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.

Week of August 23-30, 2009

Novel Work
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.

Just Finished
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.

Now Reading
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.

Up Next
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!