by Laura Sillerman | bio

Carol Muske-Dukes, whose poetry we have celebrated and who has sounded off on these pages about the need for outspoken women, is receiving great praise for her new book, "Channeling Mark Twain."

The official publication date was just this week, on July 3. Pub dates are jubilant occasions for writers, red-letter moments where years of labor result in a degree of public acknowledgment and where hope of having your words resonate as truth for a larger audience is revived in the real world.

As a woman of our generation, however, Carol was not able to celebrate this event because her father died June 30.

Two days after his death, Terry Gross interviewed her for the NPR radio program "Fresh Air." A "Fresh Air" interview is a blessing for a book, a chance to have an intelligent conversation among an unseen audience of readers.

For Carol this blessing came at a time of mourning and she had to contend with balancing grief and action, just as most of us have. She had to wonder if she should feel guilty about accepting the interview so close to the time of her father’s passing. Then, as she wrote in an e-mail, the book presented an answer:

I was thinking about how there’s a passage in my novel about Stillwater Prison — driving by it as a little girl with my Dad. (He used to take me for long rides in the car and he would sing as he drove –) On one occasion, I asked him what that great grey edifice with guard towers at the top was and he explained to me about prisons and then later he sang, "If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly — I’d fly straight to the arms of my darling — and there I’d be willing to die."

The interview aired July 5; listen to it here.

"Channeling Mark Twain" is a novel about a women’s writers group in a prison. It is also about redemption and the power of language. That memory of her father and the moment when he sang the words, "I’d be willing to die" makes clear the mystical truth that language lasts and can speak to us from the distant past.

It is a story Carol shared this week with the press. Pioneer-Press book critic Mary Ann Grossman, who interviewed Carol about her real-life experience teaching creative writing to women incarcerated at New York’s Rikers Island, writes that "Channeling Mark Twain" is "one of the most critically acclaimed books of the summer. Poets & Writers, a prestigious literary magazine, liked it so much Muske-Dukes was profiled in the Summer Reading issue with her picture on the cover."

Frank McCourt said this about Carol and her book: "… she has written the bravest of novels. The book challenges on various levels — intellectual, emotional, physical — and when you put it down you want to sing. Better still, you want to tell the world: Read this book. It will lift your heart."

"Channeling Mark Twain" has been born into the kind of dichotomy we’ve all experienced by now. When you get to be our age, joy rarely rides into town without bringing with it the shadow of longing — longing, among other things, to share it with those who are already gone.

The reality is that nearly every occasion has the potential to remind us of loss or worry, and it takes strength to latch on to the bright side of the "both sides now" time of life.

Carol Muske-Dukes is a poet and novelist of enormous strength. I suspect "Channeling Mark Twain" will find its audience, just as the protagonist helps others to find their voices.

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  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger July 9, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    I’m going to tear out and buy this book tomorrow. Thanks, Laura, for the insightful heads-up. Eliz

  • Jane Finalborgo July 6, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    I am going to buy this book today. I’m glad Carol did the interview. Her father would surely have been proud.