Excerpted from The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer. Copyright © 2005 by Sonny Brewer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CONVERSATION WITH SONNY BREWER
Interviewer John Evans is the owner of Lemuria Books, an independent bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi.
John Evans: It was actually after reading The Poet of Tolstoy Park that I learned your novel was inspired by real events, and, more important, by a real person. Just what was your starting point for this book?
Sonny Brewer: In 1982, I was looking for a job that gave me more free time to write during the day, and real estate sales seemed a good choice. When I showed up for my ﬁrst class at an ofﬁce complex just north of my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, I was surprised to ﬁnd an odd, round, domed structure made of concrete sitting squarely in the middle of the parking lot. It had six small windows and a door. Shaded by a droopy live oak tree and splotched with moss clinging to its mortared block walls, it looked dropped there from some ancient time, seeming all the more out of place with asphalt crowding it on three sides. The door opened within six feet of the ofﬁce buildings at its west side. I forgot all about my real estate classes, and snooped around this weird little hut. When another car showed up, I begged to know the background on the hobbit house. The woman driving the car worked in the ofﬁces there and told me I was looking at the “hermit house,” built in the 1920s by some eccentric old man who once owned this land. “There’s a newspaper piece hanging on the wall in the lobby of my ofﬁce,” she offered. I read the sketchy article and was hooked on the mystery of the “hermit of the Montrose woods.” Trips to the library revealed that the bewhiskered, barefoot man I’d ﬁrst seen looking out at me from the framed newspaper report, Henry James Stuart, was the builder, and he was anything but a hermit. I discovered that he kept a logbook he asked his visitors to sign, and in one seven-year period some eleven hundred people came around to see him. I never saw the actual books, but one source claimed that six of the signatures belonged to Clarence Darrow, the noted Chicago lawyer of Scopes Monkey Trial fame.
JE: So you began this novel more than twenty years ago?
SB: No. I wrote the opening line of The Poet of Tolstoy Park in June 2003. But before that I’d written three magazine articles about Henry Stuart, and thought about him a great deal. Not obsessively, but with a certain intense interest in his story.
JE: And you ﬁnished the manuscript in a year?
SB: I completed the ﬁrst draft in mid-February 2004, then put it away and let it cool for a month without even glancing at the pages. When I got the book deal in October 2004, I had already contacted the banker Ken Niemeyer, who owns the property where Henry’s hut sits, the man who instructed the bulldozers to work around the amazing little house, and I asked if he’d be willing to lease it to me. I told him I would restore it, and use it quietly. Ken was delighted with the idea, and we signed a lease agreement for nine years. My plan had been to get the work done on the hut and write part of the book on the premises, looking out windows Henry looked through eighty years ago. (Actually the windows and sashes had been destroyed, leaving the original frames, and I installed new windows.) But the writing outran the construction project, and I ﬁnished the book before I made the hut inhabitable. I used the thirty-day downtime from the manuscript to complete my renovations on Henry’s house. So I was able to do the entire ﬁrst revision on my laptop sitting at a small oak table inside the hut. I ﬂew to New York and handed off Henry’s story to my editor on the contract deadline, May 3, my agent Amy Rennert’s birthday. Diana went with me and we called the trip our second honeymoon. This whole thing has had a certain magical quality from the very beginning.
JE: If you’ve been writing for years, do you have other books and stories stockpiled?
SB: I have two other novels completed, A Sound Like Thunder, coming out from Ballantine on August 15, 2006, and Like Light Around a Bend in the River, that I’m allowing to “age” before I open it to readers. I have another novel in the works called The Tumble Inn and Sit Down Cafe. But the writing I’ve been doing for thirty years has been mostly nonﬁction: articles, essays, press releases, and a weekly newspaper column, some dimestore philosophy that I cranked out for about three years. I ghost-wrote a book on Clarence Darrow. I published a book on brain hemisphere specialization that’s still in print, called A Yin for Change. And, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Rembrandt the Rocker, that I self-published. Back in creative writing classes at college I wrote the requisite number of short stories to get a passing grade, but those stories were really bad. The only short story I’ve written that I feel good about putting my byline on is one called “Traveling Light.” It was chosen for inclusion in an anthology of Alabama writers, Climbing Mount Cheaha (Fall 2004). I’m really excited to have slipped around to the other side of a bookstore counter to take a turn as a novelist. I never thought it would happen, especially as I close in on sixty.
JE: You wear a lot of different hats. You’re a husband and father of two boys still in elementary school, you founded Over the Transom Bookshop, you’re the editor of the annual anthology Stories from the Blue Moon Café, you’ve found a publisher for ﬁve new Southern authors in the last three years, and I don’t know what else. Where did you ﬁnd the time to write The Poet of Tolstoy Park? Is there one thing that grabs your attention more than the other things you do?
SB: When I began this book I had just ﬁnished the novel I mentioned earlier, writing from the time the family went to bed and the house got quiet until midnight or later. I was doing the work on Poet on pretty much the same schedule. The contract with Ballantine came when I’d only written forty pages, and I agreed to a six-month deadline. At that point, I knew I’d have to put in longer days to get the book completed on time. I was also nervous. I was once a building contractor, and this book deal struck me like, well–say I sold you a house based on showing you a front door. Now I’ve got to build a house that meets your expectations. Plus, you’ve paid me in advance. And, this is the weird part, I don’t show you the house until I’m completely ﬁnished. To cut down on some of that pressure, I made changes at my bookstore. I sold the used and rare inventory to my friend Martin Lanaux, who continues to sell those books from the storefront in Fairhope, sharing the space with me. I turned over the day-to-day operation to Martin, and now I have, shall I say, a quiet interest in the bookstore. Then, I spent most days at home in my study on the computer writing this novel. My family was totally supportive, and the writing came quite fast. It wasn’t like trance-channeling, or any such thing, but I can say that Henry’s voice ﬁlled my head and his story was always available to me when I sat down at the keyboard. I love to write; that’s my favorite hat to wear. I was a singer in a band six nights a week for three years, and I was an electronics technician in the Navy. I’m a good carpenter. I’ve sold cars and real estate and used tires off the back of a truck in Mississippi and Alabama. I got the degree and certiﬁcation to teach English in public school. I’ve been a deckhand on a tugboat. I was a short-order cook. It’s been a wild ride, job-wise. But the consistent thread in the rug I’ve been weaving has been, and is, the writing, editing, and publishing. Even way back in the Navy I wrote press releases for them, to get myself out of certain duty assignments. It was a fair trade.
JE: The Poet of Tolstoy Park is a novel. The story, you say, was there for you when you sought to tell it; how much of it is ﬁction? Was there an actual Leo Tolstoy connection in Henry Stuart’s life? If not, why did you choose a Russian author as a mentor for Henry?
SB: My friend, the writer Tom Franklin, said that when you’re writing a novel based on fact, a little truth goes a long way. I’d say two-thirds of The Poet of Tolstoy Park arose from my imagination. But I believe I have conveyed the spirit of the man, if not the letter of his life, and I think I know Henry like I know my brother. The “facts” I had on Henry James Stuart would make a short list. One of the items on that list would be–and I have this from a couple of sources–Henry Stuart called his ten-acre parcel of land “Tolstoy Park.” I will add here that the truth I had to work with was indeed precious little and frequently wrong or contradictory. For instance, a simple error placed Henry’s alma mater in Missouri–Mount Union was in Alliance, Ohio. One account in a history book of the area spoke of the six months it took Henry to build his round, block hut. All you have to do is stand inside it and look at his hand-dated, hand-poured cement blocks and extrapolate that it took easily more than a year to build. Anyway, Henry Stuart called the hill where his hut was built “Tolstoy Park,” so naturally I believed that Henry was a fan of Tolstoy’s writings, and I fantasized that Anna Karenina was his favorite work. Maybe I was doing a little transference, because of the way Steve Yarbrough, a Mississippi writer and friend who teaches Anna Karenina as the perfect novel, feels about it. Later I discovered the greater likelihood of the signiﬁcance of Leo Tolstoy for my English-born rug weaver was Tolstoy’s social philosophy and religious beliefs. At the last moment, Henry changed his plan to move from Nampa, Idaho, to San Diego, and instead moved to Fairhope. Henry George founded Fairhope in 1894. While reading a little Oxford biography on Tolstoy–which, by the way, John, I bought at your Lemuria bookstore–I fell out of my chair to learn that Leo Tolstoy and Henry George wrote letters to each other. Then I knew why Henry moved to Fairhope instead of San Diego, and why he named his place Tolstoy Park.
JE: Were Tolstoy’s books popular among American readers in the early 1900s?
SB: If readers do a Web search, typing in Leo Tolstoy and Henry George, they will probably see a link to the reprint of an article by Victor Lebrun, Tolstoy’s personal secretary and friend, on the remarkable connection between these two great thinkers. In the opening paragraph, the reader discovers it was in 1885 that the Russian master “. . . happened to lay his hands on the books of the great American sociologist.” So, books–important books–have a way of ﬁnding their way into the hands of readers all around the world. As to Tolstoy’s popularity with American readers, consider this item I discovered: The U.S. Post Ofﬁce, in 1890, prohibited the mailing of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. Commenting on that action, Teddy Roosevelt, then governor of New York, called Tolstoy a “sexual and moral pervert.” I can say, then, with certainty that he was popular enough to draw a politician’s ire. We can infer that Roosevelt, with his remark, catapulted him to even greater notoriety.
JE: I’m a bookseller, and I wonder who published Tolstoy in America? You mentioned books going through the post ofﬁce; do you think most readers bought their books in bookstores?
SB: Back to the Web, to Advanced Book Exchange, or abebooks .com, where you can ﬁnd rare-books dealers offering early printings of Tolstoy from Scribners in 1878 and 1906, for instance. There was an American ﬁrst edition of War and Peace, published by William S. Gottberger in 1886, listed on abebooks.com as I write this, for more than $20,000. You will also ﬁnd that Harper and Brothers published Tolstoy in America; and Thomas Y. Crowell; and Dodd-Mead. So Tolstoy had several early publishers in this country. I wonder: Were all these publishers able to offer Tolstoy’s work because the author himself went to court in Russia and abandoned the international copyrights to his work? Sonya, his wife, was able to stop him before he gave all his rights away, but the publishing rights to much of his work, as Tolstoy demanded, were up for grabs. And, I think, I hope–without knowing, John–that most readers went down the street to bookshops like yours and mine to get their books. By 1917, readers could have shopped at Barnes and Noble in New York City.
JE: If I designated a Leo Tolstoy shelf in my bookstore “Sonny Brewer’s Picks,” what titles would you have me stock? Where would you have a reader start? If you have a personal standout favorite, what establishes that book’s deeper meaning for you?
SB: Dare I admit this? I have begun, without ﬁnishing, both War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I have been known to feel really guilty about this–as a man who has loved to read since my pivotal and explosive boyhood reading experience with Charlotte’s Web, as a man with a degree in English and creative writing, as a bookseller, and, now the guilt ﬂares again with your question addressed to me as a novelist. I’ll have to get help with this “issue” from the ghost of my friend, writer Richard Shackelford, who eschewed many dead writers because, simply, they were dead. Now that my buddy has himself eased on over to the other side, he’ll have new thoughts on the matter. I have, however, read the tiny books by Tolstoy: What Does it Proﬁt a Man? and What Men Live By. I read his story, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” But my favorite work by Leo Tolstoy is the author’s own favorite work, only just published in English, A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. The text is just what the title suggests, and the source material amounts to quotes topically organized, collected from a staggering variety of people and sources: ancient and contemporary, from Lao-Tzu and the Gita, to Schopenhauer and the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Tolstoy worked almost obsessively on this book in his last years. It was immensely popular in Russia until the revolution, but under Communism it was banned. After nearly a century, this is the ﬁrst-ever English-language edition of the book Leo Tolstoy considered to be his most important contribution to humanity.
JE: What has your reading list this last year been? In your reading life, is there an author who has had signiﬁcant inﬂuence on your writing life?
SB: Working backwards: James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce; three unpublished novel manuscripts; Mark Spraggs’s An Unﬁnished Life; a wonderful and disturbing book about Mississippi artist Walter Anderson called Approaching the Magic Hour; two novel typescripts (which I also edited); Bev Marshall’s Right as Rain; William Gay’s unpublished novel Cut Flowers; Alistair Macleod’s incredible book of stories, Island. I have fallen in love with the writing of Gabriel García Márquez. These are the ones uppermost in my mind. My ﬁrst real training as a writer was in the Journalism department at the University of Alabama, where I was taught to write straight, clean, and without author intrusion, and that set me up to really like Hemingway. On the other hand, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy probably had the most inﬂuence on my own writing, to wit: my stunned awe of their work kept me from attempting ﬁction. What’s the point? If you can’t do it this well, you’re a dilettante, I told myself. But then I noticed that God didn’t stop with a couple of ﬁne examples of pine trees. There are countless pine trees out there. So I decided to write some imperfect ﬁction, plant my own tree in the forest beginning with a novel that would answer possible questions my children might someday ask about how I grew up. I tried to avoid making it another hee-haw memoir-turned-novel, but there’s my daddy in there posing as my protagonist’s daddy, and the daddy’s got a jug of whisky and a razor strop drawn back to swing down on the back of the nerdy son. It’s not great literature, but I needed to write it. And, I’ll revise it and make it better.
JE: In my assessment, it is the mark of true literary greatness when the work, which is by its nature unchanging, remains vital and of strong impact to generation after generation of readers whose culture, society, and very environment is incredibly dynamic and changes remarkably in short periods of time. Is Leo Tolstoy’s writing an inﬂuence on you today, and will it remain so in ten and twenty years?
SB: I read that Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, said there’s only been one Christian since Christ, meaning one who is willing to live the life advised by Jesus, right down to giving everything away. That person, he said, was Saint Francis. I’m inclined to agree, except I’d make it two people. The second would be Leo Tolstoy–if we only talk about famous people. I believe, too, there are others living the Gospel virtues among the simple folk whose names we don’t ﬁnd in the encyclopedia, and some of them don’t even go to church. Like Henry James Stuart. I’d say it’s Leo Tolstoy’s thinking–far more than his writing–that is an inﬂuence on me today. And in the sense that his understanding of the complexities of the human spirit and the call to exceed the limitations of human ego are a dead-on match with the best thinking I’ve ever found in other books, yes, Leo Tolstoy will remain an inﬂuence on me as long as my mind functions reasonably well.
JE: Is there an entwining of the lives of Henry Stuart and Leo Tolstoy and Sonny Brewer?
SB: Same idea. I feel Tolstoy there in the background, with Black Elk and other great souls and teachers, but I also sense a certain distance from them and from him. Too far beyond me, perhaps. It’s as though I can see Tolstoy there across a small lake, can feel his power and intellect, but I can sense, too, the breadth of the moving water that separates me from where he stands on that other shore. Perhaps a fog at twilight partly obscures my view of him, while I believe his eyes have me sharply in their focus. On the other hand, I feel so clearly a certain nearness, spiritually and psychologically, to Henry Stuart–well, I guess there is even an emotional counterpart, too. I say that because I am sometimes overwhelmed with the dichotomy of the estrangement of man from his fellows, most evident in death and the departure from the physical company of those we know and love, and the ultimate connectedness, the unity, of all human beings in the experience of a brief life on this planet. It’s over the top of course, I think, when people tell me I look like the old man in the photographs. But nonetheless there is for me a sense of rapport with Henry that becomes, at times, exquisite. When I wrote about him, I ceased to concern myself with the facts of his historical presence in Baldwin County, Alabama, and, on the other hand, I felt perfectly attuned to his ghost ﬂoating above the land, homesteading chambers of my heart. I made this point to a group I was addressing some time ago, saying that I was not after the historical Henry, that I didn’t wish to reconcile in my novel the contradictions in reports of the facts of his life. I referred to the New Testament, and said that in Matthew’s gospel it was reported that Jesus was departing from Jericho with a big crowd in tow; the same event in Luke’s gospel, on the other hand, reported that as he drew near to Jericho, a crowd gathered. I said that the contradiction didn’t concern me, that I didn’t really care that only one statement could be accurate, making the other account, obviously, incorrect. I later got a letter from a lady in attendance who took me to task for bending the truth of the Bible to suit my own literary purposes, saying there was perfectly acceptable scholarship that explained away what was only an apparent contradiction, and left intact the inerrancy of scriptures. She missed my point. It does not matter to me at what mile marker on the road Jesus was. Truth stands above and apart from numbers and letters and academic query.
JE: Leo Tolstoy died in a train station, correct? Can you provide details? Henry Stuart dies on a train. Did the former event serve the purposes of your novel?
SB: Tolstoy had a large family, several children–thirteen, I think. According to biographers and his own journals, he was frequently unhappy in his marriage owing to deeply cut differences in philosophy, worldview, and sense of priorities. I don’t automatically take Leo’s side. Sonya bore him all those children, and meant, as most mothers do, to feed and care for them. She could not bring herself to give away the family’s wealth and live among the peasants, as Leo wanted to and did. That matter, for instance, of Tolstoy giving away his copyrights. Tolstoy wanted, some say, to abandon all, including his family, and go on a walkabout. Well, he did, ﬁnally, but only lived for less than a month into his ﬂight from home, dying curled up in a train station in 1910. Henry Stuart leaves his family and friends, and takes ﬂight to Alabama, albeit for medical reasons. But then when the medical threat is miraculously past, still Henry doesn’t go home to his two sons. Both Tolstoy and Stuart were bent on–if you’ll allow a cultural shift here–their own vision quest. It doesn’t matter a whit that Tolstoy only lived brieﬂy following his decision to leave home. He did it. So did, as a biographical fact, Henry. In reality, Henry did not die on a train, peacefully slipping into that long sleep, his long home. He died of cancer, suffering badly. I suppose, then, I consciously gave to Henry more of what I would have wanted for Leo Tolstoy, and more of the way I wish it had happened for Henry. If life is something like a train ride, and death our last stop, I guess it’s something of a literary device, too, in The Poet of Tolstoy Park. I think I remember my writing teacher, John Craig Stewart, telling me I had the license to warp things around for the sake of story. It is better when there is an intermingling of some truth into the ﬁction.
JE: Like the name of the town in Alabama where Henry moves? Fairhope? In a story like this one, given its thematic colors, you could not have dreamed up a better name for Henry’s destination. And the next town south on Mobile Bay is Point Clear.
SB: Precisely. If it weren’t the truth, it would be hokey. The original settlers who founded Fairhope in 1894 were said to have looked around at the place they’d come to from Iowa, and one of them said, “I believe we will have a fair hope of success here.” The point is clear, I think.
JE: Did Fairhope get the hurricanes that you describe in your novel?
SB: Yes, on September 18, 1926, the Alabama Gulf Coast was bludgeoned by one of the worst hurricanes to ever strike the U.S. coast, twelfth on the list, actually. A total of 243 people died in the storm according to National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association documents, but that number has never been conﬁrmed. Hundreds were listed as missing. The ﬁrst hurricane Henry encounters, however, was a product of atmospheric disturbances in my imagination.
JE: So, did the hurricane that actually hit actually have the pivotal impact on Henry Stuart that you write into the novel?
SB: I believe it did. If you stood beside me in Henry’s hut today, I’d point upward to the last courses of blocks in his domed roof. The way he had to lay them, each course inset a bit to create the arch, would allow you to see dates scratched onto the blocks. You’d see that several of the next to the last course of blocks bear the date “9-17-26.” So, Henry pours blocks into his forms and dates them. The next morning he awakens to the world coming apart at the seams. That’s a fact. The last course of blocks in the ceiling is dated “9-27-26.” He took ten days off from his block work. Doing what? I believe the plight of his neighbors, the wreckage of their homes and property, the harm they’d suffered, called him out to help them, ending his self-absorption. That’s what he did for those missing ten days. He took an ax and a saw and the muscles in his back and arms and the love in his heart and he gave his neighbors a hand to ease their hurting. That’s what I think. That’s what I wrote.
JE: You wrote that several famous people visited Fairhope in its early days. Did they?
SB: Yes: Sherwood Anderson, John Dewey, Sinclair Lewis, Clarence Darrow, and others. They all came to Fairhope.
JE: What drew them to a little town in Alabama?
SB: What if I say, as a crazy old woman once said to me, that vibrations in the soil magnetically attracted souls of the correct polarity? Whatever the reason, from the beginning to now–and there was recently like a half-page piece in the Wall Street Journal that addressed the appeal of Fairhope–creatively inclined individuals, artists, writers, and eccentrics ﬁnd they feel at home here. Fairhope has more writers per capita than any other place in the country. A few years ago, three local writers shared concurrent spots on the New York Times bestseller list: W.E.B. Grifﬁn, Jimmy Buffett, and Winston Groom.
JE: In the book, you put much emphasis on going barefoot. Your protagonist gave away his shoes. Is that what Henry Stuart really did?
SB: He did. I have now accumulated several photographs of Henry, and in every one of them he is barefoot. In one, he’s standing next to a woman who is all bundled up against the cold. A big, warm-looking hat and a huge coat. Henry’s barefoot as a possum. And this is a man with a degree in divinity. It’s a philosophical statement, not a fashion statement, for Henry. And shucking one’s shoes has connotations of openness in all cultures. What do they say? “If all the generals put away their hobnail boots, war would forever be put away.” I don’t know about that, but you get the point.
JE: And this gentle man, Henry, was a weaver. Is that, too, historical fact? I think it works so well symbolically. Do you weave?
SB: Yes, Henry listed his occupation on the1920 Nampa, Idaho, census form: “weaver–rugs.” And I am awaiting the phone call from someone who tells me he has one of Henry Stuart’s rugs, and is willing to part with it! No, I don’t weave. I sat down at a loom at the chil-dren’s museum in Santa Fe last summer and pulled some yarn through the warp for a few minutes. Completely intriguing. It requires incredible patience to take a thousand yards of yarn and craft a single three-foot by ﬁve-foot rug. And, yes, how could I have dreamed up a better trade for a religious man who is also a poet who refuses to go to church? A man whose life has a broad margin. A man whose very life seems a magic gift. A man whose life, as Carole King sang, has been “a tapestry of rich and royal hue.”
JE: Henry’s healing was a gift–which I had no problem believing. But for some won’t it be viewed as supernatural?
SB: The Harvard-trained physician and author Andrew Weil has a book called Spontaneous Healing. He lays, with the scientiﬁc credentials to back it up, a foundation of medical possibility for the body– everybody’s body–to accomplish a spontaneous regenerative, curative function to heal itself of illness. Viewed as a cause and effect relationship, it makes us wonder: What is the causative element? Some would say it is God. Others would say it is human willpower. Some would combine those factors. What would you say? I’m sorry, John, you’re asking the questions.
JE: Thank you for remembering. I’m interested in the poetry in the book. Some passages are quoted from well-known poets. Did you write Henry Stuart’s poems?
SB: If it is a good poem, I wrote it. If it’s weak, the historical Henry did it. Sorry, just kidding. No, I must confess and claim the poems Henry wrote in this novel. I found a poem written and published in the Fairhope Courier newspaper in 1930 entitled “To the Sage of Tolstoy Park.” I blinked and it became the “poet” of Tolstoy Park, and another facet of my protagonist was born in my imagination. And I got my title. I found no poems that Henry wrote. But I easily heard his voice in my mind saying and scribbling lines.
JE: Have you published poetry?
SB: No. Without false humility, I am not a poet. I think about poems. I love certain poems. I love certain poets. And I have tremendous respect for the craft of poetry and don’t wish to dabble more than the dabbling that I let Henry do in this novel. It is a noble art, and its competent practitioners are geniuses.
JE: You did not use the word “Zen” in The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Yet, I seem to detect a “Zen-like” essence in this novel. Are you aware of it?
SB: I think so, John. I was born into a Baptist house in middle Alabama and followed the party line and was baptized when I was a boy. Have you ever thought that none of us chooses the “religion of our nurture”? Anyway, I had a head full of questions for my preacher, who told me, essentially, that my doubting queries were sinful. So I asked Mama if I had to keep going to church; she asked me why, I told her, and she said I did not have to go. God bless my sweet mother. I avoided the church question until I joined the Navy and found myself in close company with a lot of deeply religious people of all faiths. I set out, obsessively, to discover where the different brands of religion parted company, over what dogma, over which tenets of their faith, over what passages of scripture. Where did they overlap and agree? In the course of my study, I read a lot of books on Zen thought. It’s not a religion, you know–you could be a Zen Catholic, a Zen Jew, maybe even a Zen Baptist, if you were willing to see, to look at things honestly and without fear. Zen is a way of looking at human behavior, simply seeing without distortion who we are and why we act the way we do. Which is really hard to do, I think. Our culture, its social imprinting, is so strong as to be almost indelible. You know you just can’t take that Baptist boy and “unborn” him and start him over in a Catholic home. Baptist-born and Baptist-raised, and, most of the time, Baptist-you’ll-die. Somehow I got shook loose from the family-church tree, and hit the ground and rolled all over the orchard. I came to rest with a Zen perspective, grown out of Christian roots that I do not seek to cut away. But I did not purposefully inject Zen into Henry’s story. I had no agenda like that.
JE: You did not put the books on Henry’s shelves, so to speak?
SB: No, and I know you mean ﬁguratively, but the books I described in Henry’s small library inside his hut in Tolstoy Park were literally listed in a newspaper article I found.
JE: You use a newspaper feature as your prologue, and it contains that information. So, is it the genuine article?
SB: I revised it only slightly. The original was reported by Milford W. Howard, who wrote a standing feature for the Birmingham News Age, though I cannot determine the precise span of its run. Howard called himself the “Vagabond Reporter.” I expect members of his family still live in Birmingham, though I didn’t try to contact them. I know that he bought a rug from Henry, and I can’t stop thinking that it may still be hanging on a wall.
JE: And if Henry were alive today, what titles do you think he’d be reading? What of your own books would you lend to Henry and ask him to read?
SB: He would be laid-up watching cable television, and his entertainment center would be so big he wouldn’t have room for bookcases. I’d try to rescue him from his stupor by blocking his view with copies of The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark. Finally, Suttree would get his eye. I’d read him the ﬁrst page, and he would be saved. A year later, Henry’d come knocking at my door, carting an armload of Wendell Berry.
JE: But Henry’s not alive today, and nor will we be in ﬁfty years. Is there something that Henry Stuart and Leo Tolstoy and Sonny Brewer would agree on that we can “take away” from The Poet of Tolstoy Park, which would help us reﬂect on death and dying?
SB: I think the three of us could agree with my friend Ray Parmley, a retired doctor who’s lived on a sailboat for twenty-ﬁve years; he’s close to ninety now, still on his beautiful Hinckley, the Illusion. “I only want one thing, Sonny,” he said to me. “To die in peace, completely ready to leave here.” How will you get there, I wanted to know. “By seeing clearly life’s illusions for what they are.” When I asked him how he’d know he was there, he said, “My friends will tell me. I’ll see it in their eyes when they look at me.” And how will you know if you backslide, I asked. “My friends will be afraid to tell me. But I’ll see it in my own eyes when I look in the mirror.” The truth that will set us free is there for the seeing. We have only to open our eyes.
1. This is a ﬁctionalized account of a true story. How accurate do you think Brewer’s portrayal of Henry Stuart might be, and does this affect your enjoyment of the book?
2. What qualities do you most admire in Henry, and what do you think we can learn from his story?
3. What do you think cured Henry?
4. After outliving his diagnosis, why do you think Henry chose not to return to his sons in Idaho?
5. Does Henry Stuart remind you of anyone you know? Do you think a story like his could take place today?
6. Brother O’Neil says: “Books and writing are agents for the accumulation of ideas and your minds are overfull.” What do you think of this statement, and what do you think of Henry’s strategy to quiet his “overfull” mind?
7. Author Sonny Brewer is the editor of Stories from the Blue Moon Café, an anthology of Southern writing. What do you think makes a novel “Southern,” and do you consider The Poet of Tolstoy Park a Southern novel?
8. How would you characterize the female characters in this novel?
9. Henry believed that “no work is wasted,” that work, philosophically, is a means without regard to its end. What could be the value to a man of constructing a house of concrete if he might die before he ﬁnishes it?
10. What do you think motivates Henry to go barefoot? What do you think of the statement, “If all the hobnail boots were put away, wars would end”?
11. Do you think this book would make a good movie?
12. Do you wish the author had written more romance into the relationship between Henry and Kate? Why or why not?
13. What do you think is in the shoe box that Thomas gives Henry at the end of the book?
14. An osprey appears to Henry when he falls down in the creek. What do you think the osprey symbolizes?
15. What role did Black Elk play in Henry Stuart’s life?
16. John Lennon sang “Imagine” with lyrics that imagined people living at peace in a world with “no religion too.” Do you agree that would be a good idea? Henry did not go to church, but did he have “religion”?
17. When the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke exhorted readers to “be ahead of all parting” what did he mean, and how might this relate to The Poet of Tolstoy Park?
18. At the end of the book, the author fast-forwards the narrative about twenty years. If you were going to write of those “missing” years of Henry Stuart, what would your favorite scene be?
19. Robert Frost said, “Writing is as good as it is dramatic. Period.” Where’s the drama in The Poet of Tolstoy Park?
20. How would you characterize the author’s writing style?
21. If you could rename this book, what would you name it?