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I’m excited to share that, this week, my fiction was again chosen to appear in a future edition of Boulevard! Amazingly, this will be my fourth story in Boulevard, which has really become a great home to my work these past few years. (The breakdown of each story is below if you’re interested.)
Here’s the opening of “River Ward, 1917″, which may be familiar to some of you:
It used to be a common thing for a young man to light off secretly in the night, searching for a life different from the one he toiled through at home. Jacob Bressler became an exile in this way. He left under starlight and led his horse over the brawny shoals of what would be his brother’s farm from then on. He didn’t bother with a saddle but merely slid a bridle over the nag’s muzzle and walked into the buggy paths of the river valley. In the dark he found the graveled highway that led to Omaha. There was no need to rush. His brother wouldn’t follow him.
What’s most pleasing about this pub is that “River Ward, 1917″ is excerpted from my novel, The Uninitiated, and marks the first time any of this writing will see print. It’s a landmark, of sorts, for me. Four years have past since I began work on the novel. From it’s early shape as The Open City to the early days of The Hyphenates of Jackson County to its current form as The Uninitiated, it has taken a lot of work to get here.
So it’s exciting to get some of the book out there. To have the piece run in Boulevard means even more. Boulevard was my first major publication, running “Welcome Home” in the spring 2008, really launching an encouraging string of success with the short form that saw the story reprinted in Best New American Voices and recognized in a Pushcart Prize anthology. I can only hope that “River Ward, 1917″ appearing in Boulevard in the fall of 2013 holds similar portent for my long form work. Regardless, cheers! This one feels good.
Special thanks goes out to Amber Mulholland, Travis Theiszen, Country Club Bill, Mary Helen Stefaniak and any others who helped this particular section through its early phases. And to the Lee Martin workshop at last June’s Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, who gave significant feedback and support in its latest phase. And to Richard Burgin and the editors at Boulevard too, of course. Thanks!
TW stories in Boulevard: “Welcome Home” in Spring 2008, “The Approximate End of the World” in Spring 2010, “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” in Spring 2012, “River Ward, 1917″ is forthcoming.
-I finished a draft of my novel, The Uninitiated, that I’m very happy with and sent it off to agents for consideration. (Read here about the finishing.) So far I’ve heard back from two of my top five choices that were queried, with one passing and another asking for full manuscripts on both my novel and short story collection! Who knows if anything will come of this–as the one who requested the fulls did so despite not technically considering new clients at the moment–is that a good or bad thing?–but I’ll take good news when I can get it. We’ll be heading off to New York for a few days in October, and it would be nice if I had a couple meetings/interviews to add to the itinerary by then. We’ll see.
-Not a lot of travel over the summer months. A trip to Niobrara for a few days, a weekend in Kansas City for my mom’s graduation from seminary school and Clara’s first Royals game, a week of commuting to Lincoln for the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. The fall should offer a bit more excitement. NYC, El Salvador. (!!!)
-I was tipped off recently that my story “Welcome Home” from Best New American Voices 2009 and Boulevard was taught at Southern Connecticut State University this fall. I know of three other colleges where the story has been taught–Penn, Drexel, and City College of San Francisco as part of a program for returning veterans–in addition to a high school in Illinois. This is so cool, and delights me to no end.
-My novel was also named a finalist for Tarcher/Penguin’s Tarcher Top Artist writing competition. I haven’t seen or heard anything about a winner being named, so I guess it still is a finalist.
-My book review of Shira Nayman’s A Mind of Winter can be found here, and of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich here, or Richard Burgin’s Shadow Traffic and Ron Rash’s The Cove here. My review of Yannick Murphy’s The Call is in the current issue of Pleiades.
-Sporting: As the final couple weeks of regular season major league baseball wind down, the KC Royals look to have a solid hold on third place in the AL Central division. They’re still pretty mediocre (owing to long stretches of horrible play in April and July) but at least haven’t been nearly as disappointing as the Indians and Twins have been for their fans. Or for Tigers’ fans, for that matter. That’s something, I guess. Life in the AL Central isn’t so much about winning games, it’s about being less miserable than your rivals.
Notre Dame is off to a rousing 3-0 start, their best on the gridiron since Ty Willingham’s 8-0 start in 2002. With a home game against Michigan tomorrow night, and with Stanford, @Oklahoma, and @USC still on the schedule, this team could still easily go into the tank. That being said, I’ll still predict an Irish victory over the Wolverines this weekend. I’d feel a little better if ND had a few mini-Ditkas on the team, but I’ll stick with my gut here. Notre Dame 87, Michigan 2.
Dispatch from The Uninitiated
“Fred was the one who found him face down in the creek, over on the other side of their claim. He drank horse cleaner. That’s how he did it. It must have hurt horribly. His eyes lost their pigment. Hair fell from his head. Fred came and got Jacob. He showed their father unmoving in the creek. They wrapped his body in a blanket and brought it to the barn. They didn’t dare bring it in the house. Neither said this, but they both understood. The body stayed in the barn until the Pfarrer came out with the J.P. to get it.”
The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. A readable and well-done book. Nice suspense. I really didn’t like the epilogue, although I pretty much never like epilogues. A good book, though, certainly.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This book had been hyped so much before I read it that it couldn’t quite live up to everything I’d heard about it. It was good, but I think This Side of Brightness was better.
A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman. A post-war mystery set mostly in Shanghai, Long Island, and London in the 1950s, A Mind of Winter offers plenty in the way of sex and drugs, mistaken identity, and ill-fated love affairs. These are characters who believe, explicitly or not, that the rules of society do not apply to them.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A compelling novella about the life of a rambler and the struggle to tame Idaho in the early parts of the last century.
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Loving this so far. It’s been a long while since I had time to tackle a broad, long novel like this.
The Dark Corner by Mark Powell. Not yet released, but I’m looking forward to it.
My contributor copy of the Spring 2012 issue of Boulevard arrived in the mail today!
Not only does the issue contain my short story “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine,” but there’s also fiction by Stephen Dixon, non-fiction by John Barth and Josip Novakovich, and poetry by Albert Goldbarth, Andrew Hudgins, and Floyd Skloot, among many others. (Did I mention John Barth?!) It’s a pretty stellar lineup. One I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of.
Boulevard puts out such a consistently great product. It’s hard to believe this is my third story published by them. “Welcome Home” appeared in the Spring 2008 issue–before it was anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009 and received special mention in the back of Pushcart Prize XXXIV. “The Approximate End of the World” was in the Spring 2010 edition, and will be noted as a “Distinguished” story in a forthcoming edition of New Stories from the Midwest.
Here’s an excerpt of “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”:
It isn’t until later, when the freezing wind cuts through her, that Amy Gutschow actually considers what she’s doing. This is late December after all and she’s riding north on the bed of a railcar after sunset. She nestles into her downy black coat, shoves her hands deep into its pockets, and waits for the train to pass through a town where she can jump into a grassy ditch and roll away from the rails. She’ll have to call her father, wherever she lands, and beg him to pick her up, the way she did in college. A tall man with a dopey mustache, her father would wear gray sweatshirts and blue jeans, if he came for her on a weekend, or a tweed jacket and corduroy pants if he had to take time off from work. He never asked why she needed him, but just came for her, humming almost happily as they returned home. “My baby girl,” he’d say, as if it were part of an old song. “What has happened to you now?”
The Millions posted today my review of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut short fiction collection, Death Is Not an Option. This is my fifth review for The Millions, which is a site I admire greatly. I’m always thrilled to see my name up on their front page, and am gratified that they publish my literary criticism.
Likewise, I’m honored to have the opportunity to review a great writer like Rivecca, who had a story in the same Best New American Voices anthology that I was in. The collection is her debut, and I’m sure the novel to follow will be one of the most anticipated books of the next decade. She’s really a spectacular talent, an author to keep an eye on for sure.
I learned something very exciting this week, as it looks like my story about an Iraq War veteran returning home from the desert–“Welcome Home”– was in fact used as part of the City College of San Francisco’s Veterans Educational Transition Services! If you look down at the “Homework” section at the link below, my story is listed, right next Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. How awesome is that?! And humbling. It makes me a little nervous and queasy.
You can find a description of the class here: Foundations of Military Experience: Stress, Challenge, and Success.
Throughout time and history all nations face the challenge of how to reintegrate their military service members into the civilain world. Most societies have processes to accomplish this. The Samurai were not allowed back into villages until they spent a month or so in mountain retreat spas. Ancient Greeks had plays where they enacted the challenges faced by returning warriors for the whole society to witness. Native Americans had sweat lodges and story telling rituals to pass on hard won wisdom.
I’m very excited and proud to have my fiction be a part of this class and program. Hopefully it works well for them, as the program looks to have great potential for improving the lives of our servicemen and their families. Awesome.
“Welcome Home” originally appeared in Boulevard and was anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009. So another round of thanks is in order for Richard Burgin (Boulevard editor), John Kulka and Natalie Danford (BNAV editors), and Mary Gaitskill (BNAV guest editor) for getting this story out into the world. Thanks!
[Please note, btw, that Best New American Voices 2009 is down to $4.09 at Amazon.com right now. So if you're interested in the story, that's over seventy percent off the cover price, it might be a good time to buy.]
Also, if you know of any vets who might be interested in participating in one of these classes, please pass along this link. It looks like a lot of the classes are free, they get college credit, and they can participate online if they don’t happen to live in the Bay Area. This is a pilot program, and I’m sure UCSF would appreciate all the help they can get in developing quality courses.
There’s still one more recap post about my Kimmel Harding Nelson residency on the back burner, but I wanted to get a weeks in review post in here too. And since I had two stories accepted for publication last week, this seemed like a good time to do that.
On Tuesday of last week I learned that MARY Magazine will be putting “Let Your Hair Hang Low” in their summer edition. This is a story I’ve been working on since the fall of 2002 and am very glad to find a home for it. Then, on Wednesday, I received an email from the Kenyon Review letting me know that “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” will be running in their Spring 2011 issue. This was another story I’ve had for a long time, starting it in the spring of 2005. It was originally written as a flash piece in the format of an actual step-by-step manual, basically what the title says it is, but I soon scrapped that idea and wrote it as more-or-less a traditional short story. I’m so excited for the opportunity of being in TKR. I’ve had a few big publications before—in Best New American Voices, twice in Boulevard—but adding the Kenyon Review to my credits feels like another breakthrough. It’s doing something with consistency, rather than isolated flourishes.
Needless to say, both of these stories have gone through countless drafts and rewrites, and have been in and out of the hands of editors for a long while. These stories have received ninety-seven rejections between the two of them, in their different forms. I’ve read that, on average, published stories receive around twenty-five rejections before being accepted by a journal. And even that number surprises other young and emerging writers when I bring it up. In that context, ninety-seven seems absurd, a number too embarrassing to admit to. But there it is.
At some point I probably should have given up on these pieces. But there was one thing that really kept me going—besides a stubborn belief that they are good stories and that I could make them work—and that was encouragement from editors. Of those ninety-seven rejections, twenty-nine were of the “nice” variety. The notes that said the piece was close or requested that I send more work their way. I’ve come to feel differently about these notes after reading for Prairie Schooner the past couple years. I used to disdain them a little bit, saw them a tease, I guess. It upset me that I could be close to publication without actually getting in, because there’s no consolation prize. But now I know how complimentary these encouragements really are. As a literary journal reader or editor, there are so many stories you enjoy reading over the course of a year, but only a small percentage of these can even be sent on for final consideration. And only a select few of those can be printed. So I’ve learned to appreciate the notes as the encouragement they are, and take heart to keep trying because of them.
Dispatch from “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”
“I didn’t tell anyone this, but if it had somehow been necessary that Brandon die at that particular time, then I wished that he would have killed himself. Then there would have been something to blame. Somehow this was a more acceptable cause and effect. Suicide was a seductive death full of self-hate that seemed more gratifying to an adolescent mind. I’d heard of this happening, at least, learned about it on TV. There would have been physical satisfaction in imagining this. The cool metal slipping between his lips. The buzzing, blooming sensation at the back of his cranium. Then the click. I could have understood that. It would have made sense for him to jump off a boat into the mouth of a waiting shark, but not asthma. How Brandon died was obscene, but it fit the surroundings. I had to remind myself that it was late November in Nebraska and the dirt would soon be frozen. My half-brother hadn’t wanted to die, after all, he hadn’t planned any of this.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Ploughshares for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Post Road and One Story for “The Day After This One”; Avery Anthology for The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Contrary, Eleven Eleven, and Spectrum for “You Know That I Loved You.” Also, “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” was a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminar Unified Fiction Contest, as judged by Fence.
31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan. An antebellum New York murder mystery. A lot of fun to read with interesting characters and a great setting. Highly recommended for those who like more commercial historical fiction. I may be writing a review on this but I haven’t decided for sure yet. There’s a very quaint handling of race that I gives me some pause.
The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn. I was reading this mostly as research for the novel I’m writing, and I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it too. It’s basically a compilation of early 1900s street pamphlets decrying the social evil of institutionalized prostitution, but it has some nice information on the Nebraska and Omaha of that era. It also looks like I can work Washburn in as a character in the novel, which is pretty fun too! There are a few years of her life when she’s in Omaha, after the book has been published, and they just so happen to be unaccounted for in the historical record—which is really a great gift to a writer.
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. I was going to write a fancy review of this book that talked about the perils of having a narrative structure that imitates the mental disorder of its main character, but decided against it. For one, this book has been reviewed a bunch of times already, and secondly, most of those review were negative too. No need to pile on at this point. Ferris is still a talented writer and hopefully his next book will be great.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.
My short story “Welcome Back” (also published as “Welcome Home”) was in the Special Mention section of the Pushcart Prize XXXIV anthology! The section is for “important works” that were not reprinted in the book. I didn’t even know it had been nominated, so this was very surprising.
This story was first published in Boulevard as the winner of their Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers and was later anthologized in Best New American Voices.
Pretty cool stuff!
On a somewhat related note, I read over the weekend that the Best New American Voices anthology will be going on hiatus following the current 2010 edition, since Harcourt isn’t interested in continuing. This is really too bad, as this is one of the best year-end collections out there and had turned into a major way for young fiction talent to break into the industry. Especially for writers who didn’t go to Iowa or Columbia or Hunter, BNAV was perhaps the best way to get the attention of agents and editors. Series editor John Kulka is confident that another publisher will pick up the anothology, although it will take a few years to get going again. Best of luck to John and fellow editor Natalie Danford. Hopefully we’ll see it back on shelves again soon.
It’s been kind of a slow couple weeks. For reasons that will become obvious by the end of this entry, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing lately. I was able to finish up work on the first chapter of Part II, which was nice. There are a few spots that need some work before I even start revising, but I’ll probably just push forward into the second chapter before I worry about that. Was able to get some nice stuff down about the prostitution camps of Hell’s Half-Acre, the lowest of the red light districts in the early days of Omaha. It was kind of strange, but I recalled quite a bit of stuff from a history course on the Progressive Era I took in 2004 as an undergraduate. It always amazes me how much of that stuff sticks. No matter how much research I do, the writing usually seems to find its way back to some obscure anecdote I heard years ago—something that has been fermenting for a long time in the mustier parts of my subconsciousness, I suppose. I always did do well on the comprehension and retention sections of the CAT tests in elementary school, however, and it’s paying off now.
Nicole and I spent Labor Day weekend in Portland, which was palpably refreshing. About a half-dozen or so of our friends have moved out there in the past couple years, so we had ample company to enjoy the Oregon drizzle with. Old friend and rising visual artist Alexander Felton (who is apparently “ungooglable,” but you should try anyway) graciously showed us around his studio. We really enjoyed seeing some of his artwork and discussing it in terms of Baudrillard and in other PoMo ways. After two hours and a few Hamm’s, I only knocked over one of his plaster pieces, which isn’t too bad for a lumberjack like me. Felton was recently visited by some representatives of the Whitney who may be hanging his work next year, so send some kind thoughts his way.
One more quick thought on Portland. I’m not sure if any other authors do this, but I really enjoy seeing my published work in famous bookstores, so we absolutely had to stop by Powell’s in order for me to physically hold a copy of BNAV 2009. This is where it gets weird. As I stroll up to the shelf of fiction anthologies, I notice that another customer is browsing through the different volumes of BNAV and she just so happens to be holding a copy of 2009! I’m very excited, of course, and, as she turns to the Nam Le story, it occurs to me that maybe I should give her a little sales pitch. Maybe talk the book up a little. Maybe even offer to sign my contribution if she’s interested. But I didn’t say anything to her—I felt like enough of a stalker glimpsing my name over her shoulder—and she put the book back on the shelf. Should I have gone for the hard sell? Should I have risked embarrassment and just pulled out my pen and started signing? In hindsight, I should have gone for it. Just claim to be Mehdi Okasi and sign the book.
Dispatch from The Open City
“The heat intensified as they made their way in among the beduin camp. Timber piles had been driven into the mud and live copper wires strung between the poles held small illuminated bulbs. There were long rows of canvass tents, one after another, each with a woman reclining on her cot behind the door flaps. Some of the tents had crudely printed flyers pinned to their front, advertising some exotic fantasy or another. There were a multitude of variations—Mother Russia, the Queen of Siam, the Schoolteacher, Marie Antoinette, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Nun—but inside their tents the women all looked the same to Jacob. This wasn’t a high-class brothel where men who could afford a woman of different skin color or accent, or a famous traveling “lady barber” like the real Calamity Jane. These were desperate women, more than likely local, shipped in from the provinces to occupy a fetid stall in Hell’s Half-Acre before being shuffled off to a similar fate in Kansas City or Minneapolis. The camp had been constructed to be temporary—a premium placed on mobility—but Jacob had the sense that it had been established here for a long time. The only thing that changed was the women.”
Personal Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Low Rent for “You Know That I Loved You,” Queen’s Quarterly for “Let Your Hair Hang Low,” and Fiction Circus for “Lycaon.” A lot of near-love this week.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. Just about finished. I don’t want to say too much right now, as this post is getting pretty long, but this truly is an amazing book. Maybe not my favorite DeLillo work, even—I think Underworld is a more significant work and just as well written—but one of my top five overall. Word for word, DeLillo pens the best sentences going. It’s such a joy.
Exiles by Ron Hansen.
Link of the Week
(downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The theme this year is “The Sordid Arts of the Cheap Paperback.” Events are held from September 17-19 and include panels on “The Comforts of Crime in Scary Times,” “The Writer’s Life in the New Economy,” and “Vampires Love Zombies: the Art and Language of Horror,” among others. There will be poetry written then read about trashy paperback art at the Joslyn, a Ted Kooser book launch, and a literary happy hour to cap the events. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area this weekend.
Electric Literature. These guys have gotten a ton of press after their debut issue and much of it is deserved. They offer three ways to enjoy their product (varieties of digital and paper) and are doing some exciting things in terms of digital media and promotion. They also pay contributors $1000 a story, which is nice. It will be interesting to see if they can make this model work, but I say take your shot now, this one is a fast mover.
Ron Raikes: In Memoriam
On the way back from Portland we learned that Ron Raikes had been killed in a farming accident. Raikes was mostly known for his work restructuring the Nebraska education system as a State Senator and by consolidating small rural schools and in creating the Douglas-Sarpy Learning Community he has affected most people in the state. As a politician unafraid of controversy, the name Raikes ignites strong emotions in many people. (I believe Stephen Colbert even referred to him as “the Rosa Parks of resegregation” at one point, although the new funding model he and Ernie Chambers created lumped together funding sources from both inner city and suburban school districts in the Omaha metro—something that still seems impossible.)
All of this aside, Raikes also happened to be the father of one of my closest friends. It’s been a tough week coming to terms with the loss and doing all that we were able to for the family. The Raikes family has represented something special to me in the decade or so that I’ve known them, because they are such a phenomenal collection of hard workers. Each of them intelligent, talented, and driven to succeed, yet these attributes were rarely tainted by false ambition or pretension. There’s a certain intensity in the way they go about their business that was striking to me. It seemed exceptional in a place like Nebraska where almost everyone strives to land somewhere in the middle—an honest and systemic lack of ambition that often leads to the glorification of mediocrity. It was important to be around people like my friend Justin Raikes and his family. These people who have helped me strive for bigger things. Their example has opened my mind to so many new possibilities and ideas—and for this I’m thankful.
You will be missed, Ron Raikes.
Conor Oberst was wrong about you. You did good.
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.