Five Easy Pieces, One Remarkable Novel
Columbia River Reader, June 2009
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Lyndsay Farber had sold a manuscript to Simon & Schuster and scored a major publishing contract. A student in my American Literature, Shakespeare, and Advanced Placement English classes at R. A. Long High School during the late ‘90s, Lyndsay was one of the finest students I taught during my 30-year career.
I was stunned, however, when she called in January to say she was dedicating her book Dust and Shadow to me. Dedications – especially first-book dedications – are usually reserved for family members.
After high school graduation, Lyndsay attended college in California, then moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. When the restaurant where she was working went out of business, she decided to use the extra time to write a novel.
A long-time Sherlock Holmes fan, Lyndsay perfectly adopted the narrative voice of Dr. John Watson to tell the story of Holmes’ battle with Jack the Ripper in late 19th-century London. Released in April, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson has received excellent reviews from heavy hitters such as novelist Caleb Carr and Los Angeles Times book reviewer Tim Rutten. The book has been prominently featured at Borders and Barnes & Noble and was ranked in the top 1,000 on Amazon in early May.
I got a second surprise and a big laugh when the advance copy arrived. The dedication read, “For Jim LeMonds and His Five Easy Pieces.”
AP English was essentially a writing seminar. My goal was to stretch kids who weren’t accustomed to being stretched. Too often, those with the most ability receive the least attention. Their essays – typically first drafts whipped out at the last minute – are returned with an A or A-, and no comments. When things come easily, improvement is rarely part of the equation.
AP wasn’t like that.
I remember one student commenting on the first day of class, “We’re already good writers. What’s left for us to work on?”
Five easy pieces, of course.
My standard was high: to qualify for a passing grade, a minimum score of B- was required on each of five pieces of writing produced during the semester. Five Easy Pieces is the name of a 1970 film starring Jack Nicholson. I told my students that all that stood between them and a passing grade were those five easy pieces.
How hard could it be?
Pretty damn hard. There was no such thing as earning a B- with a first draft. In fact, the average number of submissions per piece was five to six. I provided a detailed line and content edit of each draft, and students were expected to address my comments before resubmitting.
It got their attention.
We practiced a variety of editing strategies that assisted them in lifting the quality of their work. When Lyndsay was in town in February, I interviewed her for KLTV’s Book Chat program. Afterward, we connected for a beer and talked about writing in general and Dust and Shadow in particular. She told me she’d relied heavily on the editing strategies we practiced in AP when drafting the manuscript.
My teaching career ended in 2002. But, like a parent whose children are now on their own, I enjoy hearing that my influence lives on in small ways.
I’m one of the older Facebook members. Of my eighty-plus “friends,” the majority are former students. When I read their profiles, I check their lists of favorite books. It puts a smile on my face to see titles – Dune, Jitterbug Perfume, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Trout Fishing in America, “anything by Vonnegut” – discovered in a class I taught.
One of the benefits of teaching is the after-the-fact comments from students who say that what they learned in your class gave them a leg up. Those strokes help you forget the pain and all the times you failed.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that Lyndsay Farber would have been less than successful without my help. But her unique way of saying thanks will always remind me that becoming a teacher was among the best choices I ever made.
Lyndsay was in town to visit her parents in January, and I interviewed her for Book Chat, which runs on KLTV. You can access the interview by clicking the icon below.