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Things slowed down as summer officially began. Not a lot of news fit to print. (Besides the KC Royals making an honest to God playoff run, that is. That 4% chance of making the post-season they’ve been nursing the past month or so has brought me a not small amount of joy.) [EDIT: We also won 7th place in Dole's Taste of Spain sweepstakes, which includes a free Bag o' Salad. So the winning streak continues.] A lot of this was by design to savor a couple things that will be in short supply next summer–cash and family time.
Inkubate did select the winners of their Literary Blockbuster Challenge. Although part of the long-list of finalists my work was not selected as one of the cash winners. Apparently they are sharing my work with a group of participating agents and editors, so there’s that.
I also finished the rewrite of my novel and am now hard at work in the revision of the rewrites. All in all I’d declare the multiple POV experiment a success. A main thread emerged through the character of Karel, a nine year-old boy when the novel begins. I’ve never done much with child characters in my work before–with a notable exception coming when “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” was published in The Kenyon Review in 2011–and it’s turned out well.
An excerpt from The Uninitiated will appear as “River Ward, 1917″ in Boulevard soon, so keep an eye out for that.
Dispatch from The Uninitiated
“That night Karel turned on his lamp, just briefly, to take off his shoes and tuck them safely under the mattress. He was a bit drunk and didn’t feel like sleeping right away. At the same time he was too anxious of himself to join the boys at the loud end, so he sat for a while to think about his predicament. He wished that the feeling he created on the baseball diamond when he played ball followed with him once he made it home, but this couldn’t be so. There was too much weight in familiar places. The stuff about his mom he didn’t want to believe. What happened with Braun, the demise of SOSA; and not long after Jacob being ran out of town in disgrace, a thug, a thief, good riddance. And Anna. Karel could do nothing to change what had happened to Anna, and what would.
Instead he was in this dorming house, sitting on the quiet end with his lamp on. He annoyed those around him but they could roll over and grumble, for all he cared. They could order him to douse his lamp. He’d tell them to fuck off. Karel was sitting in the lamplight. That’s all. Something he never did. He’d never wanted to put off the others but he didn’t care now. The room looked strange to him, drunk, the way the shadows were victorious against the lamp in the corners, under beds, up in the airy loft above him when the rafters crossed each other. Sometimes the room reminded Karel of the time he’d visited Anna up at the state home. For she too slept in a long dormitory hall like this one. The two rows of beds. All girls there—as this was all boys—strangers to one another, which made them compatriots in a way. It was always lonely to fall asleep in a row of beds, particularly if you were bracketed by silent neighbors. If he couldn’t hear their breathing, Karel wondered if they’d died in the night, and remembered how it was when he’d shared a bed with his sister, how he fell asleep to her dainty snoring most nights, and the terror of waking up to silence in the middle of the night, Anna’s snoring stopped, and him to speculate why. Karel didn’t like to have a bed to himself, despite believing he did. He’d never slept alone before and wasn’t sure how to do it. He’d stay up late and stare into the rafters. He’d listen to the card players. This night he’d leave the light on.”
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel. In preparation for my trip to a German arts organization next summer I’ve been acquainting myself a bit with the German-language canon, so as to not appear so much as a self-centered, hegemonic American jerk. The Piano Teacher was really great. I’m not sure that there’s anything so formally striking about it, but the close, close POV (even when split) was remarkably well done, and wonderfully hard to read at times, and the evocation of Vienna in the 1980s very engaging.
Speculations About Jakob by Uwe Johnson, translated by Ursule Molinaro. I’d never heard of this book before, but I’m grateful I came across it and picked it up. Originally published in German in 1959 (the English translation went public in the US in 1963) Johnson provides a striking panorama of what life was like in East Germany in the 1950s, at the time of the Hungarian Revolt–and, more importantly, what East Germans thought of West Germans and why not all East Germans dreamed of becoming refugees in the West. While the style of the narration–multiple, often overlapping points-of-view–can be challenging, the book is a masterpiece. Very highly recommended.
Amerika by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa Muir. This unfinished novel is kind of known for being factually inaccurate–what? you didn’t know that the Statue of Liberty held a giant stone sword?–as Kafka never traveled to the United States and was kind of writing by the seat of his pants as far as research went. It’s still a pretty good novel, although not always very Kafkaesque, surprisingly. This being one of his earliest works, you can tell he was still feeling out his style by writing what is basically a pretty conventional travel story, at least in the beginning. Things get a lot weirder towards the end.
The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s kind of interesting to read the so-called “lesser” works of such a well-known author, since it can be hard not to give the novel its own treatment, rather than reading everything through the lens (or in comparison) of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in this case. So while The Joke is a very good book, I seemed to appreciate it less in the beginning because it wasn’t THE Kundera classic. That being said, The Joke offers its own pleasures. It’s a little deeper experience in some ways, more focused on single events and the ironies of the characters as their plots intertwine.
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. A finalist for the National Book Award, Spiotta’s 2006 novel is highly entertaining, and pretty spot on in its portrayal of activist and outsider culture in the United States, both in the 1970s and the early 2000s. I kind of cringed reading the sections set in 2003, remembering how some of my friends and I worked so hard to craft political consciousness through fashion. A lot of times I take issue with novels that try to depict aspects of my generation, particularly if they hit close to home, as everyone does, I’m sure. But Spiotta’s writing is so sharp, her points so precise and intuitive, there really wasn’t much to argue about.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen.
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald.
Incoming: my book review of Christopher Narozny’s Jonah Man has been accepted for publication by The Kenyon Review!
Contracts are still pending, so I’m not sure when the review will appear. Very excited about the new review pub though.
This will be my second appearance with the journal. My short story, “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”, was in their Spring 2011 issue. It’s a pleasure to work with such genuinely nice people who are so enthusiastic about literature.
Jonah Man is new this month from Ig Publishing, a small press to watch out of Brooklyn. In addition to a stellar lineup of literary fiction and noir, their Best Dive Bars series looks like a winner to me.
June turned out to be all about new short stories for me. I completely reworked one short story, wrote a new one, and put the final touches on yet another. I’d planned on drafting new material for the novel this month, but was really swept up in the short form for a few weeks and had to put off any new writing for the novel. It had been so long since I had much passion for writing short fiction, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It felt pretty good to pump out a few stories in a small period of time, after working on one project for nearly two years now. To hear some new voices, to deal with different types of problems—those faced by married people, by people alive in this century, by those from the middle class—was kind of nice. It will also be nice to have some new stories to send out to journals this fall, which hasn’t been the case for a while.
In other news this past month:
-Mixer Publishing released my short story “The Housekeeper” on Amazon, available for download on Kindle or PDF. The story was originally published on Flatmancrooked earlier this year, but they have apparently taken down their entire site. That sucks.
-And if you’re already on Amazon, you might as well download the spring issue of The Kenyon Review, which features my short story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.”
-A story that just so happened to be reviewed on the blog Perpetual Folly as part of its Short Story Month 2011.
-Also, The Kenyon Review released their summer reading recommendations, including two of my picks.
Dispatch from “Impertinent, Triumphant”
“We talked about marriage for a long time. About the good stuff, then the bad, then the qualifications and excuses of what we’d said before. Something happened to Anna, she was emotional, she calmed down, something else happened a few weeks after that, and it wasn’t until later that she remembered the first thing, the original outrage, and by then it was too late for her to do something about it. My stories were the same, structurally. Eventually we turned listless and bleak, hearing about each others’ marriage wounds. They lacked finality. We wanted firm endings, closure, but that wasn’t possible.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Florida Review for “Attend the Way.”
The Names by Don DeLillo. I’ve read nearly all of DeLillo’s work now, and this is by far the most underappreciated novel of his I’ve come across. It’s really pretty good. One from his espionage meme, with a domestic twist, about a spy for the CIA who doesn’t know he’s working as a spy for the CIA. The only thing I can think of to explain its lack of recognition is that The Names, for one, comes from DeLillo’s first period of work, before he was famous, and, secondly, that it covers a lot of similar ground as some of his later intelligence novels, like Mao II, Underworld(my favorite!) and, to some extent, Libra.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
The Call by Yannick Murphy.
-We had out first flowers of the spring pop up mid month. The first sprouts we had were daffodil; the first blooms were crocus. Last year I was doing my residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City when we had our first flowers, and I was pretty sad to miss them. Our winter wasn’t nearly as hard as the last one was, but it’s still pretty nice to be here to see things change. Our house was built in 1905, so we have things pop up pretty much everywhere too. Between the patio pavers, in the middle of the yard. It’s awesome.
-Tomorrow my wife Nicole’s new promotion and raise go into effect. She’s so smart. Although, being promised a raise on April Fool’s Day isn’t all that promising.
-The Royals lost their Opening Day game against the Angels this afternoon. It was a pretty good game, especially after LA starting pitcher Jered Weaver was pulled. KC should have one of the best, most exciting, and youngest middle relief corps in the majors this year. Too bad they’ll be pitching from behind most of the time.
-“How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” was published earlier this month in The Kenyon Review. It looks like they’re still running a friends-and-family special at this link, for anyone who’s interested in a discounted current issue or subscription. It was some pretty exciting stuff being in a TKR. I’ve had a few of these bigger publications now, and it’s really something a guy or gal could used to.
-I was also interviewed by The Kenyon Review Online in anticipation of the release.
-Then, to cap off a crazy week, Confrontation accepted my story “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life” for publication. I haven’t heard anything for sure, but, judging from the contract verbiage, I’m hoping it will run in November.
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Bat City Review and Missouri Review for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Ploughshares for “Shame Cycle”; and New Letters for “These Things That Save Us.”
Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins. Still reading this, kind of. I’ve been knee-deep in book prize manuscripts for pretty much the whole month. I will be finishing up my recommendations next week and then will be back on to published books again. I’m very much looking forward to it.
My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos.
The Spring 2011 edition of The Kenyon Review hits shelves this week! The issue features my story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter,” along with a story by Seth Fried, poems by Albert Goldbarth and Kevin Young, and a bunch of other great stuff. I’m eager to get mine.
Single copies are available for $10 at the link above, or by clicking on the image on the right, if you’re interested. Or, use this link for a special friends and family discount to get 20% off the issue or a subscription.
(The Kenyon Review Online ran a micro-interview of me late last week, in case you missed it.)
Also, The Cincinnati Review has posted the cover artwork for its forthcoming Summer 2011 issue, which will feature my Schiff-Prize-for-Prose-winning story “The Current State of the Universe.” This looks to be awesome as well. We’re really rocking Ohio this year.
All in all, it’s been a pretty great day. My wife Nicole got a promotion at work, Maddie’s flu seems to be lifting, and I received a couple awesome emails this morning that have me pretty excited. Nothing on that yet, but wish me luck.
A micro-interview I did for The Kenyon Review Online has been posted to their blog. It’s a pretty cool thing. I guess they are doing these interviews with contributors to help promote their upcoming issues–and mine was the first they did! Hopefully it turned out all right.
The post also reveals that their spring issue, which features my story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter,” will be shipping next Thursday, March 10. How awesome is that? I’m pretty psyched. This is something I’ve really been looking forward to.
Thanks so much to Laura Briskman for doing the interview; and to David Lynn, Tyler Meier, John Pickard, James Flaherty, and everyone else at TKR for all their work and help in making this happen. My experience with The Kenyon Review has been exceptional.
It sounds like Flatmancrooked will be running my story “The Housekeeper” in their web journal next Wednesday, January 19.The story will also be featured in their upcoming print fiction anthology, Flatmancrooked 4, which is currently at the printers and should be hitting mailboxes before winter ends.
The first half of 2011 is shaping up nicely. My story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” will be in the spring issue of The Kenyon Review, in the next couple months I’d wager–no matter what Unadilla Bill has to say–and “The Current State of the Universe” will be published by The Cincinnati Review in May.
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.
One of the more fulfilling aspects of writing this book is that it affords me the opportunity to look further into my own family history. Most of the research I’ve done pertains to historical figures and the circumstance of their lives, and to 1918 Omaha itself more broadly, its social functions, clothes, shops, music. But I’ve been filling in a lot of Jacob Bressler’s character (who is entirely fictional) with my family history. And lucky for me, my grandma Cleo Blankenfeld Croson is also very interested in this topic. She’s helped me learn about my great-great-great grandfather Henry Blankenfeld, who was born near Danzig, West Prussia (present-day Gdańsk, Poland) in 1843 and his wife Maria Eigler Blankenfeld, who was born in Rudig, Austria (which is near Innsbruck, I believe) in 1852. We’re hoping to find out more on their arrival to America, but we do know they were married in Geneseo, Illinois in 1869. They did many jobs around Illinois and the Dakotas (and presumably before then too, wherever they landed) before homesteading near Niobrara, Nebraska, where my grandma grew up. We’ll be going there in July for a family reunion, which should be exciting. I’ve been there many times in my life, but never with this kind of active knowledge, I suppose.
For the past two years I’ve been reading up on German history, just to have some background in it, to understand where my title hyphenates were coming from. I wondered what kinds of stories their parents and relatives would have told them about their fatherland, since none of my German-American characters would have ever even been to Germany themselves. Why were so many of their fore-bearers emigrating? What drove their families (and my family for that matter) to America in the first place? There was constant war in Europe during this period, of course, and the Franco-Prussian War would have directly affected Henry. Many young men fled Prussia to escape conscription, which is what I assume Henry’s reason was too, although I can’t really know that for sure. There were many difficulties in those years associated with the Unification of German states. The Kulturkampf came a bit later, so I doubt the Blankenfelds would have been involved in that. It’s unlikely they were Catholic or Socialist anyway.
And Henry would have been too young to be a Forty-Eighter, one of the many failed democratic revolutionaries who came to North America from Europe. So there’s so much I can’t really know. Maybe a trip to Ellis Island would prove lucky, but very few of the databases I’ve found online go back far enough to be helpful. I’d like to go to Europe and root around, but no one kept records in that part of the world, or they were destroyed. Gdańsk itself has been under a dozen different governments in its history—and four of those since Henry Blankenfeld’s birth.
The interesting part for me—coming from the standpoint of a novelist—is that it’s almost better to not know. When I was his student at Creighton, Brent Spencer often referred to the art of fiction as pursuing the mystery, which I’ve always loved. It’s kind of a mystic, Jesuit way of filling in the blanks. On a personal level, I’d love to have all the details of my family history. It would be incredible to know exactly where we come from—to be able to go there and place my hands on that earth. But as a writer, it’s better to avoid that sort of conscriptive knowledge. The character Jacob Bressler is better for my lack of knowledge in this sense, because it gives me enough blanks to come to the story I’m telling, not the history behind it.
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“’You know they used to call Dennison the King Gambler.’ The Pfarrer was up on the balcony again, a new glass of wine in hand. ‘Did you know this about your boss? He swindled a $100,000 on a boxing match in Louisiana. A fixed fight. He started as a bouncer and a sportsman out west, when he was your age, clearing out whole card halls in Denver playing faro. He hooked on here after winning big on the Louisiana fight, got the Daily Bee and the Perpetual Mayor on his side. Whole books have been written against Dennison and his underworld sewer, but he slips retribution. Nothing sticks to him.’”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Along with Edward P. Jones, Doctorow is one of the two most famous historical novelists who claim to have done little to no research for their novels, relying rather on memory and imagination. I’m a little skeptical about this, but can see how it could be true. (For one, there were a few moments when I knew he was off.) Doctorow writes with such authority on well-known figures, but he mostly focuses on private moments that cannot really be refuted as the basis of his work. Who can say what Houdini was thinking at a particular moment, hanging upside-down from a building? And if the writing is entertaining, why would you want to intrude with literal truth anyway? As above, the less you know, the more freedom you have to invent. A great book. The movie adaptation was pretty good too.
Point Omega by Don DeLillo.
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.
Link of the Month
Don DeLillo’s recent reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn from the blog of BOMB Magazine.