The Year in Photos: 2011

January brought plenty of rewrites on the novel; "The Housekeeper" was published on now-defunct Flatmancrooked; my collection How to Die Young in Nebraska, was once again a semi-finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
February meant attending the AWP conference in Washington DC, and visiting the National Christmas Tree just weeks before it was blown over; my review of Marcy Dermansky's novel Bad Marie was published on The Millions; and we celebrated Valentine's Day with a heart-shaped black forest cake from Zum Biergarten.
In March, "How to Die Young in a Nebraska WInter" was published in The Kenyon Review; I also gave an interview for Kenyon Review Online; did a longer piece on the role of trickster characters in fiction; and "The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life" was accepted for publication in Confrontation.
April was something of a slow month, but it did include a postmortem on Flatmancrooked, and a longer piece on Ellen Horan's historical novel 31 Bond Street and the culture of big advances for unpublished authors.
Nicole and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in May with a trip to San Francisco; "The Current State of the Universe" was published in The Cincinnati Review; my review of David Philip Mullins' Greetings from Below was accepted for publication in Prairie Schooner; I wrote a longish post on the case of Willie McGee and lynchings.
In June, Mixer published "The Housekeeper" on Amazon; my review of Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy was published in Prairie Schooner; and my review of Richard Burgin's novel Rivers Last Longer ran in the Pleiades Book Review.
July suddenly took us to Tel Aviv; "On a Train from the Place Called Valentine" was accepted for publication in Boulevard; my review of Suzanne Rivecca's Death is Not an Option ran on The Millions; and we went to the Syracuse dachshund races.
August brought me to the completion of a rough draft of my novel. I also wrote a longer blog piece on what it's like to write about lynchings and other bad things.
September saw "These Things That Save Us" accepted for publication in Conversations Across Borders; I was awarded a partial scholarship to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar and Workshops; and I unveiled my own ranking of MFA programs to little fanfare.
In October, "These Things That Save Us" was published in Conversations Across Borders; my review of Rahul Mehta's Quarantine ran on The Iowa Review Online; and I did a longish piece on the real Winesburg, Ohio and how Sherwood Anderson's experience connected to my own writing of a suddenly not ficitional Jackson, Nebraska.
I turned thirty in November, and took stock of what that meant; we announced that we are having our second girl; and "The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life" was published in Confrontation.
And, finally, graciously, December. With the help of some local archivists, I was able to track down the location (and a photo) of Tom Dennison's famous house. I also started in my new position of Blog and Social Networking Editor for Prairie Schooner.

Bad Connections

As I was working on my review of Marcy Dermansky’s excellent novel Bad Marie (up on The Millions, by the way) a few ideas popped up that didn’t really fit in the review. They were mostly questions about how authors connect with readers through “bad” characters—bad meaning anything from those lacking a sense of acceptable morality, to liars, cheaters, criminals and abusers of different kinds, to those characters who are just basically losers, to curmudgeons and those who can’t keep their mouths shut. They are tricksters mostly, as they function in a literary sense.

I should note that as I began working on this post, I came across this awesome essay by Emily St. John Mandel on The Millions (“In Praise of Unlikable Characters”) which nearly silenced me here. She says many things I was thinking, and in much more lucid terms than I could manage. It’s a great read and you should check it out. Anyway, as I said, it nearly convinced me to forgo this post. Nearly. But her essay is framed around likability, which isn’t exactly what I mean to get at.

It seems counterintuitive that we would be drawn to characters of poor moral fiber, but it does make a certain amount of sense when one thinks about it. In any intimate communication, we often connect more readily with others when revealing our faults. This is why relationships bloom much quicker when we’re under the influence or on the Internet, right? It’s how we give ourselves an aura of humanity, by painting in the shadows behind us; and for a writer, it’s how we make a character real. Moreover, in both cases, it makes for a much more interesting narrative that we’re trying to sell someone on. Exhibiting faults, or having a sense of honest dishonesty, creates an intimacy that is far more satisfying than you could have with any character who’s approaching perfection.

On one level, it’s hitting at the secret fears of readers. The fears we have about what kind of people we really are—not who we try to convince others we are, or who we want to be. These are the memes attractive to introspective, personal guilt readers—a group I often fall in with—those in search of catharsis. These are the kinds of faults one cannot help, like Gregor Samsa waking from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. It hurts others, it’s bad, but he can’t help it. That’s life.

On another level, admissions of badness provide a sort of fantasy. It’s an enactment of guilty pleasure taken to extremes. This is why it’s so interesting to see a character like Marie in Bad Marie get drunk at work, or indulge in taboo sexual relationships. You get to go along for the ride, without endangering your own livelihood or marriage. I’m not sure if it’s necessary that these kinds of characters get their comeuppance in the end, but my instinct tells me that it is.

I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t interact with a text on both of these levels at the same time either. Curb Your Enthusiasm is an excellent example of this. The character Larry David, a classic trickster, has a profound capacity to expose the foibles of the society he lives in. He says what we all wish we would say—to a degree anyway—in response to the hypocrisy and idiocy we’re confronted with on a daily basis. Maybe you wouldn’t want to say it exactly like Larry does, but having the daring to speak your mind is something we all wish for at one time or another. Larry certainly has that. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The plot must be satisfied, and the fact that Larry is a spectacular screw-up means that the plot always will be satisfied. No matter how astute he may appear in pointing out the shortcomings of others, the fact remains that Larry is still a card-carrying member of the same idiotic society. He’s the one standing outside a hotel after an earthquake, draped in a bed sheet with a hole cut in it; he’s the one who must apologize to a smug Ted Danson, or sleep alone, or who embarrasses himself beyond all expectation; he’s the loudmouth who reminds you why it’s usually better to keep your mouth shut. The end of those long winding plots is where guilty pleasure and catharsis meet.

For those who read like I do, or watch TV like I do, or meet people on the street like I do, a struggling character of poor moral fiber is always more interesting. Someone who falls short of doing the right thing, whether they’re actually trying to do the right thing or not. Then it’s better if they can improve, or at least instructive if they don’t even try to. It’s more honest, and maybe more familiar to how we see ourselves and others.

February in Review

-I was lucky to see the National Christmas Tree when I was in Washington DC last month—as it fell over in a windstorm a couple weeks after I visited. My walking friend and I commented to each other at the time that the tree looked to be in pretty bad shape. Apparently it was! The tree I saw was installed during the Jimmy Carter presidency. A replacement will be planted this spring.

Another cartoon from the Evening Omaha World-Herald, from 1918, this one on the threat global domination posed to local fishermen.

-The reviews I did last year for Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil were mentioned in a couple different Best Books of 2010 lists. Here are the links:

http://bygonebureau.com/2010/12/08/best-books-of-2010/

http://robaroundbooks.com/2010/09/afterthoughts-kapitoil-by-teddy-wayne/

-A healthy portion of “Welcome Home” was put up on Google Books, as it appeared in Best New American Voices 2009. It’s not all there, but most of it is.

-“Welcome Home” was also mentioned on the news page of the Arts & Sciences College at Creighton University, where I did my MA. I should note, however, that the story may be selected for the Warrior’s Journey coursework. Nothing is official as of yet. If I hear anything I’ll be sure to post about it, as having my work included in that program would certainly be my biggest accomplishment to date. I’m very proud that they asked to use the story.

-My review of Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie was published on The Millions.

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

McSweeney’s, Epoch, and Shenandoah for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Missouri Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; and Crab Creek Review for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Just Finished

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back.”

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. A fantastic novel. Smart, melancholy and funny. I’ve only read two of his books so far, but Hemon is one of my favorite writers. He’s really great, and I need to make the time to read all of his work.

Up Next

Other People We Married by Emma Straub.

[Note: I’m trying something new with the format for these posts, going to whole months in review rather than what was turning out to be 3-4 weeks in review. It isn’t much of a change, except that I’ll be pulling the longer topical and reflective sections out and making those into their own posts. The month in review posts will be more bullet point stuff. Not much of a change in content, but more and smaller posts. Hopefully that’s a little easier to consume.]

Dermansky Review

My review of Marcy Dermansky’s novel Bad Marie is up on The Millions today!

This is my fifth published review, the fourth with The Millions. Two more are scheduled for print journals this summer, one of Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy in Prairie Schooner and of Richard Burgin’s Rivers Last Longer in Pleiades.

Bad Marie is really a good book and an excellent read. It’s a rare combination of being both literary and a good summer read. Highly recommended, in particular, for any fans of French film. The review goes into this, but its depiction of Paris is very enjoyable.

Weeks of Jan 7 – Jan 27, 2011: When to Rewrite

For the past few months I’ve been working on a rewrite of my novel. A lot of the process has been interesting and fun. It’s kind of nice to open up long-settled writing and start playing with things like point-of-view, voice, and structure again. Of course, there are some not-so-fun aspects too. Probably the worst, at least emotionally, is figuring out if you’re at the point when a rewrite is necessary, or not. I doubt anyone really wants to take on such a large project that’s essentially redoing work you thought was done, work you may be pretty proud of. There’s so much emotional turmoil that comes with starting over. You start thinking of wasted months, years, the thousands of words that have already been thrown out. And that’s before you start reconsidering POV and structure, the rhythm and tone. It’s questioning your very way of being. It’s a painful threshold to cross. As I’ve been working through this, I wondered how others might confront this problem. Please comment if you have some tips or ideas, or what might be some helpful reading. I’d love to hear them.

In the meantime, here’s how I’ve handled it.

Generally my revision process is tied closely to my submission cycle, especially with short stories. The main thinking here is that, after a dozen rejections, you should have an idea of how a story is being received. Even if editors aren’t sending back hand-written notes or requests to see more work, such silence can still mean something. After a while, the feedback and notes, or lack thereof, point to a course of action. From there, you can ascertain whether the piece needs some tweaking or an overhaul. (Or maybe a trash can.) With short stories, getting positive notes helps point me to what stories are hot or close. I keep close track of them. I may let it roll unchanged then, or it may push me to take a really hard look at what may be a winning revision, knowing that it’s on the verge of acceptance. For the novel, it’s harder because the piece is so much larger. But feedback from agents can be invaluable, if you know how to read what they’re saying. I think the most common cause of an agent rejection is that they don’t connect on a personal level with the material, which can really mean anything. So, is it just that, a missed connection with an individual, or is there a more serious problem with the manuscript. How do you know? This is where volume comes into play. Getting a bunch of rejections can be a good thing, if there’s feedback involved. If you keep hearing the same thing over and over, that’s probably a sign of what the problem is. It’s pretty simple.

With my current novel, I’d received feedback from a half-dozen agents. This isn’t a ton, but all of them gave pretty specific reasons why they felt the book wasn’t right for them. Some of them were kind of dubious of my going from a collection of edgy, contemporary stories to writing a historical novel. I wondered if there’s something about historical fiction that precludes it from being edgy, but realized that that probably wasn’t the problem. It was the way my book was structured, the way I was trying to shelter my protagonist from doing bad things—which is a problem, since I have trouble writing “nice guys”—and the way I sometimes allowed the history to overpower the story and how this also put a dry, scholarly slant to the narrative voice. (And a lot of this came from my having to figure out the history too. It was hard to understand the scope and structure of the story while I was still learning new, game-changing things about the history I’m dealing with. I put a lot of stock in the idea that we think best through writing. It just took me a lot of words to grasp these ideas.) I couldn’t see these problems without my clutch of rejection notes, which is the larger point here. It sucks to struggle through a stack of rejections, but this is why I’ve always enjoyed the process of submitting stories. I’ve been pretty lucky to get some nice feedback from editors and agents—that’s a big part of it—but the process is such a great motivator, conscience, and teacher as well. It makes you be honest with yourself about what’s actually on the page, the quality of the work, and what more you’ll have to wring out of it to make the story a success.

I’m not sure if there’s any other way for me to write besides building out of a series of failures. Maybe I’m too prideful to see my mistakes until well after I’ve made them. Maybe this is how it is for everyone. In any event, I think the rewrite of Hyphenates is turning out well. This new series of stets, scribbles, false starts, and mistakes is progressing nicely.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

yé-yé girl

“It was liberating to sit on the stoop early in a May evening, in those middle-spring hours when it was warm enough for Jacob to roll up his shirtsleeves and let the air hit his skin again. It was one of the main promises of spring, that there would be more of these nights to come, barefoot and comfortable, reclined in a sturdy chair. No mosquitoes yet, no bearing-down evening swelter. The whole world was green in those hours, breezy and clear.”

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

New England Review and CutBank for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Copper Nickel and Third Coast for “These Things That Save Us.” And, of course, “The Housekeeper” was published on Flatmancrooked last week!

Now Reading

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

Just Finished

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. An interesting study of the anti-hero as filtered through French cinema. It’s pretty good! Highly recommended for all fans of movies set in Paris, or for anyone who has named their first-born child after the heroine of their favorite French film.

Up Next

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Weeks of Dec 6, 2010 – Jan 6, 2011: On Going First-to-Third

(Note: This isn’t a baseball entry.)

For the past month or so I’ve been toying with point-of-view in my novel, first going from a close third-person to first-person narrated by Jacob Bressler, my lead character. I’m not really sure what my goal for doing this was. Something just didn’t sound right with the “voice” telling the story and I wanted to try something different. Some of the feedback I’ve received from potential agents spoke to Hyphenates being a book focused on history and setting, rather than story and character, and I’m trying to break that hold. So I figured that Jacob could tell his story more succinctly, since it’s all he would care about. He wouldn’t obsess over Omaha history or factoids of the era as much as I do, certainly, and sometimes it’s easier to slip those lovelies in while in third-person. I needed a more discerning eye. It’s like how you don’t realize how embarrassing something is until you say it out loud to another person, or post it in online. But once you open your mouth, you can see things so much more clearly and objectively.

The experiment didn’t really work. Conventional wisdom says that novels shouldn’t be written exclusively, or even largely, in first-person, and I think that’s probably good advice. Around page fifty of the rework, it got pretty annoying to keep seeing and hearing that “I” all over the place. To be unable to break out of Jacob’s voice even for a minute is a problem, especially since he’s the focus of the book. But, even though I’m now in the process of reworking it back into third-person, I do think the exercise was worthwhile. It helped me see cuts and edits, and gaps where new work is needed, that weren’t apparent before. While it seemed acceptable to have a third-person narrator go into a page-and-a-half diatribe on the condition of organized labor in Omaha in 1917, having Jacob do the same was absolutely ridiculous. There were more than a few instances of this, where the scholarly, professorial voice would dominant for longish periods—and they all needed to be cut. The writing is much cleaner now, more focused and edgy in a way similar to my contemporary-set fiction.

I’d only made it through about a quarter of what I have drafted in the transition to first-person rework, but it may be worthwhile to push through the rest of it, even though I know that I’ll want it in third-person eventually. (I’ll probably want this.) I have used this technique in spots for the last year or so anyway, in fact, trying to tie the narration as closely to Jacob’s experience as I could. So much of the writing, especially in Part II, has already been rewritten, for my own benefit, in Jacob’s first-person. There’s just so much good that comes from writing around things like this. I imagine it’s similar to filmmakers shooting a scene from ten different angles, hoping to get one that looks and sounds and feels right. The dispatch below is a part I wrote new while in Jacob’s first-person, and it’s something I don’t think the third-person narrator could have come to. So there’s that.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“The bank was open when I left the saloon, it was two o’clock, but I still didn’t go there and ask for a job. The weather was nice. Again I walked downtown, but it was boring this time. No women brushed against me. My clothes disgusted them, my face was filthy. I waited out the day and then returned to the Courthouse lawn in the evening to sleep. It was warm and I’d been safe there the night before. I knew at what time to cops would come to roust me, and would make it a point to leave before they came out with their cudgels. It seemed simple. But I was arrested anyway, after midnight, for vagrancy, and put in the overnight with the drunks and other indigents. I wasn’t disappointed to be arrested, however, after I was released. At least there was black coffee this way, and in the morning a bowl of white beans with a couple pieces of fat. Otherwise I wouldn’t have eaten that morning. The whole night I wished that I’d gone to the bank that day, however. There was plenty of time for regrets in the overnight, because the drunks couldn’t keep quiet. I thought of everyone I might have wronged in my life up to this point. Any pocket of guilt that had been waxed over was reopened. I thought of you that night, Evie, and why it was you had to leave Jackson those many years before. I thought you took off on your own. It never occurred to me that they’d run you and your mother off. Not until they ran me off too.”

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

Southern Humanities Review and Hayden’s Ferry for “Attend the Way”; Electric Literature for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; and West Branch for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.”

Now Reading

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky.

Just Finished

A cover for Fortune designed by Chris Ware, by request. The magazine rejected it, of course. Pretty incredible nonetheless.

One of Ours by Willa Cather. A really great, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set mostly in Central Nebraska and Lincoln, in the late 1910s. I was lucky to pick this up at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City this fall and it’s become a fantastic resource for me. The focus of the book is even a family named Wheeler! (I’ve gone over this before, I know. Indulge me.) The final third of the book, when Claude goes over to fight in the war, is pretty sentimental and Cather panders more than a little bit to jingoistic reactionism in these parts. But overall I really enjoyed the book. Cather has never disappointed. Plus, as an added bonus, there are a bunch of good old-timey ideas for home gardens in Nebraska, for all you green-thumbs out there. We’re going to try growing gourd vines up our pergola trellis this summer, and we have Cather to thank for that.

 

The Best American Comics 2010, edited by Neil Gaiman, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. My favorites include “The Lagoon (Hiding in the Water)” by Lilli Carré, “The Alcoholic” by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel, “Asterios Polyp” by David Mazzucchelli, “The War on Fornication” by Peter Bagge, “The Flood” by Josh Neufeld, and “Fiction versus Nonfiction” by Chris Ware. Ware also had a lengthy section of his ongoing series “Acme Novelty Library” reprinted, which I had seen some of before. In 2007 he gave a standing-room-only lecture at the Sheldon in Lincoln that Nicole and I attended, and a comics pamphlet featuring some of the comic reprinted here was given out as an example of his work. It was pretty cool to get the work then and is outstanding to see the longer version reprinted in a Best American. To make it even better, the comic is set in 1950s Omaha and uses the old Omaha World-Herald building (where Nicole worked when as first moved here) as a backdrop. There have been quite a few notable artists who have come out of Omaha in the last decade, but none of them have really attained giant-status in their field like Chris Ware has. It’s something that should really get more local recognition than it does.

Rivers Last Longer by Richard Burgin. A solid literary thriller with meta-fictional treasures abound. I’m currently writing a review on this now.

Up Next

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Weeks of Jun 7 – July 2, 2010

Big Sky

Since returning from AWP in early April, I’ve been preparing to query agents, and I’m happy to report that this week I’ve finally reached the end of this process—and the beginning of the next phase of actually finding new representation. It’s taken much longer than I anticipated, mostly because of a few rewrites that became necessary in these middle stages of editing. (With big thanks to my wife Nicole for helping me to see how the shape/plot arc of Hyphenates Part I was not all it could be.) My first-choice agency requested full manuscripts almost immediately and is now deliberating. Wish me luck! Coincidentally, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a pretty big-time agent at the end of last week requesting some work. That was pretty cool. Maybe I’ll be sending him something before long, depending on how my first-choice responds.

It’s been somewhat of a weird process the last six months. My first agent left her agency right before Christmas last year, which left me without representation. It was kind of jarring at first, to be let loose like that. I’d probably put too much stock in having an agent, let my sense of self-confidence become too large based upon the fact that, like Don DeLillo, Al Pacinco and A-Rod, I had an agent out there stumping on my behalf. We worked together for over a year on my story collection and, what turned out to be failed, first novel. There were a lot of good things that came from the relationship–such as the idea to switch focus to the historical thread I’m telling with Hyphenates–and I feel much richer for the experience. But it was nice to move on, frankly, to have some free space to work out exactly what I was doing with my books, to dig deeper into myself, and to do so as a writer, rather than as a producer of potential market share. It reminded me of the reasons why I really love doing this, having the chance to indulge daily in the small acts of creation and destruction that eventually tease out a story. These six months have given me the opportunity to refine my projects considerably. And I’m thankful for them. But now, it’s time to get back in the game, to pursue book publication with all I’ve got, and to provide for my family as best as I’m able.

Next week it’s back to work on Part II, which is nearly completed in rough draft form. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll have it in some kind of acceptable shape and can move on to actually finishing the book by the end of this year. Not to jinx myself or anything.

Thanks a ton to all my readers who helped work my manuscripts into shape before I sent them off, sometimes on very short-notice. Amber, Bill, Mary Helen, Nabina, Nicole, Travis—you’re the best! And likewise for Jonis, Brent, Gregory, Justin, and Timothy, for giving advice and being advocates on my behalf. All of you are also the best.

-Nicole, Maddie and I were off in Fort Collins last weekend at a wedding. The photos in this post are from the trip.

Maddie really loves weddings.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“She was in the same clothes as before, the heavy red dress, torn and dirty by then. Her hair was thin, unpinned and breezy about her face. ‘Is that her?’ Strauss asked. ‘That’s the one you were on about last week?’ Jacob said, ‘Yeah,’ still with his hand on the Pfarrer’s shoulder, their faces close together as they stared at the girl. She was only twenty yards away from them, steadying herself against the trunk of a locust tree, one of the trees Jacob had slept under his first night in Omaha. ‘Her betrothed skipped town,’ Strauss said. It was obvious that the girl lived on the street now, that her family had turned its back on her, or she’d gone crazy and willingly exposed herself to the mutilating fractions of a city.”

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

Electric Literature for “The Current State of the Universe”; Alaska Quarterly Review for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Nashville Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.”

Just Finished

The Turk and My Mother by Mary Helen Stefaniak. The first novel of a beloved Creighton professor, this one is highly enjoyable. A kind of folksy post-modern historical novel that seems largely drawn from family history and deals with the tumultuous love lives of our parents and grandparents before we knew them. MHS has a second historical novel coming out this fall, by the way.

We drove up into the mountains in a thunder storm and didn't run over any of the many bicyclers!

Now Reading

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman.

Up Next

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall.

Books That Came in the Mail

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. Novel History by Mark C. Carnes. Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. Three Delays by Charlie Smith. The Great Lover by Jill Dawson. Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.