Weeks of Sept 11 – Oct 10, 2010

I promised more on the Cincinnati Review Schiff Prize, so here you go.

First, let’s do the numbers.

This is my 11th short story selected for publication.

…the 13th short story publication.

…the 17th publication overall, counting four reviews.

…the 2nd contest won.

“Attend the Way” is the 5th honorable mention in a contest.

Of all the contests I’ve entered, 4% of the stories have won.

…12% have received some sort of recognition.

Also, the very nice editors of the Cincinnati Review asked me to pen a commentary piece for their blog about the process of writing “The Current State of the Universe.” Fiction Editor Michael Griffith has this to say about the story:

The piece is a fantastic example of a high-concept story that manages to do wonderfully playful, inventive things without ever feeling like a riff or a vehicle for an author who’s showing off his chops. Wheeler perfectly and poignantly balances the psychological plight of his protagonist with the high-wire act of the story’s conceit.

The only thing I’d add to the linked commentary is to mention that “Current State” has gone through quite a few incarnations over the past few years. One early morning in the fall of 2007 I woke suddenly with the first few lines of the story and somehow convinced myself to rise before dawn and start up my laptop—which was a fifteen minute ordeal of loading and errors at that point. I’m not a morning person, so I didn’t write for long, probably less than an hour. As mentioned in the TCR blog, this was a story I’d been kicking around for a while and was just something I wanted to play around with. I did come up with a three or four page vignette that I thought was kind of funny and quirky. It wasn’t really something I thought would turn into a whole story though. The following spring, for the first night of a Susan Aizenberg-led graduate workshop at Creighton University, we were directed to bring in a short piece of our work as a means of introducing ourselves to the group. I brought the vignette because it was funny—plus it’s better to save the dark, rape-and-stabbing-filled material for later in the semester, as to gain some sense of normalcy in the minds of fellow workshoppers before trying to scare them later on with insights of mankind’s dark side. (That’s just a joke, I never actually did anything like that.) To my surprise, the small start I had received a very warm reception. So I kept at it.

This was also the semester when Maddie Annie was born, so this story has some larger significance for me. There were more than a few nights spent in the nursery chair with my laptop working on this story all night, listening to our newborn sleep. There are so many pleasant memories of those wonderful and difficult months: the blue luminescence of her jaundice-fighting lights, playing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on repeat because Maddie would sleep if it was on, and being dead tired all the time but having the will to fight through it and work past what used to be the point of no return.

Dispatch from “The Current State of the Universe

“The real trouble started after I left for college. A string of MIPs and DUIs followed my initiation into a fraternity and occasioned my expulsion from the same institution. My grades were adequate but my moral certitude was flagging. My father was a strong believer of so-called ‘small town values.’ He believed in the agrarian movement and intimated that maybe the Capital City, or a libertine school, wasn’t the best place for me. But I didn’t agree and was eighteen years old. It was important I learned to stay out of trouble on my own, I insisted, then remained in school because it wasn’t his decision.

“It wasn’t until eight years later that I saw my father again. He bulged around the middle, but the rest of him was sickly, thin and weak from worry. He was bald then, with just a few whispers of red hair that still hung around the sides of his head and failing mustache. He’d heard a rumor from one of his parishioners about a McCook girl who was forced by circumstance to drop out of college and move back to her parents’ house. This gossip had the stain of sexual misdeed.  A freshman coed tricked into dangerous situations by an older man, tempted with alcohol, and, eventually, shuttled to an abortion clinic. I’ve forgotten some of the things they accused me of but they were all true. She was a student at Wesleyan, a confused thing when I found her. A hippie redneck invested in tie-dye tee shirts, hemp purses and cowboy hats. I never saw her again after the termination.

“When he cornered me on it, I told my father that I would never embarrass him again, something neither of us believed.”

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

Colorado Review and Hunger Mountain for “Attend the Way” and Slice for “The Housekeeper.” Of course, “The Current State of the Universe” was first-prize in the Cincinnati Review’s Robert and Adele Schiff Prize for Prose, and “Attend the Way” received honorable mention in the same contest.

Just Finished

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This is really a great book. Sometimes you read a classic and kind of wonder why it enjoys a lasting reputation of high standing, and I must admit that I’ve long been dubious of All Quiet—in no small part owing to the fact that Ernest Borgnine and Richard “John-Boy” Thomas are featured on the cover of my paperback edition, which was released after a CBS “Hallmark Hall of Fame” adaptation. But the book does not disappoint. Pretty powerful stuff.

German Workers’ Culture in the United States, 1850 to 1920 edited by Hartmut Keil. This is mostly about Labor movements in Nineteenth Century Chicago and New York, but there were more than a couple things I can probably use in my book.

Now Reading

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.

Up Next

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

Weeks of Aug 22 – Sept 10, 2010

I’ve finished a first draft of Part II of The Hyphenates of Jackson County this week. It’s pretty exciting to be 2/3 finished with a novel. It’s almost unbelievable, but I guess that’s what eighteen months of work will get you.

This section, now sitting at 161-pages, was pretty close to be done back in late spring. (That should come down to around 125-pages soon.) However, as discussed in my previous update, there was quite a bit of research that I needed to plow through before I could finish the draft. Even now I’m not so sure that I know quite as much as I should, but that seems to be the nature of historical research. Once you learn something that is truly helpful, it opens another half-dozen related subjects that can be explored—and sometimes seem like they should or must be explored. Even just browsing through a works cited page can be set off a new chain. This being said, it’s becoming important to find a stopping point in the research, I think. At least for the moment.

Andrea Barrett spoke about her methods quite a bit when I saw her at the Key West Literary Seminars in 2009, talking about how she feels compelled to read everything she can on a subject before she even begins writing a historical novel or story. It’s a compulsion for her, as she explained it, something she can’t help. Then you have historical novelists like E.L. Doctorow and Edward P. Jones, both of whom did famously little research for Ragtime and The Known World, respectively.

This, in many ways, has to do with comfort level, I believe. Have I done enough? Do I know enough? Will I be exposed? And, by this, I don’t mean to imply that Barrett is insecure and that Doctorow isn’t. These are just different strategies they use. Barrett achieves authority through exhaustive research, while Doctorow uses more a general literary technique to express a sense of authority. That is, as his characters feel real to us, as we are drawn to their narratives, we can’t help but become convinced that their “historical” stories are real, even if they aren’t completely accurate. (Of course, Barrett does this too. It’s the magic of all good fiction.)

This kind of dichotomy–the part about not being completely accurate but still writing with authority–didn’t seem like it would be okay with Barrett when I saw her speak, as she has background in the sciences. And while I often feel that way too—being that I have faith in the process of research to reveal things as they’re needed, if the work is put in—history is so complex that too much accuracy can weigh down a book. It’s hard to strike that balance, but I suppose that is the definition of the job, for any writer, to take something complex and make it comprehensible without having to state all the facts.

Thinking of it this way, maybe I do have enough information for now. And it’s more a matter of distillation. We’ll see. The self-reading and revision begins in earnest on Monday.

-Speaking of research. Reading through some old news articles, I may have found some explanation for why Dennison’s family gravesite is so modest—as discussed earlier this year in this post. As stated by an Omaha World-Herald retrospective from Sunday, May 9, 1965:

If [Dennison] had accumulated great wealth, there was no trace of it after his death. The inventory of his estate […] listed 10 thousand dollars in promissory notes ranging from one hundred to 11 hundred dollars. Most of them represented loans to friends, and in many cases they were long past due. Also listed in the estate were two men’s watches and several diamonds.

His safety deposit box held “three empty wallets, a memorandum of trust set up for his daughter, a letter from an outstate man asking help in getting a job, some dust and several paper clips.” So maybe Dennison was broke by then, and that explains why he wasn’t interred in an ornate mausoleum like many of his Omaha contemporaries were.

I’m still a little skeptical of this theory, however. For one, his funeral was one of the largest in city history. But mostly, wouldn’t it make sense that a man who made his fortune in organized crime and graft would be able to hide his wealth from the government? Would you expect to find any trace of his wealth? It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility–as Dennison certainly did give away much of his money to needy causes, almost always anonymously–but I’m a little dubious, let’s say.

-The review I did of Ben Greenman’s collection, What He’s Poised to Do, received a couple nice mentions in the last week. On the blog of pioneering literary journal One Story, and on From Your Desks.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“There was more traffic downtown but it was limited to the streets, cars full of young men driving in circles. They revved their motors and the barking noise of their mufflers echoed off the porticos of the buildings where their fathers worked. These were high school boys and girls out having fun, all of them Anglos, maybe some college men out to find a girl. Jacob always hated seeing rich kids out playing on a weeknight. He hated being reminded of the leisure they were afforded, these teenagers who drove new speedsters and roadsters of bright yellow and red. Warrens and Scotties and Johns and Toms racing off in ivory suits and straw skimmer hats to a private jazz club hidden in a clump of cottonwoods along the river, an all night juke joint where they could find illicit goods like fried chicken and cold beer. They liked to buy things for their girls with money they made clerking part-time at Daddy’s office. And their girls, you couldn’t help but notice them, the plumage of a rake’s hat. Prim and pretty ones with powdered faces and lips rubbed red with jelly bean guts. Jennifers, Mauds, Bernadettes, Carols. Girls who kept Mother’s flask of brandy in the fluff of a gauzy goldenrod dress and would cause a scandal that night when they came home late, hammered, and crashed into the maid’s room by mistake.”

Just Finished

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed. I’m going to review this. A good book.

Now Reading

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

Up Next

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.