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    On Mosaic Novels
    J M McDermott, May 2011

    1: Presumption

    On Mosaic Novels illustration by Michael William Kaluta
    illustration by M. W. Kaluta

    I am going to make a huge presumptive leap. I'm going to propose that there exists such a thing as a Mosaic Novel, as I will define it contrary and in addition to any definitions that may already exist from any number of critics. In this imaginary category, individual pieces of story, potentially disjointed from other pieces of story, are arranged into the shape of a narrative. This whole shape, comprised of and beyond the individual pieces, reveals more than the sum of the parts of each of its fictional segments or sections. In fact, placing the pieces into this shape invites interconnectivity that allows the imagination to fill in the blank spaces.

    I'm not the first critic to propose the category of the mosaic text. In speculative fiction, the "fix-up" novel has been an important form for much of the genre's history, dating back to such prominent early classics as Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles in 1950, and the novels of Van Vogt. In general and "literary" fiction, European and South American writers have long embraced a kind of "plotless" novel, often described as either influenced by or representative of pre-Hispanic mosaic art forms, anti-novels, and other avant garde things (Natalla 159).

    Central and South American literature is known for its avant garde and difficult nature. Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar has multiple endings. In his novel In Praise of the Stepmother, Mario Vargas Llosa includes different fantasies of lust inspired by classical paintings, which are included in the text as illustrations. On the international stage of fiction, South American writers are famous for the ways in which their work pushes the boundaries of conventional form and reality. In this literary tradition, plenty of mosaic texts exist, calling upon different smaller pieces of fiction and fictional forms to create a larger reality. Alejo Carpentier's In the Kingdom of this World is a novel with distinct narrative sections for each Haitian regime, connected only by narrator and setting.

    In North American literature, examples of the fix-up run rampant even if they are not always categorized as "Mosaic Novels." (Think of novels like The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Divisadero, even works that are not necessarily novels, like Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson's integrated collection, Winesburg, Ohio.) The form is prominent in world literatures, but rarely connected or studied as a whole.

    When I create this definition, I do not intend it to be strictly categorical or binary. A text does not have to be either a mosaic novel, or not one. Frame tales, for instance, are often inextricably linked to the very reasons a mosaic text is successful, with individual chunks of fiction loosely connected by the concretions of a narrative frame. A text can have many elements of a mosaic, and also have more than one label placed upon it due to the elements of other forms and traditions present in the text. Martian Chronicles can be called science fiction, a fix-up, a mosaic, an integrated collection, and a classic of literary fiction, all at once, and more. Edgar Lee Masters' classic Spoon River Anthology is a poetry collection. It is also a mosaic novel, since the larger narrative arc of the rural community facing both societal and personal difficulties has the sweep and flow of a novel.


    2: Except That Labels Break Books

    Still, any category imposed upon a text, like "poetry anthology" or "mosaic novel" or even merely "novel," diminishes the text itself. The characters in Edgar Lee Masters' town of Spoon River narrating their lost lives do not require a categorical form to be understood or enjoyed. In fact, I would argue that definitions of forms are inherently damaging to a text.

    Take, for instance, the novel Man on the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem. This book could easily fall under the rubric of memoir, as the two authors share the story of their life with their adopted children, during which time one of their adopted children commits suicide. The book could qualify as horror, because of the imaginary man on the ceiling who haunts the household, embodies their fears, and swallows the lost child whole. To call this text "memoir" diminishes the power of the mythic language of the man on the ceiling by reducing him to mere metaphor. By calling this text "speculative fiction," "horror," "magical realism," or any other label suggesting fictionalization in the text, the power of the truthful narrative of the authors' very real lives reduces their truth to mere invention. Each of these labels diminishes the text, limiting it to the elements that live up to the reader's preconceived notions of that label. Even the term "Mosaic Novel" suggests that the mosaic elements are the elements upon which one must focus to understand that text.

    Fortunately, the term "Mosaic Novel" is not meant to be useful for categorizing a text. The form transcends bookstore genres, with examples that already run the gamut from classics of realistic literature, to poetry and science fiction. In fact, mosaic texts often include multi-genre elements, like the graphic novel elements of City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer. In this, the form moves naturally towards a term that may sound familiar: Interstitiality. Part of power of the mosaic texts comes from the way they blur and the blend of forms and expectations. By merging disparate elements, mosaic texts are inherently interstitial. Even fix-up novels that play the form as straight as possible, like Accelerando by Charles Stross, combine short fiction and long narrative fiction. Mosaic novels cannot help but stand between boundaries of expected narrative norms. If anything, "Mosaic Novel" is a way of talking about a subsection of interstitial texts with multi-genre elements.

    The term is not exclusive to other genres or other terms, constructed as it is upon the bones of other forms. There is no bookstore genre in which mosaic novels are more prominent than others. There is also no genre reason to make a book either a mosaic text or not a mosaic text. The term can be used to describe small elements in a larger piece, or to describe large elements of a text that is also something else. The thing about an "interstitial" term is that announcing a term as such, by definition, is also acknowledging the imperfection of labels. The usefulness of the term to the reader and the writer is not in the separation of texts into separate camps, but in the understanding of what makes a text tick.


    3: The Four Basic Elements of Fiction and the Breaching of Them

    The four fundamental building blocks of fiction are setting, character, plot, and theme, in any order you like. This list is a bit reductive. Consider, however, how a mosaic could be constructed. In the mosaic novel, at least one of these four elements, potentially three, will be broken between the different fictive "chunks," while the connection of the text into a novel occurs through the shared element that is not breached. Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje, constructs an elaborate fiction by describing various individuals' lives broken apart by sudden, unspeakable acts of violence. In this, setting diverges, characters' narratives diverge from each other, and the plot fragments across the tapestry of shattered lives all over history and setting. In Divisadero, theme holds everything together, whether the subject under consideration is a nineteenth century French intellectual or a card cheat in modern day Nevada. Ray Bradbury's classic, The Martian Chronicles, maintains a consistent setting on Mars and a consistent theme of man's destructive nature to himself and others. Yet the characters and plots are not necessarily connected to anything else in the book.

    Often texts called "Mosaic Novels" include whole sections of single books written by different authors. The Wild Cards series, written by George R.R. Martin with many of his friends and colleagues, is an excellent example of a text that shares a setting, but breaks out into different themes as different super-heroes and protagonists deal with their own personal challenges under the guidance of completely different authors. Each individual author brings their own themes, villains, and heroes to the shared world. This form of the mosaic is perhaps the best example of a situation where theme is disconnected between otherwise interconnected fictions. Plot, character, setting, and theme are the building blocks upon which a mosaic text can thrive, connecting one or some of the four elements while disconnecting one or some other(s).


    4: Defined Loosely, Intentionally

    As this definition of "Mosaic Novel" is readily applicable to forms beyond the novel or the current definition of a "fix-up," the loose category will attract inclusion of books that aren't explicitly intended to be "Mosaic Novels," or even mosaic-like. This is to the credit of the phrase. With a simple definition, works can be allowed to be more than one thing, categorically. Discussion is enhanced by allowing a wide understanding of the form to include elements of a mosaic without relying on the mosaic novel for absolute intended understanding.

    An integrated short story collection, where the stories are placed in a carefully-chosen timeline of the discovery, career, and death of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, for example, would feel like a novel to a reader, though the only element that connects across the various cases would be the recurring characters like Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade. In this case, a "feeling" of a novel occurs because the elements of story that transcend the fractured arc of the stories naturally arises out of the shared elements of fiction. In this case, the relationship between Holmes and Moriarty becomes a narrative arc like that of a traditional novel despite the fact that this is not a traditional novel at all. Although he appears in few of the stories, Moriarty is the villain in the wings, like the murderer in the last chapter of a mystery novel waiting to be discovered. He is the character that represents the ultimate force of evil in the world of the stories, and the puzzle that, once solved, annihilates all puzzles, Holmes' underworld equivalent. There is a real narrative arc to the relationship between Holmes and Moriarty, in which Holmes' life rises like a flood to the waterfall where he dies defeating the perfectly rational adversary he always deserved and annihilating him in that discovery.

    Though narrative arcs are not essential elements of a mosaic text, a narrative trajectory is often present, where the fictions seem to be moving forward towards or away from something in time or theme. Accelerando, by Charles Stross, moves humanity from the day after tomorrow onto a trajectory out into a post-human, post-singular state. Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen enters the grotesque, intoxicating city of Ambergris and creates a trajectory of two cultures, one aboveground and one below, careening towards a point of crisis. Drown, by Junot Daz, is an integrated collection of short stories that traps characters along their trajectory between the El Salvadorian culture and the American one, striving for integration and belonging despite a cultural status that ultimately denies such a state.

    This trajectory does not necessarily have to be a narrative arc, but often the collected stories carry a sense that all the fictions are rising to a head. Failing that, the lack of such a convergence is tied to a thematic element of the mosaic text. In another related example, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, a loose frame of narration holds together different stories about the people who die on the bridge when it falls. In this case, the individual narratives of the book are connected by setting and theme, and not by any meaningful crossover between sections. Still, because it illuminates a larger theme or idea, and maintains a connection between the different sections through the consistent setting of the frame narrative, the book maintains a sense of a "novel", and it, at least, qualifies as having elements of the mosaic. The stories all move towards a common point: the bridge that falls and kills the characters. Even the frame narrative follows the trajectory of the theme, that people die when it is their time.

    A narrative trajectory is not necessarily always present, but when no connected trajectory of narrative momentum is present in a mosaic text, it is generally part of the themes of the text. Drown, by Junot Diaz, an integrated collection of short stories, traps characters in the cultural state between America and El Salvador. The narrative function of the stories denies the need for a narrative trajectory, for instance, as stagnation is the major theme. Lost in the Funhouse, by John Barth, abruptly stops the trajectory of the main narrative line in the early stories when Ambrose gets lost in the titular funhouse halfway through the book. In these cases, the absence of a trajectory is part of the function of the text, and therefore embraced by the form.


    5: Like Impressionist Paintings

    The human mind searches for signs and symbols in loosely connected bits. Even now, this paragraph, disjointed from the prior section, will be wrestled with by the reader's imagination until he finds some connection between the disjointed bits.

    Humans seek patterns in the natural world as a way of understanding, and thriving in a chaotic space. We gaze upon Impressionist paintings and step back from the canvas until a coherent image emerges from the quick strokes and suggestions of color splashes. We see a higher organization in the distant, accidental arrangement of stars and name the constellations Orion or Scorpio or Andromeda. Human minds have a natural inclination towards shape and pattern. Even language itself, a series of loosely connected sounds, is a kind of mosaic. Writers arrange words representing different ideas with blank spaces between them on pages or speak them into the air, forming individual tiles of thought that readers or listeners fill in with meaning, definitions of words, and the understood connections between the words. We are creatures of pattern recognition and subtext.

    When a text approaches the mind of the reader with some disjointed elements, the reader's human mind projects into the spaces between elements to grasp what the connection might be, searching for meaning, even if such a connection is not obvious. In that moment, interpretation emerges as an important element of the experience of the reader. By fragmenting a text, the writer asks for the level of engagement with the reader that is open to the interpretation of text, discussion, and different opinions based on personal experience and biases.

    Complexity is served by the mosaic text. Not everyone likes that, and not everyone should. Still, complexity is native to the form, and most examples of mosaic text found in the world will be work that aspires to be meaningful, deep works of literature.


    5: China Mountain Ambergris

    China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh, in many ways pretends to be just a traditional novel. The protagonist, Rafael/Zhang, has a life trajectory that begins in the cracks of an oppressive communist society and ends integrated into the society around him. His story ends when he finally abandons the cracks of society to be an Organic Engineer in the city he loves and a lifestyle he refuses to be ashamed about. An inciting incident in the first section of the book, a marriage proposal he must reject, forces Rafael/Zhang out of his safe, comfortable life hidden in plain sight as a closeted homosexual and underachiever in communist New York. This series of events takes him across continents, and even connects him intellectually to a colony on Mars.

    Interspersed along the straightforward trajectory of Rafael/Zhang's life, which would appear to be a novel in and of itself, are various stories of other lives from the periphery of the main narrative thread. These characters have moments where they reach up from their own cracks to touch Rafael/Zhang's life briefly. By expanding away from just Rafael into a larger tapestry of POV characters, the novel takes on a larger scope, creating a feeling of cultural space much like the large cast of characters in nineteenth-century serial novels.

    Even a relatively short novel like China Mountain Zhang feels wider and grander and more "epic" for breaking the plot and characters apart around this larger setting of the alternate historical future of Red America, China, and Mars. The theme of lives lived in the cracks of society becomes larger than just one man and one life, and speaks to the connections between all lives lived in the cracks of powerful societies. The mosaic nature of this novel, I believe, deeply enhances the sense of the setting, and the larger themes of the novel. The complexity created by the mosaic form brought more to this book, and the different perspectives of both society and the character of Rafael/Zhang, than a straightforward, single point-of-view narrative could muster alone.

    Mosaic texts are by their very construction complex entities. The relatively simple plot lines of the individual stories in City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer take on a different tone and color when arranged in juxtaposition with one another. The first appearance of a Greycap (the only time one actually has a presence as a main character in a story until the third Amergris novel, Finch) occurs early in City of Saints and Madmen. In the current edition of the mosaic novel, the first story is a novella called "Dradin in Love". Though the novella was published independently in the first early publications of the Ambergris narratives, the novella found a place inside the mosaic as the first, important introduction to the fantasy city in subsequent editions. In "Dradin in Love," the Greycap Dvorzak's whimsical and maudlin first impression of the race of Greycaps turns to menace when he seems to be part of nefarious forces in the city that work to drive Dradin insane. Dradin, potentially infected with mushroom spores, or potentially a victim of a theological mental illness, has fallen in love with a mannequin on the second story of a shop window. In this first impression, the larger themes of colonialism and madness will be strongly enhanced by the early appearance of one specific interaction with a Greycap. In other stories, Greycaps do not make a direct appearance in quite the same way. The individual Greycaps have no names as characters, and seem to wander the streets gathering up trash and behaving strangely compared to the settlers of the city.

    As the reader continues exploring the diverse narratives, and multi-genre writings about Ambergris, she learns that the Greycaps of history were slaughtered by the conquering colonists that founded the city long ago. The "Silence," when much of the city's early population disappears underground, presumably abducted by the Greycaps, follows an early conquest of the Greycaps living above ground. This fiction in the history of the city is mirrored in the reader's experience through Dvorzak, who is at first comical, then menacing. When we first encounter the Greycaps, they are presented as pathetic creatures who are conquered with comic ease, then as horrifically alien when the whole city of settlers disappears underground seemingly by the Greycaps, but without clear motive or purpose. Even after their surreal victory, the Greycaps continue to live their lives parallel to the settlers above their heads, seemingly oblivious of their conquerors on a day-to-day level, gathering trash on the street and acting as if they can't even see or speak with their conquerors.

    Though the narrative sections that include these two instances of Greycaps are separated by wide swathes of world time and narrative timeline, a depth emerges out of the gaps between what is clearly seen and known. In the gaps of knowledge, the reader is expected to fill in the world with their own interpretations of the connections. What pieces are given suggest an unease about the unknown, "Other" cultures of the world, where other Colonial cities built upon the backs of an indigenous population, creating a level of complexity that is wide and deep. In a sense, by leaving the Greycaps completely unknown, a mystery to be solved alongside the strange habits of the scientists and religions of Ambergris, the reader is asked to make sense of the different actions and activities that have no clear, explicit connection in the text, filling in the blank spaces with interpretation.

    In City of Saints and Madmen, VanderMeer invites readers to draw parallels between the history of Ambergris and the colonial history of the western world. In the gaps of Ambergris' narrative, between the various narrative tiles of the mosaic, the story's depths occur in the reader's mind, where a city is created, thrives, declines, and faces imminent destruction, because this is what we, as readers, know about the colonial cities of the world. The mosaic text of City of Saints and Madmen invites readers to fill in the blanks between what the author writes and what the reader knows, adding a depth of subtlety and interpretation that would otherwise be impossible. VanderMeer does not need to explain to us how colonialism works. By allowing us to fill in these gaps, the world we see is deepened in the text, and we see the connection to the world around us. Mosaic texts like The City of Saints and Madmen are not story delivery systems that flow from the book towards the reader. They are conversations between the text on the page and the reader who interprets that text.


    6: We Are All Reading and Writing the Center of Our Genre

    Thinking of a text that occurs in between the tiles isn't hard for fiction that aspires to Literature with a capital 'L'. Subtext and complexity are celebrated elements of prose that aspires to greatness. This is not, generally, what readers think of when considering works of science fiction and fantasy. In bookstores, books are separated into sections designed to guide readers to the books they will enjoy most. Traditionally speaking, Science Fiction and Fantasy is still often viewed as a section that is geared to readers uninterested in narrative depth rather than a place to find literature crafted on par with the great works of the Western Canon. This, of course, is a binary understanding by booksellers, and therefore a false one. As stated earlier, genre categories are not categorical to the reader or the writer, merely useful in locating certain traditions in texts that speak to similar ideas. To the book seller, who must place a book where people who want to buy this and not buy that can find it, the genre categories are strict and absolute. Writers and readers are well-served to ignore the categories imposed from outside of the text.

    A book is comprised of the text and only the text. The rest of the book – the cover art and marketing materials and genre category label and even critical writing about the text – are not actually part of what makes the book what it fundamentally "is." These other things are mutable and change through editions over time and even through publishing companies. Many strictly science fiction and fantasy authors, like Philip K. Dick and J.R.R. Tolkien, have joined the literary fiction canon, though they were not necessarily embraced as literary during their lifetimes. The words on the page, alone and by themselves, are the constant across time and across the rise and fall of genre categories.

    In this sense, every book is a genre unto itself. Every book is capable of being the definitive text of a new genre that may or may not exist yet, as critical work and readership iterates over time.

    Thus, the Mosaic Novel is a term, and a category, for now. If it is useful to you, use it. If not? Then, do not.


    7: The Center of the Mosaic Novel

    Mosaic texts, each and every one, from the classic sci-fi fix-up novel to the expansive, experimental work of Jeff VanderMeer and John Barth, could all arguably be considered the center of this new category. On a bell-curve of texts, any text with a separation of plot, character, setting, and/or theme could be considered the apex of the curve. Also, every potential mosaic text can be considered the cutting edge of the form, where few examples exist of this idealized vision of form.

    For now, and for right now, I propose a center of the form around works like Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or McHugh's China Mountain Zhang.

    The two books I consider the "edgiest" of the form, for now, are City of Saints and Madmen and Lost in the Funhouse. In the former, graphic novels and scientific articles and bibliographies and interviews integrate into the mosaic as a multi-genre mosaic whole. In Lost in the Funhouse, what begins as a coming-of-age story about a young storyteller named Ambrose becomes something else entirely when that character's youth is cut short. Ambrose loses himself, literally, in a funhouse mirror maze. From that point onward, the various short stories abandon reality for Greek mythology in the mad, mysterious metafictions of the young artist wasting away in the funhouse, hallucinating and alone. In Barth's text, a short story collection and a novel are wedged together abruptly and firmly with the seams showing around an artistic theme: man's pursuit of the sublime. I perceive this as an experimental, edge-y text because the seams are so apparent.

    The prosaic smoothness encountered in Bradbury's work, with a clear timeline and obviously consistent setting, feels like the center of the Mosaic Novel form, to me, at this moment in time. As well, in something like China Mountain Zhang, the various POV characters have their asides along the clear narrative thread of Rafael/Zhang, and appear along a smooth, straightforward timeline of events built around Rafael/Zhang's life. The abrupt setting shifts in Barth's mosaic text, set in both twentieth-century America and meta-fictional ancient Greece, ask readers to fill in wide gaps of time and space with their own imaginations, searching for connections between the disparate fictions. The smooth transitions and clear narrative threads of Bradbury and McHugh lull the reader into something that feels very much like a traditional novel, without deep intellectual exercises to create one out of the text, as written.


    8: The Long, Wide, Fuzzy Boundary Lines

    Experimentation, of course, is always encouraged. Writers pushing boundaries construct books around the simple idea that some element must be breached, be it plot, characters, setting, or theme. Different processes produce different results. The same process that creates the smoothly polished stones of something like China Mountain Zhang is just as difficult, in its way, as producing a rough and rugged work on the edge of experimental forms. It's never a question of which is easier or more difficult as a road to the quality of the piece. These different points on an imaginary bell-curve should not be perceived as a value judgment about quality, merely as the results of different processes and goals.

    Even in the smooth mosaics, where the frame tales and fix-ups are carefully constructed to be a single narrative arc, the depth of the text comes from the space between the fictional pieces. The readers are invited to fill in this space with their own sense of the sublime and mysterious nature of humanity. What has Rafael/Zhang been doing between one appearance and another? What has the world been doing all this time, though it is barely mentioned in the book itself? McHugh's text provides clues without answers, and encourages interpretation, participation and disagreement.

    This, then, is the strength of a successful mosaic text: the greater the fragmentation in the selected fictional elements that the author chooses to fracture, the deeper the mind of the reader must reach to pull together the whole canvas. In the gaps and cracks along the shared narrative elements, a deep structure emerges from the missing places. Unsuccessful mosaic texts lose readers in between these spaces. Even successful mosaic texts likely lose readers along the way, asking much of them, intellectually – perhaps more than a reader or critic is willing to give.

    There is a notion, though it is hard to find actual, definitive, explicit proof of this notion, that readers do not like mosaic texts. I suspect that the truth of the matter is that mosaic texts ask a lot of readers, and if a reader is unwilling to reach over those gaps in the narrative elements, or does not have the desire to seek out the suggestions presented for the absences of the text, then they will not enjoy the text. Readers who do cross those gaps deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. If a writer asks reader to work hard at a text, he must reward the reader for that effort. For instance, when Jeff VanderMeer encoded a story into City of Saints and Madmen to be decoded by hand, by the reader, by locating individual words, looking them up one-at-a-time in the book, that story that emerges from the code had better be worth all that effort! If a reader encounters a mosaic text that is not engaged with material arguably worthy of the effort, that individual will be within their rights to dismiss the text as inferior. When a reader dismisses a book as mere "fix-up", what they're actually saying is that they dismiss it as a failed fix-up.

    Still, for meaningful concepts, and important ideas, like western colonial relationship with native cultures (VanderMeer), or the artistic pursuit of the sublime (Barth), or the fragmented identity of an immigrant (Daz), or living life in the cracks of an oppressive regime (McHugh), or countless other deeply felt, and meaningful human concerns, the mosaic is an ideal form.

    The human mind likes to decipher patterns and systems in the world, biologically speaking. It is part of our survival instinct to search for patterns and connections where there may be none. Mosaic texts speak to that aspect of human intellectual instinct, which is, perhaps, the purpose of reading to begin with: Encountering meaning in the meaningless juxtaposition of the nouns and verbs of the world, to speak to and about higher patterns and systems and concepts of the human experience. As such, elements of the mosaic novel are recommended to all writers of all forms, and mosaic novels are to be considered an aspirational form, on a trajectory towards deeply felt, meaningful fictions that aspire to greatness.

    Work Cited

    Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio.

    Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse.

    Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles.

    Daz, Junot. Drown.

    Masters, Edgar Lee. The Spoon River Anthology.

    Martin, George R.R., and Various Authors. Wild Cards Series.

    McHugh, Maureen. China Mountain Zhang.

    Natalla, Arthur A. Latin American Popular Culture.

    Ondaatje, Michael. Divisadero.

    Stross, Charles. Accelerando.

    Tem, Steve Rasnic and Melanie. Man on the Ceiling.

    VanderMeer, Jeff. City of Saints and Madmen.

    Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

    About the Author

    J M McDermott is the author of five novels, including the critically-acclaimed Last Dragon, which was #6 on Amazon.com's Year's Best SF/F of 2008, shortlisted for a Crawford Prize and on Locus Magazine's Recommended Reading List for Debuts. His second novel, Never Knew Another, Book 1 of the Dogsland Trilogy, just came out from Nightshade Books. Maze, an interstitial mosaic novel, will be out soon from Apex Books. He is finalizing an MFA from the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast Program. He lives and works north of Atlanta.

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