marvel, called out “Bunga bunga!” Everyone agreed that it was a successful diplomatic mission.
Then news of the hoax hit the newspapers and torpedoed the navy’s pride. A high navy official had to explain to Parliament how it happened. Children taunted sailors in the street with cries of “bunga bunga,” as was the real, and no doubt puzzled, Emperor of Abyssinia when he visited England weeks later. Reporters sought out Virginia for an interview and described her as “very good looking, with classical features.”
Eventually, the uproar died down, apologies were accepted all around, and the navy’s honor was restored when Cole and Grant were “punished” with ceremonial canings on their buttocks. Virginia was not only enormously amused at successfully passing as a man, but learned something about masculine notions of honor that she would use in her fiction.
To promote Writers Gone Wild, I made this video of me narrating the “Norman the Knife” story from the book. My office cat, Ivan, decided to make a cameo appearance, so this is the result: