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!

Weeks of Mar 18 – Apr 20, 2010 (Perseverance Edition)

There’s still one more recap post about my Kimmel Harding Nelson residency on the back burner, but I wanted to get a weeks in review post in here too. And since I had two stories accepted for publication last week, this seemed like a good time to do that.

On Tuesday of last week I learned that MARY Magazine will be putting “Let Your Hair Hang Low” in their summer edition. This is a story I’ve been working on since the fall of 2002 and am very glad to find a home for it. Then, on Wednesday, I received an email from the Kenyon Review letting me know that “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” will be running in their Spring 2011 issue. This was another story I’ve had for a long time, starting it in the spring of 2005. It was originally written as a flash piece in the format of an actual step-by-step manual, basically what the title says it is, but I soon scrapped that idea and wrote it as more-or-less a traditional short story. I’m so excited for the opportunity of being in TKR. I’ve had a few big publications before—in Best New American Voices, twice in Boulevard—but adding the Kenyon Review to my credits feels like another breakthrough. It’s doing something with consistency, rather than isolated flourishes.

Needless to say, both of these stories have gone through countless drafts and rewrites, and have been in and out of the hands of editors for a long while. These stories have received ninety-seven rejections between the two of them, in their different forms. I’ve read that, on average, published stories receive around twenty-five rejections before being accepted by a journal. And even that number surprises other young and emerging writers when I bring it up. In that context, ninety-seven seems absurd, a number too embarrassing to admit to. But there it is.

At some point I probably should have given up on these pieces. But there was one thing that really kept me going—besides a stubborn belief that they are good stories and that I could make them work—and that was encouragement from editors. Of those ninety-seven rejections, twenty-nine were of the “nice” variety. The notes that said the piece was close or requested that I send more work their way. I’ve come to feel differently about these notes after reading for Prairie Schooner the past couple years. I used to disdain them a little bit, saw them a tease, I guess. It upset me that I could be close to publication without actually getting in, because there’s no consolation prize. But now I know how complimentary these encouragements really are. As a literary journal reader or editor, there are so many stories you enjoy reading over the course of a year, but only a small percentage of these can even be sent on for final consideration. And only a select few of those can be printed. So I’ve learned to appreciate the notes as the encouragement they are, and take heart to keep trying because of them.

Dispatch from “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”

“I didn’t tell anyone this, but if it had somehow been necessary that Brandon die at that particular time, then I wished that he would have killed himself. Then there would have been something to blame. Somehow this was a more acceptable cause and effect. Suicide was a seductive death full of self-hate that seemed more gratifying to an adolescent mind. I’d heard of this happening, at least, learned about it on TV. There would have been physical satisfaction in imagining this. The cool metal slipping between his lips. The buzzing, blooming sensation at the back of his cranium. Then the click. I could have understood that. It would have made sense for him to jump off a boat into the mouth of a waiting shark, but not asthma. How Brandon died was obscene, but it fit the surroundings. I had to remind myself that it was late November in Nebraska and the dirt would soon be frozen. My half-brother hadn’t wanted to die, after all, he hadn’t planned any of this.”

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

Ploughshares for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Post Road and One Story for “The Day After This One”; Avery Anthology for The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Contrary, Eleven Eleven, and Spectrum for “You Know That I Loved You.” Also, “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” was a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminar Unified Fiction Contest, as judged by Fence.

Just Finished

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan. An antebellum New York murder mystery. A lot of fun to read with interesting characters and a great setting. Highly recommended for those who like more commercial historical fiction. I may be writing a review on this but I haven’t decided for sure yet. There’s a very quaint handling of race that I gives me some pause.

The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn. I was reading this mostly as research for the novel I’m writing, and I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it too. It’s basically a compilation of early 1900s street pamphlets decrying the social evil of institutionalized prostitution, but it has some nice information on the Nebraska and Omaha of that era. It also looks like I can work Washburn in as a character in the novel, which is pretty fun too! There are a few years of her life when she’s in Omaha, after the book has been published, and they just so happen to be unaccounted for in the historical record—which is really a great gift to a writer.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. I was going to write a fancy review of this book that talked about the perils of having a narrative structure that imitates the mental disorder of its main character, but decided against it. For one, this book has been reviewed a bunch of times already, and secondly, most of those review were negative too. No need to pile on at this point. Ferris is still a talented writer and hopefully his next book will be great.

Now Reading

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño.

Up Next

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.

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.

Weeks of Dec 26/09 – Jan 26/10

Novel Work

I’ve finally decided to split The Open City into two novels, rather than continue working on it as one project with two distinct threads. Part of the concern was that the single book would be very long, around 700 pages or so. It just didn’t seem feasible to get something like that published, seeing that it would be my first novel. And it would probably take another two years to just get it roughed in. The other things that worried me were more novelistic in nature. The two threads certainly play off each other—and the two novels will still be related—but I’d structured them to alternate in parts rather than chapters. That is, there would be a seismic shift every 100 pages or so, rather than smaller shifts every 20 pages. (Most of the hybrid-historical-novel models I’m using are structured more on the alternating chapters style, such as Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao gives more space to the individual threads instead of alternating, but his threads were separated by only a generation and collide in the end in a way mine wouldn’t.) These seemed too jarring. Just as the story is getting roaring it would jump into another thread. One that’s starting from scratch, essentially. I didn’t really anticipate the historical thread being this interesting or engrossing, which is part of the problem and part of the exciting part. It’s something I feel much more compelled to write, something I feel needs to be done.

Nicole and Maddie flying outside the courthouse.

In any event, I’ve finished a first draft of Part I of what is now titled The Hyphenates of Jackson County, which should be about one/third of the book. The writing of this has gone so smoothly so far. Maybe it’s writing historical fiction, in that I have many sources, photos, and books to draw on when I’m feeling stuck. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been working near-daily as a novelist for almost two years now and am actually getting better at it. Plus a little bit of the family life settling down a bit more, becoming more comfortable as a father, having real office space without radon gas to contend with, and having a nice chunk of property that demands constant physical activity. Let’s say all of the above. But whatever the cause of this good streak, it’s been very much enjoyed. Now it’s just a matter of finishing. And making it great. The rest should take care of itself.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“There was something about Jacob that triggered Mrs. Eigler’s mothering instinct. The way he stared blankly into the street when they chatted in the evenings, as if someplace else; how he merely smiled in silence when at a loss for words, his mind grinding. Women often fell towards mothering Jacob. From the way his hair flopped over his forehead to the cowlick spiking up in back, Jacob unaware until a woman was there to tamp it down for him; and in how he dressed, not quite sloppily, but merely hinting at neatness with an informal comportment.”

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

Crazyhorse for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; Lake Effect and StoryQuarterly for “The Housekeeper”; Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, and One Story for “These Things That Save Us”; Barnstorm for “From Indiana.”

Just Finished

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne. This novel is nearly very good. It’s a book driven almost entirely by the voice of its narrator, which is something I don’t usually enjoy that much beyond the first few pages. Yet, protagonist Karim Issar is very compelling. A programmer from Qatar who strikes it rich in Manhattan while doing some pre-Y2K debugging, Karim is the kind of uninitiated character who so effectively provides context to the culture he’s being introduced to. The main problem I have with Kapitoil is that the secondary characters are flat and ineffective as foils. They can’t challenge Karim, which leaves the main character two-dimensional in important ways as well. It looks like much of Wayne’s background is in doing short, satirical pieces for magazines, so maybe this is telling in that the novel shines when it is merely a matter of voice and gags, but falters on the level of extended plot. This one is really worth picking up, however. Highly recommended.

Should I run for office? Do I look like a county chair?

Now Reading

American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn.

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb.

Up Next

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.

And big props to my friend and colleague Nabina Das, who has been named an Associate Fellow for the City as Studio 2010 initiative in Delhi. Awesome work!