I had a jacket on and everything! And only look a little puffy and haggard. Not bad for Day 12 at the KWLS. This was taken during the award-winners reading on the final Sunday of festivities at the San Carlos Institute. I presented part of my piece that won the Marianne Russo Award, “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown,” which is excerpted from the novel I’m working on.
After eleven days of the Key West Literary Seminar (four days of workshop with the incomparable and generous Mary Morris sandwiched between two weekend seminars) I made my way home to Omaha on Sunday night. It’s certainly nice to be home after what was quite a trip.
The theme this year was The Dark Side, which covered mostly crime and mystery novels, with some tangential works picked up along the way. While I’m not really a reader of mysteries, there were quite a few presenters who are, or might be, household names–Scott Turow, Carl Hiassen, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Michael Connelly. The high points for me came when Percival Everett, Malla Nunn, Gillian Flynn, Attica Locke, and John Banville/Benjamin Black were on stage. There was an undercurrent of writing race in historical fiction that developed in the second session that was much more thought-provoking and touching to me, although Carl Hiassen’s Florida Freak Show standup routine in the first session was certainly a highlight too. I don’t know why I would have thought any different, but folks who write about murder all day certainly seem to have an active sense of humor.
The books I came out really wanting to read are I Am Not Sidney Poitier and God’s Country by Percival Everett, A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There were more, of course, but these the most.
One of the highlights was visiting the elegant home of Judy Blume for a cocktail party during the week. She’s quite a hostess. (She also tweeted me the next day.) This invite was part of winning the Marianne Russo Award, so Christine Shan Shan Hou and Liz Gordon (the other two award winners) and I could hobnob with a few of the visiting writers and benefactors of the seminar, including Peyton Evans, who selected my work for the award. It was nice to be able to thank certain people in person.
Another big feature of winning the Russo Award–along with having my bio and photo listed in the artful seminar book–was that I read from my work on stage during the seminar’s final session, a selection from “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown.” A few years have passed since I’d last read in public, out loud, or been on a mic for that matter, but I really wasn’t all that nervous to be up on stage at the San Carlos institute. Actually, it was a lot of fun. After the cycles my writing life has taken the last five years–with a moderate high followed by a couple year lull–I really appreciated the opportunity to get up there and present my writing to an audience. I felt ready this time around, much more so than before, and am looking forward to any more success that I might luck into.
Thanks to Nathan, Christine, Dustin, Liz, Nick, Sam, and Sandy for being great house and/or roommates, and to everyone in the Mary Morris workshop, and to Amina, Carol, Mary, Melissa, Paula, Shannon, and Tim for joking around at events and between sessions. And, of course, I’m very grateful to Miles Frieden and Arlo Haskell (current and associate/future directors) for their support. This was my third trip to KWLS, so it should be obvious what I think of the community of writers and artists they’ve built down there.
I’ve mentioned it many times before, but it’s highly recommended that any interested writer (or teacher, or librarian) apply for financial aid to attend the seminar. KWLS is an awesome experience, they give out a ton of aid ($300k in the last six years, I guess, which is huge) and there’s no application fee to apply. Give it a shot. Next year’s theme is How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit.
No big news regarding the novel-writing at this point. I’ve been busy reworking the reworks. Tried half a dozen more ways to do the opening pages and feel like I’m getting closer on that. For a long time I leaned on having a sort of prologue opening, but decided to cut all but four pages of that, as it seemed to be more of a crutch for me as writer than anything that might interest a reader. Always a tricky business figuring out what actually needs to be on the page and what needed to be written for the writer only. Getting closer though.
There was some more tangible news related to The Uninitiated over the season though, as Boulevard published an excerpt of the novel in October, titled “River Ward, 1917.” This is the first bit of writing from the novel that’s been published, so definitely exciting news there.
Meanwhile, in December, another excerpt, “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown,” brought home the Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar. Among the many benefits are free travel and lodging at this year’s seminar, the opportunity to read my work as part of the regular program at the seminar, and an 11-day stay in Key West. It will be sad to miss over a third of Nebraska’s January, but somehow I’ll soldier through.
These two things, along with a fellowship to Akademie Schloss Solitude, winning the Tarcher/Penguin Top Artist contest, a long-list notice in the Inkubate novel contest–all of which was based on work done for The Uninitiated–makes me hope I’m on the right track here.
There was more publishing news in November, as Five Chapters accepted “Impertinent, Triumphant” for publication. The story will run sometime in March, probably. Really looking forward to that too.
Also, some interesting thoughts on living abroad are offered here in this article.
Dispatch from The Uninitiated
“Tom thought it over as he paced the brick drive that led up to his house, two days after the vote. Bullet straight and tree-lined, the drive gave the impression of something fantastic as his house slipped into view, large and unreachable, a mirage. The house was wood-framed with finishes of granite at certain edges, the cellar and foundation limestone, highlights of plaster festoons above the front door. A few chimneys rose above beveled eaves. Off the second floor bedrooms were balconies as wide as the patios below, where a tiered-garden overlooked the industrial valley. There were pergolas holding grape vines, arbors abloom with creeping red ivy. Everything here was made for entertaining, for looking at, for admiring, but up close these spaces didn’t serve any purpose. This was an unpeopled luxury, a lonely glutton of riches in and of itself. If Tom was being honest, he had to admit this.
“Years before, an enemy left a bomb on the front doorstep. An ingenious design, the bomb, a simple wooden box with six sticks of dynamite and a pistol inside. A string was tacked to the porch and connected to the trigger of the pistol. If someone had lifted the box, his wife Ada or daughter Frances, the whole house would have been blasted clean off the earth, leaving only a rubbled crater. Frances found the box with a friend, and she told Tom about it. A smart girl, Frances didn’t touch the infernal device at all. Tom noticed the trip wire when she brought him to see. He had police dismantle the bomb. After that Tom closed the grounds. Bodyguards were kept outside around the clock. You had to be a close family friend, a known friend, if there was such a thing, or else you couldn’t get in. The bomb changed things. That’s when Tom put the machine gun across his lap in the car. That’s when everything here, all this bounty he’d won over the years, all of it, started being lonely.”
The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos. I’d always avoided the USA Trilogy for some reason. Dos Passos is so often only a foot-note to Hemingway among the great writers of the Lost Generation, although his novels are consistently lauded and canonized as well. I’d just never known anyone who actually read him, so there wasn’t much of a conversation to join, I guess. After reading this first third of the trilogy I can see why Dos Passos is still relevant. So much of his pro-labor and socialist message is probably lost to most contemporary readers–it’s similar to reading The Jungle at times–but the level of energy and innovation is very high here too. Very rich, poetic, and affecting.
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. The way these conversational essays seem to be written more for effect–that your mind wanders with the flow of information, sometimes parallel to it, sometimes not–produces an interesting reading experience. I’d read about Sebald’s work a lot before I ever read it, so I kind of knew what to expect. At the same time, I’m still not really sure what to think.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen. Really enjoyed this. A lot more than I thought I would, frankly. I met Ron when he visited Creighton University this fall, which is what prompted me to finally pull this off my “To Read” book shelf. The psychological depth of the novel is pretty astounding. Plenty of shoot-outs and train robberies too, of course.
The Castle by Franz Kafka. A monster of an unfinished novel. I was compelled to read this after watching Michael Haneke’s film adaptation, and really enjoyed both quite a lot. The idea of reading an unfinished novel always intrigues me, particularly ones of this class that could just as accurately be called “unfinishable” novels. It isn’t so much that the plot line is incomplete, more that the story could never finish. It’s not like K.’s going to find some sort of victory in the end, or defeat for that matter. The novel follows his string of embarrassments and slight advancements and eventually stops as he reaches the end of his inertia. I kind of wondered if the novel wasn’t finished after all.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This has been pretty engaging so far, although the writing sometimes comes off as haphazard, particularly when it comes to POV. Maybe haphazard isn’t the right word, superfluous?, but I often question some of the strategies Marra uses here to tell the story. A good book nonetheless. I can certainly see why it made so many Best of lists this year, mostly because of the story of an orphaned little girl and two eccentric doctors in war-torn Chechnya is so remarkable.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I’ve been reading this off and on for a few years now. I come across some criticism about Dreiser a while ago that lumped him into a group of American novelists who have novels regarded as classics (Dreiser has two, of course, with Sister Carrie also showing impressive staying power) even though the writing itself isn’t really all that remarkable. I’d tend to agree with the assessment. Nobody is going to confuse Dreiser with Hemingway or Fitzgerald, as far as style and form go, although the story of his novels really is so quintessentially American (for its time, place, and class) that it’s hard to dispute the status of his novels as classics. Steinbeck was the other novelists lumped into this category, which seems to fit as well.
The Third Book about Achim by Uwe Johnson. The follow-up novel to Speculations about Jakob. These books can be difficult to locate, but I happened to find one at the always excellent Jackson Street Booksellers and was lucky enough to get the other from Nicole for Christmas.
[Please excuse any and all verbal cheersing-myself that may occur in the following.]
More great news to share, as I’ve been awarded the Marianne Russo Award by the Key West Literary Seminar!
Here’s the official announcement on Littoral, the seminar’s blog. (Also, you can read more about the KWLS scholarship program here if you’re interested in applying next year, and you should be. No entry fee=no worries.) As if ten days in Key West during January wasn’t enough, the prize includes tuition to both sessions of seminars and workshop programs, airfare to and lodging in Key West, and some spending cash, along with the opportunity to present a reading of my work during the conference (on Sunday, January 19, at 11:40am, to be exact, if you happen to be in the neighborhood). It’s really a very generous award and a great opportunity. I’m thrilled to be headed back, this time with a little hardware waiting for me.
I feel like I’m telling people all the time what a great experience KWLS is. It truly is the best there is and an indispensable part of our American literary culture, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks so much to Miles Frieden (Executive Director of KWLS) and Arlo Haskell (Associate Director), who do such a great job every year. This will be my third trip to KWLS. (Here’s what happened last time I was there.) My first seminar dealt with historical fiction, the second with speculative fiction. This time the theme is “The Dark Side: Mystery, Crime & the Literary Thriller.”
The schedule includes events with Robert Stone, Percival Everett, Joyce Carol Oates, William Gibson, Carl Hiaasen, John Banville, among many others. I’m not really all that familiar with crime writing, frankly, and that makes this even more exciting. I wasn’t really all that interested in historical fiction when I attended my first KWLS–and certainly didn’t anticipate ever spending half a decade writing a historical novel myself.
While odd-numbered years can often be a cruel mistress, 2013 has without a doubt been good to me. There have been contest wins, publications (here, here) and acceptances (here, here), honorable mentions (here, here, here), an international fellowship to summer abroad, travel (here, here), along with the fact that we moved into a new house and love living in Dundee. I’ve enjoyed myself quite a lot this year and am not exactly looking forward to a new calendar, knowing how things tend to turn around. The party has to end sometime, right? Luckily, some more good luck has come along that guarantees, if nothing else, my 2014 will begin in style.
Thanks so much KWLS. See you soon!