Check out my guest blog piece posted today on the blog of The Story Prize: “On Writing Stories from Inside Trump’s America (Before It Was).”
The Story Prize is the biggest book award for short story collections in the US, awarding a $20,000 bounty to an author each spring. In addition, they also open up their blog for authors of new short story collections to write a post about their books or an aspect of their practice, which is where I come into the picture.
Thanks so much to Larry Dark, Director of the prize, for inviting me to write something and for putting up my short essay. Here’s a sample:
Going off my friend’s suggestion, I began to think about who fit into what electoral bucket. Certainly the crotchety Harry Kleinhardt of my opening story, a man who’s forced to face his disappointment of a son while dying from cancer, who spends his afternoons sunning himself in the mudroom listening to Limbaugh and reminisces about how bright life once was, at least before it all went to shit. There’s one vanguard of Trump’s America. Then there’s Anna from “Impertinent, Triumphant,” who met her politician husband while both were congressional interns for Kit Bond, the former Republican Senator from Missouri. It’s easy to see how Anna would coalesce behind the Trump campaign. While not a “build that wall” kind of gal, she wouldn’t be opposed to chanting “lock her up” if others were doing so, say, on the floor of the Republican National Convention, exchanging a loftier political ideal or two in order to take a pantsuit-wearing liberal down a peg.
But there’s some noise in the populous of Bad Faith—as with anywhere, the distance between perception and reality isn’t so clear. Sam and Jacq, also from “Impertinent,” a former travel entrepreneur and an experimental landscape artist, leave Manhattan to settle on a ranch near the Sandhills. And what about the biracial man from Omaha who has to face his fear of being an outsider in a small town (and being exposed to small town police) to attend the funeral of his estranged white mother?
Friends of the blog may recall that my story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” (the opening story in Bad Faith) was published in Midwestern Gothic 8 back in the winter of 2013. At the time I was also featured in their Contributor Spotlight, which makes for an interesting comparison with the latest interview. (It’s particularly funny that when asked what literary figure I would like to meet (living or dead) that I responded with George Saunders–as I had actually met George Saunders before. Maybe I forgot that I’d bumped into him at the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012–or maybe it was that our conversation then was limited to whether or not the pasta salad looked edible–but somehow that must have slipped my mind.) Thanks so much to Allison Reck for conducting the interview, and Midwestern Gothic for posting it.
Read the entire interview here, but in the meantime, here’s a highlight:
AR: In the advanced praise for Bad Faith, fellow authors hailed you for your “nuanced understanding of human nature” and said that your stories revealed the “malice, confusion, and ultimate frailty of us all.” Do you agree with this commentary, that your collection exposes humanity as confused, malicious and frail? What did you hope to convey about humanity in writing these stories?
TW: I didn’t really intend to write a mean-spirited book, and I don’t think it is. There’s something really compelling to me about vulnerability, particular those who are willfully exposed and those who try to cover up weakness by being cruel to others. There are a few malicious characters in Bad Faith — notably Aaron Kleinhardt, a criminal element who appears in two stories and seven between-story vignettes — but for the most part these are people who are vulnerable and different, but not really that interested in covering up their frailty.
I suppose it is spring now, technically. Although Nebraska has been in its meteorological spring for a few weeks already and that hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference in the weather. Things have been pretty slow on this space for some time, and while the weather has nothing to do with that, we’ll have to do better. The main reason for this lag is that in January/February/March we sold our old house, bought a new one and moved. Pretty heady stuff for a couple with two little kids who usually have their heads buried in computers something like twelve hours a day anyway. It wasn’t so bad though. We moved from the Benson neighborhood of midtown Omaha all the way over to the Dundee neighborhood of midtown Omaha. A little over three miles. It’s been nice. The schools are better, no small concern with Maddie off to kindergarten in the fall, the sidewalks more plentiful. We traded in the Pizza Shoppe and Baxters for La Casa and Pitch, Jake’s for the Dell, Krug Park for Pageturners, dog fights for dog walkers, Benson Days for Dundee Days. It’s a whole new world. Also, the new house is quite a bit bigger, so my office is no longer a toyroom/office. That’s pretty big news in itself. Also, there’s a cemetery a block down from us, with an obstructed view of headstones from my desk, and Maddie is convinced that Jesus is buried there. We may be in for a dicey Easter this year.
Meanwhile things have been plugging along on the agent front. Nothing to really report yet, but there’s been pretty steady interest, a couple exclusives to bigger agencies, a few nibbles here and there. I always take things pretty slow, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this process will have to run its full course.
While that’s been going on I’ve been rewriting the novel from the point of views of some side characters, mostly out of curiosity and to keep occupied. I suppose, if no one is interested in the book as written, the process could take long enough for me to rewrite the whole novel in a way that’s more than an academic exercise. Not a bad contingency plan, I guess.
In other news:
-As announced yesterday, an excerpt from The Uninitiated (“River Ward, 1917”) was selected for publication byBoulevard. Also, I failed to mention that Boulevard nominated my story “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” for a Pushcart Prize. The story was first printed in their Spring 2012 issue. This is a great honor and one I’m pleased to have received. Boulevard rules, by the way. Subscribe to them.
-The big news of the season was that my novel The Uninitiated won Tarcher/Penguin’s Top Artist Writing Contest. Read breakdowns here and here.
-My story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” was published by Midwestern Gothic in their Winter issue. (Kindle editions of the issue are currently on sale for $1, and print for $6.) I was also interviewed by MG as part of their Contributor Spotlight series. Check out the interview here.
-This weekend we’ll celebrate Clara’s first birthday. She’s been such a healthy and happy baby that it’s almost hard to remember spending her first week in the NICU, huddled around watching her O2 levels on the monitor, and how joyful it was when she came home. Happy birthday, baby!
Dispatch from The Uninitiated
Miihlstein started right away when they arrived in Omaha. In fact, there was work waiting for him in the attic, what the dead man had been toiling over when he died. Miihlstein looked taller than he really was. He was lanky, with long arms, and this made him appear tall. He preferred striped neckties held flat by a now rusty tin pin he’d made himself. He was a happy man, if distant. He was in his workshop most of the day, singing to himself or playing the violin he was working on. He had a thin mustache that was often stained by coffee and what he’d had for lunch. He hummed as he measured string and reinforced the wooden necks of the violas he was charged with reviving. He squeezed the wood with his hands to put it under stress, to find the reason it didn’t sound right anymore. Karel watched his father’s performance daily, called over, at times, if his father remembered him, to see it in detail. A red felt carpet rolled out over the worktable. Even if it was a small job, a restringing, Karel’s father pulled out all the tools in his kit. Slowly he examined them, lost in the smell of that toolkit when it was opened. Little cans of lacquer and thinner placed on the felt. Tools pulled from their nooks and leather slots. Waffled metal files, awls and emery cloth, spools of white string, spare pegs, clamps, chisels, a skinny little metal hammer. Soon wood shavings popped from the block plane as he revealed new fingerboard, then sanded it round. Notches were filed and awled for the strings. It was painted an ebullient, shiny black, endless and distinguished. Herr Miihlstein’s wire-framed glasses rode down his nose on a bead of sweat. He bit his upper lip, sucking the prickles of his mustache into his mouth to concentrate.
To Karel, it shouldn’t take so long to restring an instrument. But his father could remain occupied with a single instrument for a day or more, stretching and tuning, and playing, humming along as he plucked and bowed. Until: “Perfection!”
Karel and Anna waited for this moment: they could help with a delivery and get out of the attic. Otherwise they occupied themselves with some docile and melancholy game as Miihlstein worked. Their games often involved the war. One of Karel’s favorites was to play army surgeon with Anna’s ragdoll. She allowed this. There was great commotion in Karel’s mind as the doll was rushed from an open battlefield, the middle of a circular woven rug strewn with sock garters and newspaper crumpled into balls, and under the great bed where all four Miihlstein kids slept. Once under the bed the real fun began, their legs stuck out opposite sides. Anna was adept at enumerating injuries. She described to Karel what resulted in the field, a simple shrapnel wound in the arm that luckily avoided bone. But then. Then the ambulance was hit by mortar fire. It overturned on the road, the poor souls inside tossed over each other, compounding their maladies. Broken bones now too, fractures, splinters of glass in the wounds. A gash on the head. The driver died instantly, tragically, for he was greatly loved by his family. By the time a second ambulance had come, the poor soul that ragdoll had become was in real trouble. Anna had a nicely dark mind for these details she savored. Karel pinned the doll to the floorboards with his hands as she explained what needed to be done, an amputation. The doll’s dress was lifted to reveal the yellow cloth of its skin.
As Anna finished her treasury, Karel began. Quickly he worked, sawing with the edge of his index finger, and tucking, as if Anna wouldn’t notice, the doll’s arm into the dress. The doll’s dress was back in place, the sleeve folded up. If the poor soul was saved, he’d be pulled out from the operating theater under the bed and slid under the blankets atop the bed. “You’re in luck,” the poor soul would be told. Nothing but orange juice and nurses for a year. If the poor soul couldn’t be saved, Karel and Anna might enclose the ragdoll in a white paperboard box, take it out back of the Eigler house and bury it in the dirt. Then, into the kitchen to find some lunch.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. A little disappointed (and intrigued) that James Dean’s “Say hello to your mother!” line is only in the Elia Kazan film version. A classic for good reason, nonetheless. The long tracts on the creation of the Salinas Valley and its early settlers are pretty fascinating to a guy like me, along with the more familiar sections filled with high drama and teenage angst.
The Face of a Naked Lady by Michael Rips. Part family history, part treasury of modern Omaha folk lore, Rips presents a pretty compelling story about growing up in Omaha amid racial strife, organized crime, and suburban flight while his mysterious father rose to prominence and then lost his mind. Also, it’s also an interesting treatise on the philosophical and psychological development of the American suburb as emotional landscape for those who couldn’t cope with the city. Very interesting.
The Slippage by Ben Greenman. I haven’t been doing many book reviews lately, but I made sure to secure an advanced copy of Greenman’s latest, which comes out late April.
Midwestern Gothic interviewed me for the latest installment of their Contributor Spotlight series. Here’s a highlight:
How has the Midwest influenced your writing? Almost all of my work is set in Nebraska, in the small towns and urban communities I’ve lived in or been to. I’m intrigued by the way geography and local history form the spirit of small communities—whether urban or rural—specifically from the lingering effect of historical trauma. So it’s become important to know local history, to recognize how different people identify themselves and others, and why this is so. Writing is mostly conjecture and projection,but, with my experience of living here my whole life, hopefully my work is an informed version of conjecture and projection.
And if you haven’t yet secured your copy of Midwestern Gothic 8, featuring my short story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt”, you should do so in either print or digital format, whatever’s your yen.
Thanks so much to Jeff and Robert for publishing this story, and now for featuring me in their blog spotlight as well.
Now that the new year is here, Midwestern Gothic8 (Winter 2013) is out and ready for purchase. The issue features my short story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” alongside work by many other talented writers, including Michelle Webster-Hein, Joan Colby, and Eric Neuenfeldt. Read more about my story here.
Midwestern Gothic8 can be had in print format for $12 (here) or in PDF format for $2.99 (here).
What went on in the Wheeler world the past few months, you ask…
-A few bits of feedback returned from the top handful of agents I’d submitted to, and was rejected by, sent me back into a revision cycle, one that is just now reaching completion. I feel a little nuts for going back to the drawing board after only a relative few rejections, but that’s my process and I’ll stick to it. It would be worse to sit on a good idea rather than implement it, right? Anyway, I took six weeks off to rinse my palate and clear my mind–which provided time to paint the outside of our house and stuff a storage facility full of clutter, among other chores to keep my mind busy–and then got back to it. The novel is much better for it, I believe, and slips along much more efficiently. It’s down to 103k words and 321 pages. Amazing how a little drawer time can make some appendages look less indispensable.
-During my off time a few agents requested to look at the novel, so that’s promising. I’ll have the manuscript off to them in January for consideration.
I must say too that the querying game is a lot rougher than I remember it being back in 2008, when I last had to go speed-dating for an agent. Seems like a majority of agents don’t really consider slush in a serious way anymore, and most that do read their mail don’t respond unless they’re interested. This kind of wrecks a carefully made spreadsheet. I understand why agents have taken this approach–as some receive a couple thousand queries a week! It’s logistically necessary on their part. However, this practice can only encourage bad habits among submitting writers. If a writer can’t be sure their query will be looked at, it makes more sense for them to submit to a bunch of agents at once and see what sticks. This really isn’t good for anyone, so I’m trying my best to find ways of getting noticed other than being a bad citizen. I wonder what the end game for this is, as Twitter and blogging become a better way to get the attention of an agent, and direct contact fades away.
-“The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” is set to appear in the Winter 2013 edition of Midwestern Gothic. Read about the story here. Get a preview of the issue here.
-My review of Christopher Narozny’s Jonah Man was published on the fall edition of Kenyon Review Online. Jonathan Evison named Jonah Man one of his Favorite Books of 2012. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s a goodie.
–Travel: There was New York in October and El Salvador in November. Realizing today that this will be the first time since 2010, and only the second since 2008, that I haven’t been to Key West after Christmas. I hope the snowbirds can get along without me. Trips to Boston, Los Angeles, and Kansas City are in the works for 2013, and we’re hoping one to NYC becomes necessary as well.
–Sporting: The last time we checked in with the sporting news, Notre Dame was 3-0 headed into a prime time match up with the hated Wolverines of Michigan. I was confident about that game–perhaps a little too confident, as my 87-2 prediction was way off–but I was a little wary of how the rest of the season would unfold for the beloved Fighting Irish of Our Lady. There were still big games with Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC down the road, and ND usually found a way to eke out a come-from-ahead loss to a lesser opponent too. A few months later, ND is sitting at 12-0, ranked #1, and looking at a NCG match up with the hated Crimson Tide of Alabama. Congrats to the team, coach Brian Kelly and star linebacker Manti Teo. I almost can’t believe how well everything has turned out this year, and hope it continues as long as possible. Go Irish!
Dispatch from The Uninitiated
“Fred was around the block when Jacob caught up, ducked behind a barrel. It was known that Fred lost the will to fight too easily. He was doleful and kept out of trouble. His forehead had a white twig of a scar from when he fell out a linden tree. Bullies noticed him. Jacob was the one with a temper, the restless one. Fred, three years elder, often chided Jacob to become humble, being of the mind that the less someone thought of himself, the more likely he’d find the right side of an argument. But Jacob wasn’t so sure of that. He was tall and fair-skinned and athletic. He’d always done well in school. He had things going for him, and modesty appealed less to him than it might to others.”
Check out the front and back cover of the forthcoming Winter Issue of Midwestern Gothic, which will feature my story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” among other great work. I’m liking it. The print editions are set to ship just after the New Year, so get your orders in now!
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!