Summer in Review (2012)

It’s been quite a while since I last offered up a review of my activities. All the way back in April! A few things have gone down since then, such as…

-I finished a draft of my novel, The Uninitiated, that I’m very happy with and sent it off to agents for consideration. (Read here about the finishing.) So far I’ve heard back from two of my top five choices that were queried, with one passing and another asking for full manuscripts on both my novel and short story collection! Who knows if anything will come of this–as the one who requested the fulls did so despite not technically considering new clients at the moment–is that a good or bad thing?–but I’ll take good news when I can get it. We’ll be heading off to New York for a few days in October, and it would be nice if I had a couple meetings/interviews to add to the itinerary by then. We’ll see.

-Not a lot of travel over the summer months. A trip to Niobrara for a few days, a weekend in Kansas City for my mom’s graduation from seminary school and Clara’s first Royals game, a week of commuting to Lincoln for the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. The fall should offer a bit more excitement. NYC, El Salvador. (!!!)

-I was tipped off recently that my story “Welcome Home” from Best New American Voices 2009 and Boulevard was taught at Southern Connecticut State University this fall. I know of three other colleges where the story has been taught–Penn, Drexel, and City College of San Francisco as part of a program for returning veterans–in addition to a high school in Illinois. This is so cool, and delights me to no end.

-My novel was also named a finalist for Tarcher/Penguin’s Tarcher Top Artist writing competition. I haven’t seen or heard anything about a winner being named, so I guess it still is a finalist.

-I left Prairie Schooner after four years plus of service. See post-mortems here and here.

-My book review of Shira Nayman’s A Mind of Winter can be found here, and of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich here, or Richard Burgin’s Shadow Traffic and Ron Rash’s The Cove here. My review of Yannick Murphy’s The Call is in the current issue of Pleiades.

Sporting: As the final couple weeks of regular season major league baseball wind down, the KC Royals look to have a solid hold on third place in the AL Central division. They’re still pretty mediocre (owing to long stretches of horrible play in April and July) but at least haven’t been nearly as disappointing as the Indians and Twins have been for their fans. Or for Tigers’ fans, for that matter. That’s something, I guess. Life in the AL Central isn’t so much about winning games, it’s about being less miserable than your rivals.

Notre Dame is off to a rousing 3-0 start, their best on the gridiron since Ty Willingham’s 8-0 start in 2002. With a home game against Michigan tomorrow night, and with Stanford, @Oklahoma, and @USC still on the schedule, this team could still easily go into the tank. That being said, I’ll still predict an Irish victory over the Wolverines this weekend. I’d feel a little better if ND had a few mini-Ditkas on the team, but I’ll stick with my gut here. Notre Dame 87, Michigan 2.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“Fred was the one who found him face down in the creek, over on the other side of their claim. He drank horse cleaner. That’s how he did it. It must have hurt horribly. His eyes lost their pigment. Hair fell from his head. Fred came and got Jacob. He showed their father unmoving in the creek. They wrapped his body in a blanket and brought it to the barn. They didn’t dare bring it in the house. Neither said this, but they both understood. The body stayed in the barn until the Pfarrer came out with the J.P. to get it.”

Just Finished

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. A readable and well-done book. Nice suspense. I really didn’t like the epilogue, although I pretty much never like epilogues. A good book, though, certainly.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This book had been hyped so much before I read it that it couldn’t quite live up to everything I’d heard about it. It was good, but I think This Side of Brightness was better.

A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman. A post-war mystery set mostly in Shanghai, Long Island, and London in the 1950s, A Mind of Winter offers plenty in the way of sex and drugs, mistaken identity, and ill-fated love affairs. These are characters who believe, explicitly or not, that the rules of society do not apply to them.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A compelling novella about the life of a rambler and the struggle to tame Idaho in the early parts of the last century.

Now Reading

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Loving this so far. It’s been a long while since I had time to tackle a broad, long novel like this.

Up Next

The Dark Corner by Mark Powell. Not yet released, but I’m looking forward to it.

Family Photo Album: Henry Blankenfeld

Henry August Blankenfeld. My grandma Cleo’s grandpa.

Shown here at age 24.

Born: Oct 31, 1881 in Thornburg, Iowa. Died: Mar 14, 1963 in Niobrara, Nebraska. Married Mary Ellen Vaughn.  Son of Heinrich Jacob Blankenfeld (of Biechowo, West Prussia) and Maria Eigler Blankenfeld (of Rudwig, Austria). A second-generation immigrant, known for his engineering prowess.

The Real Winesburg, Ohio

Here’s a bit from Sherwood Anderson about his masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio (from the Viking Critical edition):

Winesburg of course was no particular town. It was a mythical town. It was people. I had got the characters of the book everywhere about me, in towns I had lived, in the army, in factories and offices. When I gave the book its title I had no idea there really was an Ohio town by that name. I even consulted a list of towns but it must have been a list giving only towns that were situated on railroads.

I was so excited to come across this when rereading his collection last month. Most of my work is set in real cities and towns–in places like Omaha, Lincoln, Aurora, Valentine, McCook, Hastings, Bancroft, Atlanta–but I sometimes use a fictional town in my work–a place I called Jackson, Nebraska. (Or Jackson Township, or Jackson County.) I mostly use Jackson when I want to write about a nasty small town, so that my work doesn’t slander a real place. Notably, my novel is titled The Hyphenates of Jackson County, referring to this rural county where my fictional small town is located.

When I started using Jackson as a setting as an undergrad, with my story “The Scythian Defense,” (gsu review, Fall/Winter 2006) I checked an atlas to make sure that a Jackson, Nebraska didn’t already exist–just like Anderson did in checking to see if there already was a Winesburg, Ohio. The map and index I checked didn’t list a Jackson, Nebraska, so I thought I was in the clear. (Thanks a lot free State Farm atlas!) Much like Anderson, I was wrong. Maybe the atlas I had only listed towns that had a State Farm affiliate agent? Just kidding. Jackson is just too small and isolated to be on all maps, with a population just over 200. There are lots of places like that–and the people from these places often hold up their unmapped status as a point of pride. (There’s a town in western Nebraska that has a population of 2. It’s a must see, their house/city hall/library/school.)

I found out that Jackson, Nebraska was a real place when I started researching the life of notorious Omaha political and crime boss Tom Dennison during the early stages of writing Hyphenates. Dennison grew up in an Irish settlement in northeast Nebraska by the name of St. John’s. The settlement never really took hold and died off once its priest left–the Catholic parish still exists, St. Pat’s–but a town remained even after the settlement broke. A town named, of course, Jackson.

This was kind of weird to discover. I’d already planned, before finding this in the research, to set some scenes in a fictional town based in part on the place where Tom Dennison grew up, and I was committed to calling the place Jackson County, due to connections in my body of work that I wanted to play off of. Little did I know that the town was already called Jackson.

This kind of freaked me out, but I wasn’t too concerned about it. For one thing, the real Jackson wasn’t on the map, so it was an honest coincidence. Also, I like the connection there between Tom Dennison and my fictional lead character, Jacob Bressler, and my previous work set in fictional Jackson. I’d meant to draw that line anyway, so if it’s a little more real, so much the better, right? There should always be a distinction between fictional places and real places in fiction, of course, even if a lot of the work of the writer is to help the reader forget that what they’re reading isn’t real. Even my Omaha isn’t the real Omaha, of course.

The Blankenfeld homestead, settled in 1885.

I ended up going through Jackson twice in 2010. Jackson is only 80 miles away from Niobrara, Nebraska, where some of my family comes from and still lives. I first ended up in Jackson when headed up to Niobrara for a funeral. (The second time was for a family reunion.) It wasn’t something I planned. My brother Matt and I were just going along the highway when we happened into Jackson. “Oh, shit,” I said, seeing a historical marker about the place. We stopped for some doughnuts and Mello Yellow. It was kind of surreal to be there. My fictional Jackson County is partially based on the area around Niobrara–and my forebearers who settled there, the Blankenfelds. I was thinking a lot about the landscape as we made the drive, and about those small towns, thinking through my novel at the same time. And then we ended up in Jackson. We just happened to stop in.

Turns out I’m in good company with Sherwood Anderson. The connection between one of my favorite writers excites me, and makes a special series of connections even better. Small world.

Weeks of July 3 – Aug 4, 2010

This last weekend we spent some time in Niobrara, Neb. at the Blankenfeld family reunion. As you may know, I’ve been working with my Grandma on some ancestry projects over the past year, and it was nice to share some of the fruits of that labor. I’ve also been using some of the Blankenfeld family lore as a model for Jacob Bressler in my novel-in-progress The Hyphenates of Jackson County. In this regard, the trip was especially significant for me.

On the Blankenfeld homestead with my Grandma Cleo and Mother Marta.

We were able to visit the original Blankenfeld homestead site, where Jacob and Maria settled in 1885. Although no structures remain—there was a hill where the original dugout had been—it was pretty cool to just stand there and appreciate the terrain. The area hadn’t seemed especially rocky and hilly before, in my previous trips to the area, until I imagined trying to cultivate it by hand. Later, we stopped into a museum of sorts that was made from the preserved farm of my Great-Great-Grandfather Henry Blankenfeld. He’s the model for Jacob in the novel–visually, and some of his history as the son of immigrants–so it was really exciting to walk through the house and barn he built himself, to eat an apple from a tree he planted, to descend the staircase his wife descended on the day they were married.

It’s always difficult to appraise how valuable experiences like these will be to my work. For one, who knows where the writing is going to take me. Will I need to know what the grass smells like? The flora? The fauna? Or how the sky there has its own unique blue, the air a particularly humid cloyingness? Also, in Hyphenates, Jacob comes from a different part of the state, one with a terrain closer to Omaha’s than Niobrara’s. So it isn’t like I can just sit down and make a sketch of the landscape to use in the novel.

The Blankenfeld homestead, originally settled in 1885.

Mostly it’s just helpful to be there, to be put in a spot that’s loaded with memories specific to my family, and where events took place that were crucial to my very existence. I’ve always had the kind of memory that retains periphery details well, so it’s a great benefit to just listen to stories, especially while smelling the grass and listening to the leaves in a tree. It isn’t that I necessarily came away with anything specific that I can add to the story—and I’m not saying I didn’t, I just don’t know yet—but it feels like I’ve gained a much better appreciation of what it was like to be alive in a time other than my own, even if it isn’t the exact era I’m writing about. And that’s something that can’t really be replicated in an archive or by looking at old photographs. It’s getting caught up in other people’s memories, and not just that, but doing so while standing on the very ground where things happened.

Dispatch from “Shame Cycle”

“Anna was sixteen when she approached you at a downtown record store and you began seeing her not long after that. This was the summer before your freshman year of college, when she invited you to a party and claimed possession of your body, parading you around the smoky rooms of parties. You considered it a move up in social scene from the part-time Nu Metal rebels you knew in high school to this career class of punks. The hard-drinkers, veteran sludge rockers, and sometimes transients who pocked the city so visibly in those days. These were people Anna exposed you to, her friends. They hitchhiked to New York and ran drugs from the Mexican border for South Omaha gangs, they bought a tattoo gun to save trips to the parlor, they had shaved-in mullets and handlebar mustaches, they screamed swear words into ice cream parlors as protests against capitalism. These people were the real deal as far as you were concerned then—or as close to it as one could get in Omaha.”

Maddie and Cocoa up on a Missouri River vista.

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

BOMB for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Zoetrope: All-Story for “The Current State of the Universe”; Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Indiana Review for “The Housekeeper”; Caketrain for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.” My story “Shame Cycle” was a finalist for Matrix Magazine’s LitPop Awards, but it did not end up winning. There was no consolation prize.

Just Finished

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman. An outstanding collection. Highly recommended. I liked it so much that I’ve written a glowing review of it, one that will hopefully be published soon.

Windmill at dusk.

Now Reading

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed.

Up Next

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.