September in Review (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

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

Sixteenth & Harney Streets, circa 1919.

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

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

Bomb for “Shame Cycle.”

Just Finished

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Eh.

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

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

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

Now Reading

Shadow Traffic by Richard Burgin.

Up Next

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda.

Weeks of July 3 – Aug 4, 2010

This last weekend we spent some time in Niobrara, Neb. at the Blankenfeld family reunion. As you may know, I’ve been working with my Grandma on some ancestry projects over the past year, and it was nice to share some of the fruits of that labor. I’ve also been using some of the Blankenfeld family lore as a model for Jacob Bressler in my novel-in-progress The Hyphenates of Jackson County. In this regard, the trip was especially significant for me.

On the Blankenfeld homestead with my Grandma Cleo and Mother Marta.

We were able to visit the original Blankenfeld homestead site, where Jacob and Maria settled in 1885. Although no structures remain—there was a hill where the original dugout had been—it was pretty cool to just stand there and appreciate the terrain. The area hadn’t seemed especially rocky and hilly before, in my previous trips to the area, until I imagined trying to cultivate it by hand. Later, we stopped into a museum of sorts that was made from the preserved farm of my Great-Great-Grandfather Henry Blankenfeld. He’s the model for Jacob in the novel–visually, and some of his history as the son of immigrants–so it was really exciting to walk through the house and barn he built himself, to eat an apple from a tree he planted, to descend the staircase his wife descended on the day they were married.

It’s always difficult to appraise how valuable experiences like these will be to my work. For one, who knows where the writing is going to take me. Will I need to know what the grass smells like? The flora? The fauna? Or how the sky there has its own unique blue, the air a particularly humid cloyingness? Also, in Hyphenates, Jacob comes from a different part of the state, one with a terrain closer to Omaha’s than Niobrara’s. So it isn’t like I can just sit down and make a sketch of the landscape to use in the novel.

The Blankenfeld homestead, originally settled in 1885.

Mostly it’s just helpful to be there, to be put in a spot that’s loaded with memories specific to my family, and where events took place that were crucial to my very existence. I’ve always had the kind of memory that retains periphery details well, so it’s a great benefit to just listen to stories, especially while smelling the grass and listening to the leaves in a tree. It isn’t that I necessarily came away with anything specific that I can add to the story—and I’m not saying I didn’t, I just don’t know yet—but it feels like I’ve gained a much better appreciation of what it was like to be alive in a time other than my own, even if it isn’t the exact era I’m writing about. And that’s something that can’t really be replicated in an archive or by looking at old photographs. It’s getting caught up in other people’s memories, and not just that, but doing so while standing on the very ground where things happened.

Dispatch from “Shame Cycle”

“Anna was sixteen when she approached you at a downtown record store and you began seeing her not long after that. This was the summer before your freshman year of college, when she invited you to a party and claimed possession of your body, parading you around the smoky rooms of parties. You considered it a move up in social scene from the part-time Nu Metal rebels you knew in high school to this career class of punks. The hard-drinkers, veteran sludge rockers, and sometimes transients who pocked the city so visibly in those days. These were people Anna exposed you to, her friends. They hitchhiked to New York and ran drugs from the Mexican border for South Omaha gangs, they bought a tattoo gun to save trips to the parlor, they had shaved-in mullets and handlebar mustaches, they screamed swear words into ice cream parlors as protests against capitalism. These people were the real deal as far as you were concerned then—or as close to it as one could get in Omaha.”

Maddie and Cocoa up on a Missouri River vista.

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

BOMB for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Zoetrope: All-Story for “The Current State of the Universe”; Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Indiana Review for “The Housekeeper”; Caketrain for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.” My story “Shame Cycle” was a finalist for Matrix Magazine’s LitPop Awards, but it did not end up winning. There was no consolation prize.

Just Finished

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman. An outstanding collection. Highly recommended. I liked it so much that I’ve written a glowing review of it, one that will hopefully be published soon.

Windmill at dusk.

Now Reading

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed.

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!