A Writing Family Pt.1 – My Father, Basil Burwell

Basil and Fred Burwell and Friend

Where did my passion for words come from? I think back to my childhood and find many sources, from the intriguing typeface and old-paper smell of a 1920’s hardback book to a dog-eared copy of the mysterious Dr. Strange Marvel comic left around by my brother Jeremy, to the fresh ink glow of a Dell paperback bought at the local department store. As much as I loved reading words, I also loved the sounds of words and so I became a listener. Every night my father read to me as I slurped up Cheerios and scraped sugar from the bottom of the bowl. When I pull The Phantom Tollbooth off the shelf today, I half hear the echo of my father’s booming voice merging with the bell-like clink of spoon on ceramic bowl.

Basil Burwell reading to Fred and Jeremy

Or we’d be out driving, my father at the wheel, my mother beside him, me in the back, gazing through the window at the passing scenes, then –

“Flug!” my father would say.

My mother would wake out of her reverie. “What?” And then she’d look out the window as we rolled past a busy Gulf station. “Oh, Basil!”

A block later he’d intone, “Deeps Timil,” in his rich actor’s baritone.

My mother would present him with one of her patented scowls. “Oh don’t be ridiculous!”

I’d pinch myself, trying not to burst out laughing when I realized that “Deeps Timil” was “Speed Limit” backwards. My father adored backwards words. A father in one of his novels – probably an alter ego – named his daughter, “Devorppa Klim,” which of course was “Approved Milk.” Magical backward words appeared everywhere, even in our own names. Sometimes, his blue eyes twinkling but with a straight face, he’d introduce himself to strangers as “Lisab Llewrub.” I learned that if I ever felt bored with plain old Fred Burwell, I could always switch it around to Derf Llewrub and pretend I was Welsh.

If you wonder where my Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary comes from, it’s the spirit of Basil Burwell perched on my shoulder, whispering into my ear.

My father once confessed to me that he thought of himself as an unsuccessful man. That surprised me. How many fathers did I know who could say they’d acted professionally for more than a decade and appeared in films with such oddball names as Park Avenue Logger and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany? But in the 1940’s he left the world of Hollywood and summer stock and became a master teacher, both of the theater and of English literature and creative writing.

He’d always loved to write and he couldn’t resist telling stories. How many times had I bugged him for the further adventures of “Georgie Kleenex?” Especially after the beloved, flimsy character had somehow floated all the way to the moon? He liked to point out that one of his first published stories, “The Flag that Set Us Free, published in the famous Story magazine in 1944, was based on one of his schoolboy stories that had received a C+, possibly due to his incorrigibly bad handwriting. Story editor Whit Burnett urged him to “think long” and in 1954, the historical epic, Our Brother the Sun, became his first published novel.
A Fool in the Forest
, which appeared in 1963, was his personal favorite. It was an autobiographical novel about a young man fresh out of high school in 1929, experiencing a wild summer with a troupe of actors at a summer theater set in an old fashioned amusement park.

When I first became interested in writing, Dad would take my penciled rough draft and cover it with red pen corrections, comments, and suggestions. Then we’d sit down and talk about it. I knew I was getting somewhere when less and less red marked up my work.

Perhaps Dad had so many strong passions he couldn’t simply hue to one path. To my mind he was an extremely successful man – a fine actor and director, brilliant teacher, published author, delightful storyteller, and a warm and generous father and mentor.

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Kloof

Kloof: A mechanical attachment used to provide dexterity to sentient ungulates.

Urko visited the Kloofeteria, where an assistant helped him try on four varicolored neon kloofs, which fit front and back hoofs perfectly. At last, instead of kicking away unwanted tennis balls, he was able to pick them up and eat them. Instead of leaving angry hoof-marks on books, he could actually turn pages and read the stories. The kloofs were an utter delight – he never had to trim them and he never had to coat them with hoof cream in winter, unlike his hoofs, which became brittle and cracked. There was no such thing as “kloof cream.” You didn’t need it.

One day, while perusing his favorite volume of encyclopedia (the “U” volume of course), Urko discovered that somehow, without consulting them, dinosaur-obsessed scientists had deviously replaced the name of his type of mammal, once euphoniously known as “ungulata” with either “perissodactyla” or “artiodactyla.” – they couldn’t seem to make up their minds which. As a proto-beatnik type of ungulate, Urko naturally preferred “artiodactyla” which got him pondering about art, a subject he often pondered his deepest ponders about. Urko had noticed the unusual mosaic of tracks that kloofs left in the mud he liked to cool off in. After experimenting with a variety of patterns and creating his own personal style, Urko invented an entirely new art form, at first known as “Art Urko,” but after it caught on with other artist-ungulates, as “Art Kloof.” Unfortunately, within days, Kloof manufacturers underwent major nuisance lawsuits from several individuals named “Art Kloof.” Tied up in litigation for years, “kloofmania,” as the media referred to it, underwent severe decline until now no one is sure if kloofs ever truly existed.

Its actual meaning: “a deep glen: ravine”

Prairie Hill – Rob Baller wildflower Photographs

One early spring day many years ago, I visited a remnant prairie not far from where I live in Beloit, Wisconsin. It was a sunny day, but there was a stiff wind blowing and the nip in the air made me think that winter had its claws dug in and wasn’t in any hurry to scoot off to wherever it likes to hang out over the next eight or nine months. I climbed down a steep hill into a gully and then up another hill, tromping on crackling grass. I looked ahead and glimpsed toward the top, buffeted by the breeze but stretching their pale lavender blooms toward the warming sun, dozens of hairy-stemmed pasque flowers scattered here and there on the slope. The uplifting sight of spring’s first flowers stayed with me and eventually became the setting for an early scene in Prairie Hill.

When I began to think about a cover for Prairie Hill I knew that I wanted, if possible, something tied to that scene. Enter Rob Baller, local ecologist extraordinaire. I’ve known Rob for many years. He is a passionate advocate for native landscapes, from prairies to oak openings and wetlands and is a keen student of their ecology, history and lore. Take a walk with Rob and he’ll identify every plant, every insect, every bird. He’ll tell you what remains today and what used to be here a century or two ago. Rob has been instrumental in saving and protecting several natural areas. Although exacting and scientific, Rob is not immune to the aesthetic beauty of native plants, something reflected in the warmth of his conversation about them and in the loving attention he pays to documenting them in their natural setting. I had a hunch he might have something available and so I asked. A couple of days later he brought a flash drive filled with dozens of images of landscapes and native flora and fauna. “Take your pick,” he said.

As I looked through photo after photo of prairie scenes and prairie plants, I saw some wonderful possibilities, and then there it was, a gorgeous photograph of pasque flowers looking much as they did that sunny morning long ago. There was the perfect cover for Prairie Hill.

I thought it would be nice to share some more of Rob’s wonderful photographs here. There are so many that I love, perhaps this will be part one. Here is another view of pasque flowers:

And with its vibrant halo, the purple prairie clover:

One of the cheeriest – butterfly weed:

The sunflower-like Prairie Dock, I’m sure well loved by Hulda Bjorklund, a character in Prairie Hill:

And finally, the long-haired “hippy” flower, prairie smoke, also delightfully known as “old man’s whiskers”:

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Biramous and Whaup

Biramous: an unusually intelligent, two-whiskered mouse. Several whisker strands fuse together into horn-like projections from each side of the mouse’s mouth. Because of their tensile, metallic-like strength and conductivity, the fused whiskers act like radio antennae, drawing broadcasts from around the world directly into the mouse. Because of their keen minds and sponge-like absorptive abilities, the average biramous quickly becomes conversant in a multitude of languages, especially that of advertising. The enlarged biramous speech box provides startling resonance, allowing many biramouses successful careers as radio announcers, deejays, and voice over artists. No doubt you’ve heard them advertising cheese.

Legend has it that Amos was the most famous biramous of them all, although cantankerous cranks groused that he was a louse, except when most sonorous, which brought down the house. Vain and snooty (but never snouty), Amos always wore a sunny yellow mouse-blouse featuring glamorous photographs of himself posing at the microphone. Some say that only a blasphemous ignoramus would frown at such a vainglorious biramous as Amos.

Actual definition of biramous: having two branches, as those on the appendages of crustaceans.

Whaup: A particular sound produced by members of the obscure religious sect known as “Burpers” at the exact second they reach their daily moment of enlightenment.

Franklin was a recent convert to the Burpers, swayed by their promise of enlightenment – deep and soulful riches beyond imagination. However, try as he would, meditating for hours on end by himself and in large groups, he’d never emitted more than a tiny “uhp” which reminded his fellow Burpers of the sound one makes after swallowing an under ripe grape. Castigated for his failure, reviled for his undeniably weak belching ability, thrown out on his own devices, (etc. etc.), Franklin dragged himself to the nearest mountain (some ten thousand miles away), planning to end it all. He sat in an old shepherd’s hut, high above a darkling plain and gave it one last try. He’d consumed a cucumber steak with watermelon gravy and found it too rare for his liking. His stomach, however, seemed to be speaking to him and he felt insistent, mystical words rising up, clamoring to get out. He opened his mouth and felt the “whaup” coming, but only a stray “wherefore” slipped out. Steeling himself, he tried yet again and this time, at long last (he thought), the whaup tumbled down his chin, only to turn into a “wherewithal.” In despair, he rose swiftly, stepped forward to pitch himself down the steep slope…and then that most lovely and rare of words, “whaup” slithered out of his mouth and swirled in the mists of the canyon below, echoingly brightly (or was it damply?) from peak to peak, wall to wall, finally settling on a radio tower where it became part of an international broadcast listened to with delight by every biramous near and far.

Actual definition of whaup: “a European curlew.” A curlew is a species of bird.

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens! or “Dickens and Me”

When I was eleven or twelve, my mother took me by the arm, marched me over to one of the many crowded family bookcases and pointed to a long row of uniform, green-covered hardbacks. “Give one of these a try,” she said. “They’re absolutely marvelous.” When I hesitated, she huffed impatiently and said, “You’re ready! Try Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby, then move on to one of the best, David Copperfield.”

Charles Dickens was my mother’s favorite author, a longtime companion from childhood on. I pulled Oliver Twist off the shelf, curled up on one of the overstuffed old chairs in our living room, and within a couple of hours Dickens had me enthralled by his characters, hooked by his intricate plotting, so completely immersed in his world that I had trouble extricating myself when I dimly became aware of the dinner bell. As soon as possible I went back to Oliver and the Beadle and the Artful Dodger and a host of other memorable characters.

Over the years, Dickens became many things to me: he helped give me a broader view of the world, he taught me how to observe and reflect on human nature, and he inspired me to write. He also helped keep me close to my mother, even during the most frustrating period of our relationship during my teenage years.

“What are you reading?” Mom would say.

Little Dorrit.”

“Ah! That’s one of my discoveries. People don’t talk about that one so much, but it’s brilliant.”

As a writer of much plainer prose, I find it impossible to emulate Dickens, and yet I continue to learn from him and he continues to influence me through his attention to the tiniest details which add up to razor-sharp observation and above all through his compassion for his characters.

I recently celebrated my nearly lifelong interest in Dickens and his world by compiling a collection of Dickens-related materials for e-publisher, Delphi Classics. Here’s how we advertised Dickensiana Volume One: Dickensiana is a first of its kind e-compilation of period accounts of Dickens’s life and works, rare 19th and early 20th century books and articles about Dickens and Dickensian locales, reminiscences by family, friends and colleagues, tribute poems, parodies, satires and sequels based on his works and much more, spiced with an abundance of vintage images.

The collection is available from Amazon.com and from the Delphi Classics website. I heartily recommend the many fabulous author collections sold by Delphi. Owner Peter Russell loves classic literature, felt determined to create the best public domain collections available, and admirably succeeded. Delphi’s Charles Dickens collection is staggeringly huge, not only chock full of nearly everything Dickens ever wrote, but replete with thousands of images from the books and of Dickens-related locales.

So, happy 200th birthday, Charles, and thank you!

Delphi Classics

Prairie Hill – featured article

Hilary Dickinson wrote a very nice profile about me and Prairie Hill for the Beloit College website. Here’s a link:

Resident Archivist Publishes Novel

In the near future I will post the Prairie Hill prequel she mentions in the article.

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Scripsit

Scripsit: In the golden days, perhaps as far back as Shakespearean times (if indeed Shakespeare existed – some literary scholars believe that his plays were actually written by someone named Marlowe’s ghost – an early example of ghostwriting) a playwright would finish his script and then sit on it for awhile, waiting until it was truly ready for producing at the Globe or one of the many other English theaters such as the Hoot or the Catcall. Of course some of the more superstitious playwrights took this literally and actually sat on the script. Eventually finding the process eminently impractical and ridiculously tedious, the playwrights hefted themselves up and ambled down to the Fowle Guild, thinking that if chickens and Cornish game hens and other fowl had the leisure time to sit on eggs, why not scripts? So the guild masters formed an auxiliary and christened it the Scripsit Guild. They allowed only the most patient birds to act as scripsits, since, unlike silky smooth eggs, the parchment felt rough and the ink stained their feathers – plus nothing ever hatched, not even an idea. Playwrights utilized scripsits well into the 19th century until the industrial revolution, when an enterprising inventor created a mechanized scripsit, which eventually evolved into a theatrical agent.

Makepeace Voltaire was the most famous playwright from Devonshire, Piznitz-on-the-wold, Merry-in-the-pigsty, England, although local publicans liked to remind visitors that Makepeace was the only playwright ever to have come from Devonshire, Piznitz-on-the-wold, Merry-in-the-pigsty, England. Renowned for his tragicomic dramaturgy, praised for his facility with what critics even in those days referred to as the English language, Makepeace felt justified in calling himself Makepeace. Sadly, however, come 1642 he fell on hard times. To critics and the public alike, his plays seemed half-baked, regurgitated and spit out. Something was seriously wrong with his dialogue (‘Alas!’ seemed to be repeated every other line). Something was seriously amiss with his stage directions (men with spears kept tripping over each other and bumping into walls). His closest friend, the Dutch poet, Hans Moo (umlaut over the first o) urged him to either give up or give in – “Ach dermitzich nurdengammer fichiflachtifechtidammerung,” he said, which loosely translated (Makepeace believed) meant, “Go to the guild and get yourself a scripsit, goshdarn.”

So, Makepeace visited the Scripsit Guild and returned with a rather taciturn peahen named “Elizabeth” who, after carefully arranging her feathers, sat on Makepeace’s latest creation, a play about a farmer who has a problem with too many leeks, entitled, The Farmer Who Had Way Too Many Leeks. Hours passed, days passed, and Elizabeth sat stolidly and stoically, never allowing Makepeace even the tiniest peep at the script to see if it was ready. She just stared balefully at his nose and occasionally took a nip at it. Finally, two weeks later, she stood up, ruffled her rump, and stepped away from the script. Makepeace was astounded to discover the play renamed Elizabeth of Devon, now a romance about a lonely woman with a rather bird-like face, pining for her lost love, a young ne’er-do-well. Finally, a rich baron whose serfs were world-renowned for their ability to grow the finest leeks, sweeps her off her feet and they live happily – or perhaps not – in a castle full of leaks. Needless to say, the play was a roaring success and the envy of every playwright, even that Shakespeare, or whatever his name was.

Actual meaning: he (or she) wrote (it): placed after the author’s name on a manuscript, etc.

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