August in Review (2011)

I’ll keep this short, as it’s late and the big news about finishing the roughest draft of my novel was already covered in a post a couple weeks ago.

-Some good news came along–announced in September, technically–as I’ve been awarded a scholarship to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar and will participate in a workshop with the legendary Robert Stone.

-I announced in the same post that “These Things That Save Us” will appear in the premier issue of Conversations Across Borders.

-I also did a longish post on my effort to fictionalize the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, just in case you missed it.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Lots of doughboys were in the crowd. This wasn’t all that surprising, as there were two forts nearby—Fort Crook and Fort Omaha. Jacob saw them around a lot then, in the year after the armistice—the doughboys come home, displaced from their jobs. There were plenty along the streets of the River Ward, husky kids still in uniform, their long green socks and puffy breeches, like football players lost from afield. An awful lot of them had what was called war neurosis. Some twitched, or struggled to keep their eyes open. Some had to constantly skim the palms of their hands over their faces and fuzzy, shaved skulls, like a cat preening itself. So many shuffled along in a painful, halting gait, or like they were slipping on ice, their whole bodies in spastic shaking. You didn’t want to think about what those suffering doughboys had seen or heard over there to make them out this way. The constant bombardments, the nerve gas, horses disemboweled on barbed wire barricades, the still-moving charred grist of a man caught by a flame thrower. There were doughboys who’d been buried alive when the man next to them stepped on a landmine, or in mortar fire, trapped when the four tons of earth thrown up in the explosion landed. There were the flyboys, crazy-eyed, sun-dazed, whose hands curled and shook, forever gripped on the timorous controls of their bi-plane’s yoke and machine gun trigger.”

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

Electric Literature for “Shame Cycle.”

Just Finished

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Often touted in recent publications as having the sexiest depictions of sex of any novel. It’s sexy, but not very erotic, if that makes sense. A good novel, though.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. A classic that I love to reread. The stories “Godliness,” “The Strength of God,” and “Death” just really can’t be beat. Simply amazing work from who is really the father of the American short form.

Now Reading

My Antonia by Willa Cather.

Up Next

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svboda.

July in Review (2011)

July was kind of a cluster, what with spending a week in Tel Aviv, and needing the week before takeoff getting ready for the trip. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to write, but I did manage to add another thirty pages or so to the final part to The Hyphenates of Jackson County, my novel. It wasn’t a ton of work to get done. But seeing how I spent most of May and June working on short stories, it was nice to get some momentum going on the novel again, and I think I did that. The ten hour flight from New York to Tel Aviv provided a big block of time to work, especially since I couldn’t sleep on the flight over. I also had three days of writing and revising in Israel, two days in a park and one at the beach. (Supposedly Jonathan Safran Foer moved to Tel Aviv to finish work on his latest book, so I’m in good company there. My hopes of becoming a superstar Jewish author are pretty slim, however. You know, because of this, among other reasons.) The change of scenery on the Mediterranean helped quite a bit, as a change often does. It’s almost always easier to think about home (or familiar things) when you’re far from home (surrounded by unfamiliar things). Being jarred out of my routine helped to get some gridlocked scenes moving again. I’ve kept writing outside this week too back in Omaha, working on the porch with a cold beer this afternoon. Not too shabby.

In other news:

-The big news of the month, in the small world of my writing, was that “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” was selected for publication in Boulevard. The story will be featured in the noted journal in March 2012.

-Earlier in the month, my review of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut collection (Death is Not an Option) appeared on The Millions.

Nouvella Books unveiled their web site late in July. A spin off from Flatmancrooked’s Launch program, Nouvella is keeping the good fight going in helping to kick start the careers of some deserving writers. Best of luck to them!

-I received a small blurb in The Kenyon Review monthly newsletter about my prize-winning story “The Current State of the Universe” appearing in The Cincinnati Review in May. I think it’s very cool of TKR to do that kind of stuff. It’s a small bit, but very much appreciated.

-There was a great article about Daniel Orozco and his debut fiction collection in the recent Poets & Writers (print only) about dealing with agents and editors before you’re ready. Some very instructive stuff. Orozco’s first published story appeared in Best American Short Stories 1995 to quite a lot of fanfare. “Right after that I was getting calls from agents and publishers asking to see my other stories, to see my novel,” Orozco tells us. “But there wasn’t anything else. I was frantic for about a year–they all wanted something now. After a while they stopped calling and things quieted down, and I just settled back into my routine.” A mere sixteen years later, the collection has been published–and, again, Orozco is an author on the rise. It’s heartening to hear stories like this after my own experience in finding and losing an agent. The promise burns so bright when you’re in that situation—flying out to NYC to read, having agents contact you, hearing the sirens’ call of major publication and large advances—that when life slows back down, when that promise isn’t fulfilled, it feels like you’re washed up at twenty-eight. It’s rare enough to even get one real chance in this business. But as Orozco’s trajectory demonstrates, there are second chances too. If the writing is good enough, and if you’re persistent about putting yourself on the line, there’s opportunity yet.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“It’s something I wondered a lot about over the years since it happened. What would have gone through his mind? What would he have been thinking of, or could he even think at all, when the cops finally handed him over to that mob? Could he still see or hear, was his tongue a useless mass, did his skin still feel, once that first bullet ripped through him? It’s something I wondered about a lot. I wondered about that boy, Willy, and how it happened to him, and how, once it was all over, the war, the election, my time in Lincoln, I knew it wasn’t going to happen to me. But for a time that could have been me who had that happen to him. Not exactly the same, but something like that. So I wondered how it felt to be picked up by a lynch mob. Would his eyes and ears work, or would he be too afraid? Would he have been able to hear what that mob promised to do to him?”

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

Conjunctions for “Shame Cycle.”

Just Finished

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I never really fell in love with this one. I can see why people really like it, but it didn’t happen for me. For one thing, several of the stories were eerily close to some episodes from Season Two of Californication. The book seemed too trendy—in its formal choices and content—almost intolerably so. A good book, but one that gnawed at me.

The Call by Yannick Murphy. This is a very good novel. I’ll be reviewing this soon, so I won’t say much here now.

Now Reading

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter.

Up Next

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

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.

March in Review

-We had out first flowers of the spring pop up mid month. The first sprouts we had were daffodil; the first blooms were crocus. Last year I was doing my residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City when we had our first flowers, and I was pretty sad to miss them. Our winter wasn’t nearly as hard as the last one was, but it’s still pretty nice to be here to see things change. Our house was built in 1905, so we have things pop up pretty much everywhere too. Between the patio pavers, in the middle of the yard. It’s awesome.

-Tomorrow my wife Nicole’s new promotion and raise go into effect. She’s so smart. Although, being promised a raise on April Fool’s Day isn’t all that promising.

-The Royals lost their Opening Day game against the Angels this afternoon. It was a pretty good game, especially after LA starting pitcher Jered Weaver was pulled. KC should have one of the best, most exciting, and youngest middle relief corps in the majors this year. Too bad they’ll be pitching from behind most of the time.

-“How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” was published earlier this month in The Kenyon Review. It looks like they’re still running a friends-and-family special at this link, for anyone who’s interested in a discounted current issue or subscription. It was some pretty exciting stuff being in a TKR. I’ve had a few of these bigger publications now, and it’s really something a guy or gal could used to.

-I was also interviewed by The Kenyon Review Online in anticipation of the release.

-Then, to cap off a crazy week, Confrontation accepted my story “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life” for publication. I haven’t heard anything for sure, but, judging from the contract verbiage, I’m hoping it will run in November.

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

Bat City Review and Missouri Review for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Ploughshares for “Shame Cycle”; and New Letters for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins. Still reading this, kind of. I’ve been knee-deep in book prize manuscripts for pretty much the whole month. I will be finishing up my recommendations next week and then will be back on to published books again. I’m very much looking forward to it.

 

Up Next

My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos.

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.

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.