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!

Catch Up Time: November 1 – December 13, 2009

Novel Work

Over the last month I’ve been trying to immerse myself a little deeper in books and movies that take place within the same general time period that my novel is set, using 1900-1935 as a wide range of years to pull from, as the events of my novel occur over 1918-1919. The idea here is to, for one, gain a better understanding of the traditions, practices, and standards of the historical narrative form. I believe this falls under the due diligence umbrella. The second reason for this immersion is to acquire something of an ear for the way people spoke at the time. It’s always struck me strange when characters speak so differently than we do in historical pieces—thinking mostly of characters with vocabulary dominated by slang who speak in nasally, affected tones—but how am I to know how people really spoke in, for example, 1920s Kansas City. My main hesitation then, during the drafting process, has been trusting my intuition against what I see is a practice of accentuating slang in historical forms to give it an “old-timey” feel. (It’s also important to note that typically only teenage or early twenties characters from lower economic classes use this thick slang. In It’s a Wonderful Life we only really see Ernie the cab driver speak in this affected way, certainly not Potter, or the grown version of George Bailey. Or in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, mostly it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character with the period accent, and the black gangsters to a degree, but certainly not the kidnapped Senator’s wife.)

One of the ways I’ve been trying to bridge that information/experience gap is by reading local newspapers from the area on the microfilm collections of Omaha libraries, mostly the Evening World-Herald at this point—an idea I picked up from Ron Hansen. Now, this is a somewhat formal medium, so the language used there isn’t exactly street, but I’m not sure that’s something I want anyway. (If I don’t use a lot of slang in my contemporary stories, why would I do so in my historical ones? Plus, my main character is a country boy from a rural immigrant community and probably wouldn’t have been exposed to too much popular culture anyway.) What I’ve really been struck by in doing this kind of research is how little things have changed in the past ninety years. Surprisingly, the most obvious evolution in tone and style has actually developed in the hard news stories, because the Public Pulse letters are eerily consistent in tone, language, style, and even content if you replaced Germans with Muslims and German-Americans with illegal immigrants. I’m not really sure what I expected to see, but the similarities were striking.

So there is a tension in the writing process between authenticity and expectation. From what I can tell, people in 1918 Omaha didn’t really speak too much differently than we do in 2009 Omaha—or they didn’t write much differently, at least. (Again, this is focused mostly on middle-class white communities who were/are engaged in civic, political, and cultural issues.) However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that my book’s audience would accept dialogue that doesn’t sound “old-timey.” More than likely a balance must be struck between what I decipher as authentic and what the tradition tells me an audience will expect. What that balance means exactly will probably have more to do with my own ear (going with what looks and sounds the best) then anything else in the end.

Dispatch from The Open City

“The United States National Banking Company had been the first place Jacob stopped in at, a white sandstone building with large columns in the heart of downtown. The bank lobby was a bustling place, so unlike the sleepy office of the Jackson Building & Loan, where the farm deed was held. There were several stations here that one must wait in line for in order to be served. Each of them had signs indicating their purpose, Drafts, Pass Books, Deposits, but Jacob didn’t know which one to approach. He’d never had to find a job before; he’d been a family farmer up until this point. The lobby was packed with impatient people—suit-and-tie men with derby hats, holding packets of receipts for inspection, gloved women in ankle-length skirts and fine, flowered hats, clutching small purses—and the stuffy enclosure was stifling with the odor their colognes and perfumes. The bank’s one large room was divided by the cashier’s cages, heavy brass frames that held glass plates, a slot at the counter where documents and money were exchanged. There were cages in the back too, these made of heavy iron wire, containing adding machines and quick-fingered clerks whose only job was to note figures from morning til night. Beyond them was the heavy steel door of the vault, tilted open as a matter of reassurance. In the middle of the lobby stood a pot belly stove with a smoke stack the reached to the top of the twenty foot ceiling. Jacob gravitated towards the stove because it was the only place where people weren’t clustered. The metal was cold against his skin, his hands brushing against it.”

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

Alaska Quarterly Review for “The Current State of the Universe”; Mid-American Review for “These Things That Save Us”; Hunger Mountain for “Let Your Hair Hang Low”; The Collagist for “You Know That I Loved You”; Grasslimb for “From Indiana”

Just Finished

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. As important as the first stories seemed, the final few seemed just as trivial. The conceit of having each story involve Olive in some way really wore thin on me. I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it, but give me Winesburg, OH any day.

Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor. Like the teenage and twenty-something characters who people his work, Taylor seems to be aware of what might be the limited shelf-life of these stories, but he risks irrelevance in the future because of the confidence that what he writes about has a broader significance. That despite the pop culture references and out-of-style fashion, there’s something vital simmering under the surface.

The Best American Comics 2009. My favorites include “Justin M. Damiano” by Daniel Clowes, “Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein” by Michael Kupperman, “The Company” by Matt Broersma, “Berlin” by Jason Lutes, “Jordan W. Lint” by Chris Ware, “Freaks” by Laura Park, “Antoinette” Koren Shadmi, “Glenn Ganges in Pulverize” by Kevin Huizenga, and “Papa” by Gilbert Hernandez. My absolute favorite was Art Spiegelman’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*!!”

Now Reading

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

Up Next

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne.

Link of the Week

Nathan Bransford Blog.   A cool blog by a literary agent attempting to demystify the largely secret processes of book publishing. A very nice resource.