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Biography

 

 

HEADLESS WORLD, November, 2022 McPherson.   

 

 

The 30th ANNIVERSARY EDITION of THE OTHER PLANET was published in softcover by McPherson in September, 2018.  It has a foreword by Stephen Beachy that's an intelligent introduction to the book and a thoughtful overview of our work.   

 

Readers who've read the original  hard cover edition of The Other Planet or who read the new edition can leave comments on Amazon using the link https://www.amazon.com/Other-Planet-Ascher-Straus/dp/1620540339/.

 

 

Several sections of Ascher/Straus' new novel, Headless World, to be published by McPherson this November (2022), have appeared in the journals Your Impossible Voice and Exile (Toronto). An excerpt is in the current issue of Exile (Vol. 43 No. 4) along with a dual literary/autobiographical essay by Sheila and Dennis.  Please read at https://www.exilequarterly.com/product/volume-43-4/   

 

 

 

Red Moon/Red Lake was just published (its fourth time in print), the week of 2-21-22, as part of a retrospective re-printing in one massive two volume boxed set of the original 1980's TOP STORIES series by Primary Information, Brooklyn NY. 

 

 

 

 

Sheila Ascher and I never wanted to write (or weren't capable of writing) a traditional autobiographical note so originally wrote this: 

 

"ASCHER/STRAUS=Sheila Ascher & Dennis Straus. We don't write together in the literal sense, but do in every other sense. We edit each other's writing (allow no other editing) and we publish jointly without saying who initiated what. To distinguish 'who wrote what' is to bow to someone else's idea of authorship, no more acceptable than bowing to a narrow idea of what fiction can be.


We've pursued an unusual degree of personal invisibility and there would be no web site if we thought that would end here (we hope to hide here in plain sight). One way or another what matters in our biographies is in our work: by chronicling what's not in the mirror but is the life we live or by finding narrative codes for the self.

 

A long, invisible history of creating narrative outside traditional boundaries (of form, of publication, even of binding) is present in the four novels (Hank Forest's Party, ABC Street, The Menaced Assassin, The Other Planet) and the volume of related stories (Red Moon/Red Lake) that are traditionally published. (There is an entire history of publication, documented event/performance and so on attached to our earlier work).

 

In the late 70's/early 80's, largely in an art context, we created a series of novels we called SPACE NOVELS that used a variety of public spaces (from galleries to air fields) as bindings or structuring principles. (Funding came from Poets & Writers, the National Parks Service, the American Crafts Council and so on.) Our idea was to create a new kind of un-bound novel, transparent and porous between writer and reader.


Our early thinking about fiction, and art in general, particularly about its position between writer and reader and the ways in which the life of writer and reader (down to the ambient, intrusive event while reading or writing) can or cannot be included or suggested, has mutated over the years but never left us entirely. (ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party are its direct descendants.) That thinking and our love of the kind of philosophical narrative not thought to be 'American' has probably driven us out of the mainstream. (We have a talent for making decisions that place us on the outside of any given inside, even ones that would seem to be in tune with us.)"

 

 

 

The closest we've come to sharing our autobiographies before now is in our essay "My (Our) Five" for Exile magazine (43.4).  

 

But now that Sheila died (in December of 2020) I feel compelled to share more about our life together and about Sheila and myself.  Not to write again what we and I (after December 2020) have already written the simplest thing to do is to share the Bio Note our publisher, McPherson & Co., asked us to write for possible use in promoting Headless World

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 Here's a tinfoil packet of instant, powdered autobiography.  Just add red wine or coffee ice cream soda to bring us back to life.

 

Love of being together and love of reading and of writing were what sustained us for sixty-plus years, with a shared awareness that we couldn't be happy living or writing according to conventional ideas of living and writing or by following common, logical paths dictated to those of us without money but with the ambition to accomplish something of significance.  Our shared need for personal freedom and lifelong romantic idealism (where did it come from in both of us with such different, but working class childhoods?) about writing as art and art as a calling not a career fueled our love of being together from the beginning till now:  the romantic, idealistic and impractical view that the need for safety and comfort is fatal for art and freedom.  We saw the common, almost automatic choice of life as a writer/professor as a way to live securely and in an appealing world of mutual respect and affirmation, but with a flavor we found alien and against our grain.  We shared a need to live out in the randomness of "the floating world", with the magnified difficulty of finding ways to make art out of what's chaotic, fleeting, overheard and observed through self-made discipline and dedication.

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 We also lived a rich, complex life — many lives in one — as if we had money, an enduring mystery I can give some true and logical explanations for, but not entirely.  I can say this simply:  in the first place we consciously promised ourselves not to be a "La Boheme"-type story, with the melancholy or tragic ending society always seems to have enjoyed as the price for tolerating the artist's perceived freedom from the pleasure-killing limitations of convention, the artist's happiness in love and work. 

 

Sheila and I both come from working class families (Sheila's a good and supportive one, mine an awful, perfectly unsupportive one) and we left graduate school after the Master's degrees we were determined to get because no one in our families had ever dreamed of such a thing and because we were interested in what we were studying and writing about (Dostoyevsky for Sheila, William Blake for me). 

 

We had no money, but after a while found ways to live as if we did.

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 Whenever we've been asked to write autobiographically we've written mostly about our work.  "Because we're writers and our writing is our most important autobiographical fact with a great deal of autobiography coded in it" is the simplest answer, but of course not a complete or completely honest one.  I can say this about our reluctance to talk personally:  there are other good and important reasons.  At this moment the most important obviously is that Sheila isn't here to tell her own story.  Talking about meeting Sheila in college as the far more important of the two life-determining events in my life is not the same as Sheila telling her own story.  I wish that readers who're interested in hearing from Sheila directly would read Monica's Chronicle, where Sheila's consciousness is present and alive, the best we can do until the vast body of her daily chronicling can be preserved and made available, my deepest wish and hardest task. 

 

I've always been and still am reluctant to talk about my childhood and early life, but readers may find relevance to Headless World — in the aspect of it that's a nightmare vision of childhood — and that makes it unavoidable.

 

The second most important event of my life was my death and resurrection at the age of 2 ½.  Because of neglect I was given a massive dose of an adult drug to cure a minor ailment.  It cured the ailment, but destroyed my kidneys.   I was hospitalized with Bright's Disease.  There was no cure then.  I was expected to die and was abandoned in the hospital by my parents (they never visited).  After six months or so I was released so I could die at home, but miraculously didn't.  I have clear memories of life before the hospital and of my life in the hospital, but will only tell this much:  among several unusual psychic states in my time there I had visions of a beautiful girl I felt myself travelling toward: if I could reach her I knew that that would be my salvation.  I sometimes flew toward the tall, ancient windows because I saw her there. 

 

This too:  my illness left me with strange, heightened states of consciousness and what would probably be called "paranormal" faculties that I kept secret.  I rarely talk about them even now.  Some of these strange states resembled what are known as "teleportation" and "telekinesis", but not exactly.  They were not dream states and were or seemed real. 

 

I kept my heightened states of consciousness and strange faculties secret.  No one knew about them until I met Sheila. 

 

When I first saw Sheila (in college, in Russian class) I knew two things immediately and they remained true forever:  I knew that I would never encounter anyone more brilliant or more beautiful and that she was the girl I'd been travelling toward.  I wasn't wrong:  she was my salvation then and every day of my life.  Finding her there also explained why I'd decided impulsively to study Russian for no good reason (bad at languages in general and with no particular fascination with Russian).  Sheila was there so she could read Dostoyevsky in his own language and she accomplished that very quickly, just as she taught herself Ancient Greek while working in a camp near Lake Saint Catherine in Vermont and rowing on the lake over a summer or two so she could read The Iliad and The Odyssey as they originally sounded.  The story of how she helped wean me away from the English epic poetry I was addicted to and the epic poem I'd been writing all my life, steering me toward the modern European novel, is a significant one, but too long to tell.  Many stories to tell that won't get told, including the reasons why the Orpheus/Eurydice myth meant so much to us, from opera (standing room for students at the old Met) to Rilke, the times we saved each other (until the final time the universe betrayed us and I couldn't), why we both loved the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann when we were in college and were moved by his idea of the "astral self".   Still traveling toward her, but I no longer have the ability to fly under the ceiling and all the way to the window. 

 

Sheila took a leave of absence from college.  She'd worked all through high school and college and saved for her plan to travel alone in France and Italy and live for a while in the region where Cezanne painted and then continue travelling until she reached Florence, where Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot.  I dropped out of college to look for her when I found out that she was deathly ill after eating raw clams from a street vendor in Naples. 

 

That's how life together began and we were never able to settle down and live in a regular way after that. 

 

The closest we've come to sharing our autobiographies before now is in our essay "My (Our) Five" for Exile magazine (43.4).  

 

We've been asked many times to solve the mystery of our survival or more-than-survival while avoiding the writer/professor path or harnessing ourselves to writing as a money-earning profession. 

 

I can try to answer that question at least: 

 

AN INCOMPLETE CATALOGUE OF INCOMPLETE ANSWERS TO NON-WRITING/NON-TEACHING WAYS WE FOUND TO LIVE AS IF WE HAD MORE MONEY THAN WE DID

 

The best way for a reader to know an unprecedented amount of daily detail about how and where we lived will unfortunately only be possible if and when I can find a way to preserve Sheila's decades-long practice of chronicling her/our life every day.    It's not at all a diary, it's an artist's record of experience and the true flavor of our life together is there.  An interesting and substantial fraction of the whole can already be found in Monica's Chronicle and in the two Green Integer volumes, ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party

 

LABELS ON SHEILA'S CHRONICLE IN NOTEBOOKS, STENO PADS AND MICROCASSETTES

 

"FLORIDA" notebooks.  (Mostly "CAPTIVA":  by chance, while we were traveling, a young woman with a dream of writing, saw us writing on a beach or by a pool and struck up a conversation.  Her affluent parents owned a villa in a resort on Captiva Island, a barrier island off the west coast of Florida, that they rented occasionally at very low rates to close friends only.  Because of the daughter and because they oddly enough took a liking to us despite our extreme differences they rented to us and also took us on trips in their boat to distant islands in the Gulf, in Pine Island Sound, etc.  Over the years our stays on Captiva Island grew longer and longer and the rates grew lower and lower as we became closer friends.  A great deal of writing was done there.)

 

"TRAIN" steno pads and microcassettes.  (A detailed record of the day-and-overnight train journeys and the instant, fleeting relationships formed in dining car and lounge car that Sheila and I enjoyed tremendously, as well as a wealth of visual event and overheard speech, from New York to Florida and then on the journeys back.  It was because of the difficulty of writing by hand with the bouncing, rolling and pitching of the train that Sheila discovered that she could be comfortable dictating her daily chronicling into a small tape recorder, while I persisted in writing by hand no matter.  After a time Sheila had a few of these small tape recorders dedicated to different purposes and couldn't be without them, even keeping two with her in bed at night so she could record her dreams.) 

 

"ATLANTIC CITY" pads and cassettes.  (Only Sheila could have the discipline — or more than discipline, the love of chronicling itself — to be able in the middle of so much pleasure and distraction to record the extraordinary details not only of casino life, but life in a luxury hotel, a whole other universe of people and experience different from any other.  Over the years we became friends with and/or knew the intimate stories of casino hosts, fellow gamblers, housekeeping staff (made a truly close friend there), chefs and restaurant workers, middle-of-the-night cleaning crew, dealers, mechanics, etc.  We found a way to use the computer-generated programs of modern gambling to our advantage in reducing the house's automatic "edge" to the extent that we were considered "high rollers", comped for everything, and did it all without losing (that is, we had more wins than losses).  There were times when we were able to live in a suite in a casino hotel, gamble, eat good food and drink good wine for a week at a time, occasionally longer.  Aside from Sheila's chronicling we were able to do some editing of novels already in a first or second draft there, but it was mainly a great way to stop thinking for a while and re-charge.  There were periods of time when we were able to win large sums of money before the casino figured out what we'd figured out and changed their system.  There's a book about our casino/hotel life that could have been written, but won't be.  Our gambling continued later on cruise ships, which started because a cruise was given to us a "reward" for being high rollers.)

 

"NAMES OF VARIOUS CRUISE SHIPS" on cassettes.  Sheila loved the ocean from childhood until the end.  When I met her she lived near the ocean (as we have together for 40-50 years) and we first got to know each other with Sheila walking and splashing through the ocean's edge no matter what she was wearing, with me walking parallel on dry sand.  She worked all through school because she had a plan and saved to travel by ocean liner to France when she was in college.  She went with two friends but split from them and travelled alone because they cared too much about buying clothing in Paris.  Later we crossed the Atlantic together many times by ocean liner and freighter.  When transatlantic ship travel was replaced by "cruise" ships we weren't sure what to do:  desire to be on the ocean vs. disgust with regimented fun and everything that could cancel out the experience of being in the middle of the ocean. 

 

We were given a cruise as a gift by a casino where we gambled and it didn't take long to figure out that a cruise ship is so big it's easy to hide from all the unwanted stuff and convert the experience into a relatively private, traditional sea voyage with food, drink and gambling added.  We cruised many times and, as always, Sheila chronicled the people we met and the few friends we made (rarely other travelers, mostly waitresses, musicians, etc.).  Sheila liked to record ship sounds the way she recorded bird calls in our back yard.  There are dozens of microcassettes with detailed observations of the ocean, of arrivals and departures from ports, of other ships, stories told to us by passengers over drinks, etc. etc.  Our ocean travels were cut off when I had a near-fatal brain bleed and then by COVID. 

 

"CANAAN" (NY) notebooks, pads, cassettes.  A vast amount of writing (by both of us) and recording (by Sheila) was done in the small farmhouse we bought there with a friend.  It was surrounded by acres of woodland.  We were able to buy it at a low price from a Long Island couple who couldn't stop fighting with neighbors they had contempt for, so felt compelled to leave.  The wife held a perpetual garage sale to get rid of their things and that's how we met. 

 

For over thirty years Sheila and I drove the back roads of Columbia, Rensselaer and Berkshire counties and spent as many months living and writing there as we did in what we thought of as our home in Rockaway Park.  Most of our late novels were written there.  It's impossible to summarize our life in Canaan because we really lived there.  I'm still there with Sheila many 6 a.m.'s when I'm half awake.  Yesterday morning we were in Mario's in New Lebanon where we used to have dinner at our table by the front window facing Route 20.  I remember what we ate and who we talked to and hung out with later in the bar.  Other mornings I'm in Shuji's or in other restaurants or driving with Sheila to Ooms Pond on Rock City Road beyond Old Chatham where we'd share sandwiches we'd picked up at The Cottage or Jackson's or we're driving along the beautiful Housatonic to Berkshire Mountain Bakery and Taft's Farm.   On the way home there was a spot by the river where we could park and have some cider donuts and warm blueberry pie.  And there are dozens of other places where we loved spending an afternoon together that I can easily summon up and travel to in my half-awake mind's endless search for what went away so suddenly.     

 

Back at the house Sheila often used the car (Sheila drove, I never have) as an outdoor studio, parking near or facing the woods as the sun went down and staying late, listening to an owl or to the tree frogs singing at the beaver pond mostly choked with weeds and wildflowers.   I was in my bedroom/studio wrestling with some draft of a novel with a view of Sheila writing or recording in the car against the woods.  Generally I'd have a meal ready for us by the time she came in and we'd watch a movie or a baseball game while we ate.  

 

There's a fair amount of what it was like to live in Canaan surrounded by forest, transparent and disguised in Headless World.

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 There are no other labeled notebooks or cassettes, because we thought of our house in Rockaway Park as our home base and not one of our "other" lives in other places that kept life from ever feeling settled inside one frame.  Life in New York is of course more impossible to sum up than life in Canaan.  It's the sixty-plus-year core of our existence together, from college until the universe betrayed us and separated us:  sixty-plus years of creating a complete universe for each other:  love and writing and making it possible for each other to be free to pursue our great ambitions, immune to the tastes and prejudices of others.  We edited and criticized each other's writing so honestly and severely that we were always able to feel comfortable fending off tone deaf editing by anyone else. 

 

We were tenants from the 1960's through the 80's, living in all sorts of small apartments in Rockaway's 19th century seaside mansions converted to multiple dwellings with wonderful attics and odd spaces with great perspectives and light, before we were able to buy our own C. 1900 Victorian house subdivided into ugly rental units. 

 

We were tenants with good and bad landlords, then we inherited tenants, waited patiently for them to go their own ways and then lived and worked together in the big old house we loved/love and that I'm still in alone after forty plus years playing like children together here. 

 

Pointless to summarize life here between bay and ocean or our other life in Manhattan:  too many films, too many restaurants and cafes, too many jazz clubs and Beethoven concerts.  I can't calculate all the writing that's been done here and that I'm still looking for ways to preserve.  At this moment it looks as if Columbia University will archive some of our papers in its Rare Book and Manuscript Library, but far from everything.  I worry every day about how to protect Sheila's microcassettes and pads, both our notebooks with notes for projects there's no time to write.

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 Gambling is one answer to how we more-than-survived without teaching or writing for money.  There were times when we were running low and said to each other "we need to go to Atlantic City". 

 

For most of our lives Sheila and I have had a small but profitable antique-and-collectible business.  I have a good visual memory, did a lot of reading and looking at old auction catalogues and thumbing through books and that served us well at country auctions and at estate sales.  Sheila was a serious and knowledgeable postcard collector, though she was interested in them for unusual reasons:  she often interpolated the narratives and fragments of diaristic writing she found on cards into the fabric of her Chronicle.  We were able to buy many beautiful and/or interesting things at low prices over the years and I'm still selling them, though I no longer buy anything. 

 

Our other sources of income will stay a mystery.  When we were young Sheila's parents helped her.  Mine gave nothing.  Sheila did a few clever things without me later on and together we earned enough to maintain our detachment from money. 

 

 

 

Ascher/Straus
P.O. Box 176
Rockaway Park, NY 11694

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For a review of Hank Forest’s Party that also gives an intelligent overview of its place in our writing history see Mary Burger's review in Your Impossible Voice, April 25, 2014.



For an alternative overview of our writing history read Stephen Beachy’s article ”ESCAPE FROM THE PRESENT” in the March '05 San Francisco Bay Guardian Literary Supplement, “WHERE DOES FICTION COME FROM” (Feb. 23 — March 1, 2005. Volume 39, No. 21).

To read Douglas Messerli’s essay, “On the Other Side of the Page (on Ascher/Straus’s ABC Street)”, see his blog for December 10, 2008 (http://greeninteger.blogspot.com).



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Because MONICA’S CHRONICLE is now being published on the website we’ve scanned an earlier view of that project, “WRITING WITH SHEILA ASCHER”, which was published in Zone #7 Spring/Summer ’81 as an introduction to the section of "SHEILA ASCHER’S CHRONICLE/SEPTEMBER 1976" that served as the text for the Space Novel “12 SIMULTANEOUS SUNDAYS”.