Harold: a Living Thoreau

My dad had talked about him for years: Harold was a man who for the past fifty years has lived in Asolo, a hill town in the northern Italian province of Veneto. He inhabited an old house that had no electricity. No heat. No indoor plumbing. “He’s a great guy,” Dad would say. “You’ve got to meet him.”

“He’s a hermit,” I’d say. I had images of an old man with long, twisting fingernails and a tattered Rip-Van-Winkle beard.

“He makes his own wine,” Dad would counter. I added this to my mental picture. Rip Van Winkle with a funnel and an old cask, dribbling wine into rows of bottles.

“He’s a writer,” Dad added.

Okay, I’ll admit it. That part intrigued me.

So it was that Dad and I guided our rental car through the small village at the base of Monte Grappa. A light rain fell beneath a textureless grey sky when the GPS pointed us off the main road, up and up a steep grade into the hills. Above a tree-line mostly denuded of leaves hung Asolo’s iconic grey castle. The paved road gave way to a dirt track. I had the curious feeling that for every foot we ascended, we were traveling back another decade in time.

The house that emerged out of the woods was far grander than I’d imagined. Dad’s description of Harold’s simple life suggested a simple structure, but the two hundred year old house looked more like two houses pushed together, with an upper story veranda. Partially covered in vines, the stone edifice had seen better days. Part of the red tiled roof seemed to be falling in on itself and the wood around the windows looked grey and weathered.  Yet it was utterly beautiful and charming, like something you’d find on a movie set.

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We parked next to a small, ancient-looking vineyard. The first thing that struck me as we got out of the car was the utter silence. No sound but the gently falling rain. We spotted a man, presumably Herald, pacing on the second story terrace, fiddling a cell phone.

He disappeared into the shadows and emerged a few seconds later from one of the house’s front doors. In his mid-80s, his white hair trimmed short, he wore jeans, a brown sweatshirt, and a black jacket. “Hello,” he called out to my dad. Dad had written that we were coming on this day, but no time had been mentioned and had been no way to verify that Harold had received the letter. But wait, a cell phone?

Harold had something of the look of actor Ian Wolfe, with the same soft gentleness. There wasn’t a trace of Italian accent in his voice when he invited us in. His living room also made me think of a scene from a motion picture. You see movie sets with faded walls like Harold’s faded walls, but they aren’t real. They are faded for effect. Everything about the room–bookcases, antique table and chairs, books piled as if choreographed to be random and casual–was charmingly, artistically shabby. A blazing fireplace filled the room with heat and light, added to by the lamps on either side of the hearth. Electric lamps.

Harold invited us to sit in front of the fire, opened a bottle of his wine, and as we chatted, the tale of his life unfolded. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Wyoming. After a stint as a naval officer, he returned home to become a successful attorney. He was in his thirties, three years into a successful practice, when he decided that being a lawyer wasn’t for him. He’d been to Italy before with friends and now he decided that was the life he wanted, living alone, living simply; making wine; bicycling to town for food and supplies; befriending the local literati. Occasionally he traveled, but mostly he read books and wrote.

As I listened, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was living a story, that Harold was the wise mentor character that the protagonist visits for advice. Something he would say would be the key to how the story ends, the answer to the riddle, the means to defeating the villain.

The lesson in the end was Harold himself. Here was someone with a dream of getting away from the noise of civilization and making it happen, of spending time in the quiet woods in the shadow of a castle like something out of Middle Earth. This was the result of a path seldom taken, living the simple life, walking the woods, reading, and writing for the simple joy of putting pen to paper and creating.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

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Tipoteca Italiana

As I wrap up my journey through Italy, I had a chance to visit my friend, Sandro Berra, the Head Coordinator at Tipoteca Italiana, a museum that chronicles the history of typography and book making.

Here visitors are offered a sense of what it was like to publish written works in the early days of mechanized print. On display are archaic machines that required publishers to assemble little metal letters, one-by-one, in a reverse image of the page they wanted to print. The process was tedious, painstaking, and God help you if you discovered a typo.

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In the next room are more evolved machines that allowed printers to use a rudimentary keyboard to funnel the same type of metal characters through a series of channels and into the same type of character grid. Each machine gets more sophisticated, until you arrive in a room of Twentieth Century printing presses that once rapidly spewed out pages in the days before computers and laser printers.

Then there is typography. In the digital age in which we live, we take fonts for granted. At Tipoteca, I got a sense of how they were designed. It gave me a new appreciation for their symmetry and geometry, how the loops and lines of different characters functioned within the harmony of a given typeface.

Perhaps most interesting was the evolution of the written word itself. It began with the earliest writing carved into wood or stone. The museum had an ancient piece of wood with tiny ruins that resembled something Tolkienesque.

As humans evolved, people began making marks in wet clay that, after it hardened, provided a portable means to deliver messages. In the display case, a clay piece the size of a billfold shows intricate triangular markings. The placard explains that this is a receipt for purchased goods.

Next came papyrus, a paper-like substance made from plant material. It was thin, so could only be written on one side and, while it worked fine in dry climates, in humid areas it was susceptible to rot.

Around 200 A.D. came parchment. I was surprised to learn that parchment was made from animal skins. It had the advantage that you could write on both sides of it, but it also had problems in climates with big changes in humidity.

Finally came paper and the various forms of quills and pens that went with it. It made me think of the old masters: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Henry James. These writers didn’t even have typewriters! Imagine having to tip your writing implement in ink every few words. What a pain in the butt.

It made me truly appreciate how easy it is to write today, with spelling and grammar checkers and all the easy tools for editing and correcting one’s work. We are limited now only by our imaginations, time and effort. All things under our control.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

Nonna: My First Story Teller

As I travel through Italy, I think back on my first impressions of the country that I formed when I was a child, long before I had ever set foot on Italian soil. This was back in the days before the Internet and cellular technology shrunk the world, when air travel was a big event, something for which people dressed nicely, when phone calls to Italy were done in the wee hours of the morning, my nonna and nonno yelling into the phone so they could be heard half-way across the globe.

My nonna was sent on her own to America when she was sixteen years old, by boat to New York, then by train to Santa Barbara, there to live with friends of the family until her father saved enough money to join her in the United States. Her father—my great grandfather—died before that could happen. Except for letters (and eventually the rare phone call) my nonna remained isolated from family and her homeland for almost thirty years, until she eventually visited with her husband and teenage daughter (my mom).

When my brother and I were very small, Nonna would tell us bedtime stories about her early life in Italy. She was born in 1912 in the northern region of Veneto, where some of the harshest fighting of World War I took place in Italy (Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms was set in her hometown).

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Nonna grew up on a small farm in a large family that rarely had enough to eat. She told my brother and me stories of her grandmother hiding food and giving it to my nonna and my nonna’s sister so they wouldn’t go hungry. She described windstorms with hail the size of golf balls. She explained what life was like without electricity and indoor plumbing, when stoves were heated with wood and horses and mules were the most common forms of transportation.

Nonna was the first person in my life who told me stories without an accompanying picture book. It forced me to form a picture in my head of what Italy was like, which over time took on mystical, almost Narnia-like proportions.

I first visited Italy with my brother and my cousin when I was in junior high school. It was dizzying to be in the place where all my nonna’s tales had been set. I had just started journaling, but it was there in Italy where I started writing fiction, inspired to write page after page without pause.

I owe incalculable debt to my nonna for giving me the gift of story. Who was the storyteller in your family? Please share with us in the comments below.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

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Under the Tuscan Sun

I’m in Italy as I write this, watching the sun set beyond the balcony. The farmhouse cottage in which I’m staying is named Rosa Dei Venti, a stone’s throw from the hill town of Cortona and the setting for a book and movie called Under the Tuscan Sun.

I am traveling though Italy with my dad, who owns a business called Experience Italy. Dad is what’s referred to as a “destination specialist.” He’s been providing experiences for people traveling to Italy for over twenty years. Whether you’re passionate about food, wine, music, art, history, architecture, or all of the above, he tailors an itinerary based on your interests, setting you up in places and with guides that he knows personally, through his countless excursions here.

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But what, I wondered, if you’re interested in writing?

I’m a big believer in writing every day, the idea that slow and steady wins the race. I’ve never been a proponent of reclusive writing; that is, stealing away to some remote location and binge writing for days and days at a time. Yet now I’m beginning to rethink my position.

Places have unique energy signatures. Cortona dates back before the Romans, when the Etruscans populated this portion of Italy. Although the city that stands there today is not as ancient, there remains a powerful sense of history that you can feel as you wend your way through the steep and narrow streets.

It rained last night as Dad and I made our way to the restaurant in Cortona with the family that runs this inn. Old, wrought iron streetlamps illumined weathered and timeworn masonry. Rainwater flushed through drainpipes, cascading down ruts in the cobbled streets. The air was filled with the scents of wood smoke and wet earth and everywhere the whisper of falling water. Actually experiencing this energy in person leads to so many more places than simply making stuff up from the seclusion of one’s attic office.

Yet I wonder, would one want to travel all the way to Italy, then spend the time here writing? Yesterday I was shown a villa in the heart of Tuscany called La Selva Giardino del Belvedere. It sits in the middle of Chianti Classico country, where vineyards cover the land between quiet villages and rows of Italian cypress.  There were several rentable dwellings on La Selva’s one hundred acre property, including an ancient three-story farm house with a view of the surrounding hill country.

I can imagine pitching in with a half-dozen other writers to rent the place for a week or two. We’d write during the day in the shade of the trees, taking walks on the property’s gardens and forest for inspiration. In the evenings we’d go into the quaint little hill towns nearby, sampling the local cuisine and the wine that’s produced in farms, big and small, all around us.

I like to think that I would somehow be more productive in such a setting. Perhaps my writing would be more vivid and expansive. Maybe I’d meet people along the way that would form the basis of unforgettable characters. Or maybe soaking up the vibes of such a rich, historical location would take me to places I’d never have traveled without it.

It’s unlikely many could afford to write this way all the time, but what an unforgettable experience it would be. Not just traveling, but staying in one spot and soaking up the environment. Could one write another Under the Tuscan Sun? Maybe. Maybe not. But it would be something special, without a doubt.

Who’s with me?

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

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Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp