Killer Nashville Book of the Day
“The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove” by Paul Zimmer
Review and Interview by Clay Stafford
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The town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, sounds like a beautiful place, a place I’d like to visit. Nestled within the southwestern precipitous hills and attenuated valleys of the Driftless, they’ve got biking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, hunting, and camping. And they have author Paul Zimmer, a resident of over 25 years, a man with a pleasant face that inspires you to just sit down and talk with. So, with the help of one of my favorite publishers on the planet, Marty Shepherd of The Permanent Press, I did.
Paul wrote a wonderful book, “The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove”, with the town as its namesake. Paul’s story – totally fictional – centers upon two seniors, Cyril and Louise, who live in a senior citizens’ home in this town of fewer than 600 residents. The two characters could not be more different – as the characters themselves could be not be more different from their author – yet what happens between them and what Paul does with them is, in many ways, magical as only life can be.
Cyril in particular loves to hear about other people’s lives, but has never truly lived himself. Isn’t life like that for many people? They know something, but they’ve never lived it? They know of an artist maybe – a poet – but have never read any of her poems? They are, in essence and experience, voyeurs of life. Louise, on the other hand, is one who proverbially sucks the marrow from every bone. What I like about both of these characters – and it is a character piece as much as it is a mystery or thriller – is their feistiness, even in the face of death. For a mystery, you could not expect two more unlikely and frail heroes. Yet, they are. And they are portrayed realistically and sensitively.
There are some really funny lines in the book, through the bittersweet perspective of Cyril. I have to admit, Paul’s comparing Caligula, Hitler, and Dick Cheney in the same breath made me laugh. Though we might not always agree, I love Cyril’s take on things, but the reader almost has to be well-read to sometimes find Cyril’s hidden jokes, which I think is a tribute to Paul. A few lines I didn’t get the punch until several lines later when my subconscious hit me. I’m sure many more were simply lost on my experience. Cyril also says things sometimes as only an older person would.
Clay – Paul, the gentleman in the story, Cyril, became personal for me. He knows a little bit about numerous people and remembers them with computer-like skill. He never was an academic character, but – as he says – he is a “collector of lives” by reading blurbs in old Encyclopedias, something I did – and still do. Was this you? Is that where you got the idea for Cyril’s obsession.
Paul – “No. Actually I have never been a big encyclopedia addict. I just made Cyril up as a character, and he is not like me at all. I made up Louise and Balaclava, too. One day they all started talking to each other and the novel started sailing.”
Clay – And sail, it does. In many ways, they’ve talked a lifetime. Like a Grandma Moses of Literature, you’ve waited many years to publish this novel. It’s your first novel, though you’ve had a long career in publishing. Why did it take so long?
Paul – “Well, I guess I was practicing all that time – now that I look back on it. I must have started half-a-dozen novel manuscripts over the years and they all shipwrecked. But this one sailed right along. I made up the characters and they just started talking.”
Clay – In addition to this first novel, you have a prestigious past as a poet. How hard was it to step away from the prose in “The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove” and leave it, rather than search for just the right word or sentence cadence as poetry might require? Or did you search?
Paul – “Oh, there is a lot of poetry in Mysteries. I never stop being a poet, so I guess some of the techniques I’ve used over the years went into this prose effort. I am damned glad for it!”
Clay – Well, it’s no surprise to me that the language of the book sang as it did. Looking back at your life, you’ve received eight Pushcart Awards, an Award for Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Open Book Award by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. You’ve served as writer-in-residence at more than a dozen universities, and twice you’ve been awarded Writing Fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts. You’ve directed university presses in Georgia, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. Your papers are held at Kent State. And – I love this part – given all these accolades, you flunked out of college. Huh, what? To what do you attribute your own incredible character arc?
Paul – “My wife and I got married in our early twenties, but held off having children for about five years. I used to write on my lunch hours and early in the morning before my family got up. I just kept trucking along, working at everything as hard as I could. My kids are in their fifties now and wonderful. My wife and I have been married close to 55 years. I’ve been a lucky guy. But I worked hard. Is this a ‘character arc’? Maybe so. I was never a good student.”
Clay – How did you end up in Wisconsin? This is not the stereotype of where we think writers might reside.
Paul – “Wisconsin is a good place for a writer, I think. We live on a farm two miles in, on a dirt road and are surrounded by woods and fields. Our view into the valley is one of the most beautiful west of the Mississippi in my estimation. We see deer, fox, wild turkeys, bobcats, owls, a variety of birds. Everyday. We hear no traffic sounds. I retired about 25 years ago, so now I have all the time I want to write. Not too bad, eh?”
Clay – No, sir, certainly not bad at all. In fact, it makes me want to rent your guest room. At some point, we would love for you to find your way to Killer Nashville. You would be an incredible inspiration. Can we look for you sometime, maybe this year in our 10th year?
Paul – “Well, you never know. I taught for a semester at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville a few years ago. But I doubt, at the age of 80, if I’ll do much more teaching.”
As I muse on this and my conversations with Paul, I’m not so sure about that. Like Cyril, I think Paul Zimmer still has a few surprises up his sleeve making us realize it is not too late to truly live, to make a life for yourself. Nor to become a writer. Nor to teach yet one more eager mind. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paul walking down the halls of the Omni this Halloween with his wife like his characters Cyril and Louise do in Paris. If he does, we will all be the better. In poetry or prose, Paul himself truly is “a collector of lives” despite the comparison he wishes to avoid with Cyril. And I love to listen to the cadence of his voice.
Paul J. Zimmer has written 12 books of poetry, including Family Reunion (1983), which won an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is also one of the founders of the Pitt Poetry series. Zimmer has received various awards and honors for his poetry and prose. His first novel “The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove” released in March was received with high praise.
Clay Stafford is an author, filmmaker, and publisher (www.ClayStafford.com) in addition to being the founder of Killer Nashville and publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine. In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver. He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment.
(If you have a book you would like featured, send an ARC for consideration. The Killer Nashville Book Reviews are coordinated by Clay Stafford with the irreplaceable assistance of Meaghan Hill, Maria Giordano, Will Chessor, and credited guest reviewers. For more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com and www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com)
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