David Heddendorf’s novel, The Terra Cotta Camel, is, as the subtitle accurately puts it, about “hope, new beginnings, and Des Moines.” It is about the small, the local, and the making of community. It begins in a tiny coffeeshop owned by a blind African immigrant named Zim. From that small place community springs up, an empty plot of land becomes an urban farm, an artist throws over her false way of making art in favor of art that springs from her heart—all the major characters who visit the coffeeshop revise their lives.
Two conflicts are at the center of the novel: a conflict between a tiny band of urban farmers and the owner of the land who wants to sell it and a conflict between those who very much want to believe in God and those who do not want God to be in the conversation. While David and I were having this conversation via email, I happened to be reading W. P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe, another book about the local rather than the big-time. Near the middle of the novel, the narrator’s brother-in-law is trying to buy up the narrator’s small farm (and homemade baseball diamond) so he can create one huge farm that he can sell for a lot of money. The narrator argues back to him: “‘You have to be touched by the land,’ I cried. ‘Once you’re been touched by the land, the wind never blows so cold again because your love files the edges off it, and when the land suffers from flood or drought or endless winter, you feel for it more than for yourself and you do what you can to ease its pain.’ Mark stared at me uncomprehending, seeing only the money breeding incestuously, diversifying, multiplying, and I saw the silent tides of corn lonely and alien in their vast land.” If David had wanted to stack the deck, he could have used this as an epigraph. He didn’t. He let the conflict take its own real course.
Mel Livatino: David, when your novel arrived in my mail one winter morning, I looked at the cover and thought, “The Terra Cotta Camel”? Why would David be writing about a terra cotta camel? Who’s going to read a novel about a terra cotta camel? Have others asked you this question? How did this object, this image, come into your consciousness and become the central image of your novel?
David Heddendorf: Yes, I have been asked that question, so I guess my title is odder than I thought! There are two answers to the question of where the phrase “terra cotta camel” came from.
The mundane answer is that I was looking for a phrase to use as a title. I’m a sucker for an iambic line, so “The Terra Cotta Camel” had a satisfying ring for me.
As for the centrality of the image, that stems from my first inkling of the story. I was looking for some object that would be literally unearthed and have an effect on a number of characters. This object would be encountered by people who felt discouraged, disappointed, or in some way stuck in life, in need of renewal. The camel, dug up by a small boy in his backyard, became this catalyst of inspiration and motivation.
ML: I hadn’t thought about the cadence of your title until you brought it up. But I see it as a very strong trochaic trimeter line rather than an iambic line. The “The” is like the open hand of an emcee welcoming a guest on the stage, and then comes the guest: terra cotta camel. I am reminded of another novel/film that uses an animal for its title. It too is trochaic in its beat: The Maltese Falcon. That’s mighty good company you’re keeping!
Did you have a rough outline of the novel and characters in mind as you began or shortly after, or did the novel itself lead you to the people and places it went?
DH: John Updike said somewhere that he needed to know, at the least, how a novel he was working on would end. I need that too—I can’t work without a net. I like to have some kind of skeletal idea of my story before I begin writing.
But the image of the camel did “lead” me, I think, as I did the initial planning. The incidents and people grew from what the camel represented, the idea of new beginnings. At that stage, staring out the window and taking notes, I try out various scenarios, and get some idea of the main characters. Once I have that rough outline, I tend to follow it pretty closely.
There are still a lot of discoveries and surprises, though, after I get underway. Minor characters pop up, scenes take shape that I didn’t anticipate, and the whole mechanism of the plot goes from “maybe such-and-such will happen” to a more detailed and involved sequence of events. And of course there’s the daily adventure of seeing paragraphs, sentences, and bits of dialogue arise spontaneously, somehow generated by the process of putting down the words.
ML: As I was reading your novel, I kept thinking, where have I seen something like this before? My only answer was: in fairy tales or folk stories. For the terra cotta camel almost magically keeps bringing people out of aloneness and isolation and into community and the possibility of joy. What influenced your writing? Books, poems, stories, memories? What helped you write this book?
DH: My wife saw a touch of magical realism in the book, namely a coffee shop that doesn’t have wi-fi. We’ve since been told, however, that at least one such place does exist in Des Moines.
My first thought in response to your question was that I was influenced by any number of novelists I’ve admired and learned from, such as Stewart O’Nan with his sense of everydayness and his understated style. But then I remembered thinking early on about Driftless, David Rhodes’s 2009 novel about, as you put it so well, people moving out of isolation and into community and the possibility of joy. Driftless probably shaped my approach of assembling a group of characters, each with his or her own distinct point of view, and seeing what conflicts and changes emerge.
In The Terra Cotta Camel, a swarm of toads rescues the urban farm from a beetle infestation. Is it magical realism or an answer to prayer? Driftless contains incidents that might seem far-fetched or implausible, but I’m carried along by the inner logic of the story. Perhaps that’s a kind of magic that influenced my novel.
ML: Your book and your work at large does have a good deal of everydayness in it, and your style is, as you say, understated. I think you once wrote me that you preferred Trollope to Dickens or, to put it another way, the understated to the emotional. I expect this is not so much a decision you have made about how to write as it is a way of writing that grows out of a way of being in this world. Would you agree? And how do you think this came to be? What made you be this way? Do you sometimes wish you were more Dickensian?
DH: For me, the opposite of “understated” would be something like “noisy” or, more neutrally, “emphatic.” I don’t see understatement as excluding emotion. There’s plenty of emotion in Trollope! But I agree that my preference for Trollope rather than Dickens shows some kind of temperamental affinity, as does my preference for, say, Muriel Spark over Flannery O’Connor. I used to love Henry James, who might epitomize a horror of being noisy. (He of course would say “vulgar.”)
Somewhere along the line I lost my taste (I’m tempted to say patience) for James. Did I change as a person, or did I just develop different feelings about long, complex sentences and indirect ways of telling a story? I think that for anyone who spends a lot of time reading and writing, it’s hard to distinguish between temperament and literary taste. So I don’t know if I can say with any certainty what The Terra Cotta Camel reveals about me as a person, or about my way of being in the world—besides that I’m interested in religion, gardening, and music.
ML: Those are good distinctions you make, David. I especially liked, “I think that for anyone who spends a lot of time reading and writing, it’s hard to distinguish between temperament and literary taste.” The older I get, the more I agree with these words. As we are, so we write: we be on the page.
There isn’t as much about music in your novel as there is about religion and gardening. Indeed, these two subjects, and the crucial matter of community, are at the heart of the novel. So let me ask where you fall in the war between the father (Drew) and the son (Max)? I expect the battle between these two engaged every reader of this novel.
DH: My sympathies definitely lie with Drew, who struggles to maintain some kind of faith, and who finds a community with the people who cultivate the urban farm. At least one reader has felt that I portray Max too harshly, as blindly prejudiced against religion (especially his father’s) and hostile to the farm. If so, my identification with Drew obviously went too far.
As I touched on before, I tried to give a kind of integrity to each character’s point of view, and treat each perspective fairly. Toward the end of the novel, for example, Drew realizes that in some ways he’s been as hasty in judging Max as he feels Max has been with him. As each man recognizes his own hypocrisy and failure, the two are able to arrive at a shaky truce. For me, this isn’t just a matter of a happy ending, but an acknowledgment of two perspectives on the conflict.
ML: I too lean toward Drew’s point of view, and I did not at all think Max was portrayed too harshly. Actually, from my brushes with people of Max’s sort, I’d say you got him exactly right. Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron expressed it well in a recent Sunday Sermon in which he said that “the brotherhood of man does not work without the fatherhood of God.”
Now let me ask you about the other even greater conflict in the novel: the one between the gardening community and the land’s owner who wants to sell the property. Of course, he wants the money he will get from the sale, but he also makes the point that the people who will live in the building that will be built on the site will also benefit. People benefit either way. As I was reading the novel, I kept thinking of what I think are the majority of readers of this novel who will side with the gardeners. I imagined them as totally on the side of the gardeners. Those imagined readers bothered me. With whom do you side, and to what extent do you join that side? I’m also curious what comments you have received from readers? Am I right that most readers are hugely on the side of the gardeners? If so, do they totally discount the rule of law and the rights of those who own private property?
DH: That’s a very interesting, tough question, Mel. I’m not sure I can give a completely satisfying answer. I haven’t heard from readers about whether they side with the gardeners/urban farmers or the landowner, probably because most readers assume that the gardeners are the “good” people, so of course we would side with them. After all, the three most sympathetic main characters—Drew, Jeannie the potter, and Zim the African immigrant and garden founder—all oppose the landowner and want to preserve the urban farm in its original location.
The gardeners-landowner conflict is complicated by what you might call a theological conflict between the gardeners and the people who intend to live in the projected building. The latter see Christianity as a spiritual concern that has nothing to do with where their food comes from. The gardeners see their faith extending to how they grow and share their food. Again, the gardeners’ theology seems the favored approach in the novel, since it’s held by Drew and Zim. (Jeannie doesn’t express a religious view.)
All of which is to say that the deck is clearly stacked against the landowner! That’s certainly worth pointing out. I’ll just offer two thoughts in response. One is that the gardeners make an emotional and moral case for keeping their land, not a legal one. Legally, they don’t have a leg to stand on, so they lose. The second thought is that Drew accepts that outcome, although he fought passionately against it. As a lifelong servant of Big Ag, he has a pretty good idea of how the real world works, and he isn’t surprised when his emotional appeal fails and the garden plot is sold. His job then is to figure out the next-best path, and to buck up his broken-hearted friend Jeannie.
ML: Yes, I felt that the deck was clearly stacked against the landowner. As I read, I thought, how is David going to resolve this? Is he going to “cheat” and use some sort of deus ex machina to have the urban farmers win, or is he going to play it honestly. I was relieved that you chose the latter. But then you found a way for the urban farmers to still have their farm—they just have to drive some distance to get there. That felt fair to me.
I think that although you admit that’s how the world works, it nevertheless doesn’t seem fair to you. Am I right about that? While the characters with whom the novel sympathizes lose, it nevertheless feels fair to me. The owner of the land, after all, earned the money that he invested in the land, and he therefore has the right to do with it what he wants. To deny him this right would be to deny the rule of law—and when that happens countries collapse.
I might add that some years ago I saw a quite serious in-depth study of what distinguished successful, prosperous countries from failed, unsuccessful, impoverished countries. At the very top of the distinguishing characteristics was the presence or absence of the rule of law. I realize my comments would seem to take us away from the novel, but they were paramount in my mind, actually very much overriding any sympathies I had with the characters. I was afraid the novel was going to slip into political correctness, which I always find a dishonest skewing of reality. Do you want to say any more about this?
DH: I don’t have anything to add beyond my comment about an emotional and moral case as opposed to a legal one. The ending does seem to evoke various responses, with some readers telling me they find it bleak while others, like me, see it as ambiguous and open-ended.
ML: I very much do not see it as bleak, and I expect I would not get along with those who do because I expect they are people who have to have things their way and only their way. And I expect they also think they are very good people and that the land owner is a bad person, all of which I disagree with. But all of this takes us beyond the realm of the novel, so let me bring us back to that.
Indeed, let’s move from the nature of the novel itself to something I think many on this site would be very interested in, namely how this novel got published. You chose to self-publish rather than seek a publishing house that would pay you. I would much like to hear why and how you went about this, right down to the nitty-gritty details that would help other writers publish their books. Please feel free to carry on at length. I for one am fascinated by the process, and I expect other readers will be too.
DH: Actually, I wouldn’t even say that The Terra Cotta Camel is self-published, at least in the usual sense. Sometimes I think the best description might be “privately circulated.” I’m happy to tell the story, then I’ll mention a few things I’ve learned from the process.
In the spring of 2020, when pastimes like the NCAA basketball tournament began to shut down, I decided I would get through the empty days and nights by writing fiction. While we waited out what was being called a “novel coronavirus,” I would write a “coronavirus novel.” I found a small press for the resulting short novel, The Wrestler. The publisher warned its authors that they should expect to sell only a few copies, mainly to family and friends, and this proved to be exactly the case. I told everyone I could think of about my novel, quite a few people kindly bought it, and that was pretty much it for sales.
When I completed The Terra Cotta Camel about a year later, I knew I wanted to do something different. Trying to find a bigger publisher was out of the question, since I was neither a graduate of a creative writing program nor a movie star. I felt certain that the audience for this new novel would be largely the same as for the last one, and I knew that I didn’t want to ask these good people to pay for doing me the favor of reading my book. So I decided to make it available for free.
I looked into various ways of posting the book online, and in fact readers can find it at this website I created for the purpose. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that many if not most of my readers would prefer to read a paper copy. This is where my wife, Susan Yager, enters the story, because she is much more skilled and patient with technical matters than I am. She found a company that would print my book fairly cheaply—think of the kind of place that prints church photo directories or family histories. We followed a few steps, dealt with some computer hassles, and ended up with fifty copies of a simple but attractive little book. I thought of it as a glorified photocopy.
Here’s where things got interesting and surprising. I handed or sent copies to anyone who had said anything nice about The Wrestler, as well as to a few others like a guy I knew about in Des Moines who ran an urban farm. Very quickly I began receiving encouraging feedback, and I had a sense of a tiny but appreciative audience in my church and around town. My friend Connie Ringlee was the host of a local authors program on the Ames community radio station, and she read the entire novel on the air. Ed Fallon and Kathy Byrnes—the Des Moines urban farmer and his wife—invited me to do a reading at their harvest party, a sizable event where Susan and I gave away more copies. By then we’d had to order another batch. In ways I never would have foreseen, my little project of giving books away was reaching more readers than I ever did by selling them through a publisher.
Last winter I read an essay by Ted Gioia that was featured in Jeff Bilbro’s Water Dipper. Gioia argues that despite the stranglehold exerted by a handful of bland corporate entities over American movies, music, and literature, alternative or indie culture is thriving. I thought this was an exciting and hopeful observation, but I couldn’t help noticing that thriving meant, in Gioia’s analysis, getting a big audience and making a lot of money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But I had learned to see my audience as small, specific, and mostly local. Instead of “alternative culture” I preferred the terms “underground” or even “underdog” culture—not because I was producing art that was subversive or forbidden, but because I was bypassing the institutional gatekeepers, and embracing a small audience of readers who got what I was doing. I wasn’t spending any more money than a lot of people spend on hobbies and amusements, and I certainly wasn’t forgoing any money—who makes money, these days, writing novels that are outside the commercial mainstream? To be honest, I’ll probably still take a crack at finding a publisher for the novel I’m currently working on, but for now I’m enjoying and marveling at what can happen when you take a DIY [do it yourself] approach and then just give it away.
If anyone would like a copy of The Terra Cotta Camel, we still have some books that we intend to give away until they’re gone. Readers, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, provide a mailing address, and I’ll send out copies as long as they last. And thank you, Mel, for giving the Camel this additional exposure.
ML: Thank you, David, for such an extended response. But I’m wondering if we couldn’t go even further. I thought the production values were very high — as good as those of big-time publishers. How did you make that be so? How did you go about selecting the printer? Can you be specific here? Do you want to mention the price range for each copy of the book? How did you select the paper for the cover? Where did you see the possibilities available? It looks like Kromecoat to me, which would be my first choice in cover papers. How did you select the typeface and then “set” the type? What program did you use to justify lines and choose the leading between lines? How did you decide on the margins? How did you select the size of the book? How did you select the paper for the book? I have left some questions out, but could you run us through the process? I think there are a lot of writers who know none, or nearly none, of this. I wouldn’t be asking except that I was very impressed with the physical book in my hand. It was a fine thing, very professional. How did you make that be so?
I think these questions and their answers are perfect for readers of this site: people who believe in the local and the do-it-yourself way. In other words, I am asking you to teach us how to till and plant and fertilize and harvest our gardens of words so that we can feed ourselves and others. All those little choices we skip over: we can’t really skip over them when we actually have land under our feet. We have to know all the little things that the experienced farmer might take for granted but that the novice knows absolutely nothing about.
DH: Thank you, I’m glad you thought the book looked good. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about how to make a book, but the good news is that when you take the plunge and start working with a company, they’ll walk you through the process and lay out the choices you need to make. So for the finer details I’d have to say, “Let them lead you through the thicket.” We also found that on the few occasions when we got stuck we could call the company and talk to a friendly human being who solved the problem. Now, having ducked some of your questions, let me try to answer a few others.
We worked with a company called Mixam. You can easily find many similar ones online. We started out with a Word file, converting it to the font we wanted for the finished book. Things like margins got worked out once we started fine-tuning the file for upload. This was where I relied on Susan’s computer skills and long-ago publishing background. I forget whether we chose the paper, but the company offered several sizes for books.
The cover presents some interesting options. I have published a book with a small press, self-published a book, and had copies printed. Creating the cover was a different experience in each case. With the publisher, they asked me if I had any general ideas about the appearance, then a designer came up with something more or less along the lines I requested. When I self-published a book of stories, I found a photo that I liked a lot, and ended up paying more to use that photo than for publishing the book. The company incorporated the photo into one of their cover templates that I chose. With The Terra Cotta Camel, we found a “free clip art” or “royalty-free” image (of a camel, naturally) that we didn’t have to pay for, and that I thought captured the spirit of the novel. We ended up going with a white cover because we ran into problems overlaying the image on a colored background. Hence the plain, simple look, which went with my underground, underdog aesthetic. I couldn’t tell you whether the paper is Kromecoat. I don’t recall being given a choice of cover paper with any of the three books I mentioned. They’re all glossy, so I don’t think a matte finish was available.
ML: You are probably right that once you choose a small house that publishes books for individuals who come in the door rather than for audiences who will buy them at Barnes & Noble, that company will know how to do all the things that have to be done: choosing the typeface, paper, margins, leading, etc. But my own advice—having published one such book myself—is that you better have a fair knowledge about these matters when you walk in the door and then, once in the door, be prepared to try different typefaces, leading, and margins on for size.
I sense that we have come to the end of our conversation, so I will ask only one more question: Was there any question you wanted me to ask that I didn’t ask, anything left that you want to say before we quit?
DH: I think that does it. There were times when I feared we might be giving away too much of the story, but looking back I realize that there’s much about Zim the coffeeshop owner and Jeannie the potter that we didn’t touch on, as well as aspects of the ending that we left unexplored. So I think we managed to discuss the novel without either making it too schematic or covering every last detail. For that, and for initiating and guiding the discussion, I once again extend my heartfelt thanks.
ML: And I thank you, David, for your honest, candid, insightful answers.
Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons