The Second Half: The Millions’ Preview and Harper Perennial’s Big Deal

The Millions dropped its Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2012 Book Preview this week. In what’s becoming a biannual tradition, the list boasts a number of big-name authors, such as Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace. Not too shabby. Head over to The Millions for the full scoop, but here are some details on the books that look most interesting to me:

John Brandon‘s A Million Heavens focuses on an oddball cast that gathers around the hospital bed of a comatose piano prodigy.  …  Up-and-comer Charles Yu, who I saw in January at the Key West Literary Seminar, releases what’s been called a Vonnegut-esque short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You.  …  Jonathan Evison offers an interesting take on the road novel with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, wherein a man takes off across the West with a boy suffering from Muscular Dystrophy who’s been entrusted in his care.  …  Zadie Smith gets back to fiction with NW, a class novel set in London.  …  Junot DíazThis is How You Lose Her arrives in September, a story collection that has apparently already been published piece by piece in the New Yorker.  …  America’s sweetheart, Emma Straub, breaks out with her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. … Chris Ware collects his Building Stories comic strips in Building Stories.  …  Roberto Bolaño continues his impressive posthumous production with Woes of the True Policeman, which returns to the Northern Mexico city of Santa Teresa, featured in 2666. This is believed to be Bolaño’s final unpublished novel. We shall see.  …  Tenth of December is George Saunders‘ fourth humorous short story collection, many of which, I believe, were also already published in the New Yorker.

A lot to like there.

Meanwhile, Harper Perennial and One Story are partnering to offer the digital editions of some of their short story collections at the low price of $1.99.  Check out the details on Harper Perennial’s Facebook page. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m a huge fan of Harper Perennial. In fact, of the books being offered in this promotion, I’ve reviewed Ben Greenman‘s What He’s Poised to Do, Lydia Peelle‘s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Rahul Mehta‘s Quarantine, and Justin Taylor‘s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. You can find the reviews here, here, here, and here. No matter your digital device, check out a few of these titles. You won’t be disappointed. (As far as I know, they also work in print. The discount doesn’t, however.)

The Year in Photos: 2011

January brought plenty of rewrites on the novel; "The Housekeeper" was published on now-defunct Flatmancrooked; my collection How to Die Young in Nebraska, was once again a semi-finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
February meant attending the AWP conference in Washington DC, and visiting the National Christmas Tree just weeks before it was blown over; my review of Marcy Dermansky's novel Bad Marie was published on The Millions; and we celebrated Valentine's Day with a heart-shaped black forest cake from Zum Biergarten.
In March, "How to Die Young in a Nebraska WInter" was published in The Kenyon Review; I also gave an interview for Kenyon Review Online; did a longer piece on the role of trickster characters in fiction; and "The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life" was accepted for publication in Confrontation.
April was something of a slow month, but it did include a postmortem on Flatmancrooked, and a longer piece on Ellen Horan's historical novel 31 Bond Street and the culture of big advances for unpublished authors.
Nicole and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in May with a trip to San Francisco; "The Current State of the Universe" was published in The Cincinnati Review; my review of David Philip Mullins' Greetings from Below was accepted for publication in Prairie Schooner; I wrote a longish post on the case of Willie McGee and lynchings.
In June, Mixer published "The Housekeeper" on Amazon; my review of Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy was published in Prairie Schooner; and my review of Richard Burgin's novel Rivers Last Longer ran in the Pleiades Book Review.
July suddenly took us to Tel Aviv; "On a Train from the Place Called Valentine" was accepted for publication in Boulevard; my review of Suzanne Rivecca's Death is Not an Option ran on The Millions; and we went to the Syracuse dachshund races.
August brought me to the completion of a rough draft of my novel. I also wrote a longer blog piece on what it's like to write about lynchings and other bad things.
September saw "These Things That Save Us" accepted for publication in Conversations Across Borders; I was awarded a partial scholarship to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar and Workshops; and I unveiled my own ranking of MFA programs to little fanfare.
In October, "These Things That Save Us" was published in Conversations Across Borders; my review of Rahul Mehta's Quarantine ran on The Iowa Review Online; and I did a longish piece on the real Winesburg, Ohio and how Sherwood Anderson's experience connected to my own writing of a suddenly not ficitional Jackson, Nebraska.
I turned thirty in November, and took stock of what that meant; we announced that we are having our second girl; and "The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life" was published in Confrontation.
And, finally, graciously, December. With the help of some local archivists, I was able to track down the location (and a photo) of Tom Dennison's famous house. I also started in my new position of Blog and Social Networking Editor for Prairie Schooner.

October in Review (2011)

The big news in what turned out to be a busy month—and this is unannounced news at that, which I hope is okay to make public—is that I’ve been appointed Blog and Social Networking Editor at Prairie Schooner! This is a new editorial position in which I’ve been commissioned to take an active role in the PS blog, social media presence, and other communications with subscribers and contributors. It’s a pretty cool opportunity and I’m excited to move up to the editorial staff. Sadly, I’ll be giving up my Senior Fiction Reader duties, although I doubt anyone would stop me from reading as many slush submissions as I care to.

More to come on this.

In other news:

Boulevard nominated my story “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” for a Pushcart Prize, and for inclusion in a Best of the Midwest anthology. I’m usually a little wary of touting nominations, but this is awesome news, especially since the story won’t even run in Boulevard until March of next year. Wish me luck!

-“These Things That Save Us” was published in the debut issue of Conversations Across Borders. Here’s what I had to say about writing the story and Cab in October.

-My review of Rahul Mehta’s short story collection, Quarantine, appeared on The Iowa Review Online, just in case you missed it. The review is pretty good, I think. Plus, this marked the first time I’d been paid for a book review, which is something.

The Kenyon Review is offering a new fellowship opportunity to post-MFA/post-PhD writers. It’s pretty awesome. $32,000 a year, for two years, both teaching and editorial opportunities. Plus time to pursue a significant project. Some good stuff is surely going to come out of this; I’m fully prepared to be jealous of whoever receives the first fellowship.

-I got a little love from The Cincinnati Review on their blog recently, in this post by staff member Dietrik Vanderhill about “The Burn” by Craig Davidson. Here’s what Vanderhill had to say, as an aside, about my recent work in TCR:

I’m tempted to write a recommendation for “The Current State of the Universe,” winner of the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Prose (in the latest issue of CR). This romping story by Theodore Wheeler follows one employee of a company called Make Things Right, Inc., a sort of karmic revenge business. […] a story with passages like this—along with such a provocative concept—can easily sell itself. It provides a direct, satisfying approach to “fixing” the world’s ills, albeit on a small scale.

“The Current State of the Universe” appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of The Cincinnati Review.

-I wrote a long post on this blog about Sherwood Anderson’s connection to the real Winesburg, Ohio–and how a similarly uncomfortable thing happened with my won writing of a fictional small town that turned out to have the same name as a real small town.

-And, finally, let’s not forget that October began with an awesome crossover blogger event, as Adam Peterson and I wrapped up the Royals 2011 season and, mainly, looked ahead to 2012.

Dispatch from “These Things That Save Us”

“Walking the dog allowed me a kind of privacy, which is also why I enjoyed traveling so much. I yearned for the bustling lonesomeness of airport white noise, the freedom to be secluded in public—to appear deeply pensive without someone asking, ‘Whatcha thinking?’ This is also why I liked to walk, to indulge in the secret adventures of a man and his dog, cruising down the sidewalk with nothing in particular owed to anyone. Just a man and his dachshund. We were free to look in our neighbors’ windows from the sidewalk, their domestic projections lit up incandescent. We could kick and sniff at garbage left at the curb. A man walking his dog has a right to be there.”

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

Paris Review and Conjunctions for “Forget Me,” and Agni for “Shame Cycle.”

Now Reading

Shadow Traffic by Richard Burgin.

Best American Comics 2011, edited by Alison Bechdel.

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.

Up Next

The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper.

Mehta Review Goes Live on The Iowa Review Online

Check out The Iowa Review Online this month, as my review of Rahul Mehta’s debut short story collection, Quarantine, has gone live. It’s really a very good book, and one you should check out. Here’s a little of what I had to say about it in the review:

In his convincing debut collection of short fiction, Quarantine (Harper Perennial 2011), Rahul Mehta chronicles the lives of openly gay Indian-American men, their disappointments and betrayals, and the hard-earned personal connections they come to cherish. In an intimate, confessional style, Mehta’s characters dwell on botched relationships, on their romantic, familial, and cultural failures, and on the difficulty of sharing space with another person. Most of the stories focus on Western-born children and young adults bored by Indian social and religious traditions—rich kids, overfed on pop culture, who have trouble connecting with those around them, whatever their ethnicity.

This is my ninth published review; the first that’s appeared on TIR Online.

September in Review (2011)

Here's where the novel draft stands now. There's a whole book in there somewhere.

Just in case you missed it, here’s what happened on here in September:

-I took a few weeks off from working on the novel–using the time to clean up a few new short stories for submission–but am now reading and editing my first complete draft. It’s a lot of fun to read so far, seeing how things come together, and where they don’t.

-The Uninitiated released its comprehensive and authoritative rankings of MFA and PhD programs in creative writing. The University of Texas at Austin took the top spot.

-My review of Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine was accepted for publication by The Iowa Review Online, and will appear shortly in the month of October.

-My review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Below—previously accepted for publication by Prairie Schooner—has been scheduled to run in the Spring 2012.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“The noise was so frightening that Jacob couldn’t stand still. He had to move his feet, around in the crowd, or he felt like someone was going to take a shot at him. A block over there was a nervous cop who sprayed shotgun fire into the air whenever someone approached the car he guarded. The cascading noise of tumbling glass was punctuated by the fraught screams of woman in jeopardy. Or maybe that wasn’t it at all, what Jacob thought he heard. Maybe that was the sound of a woman’s prurient cheer as government windows were smashed to shards. There was the roar of voices, people fighting and being hurt. The flash of small arms erupting. The police sirens, their barking orders. The steam valve had been blown clean off and Jacob couldn’t stay where he was. He had to run into it, into the noise and fighting. He had to see everything, to document it in his mind. Speeding cars rushed into the crowds. Young men jumped on the sideboards of cars to swing around to where the action was. There were cars with Sicilians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Serbians. Once word of the melee spread, anyone who wanted to take a swing at a cop made a bee-line to Scandal Flats. A gang hijacked a streetcar and plowed into the mess, clanging the bell to announce their audacity. Teenage boys and musky husbands rushed out of houses with whatever hammer or club or bat they could lay hands on, and then hopped in a taxi to get there fast. A mechanical rumble filled the atmosphere. Roadsters and jalopies, homemade in Little Italy garages, swung recklessly around the blocks. They swerved to miss people and each other. Jacob couldn’t always see the cars but he could hear their pop-pop motors hammering at full throttle a block away, spreading echoes between buildings, echoes that bounced back from the high-rises of downtown. Trucks, commissioned or otherwise, hopped hot over the pavement to load up with furniture or produce or women’s clothes. Taxis slumped cockeyed and labored up the hills, packed full inside, passengers on the footboards.

Sixteenth & Harney Streets, circa 1919.

“People shouted out to groups of strangers any news they heard. There was lots of talk in the mob about the smutty details of the rape—conjecture about Will Brown’s body in relation to the girl’s. They made him out to be huge, a towering man, arms like a gorilla’s, legs like a mule’s. They talked about Agnes Loebeck as if she was a little girl, pious and pure, like she only ever wore little white Sunday dresses, like she picked berries in a pristine field, like she’d never even heard of anything like a dick before.”

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

Bomb for “Shame Cycle.”

Just Finished

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Eh.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. I really enjoyed this book, and can see why it’s often noted as Cather’s finest. I was surprised at how Modernist this novel is, it’s really quite innovative, as I’d always thought it was more of a Victorian, continental-style book for young women than anything. I stand corrected. A masterful work.

Also, if you haven’t heard this NPR piece by Bradford Morrow on My Antonia, you should really check it out. Here’s part of what Morrow has to say:

What’s interesting about My Antonia is how it manages to function as a perfectly inviting story for young readers, and how an adult willing to revisit it with a more developed critical eye can appreciate it for the subtly sophisticated narrative it truly is. In this regard, it’s not unlike a wildly different book, Alice in Wonderland. Great fun for kids, psychologically captivating for grownups.

Now Reading

Shadow Traffic by Richard Burgin.

Up Next

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda.

Review of Quarantine to Appear on Iowa Review Online

Some good news to report this morning, as my review of Rahul Mehta’s debut short story collection, Quarantine, has been accepted for publication on The Iowa Review Online! The review should run early in October. I’ll be sure to post a link at that time, certainly.

This is my first time working with The Iowa Review, and I’m very excited to be associated with another high-quality journal. This also marks my tenth review to be accepted for publication! I’m not really sure how I’ve written that many, but I’m proud to hit a benchmark of sorts. Book reviewing wasn’t something I thought I’d ever enjoy doing, but the pleasures of the form have surprised me. It’s actually pretty fun, figuring out what makes a book good and getting to tell people about it. What’s not to like?

May in Review (2011)

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 Hyphenated American"

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 Below for 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.)

-Nicole and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in San Francisco!

-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.”

Just Finished

The Cailiff’s of Baghdad, GA by 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.

Quarantine by 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.

Now Reading

The Names by Don DeLillo.

Up Next

The Call by Yannick Murphy.

April in Review

-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.

-Flatmancrooked officially called it quits in April. Here’s what I had to say about 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.

Just Finished

Greetings from Below by 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 Unhappiness by 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.

Now Reading

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stefaniak.

Up Next

Quarantine by Rahul Mehta.