I’m so stoked about this rave review that appeared in the Kansas City Star a couple weekends ago!
You should read the whole thing yourself, but these are especially encouraging:
“Wheeler’s at his best during set-piece descriptions that bring the flavor of the time and place, and the people who inhabit it, vividly into focus… The riot scenes, especially, are propulsive and harrowing. Just reading it can make you feel complicit in the violence.”
“As a novel that brings a little-known or forgotten past to life, it succeeds in showing us a glimpse of where we’ve come from and how we came to be.”
Really, it’s a very knowledgeable review and I’m grateful that Omaha-native Christine Pivovar was able to chime in. Getting some press in my second-favorite city isn’t so bad either!
Over the last month I’ve been trying to immerse myself a little deeper in books and movies that take place within the same general time period that my novel is set, using 1900-1935 as a wide range of years to pull from, as the events of my novel occur over 1918-1919. The idea here is to, for one, gain a better understanding of the traditions, practices, and standards of the historical narrative form. I believe this falls under the due diligence umbrella. The second reason for this immersion is to acquire something of an ear for the way people spoke at the time. It’s always struck me strange when characters speak so differently than we do in historical pieces—thinking mostly of characters with vocabulary dominated by slang who speak in nasally, affected tones—but how am I to know how people really spoke in, for example, 1920s Kansas City. My main hesitation then, during the drafting process, has been trusting my intuition against what I see is a practice of accentuating slang in historical forms to give it an “old-timey” feel. (It’s also important to note that typically only teenage or early twenties characters from lower economic classes use this thick slang. In It’s a Wonderful Life we only really see Ernie the cab driver speak in this affected way, certainly not Potter, or the grown version of George Bailey. Or in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, mostly it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character with the period accent, and the black gangsters to a degree, but certainly not the kidnapped Senator’s wife.)
One of the ways I’ve been trying to bridge that information/experience gap is by reading local newspapers from the area on the microfilm collections of Omaha libraries, mostly the Evening World-Herald at this point—an idea I picked up from Ron Hansen. Now, this is a somewhat formal medium, so the language used there isn’t exactly street, but I’m not sure that’s something I want anyway. (If I don’t use a lot of slang in my contemporary stories, why would I do so in my historical ones? Plus, my main character is a country boy from a rural immigrant community and probably wouldn’t have been exposed to too much popular culture anyway.) What I’ve really been struck by in doing this kind of research is how little things have changed in the past ninety years. Surprisingly, the most obvious evolution in tone and style has actually developed in the hard news stories, because the Public Pulse letters are eerily consistent in tone, language, style, and even content if you replaced Germans with Muslims and German-Americans with illegal immigrants. I’m not really sure what I expected to see, but the similarities were striking.
So there is a tension in the writing process between authenticity and expectation. From what I can tell, people in 1918 Omaha didn’t really speak too much differently than we do in 2009 Omaha—or they didn’t write much differently, at least. (Again, this is focused mostly on middle-class white communities who were/are engaged in civic, political, and cultural issues.) However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that my book’s audience would accept dialogue that doesn’t sound “old-timey.” More than likely a balance must be struck between what I decipher as authentic and what the tradition tells me an audience will expect. What that balance means exactly will probably have more to do with my own ear (going with what looks and sounds the best) then anything else in the end.
Dispatch from The Open City
“The United States National Banking Company had been the first place Jacob stopped in at, a white sandstone building with large columns in the heart of downtown. The bank lobby was a bustling place, so unlike the sleepy office of the Jackson Building & Loan, where the farm deed was held. There were several stations here that one must wait in line for in order to be served. Each of them had signs indicating their purpose, Drafts, Pass Books, Deposits, but Jacob didn’t know which one to approach. He’d never had to find a job before; he’d been a family farmer up until this point. The lobby was packed with impatient people—suit-and-tie men with derby hats, holding packets of receipts for inspection, gloved women in ankle-length skirts and fine, flowered hats, clutching small purses—and the stuffy enclosure was stifling with the odor their colognes and perfumes. The bank’s one large room was divided by the cashier’s cages, heavy brass frames that held glass plates, a slot at the counter where documents and money were exchanged. There were cages in the back too, these made of heavy iron wire, containing adding machines and quick-fingered clerks whose only job was to note figures from morning til night. Beyond them was the heavy steel door of the vault, tilted open as a matter of reassurance. In the middle of the lobby stood a pot belly stove with a smoke stack the reached to the top of the twenty foot ceiling. Jacob gravitated towards the stove because it was the only place where people weren’t clustered. The metal was cold against his skin, his hands brushing against it.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Alaska Quarterly Review for “The Current State of the Universe”; Mid-American Review for “These Things That Save Us”; Hunger Mountain for “Let Your Hair Hang Low”; The Collagist for “You Know That I Loved You”; Grasslimb for “From Indiana”
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. As important as the first stories seemed, the final few seemed just as trivial. The conceit of having each story involve Olive in some way really wore thin on me. I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it, but give me Winesburg, OH any day.
Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor. Like the teenage and twenty-something characters who people his work, Taylor seems to be aware of what might be the limited shelf-life of these stories, but he risks irrelevance in the future because of the confidence that what he writes about has a broader significance. That despite the pop culture references and out-of-style fashion, there’s something vital simmering under the surface.
The Best American Comics 2009. My favorites include “Justin M. Damiano” by Daniel Clowes, “Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein” by Michael Kupperman, “The Company” by Matt Broersma, “Berlin” by Jason Lutes, “Jordan W. Lint” by Chris Ware, “Freaks” by Laura Park, “Antoinette” Koren Shadmi, “Glenn Ganges in Pulverize” by Kevin Huizenga, and “Papa” by Gilbert Hernandez. My absolute favorite was Art Spiegelman’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*!!”
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.
Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne.
Link of the Week
Nathan Bransford Blog. A cool blog by a literary agent attempting to demystify the largely secret processes of book publishing. A very nice resource.
I’ve been busy pushing ahead with new drafting the past couple weeks and it’s been going well for the most part. Nothing of much interest to report, really, on that score, other than I think much of what’s been put down will be of service to the book. So that’s good.
Perhaps the most note-worthy development is that it seems clearer, as the historical fiction progresses, that I’m probably working on two different novels. The idea was to have one novel with two interwoven threads—a primary one taking place in 2005, with a complementary one from 1918/19. The historical thread is growing in size and prominence the more I work on it, however, and is plotting out to be its own book. I’ve also been concerned about trying to get a 600-700 page novel published, so maybe this will work out better to have two 300-350 page novels instead. We’ll see how it goes.
Dispatch from The Open City
“A man crossed the street in front of Jacob, bent towards the road as he stumbled along. He was crippled with rheumatism, Jacob could see this, the man’s fingers bent in broken directions, hands unable to close, his limbs joined at odd angles, as if no part of his body could be flexed straight. There were many men like this here, twisting in wooden chairs, unable to find comfort, the hard labor of their lives stamped on their bodies. These men were slaughterhouse workers who could no longer work. Thousands of them had migrated north to fill stockyard positions vacated when locals were drafted into the war effort. Neighborhoods such as these overflowed with these men and their families. Every morning trucks owned by the yards rumbled into the Northtown ghetto to exchange night workers for day workers, then returned in the evening to reverse the exchange. It was decent pay, for those who could do it. But they ended up with their legs broken and tied to a nearly straight tree branch, lying near the planks of the walkway; or knocked permanently stupid by a stampeding bull, jabbering and drooling, faces swarmed with flies. There were both men and women here who were missing fingers or raw chunks of their faces or whole arms from the cutting apparatus. Or those folks whose bodies had simply broken down.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of “No Thanks”
Michigan Quarterly Review for “The Day After This One”; Colorado Review and Puerto del Sol for “The Housekeeper”; Failbetter for “Let Your Hair Hang Low;” and Barnstorm for “Lycaon.”
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. It kind of pains me to say this, since Chaon is one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t really care for this novel. Much of the writing is very good, but none of the book’s moving parts seemed to really work for me. Maybe part of it is that Chaon is rewriting the same stories over and over, the same kinds of characters from his earlier work, the same issues. Many writers do this, of course, and it doesn’t seems like it should be a big deal, but I was just kind of bored with what was going on after a while. There wasn’t suspense. Being familiar with his work, I could see what was going to happen. And perhaps more than that, it invites too much of an invitation to compare the novel to Chaon’s story collection Among the Missing—and in my opinion, he’s ten times the short story writer than he is a novelist. AYR has received dozens of exuberant reviews, so people much smarter than me found much to admire here. I also admired a lot the novel’s individual aspects–including the amibition evident in the project. I just didn’t think it really pulled together, however.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. A little less than half-way through here. It’s something I can’t really put my finger on, but there’s just something about these stories that makes them seem like they’re important to read. Maybe it’s the tone with which they’re told. At any rate, there’s a gravity to the prose that’s very engaging.
Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor.
Link of the Week
Koreanish. The outstanding blog of author Alexander Chee. Many excellent posts on the process of writing, art, comics, and other such stuff. Basically, what I wish this blog could be like someday.
Salt Hill. The literary magazine of the Creative Writing Program of Syracuse University, I’m not really sure why this journal doesn’t have a higher profile. Outstanding contributors, attached to a legendary writing program, really a great aesthetic.
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.
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.
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.
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!