About the Author:
Called a raw new voice in American fiction by Rolling Stone, Pushcart Prize winner Max Zimmer was born in Switzerland, brought across the Atlantic at the age of four, and raised in Utah in the take-no-prisoners crucible of the Mormon faith. In the summer of 1978 he wrote a long love story that became the genesis for If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home. He gravitated toward the city, lived and tended bar in Manhattan, met his wife, and eventually moved to the northwest corner of New Jersey, where he settled in to write If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home from the beginning. The East is now his home. Utah is a place he writes about.
Learn more at maxzimmer.com.
About the book:
Journey (If where you’re going isn’t home), by Max Zimmer, is the first book of the groundbreaking new trilogy If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home.
Journey is the story of young Shake Tauffler, his dream to play jazz trumpet, and his ten-year journey through the heart of what it is to grow up Mormon in America.
Journey traces his first four years through the ranks of his father’s take-no-prisoners religion and follows him on a second journey, on his own, to a place whose high priests are the negro greats of jazz, men his religion teaches him are cursed but from whose music he learns everything he dreams of being.
Q & A with Author:
Q. What excites you most about your book’s topic? Why did you choose it?
A. When I started writing back in college I saw no fictional value in where I was from. It was Utah. Nobody wrote about Utah. The reason nobody wrote about Utah was because nobody wanted to read about Utah. I loved everything and everywhere else. Kafka’s dark and hopeless Eastern Europe landscapes. Sartre and Camus. My first little novel, in fact, was about an old bachelor postal worker in an imagined town in Eastern Europe. I think it was inspired by Van Gogh’s painting of the postman of Arles. I loved pretty much every writer that New Directions published. John Hawkes. I loved Pete Hammill’s stories about Brooklyn. I tried to write them myself ¬– stories about Puerto Rican neighborhoods whose streets I’d never walked, Irish families I’d never had dinner with. Contemporaries. John Irving. Thomas Pynchon. Tom Robbins. I read all of them. My second novel – the one that E.L. Doctorow was wild about and that I never had the chance to finish – was a big panoramic novel that ranged across the western United States. Its main characters were a truck driver and a ballerina. There was a woman named Mavis, a retired Vegas showgirl, who lived in a trailer in the desert and wore turtleshells in her bra for falsies. There was the cult that was building a secret rocketship shaped like a statue of Jesus in northern Arizona. The novel was a fusion of Pynchon’s V and Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction and probably every other acid-inspired novel of the day. It was about the West. At least I was getting closer to home.
While the novel was underway I wrote the story “Utah Died for Your Sins” and took on my own life for the first time. Then I came east for a summer at Yaddo where I met the poet Grace Schulman. She was from New York. I gave her a copy of “Utah Died.” We talked about where I was from. She was fascinated by my background. I remember how she insisted on my writing about it, saying there were writers who would give their right arm for the kind of material I had. I remember telling her I didn’t want to write about growing up Mormon because I didn’t want to hurt my parents. She was shocked. She told me that we were talking about literature. She told me that you never let anything get in the way of art. She said she knew writers – good writers – who would choose to kill their parents if they had to choose between them and what they felt they were compelled to write.
A year later, in summer in an upstate college town, I wrote “The Courtship of Divorce,” the story from which If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home evolved. It was written as a tribute to a kind and loving and beautiful girl whose heart I broke. It was written to let her know that she was in-nocent. It was set in Salt Lake City in the one bedroom apartment she and I shared as a young married couple. The rust-colored Porsche Speedster in the garage was the one I’d salvaged and turned into a racecar. The canyons my character ran after midnight to clear his head were the same canyons east of the city that I’d used. The character was cruel and reckless, like I had been, and the voice and feel and detail of the story raw and unforgiving.
That was a time of self-discovery. The story I had to tell wasn’t Kafka’s or Hammill’s or Pynchon’s. It was my own. It stood there big as life. In Utah I hadn’t seen it. I think that I had to leave to learn that Utah – the culture and people I knew in my bones – was the story I had to tell. I also think that I had to leave Utah to learn how to tell it. To get the necessary distance to know how to write it in a way that connected with readers everywhere. That is what excites me about the topic of the book. It’s my story. And it chose me to write it. And it’s never been written this way before.
Q. How long did the book take you from start to finish?
A. It’s hard to say when I started it because for a long time I simply wrote scenes at random that all belonged in the story but had no chronological connection or common voice or structure yet. I wasn’t sure of the scope of the book. I knew where it ended but didn’t know where it began. I still hadn’t found its voice. The scope at first was huge. I saw a single book covering the entire decade of the story. At the time I was holding a weekly workshop at my home. I’d write a scene or two and we’d workshop it. It went like this for the first few years. I probably started to write chronologically – starting with the first page and putting one foot in front of the other – the day I started to write the scene that takes place in the music store. Somewhere between three and four years later I was at the two-thirds mark of the ten-year story. I hadn’t looked back or forward. It was time to see where I was. I remember that it was Memorial Day. My wife and I looked at what I had – it came to 370,000 words at that point – and the distance I still had to go. I stood there stunned and overwhelmed. And then she said, “Honey.” And I said, “What.” And she said, “You’re done.” And I said “What do you mean?” And she said, “This is a finished book. This much. What you have now. The rest of the story is another book. You’re done with this one.” Within two weeks I’d given it the ending it needed, passed copies around to my circle of readers, and gone looking for an agent. It was my agent’s idea to cut the book in half and make it the first two books of a trilogy. So in the end, in a span of three to four years writing and another year of editing, I’d done two books. That doesn’t count the exploratory years I spent writing random scenes and looking for the scope and voice of the story.
Q. What aspect of writing the book did you find particularly challenging?
A. I wrote the book in a small upstairs bedroom I furnished with a table and chair and used as a studio. The most challenging thing was climbing the stairs and opening that door every morning and then closing it behind me, suddenly alone, knowing I was there to leave the present world, the world in which I’d just made a pot of coffee, and travel through time and place to a world I was creating or – because the story comes from my childhood – re-inventing. That first twenty minutes every morning – that “trip” to a world that I was responsible for sustaining and moving forward – was tough. There were some games of Solitaire before I opened the unfinished book and found where I’d left off. There was reluctance the size of a mountain. I remember mornings when just the isolation and stillness in that room felt numbing and insurmountable. I remember sitting there feeling that time had come to a stop and it was up to me to get it moving. And there was the daunting scope of the book itself.
Q. What surprised you the most about this process?
A. That moment of rebirth every morning – that moment of arrival in that room when I’d find that paragraph or scene where I’d left off the day before, read some of it, and start to feel the world of the story come awake and take on life again. There it was. There they were – my char-acters – and they’d waited for me. The moment in that little room where the weight would fall away, time would move again, and enthusiasm and spirit and momentum would come almost out of nowhere, no matter how tired and uninspired I’d felt a few minutes ago.
Q. Did you do any research for your books, or did you write from experience?
A. I did both. I wanted to make sure that the actual Mormon material – the doctrine, the history, the lessons, the rituals – was a hundred percent accurate and authentic to the time and place of the story. It was essential to me to keep the story honest – to protect the book from charges of exaggeration, distortion, and falsification, and outright sloppiness. There are things that were dif-ferent then from what they are now – in the Book of Mormon, for instance, the word “white” has been stricken from “white and delightsome,” a phrase used back then to differentiate the right-eous people from the cursed and loathsome dark-skinned people we know as American Indians – and I had to make sure that I had these instances correct. I detest the word “Negro” but couldn’t use the word “black” because it simply wasn’t around back in the 1950s. I’ve seen too many writers criticized – rightly so – for not doing their homework as scrupulously as they could.
I learned how to play trumpet for the same reason – to write in an authentic way about a boy learning how to play from his first notes forward. I learned jazz theory to ensure that his trumpet teacher didn’t come off like a rube and a fraud. I vetted the trumpet lessons with jazz musicians to make sure that what they talked about was accurate and that the allegories his teacher liked to use actually worked.
By way of experience, the story closely follows and resembles my own childhood, the family I grew up in, my father and mother and siblings, my neighborhood, my circle of buddies, what I’ve learned about jazz from the music I love and the many musicians I’ve been lucky to have as friends. In fact, again for authenticity, While writing the book, I had to use the real names of the people I was basing my characters on, and changed those names only at the end. Start with what you know. It’s so important. Start with your own raw material. And then spin something magical out of it. Make it art.
Q. Did you have any notable experiences when writing your book?
A. Many. Here’s my favorite. As I said, I based Shake’s circle of neighborhood buddies on my own circle of buddies back then. We shared everything. We were inseparable growing up. We were best men at each others’ weddings. They would all stay around Salt Lake and its outlying towns. Keep the faith. Build lives there, buy houses, stock them with kids. I would go the other way. Come home from my mission excommunicated. Work through the grueling process of rein-statement and then leave the church on my own terms. Divorce the girl they’d seen me marry. It wasn’t long before the distance between us – social, religious, cultural – felt too great to bridge. The last time I saw them was somewhere in my twenties. When I left to pick my life up else-where, the distance became geographical, and for the next few decades, time would lengthen it as well. I would conclude that we might as well be strangers. That in living my life as I had, I’d es-tranged myself from them, and as adults we had nothing to say to each other. I came to feel that those boyhood friendships had been meant to last only long enough to serve their purpose. They were over. My wife Toni would only know that seminal part of my life in the stories I told her. I would only have those friendships back by writing those stories down. And then, soon after I fin-ished the book, one of them found me. They still got together. They wanted to see me too. Con-trary to everything I’d come to believe about them, they loved me, in a more tempered way, as much as they ever had. They missed me as much as I had them. Toni and I flew out to spend a week with them. It was an astonishing reunion as almost four decades collapsed. Do I wonder what writing about them had to do with being reunited with them? Whether writing about them brought them back into my life? Why they didn’t come back into my life while the book was still in progress? What effect that would have had on Shake’s story? Whether I would have written it? No. Things happen that you don’t question. Where you simply keep faith with something Kafka wrote: “Only that which is possible happens.”
Q. What do you hope your readers will gain from reading your book?
A. That they will feel like they’ve read something brand new, something they’ve never read be-fore, something they’ve just discovered for the first time.
That they will know what it’s like to grow up Mormon in America with the immediacy and vitality of having experienced it for themselves in the company of a boy they recognize.
That they feel like they were able to participate in the creative process of the story; that they were able to enter and help create a new place from the familiar territory of their own lives.
That those who’ve undergone their own brand of religious oppression or domestic tyranny come away with their hearts lifted and healed of any burden of blame for what was done to them.
That whose who’ve put a dream aside – any dream they may have had – will feel encouraged and compelled to pick it up and pursue it again.
That they were entranced and engaged and amused and entertained as well as educated; that they were able to lose themselves in the story; that they felt like their time was well invested.
That they took pleasure simply from the beauty of the prose and the description and presenta-tion of music and the ways a boy responds to what his life happens to hand him.
That they come away having enjoyed learning about the beauty and logic of music theory and the way music allows us to take flight out of what confines us to an entirely different place.
That they will want to continue the journey with Shake and read the second and third books of the trilogy as he grows toward manhood and the battle for his heart and spirit intensify.
Q. What other projects are you currently working on?
A. Book 2 of the trilogy, called Of the World, which is already written but needs some editing to tie in some story lines and make sure that some new themes from Book 1 are developed and car-ried forward. From there I’ll be moving on to Book 3 – much of which is also already written.
Q. Is writing your sole career? If not, what else do you do?
A. Yes. Pretty much all I do is write. My wife and I have a small business – just the two of us – as writers for the electric power industry. We’ve written pretty much everything a power company or power plant needs written: from corporate policies to environmental plans and safety man-uals to power plant construction, operating, and maintenance procedures.
I also write a humor and human interest column for a magazine called Kit Car Builder. The title of the column, “Actual Mileage,” comes from a Ray Carver story. The editor lets me write about anything I want as long as I mention cars. And so the columns range across the human in-terested spectrum. “Reconcilable Differences” dealt with my father’s death. “Veterans Day” was about two soldiers who gave their lives and, in doing so, gave me the gift of their fatherless chil-dren. In “Distance Traveled” a couple of guys talk about the various distances they’ve driven for a girl. “Amazing Grace” takes place at a bellydance event in a VFW hall where one of the danc-ers tells me she watched the planes hit the towers on 9/11 and then spent three months working in the hole. There’s a column about getting ants drunk. Another about a New York street guy I knew named Jimmy. Another about my son heading west to start a teaching career in Arizona. So the columns reach out to a much broader readership. Down the road I’ll be publishing a col-lection of them.
Q. When can we look forward to your next book?
A. The second book of the trilogy is written and needs editing. I’d say – once I can get on the schedule I work best on – that it would take six weeks to do that. And then the detail work of preparing it for publishing and that’s it. Say by March of 2013 at the latest.
You know before it’s over. This sound that takes the human breath of a voice and gives it the shimmer of steel and makes it light and effortless and fly like a bird made of the clear bright ringing sound of steel with all the sky out through the windshield to itself.
It’s not enough to hear it.
It has to come from you.
The way you can’t breathe just by listening to someone else’s breathing. Pump blood just by feel-ing someone else’s heart. Get rid of thirst by watching your mother drink down a glass of her lem-onade. It makes you want some too. It has to be you drinking it.
Find out what instrument it came from. Manny and Hidalgo. You can’t ask them. They’ll tease you if you let them see how much it matters. They’ll never tell you.
“What’s got you by the tail there, little man?”
“Nothing.” And then, feeling the punishing bite of telling a grownup a lie, you say, “That music. On the radio.”
“Just now? Just some Mexican jazz. You like it?”
“Jazz. You never heard it?”
“It’s from Mexico?”
“It ain’t from no hymnbook, that’s for sure.”
“Where’s it from?”
“It’s sheepherder music, little man.”
“No it’s not.”
“No? Tell him, Manny. Sheepherder music.”
You, almost twelve, the oldest of five, the first born back in Switzerland, four years before you were put on the Queen Elizabeth and brought across the ocean, then on a plane in New York the rest of the way to Salt Lake City, a big plane called a Constellation, where a stewardess helped your mother scrub your vomit out of the sweater some aunt had knit for you. Born four years before you lived in your grandfather’s open basement in the big house in the Avenues, with your uncles and aunts and cousins, where blankets were hung from the floor joists overhead to make rooms for the families. From there, a tumbling kaleidoscope of the places you found yourself living, moments in your head you could capture and then let go and then catch again like grasshoppers or moths, the upright piano your mother brought from Switzerland in different living rooms, songs from Broad-way musicals one of her ways of learning English, the lessons you took at her side from her thin ar-ticulate hands the same no matter what else around you kept on changing. The basement apartment where nightcrawlers came up through the drain in the kitchen sink. The house with two front doors, the house divided down the middle, the half where the welder’s family lived and the half where you lived, the room where your fingers nibbled away at night at cracks in the wall your bed was pushed against, where you came home from school one day in the fall to a fire truck, a busted water heater in the yard, the front door open wide, your mother in her striped dress out in front, firemen talking to her. The first Rose Park house on Talisman Drive. The second one, a corner house on another Rose Park street, in whose basement you and a neighbor girl named Louisie pretended you were married. Then La Sal, the ranch down in southern Utah, where they slaughtered a steer each Satur-day and passed the meat around and your family always got the kidneys because nobody in America ate kidneys. Four years there, your father the ranch bookkeeper, the retired old workhorse named Rex you used to ride bareback out across the sagebrush till the ranch was a tiny oasis of trees in the shimmer of distant heat, the junkyard of abandoned army trucks across the dirt highway whose dashboard instruments you extracted and traded with your buddies, the tank without a turret in the sagebrush, the mountains behind the ranch bald where their forests ended, the long and intricate and sometimes abruptly scalloped line of distant yellow sandstone that was as far as you could see in eve-ry other direction, the piano the choiring heart of the little house where sometimes you woke up to watersnakes in the living room.
School the same kaleidoscope. Kindergarten, the teacher a white-haired woman big as a polar bear, who used to get the class to laugh along with her at the way you fumbled English, who came striding down through the desks when laughing got tiresome to slap the back of your head so hard you saw sparks like lightning in the flash of black. Mrs. Brick. First grade partitioned between three schools you don’t remember except for Webster Elementary. Second grade in Rose Park, where you used to come home for lunch to chocolate and cheese sandwiches your mother would heat in the oven to just before they melted, where the Diamond brothers caught you coming home on Valen-tine’s Day and scattered the cards the kids in your class had given you in the slush of the gutter. And then the two-room schoolhouse on the ranch. Third grade in the room from old Miss Jenny. Fourth and fifth and sixth in the other room from Betty Peterson whose husband Chas ran the milkhouse across the big dirt lot from the bunkhouse where all the sheepherders lived. The potbellied stove, the portrait of Adlai Stevenson on the wall, the coal bucket you took out back and loaded whenever your turn came around, the flagpole out in front in the dirt that got turned into a maypole every spring. By fifth grade, and then all through sixth, because of Mrs. Brick, you were winning every spelling bee they could throw at you. And then here, two months ago, in April, to this house in a town named Bountiful, twenty minutes north of Salt Lake City, this brand new house on a paved and guttered circle ringed with other brand new houses. So for junior high you wouldn’t have to ride the school bus all the way from the ranch to Moab and back to the ranch again. So you’d be close enough to a school to ride your bike to seventh grade instead.
They let you out of sixth grade early. Your father told them he had to move in April or else lose the house. So they let you and Karl and Molly out of school with two months left and had Manny and Hidalgo use a cattle truck to move your stuff here from the ranch. Karl and Molly and Roy made the trip north through the length of Utah in the deep back seat of your father’s Buick while Maggie rode in your mother’s lap. You got to ride with the sheepherders, on the bench between them, perched on a bundle of gunny sacks so you could see, smelling hay and sheep feed, keeping your knees away from the trembling black knob of the tall gearshift, watching the buttes and the cliffs and the canyons move slowly past, listening to the radio right there in front of you over the grinding whine of the engine. Moab. Crescent Junction. Green River. Price. Helper. Soldier Summit. Towns you knew from the shopping trip your family made in August every year to Sears in Salt Lake City for clothes for school and Christmas toys. Manny driving, Hidalgo on your other side, the sheepherders talked to each other in Mexican the way your father and mother talked to each other in Swiss. When they talked to you, like your father and mother, Hidalgo and Manny used English.
“Hey, little man, we got your bed back there,” Hidalgo saying. “You sleepy, you can go back and take a nap.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
“We got all your stuff back there. Those magazines with the naked ladies, too.”
“I don’t have any naked lady magazines.”
“Sure, sure. Manny, he’ll tell you he don’t either, when you ask him.”
“Honest. I don’t.”
“We lose the brakes right now, little man, what you think happen?”
Manny saying something quick and sharp in Mexican to Hidalgo. But you heard chico there in what he said and knew that it meant little kid and you didn’t like it. Not after being called a little man all morning.
“You see that kind of cliff down there? Where the road turns?”
Manny shaking a cigarette out of the pack of Chesterfields he had on the dashboard while you looked down the road and saw where it looked like it ended. Not a cliff but this bunch of boulders like a family of huge brown elephants. You knew that the road didn’t end there no matter how much it looked like it did because the Buick would have been there, stopped, and your father would have been standing in the road outside the open driver’s door, wondering what to do, your mother com-plaining for an answer from the passenger seat.
“Yeah,” you saying. “I see it.”
“Time we got there,” Hidalgo saying, “no brakes, we’d be doing maybe a hundred.”
“Would we crash?”
“Would we ever. And all that stuff in back? All that furniture?”
“It all come flying. Right through the cab. Smash! Squish us to pieces like three big ripe pumpkin heads. Turn us into pumpkin juice.”
You understood it too when Manny coughed out a burst of white Chesterfield smoke and said fuck in the middle of something in Mexican and you got scared and looked at Hidalgo and he shut up but sat there grinning. And then turned his head and looked out his side window. And after a while said, “Manny don’t like pumpkin juice.”
And then, after the long and growling climb up Price Canyon, after cresting Soldier Summit, after making it around the turn past the elephant family boulders and the road was there again, and the distant back of your father’s Buick, there was the song on the radio, and the sound that was playing the song, a sound you’d never heard before, the human breath of a voice giving flight to a bird made out of the sound of steel.
You sat there spellbound. Your breath. If it was an instrument it was one you’d never heard be-fore. But you wanted it to take your breath too, make it the sound you were hearing, a sound you would follow anywhere. And then it was gone, and Hidalgo was saying sheepherder music, and you were saying no, it’s not, looking at Manny, knowing from this quiet grin around his cigarette that they were fooling you.
“Sure it is,” Hidalgo saying. “Up in the mountains, the moon and the stars all out, the sheep all sleeping, just you and the dog, a little fire going, right, Manny?”
“Keeps away the cougars and coyotes, too,” Manny saying.
“That’s right.” Hidalgo taking a second to lean down toward the dashboard and light his own cigarette. “Makes them peaceful. Takes their minds off their stomachs.”
“You hungry?” Manny saying. “Thirsty?”
“Just say so. Don’t want your mom thinking we’re letting you starve.”
The movie your father took when Manny came to get your dog the afternoon before you moved because your mother said you couldn’t bring him north. You drew a picture of him instead to bring along. Rufus sat there, watching you draw, not knowing it was him, not knowing anything until Manny leashed him to the spare tire in the bed of his pickup truck. Manny said he wouldn’t change his name, would call him Rufus too, would make him a happy-go-lucky sheepdog. And then he drove away, Rufus barking, leaping back and forth in the bed, and there you were, in your gold-colored swimming trunks and the piece of tarp you used for a Superman cape, half chasing the small cloud of dust that rose up behind the tailgate, your legs confused and irresolute, the same uncertain jerkiness in your arms, up and then down and then up again, half waving, not knowing how to let him go, not sure how to say goodbye. Rufus. The dog you got when he was a puppy not much big-ger than the bowl of your two hands. The coyote you cornered and tackled in the yard. The way you pulled his jaws apart until Rufus fell clear. The day it took for Rufus to come unparalyzed enough to eat and walk again.
Later, in Bountiful, when your father runs it on his noisy home projector during a Family Home Evening, the movie will startle and shame you. It will show you what he sees when he looks at you. You wheeling round, seeing the man behind you in the road with the whirring camera to his face, the recognition in your own face that you’re being filmed, the half-apologetic try at smiling, then wheeling around again to run a few more stumbling steps in the wake of the dust-blurred pickup. In the film you won’t hear Rufus barking. Just see the fierce repeating recoil of his head. Just see you waving while your father records on film what it’s like when you think that a dog would know what it means when you wave at him. The scene will feel endless while your family sits there watching. Jazz. A new word. Sheepherder music. A way to comprehend it. Thistle. Spanish Fork Canyon. Springville. Provo. Orem. Out ahead of you, through the windshield of the cattle truck, through the towns going north all the way to Salt Lake City, there was always the green rear end of your father’s Buick, heads and sometimes faces in the big rear window.
“Hey. Look over there. Your new house.”
Looking where Hidalgo’s pointing. The spires of the Salt Lake Temple above the roofs of the downtown buildings in the yellow afternoon sky.
“That’s the Temple,” you saying, because Hidalgo wasn’t Mormon, because maybe he didn’t know. “God lives there.”