Autumn in Review (2013)

No big news regarding the novel-writing at this point. I’ve been busy reworking the reworks. Tried half a dozen more ways to do the opening pages and feel like I’m getting closer on that. For a long time I leaned on having a sort of prologue opening, but decided to cut all but four pages of that, as it seemed to be more of a crutch for me as writer than anything that might interest a reader. Always a tricky business figuring out what actually needs to be on the page and what needed to be written for the writer only. Getting closer though.

There was some more tangible news related to The Uninitiated over the season though, as Boulevard published an excerpt of the novel in October, titled “River Ward, 1917.” This is the first bit of writing from the novel that’s been published, so definitely exciting news there.

Meanwhile, in December, another excerpt, “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown,” brought home the Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar. Among the many benefits are free travel and lodging at this year’s seminar, the opportunity to read my work as part of the regular program at the seminar, and an 11-day stay in Key West. It will be sad to miss over a third of Nebraska’s January, but somehow I’ll soldier through.

These two things, along with a fellowship to Akademie Schloss Solitude, winning the Tarcher/Penguin Top Artist contest, a long-list notice in the Inkubate novel contest–all of which was based on work done for The Uninitiated–makes me hope I’m on the right track here.

There was more publishing news in November, as Five Chapters accepted “Impertinent, Triumphant” for publication. The story will run sometime in March, probably. Really looking forward to that too.

Also, some interesting thoughts on living abroad are offered here in this article.

Finally, congrats to emily m. danforth and her novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post for taking the “Woman Writer” award at the High Plains Book Awards. So happy for emily and all of her success.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“Tom thought it over as he paced the brick drive that led up to his house, two days after the vote. Bullet straight and tree-lined, the drive gave the impression of something fantastic as his house slipped into view, large and unreachable, a mirage. The house was wood-framed with finishes of granite at certain edges, the cellar and foundation limestone, highlights of plaster festoons above the front door. A few chimneys rose above beveled eaves. Off the second floor bedrooms were balconies as wide as the patios below, where a tiered-garden overlooked the industrial valley. There were pergolas holding grape vines, arbors abloom with creeping red ivy. Everything here was made for entertaining, for looking at, for admiring, but up close these spaces didn’t serve any purpose. This was an unpeopled luxury, a lonely glutton of riches in and of itself. If Tom was being honest, he had to admit this.

“Years before, an enemy left a bomb on the front doorstep. An ingenious design, the bomb, a simple wooden box with six sticks of dynamite and a pistol inside. A string was tacked to the porch and connected to the trigger of the pistol. If someone had lifted the box, his wife Ada or daughter Frances, the whole house would have been blasted clean off the earth, leaving only a rubbled crater. Frances found the box with a friend, and she told Tom about it. A smart girl, Frances didn’t touch the infernal device at all. Tom noticed the trip wire when she brought him to see. He had police dismantle the bomb. After that Tom closed the grounds. Bodyguards were kept outside around the clock. You had to be a close family friend, a known friend, if there was such a thing, or else you couldn’t get in. The bomb changed things. That’s when Tom put the machine gun across his lap in the car. That’s when everything here, all this bounty he’d won over the years, all of it, started being lonely.”

Just Finished

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos. I’d always avoided the USA Trilogy for some reason. Dos Passos is so often only a foot-note to Hemingway among the great writers of the Lost Generation, although his novels are consistently lauded and canonized as well. I’d just never known anyone who actually read him, so there wasn’t much of a conversation to join, I guess. After reading this first third of the trilogy I can see why Dos Passos is still relevant. So much of his pro-labor and socialist message is probably lost to most contemporary readers–it’s similar to reading The Jungle at times–but the level of energy and innovation is very high here too. Very rich, poetic, and affecting.

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. The way these conversational essays seem to be written more for effect–that your mind wanders with the flow of information, sometimes parallel to it, sometimes not–produces an interesting reading experience. I’d read about Sebald’s work a lot before I ever read it, so I kind of knew what to expect. At the same time, I’m still not really sure what to think.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen. Really enjoyed this. A lot more than I thought I would, frankly. I met Ron when he visited Creighton University this fall, which is what prompted me to finally pull this off my “To Read” book shelf. The psychological depth of the novel is pretty astounding. Plenty of shoot-outs and train robberies too, of course.

The Castle by Franz Kafka. A monster of an unfinished novel. I was compelled to read this after watching Michael Haneke’s film adaptation, and really enjoyed both quite a lot. The idea of reading an unfinished novel always intrigues me, particularly ones of this class that could just as accurately be called “unfinishable” novels. It isn’t so much that the plot line is incomplete, more that the story could never finish. It’s not like K.’s going to find some sort of victory in the end, or defeat for that matter. The novel follows his string of embarrassments and slight advancements and eventually stops as he reaches the end of his inertia. I kind of wondered if the novel wasn’t finished after all.

Hide Island by Richard Burgin. A review I wrote of this collection of short stories will be appearing in Prairie Schooner‘s Briefly Noted online book review, probably in February.

Now Reading

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This has been pretty engaging so far, although the writing sometimes comes off as haphazard, particularly when it comes to POV. Maybe haphazard isn’t the right word, superfluous?, but I often question some of the strategies Marra uses here to tell the story. A good book nonetheless. I can certainly see why it made so many Best of lists this year, mostly because of the story of an orphaned little girl and two eccentric doctors in war-torn Chechnya is so remarkable.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I’ve been reading this off and on for a few years now. I come across some criticism about Dreiser a while ago that lumped him into a group of American novelists who have novels regarded as classics (Dreiser has two, of course, with Sister Carrie also showing impressive staying power) even though the writing itself isn’t really all that remarkable. I’d tend to agree with the assessment. Nobody is going to confuse Dreiser with Hemingway or Fitzgerald, as far as style and form go, although the story of his novels really is so quintessentially American (for its time, place, and class) that it’s hard to dispute the status of his novels as classics. Steinbeck was the other novelists lumped into this category, which seems to fit as well.

Up Next

The Third Book about Achim by Uwe Johnson. The follow-up novel to Speculations about Jakob. These books can be difficult to locate, but I happened to find one at the always excellent Jackson Street Booksellers and was lucky enough to get the other from Nicole for Christmas.

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.

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.]

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.