Winter in Review

Karbach block
The Karbach Block in downtown Omaha, where Tom Dennison’s office was located after the Budweiser Saloon closed down.

I suppose it is spring now, technically. Although Nebraska has been in its meteorological spring for a few weeks already and that hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference in the weather. Things have been pretty slow on this space for some time, and while the weather has nothing to do with that, we’ll have to do better. The main reason for this lag is that in January/February/March we sold our old house, bought a new one and moved. Pretty heady stuff for a couple with two little kids who usually have their heads buried in computers something like twelve hours a day anyway. It wasn’t so bad though. We moved from the Benson neighborhood of midtown Omaha all the way over to the Dundee neighborhood of midtown Omaha. A little over three miles. It’s been nice. The schools are better, no small concern with Maddie off to kindergarten in the fall, the sidewalks more plentiful. We traded in the Pizza Shoppe and Baxters for La Casa and Pitch, Jake’s for the Dell, Krug Park for Pageturners, dog fights for dog walkers, Benson Days for Dundee Days. It’s a whole new world. Also, the new house is quite a bit bigger, so my office is no longer a toyroom/office. That’s pretty big news in itself. Also, there’s a cemetery a block down from us, with an obstructed view of headstones from my desk, and Maddie is convinced that Jesus is buried there. We may be in for a dicey Easter this year.

Meanwhile things have been plugging along on the agent front. Nothing to really report yet, but there’s been pretty steady interest, a couple exclusives to bigger agencies, a few nibbles here and there. I always take things pretty slow, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this process will have to run its full course.

While that’s been going on I’ve been rewriting the novel from the point of views of some side characters, mostly out of curiosity and to keep occupied. I suppose, if no one is interested in the book as written, the process could take long enough for me to rewrite the whole novel in a way that’s more than an academic exercise. Not a bad contingency plan, I guess.

In other news:

-As announced yesterday, an excerpt from The Uninitiated (“River Ward, 1917”) was selected for publication by Boulevard. Also, I failed to mention that Boulevard nominated my story “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” for  a Pushcart Prize. The story was first printed in their Spring 2012 issue. This is a great honor and one I’m pleased to have received. Boulevard rules, by the way. Subscribe to them.

-The big news of the season was that my novel The Uninitiated won Tarcher/Penguin’s Top Artist Writing Contest. Read breakdowns here and here.

-My story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” was published by Midwestern Gothic in their Winter issue. (Kindle editions of the issue are currently on sale for $1, and print for $6.) I was also interviewed by MG as part of their Contributor Spotlight series. Check out the interview here.

-This weekend we’ll celebrate Clara’s first birthday. She’s been such a healthy and happy baby that it’s almost hard to remember spending her first week in the NICU, huddled around watching her O2 levels on the monitor, and how joyful it was when she came home. Happy birthday, baby!

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

Miihlstein started right away when they arrived in Omaha. In fact, there was work waiting for him in the attic, what the dead man had been toiling over when he died. Miihlstein looked taller than he really was. He was lanky, with long arms, and this made him appear tall. He preferred striped neckties held flat by a now rusty tin pin he’d made himself. He was a happy man, if distant. He was in his workshop most of the day, singing to himself or playing the violin he was working on. He had a thin mustache that was often stained by coffee and what he’d had for lunch. He hummed as he measured string and reinforced the wooden necks of the violas he was charged with reviving. He squeezed the wood with his hands to put it under stress, to find the reason it didn’t sound right anymore. Karel watched his father’s performance daily, called over, at times, if his father remembered him, to see it in detail. A red felt carpet rolled out over the worktable. Even if it was a small job, a restringing, Karel’s father pulled out all the tools in his kit. Slowly he examined them, lost in the smell of that toolkit when it was opened. Little cans of lacquer and thinner placed on the felt. Tools pulled from their nooks and leather slots. Waffled metal files, awls and emery cloth, spools of white string, spare pegs, clamps, chisels, a skinny little metal hammer. Soon wood shavings popped from the block plane as he revealed new fingerboard, then sanded it round. Notches were filed and awled for the strings. It was painted an ebullient, shiny black, endless and distinguished. Herr Miihlstein’s wire-framed glasses rode down his nose on a bead of sweat. He bit his upper lip, sucking the prickles of his mustache into his mouth to concentrate.

To Karel, it shouldn’t take so long to restring an instrument. But his father could remain occupied with a single instrument for a day or more, stretching and tuning, and playing, humming along as he plucked and bowed. Until: “Perfection!”

Karel and Anna waited for this moment: they could help with a delivery and get out of the attic. Otherwise they occupied themselves with some docile and melancholy game as Miihlstein worked. Their games often involved the war. One of Karel’s favorites was to play army surgeon with Anna’s ragdoll. She allowed this. There was great commotion in Karel’s mind as the doll was rushed from an open battlefield, the middle of a circular woven rug strewn with sock garters and newspaper crumpled into balls, and under the great bed where all four Miihlstein kids slept. Once under the bed the real fun began, their legs stuck out opposite sides. Anna was adept at enumerating injuries. She described to Karel what resulted in the field, a simple shrapnel wound in the arm that luckily avoided bone. But then. Then the ambulance was hit by mortar fire. It overturned on the road, the poor souls inside tossed over each other, compounding their maladies. Broken bones now too, fractures, splinters of glass in the wounds. A gash on the head. The driver died instantly, tragically, for he was greatly loved by his family. By the time a second ambulance had come, the poor soul that ragdoll had become was in real trouble. Anna had a nicely dark mind for these details she savored. Karel pinned the doll to the floorboards with his hands as she explained what needed to be done, an amputation. The doll’s dress was lifted to reveal the yellow cloth of its skin.

As Anna finished her treasury, Karel began. Quickly he worked, sawing with the edge of his index finger, and tucking, as if Anna wouldn’t notice, the doll’s arm into the dress. The doll’s dress was back in place, the sleeve folded up. If the poor soul was saved, he’d be pulled out from the operating theater under the bed and slid under the blankets atop the bed. “You’re in luck,” the poor soul would be told. Nothing but orange juice and nurses for a year. If the poor soul couldn’t be saved, Karel and Anna might enclose the ragdoll in a white paperboard box, take it out back of the Eigler house and bury it in the dirt. Then, into the kitchen to find some lunch.

Just Finished

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. A little disappointed (and intrigued) that James Dean’s “Say hello to your mother!” line is only in the Elia Kazan film version. A classic for good reason, nonetheless. The long tracts on the creation of the Salinas Valley and its early settlers are pretty fascinating to a guy like me, along with the more familiar sections filled with high drama and teenage angst.

The Face of a Naked Lady by Michael Rips. Part family history, part treasury of modern Omaha folk lore, Rips presents a pretty compelling story about growing up in Omaha amid racial strife, organized crime, and suburban flight while his mysterious father rose to prominence and then lost his mind. Also, it’s also an interesting treatise on the philosophical and psychological development of the American suburb as emotional landscape for those who couldn’t cope with the city. Very interesting.

Now Reading

The Slippage by Ben Greenman. I haven’t been doing many book reviews lately, but I made sure to secure an advanced copy of Greenman’s latest, which comes out late April.

Up Next

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

April in Review (2012)

The old von Schiller monument in Riverview Park. This was placed near where the main gates of Henry Doorly Zoo are now. The statue was thrown in a ditch for the duration of World War I (thanks angry mob) but was later pulled out and put back. I'm not sure what happened to it when the zoo expanded, or where it is now. Any guesses?

-My novel (The Uninitiated, for the uninitiated of you reading this) has reached it’s newest stage of done! It’s off to my trusted cadre of readers for feedback and comment. Depending on how soon I hear back from them, I hope to be nearly done-done with the novel early this summer. Then the novel will be off to agents, hoping to find representation. Exciting stuff. I’m rather fond of the book and hope it does well. It’s very exciting to have it completed. Strangely, I kind of care less about publication now that it’s finished than I did when I hardly had any of it written. Maybe I still kind of doubted I could do it. It’s always easier to dream of publishing than it is to write.

-Not much else has been going on, writing-wise. I’ve been working on a few book reviews, and toiling day and night as Web Editor of Prairie Schooner. Some highlights: navigating a reformatting tangle to get our summer issue on Kindle, helping develop a mobile app, and launching (as co-editor with Claire Harlan-Orsi) a monthly book review on Prairie Schooner’s blog. Fun stuff.

-I’m also working on a few photo features for this blog. Mostly historical Omaha stuff, but also contemporary photos of spots where things in my novel happened. I’ll get on this soon.

-Clara has been around for a month now. We’re pretty fond of her as well.

-My grandpa Wheeler died. He was eighty. He was only able to meet Clara once, on Easter, but it was pretty nice. Shouldn’t have rushed around so much. We had four generations of ____ Lynn(e) Wheelers in the same room—Billy Lynn, Dennis Lynn, Theodore Lynn, Clara Lynne. We neglected to snap a photo. Unfortunately, that turned out to be our only opportunity.

 

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“It used to be a common thing for a young man to light off secretly in the night, searching for a life different from the one he toiled through at home. Jacob Bressler became an exile in this way. He left under starlight and led his horse over the brawny shoals of what would be his brother’s farm from then on. He didn’t bother with a saddle but merely slid a bridle over the nag’s muzzle and walked out into the buggy paths of the river valley. Even in the dark he found the graveled highway that led to Omaha. There was no need to rush. He knew his brother wouldn’t follow him, not after what happened the week before. It was the kind of thing that happened a lot in Jackson County, and that’s why Jacob had to leave. He slid from his horse when he arrived on the River Ward, easing down to the pavement to land on one foot, the left one raised limp. His foot pulsed dully. He couldn’t worry about it, the Ward had his attention. It was a dark morning but he saw the dim hash marks of intersections on the hills beyond where sanitation wagons crept along knolls that slanted up from river to prairieland. There were tenements to the south, dirt-yard shacks he passed coming in from the north. The River Ward was pinned between the Missouri and downtown Omaha. It was mostly mills and warehouses, tar-topped and sturdy. There were other buildings too. Townhouses puzzled together from curb to curb, brownstones that had been fashionable once but were too close to the pig iron mills now, the constant hammering of steel and tails of factory smoke rising in the mucid morning ether. These were made extravagant, brownstone, sandstone, a blushing peach shade of brick. Jacob knew he would need money right away if he were going to survive. It hadn’t occurred to him in his rush to leave Jackson County. He was too concerned with making his life of great importance—with getting rich—that he forgot about practical things like having enough money for supper and a room. He would have to sell his horse.”

Just Finished

The Cove by Ron Rash. Set in WWI-era North Carolina, this novel deals with a German musician’s struggle to avoid anti-German violence in the rural south and a young woman’s difficulty living down the stigma of a birthmark in a superstitious town. An often beautiful and compelling novel.

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer. Really a must for anyone interested in the military history or the symbology of war.

Now Reading

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon.

Up Next

Flatscreen by Adam Wilson.

March in Review (2012)

Maddie holding Clara.

This is going to be short and late. He’s a recap of what went down here on The Uninitiated in March. It was eventful. Still recovering.

-“On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” was published in Boulevard! Read the recap here.

-“Shame Cycle” was short-listed for the PRISM Fiction Contest. Final word should be coming down any time now. Eagerly awaiting the results.

-My review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Below was published in the new Prairie Schooner.

-I interviewed Sigrid Nunez for the Prairie Schooner blog.

-We had a baby! More photos of Clara Lynne Wheeler and family can be found here.

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

Five Points for “Forget Me”; Massachusetts Review for “Attend the Way”; One Story for “Impertinent, Triumphant”; and, of course, “Shame Cycle” is a finalist for the PRISM Fiction Contest.

Just Finished

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivek. Pretty good. Character deaths seemed to occur at very convenient times, plot-wise. A small thing that is quite common, but it wore on me in this novel. Maybe because death was so frequent.

Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy.

Now Reading

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff DyerA fascinating examination of the mechanisms of remembrance in relation to war.

Up Next

Flatscreen by Adam Wilson.

February in Review (2012)

I’ve decided to fly in the face of Leap Day and post my review of the past month a day early. (Try to have a safe holiday out there today, folks. We don’t need a replay of four years ago, with all the accidents and alcohol poisonings. Use the extra day wisely!)

February was a month of good news. There was my appointment as Web Editor at Prairie Schooner. I’m still not sure my family believes that I actually get paid to work for a literary journal now. Actually, I’m not entirely convinced myself yet, direct deposit aside. The job has been a lot of fun, although a bit frustrating at times. It’s been a long time since I started a new job. There’s a lot to learn. Hopefully I’m picking it up right.  …  Next came word that two of my published short stories will be mentioned among the “Thirty Other Distinguished Stories” in the New Stories from the Midwest anthology series. “The Approximate End of the World” (Boulevard, Spring 2010) will be noted in the back of the 2011 edition. “The Current State of the Universe” (The Cincinnati Review, Summer 2011) will be noted in the back of the 2012 edition. This is a new series, but one that looks very promising. I’m excited to break through in some small way with them. Hopefully it’s only the start of bigger things.  …  That same weekend I learned that my review of Yannick Murphy’s novel The Call was accepted for publication in the Pleiades Book Review. This is my second review Pleiades has taken, and it will run in their Summer 2012 issue.

March brings a lot of promise. There’s AWP in Chicago. Spring is here, apparently. (Our daffodils have breached!) ZZ Packer is the writer in residence at UNL and will make a couple public appearances in Lincoln. Also, lil’ Clara Lynne is due to join us.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“Sometimes I scuffled with Neal Davies and his brothers. I ran track with the two younger Davies boys. They weren’t so brazen about what they said, not like Neal had been outside the store. Mostly it was Neal who mumbled something, standing off to the side to watch us run. Neal Davies was short and podgy. He had blonde hair that laid very flat and smooth on his round skull. His brothers looked at me and laughed when Neal made remarks. I’d tackle one of them into the grass, the Davies brother who was slowest getting out of the way. A punch or two would be thrown, but that was all. Other kids would break it up. Whatever happened was chalked up to bad blood. Since I didn’t know what they said, there was nothing more I could say about it. There was lots of bad blood in Jackson County in those years, the war years. It was wrong of Davies to tease me about the ways my folks died, I’m certain. I’m not certain if I would have teased him about such a thing if the roles had been reversed. I might have. I had to give him that in my calculations. He still had his parents, if nothing else. I did not. Sometimes we believe these things are so for a reason.”

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

Alaska Quarterly Review for “Forget Me”; Indiana Review for “Attend the Way”; and “Lycaon” by Midwestern Gothic.

Just Finished

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. A remarkable book about a Gypsy boy’s travels and travails in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, based upon Kosinski’s own life story. A remarkably brutal book.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño. About the ways people confront (or confronted, it was written and it is set in 1980s Spain) the lingering presence or (non)presence of Nazism in European culture. It’s not quite in the stratosphere like 2666 and The Savage Detectives, but is still very good.

Jonah Man by Christopher Narozny. A very solid first novel about murder, drugs, and the intrigue of 1920s vaudeville performers. It comes out in May. I will be reviewing it.

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. A rereading of this classic after hearing George Saunders and Robert Stone talk about it at the Key West Literary Seminar.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway.

Now Reading

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak.

Up Next

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon.