Weeks of Dec 6, 2010 – Jan 6, 2011: On Going First-to-Third

(Note: This isn’t a baseball entry.)

For the past month or so I’ve been toying with point-of-view in my novel, first going from a close third-person to first-person narrated by Jacob Bressler, my lead character. I’m not really sure what my goal for doing this was. Something just didn’t sound right with the “voice” telling the story and I wanted to try something different. Some of the feedback I’ve received from potential agents spoke to Hyphenates being a book focused on history and setting, rather than story and character, and I’m trying to break that hold. So I figured that Jacob could tell his story more succinctly, since it’s all he would care about. He wouldn’t obsess over Omaha history or factoids of the era as much as I do, certainly, and sometimes it’s easier to slip those lovelies in while in third-person. I needed a more discerning eye. It’s like how you don’t realize how embarrassing something is until you say it out loud to another person, or post it in online. But once you open your mouth, you can see things so much more clearly and objectively.

The experiment didn’t really work. Conventional wisdom says that novels shouldn’t be written exclusively, or even largely, in first-person, and I think that’s probably good advice. Around page fifty of the rework, it got pretty annoying to keep seeing and hearing that “I” all over the place. To be unable to break out of Jacob’s voice even for a minute is a problem, especially since he’s the focus of the book. But, even though I’m now in the process of reworking it back into third-person, I do think the exercise was worthwhile. It helped me see cuts and edits, and gaps where new work is needed, that weren’t apparent before. While it seemed acceptable to have a third-person narrator go into a page-and-a-half diatribe on the condition of organized labor in Omaha in 1917, having Jacob do the same was absolutely ridiculous. There were more than a few instances of this, where the scholarly, professorial voice would dominant for longish periods—and they all needed to be cut. The writing is much cleaner now, more focused and edgy in a way similar to my contemporary-set fiction.

I’d only made it through about a quarter of what I have drafted in the transition to first-person rework, but it may be worthwhile to push through the rest of it, even though I know that I’ll want it in third-person eventually. (I’ll probably want this.) I have used this technique in spots for the last year or so anyway, in fact, trying to tie the narration as closely to Jacob’s experience as I could. So much of the writing, especially in Part II, has already been rewritten, for my own benefit, in Jacob’s first-person. There’s just so much good that comes from writing around things like this. I imagine it’s similar to filmmakers shooting a scene from ten different angles, hoping to get one that looks and sounds and feels right. The dispatch below is a part I wrote new while in Jacob’s first-person, and it’s something I don’t think the third-person narrator could have come to. So there’s that.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“The bank was open when I left the saloon, it was two o’clock, but I still didn’t go there and ask for a job. The weather was nice. Again I walked downtown, but it was boring this time. No women brushed against me. My clothes disgusted them, my face was filthy. I waited out the day and then returned to the Courthouse lawn in the evening to sleep. It was warm and I’d been safe there the night before. I knew at what time to cops would come to roust me, and would make it a point to leave before they came out with their cudgels. It seemed simple. But I was arrested anyway, after midnight, for vagrancy, and put in the overnight with the drunks and other indigents. I wasn’t disappointed to be arrested, however, after I was released. At least there was black coffee this way, and in the morning a bowl of white beans with a couple pieces of fat. Otherwise I wouldn’t have eaten that morning. The whole night I wished that I’d gone to the bank that day, however. There was plenty of time for regrets in the overnight, because the drunks couldn’t keep quiet. I thought of everyone I might have wronged in my life up to this point. Any pocket of guilt that had been waxed over was reopened. I thought of you that night, Evie, and why it was you had to leave Jackson those many years before. I thought you took off on your own. It never occurred to me that they’d run you and your mother off. Not until they ran me off too.”

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

Southern Humanities Review and Hayden’s Ferry for “Attend the Way”; Electric Literature for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; and West Branch for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.”

Now Reading

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky.

Just Finished

A cover for Fortune designed by Chris Ware, by request. The magazine rejected it, of course. Pretty incredible nonetheless.

One of Ours by Willa Cather. A really great, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set mostly in Central Nebraska and Lincoln, in the late 1910s. I was lucky to pick this up at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City this fall and it’s become a fantastic resource for me. The focus of the book is even a family named Wheeler! (I’ve gone over this before, I know. Indulge me.) The final third of the book, when Claude goes over to fight in the war, is pretty sentimental and Cather panders more than a little bit to jingoistic reactionism in these parts. But overall I really enjoyed the book. Cather has never disappointed. Plus, as an added bonus, there are a bunch of good old-timey ideas for home gardens in Nebraska, for all you green-thumbs out there. We’re going to try growing gourd vines up our pergola trellis this summer, and we have Cather to thank for that.

 

The Best American Comics 2010, edited by Neil Gaiman, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. My favorites include “The Lagoon (Hiding in the Water)” by Lilli Carré, “The Alcoholic” by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel, “Asterios Polyp” by David Mazzucchelli, “The War on Fornication” by Peter Bagge, “The Flood” by Josh Neufeld, and “Fiction versus Nonfiction” by Chris Ware. Ware also had a lengthy section of his ongoing series “Acme Novelty Library” reprinted, which I had seen some of before. In 2007 he gave a standing-room-only lecture at the Sheldon in Lincoln that Nicole and I attended, and a comics pamphlet featuring some of the comic reprinted here was given out as an example of his work. It was pretty cool to get the work then and is outstanding to see the longer version reprinted in a Best American. To make it even better, the comic is set in 1950s Omaha and uses the old Omaha World-Herald building (where Nicole worked when as first moved here) as a backdrop. There have been quite a few notable artists who have come out of Omaha in the last decade, but none of them have really attained giant-status in their field like Chris Ware has. It’s something that should really get more local recognition than it does.

Rivers Last Longer by Richard Burgin. A solid literary thriller with meta-fictional treasures abound. I’m currently writing a review on this now.

Up Next

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Weeks of Oct 10 – Nov 7, 2010

-For my birthday this week, Nicole took me to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. We had a pretty engaging afternoon there and really enjoyed the experience. None of the exhibits had a ton of specific relevancy to the novel I’m working on—besides general period details—but it’s always nice to be immersed in the subjects and obsessions of the era. And for someone who loves history, it’s an awesome way to spend an afternoon.

Prussian field helmets and swords. The skull-and-crossbones one is pretty badass. A model of it was not, unfortunately, available for purchase in the museum gift shop.

The museum itself is pretty interactive for what is still largely an objects-behind-glass arrangement. There are life-size models of multiple trench scenes, from a well-engineered German one of concrete and lumber, to a French one of mostly sticks collapsing in the mud; a steady soundtrack plays in the background of what it would sound like in the trenches; and a walk-through crater show the devastation caused after a 17-inch howitzer shell explodes on a French farmhouse. There is also a special exhibit on display now regarding the experience of German soldiers in the war, which was interesting. In general, the museum is noteworthy for presenting a more balanced perspective on the war years—rather than tilting too strongly toward an Allies-centric point of view—and this is something I really appreciated. For anyone interested in the era, I highly recommend visiting the museum. And for anyone interested in antique elevators, the ride up in the Liberty Memorial is not to be missed!

A military uniform for belligerent children.

-One of the more pleasantly surprising parts of the museum was finding the Willa Cather novel One of Ours (1922) in the gift shop. For a long time I’ve been looking for sources that depicted the time and place I’m writing about in my novel, and for the most part coming up empty. For some reason it never occurred to me that Cather would have given some treatment to the Great War in her writing. And not only did she write a novel about a family of Nebraskans during the war years, but the surname of the book’s protagonist is Wheeler! Beyond that, I feel pretty stupid for not knowing more about this novel, as Cather won a Pulitzer for it too. I’ve read a few Cather books and some of her short stories–but have always suspected that this wasn’t nearly enough, and that my ignorance would come back to haunt me some day. I better get to work rectifying that.

Nicole and I outside the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. It was very bright.

Further: what other novels am I’m not thinking of that are set in Nebraska in the years 1916-1920?

-I’ve been meaning to post a reflective piece on here regarding my story “The Housekeeper” being selected for publication in the forthcoming Flatmancrooked 4 anthology. However, the story is still a finalist in their current fiction contest and I’m waiting on the results before posting anything more about it.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Jacob knew all the stops would be pulled here on the River Ward in the pursuit of a margin big enough to overcome the rest of the city. They had to win by a landslide here because the other districts were going to swing the other way. There could be no parity in this district that Dennison controlled. Voters on the payroll of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City would arrive throughout the morning to cast their ballots, along with others recruited for this purpose from towns in Iowa like Red Oak, Glenwood, Griswold, and Walnut. Every barroom in the Ward was rented and stocked with liquor. Bootleggers who owed their survival to Dennison saw to these private parties. The booze was reserved for those who held both a slip that proved they’d voted and a card printed with the names of the Square Seven. It was all about mobilization and efficiency, making sure that each and every favor handed down over the past three years was called in during polling hours. If a family received coal over the winter, if their grocery bill or bar tab was covered, if they were granted leniency from a judge—then a car would appear outside their home on Election Day to shuttle them to a poll.

Maddie before pre-school one morning this fall. She wears all pink, as often as possible.

“It was up to Jacob to oversee the operation on Clandish from a polling station in the basement of Mecklenburg’s Saloon. When he returned from Iowa, the barroom was already half full of voters and more were coming in all the time. Mecklenburg’s would be packed by 6am; nickel beer was discounted down to a penny. It was an amazing operation to watch, its controlled chaos exhilarating. Trucks lined up at the curb, back from Iowa in the middle of the night with two dozen voters packed on their hay-strewn flatbeds. The street cars were running already too, full of Pendergast’s men from the train stations, recent arrivals from Kansas City. Johann and Reinhold lined them up inside and meted out the booze. His suitcase still in hand, Jacob stood back and watched it all until it was time to instruct the voters. In groups of ten, Reinhold escorted them to the basement of Mecklenburg’s. Jacob and Johann followed them down the steps, into the dug out space under the barroom. There were two rooms separated by a narrow doorway. The basement had been an afterthought, one dug out roughly and bricked in. Jacob recognized the work, a former tunneler himself. A light hung from a rafter, its wire snaked in from a hole drilled in the barroom floor above them.”

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

Cream City Review for “Attend the Way”; Painted Bride for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; n+1 for “Shame Cycle”; and Barnstorm and Camera Obscura for “You Know That I Loved You.” Florida Review and Harvard Review also sent nice notes along after I withdrew manuscripts that had been accepted elsewhere, which is very much appreciated. Plus, “The Housekeeper” was selected as a finalist in the Flatmancrooked Fiction Contest, and will appear in the anthology Flatmancrooked 4, and my review of Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel Black Mamba Boy was selected to appear in a future edition of Prairie Schooner.

Just Finished

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca. A very strong collection. I plan on writing a review of this very soon.

Now Reading

One of Ours by Willa Cather.

Up Next

Rivers Last Longer by Richard Burgin.