Apart from a sharpened mind, the writer’s most fundamental tools are the pen and paper, or, perhaps in this modern age, the difference engine. Though with the ubiquitous availability of inexpensive and ready-filled pens, one seldom considers what might happen should one need to create one’s own ink. Yet this very thought came to the editor this afternoon while wondering the streets of this arboreally gifted village. Upon directing eyes skyward and into the branches of a young oak, a series of peculiar protuberances reminded the editor of that (very nearly lost) art of ink fabrication, and its source: the oak gall.

The Oak Gall is formed as explained in Dr. Johnathan Pereira’s Elements of Materia Medica (4th Ed., 1855):

On the sides and at the ends of the branches and shoots of this tree, the female [insect] makes a puncture and deposits her egg. The irritation produced by the insect’s bite or sting gives rise to an influx of the juices of the plant to the wounded part, and an excrescence is soon formed, within which the larva is developed, and which is termed a gall, or nutgall.

It so happens that apart from nurturing the particular larva within the rich, but tannic sap — a gall is from 20 to 40 percent tannin, dependent on the tree — the gall maintains other useful properties, not the least of which is the production of a cheap and excellent black ink.

We subjoin a formula for good ink which we might have employed some years ago, had we not found the BIC Round Stic so effectual:—

Ingredients: 4 oz. of bruised Aleppo galls, 2 oz. of gum-arabic, 1½ grain green copperas,1½ oz. of alum, 2 oz. of salt.
Mode: Under the supervision of an alchemist, and wearing a pair of protective rose-colored spectacles, put the above ingredients into a stone bottle, and pour upon them one quart of soft water at boiling heat; shake the bottle well and frequently. It is a good plan to cork the bottle and hang it at the back of a door which is frequently opened and shut. At the end of three weeks strain off the ink and bottle it, with a tablespoonful of brandy. Pour on the ingredients another pint of boiling soft water, which may remain in the bottle till needed, and then be strained off for use. This ink flows freely, and retains its blackness.

The ink should be used to draft your next great work, as its exposure to air deepens the color and artistry of your words.

Editor’s Note: Gum Senegal may be substituted for Gum Arabic; while Iron(II) sulfate may be substituted for green copperas; reckless lab hijinks, however, may not be substituted for common sense. Safety first.


Our friends at The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP) are sending Sally Weigel out into the wilderness on her first virtual book tour in support of her novella Too Young to Fall Asleep. She diffuses useful knowledge here on April 8, 2010. Yet her caravan route to literary fame will also trace its way through many other internet camps, enthralling readers at each stop. The caravan route at Lehochomu Melleha

The Virtual Book Tour will continue upon the following arrangements:—

Monday, 3/29: CCLaP Podcast
Tuesday, 3/30: The Next Best Book Blog
Wednesday, 3/31: Impose Magazine
Thursday, 4/1: Ben Tanzer
Friday, 4/2: What To Wear During an Orange Alert
Sunday, 4/4: Between The Lines
Monday, 4/5: The Teenage Head
Tuesday, 4/6: Mud Luscious
Thursday, 4/8: The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, with Jason R Riley
Friday, 4/9: decomP

The experience allows us to state — in advance and with confidence — that after reading each of Ms Weigel’s interviews, your enjoyment and understanding of her fine work will continue to improve.

The Travel Book: Kevin Mora and My Ngo spent ten months traveling around the world in 2008-2009. As they traveled through the twenty countries on their itinerary, they tried to avoid the main tourists spots and sought those places where people went about their daily lives. NO MORE TRAVELING…around the world in 10 months is the product of countless hours of planning, preparing, and chronicling their twenty country trip around the world. This 10×8 coffee table photo book includes more than 75 of their finest photos of people, landscapes, and animals. Hopefully their photographs inspire you to travel somewhere you never thought you would go. Their travel blog and additional photographs can be found at www.nomoretraveling.com.

The Encouragement of Charity: Additionally, all proceeds from the sale of NO MORE TRAVELING…around the world in 10 months are being donated to the Thapa family of Chainpur, Nepal. Kevin first met the Thapa family in 2001 while doing some volunteer work in their village. Over the past nine years, Kevin has kept in touch with the Thapas via letters and e-mails. While in Nepal on their around the world trip, Kevin and My traveled to Chainpur to see the family. Despite living in poverty, the Thapa family (which consists of four generations living under one roof) opened their hearts and their home to Kevin and My, making them feel like part of the family. More information about the Thapa family can be found at http://www.nomoretraveling.com/thapa-family/

Chicago Board of Trade

This interview was originally published February 25, 2009, on goodreads.com. I am the original author of this interview; it is not being reprinted illegally. I can assure you, however, that it does contain very useful knowledge.

If you’re a writer, this interview will change your life. As stop number ten of CCLaP’s revolutionary, two-week “virtual book tour”, Chicago author, Ben Tanzer, stopped by to chat about his story collection Repetition Patterns (CCLaP Publishing, 2009). He’s written two novels Lucky Man (Manx Media, 2007, 2009) and Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (Orange Alert Press, 2008), and he kindly answered my questions regarding his writing process, effective use of pop culture, publishing’s future, and he revealed that one thing all writers search for, yet he has already discovered.

Jason R. Riley: What are your motives for writing?

Ben Tanzer: I don’t consider writing an option, my motive as dorky as this sounds, is that it was always something I thought I wanted to do, I always had stories in mind for when I got started, and then when I got started it was exhilarating, like when I learned how to read or first started running, everything suddenly seemed like it could be a potential story, or part of the story, and I suddenly found myself editing throughout the day in my head, writing ideas on napkins and endlessly jonesing for the time when I might get to sit down and write. Again, it isn’t a choice anymore, or it doesn’t feel that way at least.

JRR: I hope you don’t mind, I suppose we should have started with this as an epigraph to ease into the interview. My favorite author, Paul Bowles, once said: “Every work suggests its own method.” Writing a short story takes, perhaps, a steadier hand than writing a novel. How did your methods differ when writing Repetition Patterns, and your two novels: Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, and Lucky Man?

BT: You know, there is no difference for me really beyond thinking that some ideas seem like they could be great as a stand-alone story of sorts and some seem like they could be part of something longer and could be integrated with a string of other ideas. So with the latter I begin to think more sequentially, this idea leads to that idea which leads to that idea and so on, and with the former, I think how does this idea get expanded, what’s the start and finish and what might I wrap around it. Again, I think the stand alone nature of an idea is key for me, though it can be hard to quantify why something feels that way.

JRR: At what point during your writing did you decide: “Ah ha! there’s a unity of system here, I could write a collection,” or a story cycle, as you’ve called it?

BT: Good question, because in this case, I actually went into the project thinking it would be cool to try and write a series, or cycle, of stories that were evocative of a certain time and place even if the reader isn’t entirely sure what that time or where that place is. I was influenced by a handful of short story collections that seemed to do this so well, Drown by Junot Diaz, When The Messenger is Hot by Elizabeth Crane, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, The Bridegroom by Ha Jin and The Collected Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in particular, and so I thought why not try to write a handful of stories about a town like Binghamton, NY where I grew-up. That was the plan anyway. The stories as a whole were published as individual pieces in various in journals over a couple of years before I connected with CCLaP. The fact that a number of stories are now in one collection is still amazing to me, as is anything that I ever get published.

JRR: I believe you when you state: “these stories will change your life.” In Repetition Patterns I see a central theme of fear, maybe more specifically, a fear of children: getting pregnant; being pregnant; raising a child; screwing-up the child; of being the child; of meeting – by default – the qualifications of parenthood no matter how unqualified one may be. You meant for these stories to carry a message, to shine a mirror on what we’ve become. Was there a point where you needed to cut (or drastically alter) a story you intended to include in the cycle, because it didn’t quite fit the message? Did you do any retro-fitting, so to speak?

BT: There was no significant retrofitting, the pieces as a whole hung together for me in terms of being from the same place geographically and I guess historically, and when I wrote them I wasn’t actually thinking of the themes that were being repeated and that I now come back to again and again, fractured families, parenting, violence, confusion, and such. These stories were written several years ago, really at the beginning of my efforts to become a writer, and well before the novels. And so when I wrote them I wasn’t as conscious of my own fixations and struggles. I certainly wasn’t articulate about them. Jason sort of reminded me that these stories weren’t just about place though, that they actually fit in with the larger collection of work I’m trying to put together and the themes I am endlessly trying to unknot.

JRR: You use a lot of pop culture references, both to set your scenes and as plot devices. In general, there is a certain danger that such references will fall flat. When selecting a pop culture reference to include in your narrative, how do you ensure your references have the power to endure?

BT: This is a great question because the use pop culture can be dangerous to a writer just like swearing can be or referencing blood and sex. These things can stop stories in their tracks and you have to guard against this, which I hope I do, and am conscious of, but still probably miss the boat on again and again. What’s interesting to me is that your question isn’t why I use pop culture, but how do I ensure the references I choose have the power to endure, something Jason and I have argued about many times. The answer, which is not meant to be a cop-out, is that I don’t worry about that and I rarely think about audience. I always write what I find entertaining because while I want to get published, it’s not clear what will get published, if anything, or what people will like, and so I just write and hope for the best. What I will say though, is that I do trust myself to reference things that someone somewhere will be thrilled about or will be recycled in some fashion because we live in a world where everything from Mickey Rourke to The Greatest American Hero is revisited, refreshed and revived at some point and so there is a lot of latitude.

JRR: There is a beautiful realism to your fiction. It’s so well-crafted that – even as a writer myself – I wonder how much of what you write is based on your own experiences; if it’s some version of your own extended autobiography? So, how much of ‘you’ is on the page in Repetition Patterns?

BT: This is super complimentary so thank you. I am quite obsessive about every word and every sentence, and edit like mad, even if my grammar and spelling skills blow and not everything works. Writing is a craft and I do think of it that way. And I definitely draw on my own experiences. Endlessly really, though sometimes it’s just a single moment among many that I look build a story around. So, how much of me is on the page, a lot, and yet not so much. Take the story Pac Man Fever. There was a guy in my hometown who was a Pac Man god and we did go and watch him play, but outside of a candy store that was also in neighborhood, that’s it, there is no other part of that story that is based on anything having to do with me or reality. I just imagined what that guy’s life might look like. Or take What We Thought We Knew, there’s a lot of stuff in that story that I was immersed in or tangentially connected to, the sex abuse and the predatory teacher for example, and my fascination with this girl in my neighborhood, but those things are only related in my head, there’s no true connection to the world I grew-up in and those pieces of the story really have nothing to do with reality. I knew a kid who was sexually abused by his dad, but I don’t know anything about him and never did. And there were some predatory teachers in my junior high school, but they never actually did anything that I know about, they just seemed to hang together in this piece.

JRR: On a related topic, is there ever a fear on your part that someone will “recognize” themselves in your fiction, even if a character is entirely fictional?

BT: Sometimes, but not so much, the most fucked-up things you might read of mine are probably fictional, like the teachers I referenced above, they never did anything, so they probably wouldn’t see anything of themselves in that character. It’s my read on what they might look like in another universe, or, in my head anyway. All that said, someone I knew a long time ago recently came back into my life and there’s a minor character in a piece that doesn’t look much like her, but it is the first time I haven’t wanted someone to read something, and one of the only times I wrote something where I questioned it for a second and thought, she will never read this and I will never see her again. So in general not so much, but like everything else there are exceptions. On the other hand, I have a number of friends who see some small piece of them in different stories and characters, even not so great things and find it very entertaining, as well as, many friends who don’t seem to recognize themselves at all in different stories even though it seems so blatant to me.

JRR: The publishing world seems to be undergoing a slow transition to the digital age, do you see the model you and CCLaP have used with Repetition Patterns as the future of publishing, and how do you think this transition will affect those writers waiting to debut?

BT: It think it is one version of the future, and frankly I hope it is only a supplemental means for publishing, which would be awesome, and so while I am thrilled to experiment with new models and new platforms and have really enjoyed this project, I would hate for books as we usually think of them to go away because I love books, and not just reading them, but holding them and running my finger along the spine and walking through a bookstore for hours. That said, those waiting to debut their work will need to factor this into their thinking and publishing because it is one version of the future, a future which is driven by increased costs and less demand, and a comfort level or preference of many to read a book in just this fashion. If getting the work out there is important to you and it is for me, even if I don’t think about while I am actually writing, it’s best to embrace this model now and make it work for you.

JRR: Any final words of wisdom for the writers out there among us, preferably that one thing we’ve all been searching for, yet you’ve already discovered?

BT: I don’t think I know anything, not really, but I always feel that way. If anything, what I know is cliché, but I remain amazed how often I find myself saying it and people shake their heads in agreement. If you want to write, just write, don’t worry about audience or sales or publishing, just sit down, day after day, find your voice, get advice, write and rewrite, but keep at it, no excuses, you can’t be too tired, or scared or indecisive, don’t get bogged down in the best place to write or time, just force yourself to do it even if nothing happens, because something will happen eventually, it has to. I promise.


March 21, 2010

Iris pseudacorus

YELLOW IRIS. Iris pseudacorus

The present is the First Volume of our Penny Cyclopædia. Perhaps one of the most striking features of this publication is its aim to become a home — or at the very least, a brief respite — for the educated and inquisitive among us, and to do so for zero price. For useful knowledge has sprung from the people, and belongs to the people; yet it is a lantern we must fuel. Within its literary lifetime, we hope our Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge becomes, for those who lose their way and stumble upon it, some measure of an intellectual delight.

We are aware that hosts of new discoveries have been made, and that, to date, an abundance of original electronic observations have been chronicled. Amidst this keen and able competition for the moisture of your tired eyes, we have arrived late. For this we offer no apology. Spring is the season of birth and renewal. On this account alone, therefore, we are justified in our genesis. In spite of this, we propose devoting this special department to Literature (a devotion to which we shall pertinaciously adhere); for that charming branch of amateur and holiday science is still capable of much good service for those students and lovers of the written word.

We therefore cordially invite our readers to assist us in forming and carrying on this particular strand of interweb: The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

Hello world!

March 19, 2010

Skeleton of boa constrictor

Skeleton of boa constrictor

BOA (zoology), the name of a family of serpents which are without venom, the absence of which is amply compensated by immense muscular power, enabling some of the species to kill large animals by constriction, preparatory to swallowing them whole.