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.
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.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.
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”
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 %@#*!!”
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.
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.
I’ve been busy pushing ahead with new drafting the past couple weeks and it’s been going well for the most part. Nothing of much interest to report, really, on that score, other than I think much of what’s been put down will be of service to the book. So that’s good.
Perhaps the most note-worthy development is that it seems clearer, as the historical fiction progresses, that I’m probably working on two different novels. The idea was to have one novel with two interwoven threads—a primary one taking place in 2005, with a complementary one from 1918/19. The historical thread is growing in size and prominence the more I work on it, however, and is plotting out to be its own book. I’ve also been concerned about trying to get a 600-700 page novel published, so maybe this will work out better to have two 300-350 page novels instead. We’ll see how it goes.
Dispatch from The Open City
“A man crossed the street in front of Jacob, bent towards the road as he stumbled along. He was crippled with rheumatism, Jacob could see this, the man’s fingers bent in broken directions, hands unable to close, his limbs joined at odd angles, as if no part of his body could be flexed straight. There were many men like this here, twisting in wooden chairs, unable to find comfort, the hard labor of their lives stamped on their bodies. These men were slaughterhouse workers who could no longer work. Thousands of them had migrated north to fill stockyard positions vacated when locals were drafted into the war effort. Neighborhoods such as these overflowed with these men and their families. Every morning trucks owned by the yards rumbled into the Northtown ghetto to exchange night workers for day workers, then returned in the evening to reverse the exchange. It was decent pay, for those who could do it. But they ended up with their legs broken and tied to a nearly straight tree branch, lying near the planks of the walkway; or knocked permanently stupid by a stampeding bull, jabbering and drooling, faces swarmed with flies. There were both men and women here who were missing fingers or raw chunks of their faces or whole arms from the cutting apparatus. Or those folks whose bodies had simply broken down.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of “No Thanks”
Michigan Quarterly Review for “The Day After This One”; Colorado Review and Puerto del Sol for “The Housekeeper”; Failbetter for “Let Your Hair Hang Low;” and Barnstorm for “Lycaon.”
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. It kind of pains me to say this, since Chaon is one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t really care for this novel. Much of the writing is very good, but none of the book’s moving parts seemed to really work for me. Maybe part of it is that Chaon is rewriting the same stories over and over, the same kinds of characters from his earlier work, the same issues. Many writers do this, of course, and it doesn’t seems like it should be a big deal, but I was just kind of bored with what was going on after a while. There wasn’t suspense. Being familiar with his work, I could see what was going to happen. And perhaps more than that, it invites too much of an invitation to compare the novel to Chaon’s story collection Among the Missing—and in my opinion, he’s ten times the short story writer than he is a novelist. AYR has received dozens of exuberant reviews, so people much smarter than me found much to admire here. I also admired a lot the novel’s individual aspects–including the amibition evident in the project. I just didn’t think it really pulled together, however.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. A little less than half-way through here. It’s something I can’t really put my finger on, but there’s just something about these stories that makes them seem like they’re important to read. Maybe it’s the tone with which they’re told. At any rate, there’s a gravity to the prose that’s very engaging.
Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor.
Link of the Week
Koreanish. The outstanding blog of author Alexander Chee. Many excellent posts on the process of writing, art, comics, and other such stuff. Basically, what I wish this blog could be like someday.
Salt Hill. The literary magazine of the Creative Writing Program of Syracuse University, I’m not really sure why this journal doesn’t have a higher profile. Outstanding contributors, attached to a legendary writing program, really a great aesthetic.
It’s been kind of a slow couple weeks. For reasons that will become obvious by the end of this entry, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing lately. I was able to finish up work on the first chapter of Part II, which was nice. There are a few spots that need some work before I even start revising, but I’ll probably just push forward into the second chapter before I worry about that. Was able to get some nice stuff down about the prostitution camps of Hell’s Half-Acre, the lowest of the red light districts in the early days of Omaha. It was kind of strange, but I recalled quite a bit of stuff from a history course on the Progressive Era I took in 2004 as an undergraduate. It always amazes me how much of that stuff sticks. No matter how much research I do, the writing usually seems to find its way back to some obscure anecdote I heard years ago—something that has been fermenting for a long time in the mustier parts of my subconsciousness, I suppose. I always did do well on the comprehension and retention sections of the CAT tests in elementary school, however, and it’s paying off now.
Nicole and I spent Labor Day weekend in Portland, which was palpably refreshing. About a half-dozen or so of our friends have moved out there in the past couple years, so we had ample company to enjoy the Oregon drizzle with. Old friend and rising visual artist Alexander Felton (who is apparently “ungooglable,” but you should try anyway) graciously showed us around his studio. We really enjoyed seeing some of his artwork and discussing it in terms of Baudrillard and in other PoMo ways. After two hours and a few Hamm’s, I only knocked over one of his plaster pieces, which isn’t too bad for a lumberjack like me. Felton was recently visited by some representatives of the Whitney who may be hanging his work next year, so send some kind thoughts his way.
One more quick thought on Portland. I’m not sure if any other authors do this, but I really enjoy seeing my published work in famous bookstores, so we absolutely had to stop by Powell’s in order for me to physically hold a copy of BNAV 2009. This is where it gets weird. As I stroll up to the shelf of fiction anthologies, I notice that another customer is browsing through the different volumes of BNAV and she just so happens to be holding a copy of 2009! I’m very excited, of course, and, as she turns to the Nam Le story, it occurs to me that maybe I should give her a little sales pitch. Maybe talk the book up a little. Maybe even offer to sign my contribution if she’s interested. But I didn’t say anything to her—I felt like enough of a stalker glimpsing my name over her shoulder—and she put the book back on the shelf. Should I have gone for the hard sell? Should I have risked embarrassment and just pulled out my pen and started signing? In hindsight, I should have gone for it. Just claim to be Mehdi Okasi and sign the book.
Dispatch from The Open City
“The heat intensified as they made their way in among the beduin camp. Timber piles had been driven into the mud and live copper wires strung between the poles held small illuminated bulbs. There were long rows of canvass tents, one after another, each with a woman reclining on her cot behind the door flaps. Some of the tents had crudely printed flyers pinned to their front, advertising some exotic fantasy or another. There were a multitude of variations—Mother Russia, the Queen of Siam, the Schoolteacher, Marie Antoinette, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Nun—but inside their tents the women all looked the same to Jacob. This wasn’t a high-class brothel where men who could afford a woman of different skin color or accent, or a famous traveling “lady barber” like the real Calamity Jane. These were desperate women, more than likely local, shipped in from the provinces to occupy a fetid stall in Hell’s Half-Acre before being shuffled off to a similar fate in Kansas City or Minneapolis. The camp had been constructed to be temporary—a premium placed on mobility—but Jacob had the sense that it had been established here for a long time. The only thing that changed was the women.”
Personal Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Low Rent for “You Know That I Loved You,” Queen’s Quarterly for “Let Your Hair Hang Low,” and Fiction Circus for “Lycaon.” A lot of near-love this week.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. Just about finished. I don’t want to say too much right now, as this post is getting pretty long, but this truly is an amazing book. Maybe not my favorite DeLillo work, even—I think Underworld is a more significant work and just as well written—but one of my top five overall. Word for word, DeLillo pens the best sentences going. It’s such a joy.
Exiles by Ron Hansen.
Link of the Week
(downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The theme this year is “The Sordid Arts of the Cheap Paperback.” Events are held from September 17-19 and include panels on “The Comforts of Crime in Scary Times,” “The Writer’s Life in the New Economy,” and “Vampires Love Zombies: the Art and Language of Horror,” among others. There will be poetry written then read about trashy paperback art at the Joslyn, a Ted Kooser book launch, and a literary happy hour to cap the events. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area this weekend.
Electric Literature. These guys have gotten a ton of press after their debut issue and much of it is deserved. They offer three ways to enjoy their product (varieties of digital and paper) and are doing some exciting things in terms of digital media and promotion. They also pay contributors $1000 a story, which is nice. It will be interesting to see if they can make this model work, but I say take your shot now, this one is a fast mover.
Ron Raikes: In Memoriam
On the way back from Portland we learned that Ron Raikes had been killed in a farming accident. Raikes was mostly known for his work restructuring the Nebraska education system as a State Senator and by consolidating small rural schools and in creating the Douglas-Sarpy Learning Community he has affected most people in the state. As a politician unafraid of controversy, the name Raikes ignites strong emotions in many people. (I believe Stephen Colbert even referred to him as “the Rosa Parks of resegregation” at one point, although the new funding model he and Ernie Chambers created lumped together funding sources from both inner city and suburban school districts in the Omaha metro—something that still seems impossible.)
All of this aside, Raikes also happened to be the father of one of my closest friends. It’s been a tough week coming to terms with the loss and doing all that we were able to for the family. The Raikes family has represented something special to me in the decade or so that I’ve known them, because they are such a phenomenal collection of hard workers. Each of them intelligent, talented, and driven to succeed, yet these attributes were rarely tainted by false ambition or pretension. There’s a certain intensity in the way they go about their business that was striking to me. It seemed exceptional in a place like Nebraska where almost everyone strives to land somewhere in the middle—an honest and systemic lack of ambition that often leads to the glorification of mediocrity. It was important to be around people like my friend Justin Raikes and his family. These people who have helped me strive for bigger things. Their example has opened my mind to so many new possibilities and ideas—and for this I’m thankful.
You will be missed, Ron Raikes.
Conor Oberst was wrong about you. You did good.