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Also by H. Lee Barnes:
Candescent | Changing Hands | Hueco Tanks | Tunnel Rat | Stonehands and the Tigress | A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley

Changing Hands

Recently I had the opportunity to read a story from Gunning for Ho to an audience at Changing Hands Book Store in Tempe, Arizona. As I stood to read, it occurred to me that no other name could be more appropriate for a book store than this. For it is the notion of changing books from hand to hand that makes a book what it is. A book comes not just from a writer but from a collective and collaborative process that involves many sets of hands, and while it is in each set of hands, it is owned by them. I used this idea of shared ownership as a metaphor to speak of books, but the idea didn't begin with me that evening but months before.

Prior to my manuscript entering the "publishing mill," I'd never thought of a book as something objectively unique, by which I mean as an object to reflect upon or as something held in hand like a flashlight or a compass. Rather a book was something held in the mind. It was the content, that stuff between the pages, that engaged and challenged the brain. Certainly, as an English lit major in my undergraduate years and later as a graduate student, I'd examined books in objective ways. In class after class we read books from the canon and applied theory and criticism to what was inside, "engaging with the elements and structure of the text" to determine the merit of the book as literature. This has always seemed to me to be not an act of reading but of studying.

To paraphrase Descartes, "A book is read; therefore, it is a book," and I buy books on the premise that they are worth reading, are worthy of my effort, for reading is an effort as well as a pleasure. When I read, actually read, I want mostly to experience the intimacy that occurs when a writer's language pulls me into the page. What interests me most is the story, but what keeps me engaged in a book is the writer's style, her characters, the setting, the true matter of a book. The experience is mine, but I owe it to the author, who in a sense is my guide. I'd read many books and thought of them in a variety of ways—as movies, as mirrors of truth, as food for philosophical musing—but I'd never imagined a book as a "thing." However, a book is an object, a thing to be possessed. Whose book it is is quite another matter.

In September of 1998, Trudy McMurrin called me during a recess of the meeting of the University of Nevada Press editorial board to tell me my book, Gunning for Ho: Vietnam Stories, had been approved by the board, the last stage of the acceptance process. Of course I thought of the book as mine, or soon to be when it was printed and I could hold it open in my hands and read the words. Then it would truly exist as a book, and be mine. After all, I had written the six stories and the novella, all of which had been published or accepted for publication before I received the book contract.

In December we threw a contract-signing party at my house, a small gathering of my intimate friends and a few colleagues to celebrate the book. We toasted my good fortune, drank wine, talked, and drank some more wine. Sometime during the evening's conversations Trudy used the terms "our book" and "my book," meaning her book. I thought little of it at the time. She had found it and me, so it seemed only natural to accept that the book was Trudy's in the sense that she'd been taken by it, had found outside jurors to read it, had made editorial suggestions and done preliminary copy editing, presented it to the press and to the editorial board, and prepared all of the necessary data and documentation. She was so enthusiastic about the book that one might think she had written it. Certainly she had a right to make claims of ownership. But it was still my book.

Shortly after my signing the contract, other documentation arrived in the mail from women I'd never met, women four hundred and forty miles away. Sandy Crooms and Christine Campbell sent me forms to fill out and instructions and asked for a profile and photographs. I didn't know it at the time, but when the idea of a book about Vietnam was first introduced to the marketing and promotions department at the Press, there was skepticism. Was this a book the Press needed to take on? Vietnam, twenty-five years later? But Sandy and Christine read some of the stories, read with sensitivity so as to better understand the book they were charged with promoting. Like it or not, it was their job and they were professionals. As with Trudy, Christine and Sandy took to the book. The dispatches began, all the detailed work that goes into launching a book, their book. Contacts were made by phone and mail, press kits were designed, and word was spread through an information network about the press's new book. The energy was intense. Obviously they wanted the book to succeed. My book became theirs.

The book moved toward production in stages. I received the galleys. The copy editing was done by Jan McInroy, who was under instruction to "light edit" the text. She had a reputation with the Press for exact, thorough editing, and her marks and questions, her suggestions indicated that she, like Sandy and Christine had fine tuned her antennae. She now had claim to the book, and she deserved it. I could tell when the galleys came in the mail that she understood what the book was about, that it wasn't the smell of cordite and the sounds of machine guns and heroism but the hopes and fears and losses of men engaged in the arduous feat of daily survival.

All during this process Ron Latimer, the Press director, kept abreast of the progress. It was one of his books, and he was accountable for its production and success.

The next person involved with the project was Carrie Nelson House, the book designer. She was the one who picked the typefaces, and designed the page layout and book cover. She is an award-winning designer, but this was just one of several projects she was responsible for. As with Sandy and Christine, Carrie sampled the stories to get a feel for the book. It didn't take long for me to get the impression that, as with Sandy and Christine, Gunning for Ho was not just another project for Carrie. She wanted the exact typeface to fit the subject matter, something masculine but subtle, for her book. She decided on footers instead of headers for the pages. When I saw the page proofs, it was obvious that she'd left her mark on every page. The cover was a more difficult matter. Finally, Carrie selected a photograph of a young black soldier from the 101st Airborne, whose features are obscured under the brim of his helmet. Seemingly haunted, he sits smoking in a contemplative manner in a flat field of fallow somewhere in Vietnam. The image captures the mixture of tension and relief a soldier feels in those short periods between battles. The rest of the cover has an all-black background and is quite striking. It wasn't until I saw a copy of the cover that I knew it was Carrie's book. But I realized something else as well.

I wanted to know who the soldier was. The photograph came from a file, but the young man's name is unknown. He may or may not be alive now, but he was a part of something that I intended to capture in my stories. It seems, after much reflection, appropriate that he is not identified. He becomes what the book is about. More importantly, it became his book, for who could have a greater claim.

The Press did its job well, operating with limited funds and a small staff. Gunning for Ho was released in March, the first print run totalling three thousand. Book reviews and signings came shortly thereafter, a reading here, one there. At first it seemed strange signing my name to the book, but it was my book after all, wasn't it? Naturally I was concerned about the success of the book. After the first month Sandy sent me figures of advance sales, etc. More than twelve hundred books were out already. It was then in a moment of relief that it finally occurred to me that my book is an object, one held in the hand and mind and possessed, one that is shared in a very unique way—the very way that I, as a reader, have experienced a book. Every book I ever bought, every book I ever read was mine.

It is not only the content of the pages, the imagery and fancy, but also this permutation of the idea of ownership, this almost mystical communal possession that makes a book a unique piece of art. At least twelve hundred people claim Gunning for Ho as theirs. I rather enjoy the idea, the variations of ownership that take place when a book goes from hand to hand, ultimately to the reader. The stories are mine, but the book is theirs, Trudy's and Sandy's and Christine's and Jan's and Carrie's and Ron's and the unknown soldier on the cover and the readers who join us in ownership.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2000 issue of CLR

H. Lee Barnes

H. Lee Barnes teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Southern Nevada. His fiction has appeared in several literary journals, most recently in Clackamas Literary Review and Echoes, and two stories are forthcoming in Flint Hills Review. In 1997 he won the Clackamas Literary Review fiction award and in 1991 the Arizona Authors Association award for the short story. Gunning for Ho, his collection about Vietnam, has just been released from the University of Nevada Press.

You can find H. Lee Barnes on the web at:
—  Arizona State University Creative Writing
—  Printed Matter
—  Gunning for Ho
—  Boston Review
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble


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