Weeks of Sept 11 – Oct 10, 2010

I promised more on the Cincinnati Review Schiff Prize, so here you go.

First, let’s do the numbers.

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.

Just Finished

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.

Now Reading

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.

Up Next

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

Weeks of Feb 22 – Mar 17, 2010

Did I mention we went to New York last month?

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“The sidewalk was cluttered with her belongings, her furniture and clothes, a Victrola phonograph cabinet and a stack of records, a crate of wine bottles, a small painted portrait of a girl who could have been Evie standing on the plush cushion of a high-backed chair. There were several lounging chairs the men brought out too, upholstered with threadbare green fabric, small pillows to match. They were cheap pieces, second hand, perhaps, but nicer than what most people had on the Ward. And maybe her furniture didn’t look so shabby in a dark room, Jacob thought, out of the sun. It was very bright suddenly, the air warming on what was becoming a cloudless August sky. Jacob could feel the heat of it on his skin, through his shirt.”

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

American Short Fiction for “The Current State of the Universe”; Salt Hill and The Missouri Review for “The Housekeeper”; Hunger Mountain for “These Things That Save Us”; Identity Theory for “You Know That I Loved You”; Makeout Creek for “Lycaon” and “From Indiana.”

Just Finished

Point Omega by Don DeLillo. Mostly it’s enjoyable for its language, with some nice plot here and there too. I didn’t really go for much of the eschatological theory, although that might be how it’s supposed to be taken.

Now Reading

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. I thought this started off horribly slow and redundant, but have been getting into after the first hundred pages.

Up Next

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

Weeks of Jan 26 – Feb 21, 2010

Novel Work

One of the more fulfilling aspects of writing this book is that it affords me the opportunity to look further into my own family history. Most of the research I’ve done pertains to historical figures and the circumstance of their lives, and to 1918 Omaha itself more broadly, its social functions, clothes, shops, music. But I’ve been filling in a lot of Jacob Bressler’s character (who is entirely fictional) with my family history. And lucky for me, my grandma Cleo Blankenfeld Croson is also very interested in this topic. She’s helped me learn about my great-great-great grandfather Henry Blankenfeld, who was born near Danzig, West Prussia (present-day Gdańsk, Poland) in 1843 and his wife Maria Eigler Blankenfeld, who was born in Rudig, Austria (which is near Innsbruck, I believe) in 1852. We’re hoping to find out more on their arrival to America, but we do know they were married in Geneseo, Illinois in 1869. They did many jobs around Illinois and the Dakotas (and presumably before then too, wherever they landed) before homesteading near Niobrara, Nebraska, where my grandma grew up. We’ll be going there in July for a family reunion, which should be exciting. I’ve been there many times in my life, but never with this kind of active knowledge, I suppose.

For the past two years I’ve been reading up on German history, just to have some background in it, to understand where my title hyphenates were coming from. I wondered what kinds of stories their parents and relatives would have told them about their fatherland, since none of my German-American characters would have ever even been to Germany themselves. Why were so many of their fore-bearers emigrating? What drove their families (and my family for that matter) to America in the first place? There was constant war in Europe during this period, of course, and the Franco-Prussian War would have directly affected Henry. Many young men fled Prussia to escape conscription, which is what I assume Henry’s reason was too, although I can’t really know that for sure. There were many difficulties in those years associated with the Unification of German states. The Kulturkampf came a bit later, so I doubt the Blankenfelds would have been involved in that. It’s unlikely they were Catholic or Socialist anyway.

Frozen family fun at the Douglas County Courthouse.

And Henry would have been too young to be a Forty-Eighter, one of the many failed democratic revolutionaries who came to North America from Europe. So there’s so much I can’t really know. Maybe a trip to Ellis Island would prove lucky, but very few of the databases I’ve found online go back far enough to be helpful. I’d like to go to Europe and root around, but no one kept records in that part of the world, or they were destroyed. Gdańsk itself has been under a dozen different governments in its history—and four of those since Henry Blankenfeld’s birth.

The interesting part for me—coming from the standpoint of a novelist—is that it’s almost better to not know. When I was his student at Creighton, Brent Spencer often referred to the art of fiction as pursuing the mystery, which I’ve always loved. It’s kind of a mystic, Jesuit way of filling in the blanks. On a personal level, I’d love to have all the details of my family history. It would be incredible to know exactly where we come from—to be able to go there and place my hands on that earth. But as a writer, it’s better to avoid that sort of conscriptive knowledge. The character Jacob Bressler is better for my lack of knowledge in this sense, because it gives me enough blanks to come to the story I’m telling, not the history behind it.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“’You know they used to call Dennison the King Gambler.’ The Pfarrer was up on the balcony again, a new glass of wine in hand. ‘Did you know this about your boss? He swindled a $100,000 on a boxing match in Louisiana. A fixed fight. He started as a bouncer and a sportsman out west, when he was your age, clearing out whole card halls in Denver playing faro. He hooked on here after winning big on the Louisiana fight, got the Daily Bee and the Perpetual Mayor on his side. Whole books have been written against Dennison and his underworld sewer, but he slips retribution. Nothing sticks to him.’”

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

Hunger Mountain for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; Third Coast for “From Indiana.”

Just Finished

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Along with Edward P. Jones, Doctorow is one of the two most famous historical novelists who claim to have done little to no research for their novels, relying rather on memory and imagination. I’m a little skeptical about this, but can see how it could be true. (For one, there were a few moments when I knew he was off.) Doctorow writes with such authority on well-known figures, but he mostly focuses on private moments that cannot really be refuted as the basis of his work. Who can say what Houdini was thinking at a particular moment, hanging upside-down from a building? And if the writing is entertaining, why would you want to intrude with literal truth anyway? As above, the less you know, the more freedom you have to invent. A great book. The movie adaptation was pretty good too.

Now Reading

Point Omega by Don DeLillo.

Up Next

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.

Link of the Month

Don DeLillo’s recent reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn from the blog of BOMB Magazine.

Catch Up Time: November 1 – December 13, 2009

Novel Work

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”

Just Finished

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 %@#*!!”

Now Reading

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

Up Next

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.