Check out this interview about my new book and a range of other topics that Creighton MFA alumna Meredith Allison Lea was kind enough to post on her blog this evening!
3) What challenges did you face writing not only historical fiction, but also about this topic in particular?
Depicting the riot was the biggest challenge, on craft and personal levels. In a practical sense, it was difficult to write a series of scenes that depicts an over 10,000-person riot that took place over twelve hours and nearly destroyed downtown Omaha, with the struggle being to let the riot be as big as it was without swallowing up the book’s characters in the process. I like to think about telling a story as building a house, and the ending should be contained within the structure without blowing the roof off. Just by its nature, the riot kept blowing the roof off the house I was trying to build in the rest of the book.
The string of good news continues, as I learned late last week that my story “The Hyphenates of Jackson County” has won an Intro Journals Project award from AWP and will be published in a future edition of Artful Dodge!
Check out the announcement here, with the results for the three winners in fiction about halfway down the page. (Fyi, from the page: “The Intro Journals Project is a literary competition for the discovery and publication of the best new works by students currently enrolled in AWP member programs.”) (And if you don’t know what AWP is, check here.)
Thanks so much to Creighton University for nominating “The Hyphenates of Jackson County” and judge Erin McGraw for selecting it.
I’ve mentioned a few times how good it feels to have some of my Germans in Nebraska during World War I material published–as it has been in Boulevard, in The Four Quarters Magazine, and most recently in my chapbook On the River, DownWhere They Found Willy Brown. Seven years into that project and with no publication in sight for the novel, things like this help keep me from feeling too much in the woods with the project.
So, of course, I’m very thankful to have “Hyphenates” recognized by such a prestigious award series.
Long-time friends of the blog will surely recognize the title of the story, as this was the original title of my World War I novel, what has since become The Uninitiated. In its earlier versions the novel focused entirely on the character of Jake Strauss (fka Jacob Strauss fka Jakob Strauss fka Jacob Bressler) and his introduction to the underworld elements of Omaha after being forced to flee his rural home of Jackson County. This short story is basically the opening scenes from that iteration of the novel.
More generally, the story is set in the fiction Jackson County, Nebraska, during World War I, and deals with a German immigrant and his two sons’ struggle to hold together their family, church, and farm amid threats both local and global.
More on all this later, particularly as the publication details are worked out with Artful Dodge. For now, I’ll let good feelings suffice and wish congrats to the other winners.
That, and here’s an excerpt to tide you over:
With the war in Europe raging late that summer, Jake was awakened by his father in the middle of the night more than once, the Pfarrer compelled to voice a worry that the German army would claim Fred and Jake, somehow, conscript them into service over on the Eastern Front, because that’s the side of Germany the Pfarrer was born to, in West Prussia, south of Danzig. There were always rumors of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reach, but the Pfarrer’s mania was peculiar and unfounded, as it always boiled over in the middle of the night. With all that had happened, he felt something was lacking in their connection to the Lord. “There’s a debt there,” was how the Pfarrer put it.
Jake and Fred agreed. But what was there to do about it?
That August, Jake found his father sprawled in the creek on the other side of their claim, water damming up and washing over his naked body. His clothes lay out on the grass. The jacket was on top, a shirt showed under the lapels. His pants were below with a shoe at the bottom of each leg, laces tied. It looked like the Pfarrer had been sucked out of his clothes, the way they’d been arranged. Two bottles of wine nearby, a half empty jar of horse cleaner. Jake didn’t know if his father had poisoned himself or not, if he’d soon die. Jake had heard of people doing that—eyes lost pigment after drinking horse cleaner, hair fell from heads. It hurt horribly. His father was naked in the cold creek, rolling to be facedown. He was pale, his breathing slow as Jake yanked him from the water and demanded to know what he’d done. He woke looking into Jake’s eyes. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “The horse cleaner?” Jake asked. “No. I didn’t.”
Jake lifted the Pfarrer to his shoulder and carried him up the hill. His father was large, but Jake showed no struggle. He had urgency on his side and his muscles responded to the charge. The Pfarrer glanced to Jake, almost shy in his drunk, tepid and put-off as he was set to the porch, surprised again at how his younger boy had grown. Jake felt it well up in his gut, in his muscled shoulders and forearms, the anger and guilt, the tension of struggle. What did his father want to accuse him of?
Summer is here in just about every way imaginable, so it’s time to recap what’s gone down the past few months.
First, some news about Tom Dennison’s house at 7510 Military Ave was passed on to me by a reliable source who wishes to remain anonymous. (Previous posts about the Dennison house can be found here and here.) There was some confusion about which side of Military the house was actually located, and my source let me know that the address of the house would have changed at some point after Dennison died. So while it was originally 7510 Military, it would have been on the 7300 block of Graceland Drive for most of the time it was standing, putting it south of Military, on the property of Skyline Retirement Community rather than on Marian’s side like I thought. That the address changed clears everything up.
Some more info from the source:
From the 1960s until it was torn down in 2006, the house was used as a guest house by Skyline Manor, and later as administrative offices. There was an effort to remodel the home before the decision to raze it was finalized, but the cost of a new roof, structural repairs, asbestos removal, etc, etc, was deemed too great. Skyline also offered the house free to anyone who wanted to relocate it to a new property, but, again, the cost of moving the house vastly exceeded its monetary value. The spot where the house stood is now a parking lot.
Other news from what was a pretty busy season:
-I was awarded a fellowship and residency by Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. (Get the whole story here and here.) Summer of 2014 can’t come soon enough. We’ve been busy planning out the trip and addressing all sorts of logistical issues. I thought Maddie would be a little more nervous, but she’s still very excited about the whole thing, just so long as she gets to watch movies on the airplane and have torte for dessert every meal. Not such unreasonable demands.
-Not a lot of travel lately, although we did spend a few days in Los Angeles in April, which was really nice. On the docket for this summer: the Ozarks, Kansas City, and a family trip to Chicago to give the girls a little more flight experience before crossing over to Germany next summer. Tentative plans call for a little jaunt to New York this fall to retrace and expand last year’s bratwurst tour of Manhattan.
Dispatch from The Uninitiated
Tom hadn’t exactly been feeling fit, but he didn’t feel any worse than he had the month before, and maybe he was a little better than the month before that. His daughter had him doing all sorts of things to feel better. Morning ablutions. Evening exercises. A Bulgarian hulk came to stretch his legs with a rubber strap and burn his back with rocks. He had a steambath installed in the back lawn. Tom submitted because she begged him to. Ada had him consuming all sorts of herbs and minerals too, he didn’t even ask what the names of her magic were. Selzter water mixed with salts from the Dead Sea, she claimed anyway. Now why he wanted to drink Dead Sea saltwater he didn’t know. Wasn’t dead the very thing he was trying to avoid? All it did was keep him in the bathroom all morning, and he suspected more than once that maybe this was Ada’s way of getting him to spend less time at work. It surely kept him occupied.
Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño. Supposedly this is Bolaño’s final unfinished novel, what he was working on when he died, I guess, and it’s writing that ranks up with his best. A lot of it reads like stuff that was cut out of 2666, which is fine by me. The focus on Óscar and Rosa Amalfitano yields quite a few wonderful stories.
In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield. A series of sketches about the guests of a German health resort. Mansfield is vastly underappreciated, and this is yet more great work from her. (The Kindle version of this is now free, fyi.)
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov. I’d never heard of this novel before, but picked it up on a recommendation while at Book Soup in Los Angeles, and I’m glad I did. A comedy of manners that romps through Berlin and Italy.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got to it now that I’m trying to get a feel for the German canon before I’m over there next summer. A masterpiece. Maddie kept asking me to read it aloud for her–a little uncomfortable given the subject matter–because it’s so beautiful. I’m pretty sure she didn’t understand many of the words…hoping anyway.
Freedomby Jonathan Franzen. After all the controversy and hoopla surrounding this book when it came out a few years ago, I decided to give myself some space before reading it. I’m big fan of Franzen, but not so much this book.
The Slippage by Ben Greenman. A solid offering, but not quite on the level of his short fiction.
Recently I was profiled on a sort of promotional page for Creighton University’s College of Art’s & Sciences, going over my background, some of my experiences while a grad student there, and my career since graduation. (Thanks to Rain Sissel for setting this up.) They have quite a few of these profiles up now–of current and past students, and faculty. As an alumnus these things are interesting, but maybe they’re not if you’re not. If you do like these sorts of profiles, check it out here.
I’d also like to point out that Creighton is now offering an MFA degree in Creative Writing, which is exciting news! (Read all about it here.) The new program starts this fall, and is accepting applications through July 15. If you know anyone who’s still looking for an MFA program to join in the immediate future, please pass along the link. In addition to being part of a great university in an increasingly hip city (one that’s still very livable with a low cost of living) the profile linked above can attest to the kinds of success CU can help set its students up for. Plus, they’re offering 5 fellowships to incoming students (3 of them with full tuition reimbursement and stipend)! Anyway, there’s no need for the sales pitch. It will be a good thing.
“These Things That Save Us” was published today as part of the launch of new online literary journal Conversations Across Borders! The individual story is available for $2, or you can buy the entire issue for $10. The debut issue features poetry by Ilya Kaminsky, Gary Lemons, and Samuel Green, non-fiction by Nahid Rachlin, and my short fiction. All proceeds from the issue go to support literacy and literary programs, and writers. (When I first typed that sentence, my fingers accidentally put, “All proceeds go to supper…”, which is partially correct, I guess, as far as the writers are concerned.) Here’s how CAB explains their mission on the web site:
Conversations Across Borders is a 501(c)3-pending nonprofit literary-arts organization that presents fine literature and journalism from around the world; connects writers across borders; and supports underserved schools, literacy programs, literary programs, and individual writers through financial grants. By purchasing individual poems, essays, and short stories, you enjoy new, vital work from some of the finest writers in the world. You also make a direct contribution to schools and literacy programs in underserved communities. These contributions are given directly to the local school to assure that your gift directly invests in both education and the local economy, supporting local teachers and suppliers.
Not too shabby. The first program CAB supports is Yipirinya School of Alice Springs, Australia. Yipirinya School’s curriculum is at the forefront of “two-way” education. Students learn both their own indigenous culture and language, in addition to skills that will allow them to thrive economically and culturally in Westernized society.
I’m very excited and proud to be a part of Conversations Across Borders, and hope they’re able to accomplish a great deal with this important work. It’s an interesting project, using literature (and online literature in particular) as a means to directly improve the quality of life and literacy of people around the globe. Let’s do all we can do help them succeed.
As for “These Things That Save Us,” it is my fourteenth published short story. (Number fifteen, “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life” will be out in Confrontation this November; and number sixteen, “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” will be in Boulevard in March 2012.) This is a story I worked on in a Brent Spencer-led workshop at Creighton University while getting my M.A. there. So thanks to him, as well as my cohorts in the class, Lucas Schwaller and Travis Thieszen. I also workshopped “These Things…” while at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, in an amazing and lively workshop led by the incomparable Chris Abani. So thanks to all those folks too! I think the story turned out well. As well as any story that gets its seed from thinking about off-color wife jokes can anyway. Further, thanks to Jordan Hartt and everyone else at CAB for getting this going, and for including me in the fun.
Here’s some cool news from a couple weeks ago, as Nebraska/Iowa writer Mary Helen Stefaniak received a Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her latest novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. MHS is a beloved professor at Creighton University and she deserves all the accolades she can get.
The 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winners are notable for the unique way each author addresses the complex issues of race and cultural diversity. […] The books and authors honored this year stand out, not only for their creative and wide-ranging approach to difficult subject matter, but also for their underlying faith in our shared humanity.
Pretty important stuff, huh?
MHS will be honored at a ceremony in Cleveland this September, where she will hobnob with the other winners, such as Nicole Krauss, and jury members, like Joyce Carol Oates and Rita Dove.
Great going, Mary Helen! This is really awesome. We’re so happy for you.
-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.
-“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.
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.”
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.
[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.]
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.
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.