I learned yesterday that I’ve been awarded a two-week residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts! I’ll be going in the spring of 2010 and will be working on my novel-in-progress.
The Open City
Month of Sept 14-Oct 11, 2009
“When you read proof, take out the adjectives and adverbs wherever you can. You use so many of them that the reader finds it hard to concentrate and he gets tired. You can understand what I mean when I say ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand because the sentence is clear and there is nothing to distract your attention. Conversely, the brain has trouble understanding me if I say ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on green grass trampled by passers-by, sat mutely, looking about timidly and fearfully.’ This doesn’t get its meaning through to the brain immediately, which is what good writing must do, and fast.”
-Anton Chekhov in a letter to Maxim Gorky
I’m usually a bit leery of prescriptive revision techniques, maybe because they seem like a hard way of doing something I might not want to do in the first place. However, there’s one such strategy I’ve really come to rely on in revision. I’m unable to track down whose idea this is, but the basic idea is to cut 10% of the length from what you think is the final draft. This is generally a pretty hard thing to do but it puts a lot of pressure on each and every word and description to pull its own weight. Typically it starts off cutting unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, as Chekhov advises above, although there usually aren’t enough of these to meet quota, so it becomes clearer that a certain paragraph is kind of superfluous, or that the third flashback is a bit indulgent. The rule seems a bit too arbitrary on its face, but it’s never really done me wrong. It requires a lot of hard work and difficult decisions, of course, but that’s the point. You can’t be soft anymore: you have to kill your darlings. And assuming the core of the story remains, it almost always will be better as at eighteen pages than it was at twenty.
For most of the past four months I’ve been at work revising the first part of my novel. This includes many different styles of revision, from writing freely within the document on the computer to expand scenes and explore point-of-view in new ways, to writing new scenes with brand new characters in order to find ways to recast the emotional feel of characterization and scene, to using crude statistical measure to rethink structure, to letting the ink flow freely on a hard copy edition. At one point Part I had grown to 160 pages. This was much too long, but I wanted to lay all my cards on the table, so to speak. Coming into last week I’d pared it down to a much more manageable 112 pages, which is where the 10% rule came into play. You’ll have to excuse me, because I only made it down to 104 pages, four short of my goal. But it still feels pretty good, I must say. There’s more to do, but I don’t want to get carried away at this point.
I’ve been plugging away at Part II as well, mostly revising the first forty pages or so to present in workshop for the class I’m taking right now. I really like how this part is coming together. I’ve been working here with a much looser outline and feel like it’s a better strategy for me. Instead of plotting out each move, I set a goal to meet in each chapter (something like getting a character to a certain place physically and emotionally) with a group of benchmarks to achieve throughout. (This is how I outline short stories as well, by the way.) This way I can follow the characters more, let them move more freely, without too much of a constrictive superstructure. All’s well that ends well, but the overly specific outline used in Part I will probably have to be scrapped for the most part. It will be useful for setting goals and benchmarks, as most of my ideas are in there, even though it seems stupid to stick so closely to something when the story wants to go elsewhere. Yes? Hopefully this will save a lot of time in revision if I’m not fighting things in the drafting stage.
Dispatch from The Open City
“It worried Esther, the way Michael was terrified of cars. She’d seen him walking many times (anyone who drove in midtown with any frequency would have seen him, a constant pedestrian of city streets) and she had an idea of the misery he struggled with. Esther had secretly watched him jump back from the street for no apparent reason, startled by the rumble of a passing truck or the screech of bald tires on an oil slick road. Or how he was sometimes compelled to walk in the grass strips that fronted small businesses when he sensed the dark energy of an impending collision, dreading that moment of terror when an oncoming motorist jerks their wheel suddenly away, remembering almost too late that they’re not the only one on the road. Michael only rode with Esther when absolutely necessary, angled tensely in the passenger seat. It wasn’t healthy, this behavior, but Esther didn’t know what she could do to help.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Near Misses
Opium for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Cream City Review for “The Man Who Never Was”; South Dakota Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; and Copper Nickel for “From Indiana.” And as previously noted in this blog, my review of Lydia Peelle’s short fiction collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing was accepted for publication by Prairie Schooner!
Exiles by Ron Hansen. I wasn’t into this so much at first but the final eighty pages or so were really quite good. Hansen spent an awful lot of time on the history lessons of the novel, something that pushed me out of the story. Much of the Kulturkampf stuff was pretty interesting, however. Once we actually got into the action of the sinking of the steamship Deutschland and the tragic series of events that led to the early demise of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins the book became intensely engaging. It surprised me how much I felt for Hopkins and his plight as a Jesuit priest, being transferred around and misunderstood.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Just started this one yesterday and read nearly a hundred pages, which is pretty good for me, a slow, slow tortoise reader. Aside from some questionable exclamation point usages, this one really has me on the hook.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
Link of the Week
Duotrope’s Digest. An unsurpassable database of literary journals, magazines, webzines, and other publications looking for submissions. This is a must for any writer looking for new markets, and was how I found homes for my work in Flatmancrooked and Johnny America. The random market feature is kind of fun too.
Prairie Schooner. Since we’re going with Duotrope up top, lets go with an old standard here. And since I’m now a Senior Fiction Reader at PS, go ahead and send us your very best work soon. Our reading period is currently open.
Weeks of Aug 31-Sept 13, 2009
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.
Week of August 23-30, 2009
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!
Week of August 16-22, 2009
I’ve moved out of analysis mode and back into the grunt work of writing new material again, starting fresh for Part II. So out go the contemplation of statistics and in come character sketches, source material, and all sorts of different frustration. It’s always such a shock to the system to go from finishing up a draft to working from the void again. That being said, I feel pretty good about the first week of it. Pumped out around twenty-five pages of rough draft and have had a lot of ideas about where I’m heading, structure, aesthetic. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what this section should look and sound like, and am getting there as far as plot is concerned. When I began writing Part I of the novel, I had a detailed outline and numerous files of sketches and half-scenes that I used for kindling. A lot of the work was in arranging, filling out scenes, and making it work for the novel, since much of the material were “darlings” cut out of other stories. It seemed like a good plan, but there was a major problem. It didn’t really work. Five drafts and a complete rewrite later, Part I is almost completely different from what I’d planned it being. It’s taken a lot of flexibility and hard work to get it into decent shape, not to mention infinite patience and precise feedback from my agent. (Thanks, Nicole, wherever you are.) Being that I didn’t want to fall into the same quagmire again, I decided to take a different tact to writing the rest of the novel—working much more loosely with plot in a way that allows the story and character to emerge more organically. The drawback of this approach is that it requires a lot of feeling blind. We’ll see how it goes, but I like where I’m headed. It has been particularly interesting this time around in that Part II is the first of three historical sections of the novel, starting out in the summer of 1918. This is the year the US actually had soldiers fighting in World War I and is the year before the Red Summer that plays so prominently later in the book. Plus, the Cypriot character is coming up soon, which is exciting. Wish me luck! (I plan to write more next week on how I’m approaching the Historical Novel as form, dealing specifically how I plan to focus on storytelling while keeping the end product as historically real as possible.)
Dispatch from The Open City
“In the seizing moment of their struggle Jacob saw himself as this man must have saw him, a brief flashing image of a country boy in a worn out suit, arms grown too long for the jacket, the necktie flipped sideways because it hadn’t been tied correctly. Jacob’s face was smooth and dirty, his hair cut shabbily, bangs grown too long over his forehead, his lips and ears turning crimson. But it was his own hands that Jacob noticed most of all, his whopping large, able hands. With one mitt he held the man steady, with the other he still clutched the bridle, his grip firm despite the man’s and the horse’s pulling. It occurred to Jacob that he could whip this man, this drunkard who was trying to hustle him. Jacob was strong, a head taller than most men, blessed with the kind of large country-strong hands that had made him a natural at handling a pick axe or the arms of a plow. It wouldn’t have taken much to beat this man into submission, to separate him from the bridle and toss him towards a sewer drain. At home, the mere threat of Jacob’s violence was enough to scare off the other boys. This man seemed somehow oblivious to his disadvantage. It was as if he was daring Jacob to knock his lights out, as if it made no difference to him whether he was beaten or not.”
Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Ploughshares asked for more after rejecting “The Current State of the Universe.”
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. I’ve really been enjoying this one and am racing towards the finish. If only I still had six to eight hours of reading time a day, but gainful employment beckons each afternoon and evening. Franzen’s characters in this novel are compelling because they are so completely lost, teetering on the brink of losing the status that protects the middle-class from devolving into the sort of people who live below them, whoever that may be they’re not always sure. It sounds trite, but for anyone who (like Martin Probst) has fought to rise into the middle or beyond, these cautionary tales can be quite frightening.
Week of August 9-15, 2009
For the past few weeks I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the shape of the first part of my novel, The Open City. It’s kind of amazing how productive this has been in revision, but worrying more about aesthetics, even how a table of contents would look, has helped quite a bit. I’ve gone to shorter chapters, cutting things up so that they might read faster. That has worked, but more than anything this has helped with plot. In the process of going to a more frequently divided narrative it somehow freed me to see what scenes belonged here in Part I, what scenes should be saved for later, and what parts should be cut outright. About thirty pages were cut in this way, which has transformed Part I into something much tighter and entertaining than before. What I did was make a few charts that illustrate different elements of how I was using the actual “on the page” space of the novel, allowing me to do a crude statistical analysis—things such as the length of each chapter, how many pages were devoted to each main character, how much space I was using for flashback, etc. Knowing these things then allowed me to see where I was over-compensating for a character, or where I was deficient, or where I was using up valuable space to introduce characters who really wouldn’t drive the narrative forward until later in the book. With this kind of knowledge, the necessary cuts were much easier to identify and execute. There’s really no end to how far an author could apply objective statistical analysis to their writing, but I wouldn’t really want to be the first to apply Sabermetrics to literature. Perhaps I’ve said too much already… Has anyone heard of other ways to use objective measures to analyze their writing? I’d be interested in reading about such things. Benjamin Percy’s article in the last Poets & Writers on “The Geometry of Dialogue” was along these lines, but not quite the same thing, as it was more of a way of thinking about writing than actually analyzing what was on the page.
Dispatch from The Open City
“As she raced the freeway loop towards downtown, Esther tried to push these negative thoughts out of her mind because, on a personal level, she hadn’t truly wanted to be out in the middle-of-nowhere investigating swine malfeasance in the first place. The mere act of returning to the city was energizing her. The rattling freeway speed, the natural selection of inner city traffic, the barking vibrations of city noise—these always agitated a lustful, urban dynamism inside of Esther that she was eager to indulge. So, nearing her exit, nervous energy swelled within her chest at the thought of being with Michael, her fiancé. She would soon be back in the city indulging in the quasi-glamorous social life of a successful young professional in her mid-twenties and couldn’t be happier about it. It was Friday and she planned to take the weekend off for a change.”
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. I don’t think my previous reservations about the collection (that it is a little too consistent in pacing and tone) were really alleviated in the final few stories, but I still think that this is a damn fine book. A few of the later stories are really quite dynamic and seem to play a little more fast and loose with structure than the earlier stories do. The title story and “Shadow on a Weary Land” are especially good. Overall, the collection has what I would call an ethos that really holds the stories together. It’s not so much an overriding theme, but a way of living that the stories all seem to endorse. To quote from “Shadow,” this is the truest example what I’m talking about: “I remind myself that, though I’ve almost paid off the mortgage, this house doesn’t really belong to me. I am no more than a squatter, only passing through.” There is a great sadness in these stories, not only over man’s insignificance or cruelty, but perhaps at the point where these two facets converge with the characters’ hard earned sense of self-awareness. The stories work best when this awareness is come to gradually and, more often than not, painfully.
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. This is Franzen’s first novel, published in the late-80s. As with his immaculate novel The Corrections, he has such a great touch with the domestic scene and, in a slightly frightening way, in describing how older men go about seducing teenage girls. I’m enjoying it so far, about a quarter of the way in. Franzen has a strong sense of contemporary culture and society, but it does seem to date his work quite a bit. This phenomena seems to be the longest-lasting legacy of the eighties, however, so maybe it isn’t all the author’s fault in this case.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. For real this time.
The Historical Novelist on a Historical Tour
Wife Nicole and I went on the Gritty City tour this Sunday, a docent-guided trolley ride through downtown Omaha that highlights the dark side of our city’s history, focusing on the brothels, burlesques, and saloons that were commonplace here in the early 1900s. The idea here was that the tour, part of the Durham Museum’s education program, would add to the historical background for the novel I’m working on.
I was already familiar with much of the historical information the tour covered, but there were a few new things. Supposedly, the netting which to this day still covers the Douglas County Courthouse was put up in response to the Omaha Race Riots of 1919, when the windows were smashed out and the building eventually fire-bombed by a lynch mob demanding that Will Brown be released to them. Being that I’m at the courthouse on a daily basis for my reporting gig, I’d often wondered about the netting, so it was kind of cool to find out that bit of information. Especially as the lynching of Will Brown is the basis for a critical section of my novel The Open City. Synergy! To take this even further, when we first moved to Omaha four years ago, it was on a walk to the Old Market that I first noticed the netting and wondered what it was all about, because it is kind of weird. (My first thought actually was that the nets were to prevent people from throwing things at the courthouse, but that seemed kind of stupid at the time. Turns out I was standing very near the spot where the lynching had taken place. Now I know.
Speaking of the Brown lynching, I was a little surprised that this particular historical episode was included on the tour—not because it isn’t significant, but because there was definitely a whimsical tone to the trip. The lynching was treated with the upmost respect and solemnity, as it deserves, but it always strikes me as odd when people try to make history “fun” and “colorful.” Many of the anecdotes were funny in a way, but there’s something perverse about cracking jokes on mob hits and girls being forced into prostitution. I guess it would be harder to sell tickets to a tour that treated dark and depressing history as if it were dark and depressing history. So it goes.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Gritty City was in how few of Omaha’s landmarks have been preserved. Most of the time we were idling in one parking lot listening to a story about a place that is now another parking lot. Omaha’s immigrant and labor history is so rich, but it’s all been whitewashed over the past couple decades. Jobber’s Canyon was torn down when ConAgra wanted a new corporate campus; the old City Hall and Omaha Bee buildings were lost for the Woodman tower; the buildings of the old red light district and free hospital for the Freedom Center, the Holland Center, and the Courtyard by Marriott. And, of course, so much space is required for the parking needs of all these places that they bleed over onto even more land. I realize that Omaha would be a pretty sad place without such incarnations of progress, but it is sad that nothing more could have been done to preserve what the city was while transforming it into what it now is.
Anyway, I believe the tour will help me with The Open City. If nothing else, I picked up some valuable slang and lingo from the era. How else could I have come across such great terms and names as Hell’s Half-Acre, the Queen of the Tenderloin, Scandal Flats, and the Everlay Brothel. I’m pretty sure I misheard this last one, but I’m sticking with it!
Week of August 2-8, 2009
Doing the final work on the rewrite of Part I. It’s taken since March to get to this point, but I feel much more comfortable with what I’m doing now. Having gone from 100-pages of a third-person POV focusing on one character to 115-pages of a first-person narrator (who is a minor character) writing through the POV of three other characters, it feels like a pretty big accomplishment just to make it back to this point. Still not quite where I need to be, probably, but I’m getting there. Expanding the POV and playing with the notion of a first-person narrator acting as an omniscient third-person narrator has been very freeing in terms of character development. It came about from two main catalysts, the first being my agent’s suggestion that I had been writing the novel as if it were a really long short story—meaning, among other things, that I was locked too strictly into the limited POV of one character, ignoring potential angles other characters could add to the story. Second, was the need to kind of energize the voice, giving the voice of the story an angle within itself by allowing the narrator to have a stake in things, biases, etc. Basically, taking advantage of the big canvas I’m working with. The work seems to be much better and more interesting too. I’m looking forward to starting on Part II soon!
Dispatch from The Open City
“The animal pushed its pink nose out the sleeve to sniff the air, its rat nose twitching as Michael watched with disgust from a few feet away. Michael rubbed the knot on the back of his head, he ran his fingers through his hair, then reached back, realizing that books too can be weapons, tapping the bindings of the volumes near him until he found a thick one.”
Short Story Work
Put the finishing touches on a draft of “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again” and submitted it to the Esquire Fiction Contest just before their deadline. They mandated the title, by the way. I kind of like how it ended up, but it was a little frustrating to have to send off this version. With the generous help of one of my readers (Travis) it became apparent that the story should be set in the main character’s office building rather than his apartment. I’ll have to do a rewrite before the year is over.
Dispatch from “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again”
“The girl didn’t run when she saw Andy walking towards her, but held to the door handle dumbly, kind of pinching her legs together, bending at the waist. She wore old tennis shoes, the laces gray and dingy, and had a skinned knee, a bloody spot turned black on her dark legs. Up close, Andy assured me later, there was a dovish quality to her eyes. The girl had orange irises that flashed desperation.”
Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Indiana Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.” McSweeney’s and One Story had previously sent very nice personal emails rejecting “The Current State of the Universe.” These near misses can often be misleading, but hopefully a big publication is on its way soon.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. After reading this novel, it makes me think that maybe 2666 was mostly finished after all. Bolano definitely has a propensity for ending narrative threads in an abrupt and ragged manner. Probably another “ambitious but failed novel,” but Bolano is just so pleasurable to read I didn’t really care. Great book!
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. About half-way through and really enjoying it, despite some reservations. In her Times review, Maria Russo notes that the collection is “remarkably consistent in pacing and tone,” which seems to be its biggest failing, in my eyes. Each story is great, but they all seem to hit the same notes and almost all are written from a first-person POV. Peelle is obviously adept at finding and inhabiting a character’s voice, which is a highly enjoyable aspect of her work, it’s just that when each story reads and feels the same, they kind of lose their power, I think. I’m hoping the second half of the collection offers a little more variety.
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Also, please check out my story “The Uninvited Guests” on the website of Johnny America if you haven’t yet.