Tom Elliott

Nonfiction

I've never been entirely happy that what I write is named in terms of what it is not – this is not fiction. Still, it inspires a useful note to post above the desk:

Find out what the thing really is. Work with that. Don’t be making stuff up.

Of course, it is easy to write on a sticky note “Find out what the thing really is.” The actual finding out is harder.

But if it were easy how much fun would it be?

Essays


“The Road to Moose Factory” (New Delta Review, Winter 2008, 25:1)  is not actually about the road to Moose Factory, because there isn’t one. From the south, you get to this small town in northern Ontario by train or air. I went by train. 

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I was in a colleague’s office one day, looking idly at the National Geographic map on his wall while he finished a phone call. It was still there. Hudson Bay. And even better, the Geographic’s greater precision showed a town on the map, at the base of James Bay, the appendix-like projection at the bottom of the big bay. A town at the end of a thin line that connected to a thicker line that connected, ultimately, to my driveway. A town called Moose Factory.

Now I ask you: could anyone not want to go and get the story on that?


In other Canadiana, "Theodore" appears in  Mount Hope  (Fall 2016, number 10), contradicting the conventional wisdom that no one will publish a memoir about your grandfather. Theodore was my mother's father. He died in Renfrew, Ontario when she was a child, so I never knew him. Regrettably, I became curious only after anyone who could give me primary information was dead, so the essay is about knowability as well as the man himself.

And no, I never seriously thought my grandfather got whacked because he knew too much or was in the boss's amorous way. I was just looking for something—anything—that would put a man where I had only an inference. 


"Halloween at the Center of Time and Space” (The Gettysburg Review, Winter 2002, 15:4) explores boundaries and demarcations, and was occasioned by a trip to Greenwich, England, the home (in a sense) of the Prime Meridian. I did in fact go there on Halloween, although that was pure coincidence.

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Harrison’s escapement, nicknamed “the grasshopper” for the way the lever kicks off the wheel in a quick and precise jump, approached the limit imposed by the mechanical fabrication technology of his day. But good as that was ... it still represented an approximation. So too the vastly more precise clock in the courtyard at the Royal Observatory, regulated by the vibration of atoms and purporting to stamp on a card the precise instant when my coin tripped its mechanism, really offered only a more narrowly bounded approximation of the point in the continuum of existence at which I stood beside the line that divides East from West.


Back in the days of Iron John  and the Men’s Movement I started noticing that a lot of businesses call themselves “Mister Muffler,” “Mister Music,” “Mister Coffee,” and so on. This was the origin of an essay on masculinity, competence, and fathers and sons called “You’ll Have to Ask the Mister.” It was a long time in the writing, but I’m pleased to say it won third place in the Baltimore Review’s 2011 Nonfiction contest and was subsequently published in New Madrid, possibly the only literary journal named for a seismic  zone. (New Madrid, Summer 2012, 7:2)

Click here to listen to an excerpt  


“A Town Somewhere” (The Gettysburg Review, Spring 2010, 23:1) is about Colby, a town in Western Kansas that I first saw from an airplane window and decided to visit. 

A town in this sea of grass is a matter of some consequence, not begun or maintained easily, never too far from sinking back beneath the waves. To ignore its uniqueness is to ignore what it is there to say: ‘I am here.” Six vertical miles away, I had made a connection with that particular consolidation of lights and highways. As a matter of simple justice, I needed to know its name, its population, the name of its high school teams.

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Click here to listen to an excerpt

Shorter Pieces


"Physical Vulnerability of the Internet" was published in the Journal of Political Risk. Its immediate inspiration was an alleged attack on a major subsea communications cable off the coast of Egypt in March 2013, but it grows out of a longstanding interest I have in the very real physical things that make the Internet possible. 

Fireplace Hot Dogs,” published in Gravel Magazine in 2018, is an old family recipe/essay - well no it’s not, really, although we may at one point in my childhood have cooked hot dogs in the fireplace. Doesn’t sound like my mother, the more I think about it.

“Travels with John Eliot,” a rumination on the Puritan minister John Eliot (no relation) and his mission to preach predestination and original sin to a congregation of Native Americans, was anthologized in Paige Leaves, a collection of essays on New England published by the Harvard Bookstore in 2012.

Season’s Greetings,” a darkish holiday piece, found a home in the Yuleblot 2018 issue of Corner Bar Magazine.


What I’m Working On

 I’m currently working on an essay about the issues involved in dying abroad. Some are purely practical - it can be difficult and expensive to transport mortal remains - and others are more inward. As Thomas Laqueur observes in his magisterial The Work of the Dead, most people agree that the corpse is not the person, but almost nobody acts as though they really believe it.

 



(C) Thomas R. Elliott 2013