I’ve been working on a few new short stories lately, but the majority of May was devoted to beginning the initial drafting process for Part 5 of my novel The Hyphenates of Jackson County—the final section of the book. It’s all kind of a big mess right now, but it’s good to get into it. This always happens after I spend a couple months in revision, and this time was no different. The writing comes tough, in small amounts, 500-1000 words a day. It’s mostly blocking scenes, organizing notes, working out important descriptions and finding where symbolism might emerge. It takes a while to build some momentum and get a feel for how this part of the story should be told.
The narrative style I use is pretty steady throughout the book—third-person, through the point-of-view of my main character Jacob Bressler, although I’m experimenting with some brief first-person sections, too—but the main issue comes from the time scope of the book. The present-time thread of the novel takes place over three years, from 1917-1919, or starting when the United States declares war on Germany in 1917 and ending with the Red Summer and Omaha Race Riot of 1919. It’s not a huge amount of time for a novel, gratefully, although there is a lot going on, and it’s a challenge to account for the lost, un-narrated time between parts. Particularly in first drafts, I think I pay too much attention to what’s happened in the time gaps, instead of just getting into the action at hand. A lot of that will be eliminated soon enough, most of it in the initial edits. But it makes things a little clunky and difficult in the first draft.
Anyway, I’m really excited to be this close to finishing a draft of my first novel. I hope to be done with a rough version of Part 5 by the end of the summer. And since I’ve been editing the other parts as I’ve gone along, there isn’t a tremendous amount of work yet to be done, relatively. (I’ve been working on the book for about two years now.) If all goes well, I should have a decent draft of The Hyphenates of Jackson County finished by Spring 2012. Here’s hoping anyway. It’s not like I’m on deadline or anything.
In other news this past month:
-“The Current State of the Universe” is featured in the new issue of The Cincinnati Review. The story won their Schiff Prize for Prose last year, and I’m very excited to make it into this journal.
–Prairie Schooner accepted my review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Belowfor publication. This will be my third review for PS, where I’m also currently a senior fiction reader.
-On cue, my second review for Prairie Schooner—of Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy—appears in our current summer issue. Check it out. It’s a pretty good one. (The issue, I mean. (The review is okay too.))
-In April we learned that Kwame Dawes was coming in as the new Editor of Prairie Schooner; in May we learned that Managing Editor James Engelhardt was leaving. James secured a position as the acquisitions editor for University of Alaska Press, and leaves for Fairbanks early in June. (Actually, today I think.) I owe a great debt to James for all he’s done for my editing and reviewing career, if I can call it that. James took me on as a reader after I received my MA from Creighton. I was looking to maintain some involvement in the literary world, and volunteering for Prairie Schooner has been a great anchor for me. After a year-and-a-half, I made my way up to a senior reader position; PS accepted my first book review, after some editorial help from James; my first two trips to AWP came with funding assistance from PS as well. I feel very grateful for what Prairie Schooner has done for me, in giving me the opportunity to work, particularly as someone who isn’t otherwise involved in the English Department at the University of Nebraska—and I owe much of that gratitude do James, I believe. Best of luck to him and his family on their Alaskan adventure! (And additional thanks for the fact that now, when I think of Alaska, I won’t think of Sarah Palin.)
-This blog featured a longish post about researching the lynching of Will Brown, and coming across a great NPR feature about the execution of Willie McGee and his granddaughter’s quest to find out the truth about him many decades later.
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“Jacob returned to Omaha the same morning President Wilson arrived from St. Paul. It was only partly coincidental it happened that way. Jacob was planning on coming back to Omaha that week anyway, to visit his friend Reinhold Bock, and then he read in the papers that Wilson was to arrive by train to the Union Station early Monday morning, before giving a speech on the League of Nations that afternoon. A parade route was planned out where Wilson’s car would meander the city. When Jacob read this, he went down to the station in Lincoln and got a ticket to Omaha for the next morning. He bought himself a suitcase too, at the store there that sold them. It was something simple, with cardboard sides, that didn’t lock. It wouldn’t have to last forever. Jacob didn’t know what he was going to do—he had no plan for the next year, or month, or for the next three days for that matter—but he wanted to see the president. He’d find a spot on Scandal Flats and wait for Wilson’s car to pass by. It felt like it would be significant to do that. Jacob didn’t know why. He just felt he needed to see the man. He needed to see the man as a man, that was it.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
West Branch for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Southeast Review and Conjunctions for “Attend the Way”; Missouri Review for “Shame Cycle.”
The Cailiff’s of Baghdad, GAby Mary Helen Stefaniak. An excellent historical novel about racism and confronting the Other in depression-era Georgia, with a detour to the more famous Baghdad in ancient times. Very well done.
Quarantineby Rahul Mehta. I really enjoyed this collection—which revolves around the lives and loves of second-generation, homosexual, Indian-Americans—and will be reviewing it.
-April turned out to be something of an uneventful month for me, which isn’t so bad. After all the good news and happening of March, it was nice to have a little more mental space to work in. I took a week off work and did a big revision of my short story collection, How to Die Young in Nebraska. A few stories were cut, I combined a few into a novella, and rearranged all of what was left into something kind of new. I took part in the initial screening for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize this year, and I tried to apply the lessons I learned from that experience as a screener/editor to my own collection. Hopefully it’s much better. I think it is. It’s a little shorter than before, the overall quality is a little more consistent, and the sense of narrative flow has been enhanced. We’ll see if there’s much of a response, as I have it out to a couple contests and small presses now.
-One thing I did a little different in my editing of the collection was to let myself revise older, published stories. My old agent was usually against this practice, maybe afraid that I would undo the magic of a piece by tinkering with it after it had already been edited and published. There’s a certain logic to that, but I felt it was time to make some smaller changes. My main motivation was thinking that I’m not exactly the same writer I was two or three or five years ago, and that the collection read a little too much like a fossil record of my stylistic changes over the period that I’ve been working on the book. Since I didn’t like that, I tried to make the book more consistent in style as well. That seems to make a lot of sense. Common sense even.
-Speaking of PS, Kwame Dawes was officially announced as the new Editor of Prairie Schooner. The last two years have been a little uncertain, as we looked for someone to replace longtime editor Hilda Raz, and I’m excited how it turned out.
-Darren and Lacey had their wedding this past weekend. Congrats to the Keens!
-I finally framed and hung a piece (see photo) that I made when I was at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in March 2010. It’s pretty simple: an original Sunday supplement insert from the Omaha Daily News, from August 1912, on which I inked different descriptions of women that I wrote during my residency at KHN. I found the newspaper at an antique shop down the street from the arts center. It only took me a year, but I finally got the thing up on the wall, and I like it.
-Looking ahead to May, The Cincinnati Review featuring my prize-winner, “The Current State of the Universe,” will be out on newsstands and in mailboxes. So get ready to hear more about that.
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
“Attend the Way” was named a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars’ Unified Fiction Contest. Kind of a slow month for rejections. I don’t really have that much stuff out there right now.
Greetings from Belowby David Philip Mullins. A very nice collection that I’m in the process of reviewing. The final three stories are exemplary, and they make for a knock-out conclusion to the book. I can’t recall another collection that sprints to the finish as much as Greetings from Below does. Usually it’s more of a ruminative, self-reflective inching forward that gracefully puts an end to the proceedings, but GfB doesn’t really follow that format too much, which is good.
My American Unhappinessby Dean Bakopoulos. I’m still not really sure what to make of this book. It’s kind of chick-lit for thirty-something men, if that makes any sense. There are long stretches of great, interesting writing, but the first-person narrator is very glib and kind of a frustratingly clueless person at times. MAU will probably reignite some of the debates about unlikable lead characters that raged last year with the release of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.