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My short story “The Approximate End of the World” has been selected by Boulevard for publication in their Twenty-Fifth Anniversary issue! The issue is due out in March 2010.
Big thanks to editor Richard Burgin for being such a great advocate of my work. This will be my second story in Boulevard. “Welcome Home” first appeared there before being anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009.
I’ve moved out of analysis mode and back into the grunt work of writing new material again, starting fresh for Part II. So out go the contemplation of statistics and in come character sketches, source material, and all sorts of different frustration. It’s always such a shock to the system to go from finishing up a draft to working from the void again. That being said, I feel pretty good about the first week of it. Pumped out around twenty-five pages of rough draft and have had a lot of ideas about where I’m heading, structure, aesthetic. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what this section should look and sound like, and am getting there as far as plot is concerned. When I began writing Part I of the novel, I had a detailed outline and numerous files of sketches and half-scenes that I used for kindling. A lot of the work was in arranging, filling out scenes, and making it work for the novel, since much of the material were “darlings” cut out of other stories. It seemed like a good plan, but there was a major problem. It didn’t really work. Five drafts and a complete rewrite later, Part I is almost completely different from what I’d planned it being. It’s taken a lot of flexibility and hard work to get it into decent shape, not to mention infinite patience and precise feedback from my agent. (Thanks, Nicole, wherever you are.) Being that I didn’t want to fall into the same quagmire again, I decided to take a different tact to writing the rest of the novel—working much more loosely with plot in a way that allows the story and character to emerge more organically. The drawback of this approach is that it requires a lot of feeling blind. We’ll see how it goes, but I like where I’m headed. It has been particularly interesting this time around in that Part II is the first of three historical sections of the novel, starting out in the summer of 1918. This is the year the US actually had soldiers fighting in World War I and is the year before the Red Summer that plays so prominently later in the book. Plus, the Cypriot character is coming up soon, which is exciting. Wish me luck! (I plan to write more next week on how I’m approaching the Historical Novel as form, dealing specifically how I plan to focus on storytelling while keeping the end product as historically real as possible.)
Dispatch from The Open City
“In the seizing moment of their struggle Jacob saw himself as this man must have saw him, a brief flashing image of a country boy in a worn out suit, arms grown too long for the jacket, the necktie flipped sideways because it hadn’t been tied correctly. Jacob’s face was smooth and dirty, his hair cut shabbily, bangs grown too long over his forehead, his lips and ears turning crimson. But it was his own hands that Jacob noticed most of all, his whopping large, able hands. With one mitt he held the man steady, with the other he still clutched the bridle, his grip firm despite the man’s and the horse’s pulling. It occurred to Jacob that he could whip this man, this drunkard who was trying to hustle him. Jacob was strong, a head taller than most men, blessed with the kind of large country-strong hands that had made him a natural at handling a pick axe or the arms of a plow. It wouldn’t have taken much to beat this man into submission, to separate him from the bridle and toss him towards a sewer drain. At home, the mere threat of Jacob’s violence was enough to scare off the other boys. This man seemed somehow oblivious to his disadvantage. It was as if he was daring Jacob to knock his lights out, as if it made no difference to him whether he was beaten or not.”
Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Ploughshares asked for more after rejecting “The Current State of the Universe.”
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. I’ve really been enjoying this one and am racing towards the finish. If only I still had six to eight hours of reading time a day, but gainful employment beckons each afternoon and evening. Franzen’s characters in this novel are compelling because they are so completely lost, teetering on the brink of losing the status that protects the middle-class from devolving into the sort of people who live below them, whoever that may be they’re not always sure. It sounds trite, but for anyone who (like Martin Probst) has fought to rise into the middle or beyond, these cautionary tales can be quite frightening.
For the past few weeks I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the shape of the first part of my novel, The Open City. It’s kind of amazing how productive this has been in revision, but worrying more about aesthetics, even how a table of contents would look, has helped quite a bit. I’ve gone to shorter chapters, cutting things up so that they might read faster. That has worked, but more than anything this has helped with plot. In the process of going to a more frequently divided narrative it somehow freed me to see what scenes belonged here in Part I, what scenes should be saved for later, and what parts should be cut outright. About thirty pages were cut in this way, which has transformed Part I into something much tighter and entertaining than before. What I did was make a few charts that illustrate different elements of how I was using the actual “on the page” space of the novel, allowing me to do a crude statistical analysis—things such as the length of each chapter, how many pages were devoted to each main character, how much space I was using for flashback, etc. Knowing these things then allowed me to see where I was over-compensating for a character, or where I was deficient, or where I was using up valuable space to introduce characters who really wouldn’t drive the narrative forward until later in the book. With this kind of knowledge, the necessary cuts were much easier to identify and execute. There’s really no end to how far an author could apply objective statistical analysis to their writing, but I wouldn’t really want to be the first to apply Sabermetrics to literature. Perhaps I’ve said too much already… Has anyone heard of other ways to use objective measures to analyze their writing? I’d be interested in reading about such things. Benjamin Percy’s article in the last Poets & Writers on “The Geometry of Dialogue” was along these lines, but not quite the same thing, as it was more of a way of thinking about writing than actually analyzing what was on the page.
Dispatch from The Open City
“As she raced the freeway loop towards downtown, Esther tried to push these negative thoughts out of her mind because, on a personal level, she hadn’t truly wanted to be out in the middle-of-nowhere investigating swine malfeasance in the first place. The mere act of returning to the city was energizing her. The rattling freeway speed, the natural selection of inner city traffic, the barking vibrations of city noise—these always agitated a lustful, urban dynamism inside of Esther that she was eager to indulge. So, nearing her exit, nervous energy swelled within her chest at the thought of being with Michael, her fiancé. She would soon be back in the city indulging in the quasi-glamorous social life of a successful young professional in her mid-twenties and couldn’t be happier about it. It was Friday and she planned to take the weekend off for a change.”
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. I don’t think my previous reservations about the collection (that it is a little too consistent in pacing and tone) were really alleviated in the final few stories, but I still think that this is a damn fine book. A few of the later stories are really quite dynamic and seem to play a little more fast and loose with structure than the earlier stories do. The title story and “Shadow on a Weary Land” are especially good. Overall, the collection has what I would call an ethos that really holds the stories together. It’s not so much an overriding theme, but a way of living that the stories all seem to endorse. To quote from “Shadow,” this is the truest example what I’m talking about: “I remind myself that, though I’ve almost paid off the mortgage, this house doesn’t really belong to me. I am no more than a squatter, only passing through.” There is a great sadness in these stories, not only over man’s insignificance or cruelty, but perhaps at the point where these two facets converge with the characters’ hard earned sense of self-awareness. The stories work best when this awareness is come to gradually and, more often than not, painfully.
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. This is Franzen’s first novel, published in the late-80s. As with his immaculate novel The Corrections, he has such a great touch with the domestic scene and, in a slightly frightening way, in describing how older men go about seducing teenage girls. I’m enjoying it so far, about a quarter of the way in. Franzen has a strong sense of contemporary culture and society, but it does seem to date his work quite a bit. This phenomena seems to be the longest-lasting legacy of the eighties, however, so maybe it isn’t all the author’s fault in this case.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. For real this time.
Wife Nicole and I went on the Gritty City tour this Sunday, a docent-guided trolley ride through downtown Omaha that highlights the dark side of our city’s history, focusing on the brothels, burlesques, and saloons that were commonplace here in the early 1900s. The idea here was that the tour, part of the Durham Museum’s education program, would add to the historical background for the novel I’m working on.
I was already familiar with much of the historical information the tour covered, but there were a few new things. Supposedly, the netting which to this day still covers the Douglas County Courthouse was put up in response to the Omaha Race Riots of 1919, when the windows were smashed out and the building eventually fire-bombed by a lynch mob demanding that Will Brown be released to them. Being that I’m at the courthouse on a daily basis for my reporting gig, I’d often wondered about the netting, so it was kind of cool to find out that bit of information. Especially as the lynching of Will Brown is the basis for a critical section of my novel The Open City. Synergy! To take this even further, when we first moved to Omaha four years ago, it was on a walk to the Old Market that I first noticed the netting and wondered what it was all about, because it is kind of weird. (My first thought actually was that the nets were to prevent people from throwing things at the courthouse, but that seemed kind of stupid at the time. Turns out I was standing very near the spot where the lynching had taken place. Now I know.
Speaking of the Brown lynching, I was a little surprised that this particular historical episode was included on the tour—not because it isn’t significant, but because there was definitely a whimsical tone to the trip. The lynching was treated with the upmost respect and solemnity, as it deserves, but it always strikes me as odd when people try to make history “fun” and “colorful.” Many of the anecdotes were funny in a way, but there’s something perverse about cracking jokes on mob hits and girls being forced into prostitution. I guess it would be harder to sell tickets to a tour that treated dark and depressing history as if it were dark and depressing history. So it goes.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Gritty City was in how few of Omaha’s landmarks have been preserved. Most of the time we were idling in one parking lot listening to a story about a place that is now another parking lot. Omaha’s immigrant and labor history is so rich, but it’s all been whitewashed over the past couple decades. Jobber’s Canyon was torn down when ConAgra wanted a new corporate campus; the old City Hall and Omaha Bee buildings were lost for the Woodman tower; the buildings of the old red light district and free hospital for the Freedom Center, the Holland Center, and the Courtyard by Marriott. And, of course, so much space is required for the parking needs of all these places that they bleed over onto even more land. I realize that Omaha would be a pretty sad place without such incarnations of progress, but it is sad that nothing more could have been done to preserve what the city was while transforming it into what it now is.
Anyway, I believe the tour will help me with The Open City. If nothing else, I picked up some valuable slang and lingo from the era. How else could I have come across such great terms and names as Hell’s Half-Acre, the Queen of the Tenderloin, Scandal Flats, and the Everlay Brothel. I’m pretty sure I misheard this last one, but I’m sticking with it!
Doing the final work on the rewrite of Part I. It’s taken since March to get to this point, but I feel much more comfortable with what I’m doing now. Having gone from 100-pages of a third-person POV focusing on one character to 115-pages of a first-person narrator (who is a minor character) writing through the POV of three other characters, it feels like a pretty big accomplishment just to make it back to this point. Still not quite where I need to be, probably, but I’m getting there. Expanding the POV and playing with the notion of a first-person narrator acting as an omniscient third-person narrator has been very freeing in terms of character development. It came about from two main catalysts, the first being my agent’s suggestion that I had been writing the novel as if it were a really long short story—meaning, among other things, that I was locked too strictly into the limited POV of one character, ignoring potential angles other characters could add to the story. Second, was the need to kind of energize the voice, giving the voice of the story an angle within itself by allowing the narrator to have a stake in things, biases, etc. Basically, taking advantage of the big canvas I’m working with. The work seems to be much better and more interesting too. I’m looking forward to starting on Part II soon!
Dispatch from The Open City
“The animal pushed its pink nose out the sleeve to sniff the air, its rat nose twitching as Michael watched with disgust from a few feet away. Michael rubbed the knot on the back of his head, he ran his fingers through his hair, then reached back, realizing that books too can be weapons, tapping the bindings of the volumes near him until he found a thick one.”
Short Story Work
Put the finishing touches on a draft of “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again” and submitted it to the Esquire Fiction Contest just before their deadline. They mandated the title, by the way. I kind of like how it ended up, but it was a little frustrating to have to send off this version. With the generous help of one of my readers (Travis) it became apparent that the story should be set in the main character’s office building rather than his apartment. I’ll have to do a rewrite before the year is over.
Dispatch from “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again”
“The girl didn’t run when she saw Andy walking towards her, but held to the door handle dumbly, kind of pinching her legs together, bending at the waist. She wore old tennis shoes, the laces gray and dingy, and had a skinned knee, a bloody spot turned black on her dark legs. Up close, Andy assured me later, there was a dovish quality to her eyes. The girl had orange irises that flashed desperation.”
Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Indiana Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.” McSweeney’s and One Story had previously sent very nice personal emails rejecting “The Current State of the Universe.” These near misses can often be misleading, but hopefully a big publication is on its way soon.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. After reading this novel, it makes me think that maybe 2666 was mostly finished after all. Bolano definitely has a propensity for ending narrative threads in an abrupt and ragged manner. Probably another “ambitious but failed novel,” but Bolano is just so pleasurable to read I didn’t really care. Great book!
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. About half-way through and really enjoying it, despite some reservations. In her Times review, Maria Russo notes that the collection is “remarkably consistent in pacing and tone,” which seems to be its biggest failing, in my eyes. Each story is great, but they all seem to hit the same notes and almost all are written from a first-person POV. Peelle is obviously adept at finding and inhabiting a character’s voice, which is a highly enjoyable aspect of her work, it’s just that when each story reads and feels the same, they kind of lose their power, I think. I’m hoping the second half of the collection offers a little more variety.
White Noise by Don DeLillo