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I’m checking in a little late here, but I still wanted to sincerely congratulate Mark Powell on the publication of his latest novel, The Dark Corner. Way to go, Mark!
Mark and I met in Key West last winter at the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar when we were part of the same Robert Stone-led workshop. (We also were housemates in this old pink house.) I very much enjoyed working with Mark then, and it’s no surprise that The Dark Corner is a great book.
Here’s the jacket copy:
A troubled Episcopal priest and would-be activist, Malcolm Walker has failed twice over—first in an effort to shock his New England congregants out of their complacency and second in an attempt at suicide. Discharged from the hospital and haunted by images of the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib, he heads home to the mountains of northwestern South Carolina, the state’s “dark corner,” where a gathering storm of private grief and public rage awaits him.
Malcolm’s life soon converges with people as damaged in their own ways as he is: his older brother, Dallas, a onetime college football star who has made a comfortable living in real-estate development but is now being drawn ever more deeply into an extremist militia; his dying father, Elijah, still plagued by traumatic memories of Vietnam and the death of his wife; and Jordan Taylor, a young, drug-addicted woman who is being ruthlessly exploited by Dallas’s viperous business partner, Leighton Clatter. As Malcolm tries to restart his life, he enters into a relationship with Jordan that offers both of them fleeting glimpses of heaven, even as hellish realities continue to threaten them.
The Dark Corner is one of three books written by people I lived with and/or workshopped with at KWLS that came out last year. That I know of, anyway. (You should also check out Eric Sasson’s Margins of Tolerance and Jill Koenigsdorf’s Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall.) Not too shabby. The folks down at the KWLS, in addition to bringing together a large group of talented writers, the famous and the yet-to-be-famous, always put on a great program. For 2014, the program is titled The Dark Side: Mystery, Crime & the Literary Thriller.
Jill and I had the pleasure of being in the Robert Stone workshop together this past January at the Key West Literary Seminar. (Here’s the recap of my experience down at KWLS 2012, just in case you’re interested.) In fact, Jill received word that her book had been picked up by MacAdam/Cage while we were down there, so it’s exciting to see it emerge now.
Here’s the jacket copy:
Phoebe is an artist making very little money designing wine labels for a winery in Sonoma. Her house is in foreclosure, she’s divorced, turning forty, and beleaguered on every front. Enter Marc Chagall s ghost, visible only to her, who appears to help her retrieve one of his own paintings that Phoebe s father found during the liberation of France. Meant for Phoebe and her mother, the painting never made it into their hands. In this debut comic novel, Phoebe and Chagall hunt down the painting in the South of France with help from a cast of characters including two sisters who are witches, a San Francisco Art dealer, and a misguided French innkeeper. Their snooping also leads Chagall to a few out of the hundred paintings that went missing during his lifetime. With skill and tension this book pits characters who appreciate art for its beauty against black market art dealers, evil collectors, and the mysterious German pawn hired to deliver the goods.
Check it out!
The Millions dropped its Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2012 Book Preview this week. In what’s becoming a biannual tradition, the list boasts a number of big-name authors, such as Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace. Not too shabby. Head over to The Millions for the full scoop, but here are some details on the books that look most interesting to me:
John Brandon‘s A Million Heavens focuses on an oddball cast that gathers around the hospital bed of a comatose piano prodigy. … Up-and-comer Charles Yu, who I saw in January at the Key West Literary Seminar, releases what’s been called a Vonnegut-esque short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You. … Jonathan Evison offers an interesting take on the road novel with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, wherein a man takes off across the West with a boy suffering from Muscular Dystrophy who’s been entrusted in his care. … Zadie Smith gets back to fiction with NW, a class novel set in London. … Junot Díaz‘ This is How You Lose Her arrives in September, a story collection that has apparently already been published piece by piece in the New Yorker. … America’s sweetheart, Emma Straub, breaks out with her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. … Chris Ware collects his Building Stories comic strips in Building Stories. … Roberto Bolaño continues his impressive posthumous production with Woes of the True Policeman, which returns to the Northern Mexico city of Santa Teresa, featured in 2666. This is believed to be Bolaño’s final unpublished novel. We shall see. … Tenth of December is George Saunders‘ fourth humorous short story collection, many of which, I believe, were also already published in the New Yorker.
A lot to like there.
Meanwhile, Harper Perennial and One Story are partnering to offer the digital editions of some of their short story collections at the low price of $1.99. Check out the details on Harper Perennial’s Facebook page. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m a huge fan of Harper Perennial. In fact, of the books being offered in this promotion, I’ve reviewed Ben Greenman‘s What He’s Poised to Do, Lydia Peelle‘s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Rahul Mehta‘s Quarantine, and Justin Taylor‘s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. You can find the reviews here, here, here, and here. No matter your digital device, check out a few of these titles. You won’t be disappointed. (As far as I know, they also work in print. The discount doesn’t, however.)
-It was a pretty slow month on the blog last month. There are two reasons for this. First, I spend eight days in Key West for the Key West Literary Seminar. (Here’s the recap of my time there.) Second, I received an offer late in the month to take the reins as Online Editor for Prairie Schooner! I accepted. Technically I don’t start until today–and the paperwork hasn’t been started either, so hopefully I’m not jinxing that–but I’ve been getting a feel for the job over the last week or so. I’m very excited to take over the position from Timothy Schaffert. The new website is up and running, and we have an awful lot of cool things in the works. It’s a very exciting time to be involved with the journal.
-The edits for my novel are coming along. I’m hopeful to have it ready for my top readers here in the next month or so. Nothing monumental to announce, but I feel like the book is coming along. It’s tightening up in ways that lead me to believe that it’s close to being done, at least. Of course, the feedback I get from my readers will probably blow a few things wide open again.
-I did add my 2011 Year in Photos post last month, in case you missed it.
-Just two months until the new baby arrives. Eep.
Dispatch from The Uninitiated
“Maria Eigler knew what she liked. She built a world around herself that reflected her preferences. She loved conversation and children and music. She liked to make hearty food and see all of it eaten, to make up beds and see them slept in, to have a full, vibrating house. She tolerated conceit in people she cared for, but found it the most contemptible trait among others. Maria was not pretentious, but she didn’t stoop to putting on an air of ignorance either. She was a wise and deceptively cultured woman. It didn’t surprise Jacob to learn that Maria attended a women’s seminary when she was young, in Missouri. She studied Greek drama for two years before she married August. It was Grenville Dodge who moved them to Council Bluffs, before they moved themselves across the river. Maria would sometimes say a phrase in Greek, to show where an English word came from, like alphabet or apology or muse or martial. The way she talked about Greek drama, all the time in her buoyant kinderfrau voice, she made it sound like those plays could explain everything in life. Love, betrayal, war, language, fate, death. And if you were lucky enough to get the chance to really study them, and understand what they meant, then you’d be well off. You’d know enough to maybe let everything else in the world well enough alone.”
This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann. What a beautiful book. Very affecting and well done. The book begins with a focus on the sandhogs who tunneled under the East River to build the subway tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan, which I found incredibly fascinating. McCann gets a lot of attention for Let the Great World Spin, but don’t miss out on this remarkable book either.
Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda. A coming-of-age novel about a young girl left to fend for herself in the Nebraska wilderness in pioneer times. The book kind of read as a survey course in early Nebraska history at times, although it has its moments too. There are lots of interesting characters that come and go throughout the book. The most interesting ones never stayed as long as I would have liked them to.
Leaf House by Karen Brown. This story collection, Brown’s second, won the most recent Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. I was lucky enough to get a preview of the manuscript in order to interview her for the PS blog. (Here’s the interview, if you’re interested.) It’s a very good book—Brown is an awesome young writer—and I’m eager to see how the final version comes out.
The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño.
The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper.
So I’m back after spending eight days at the Key West Literary Seminar and workshops, and am still getting back into a home state of mind. The week was amazing and hectic. I met a lot of great people. I stayed up too late, drank too much, woke up too early. I was on a boat. Below are some highlights.
-I should mention something about the lineup first. The seminar featured George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem, among others. It was such a strong string of lectures, readings, conversations, cocktail hours… It was really great.
-It was topped off by a four-day workshop with Robert Stone. I learned a bunch from Stone, mostly in listening to how he analyzes a story and his take on history and the history of literature–but I also learned quite a bit from the other writers/instructors talking about their experiences with Stone and his exploits, stories they’ve heard about the things he’s done. The guy has lived an interesting life, to say the least. Many of us in the workshop really treasured our time and felt lucky just to be in the same room as him. A very gracious, intelligent, and fascinating man.
-Highlight: George Saunders talking about having to get rid of his “Hemingway boner” in order to start writing his own good fiction. Saunders ruminating on his experience as a young writer was pretty special.
-Highlight: Jennifer Egan discussing PowerPoint as a medium, and going through some of her story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” By the way, Egan has the actual PowerPoint story on her web site if you’d like to read it. (Do this!)
-Egan also talked some about Gothic fiction, which I found very interesting. She mentioned “The Turn of the Screw” as the perfect Gothic novel. And, apparently, Michael Cunningham is adapting the novella for the screen. Or trying to at least.
-An agent sympathetic to the cause (political, not literary) from El Salvador flew over for a couple days to visit. No state secrets were compromised.
-I went on a sunset cruise on an old schooner.
-With a few other guys, I happened into a cocktail party hosted by Lee Smith and Hal Crowther. They’re so nice. The party was at a beachfront condo where (or next to where) Jimmy Buffett used to stay. It was pretty swank. There was an observation deck on the roof where we simultaneously watched (1) the sunset, (2) a lightning storm over the ocean, (3) heavy winds batter the beach. It was pretty intense up there, with the wind, the visuals. The wine kept splashing out of our glasses from the wind gusts. Still, the conversation never faltered through any of this. It was very invigorating. Something I don’t imagine I’ll soon forget.
-We had a party at our house the last night of workshop. It was a lot of fun. We stayed in a big pink house just off Duval Street. There was a private pool in the back. I slept on a futon the whole week, but it could have been worse. Thanks to Eric, Spencer, Denton, Mark, Claire, Sabra, Emily, and Brad for being great housemates. (I hope I haven’t left anyone out. I don’t think I have.) Also, to Cat, Linda, Vanessa, Diana, and Jacquira too. We had a pretty strong crew going. Careless Whisper.
-If you get the chance to attend the KWLS some year, you should definitely do it. They give out a ton of financial aid, with no application fee. Why not try for it? Next years topic: “Writers on Writers.” This year was my second trip down, and hopefully not my last.
I’ll keep this short, as it’s late and the big news about finishing the roughest draft of my novel was already covered in a post a couple weeks ago.
-Some good news came along–announced in September, technically–as I’ve been awarded a scholarship to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar and will participate in a workshop with the legendary Robert Stone.
-I announced in the same post that “These Things That Save Us” will appear in the premier issue of Conversations Across Borders.
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“Lots of doughboys were in the crowd. This wasn’t all that surprising, as there were two forts nearby—Fort Crook and Fort Omaha. Jacob saw them around a lot then, in the year after the armistice—the doughboys come home, displaced from their jobs. There were plenty along the streets of the River Ward, husky kids still in uniform, their long green socks and puffy breeches, like football players lost from afield. An awful lot of them had what was called war neurosis. Some twitched, or struggled to keep their eyes open. Some had to constantly skim the palms of their hands over their faces and fuzzy, shaved skulls, like a cat preening itself. So many shuffled along in a painful, halting gait, or like they were slipping on ice, their whole bodies in spastic shaking. You didn’t want to think about what those suffering doughboys had seen or heard over there to make them out this way. The constant bombardments, the nerve gas, horses disemboweled on barbed wire barricades, the still-moving charred grist of a man caught by a flame thrower. There were doughboys who’d been buried alive when the man next to them stepped on a landmine, or in mortar fire, trapped when the four tons of earth thrown up in the explosion landed. There were the flyboys, crazy-eyed, sun-dazed, whose hands curled and shook, forever gripped on the timorous controls of their bi-plane’s yoke and machine gun trigger.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Electric Literature for “Shame Cycle.”
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Often touted in recent publications as having the sexiest depictions of sex of any novel. It’s sexy, but not very erotic, if that makes sense. A good novel, though.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. A classic that I love to reread. The stories “Godliness,” “The Strength of God,” and “Death” just really can’t be beat. Simply amazing work from who is really the father of the American short form.
My Antonia by Willa Cather.
Bohemian Girl by Terese Svboda.
Some excellent news to announce today!
First, my short story “These Things That Save Us” has been chosen to help launch the debut issue of Conversations Across Borders, an online journal that will feature literary writing and journalism from around the globe. The first issue will be available early in October, and will also feature work by Ilya Kaminsky (!), Sam Green, and Gary Lemons, among others. I’ll be sure to share some links and more information about CAB as it becomes more pertinent. From everything I’ve heard, it should be a pretty cool endeavor, and I’m excited to be in on the ground floor, so to speak.
Second, I’ve received a partial scholarship to attend the Key West Literary Seminar in January, 2012, and will be part of a workshop led by Robert Stone the following week! How awesome is that? I attended KWLS two years ago and am pretty amped up to be returning. (And I was scheduled to go three years ago to participate in a Robert Stone workshop, but had to cancel once we learned that Maddie’s due date was the same week. Looks like I’ll be getting a second chance at the workshop after all.) The theme of the seminar is, Yet Another World – Literature of the Future, and features Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, and Colson Whitehead, among many others. They always have such a great lineup; this upcoming year’s is especially compelling. In addition to the literary program, I also get to spend a week on a tropical island during the heart of winter, which isn’t too shabby.
I’m also still up for a “named” scholarship, which would cover all expenses, including travel and a stipend.It would be nice to have everything paid for, of course, but I’m thrilled to have it all confirmed now, at least, with a large portion of it paid for by KWLS. I’m very lucky.
(Oh, and I apologize to anyone who might have been expecting ecclesiastically-themed content after looking at the post title. I have no updates on Holy Week at this time.)
I’ve been enjoying the Kenyon Review blog this summer–specifically their series of Micro-Interviews and the audio archives from their 2011 Writers Workshop program. It’s pretty cool to watch how these things take shape. The most famous archive of writer interviews is, of course, the Paris Review‘s, which is like a master’s program in literature and writing by itself.
It’s interesting how the rise of MFA writing programs in the last decade happened at the same time that so many new resources (or not so new, just newly electronic) for writers have popped up online. Of course, it isn’t like a writer has ever had to go to grad school in order to meet other writers, or read great books, or write every day, or find great advice and resources, etc. Grad school programs provide an organization of these activities, for a price; and in a somewhat similar way, great literary blogs and archives provide a similarly useful naming and sorting of resources for those who join their community.
Anyway–here are some links of things I’ve enjoyed these past few months:
-The Paris Review Daily- their blog
-HTML Giant – the new official home to heated literary debate and hipster declarations
-The Outlet – the blog of Electric Literature and NYC literary social scene
Put down some pretty good work this week, if I do say so, writing on pre-Prohibition German beer halls and the free-lunch counters that were standard in most American bars and taverns in the early 1900s. For this I’ve mostly been writing from old photos I’ve found from the era (thanks Omaha Public Library) and a few descriptions taken from immigrants corresponding back to Germany about their experiences in America. I’m not really sure how historically accurate everything is at the moment, but I’m not too worried about it. The strategy has been to first write the story as well as possible, getting the characters and plot established, before getting into the minutiae of history. I’m sure a few things will need to be changed when I get to that point, but I’d much rather be inaccurate historically than boring literarily. I’ve done quite a bit of research in advance of starting—things that have given me a decent idea of the spirit of the age, the demographics of the city at this time, what the political landscape was, the kinds of jobs my characters might have—so it isn’t like I’m going into this blind. It’s just that I’m not constantly cross-checking the work as it’s put down. At the Key West Literary Seminar this January, which I was grateful to attend due to the generosity of their donors, Russell Banks spoke about how people often find fault with his historical work because it isn’t a precise representation of how things most likely happened at the moment he’s written about. Banks kind of laughed off such criticisms, saying that he isn’t really all that concerned with history because his focus is on the fiction. If something needs to be stretched, a river moved or a step-son created, to make the story he’s trying to tell work, he feels free to do that. (Although Andrea Barrett took the exact opposite stance.) That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking here with Part II of The Open City. The novel will live or die based upon the verve of the narration, not the veracity of the history it invokes.
That being said, one thing I would like to do soon is visit the microfilm at CU library to read through a few months worth of newspapers from the time—the long-defunct Omaha Bee in particular, Omaha’s tabloid rag from the early Twentieth Century. When Ron Hansen came to Creighton in the spring he spoke of how he did this when writing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In fact, Hansen was able to consult the local Missouri papers nearly every morning in order to immerse himself in the same era his characters had lived in. He was teaching at the University of Michigan at the time, where the library contains an impressive archive of old newspapers. Pretty cool stuff. My narrator is looking from a contemporary viewpoint back to 1919, so it isn’t necessarily imperative that I get the lingo of the era just right, but I’d like my characters to have a sense of it. That is, while the dialogue should ring true, the narration isn’t trying to approximate the voice or style of that era. Still, it should be helpful in regards to what kinds of clothes people were wearing and by what names they referred to certain objects.
Dispatch from The Open City
“Jacob followed Strauss and his friends into the Potsdamer, to an iced oak keg of beer and then up to a narrow balcony on stilts that was bolted to the walls. The dance hall was an immense room on the second floor of a corner brick building. Its plaster walls depicted gaudy murals of naked goddesses and grim knights at arms against the Hydra. The floor was occupied by families and groups of friends resting amid tables and benches in a crescent surrounding the band, beyond that a stage partly obscured by monstrous glass chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. There was a colossal serephina organ, two violists, and a fagotto bassoon that were accompanied by a trio of women vocalists who seemed to encircle the song’s melody with their rolling harmonies. There were leggy dancers on stage, heads adorned with peacock feathers, a plaster statue of the patron goddess Germania looming high above the stage. Performers from a gymnastics club would come on later to exhibit their strength and flexibility. Everyone in the crowd was drinking, both men and women, some of the older children, but Strauss assured Jacob that there were never fights. Everything was carried off with precise order, as if each of them had been assigned a role they would gladly perform.”
Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
BOMB for “The Current State of the Universe.” And, I’m not sure if this exactly fits this category but, my story “The Approximate End of the World” was accepted for publication by Boulevard and will appear in the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary issue in March of 2010. Very excited about this.
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. I really fell under the spell of this book for a while, but was disappointed by its ending. It kind of seemed like a copout. The big referendum fails because of voter apathy, which was kind of nice. But then, all of the relationships that have been on collision course throughout the novel just sort of fizzle—as if the novel itself had become apathetic. Chief Jammu and Barbara are killed by a bizarre mirroring of bullets to the head. Probst drives around on county roads to avoid what has happened until he’s shown meeting with his daughter to grieve for slain Barbara, but nothing further. I would have liked to see what happens when the characters actually have to deal with the consequences of their actions, but everything wrapped itself up before that could happen. Still a very good book—and probably not the kind of narrative that really deals with consequences. It’s a book that exalts big ideas, rather than one that spends time lamenting the fallout of big ideas.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. This has been my “favorite book” for a long time, but I haven’t read it in a long time either. We’ll see if it can withstand the test of a reread. So far I’m enjoying it, but it’s a little tedious getting through all of the theoretical grounding DeLillo is doing before really putting the screws to his characters. If I remember correctly, the narrative didn’t really start humming until the Airborne Toxic Event.
Exiles by Ron Hansen. We’re reading this for the online class on novel writing I’m taking as a non-degree seeking student through the graduate program of the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Link of the Week
Littoral. The blog of the Key West Literary Seminar. Check out the audio archive of past seminar readings and lectures. Very cool stuff.
Also, I’ve neglected for too long to thank my lovely wife Nicole for setting up this blog for me. Thanks!