Akademie Schloss Solitude

My new digs?

I’ve been sitting on some big news for a couple months now. Something very difficult for a guy like me who, while sneaky, is no good with secrets. So I’m excited, very very excited, to announce that I’ve been awarded a fellowship and three-month residency from Akademie Schloss Solitude!

There are many cool things about the fellowship, some of which I will enumerate here. Paid airfare to/from Stuttgart, Germany, where Solitude is based; studio space and lodging in a baroque castle surrounded by forestland (Castle Solitude, pictured); a monthly stipend to cover living expenses; a double-housekeeping benefit to help supplement my rent at home; the opportunity to live in German culture (Swabian to be exact) for an extended period, sort of a reverse of what the characters of my novel do, my German-Americans; a chance to research and work on my next novel, part of which will take place at and near Ramstein Air Base.

A view of the western district of Stuttgart from Castle Solitude.

Best of all, families are welcome to join artists during the residency, so Nicole, Maddie and Clara will be coming over for at least part of next summer. This is a pretty rare thing for residencies. Among the many things I’m grateful to Akademie Schloss Solitude and the state of Baden-Württemberg for, the opportunity to share this with my family is up near the top of the list. In fact, we’re so excited that we’ve decided to change the spelling of our youngest child’s name from the Anglican/Latinate Clara to the Germanic Klara as a sort of tribute to my benefactors.

You can read more about the program here and its vision of Esprit Solitude here, and see what past fellows were up to during their residencies here, but the gist of it is that Baden-Württemberg funds this program in order to encourage emerging artists from around the world to expand and further their work in ways they wouldn’t be able to within the strictures of their normal home life. It’s really an astonishing investments in the arts, and a recognition that personally elicits massive amounts of humility and gratification whenever I think about it. I was actually offered an eight-month residency, but it seemed like that might be too much of a good thing. I’ll be spending the summer of 2014 in Germany.

My sincerest thanks go out to juror Maxi Obexer, who selected me as a fellow, Jean-Baptiste Joly, who is Director of the Akademie, and Silke Pflüger, who, as Grant Coordinator, has been dealing with my many questions.

This continues a good run of recognition for my novel, as my application was accepted based on the strength of a full manuscript version of The Uninitiated. This manuscript also took first prize in Tarcher/Penguin’s Top Artist competition, while an excerpt is forthcoming in Boulevard this fall. A different excerpt was a finalist in the recent Summer Literary Seminars contest. And now, Solitude.

Bridesmaid

A quick note today about the results of the 2013 Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest. The winners were announced last week here, of which I’m not included. Congrats to them.

While this wasn’t announced publicly, the contest coordinators did let me know that my submission was short-listed as a finalist. Good news there!

This is the fourth time I’ve been on an SLS contest short-list. Somebody there must like me, I guess. Quite a compliment considering the stiff competition the contest brings in. The significance this time is a little different for me in that my submission (“The Hyphenates of Jackson County”) was excerpted from my novel, thus continuing a string of positive momentum for The Uninitiated this year. No agent yet, no publisher. But, if you’ll excuse the recap, the full manuscript did win Tarcher/Penguin’s Top Artist Writing Contest and a different excerpt was accepted for publication in Boulevard under the title “River Ward, 1917”. The book is four years in the making, so it’s very nice to get some little bit of recognition of its quality. Hopefully the string continues to build.

Some day I hope to be a part of a Summer Literary Seminar. It’s a great institution for writers, one I’ve heard nothing but nice things about from folks who have gone out with them. Being immersed in the writing culture of a country on another continent for a month–what’s not to like? Here’s more information on their current seminars in Lithuania and Kenya in case you’re interested.

“River Ward, 1917” Headed to Boulevard

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.

Sunrise, Sunset

It was on August 29 of last year that I finished a full first draft of my novel, then called The Hyphenates of Jackson County. At the time, I anticipated taking another 6-8 months to go through edits and arrive at a refined, fully-edited version of the novel. Maybe declaring Mission Accomplished! was a bit premature, as edits have taken nearly a full year instead, complete with a change in title to The Uninitiated. Overall, the process, starting at my beginning research, took three and half years to arrive at this point. Still, done is done. I finished putting in the final changes on Tuesday this week, and started the process of finding a new agent for the book this afternoon, querying my top four choices.

I ended up doing two more revisions after I felt the book was done, trying to put it under as much pressure as possible before sending it out, which will hopefully pay off. My dedicated panel of readers and conversants–Amber, Bill, Devin, Jenn, Marta, Nicole, and Shannon, em for moral support, the Lee Martin workshop at the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, various others who happened to inquire after the status of the book–offered some great feedback. Thanks be to them!

Wish me luck and strength.

Found: Tom Dennison’s House

Tom Dennison’s Northwest Omaha home at 7510 Military Ave. Pictured here in 2006, shortly before it was demolished.

[Please note, some of the information on this page is outdated. See this link for updates.]

It took a while, but I was finally able to track down the exact address (and approximate location) of Tom Dennison’s estate house! More accurately, Gary Rosenberg, Douglas County Historical Society archivist, was able to track it down. Thanks, Gary and the DCHS!

The address? 7510 Military Avenue.

ORDER KINGS OF BROKEN THINGS, A NEW NOVEL ABOUT DENNISON-ERA OMAHA!

Tom Dennison was first listed as living in the house in 1931, just three years before he died. He didn’t live there long, and his involvement in Omaha politics and crime was all but through by then. This was his retirement home. He raised wire-haired terriers on the back acres. He lived there with his daughter, Frances, and her husband, Vernon Ragan. This was during Prohibition. The house was surrounded by cyclone fencing, there were security guards, Dennison kept a sub-machine gun under a blanket on the seat next to him in his car. (It’s fascinating how Prohibition transformed the political machines of the early 20th Century (which mostly focused on gambling, prostitution, and government-centered rackets) into deadly criminal syndicates. In earlier decades, Dennison lived in the city (at 1507 Yates, among other places). He stood on the sidewalk and fed pigeons in the morning. They did a lot of bad things in those days too, but the machine never engaged in gangland killings until Prohibition. The Omaha Race Riot of 1919 is potentially a different matter altogether.)

Dennison remarried late in life, but his young wife, Nevajo Truman, never lived in the same house as Tom. She lived at 2201 Country Club Avenue with her mother. Tom would come by and visit most every day, but that’s as far as that went. Such a strange and sad sounding relationship.

Tom Dennison with his second wife, Navajo Truman.

Last year I hypothesized that Dennison’s house was put to new use as part of Marian High School–specifically the convent–but was disabused of that notion by Sister Joy (another devoted archivist, this time with the Servite Sisters). I wasn’t too far off, however. As told by my sister-in-law and Marian alumna, Sara Magnuson West, the house was still on the Marian campus until recently, although she didn’t remember if it served a purpose there. She remembers that it was back by the motherhouse, where the nuns live. Maybe it was torn down when the soccer field and athletic complex was built? Gary Rosenberg tells me that the building was demolished in 2006, approximately.

I’d greatly appreciate it if you could share any information, stories, memories, or rumors you might have of the building. Do you know what it was used for, if anything, by Marian? Do you know anything about the history of the house? Do you have friends or family who went to Marian, or taught there? Maybe they know something? In the picture above, the house appears to have been kept in good shape, there were security lights installed, the windows were maintained. I’d imagine this effort wasn’t for nothing.

If you know something about this house, please pass it along.

November in Review (2011)

Let’s go with a little bullet point action this time around:

-So I’ve decided to switch up the title of my novel with the title of it’s first part. The novel will now be The Uninitiated. Book 1 will be The Hyphenates of Jackson County. Any objections?

-I think two that I’ll combine Books 1 &2 of the novel into one, as they are of similar content and tone. The novel as a whole is coming together much more clearly now that I’ve gone through a draft of the whole book. I’m working my way through a long list of edits and rewrites now.

-I began work as Blog and Social Networking Editor for Prairie Schooner. Here’s me welcoming myself to the blog.

-The newest edition of Confrontation (Fall 2011) came out, with my story “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life” included. Read more here.

-I turned thirty early in November, and reflected on the experience.

-We learned that Kid B will be a girl. For right now, at least, we’re leaning toward Clara Lynne for a name.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“Evie stayed with Jacob until he was better. It was two days. She was an impassioned nurse. She held cool rags to his forehead while she told him stories; she covered and recovered his kicking limbs in Afghans; she changed his sheets if the chamber pot spilled; she kissed his burning cheeks incessantly, even though there was a chance he might make her sick too; she soothed him, she promised he wouldn’t die, and that she wasn’t going to leave him. Somehow Marie Eigler tracked down a crate of oranges—which was a miracle, really, given the rations—and Jacob had to drink their juice, even though it burned his throat. It was a simple matter of whether or not Evie could keep up his strength. She made him drink turnip broth and a beaten raw egg every hour. Evie kept Jacob in line too. She didn’t let him forget for a second that was being taken care of, and that he was going to be fine. And then, suddenly, after two days, he was.”

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

Southern Review for “Forget Me” and A Public Space for “Attend the Way”

Just Finished

Shadow Traffic by Richard Burgin. A solid collection of stories from front to back from one of our mainstay fiction writers.

Best American Comics 2011, Alison Bechdel, ed. A pretty good showing this year, the best edition since the first two. My favorites were Manifestation by Gabrielle Bell, St. Ambrose by John Pham, Nov. 3, 1956 by Joe Sacco (this one was particularly enlightening and horrifying), Soixante Neuf by David Lasky and Mairead Case, Jordan W. Lint to the Age 65 by Chris Ware, Browntown by Jaime Hernandez, The Pterodactyl Hunters (in the Gilded City) by Brendan Leach, Abby’s Road by Noah Van Sciver, The Mad Scientist by Jeff Smith, Winter by Danica Novgorodoff, Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt, and Weekends Abroad by Eric Orner. Maybe it would have been easier to just say the whole thing is awesome?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. A classic. Read it for three minutes and you’ll see why.

Upstream Metropolis: an Urban Biography of Omaha & Council Bluffs by Lawrence H. Larsen, Barbara J. Cottrell, Harl A. Dalstrom, & Kay Calame Dalstrom. An interesting history of the city and surrounding area. There’s so much overlap in these local histories, but this one seems to have a little new and interesting information at least.

Now Reading

A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.

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Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda.

The Real Winesburg, Ohio

Here’s a bit from Sherwood Anderson about his masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio (from the Viking Critical edition):

Winesburg of course was no particular town. It was a mythical town. It was people. I had got the characters of the book everywhere about me, in towns I had lived, in the army, in factories and offices. When I gave the book its title I had no idea there really was an Ohio town by that name. I even consulted a list of towns but it must have been a list giving only towns that were situated on railroads.

I was so excited to come across this when rereading his collection last month. Most of my work is set in real cities and towns–in places like Omaha, Lincoln, Aurora, Valentine, McCook, Hastings, Bancroft, Atlanta–but I sometimes use a fictional town in my work–a place I called Jackson, Nebraska. (Or Jackson Township, or Jackson County.) I mostly use Jackson when I want to write about a nasty small town, so that my work doesn’t slander a real place. Notably, my novel is titled The Hyphenates of Jackson County, referring to this rural county where my fictional small town is located.

When I started using Jackson as a setting as an undergrad, with my story “The Scythian Defense,” (gsu review, Fall/Winter 2006) I checked an atlas to make sure that a Jackson, Nebraska didn’t already exist–just like Anderson did in checking to see if there already was a Winesburg, Ohio. The map and index I checked didn’t list a Jackson, Nebraska, so I thought I was in the clear. (Thanks a lot free State Farm atlas!) Much like Anderson, I was wrong. Maybe the atlas I had only listed towns that had a State Farm affiliate agent? Just kidding. Jackson is just too small and isolated to be on all maps, with a population just over 200. There are lots of places like that–and the people from these places often hold up their unmapped status as a point of pride. (There’s a town in western Nebraska that has a population of 2. It’s a must see, their house/city hall/library/school.)

I found out that Jackson, Nebraska was a real place when I started researching the life of notorious Omaha political and crime boss Tom Dennison during the early stages of writing Hyphenates. Dennison grew up in an Irish settlement in northeast Nebraska by the name of St. John’s. The settlement never really took hold and died off once its priest left–the Catholic parish still exists, St. Pat’s–but a town remained even after the settlement broke. A town named, of course, Jackson.

This was kind of weird to discover. I’d already planned, before finding this in the research, to set some scenes in a fictional town based in part on the place where Tom Dennison grew up, and I was committed to calling the place Jackson County, due to connections in my body of work that I wanted to play off of. Little did I know that the town was already called Jackson.

This kind of freaked me out, but I wasn’t too concerned about it. For one thing, the real Jackson wasn’t on the map, so it was an honest coincidence. Also, I like the connection there between Tom Dennison and my fictional lead character, Jacob Bressler, and my previous work set in fictional Jackson. I’d meant to draw that line anyway, so if it’s a little more real, so much the better, right? There should always be a distinction between fictional places and real places in fiction, of course, even if a lot of the work of the writer is to help the reader forget that what they’re reading isn’t real. Even my Omaha isn’t the real Omaha, of course.

The Blankenfeld homestead, settled in 1885.

I ended up going through Jackson twice in 2010. Jackson is only 80 miles away from Niobrara, Nebraska, where some of my family comes from and still lives. I first ended up in Jackson when headed up to Niobrara for a funeral. (The second time was for a family reunion.) It wasn’t something I planned. My brother Matt and I were just going along the highway when we happened into Jackson. “Oh, shit,” I said, seeing a historical marker about the place. We stopped for some doughnuts and Mello Yellow. It was kind of surreal to be there. My fictional Jackson County is partially based on the area around Niobrara–and my forebearers who settled there, the Blankenfelds. I was thinking a lot about the landscape as we made the drive, and about those small towns, thinking through my novel at the same time. And then we ended up in Jackson. We just happened to stop in.

Turns out I’m in good company with Sherwood Anderson. The connection between one of my favorite writers excites me, and makes a special series of connections even better. Small world.

A/V Club-Ken Burns’ Prohibition: The Time is Now

Has everybody (or anybody) been watching Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary Prohibition this week? It’s really fascinating how much the face of the United States was changed in order to bring about Prohibition–and how it was largely anti-German sentiment surrounding America’s entry into World War I that was finally “the home run” for Prohibitionists, as most of the brewers were German-American, of course.

Below is a section that is period-relevant to the book I’m working on. The bit on the anti-German wave and World War I starts around 8:13.

For some reason I have real trouble getting stuff from PBS to embed correctly, so here’s the link: http://video.pbs.org/video/2082716396. Hopefully that works, and I’ll keep trying.

September in Review (2011)

Here's where the novel draft stands now. There's a whole book in there somewhere.

Just in case you missed it, here’s what happened on here in September:

-I took a few weeks off from working on the novel–using the time to clean up a few new short stories for submission–but am now reading and editing my first complete draft. It’s a lot of fun to read so far, seeing how things come together, and where they don’t.

-The Uninitiated released its comprehensive and authoritative rankings of MFA and PhD programs in creative writing. The University of Texas at Austin took the top spot.

-My review of Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine was accepted for publication by The Iowa Review Online, and will appear shortly in the month of October.

-My review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Below—previously accepted for publication by Prairie Schooner—has been scheduled to run in the Spring 2012.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“The noise was so frightening that Jacob couldn’t stand still. He had to move his feet, around in the crowd, or he felt like someone was going to take a shot at him. A block over there was a nervous cop who sprayed shotgun fire into the air whenever someone approached the car he guarded. The cascading noise of tumbling glass was punctuated by the fraught screams of woman in jeopardy. Or maybe that wasn’t it at all, what Jacob thought he heard. Maybe that was the sound of a woman’s prurient cheer as government windows were smashed to shards. There was the roar of voices, people fighting and being hurt. The flash of small arms erupting. The police sirens, their barking orders. The steam valve had been blown clean off and Jacob couldn’t stay where he was. He had to run into it, into the noise and fighting. He had to see everything, to document it in his mind. Speeding cars rushed into the crowds. Young men jumped on the sideboards of cars to swing around to where the action was. There were cars with Sicilians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Serbians. Once word of the melee spread, anyone who wanted to take a swing at a cop made a bee-line to Scandal Flats. A gang hijacked a streetcar and plowed into the mess, clanging the bell to announce their audacity. Teenage boys and musky husbands rushed out of houses with whatever hammer or club or bat they could lay hands on, and then hopped in a taxi to get there fast. A mechanical rumble filled the atmosphere. Roadsters and jalopies, homemade in Little Italy garages, swung recklessly around the blocks. They swerved to miss people and each other. Jacob couldn’t always see the cars but he could hear their pop-pop motors hammering at full throttle a block away, spreading echoes between buildings, echoes that bounced back from the high-rises of downtown. Trucks, commissioned or otherwise, hopped hot over the pavement to load up with furniture or produce or women’s clothes. Taxis slumped cockeyed and labored up the hills, packed full inside, passengers on the footboards.

Sixteenth & Harney Streets, circa 1919.

“People shouted out to groups of strangers any news they heard. There was lots of talk in the mob about the smutty details of the rape—conjecture about Will Brown’s body in relation to the girl’s. They made him out to be huge, a towering man, arms like a gorilla’s, legs like a mule’s. They talked about Agnes Loebeck as if she was a little girl, pious and pure, like she only ever wore little white Sunday dresses, like she picked berries in a pristine field, like she’d never even heard of anything like a dick before.”

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

Bomb for “Shame Cycle.”

Just Finished

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Eh.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. I really enjoyed this book, and can see why it’s often noted as Cather’s finest. I was surprised at how Modernist this novel is, it’s really quite innovative, as I’d always thought it was more of a Victorian, continental-style book for young women than anything. I stand corrected. A masterful work.

Also, if you haven’t heard this NPR piece by Bradford Morrow on My Antonia, you should really check it out. Here’s part of what Morrow has to say:

What’s interesting about My Antonia is how it manages to function as a perfectly inviting story for young readers, and how an adult willing to revisit it with a more developed critical eye can appreciate it for the subtly sophisticated narrative it truly is. In this regard, it’s not unlike a wildly different book, Alice in Wonderland. Great fun for kids, psychologically captivating for grownups.

Now Reading

Shadow Traffic by Richard Burgin.

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Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda.