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.

Contest Mania!

The good news continues! My short story “The Housekeeper” was today named a finalist for the 2010 Flatmancrooked Fiction Prize!

The prize winner and runner up will be announced later this month–wish me luck–but all ten finalist stories will be published in the forthcoming anthology Flatmancrooked 4. Benjamin Percy will judge.

So double good news with the possibility of more to follow. Not bad for a Columbus Day.

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 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.

Weeks of Feb 22 – Mar 17, 2010

Did I mention we went to New York last month?

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“The sidewalk was cluttered with her belongings, her furniture and clothes, a Victrola phonograph cabinet and a stack of records, a crate of wine bottles, a small painted portrait of a girl who could have been Evie standing on the plush cushion of a high-backed chair. There were several lounging chairs the men brought out too, upholstered with threadbare green fabric, small pillows to match. They were cheap pieces, second hand, perhaps, but nicer than what most people had on the Ward. And maybe her furniture didn’t look so shabby in a dark room, Jacob thought, out of the sun. It was very bright suddenly, the air warming on what was becoming a cloudless August sky. Jacob could feel the heat of it on his skin, through his shirt.”

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

American Short Fiction for “The Current State of the Universe”; Salt Hill and The Missouri Review for “The Housekeeper”; Hunger Mountain for “These Things That Save Us”; Identity Theory for “You Know That I Loved You”; Makeout Creek for “Lycaon” and “From Indiana.”

Just Finished

Point Omega by Don DeLillo. Mostly it’s enjoyable for its language, with some nice plot here and there too. I didn’t really go for much of the eschatological theory, although that might be how it’s supposed to be taken.

Now Reading

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. I thought this started off horribly slow and redundant, but have been getting into after the first hundred pages.

Up Next

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

Weeks of Dec 26/09 – Jan 26/10

Novel Work

I’ve finally decided to split The Open City into two novels, rather than continue working on it as one project with two distinct threads. Part of the concern was that the single book would be very long, around 700 pages or so. It just didn’t seem feasible to get something like that published, seeing that it would be my first novel. And it would probably take another two years to just get it roughed in. The other things that worried me were more novelistic in nature. The two threads certainly play off each other—and the two novels will still be related—but I’d structured them to alternate in parts rather than chapters. That is, there would be a seismic shift every 100 pages or so, rather than smaller shifts every 20 pages. (Most of the hybrid-historical-novel models I’m using are structured more on the alternating chapters style, such as Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao gives more space to the individual threads instead of alternating, but his threads were separated by only a generation and collide in the end in a way mine wouldn’t.) These seemed too jarring. Just as the story is getting roaring it would jump into another thread. One that’s starting from scratch, essentially. I didn’t really anticipate the historical thread being this interesting or engrossing, which is part of the problem and part of the exciting part. It’s something I feel much more compelled to write, something I feel needs to be done.

Nicole and Maddie flying outside the courthouse.

In any event, I’ve finished a first draft of Part I of what is now titled The Hyphenates of Jackson County, which should be about one/third of the book. The writing of this has gone so smoothly so far. Maybe it’s writing historical fiction, in that I have many sources, photos, and books to draw on when I’m feeling stuck. Or maybe it’s that I’ve been working near-daily as a novelist for almost two years now and am actually getting better at it. Plus a little bit of the family life settling down a bit more, becoming more comfortable as a father, having real office space without radon gas to contend with, and having a nice chunk of property that demands constant physical activity. Let’s say all of the above. But whatever the cause of this good streak, it’s been very much enjoyed. Now it’s just a matter of finishing. And making it great. The rest should take care of itself.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“There was something about Jacob that triggered Mrs. Eigler’s mothering instinct. The way he stared blankly into the street when they chatted in the evenings, as if someplace else; how he merely smiled in silence when at a loss for words, his mind grinding. Women often fell towards mothering Jacob. From the way his hair flopped over his forehead to the cowlick spiking up in back, Jacob unaware until a woman was there to tamp it down for him; and in how he dressed, not quite sloppily, but merely hinting at neatness with an informal comportment.”

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

Crazyhorse for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; Lake Effect and StoryQuarterly for “The Housekeeper”; Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, and One Story for “These Things That Save Us”; Barnstorm for “From Indiana.”

Just Finished

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne. This novel is nearly very good. It’s a book driven almost entirely by the voice of its narrator, which is something I don’t usually enjoy that much beyond the first few pages. Yet, protagonist Karim Issar is very compelling. A programmer from Qatar who strikes it rich in Manhattan while doing some pre-Y2K debugging, Karim is the kind of uninitiated character who so effectively provides context to the culture he’s being introduced to. The main problem I have with Kapitoil is that the secondary characters are flat and ineffective as foils. They can’t challenge Karim, which leaves the main character two-dimensional in important ways as well. It looks like much of Wayne’s background is in doing short, satirical pieces for magazines, so maybe this is telling in that the novel shines when it is merely a matter of voice and gags, but falters on the level of extended plot. This one is really worth picking up, however. Highly recommended.

Should I run for office? Do I look like a county chair?

Now Reading

American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

The Underworld Sewer by Josie Washburn.

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb.

Up Next

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.

And big props to my friend and colleague Nabina Das, who has been named an Associate Fellow for the City as Studio 2010 initiative in Delhi. Awesome work!

Weeks of Oct 12 – Oct 31, 2009

Novel Work
I’ve been busy pushing ahead with new drafting the past couple weeks and it’s been going well for the most part. Nothing of much interest to report, really, on that score, other than I think much of what’s been put down will be of service to the book. So that’s good.

Perhaps the most note-worthy development is that it seems clearer, as the historical fiction progresses, that I’m probably working on two different novels. The idea was to have one novel with two interwoven threads—a primary one taking place in 2005, with a complementary one from 1918/19. The historical thread is growing in size and prominence the more I work on it, however, and is plotting out to be its own book. I’ve also been concerned about trying to get a 600-700 page novel published, so maybe this will work out better to have two 300-350 page novels instead. We’ll see how it goes.

Dispatch from The Open City
“A man crossed the street in front of Jacob, bent towards the road as he stumbled along. He was crippled with rheumatism, Jacob could see this, the man’s fingers bent in broken directions, hands unable to close, his limbs joined at odd angles, as if no part of his body could be flexed straight. There were many men like this here, twisting in wooden chairs, unable to find comfort, the hard labor of their lives stamped on their bodies. These men were slaughterhouse workers who could no longer work. Thousands of them had migrated north to fill stockyard positions vacated when locals were drafted into the war effort. Neighborhoods such as these overflowed with these men and their families. Every morning trucks owned by the yards rumbled into the Northtown ghetto to exchange night workers for day workers, then returned in the evening to reverse the exchange. It was decent pay, for those who could do it. But they ended up with their legs broken and tied to a nearly straight tree branch, lying near the planks of the walkway; or knocked permanently stupid by a stampeding bull, jabbering and drooling, faces swarmed with flies. There were both men and women here who were missing fingers or raw chunks of their faces or whole arms from the cutting apparatus. Or those folks whose bodies had simply broken down.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of “No Thanks”
Michigan Quarterly Review for “The Day After This One”; Colorado Review and Puerto del Sol for “The Housekeeper”; Failbetter for “Let Your Hair Hang Low;” and Barnstorm for “Lycaon.”

Just Finished
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. It kind of pains me to say this, since Chaon is one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t really care for this novel. Much of the writing is very good, but none of the book’s moving parts seemed to really work for me. Maybe part of it is that Chaon is rewriting the same stories over and over, the same kinds of characters from his earlier work, the same issues. Many writers do this, of course, and it doesn’t seems like it should be a big deal, but I was just kind of bored with what was going on after a while. There wasn’t suspense. Being familiar with his work, I could see what was going to happen. And perhaps more than that, it invites too much of an invitation to compare the novel to Chaon’s story collection Among the Missing—and in my opinion, he’s ten times the short story writer than he is a novelist. AYR has received dozens of exuberant reviews, so people much smarter than me found much to admire here. I also admired a lot the novel’s individual aspects–including the amibition evident in the project. I just didn’t think it really pulled together, however.

Now Reading
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. A little less than half-way through here. It’s something I can’t really put my finger on, but there’s just something about these stories that makes them seem like they’re important to read. Maybe it’s the tone with which they’re told. At any rate, there’s a gravity to the prose that’s very engaging.

Up Next
Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor.

Link of the Week
Koreanish. The outstanding blog of author Alexander Chee. Many excellent posts on the process of writing, art, comics, and other such stuff. Basically, what I wish this blog could be like someday.  

Featured Market
Salt Hill. The literary magazine of the Creative Writing Program of Syracuse University, I’m not really sure why this journal doesn’t have a higher profile. Outstanding contributors, attached to a legendary writing program, really a great aesthetic.