KWLS 2012

So I’m back after spending eight days at the Key West Literary Seminar and workshops, and am still getting back into a home state of mind. The week was amazing and hectic. I met a lot of great people. I stayed up too late, drank too much, woke up too early. I was on a boat. Below are some highlights.

-I should mention something about the lineup first. The seminar featured George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem, among others. It was such a strong string of lectures, readings, conversations, cocktail hours… It was really great.

-It was topped off by a four-day workshop with Robert Stone. I learned a bunch from Stone, mostly in listening to how he analyzes a story and his take on history and the history of literature–but I also learned quite a bit from the other writers/instructors talking about their experiences with Stone and his exploits, stories they’ve heard about the things he’s done. The guy has lived an interesting life, to say the least. Many of us in the workshop really treasured our time and felt lucky just to be in the same room as him. A very gracious, intelligent, and fascinating man.

-Highlight: George Saunders talking about having to get rid of his “Hemingway boner” in order to start writing his own good fiction. Saunders ruminating on his experience as a young writer was pretty special.

-Highlight: Jennifer Egan discussing PowerPoint as a medium, and going through some of her story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” By the way, Egan has the actual PowerPoint story on her web site if you’d like to read it. (Do this!)

I was on a boat.

-Egan also talked some about Gothic fiction, which I found very interesting. She mentioned “The Turn of the Screw” as the perfect Gothic novel. And, apparently, Michael Cunningham is adapting the novella for the screen. Or trying to at least.

-An agent sympathetic to the cause (political, not literary) from El Salvador flew over for a couple days to visit. No state secrets were compromised.

-I went on a sunset cruise on an old schooner.

-With a few other guys, I happened into a cocktail party hosted by Lee Smith and Hal Crowther. They’re so nice. The party was at a beachfront condo where (or next to where) Jimmy Buffett used to stay. It was pretty swank. There was an observation deck on the roof where we simultaneously watched (1) the sunset, (2) a lightning storm over the ocean, (3) heavy winds batter the beach. It was pretty intense up there, with the wind, the visuals. The wine kept splashing out of our glasses from the wind gusts. Still, the conversation never faltered through any of this. It was very invigorating. Something I don’t imagine I’ll soon forget.

Our pink home. The William Skelton House.

-We had a party at our house the last night of workshop. It was a lot of fun. We stayed in a big pink house just off Duval Street. There was a private pool in the back. I slept on a futon the whole week, but it could have been worse. Thanks to Eric, Spencer, Denton, Mark, Claire, Sabra, Emily, and Brad for being great housemates. (I hope I haven’t left anyone out. I don’t think I have.) Also, to Cat, Linda, Vanessa, Diana, and Jacquira too. We had a pretty strong crew going. Careless Whisper.

-If you get the chance to attend the KWLS some year, you should definitely do it. They give out a ton of financial aid, with no application fee. Why not try for it? Next years topic: “Writers on Writers.” This year was my second trip down, and hopefully not my last.

Good Friday News: KWLS, New Pub

Some excellent news to announce today!

First, my short story “These Things That Save Us” has been chosen to help launch the debut issue of Conversations Across Borders, an online journal that will feature literary writing and journalism from around the globe. The first issue will be available early in October, and will also feature work by Ilya Kaminsky (!), Sam Green, and Gary Lemons, among others. I’ll be sure to share some links and more information about CAB as it becomes more pertinent. From everything I’ve heard, it should be a pretty cool endeavor, and I’m excited to be in on the ground floor, so to speak.

Second, I’ve received a partial scholarship to attend the Key West Literary Seminar in January, 2012, and will be part of a workshop led by Robert Stone the following week! How awesome is that? I attended KWLS two years ago and am pretty amped up to be returning. (And I was scheduled to go three years ago to participate in a Robert Stone workshop, but had to cancel once we learned that Maddie’s due date was the same week. Looks like I’ll be getting a second chance at the workshop after all.) The theme of the seminar is, Yet Another World – Literature of the Future, and features Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Gary Shteyngart, and Colson Whitehead, among many others. They always have such a great lineup; this upcoming year’s is especially compelling. In addition to the literary program, I also get to spend a week on a tropical island during the heart of winter, which isn’t too shabby.

My view of William Kennedy, Russell Banks, and Joyce Carol Oates at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar.

I’m also still up for a “named” scholarship, which would cover all expenses, including travel and a stipend.It would be nice to have everything paid for, of course, but I’m thrilled to have it all confirmed now, at least, with a large portion of it paid for by KWLS. I’m very lucky.

(Oh, and I apologize to anyone who might have been expecting ecclesiastically-themed content after looking at the post title. I have no updates on Holy Week at this time.)

July in Review (2011)

July was kind of a cluster, what with spending a week in Tel Aviv, and needing the week before takeoff getting ready for the trip. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to write, but I did manage to add another thirty pages or so to the final part to The Hyphenates of Jackson County, my novel. It wasn’t a ton of work to get done. But seeing how I spent most of May and June working on short stories, it was nice to get some momentum going on the novel again, and I think I did that. The ten hour flight from New York to Tel Aviv provided a big block of time to work, especially since I couldn’t sleep on the flight over. I also had three days of writing and revising in Israel, two days in a park and one at the beach. (Supposedly Jonathan Safran Foer moved to Tel Aviv to finish work on his latest book, so I’m in good company there. My hopes of becoming a superstar Jewish author are pretty slim, however. You know, because of this, among other reasons.) The change of scenery on the Mediterranean helped quite a bit, as a change often does. It’s almost always easier to think about home (or familiar things) when you’re far from home (surrounded by unfamiliar things). Being jarred out of my routine helped to get some gridlocked scenes moving again. I’ve kept writing outside this week too back in Omaha, working on the porch with a cold beer this afternoon. Not too shabby.

In other news:

-The big news of the month, in the small world of my writing, was that “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” was selected for publication in Boulevard. The story will be featured in the noted journal in March 2012.

-Earlier in the month, my review of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut collection (Death is Not an Option) appeared on The Millions.

Nouvella Books unveiled their web site late in July. A spin off from Flatmancrooked’s Launch program, Nouvella is keeping the good fight going in helping to kick start the careers of some deserving writers. Best of luck to them!

-I received a small blurb in The Kenyon Review monthly newsletter about my prize-winning story “The Current State of the Universe” appearing in The Cincinnati Review in May. I think it’s very cool of TKR to do that kind of stuff. It’s a small bit, but very much appreciated.

-There was a great article about Daniel Orozco and his debut fiction collection in the recent Poets & Writers (print only) about dealing with agents and editors before you’re ready. Some very instructive stuff. Orozco’s first published story appeared in Best American Short Stories 1995 to quite a lot of fanfare. “Right after that I was getting calls from agents and publishers asking to see my other stories, to see my novel,” Orozco tells us. “But there wasn’t anything else. I was frantic for about a year–they all wanted something now. After a while they stopped calling and things quieted down, and I just settled back into my routine.” A mere sixteen years later, the collection has been published–and, again, Orozco is an author on the rise. It’s heartening to hear stories like this after my own experience in finding and losing an agent. The promise burns so bright when you’re in that situation—flying out to NYC to read, having agents contact you, hearing the sirens’ call of major publication and large advances—that when life slows back down, when that promise isn’t fulfilled, it feels like you’re washed up at twenty-eight. It’s rare enough to even get one real chance in this business. But as Orozco’s trajectory demonstrates, there are second chances too. If the writing is good enough, and if you’re persistent about putting yourself on the line, there’s opportunity yet.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“It’s something I wondered a lot about over the years since it happened. What would have gone through his mind? What would he have been thinking of, or could he even think at all, when the cops finally handed him over to that mob? Could he still see or hear, was his tongue a useless mass, did his skin still feel, once that first bullet ripped through him? It’s something I wondered about a lot. I wondered about that boy, Willy, and how it happened to him, and how, once it was all over, the war, the election, my time in Lincoln, I knew it wasn’t going to happen to me. But for a time that could have been me who had that happen to him. Not exactly the same, but something like that. So I wondered how it felt to be picked up by a lynch mob. Would his eyes and ears work, or would he be too afraid? Would he have been able to hear what that mob promised to do to him?”

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

Conjunctions for “Shame Cycle.”

Just Finished

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I never really fell in love with this one. I can see why people really like it, but it didn’t happen for me. For one thing, several of the stories were eerily close to some episodes from Season Two of Californication. The book seemed too trendy—in its formal choices and content—almost intolerably so. A good book, but one that gnawed at me.

The Call by Yannick Murphy. This is a very good novel. I’ll be reviewing this soon, so I won’t say much here now.

Now Reading

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter.

Up Next

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

June in Review (2011)

June turned out to be all about new short stories for me. I completely reworked one short story, wrote a new one, and put the final touches on yet another. I’d planned on drafting new material for the novel this month, but was really swept up in the short form for a few weeks and had to put off any new writing for the novel. It had been so long since I had much passion for writing short fiction, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It felt pretty good to pump out a few stories in a small period of time, after working on one project for nearly two years now. To hear some new voices, to deal with different types of problems—those faced by married people, by people alive in this century, by those from the middle class—was kind of nice. It will also be nice to have some new stories to send out to journals this fall, which hasn’t been the case for a while.

In other news this past month:

The frontyard flower garden is in full bloom. Bumble bees rejoice.

-Mixer Publishing released my short story “The Housekeeper” on Amazon, available for download on Kindle or PDF. The story was originally published on Flatmancrooked earlier this year, but they have apparently taken down their entire site. That sucks.

-And if you’re already on Amazon, you might as well download the spring issue of The Kenyon Review, which features my short story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.”

-A story that just so happened to be reviewed on the blog Perpetual Folly as part of its Short Story Month 2011.

-Also, The Kenyon Review released their summer reading recommendations, including two of my picks.

-My review of Richard Burgin’s novel Rivers Last Longer appeared in the Pleiades Book Review.

-In other review news, The Millions will be running my review of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut short story collection Death is Not an Option sometime this month.

We traveled to State Center, IA, for a wedding of one of Nicole's cousins, and were greeted by a donkey.

Dispatch from “Impertinent, Triumphant”

“We talked about marriage for a long time. About the good stuff, then the bad, then the qualifications and excuses of what we’d said before. Something happened to Anna, she was emotional, she calmed down, something else happened a few weeks after that, and it wasn’t until later that she remembered the first thing, the original outrage, and by then it was too late for her to do something about it. My stories were the same, structurally. Eventually we turned listless and bleak, hearing about each others’ marriage wounds. They lacked finality. We wanted firm endings, closure, but that wasn’t possible.”

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

Florida Review for “Attend the Way.”

Just Finished

The Names by Don DeLillo. I’ve read nearly all of DeLillo’s work now, and this is by far the most underappreciated novel of his I’ve come across. It’s really pretty good. One from his espionage meme, with a domestic twist, about a spy for the CIA who doesn’t know he’s working as a spy for the CIA. The only thing I can think of to explain its lack of recognition is that The Names, for one, comes from DeLillo’s first period of work, before he was famous, and, secondly, that it covers a lot of similar ground as some of his later intelligence novels, like Mao II, Underworld(my favorite!) and, to some extent, Libra.

Now Reading

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Up Next

The Call by Yannick Murphy.

My AWP: 2011

The National Christmas Tree, with the Washington Monument in the background.

So the giant writers, editors, and publishers trade show, otherwise known as AWP, was last week in Washington D.C. It’s kind of hard to pull together anything too coherent regarding a constant stream of cocktails, skipped lunches, reunions, readings, casual encounters, and events, so I’ll go after this in bullet point fashion.

-I really had no idea that DC was such a fun city. My preconception was mostly made up of tour groups, packs of roving lobbyists, and motorcades. (I did see two motorcades, which was kind of exciting.) However, the Adams Morgan neighborhood was pretty awesome, as nights at Madam’s Organ Blues Bar and the Black Squirrel proved. Elijah Jenkins and Flatmancrooked put on an awesome event with the Literati Gong Show at Madam’s Organ on Thursday night. The place was absolutely packed and the attention was warranted. Here’s hoping the LGS becomes a mainstay. It’s a great twist on literary readings.

-It was somewhat curious how many street people accused me of “running game.” So that means I look like an easy mark, right?

Detail from the World War II Memorial.

-I heard the Jhumpa Lahiri keynote was kind of disappointing—I couldn’t make it back for it—but the Junot Díaz reading on Friday night was really something special. He spoke with lucidity and freshness about so many writerly issues that it kind of felt like an important, albeit informal, commencement address. His comments on Robert Smithson’s Somewheres and Elsewheres and the essay “The Monuments of Passaic” made it clear to me why—as a writer from a backwaters—Díaz’ work resonates with me. And his response to the question about profanity was really heartfelt and fascinating as well.

-The Benjamin Percy, Rick Moody, Joshua Ferris, Jennifer Egan reading was a highlight as well. You would expect a reading with such big names to be good, but this was as mind-blowing awesome as something can be right after lunch on a Saturday afternoon. It exceeded high expectations.

-There were only a few panels I made it to, and none of those were all that interesting. Much of the problem is that I pigeon-holed myself a little too much, picking panels that were similar to those I’ve seen in the past. That was pretty much the problem. It was too much of an echo from last year. Going outside the box will be important for next year.

-The Book Fair was pretty good though. It seemed really crowded, which is a good thing. More than that, most everyone was pretty enthusiastic and friendly, and only a few people came up to the Prairie Schooner table to sell us something. Awkward. It was great to meet some new people, to animate some Facebook faces, and to reconnect with a few friends. All of which is pretty much how it’s supposed to be. It was especially nice to meet the journal editors I’ve been working with over the past year.

Madam's Organ Blues Bar, host to the Literati Gong Show, Episode 1.

-The conference can be kind of exhausting, particularly in that you’re constantly talking about your own writing and reading and thinking. For someone who doesn’t get that much stimulation along these lines, it takes a bit of stretching out. This, however, was one of the best parts of the week. After all, you can’t feel too bad about being asked to talk about yourself. Anyway, it’s a great self-reflective exercise, as you’re forced to distill the components that express what your work is about down to a few cogent sentences. If you’re not sure what your book is about, or what the core conflict is, or what the basis of your main characters are, trying to explain these things a dozen times a day is a great way to find out if you have something going, or if you’re full of shit. (It’s okay to be full of shit, of course. But you should know you are, and then be able to do something about it.) It helped refresh my conception of my own work and showed me what ideas had dropped by the wayside. These kinds of oral exams can be painful to go through, but I think they’re important.

-Look out Chicago 2012!