Where Are They Now–Best New American Voices 2009

A couple weeks ago Google alerted me to the fact that a new review of my story “Welcome Home” had been posted on the blog I Read a Short Story Today. While it’s somewhat rare to see an individual short story mentioned in a review–less so if it’s been anthologized, this one has been mentioned a few times before–it’s more surprising to see this come more than five years after Best New American Voices 2009 was released. It’s nice to see the anthology is still kicking around out there, and got me wondering what the other writers in this edition have been up to since its publication. Maybe it’s a bit indulgent, but here’s what my fellows in BNAV 09 have been up to, those I could find info on anyway, just running through the TOC.

Baird Harper, “Yellowstone” – teaches writing at Loyola University and The University of Chicago, pubs in Tin House, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review.

Will Boast, “Weather Enough” – his story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and his memoir, Epilogue, is forthcoming this fall from Liveright.

Anastasia Kolendo, “Wintering” – has lived all over the world and is finishing a novel.

Mehdi Tavana Okasi, “Salvation Army” – pubs in Iowa Review, Guernica, Glimmer Train, was Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Suzanne Rivecca, “Look Ma, I’m Breathing” – her story collection, Death is Not an Option, was published by Norton in 2011 (reviewed by me for The Millions) and was really quite remarkable. Since then she’s been traveling all over on prestigious international fellowships and has a much-anticipated novel in the works. For my money, Suzanne is the best young American writer out there and I’m really excited to see what she’ll produce.

Kevin A. González, “Statehood” – has published short fiction all over and published a book of poetry, Cultural Studies, as part of the Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series. Looks like he also teaches at Carnegie Mellon.

Theodore Wheeler, “Welcome Home” – this guy spends most of his time reading about Notre Dame football and walking a little jerk of a dachshund. Read more about him at his website.

Nam Le, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” – his short story collection, The Boat, was quite a sensation in literary circles when it came out four years ago from Vintage, and a followup novel is in the works.

Otis Haschemeyer, “The Fantome of Fatma” – pubs in The Sun, Missouri Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review.

Lydia Peelle, “The Still Point” – her short story collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, was published by Harper Perennial and greeted with great enthusiasm by reviewers, at least this one. As of the last time I bugged her publicist at Perennial, she has a novel due out in the next couple years.

I should mention too that guest editor Mary Gaitskill has published Bad Behavior and Don’t Cry in the mean time.

Also, series co-editor Natalie Danford published three books: a novel, Inheritance, along with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cooking Pasta and perhaps the favorite book in the Wheeler household, The Veselka Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Landmark Restaurant in New York’s East Village.

Looks like people have been busy!

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.

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.

“The Agony and the Agony,” a Review of Rivecca’s Short Fiction

The Millions posted today my review of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut short fiction collection, Death Is Not an Option. This is my fifth review for The Millions, which is a site I admire greatly. I’m always thrilled to see my name up on their front page, and am gratified that they publish my literary criticism.

Likewise, I’m honored to have the opportunity to review a great writer like Rivecca, who had a story in the same Best New American Voices"""" anthology that I was in. The collection is her debut, and I’m sure the novel to follow will be one of the most anticipated books of the next decade. She’s really a spectacular talent, an author to keep an eye on for sure.

June in Review (2011)

June turned out to be all about new short stories for me. I completely reworked one short story, wrote a new one, and put the final touches on yet another. I’d planned on drafting new material for the novel this month, but was really swept up in the short form for a few weeks and had to put off any new writing for the novel. It had been so long since I had much passion for writing short fiction, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It felt pretty good to pump out a few stories in a small period of time, after working on one project for nearly two years now. To hear some new voices, to deal with different types of problems—those faced by married people, by people alive in this century, by those from the middle class—was kind of nice. It will also be nice to have some new stories to send out to journals this fall, which hasn’t been the case for a while.

In other news this past month:

The frontyard flower garden is in full bloom. Bumble bees rejoice.

-Mixer Publishing released my short story “The Housekeeper” on Amazon, available for download on Kindle or PDF. The story was originally published on Flatmancrooked earlier this year, but they have apparently taken down their entire site. That sucks.

-And if you’re already on Amazon, you might as well download the spring issue of The Kenyon Review, which features my short story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.”

-A story that just so happened to be reviewed on the blog Perpetual Folly as part of its Short Story Month 2011.

-Also, The Kenyon Review released their summer reading recommendations, including two of my picks.

-My review of Richard Burgin’s novel Rivers Last Longer appeared in the Pleiades Book Review.

-In other review news, The Millions will be running my review of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut short story collection Death is Not an Option sometime this month.

We traveled to State Center, IA, for a wedding of one of Nicole's cousins, and were greeted by a donkey.

Dispatch from “Impertinent, Triumphant”

“We talked about marriage for a long time. About the good stuff, then the bad, then the qualifications and excuses of what we’d said before. Something happened to Anna, she was emotional, she calmed down, something else happened a few weeks after that, and it wasn’t until later that she remembered the first thing, the original outrage, and by then it was too late for her to do something about it. My stories were the same, structurally. Eventually we turned listless and bleak, hearing about each others’ marriage wounds. They lacked finality. We wanted firm endings, closure, but that wasn’t possible.”

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

Florida Review for “Attend the Way.”

Just Finished

The Names by Don DeLillo. I’ve read nearly all of DeLillo’s work now, and this is by far the most underappreciated novel of his I’ve come across. It’s really pretty good. One from his espionage meme, with a domestic twist, about a spy for the CIA who doesn’t know he’s working as a spy for the CIA. The only thing I can think of to explain its lack of recognition is that The Names, for one, comes from DeLillo’s first period of work, before he was famous, and, secondly, that it covers a lot of similar ground as some of his later intelligence novels, like Mao II, Underworld(my favorite!) and, to some extent, Libra.

Now Reading

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Up Next

The Call by Yannick Murphy.

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 Sept 11 – Oct 10, 2010

I promised more on the Cincinnati Review Schiff Prize, so here you go.

First, let’s do the numbers.

This is my 11th short story selected for publication.

…the 13th short story publication.

…the 17th publication overall, counting four reviews.

…the 2nd contest won.

“Attend the Way” is the 5th honorable mention in a contest.

Of all the contests I’ve entered, 4% of the stories have won.

…12% have received some sort of recognition.

Also, the very nice editors of the Cincinnati Review asked me to pen a commentary piece for their blog about the process of writing “The Current State of the Universe.” Fiction Editor Michael Griffith has this to say about the story:

The piece is a fantastic example of a high-concept story that manages to do wonderfully playful, inventive things without ever feeling like a riff or a vehicle for an author who’s showing off his chops. Wheeler perfectly and poignantly balances the psychological plight of his protagonist with the high-wire act of the story’s conceit.

The only thing I’d add to the linked commentary is to mention that “Current State” has gone through quite a few incarnations over the past few years. One early morning in the fall of 2007 I woke suddenly with the first few lines of the story and somehow convinced myself to rise before dawn and start up my laptop—which was a fifteen minute ordeal of loading and errors at that point. I’m not a morning person, so I didn’t write for long, probably less than an hour. As mentioned in the TCR blog, this was a story I’d been kicking around for a while and was just something I wanted to play around with. I did come up with a three or four page vignette that I thought was kind of funny and quirky. It wasn’t really something I thought would turn into a whole story though. The following spring, for the first night of a Susan Aizenberg-led graduate workshop at Creighton University, we were directed to bring in a short piece of our work as a means of introducing ourselves to the group. I brought the vignette because it was funny—plus it’s better to save the dark, rape-and-stabbing-filled material for later in the semester, as to gain some sense of normalcy in the minds of fellow workshoppers before trying to scare them later on with insights of mankind’s dark side. (That’s just a joke, I never actually did anything like that.) To my surprise, the small start I had received a very warm reception. So I kept at it.

This was also the semester when Maddie Annie was born, so this story has some larger significance for me. There were more than a few nights spent in the nursery chair with my laptop working on this story all night, listening to our newborn sleep. There are so many pleasant memories of those wonderful and difficult months: the blue luminescence of her jaundice-fighting lights, playing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on repeat because Maddie would sleep if it was on, and being dead tired all the time but having the will to fight through it and work past what used to be the point of no return.

Dispatch from “The Current State of the Universe

“The real trouble started after I left for college. A string of MIPs and DUIs followed my initiation into a fraternity and occasioned my expulsion from the same institution. My grades were adequate but my moral certitude was flagging. My father was a strong believer of so-called ‘small town values.’ He believed in the agrarian movement and intimated that maybe the Capital City, or a libertine school, wasn’t the best place for me. But I didn’t agree and was eighteen years old. It was important I learned to stay out of trouble on my own, I insisted, then remained in school because it wasn’t his decision.

“It wasn’t until eight years later that I saw my father again. He bulged around the middle, but the rest of him was sickly, thin and weak from worry. He was bald then, with just a few whispers of red hair that still hung around the sides of his head and failing mustache. He’d heard a rumor from one of his parishioners about a McCook girl who was forced by circumstance to drop out of college and move back to her parents’ house. This gossip had the stain of sexual misdeed.  A freshman coed tricked into dangerous situations by an older man, tempted with alcohol, and, eventually, shuttled to an abortion clinic. I’ve forgotten some of the things they accused me of but they were all true. She was a student at Wesleyan, a confused thing when I found her. A hippie redneck invested in tie-dye tee shirts, hemp purses and cowboy hats. I never saw her again after the termination.

“When he cornered me on it, I told my father that I would never embarrass him again, something neither of us believed.”

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

Colorado Review and Hunger Mountain for “Attend the Way” and Slice for “The Housekeeper.” Of course, “The Current State of the Universe” was first-prize in the Cincinnati Review’s Robert and Adele Schiff Prize for Prose, and “Attend the Way” received honorable mention in the same contest.

Just Finished

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This is really a great book. Sometimes you read a classic and kind of wonder why it enjoys a lasting reputation of high standing, and I must admit that I’ve long been dubious of All Quiet—in no small part owing to the fact that Ernest Borgnine and Richard “John-Boy” Thomas are featured on the cover of my paperback edition, which was released after a CBS “Hallmark Hall of Fame” adaptation. But the book does not disappoint. Pretty powerful stuff.

German Workers’ Culture in the United States, 1850 to 1920 edited by Hartmut Keil. This is mostly about Labor movements in Nineteenth Century Chicago and New York, but there were more than a couple things I can probably use in my book.

Now Reading

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.

Up Next

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

Weeks of Aug 22 – Sept 10, 2010

I’ve finished a first draft of Part II of The Hyphenates of Jackson County this week. It’s pretty exciting to be 2/3 finished with a novel. It’s almost unbelievable, but I guess that’s what eighteen months of work will get you.

This section, now sitting at 161-pages, was pretty close to be done back in late spring. (That should come down to around 125-pages soon.) However, as discussed in my previous update, there was quite a bit of research that I needed to plow through before I could finish the draft. Even now I’m not so sure that I know quite as much as I should, but that seems to be the nature of historical research. Once you learn something that is truly helpful, it opens another half-dozen related subjects that can be explored—and sometimes seem like they should or must be explored. Even just browsing through a works cited page can be set off a new chain. This being said, it’s becoming important to find a stopping point in the research, I think. At least for the moment.

Andrea Barrett spoke about her methods quite a bit when I saw her at the Key West Literary Seminars in 2009, talking about how she feels compelled to read everything she can on a subject before she even begins writing a historical novel or story. It’s a compulsion for her, as she explained it, something she can’t help. Then you have historical novelists like E.L. Doctorow and Edward P. Jones, both of whom did famously little research for Ragtime and The Known World, respectively.

This, in many ways, has to do with comfort level, I believe. Have I done enough? Do I know enough? Will I be exposed? And, by this, I don’t mean to imply that Barrett is insecure and that Doctorow isn’t. These are just different strategies they use. Barrett achieves authority through exhaustive research, while Doctorow uses more a general literary technique to express a sense of authority. That is, as his characters feel real to us, as we are drawn to their narratives, we can’t help but become convinced that their “historical” stories are real, even if they aren’t completely accurate. (Of course, Barrett does this too. It’s the magic of all good fiction.)

This kind of dichotomy–the part about not being completely accurate but still writing with authority–didn’t seem like it would be okay with Barrett when I saw her speak, as she has background in the sciences. And while I often feel that way too—being that I have faith in the process of research to reveal things as they’re needed, if the work is put in—history is so complex that too much accuracy can weigh down a book. It’s hard to strike that balance, but I suppose that is the definition of the job, for any writer, to take something complex and make it comprehensible without having to state all the facts.

Thinking of it this way, maybe I do have enough information for now. And it’s more a matter of distillation. We’ll see. The self-reading and revision begins in earnest on Monday.

-Speaking of research. Reading through some old news articles, I may have found some explanation for why Dennison’s family gravesite is so modest—as discussed earlier this year in this post. As stated by an Omaha World-Herald retrospective from Sunday, May 9, 1965:

If [Dennison] had accumulated great wealth, there was no trace of it after his death. The inventory of his estate […] listed 10 thousand dollars in promissory notes ranging from one hundred to 11 hundred dollars. Most of them represented loans to friends, and in many cases they were long past due. Also listed in the estate were two men’s watches and several diamonds.

His safety deposit box held “three empty wallets, a memorandum of trust set up for his daughter, a letter from an outstate man asking help in getting a job, some dust and several paper clips.” So maybe Dennison was broke by then, and that explains why he wasn’t interred in an ornate mausoleum like many of his Omaha contemporaries were.

I’m still a little skeptical of this theory, however. For one, his funeral was one of the largest in city history. But mostly, wouldn’t it make sense that a man who made his fortune in organized crime and graft would be able to hide his wealth from the government? Would you expect to find any trace of his wealth? It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility–as Dennison certainly did give away much of his money to needy causes, almost always anonymously–but I’m a little dubious, let’s say.

-The review I did of Ben Greenman’s collection, What He’s Poised to Do, received a couple nice mentions in the last week. On the blog of pioneering literary journal One Story, and on From Your Desks.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“There was more traffic downtown but it was limited to the streets, cars full of young men driving in circles. They revved their motors and the barking noise of their mufflers echoed off the porticos of the buildings where their fathers worked. These were high school boys and girls out having fun, all of them Anglos, maybe some college men out to find a girl. Jacob always hated seeing rich kids out playing on a weeknight. He hated being reminded of the leisure they were afforded, these teenagers who drove new speedsters and roadsters of bright yellow and red. Warrens and Scotties and Johns and Toms racing off in ivory suits and straw skimmer hats to a private jazz club hidden in a clump of cottonwoods along the river, an all night juke joint where they could find illicit goods like fried chicken and cold beer. They liked to buy things for their girls with money they made clerking part-time at Daddy’s office. And their girls, you couldn’t help but notice them, the plumage of a rake’s hat. Prim and pretty ones with powdered faces and lips rubbed red with jelly bean guts. Jennifers, Mauds, Bernadettes, Carols. Girls who kept Mother’s flask of brandy in the fluff of a gauzy goldenrod dress and would cause a scandal that night when they came home late, hammered, and crashed into the maid’s room by mistake.”

Just Finished

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed. I’m going to review this. A good book.

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

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Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.

Weeks of Aug 4 – Aug 21, 2010

-I made some progress on some of the peripheral research surrounding the novel in the last couple weeks. Notably, Sister Joy, an archivist with the Servite Sisters, supplied a very informative response to my guess that Tom Dennison’s mansion might have been turned into one of the buildings that now make up the campus of Marian High School. (In the comments of this post.) However, as Sister Joy illuminated, this was not the case. I’m still not sure where the Dennison estate stood, but the land where Our Lady of Sorrow Convent would be built was purchased in 1920, and mass first celebrated in the building in 1925. Dennison was still active in Omaha at the point, and would be for nearly another decade. So my shot in the dark was wrong. I’ve narrowed it down to either the southwest or southeast quadrant of the intersection, though. And that’s something.

I’ve also been trying to find out more about Dennison’s grave site, but Forest Lawn Cemetery has not been as forthcoming as Sister Joy, unfortunately.

-After nearly a month of research, I jumped back into finishing up the drafting of Part II of Hyphenates this week. Even though I’m a little further behind now than I’d hoped to be, it was my goal to finish drafting by the end of the summer and will still meet that soft, self-imposed deadline. Hyphenates Part II has been somewhat more difficult to write than Part I was, with the principal reason being that I’m now working more intimately with the real life characters than I did in the first 125 pages. It’s one thing to just search around and make up some backstory for Jacob Bressler—my lead character, who isn’t a historical figure, and is only a composite of real people—but it’s completely different to do so for Tom Dennison, a well-known figure in regards to political machines and local history, or Josie Washburn, a turn-of-the-century prostitute and madam in Omaha who published one of the initial first-hand account of life in an American brothel. I’m not really comfortable just making it up when it comes to real people, so I needed to go back and get a handle on the history before I moved on.

That being said, it almost always amazes me how consistently research pays off—and this has been one of the most heartening things in writing a historical novel. Whenever there’s a gap in the story I’m telling, or some inconsistency in character, there’s usually something to be found in an old newspaper or biography or diary that satisfies the gap and shows how the story—both mine and the composite historical record—both makes sense and is fascinating. I won’t get into too many specifics, but, in the case of Washburn, I was able to write a scene wherein she gives an anti-Dennison speech in a Little Italy meeting hall at a critical juncture of the story. It’s pretty awesome.

-As a consequence of said research needs, I’ve been spending some quality time in the microfilm room at the downtown Omaha library reading newspapers of 1917 and 1918. This also happens to be the golden age of comics–which leads to many distractions, of course, but also some really great cartoons. Two of the best, and most affecting, are posted. Both are from the Evening World-Herald.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Jacob walked down Pacific with his crew, where traffic had been cut off by the crowds, and he tried to ignore the coalitions around him. Every word spoken by a stranger sounded like an insult to Jacob, some vindictive joke that cut close to his heart. A dozen Russian warehouse workers rested against the hall to eat a quick dinner and they seemed to be talking about Jacob, laughing at him in their native cackle. They wore overalls and denim jackets, floppy felt caps made heavy with sweat and dust. They bit at sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, hunks of cheese and onion pressed between slices of cottage white with black smears of soot rubbed in from their fingers. A tin cup sat between each of their thighs, brimming over with the sudsy head of a beer. Some boy dug into his parents’ secret supply to flit along with a frosted clay jug hugged to his belly, making wisecracks to the men. These were thick-chest serfs whose mouths closed in satisfaction over their food, wiry ones whose clothes puffed over sinewy bodies. The lean ones looked the meanest, lips curling venomously under blood-shot eyes. Jacob thought this as he glanced at them. They were sizing him up, he could tell this. They imagined how much it would take to claim a win in a fight with Jacob and his men. And when one of them whispered something to another, when they leered at Jacob and laughed, he too dreamed how it would go down in a brawl.”

Just Finished

Political Bossism in Mid-America by Orville Menard.

 

Now Reading

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed.

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Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.