“Mercy Killing” to Appear in Midwestern Gothic!

I’m pleased to announce that my short story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” was accepted for publication in the great, and newish, literary journal Midwestern Gothic! The story will appear in their next issue, which I believe will be Issue 8, Winter 2013. More specifics will be forthcoming, no doubt.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt”:

Aaron never actually knew his mother, not in any real way. When he was a boy he fantasized about her coming back to rescue him from Nebraska, to take him with her to LA, New York, Chicago, wherever she’d landed. Aaron knew so little about her that these dreams seemed like they could be real. His dad never told him what really happened to her. Harry would say, “She’s alive,” if Aaron pestered him enough. “That’s all you need to know. That woman you like to call your mom is still breathing somewhere.”

Aaron didn’t learn much about the world outside Jackson until later, but even as a boy it seemed pretty obvious that things were better elsewhere—and that this was the reason his mother left. There was an old joke about how Jackson was the only town in this free Union state to be named after a Confederate general, and that about summed up how out of step Jackson was with the rest of the planet, Aaron thought.

More than likely his mother met some men in Sioux City and took off from there. Maybe another woman hooked her into a hot lead for some quick money, some liquor or drugs, or a chance to work a back room at a horse track. Over the years, Aaron convinced himself of a thousand scenarios other than those that were likely. He dreamed, at different times, that she was a nomadic bounty-hunter in Texas, a piano teacher in Vienna, a pilot for the US Navy, an Amazon explorer, an African missionary. There was a long string of them. That she was the wife of an extraordinarily rich man was a recurring theme. They were ridiculous dreams. Aaron didn’t have much to work with in creating them.

There is plenty of overlap in this story with my other work. That’s always fun. For starters, the story is set in Jackson, Nebraska; the same Jackson County as is featured in my novel, The Uninitiated. (Read here for an explanation of how my Jackson, Neb. is different from the real Jackson, Neb; and how Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, OH differed from the real Winesburg, OH in similar ways.)

Most of the crossover, however, stems from the fact that “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” is part of my Bad Faith series of stories, all of which have been published now. The Aaron Kleinhardt of “Mercy Killing” is the same from “Kleinhardt’s Women” (Fogged Clarity, Dec 2010) and “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” (Boulevard, Spring 2012), which shares characters with “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life” (Confrontation, Fall 2011) and “The Man Who Never Was” (Weekday, Summer 2010).

This is the first time I’ve written a series of connected stories so long–maybe testing my stamina before writing a novel?–and it’s exciting to see all of the stories find a home. But with so much murder, sex, drugs, alcoholism, adultery, betrayal, and deception in the cycle, it’s little wonder they’ve found an audience. Midwestern Gothic is a fitting end to this stage of the stories’ publishing life, and an apt home for “Mercy Killing.” I’m glad to have the story picked up, of course, and particularly glad that it was Midwestern Gothic who laid claim to it. Cheers!

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.

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.

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.