The Second Half: The Millions’ Preview and Harper Perennial’s Big Deal

The Millions dropped its Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2012 Book Preview this week. In what’s becoming a biannual tradition, the list boasts a number of big-name authors, such as Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace. Not too shabby. Head over to The Millions for the full scoop, but here are some details on the books that look most interesting to me:

John Brandon‘s A Million Heavens focuses on an oddball cast that gathers around the hospital bed of a comatose piano prodigy.  …  Up-and-comer Charles Yu, who I saw in January at the Key West Literary Seminar, releases what’s been called a Vonnegut-esque short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You.  …  Jonathan Evison offers an interesting take on the road novel with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, wherein a man takes off across the West with a boy suffering from Muscular Dystrophy who’s been entrusted in his care.  …  Zadie Smith gets back to fiction with NW, a class novel set in London.  …  Junot DíazThis is How You Lose Her arrives in September, a story collection that has apparently already been published piece by piece in the New Yorker.  …  America’s sweetheart, Emma Straub, breaks out with her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. … Chris Ware collects his Building Stories comic strips in Building Stories.  …  Roberto Bolaño continues his impressive posthumous production with Woes of the True Policeman, which returns to the Northern Mexico city of Santa Teresa, featured in 2666. This is believed to be Bolaño’s final unpublished novel. We shall see.  …  Tenth of December is George Saunders‘ fourth humorous short story collection, many of which, I believe, were also already published in the New Yorker.

A lot to like there.

Meanwhile, Harper Perennial and One Story are partnering to offer the digital editions of some of their short story collections at the low price of $1.99.  Check out the details on Harper Perennial’s Facebook page. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m a huge fan of Harper Perennial. In fact, of the books being offered in this promotion, I’ve reviewed Ben Greenman‘s What He’s Poised to Do, Lydia Peelle‘s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Rahul Mehta‘s Quarantine, and Justin Taylor‘s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. You can find the reviews here, here, here, and here. No matter your digital device, check out a few of these titles. You won’t be disappointed. (As far as I know, they also work in print. The discount doesn’t, however.)

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 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!