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This last weekend we spent some time in Niobrara, Neb. at the Blankenfeld family reunion. As you may know, I’ve been working with my Grandma on some ancestry projects over the past year, and it was nice to share some of the fruits of that labor. I’ve also been using some of the Blankenfeld family lore as a model for Jacob Bressler in my novel-in-progress The Hyphenates of Jackson County. In this regard, the trip was especially significant for me.

On the Blankenfeld homestead with my Grandma Cleo and Mother Marta.

We were able to visit the original Blankenfeld homestead site, where Jacob and Maria settled in 1885. Although no structures remain—there was a hill where the original dugout had been—it was pretty cool to just stand there and appreciate the terrain. The area hadn’t seemed especially rocky and hilly before, in my previous trips to the area, until I imagined trying to cultivate it by hand. Later, we stopped into a museum of sorts that was made from the preserved farm of my Great-Great-Grandfather Henry Blankenfeld. He’s the model for Jacob in the novel–visually, and some of his history as the son of immigrants–so it was really exciting to walk through the house and barn he built himself, to eat an apple from a tree he planted, to descend the staircase his wife descended on the day they were married.

It’s always difficult to appraise how valuable experiences like these will be to my work. For one, who knows where the writing is going to take me. Will I need to know what the grass smells like? The flora? The fauna? Or how the sky there has its own unique blue, the air a particularly humid cloyingness? Also, in Hyphenates, Jacob comes from a different part of the state, one with a terrain closer to Omaha’s than Niobrara’s. So it isn’t like I can just sit down and make a sketch of the landscape to use in the novel.

The Blankenfeld homestead, originally settled in 1885.

Mostly it’s just helpful to be there, to be put in a spot that’s loaded with memories specific to my family, and where events took place that were crucial to my very existence. I’ve always had the kind of memory that retains periphery details well, so it’s a great benefit to just listen to stories, especially while smelling the grass and listening to the leaves in a tree. It isn’t that I necessarily came away with anything specific that I can add to the story—and I’m not saying I didn’t, I just don’t know yet—but it feels like I’ve gained a much better appreciation of what it was like to be alive in a time other than my own, even if it isn’t the exact era I’m writing about. And that’s something that can’t really be replicated in an archive or by looking at old photographs. It’s getting caught up in other people’s memories, and not just that, but doing so while standing on the very ground where things happened.

Dispatch from “Shame Cycle”

“Anna was sixteen when she approached you at a downtown record store and you began seeing her not long after that. This was the summer before your freshman year of college, when she invited you to a party and claimed possession of your body, parading you around the smoky rooms of parties. You considered it a move up in social scene from the part-time Nu Metal rebels you knew in high school to this career class of punks. The hard-drinkers, veteran sludge rockers, and sometimes transients who pocked the city so visibly in those days. These were people Anna exposed you to, her friends. They hitchhiked to New York and ran drugs from the Mexican border for South Omaha gangs, they bought a tattoo gun to save trips to the parlor, they had shaved-in mullets and handlebar mustaches, they screamed swear words into ice cream parlors as protests against capitalism. These people were the real deal as far as you were concerned then—or as close to it as one could get in Omaha.”

Maddie and Cocoa up on a Missouri River vista.

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

BOMB for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Zoetrope: All-Story for “The Current State of the Universe”; Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Indiana Review for “The Housekeeper”; Caketrain for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.” My story “Shame Cycle” was a finalist for Matrix Magazine’s LitPop Awards, but it did not end up winning. There was no consolation prize.

Just Finished

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman. An outstanding collection. Highly recommended. I liked it so much that I’ve written a glowing review of it, one that will hopefully be published soon.

Windmill at dusk.

Now Reading

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed.

Up Next

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.

Here are a few writing contests that definitely are worth the entry fee.

Missouri Review, Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, Essay and Poetry: This has been one of the elite contests for a while, but now that the winners of each category receive $5000 and publication in the magazine it is really in a class by itself. That’s some serious jackpot prize. Plus, they’re throwing in a free subscription for everyone who enters–so everybody wins! $20 fee, Oct 1, 2009 deadline.

Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest: Winners in each category receive the choice of attending a two-week seminar in Montreal, Vilnius, or Nairobi, which includes airfare, tuition, and housing; plus publication in Fence, as well as lit journals in Canada, Lithuania, and Kenya. And just in case you weren’t sure if this was a big-time contest, Mary Jo Bang and Mary Gaitskill will be judging. $15 fee, Feb. 28, 2010 deadline.

Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Fiction Contest: Prizes include publication in the New Orleans Review, $1500 cash, a VIP all-access pass to the March 2010 festival, domestic airfare to New Orleans, accommodations at this amazing hotel, and a public reading. That’s a pretty nice package–and I’m always a sucker for travel prizes. They also have a “Stella Shouting Contest,” if you feel compelled to channel your inner Brando. Jill McCorkle will judge. $25 fee, Nov. 16, 2009 deadline.

Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest: First prize takes home $1000 and publication on their web site. The reason that this contest stands out if that all three prizewinners and seven honorable mentions will be considered for representation by a handful of the most prestigious agencies, including William Morris Agency, Sterling Lord, and Georges Borchardt Literary Agency, among others. This may not be appealing to everyone, but couldn’t represent something big for the right person. Yiyun Li will judge. $15 fee, Oct 1, 2009 deadline.

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