Have PEN, Will Travel

Many fiction writers don't choose their profession--it chooses them instead. And some, like jazz critic and novelist Rafi Zabor, are lifelong wanderers who suddenly find themselves traipsing down the right road. But regardless of how a writer becomes one, it must be true that it takes one to know one: Zabor's The Bear Comes Home--a dazzling urban blend of jazz, philosophizing and pure fantasy, with a sax-playing bear as a protagonist--received the 1998 PEN/Faulkner Award for best novel of the year, an accolade less flashy than a Pulitzer or National Book Award yet made somehow sweeter because it's bestowed by a jury of peers. Along with fellow PEN honorees Charlotte Bacon and Steve Lattimore, Zabor will be in town Thursday to read at the Tattered Cover LoDo.

Bacon, whose witty book of stories, A Private State, explores the modern juxtaposition of mundane surface realities and inner life won PEN's 1998 award for first fiction, has no time for fantasies. "Being a writer means everything counts. It's a great thing to mix with everyday life," she says. "You do so many things--you walk the dog, you pay attention to the wrinkles that gather in your elbow, you taste food, you get infuriated at bad drivers--so much that happens is useful in terms of evoking people's worlds."

Although Bacon says she always loved writing, the Manhattan-born author didn't immediately hear fiction calling her name. "I think I have ADD of the soul," she admits, adding that she floated a long time before settling on it, working as a journalist before giving in fully to her muse. "For me, the two trades aren't compatible," Bacon says of the transition. "There's a leanness to the journalistic life that to a writer of fiction is cramping. And of course the great delight in fiction is that you get to make the whole thing up: You decide who's going to be a liar or who's going to be a thief, while in journalism, you have to stay within the realm of what's observably true."

Now nearly finished with a follow-up novel, Bacon thinks she's ready to grow as a writer. "There's room in fiction to point out the grimness in life," she says of her new directions. "There's the possibility of more danger and darkness in my writing--and that's coming."

Then there's Steve Lattimore, a PEN runner-up for his short-story collection Circumnavigation and no stranger to the grimy side of human nature. He's been writing fiction--plain, spare stories and rough-hewn characters, all directly traceable to Flannery O'Connor's work by way of Raymond Carver--for only about eight years, although he honed his gift for it at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, followed by a two-year Stegner fellowship at Stanford.

"I was never one of those writers who grew up reading, always closeted away with a book or anything like that," Lattimore says. "I didn't even read literary fiction until I decided to start writing it." Though he grew up in central California, he developed an immediate affinity for O'Connor's dark, rural comedies, a preference he admits still lurks in his own work. "The people in her stories are like people I know," he says. "I'm instinctively drawn to Southern fiction because it speaks more to people where I come from: It's poor, people are not well-educated, it's agricultural, blue-collar, and it's violent.

"Everything is laced with violence. My work is an inquiry into that."
Now at work on a novel, Lattimore says the recognition from PEN is nice but difficult to process. "It's hard to believe, because there's so much ballyhoo that goes along with PEN prizes in particular," he laments. "The experience is so separate from sitting in a room thinking people up and writing them down."

Zabor, on the other hand, probably would never have written his book had he spent his life so sequestered. An epic of a first novel that began in 1979 as a serial in Musician magazine, The Bear Comes Home evolved slowly while the fiftyish Zabor sailed through a music journalism career, jazz drumming gigs, an interest in Sufism resulting in numerous pilgrimages to Turkey, a period during which he cared for his dying parents, and fourteen years of writer's block between the first and second halves of the book.

"I'm a person who can't walk and chew gum at the same time," Zabor says of his convoluted fiction-writing history, which he feels suffered while he was writing and editing for Musician. So, while still on the magazine's masthead, he traveled to Istanbul, where he saw a gypsy leading a dancing bear. "I had a funny but dumb idea about writing about a bear--I thought it was too dumb an idea, sort of a jokey, Kafka thing," he says. Zabor owed Musician a story but instead began writing the first chapter of Bear. "I figured out how to make a dumb premise smart," he says. "I made the bear aware."

But, really--why a bear? Why, especially, a dancing, talking, musical bear who lives in New York City and hangs out with Charlie Haden and Lester Bowie? "A bear is human-shaped enough to play a saxophone," Zabor says. "But mostly the little light bulb went on in my head. I had a sense that what was happening in the book was larger than life. He brings that front and center." The resulting saga, though in framework a jazz novel, really plumbs the improvisational qualities of life, culminating in a metaphoric sax solo.

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