About Writing and Politics in Six Parts

1-4-00-courtesy-of-the-durham-museum-600x491Somehow I missed when this essay was posted in September, but it seems so much more appropriate to post here on the eve of Election Day anyway–an essay on the relation of politics and art within my work. So please finds my contribution–“About Writing and Politics in Six Parts”–in Schlossghost #1, a year book for the 2014-16 fellows of Akademie Schloss Solitude.

The essay is a response to two questions posed by the editors of Schlossghost, Paula Kohlmann and  Clara Herrmann. “Would you say that your (artistic) practice is political? If so, how would you describe its political dimension?”

Find the whole response at the link above, and here’s a sample for now:

In May, earlier this year, I covered a Donald Trump rally that took place in an aircraft hangar near the Omaha airport. At first I was a little worried about even going, as there had been quite a bit of violence at Trump rallies the month before and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a party to all that ugliness. But, on the other hand, of course I did. That’s a big part of my job description, the part of the job I like, to be witness to these things.

The rally itself was mostly dull. Trump spoke for a long time about Japanese tariffs without much insight, and the biggest part of his speech was a 20-minute anecdote about this time he handed out trophies at a charity golf tournament. During the rally a few protestors were thrown out. His supporters for the most part looked bored throughout, except at the beginning and end, when his helicopter landed and when they could chant »build that wall.«

I wondered about my feelings of disappointment after the rally. What was I expecting? Wasn’t xenophobia on display enough? Were the protestors dragged out too peacefully? Or did I miss something, the feeling of the event, the undercurrent? Did I feel the way I did because I wasn’t in the crowd? I sat up in the press section – a platform with tables where journalists were corralled behind a fence. By accident I sat between a Fox News anchor and his producer, to comic effect. Seeing their frustration with having to follow Donald Trump made me a little grateful for my obscure lot, for not having to spend all day working a story and then being told to reduce it to a ten-second clip of a long-haired young man shouting »fuck you« at the police.

Ma Vie à Stuttgart: Solitude Nacht, Landstuhl, Stuttgart

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Reading on the steps of the castle during Solitude Night. (Photo by Kai Linke.)

A few highlights from the past couple weeks:

-A big one being that I read as part of Solitude Night here at the Akademie on July 5. The experience was a pretty cool one, not the least because my literature compatriots–Irish poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin and German playwright Anne Habermehl–shared their outstanding work. Also, the stage was built on the steps of die Schloss, with the reader facing the castle and the audience seated on the steps, facing the valley. I read from two pieces, some of “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown” and the opening of the new novel I’ve been working on here. It was kind of nerve-wracking to present work that was written only a few weeks ago, but I feel like it went over okay. A number of people have told me they enjoyed the reading–and since they’re passing on good news, I have no reason to doubt them.

Thanks so much to Claudia Gehre for setting up the reading so beautifully and introducing us readers. And thanks to Akademie Director Jean-Baptiste Joly for selecting me to read on the big night.

-Also, if you haven’t seen, Akademie Schloss Solitude is now accepting applications for its next cycle of fellows, with residencies from 2015 to 2017. Residencies are typically pretty long, 6-8 months or so, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. Stipends, lodging, and studio space are provided, along with some travel and project expenses. Writers, artists, dancers, musicians, mathematicians, chess players, art administrators, philosophers–it’s a pretty big tent out here. I’ll vouch that Akademie Schloss Solitude is certainly an amazing place to write and create, and hike, and is pretty centrally located if you’d want to do some sideline travel while in Europe. The deadline is Oct 31, 2014. Here’s a list of conditions and benefits for the fellowship. Check it out.

-After Jordan I didn’t do much traveling the past two weeks. Explored more of Stuttgart on foot, found new areas of the forest to hike, managed to turn a two hour leisurely walk to the bank into a five hour power-hike after I took a wrong turn in Wildpark. Oops.

-Today I did venture out of Stuttgart again with a trip up to Landstuhl. There really isn’t too much there, except the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, with Ramstein Air Base also in the area, so it has certain significance to recent US military history–and more to the point, a character in my new novel (Jim Allen from my story “Welcome Home” is a big character in the book) is sent to the medical center for a brief time. So it was kind of research for the novel, kind of just being curious to see what a US military town in Germany is like. I wasn’t sure if I should still go up there. There are a million other places to visit here that offer more in the way of culture and sights. The trip itself was longish, about three hours each way by train, although a lot of that was through the scenic Rhineland area, so not much to complain about there. So I went.

landstuhl
Landstuhl, stadtmitte.

This morning I was surprisingly emotional about going to Landstuhl. The medical center served as the primary hospital to treat injuries suffered in both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it’s seen a lot of traffic in the last decade. I read last night that the hospital was for several years among the world’s most active hubs for organ donations. A sort of benign fact on its face, but devastating in its implication. This really stuck with me this morning.

I didn’t do much while there. Walked up to the medical center and around its gates. Everything is secured so there really wasn’t much to see besides dozens of signs promising that bad things will happen if you take any pictures of the facility. (Note: I really admire those who live by the edict that when someone tells you to stop filming, that’s the most important time to be filming. Further note: I’m not one of those people.) So nothing profound, but I’m glad I went. Like a lot of things, the process of getting somewhere is most of the trip. And I did get a few details that will make it into the first draft of the novel.

-Arriving back into Stuttgart was pretty interesting this evening. There was a big Palestinian demonstration going on all along Königstraße, a pedestrian drag through the main tourist and cultural part of the city. A little different from what I expected walking out of Hauptbahnhof train station. Lots of flag waving, some chanting, many head scarfs, a few burqas. Polizei in full-on paramilitary gear, berets, rifles, some with riot gear handy, just in case. (I’m assuming a lot of the police presence was just in case a group of fascist, anti-immigrant thugs showed up for a confrontation–something becoming more common in some places–but I’m not really sure.) Meanwhile, the Schlossplatz (castle square) is hosting its annual week of free jazz performances. So, while the the protest wraps up, there’s a jazz quintet on a bandstand playing “Everybody wants to be a Cat” from Disney’s The Aristocats (you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried) with a bunch of hipster swing kids strutting their stuff. Kind of a strange dynamic. And a nice little microcosm for how this whole trip has gone.

 

 

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!

Summer in Review (2012)

It’s been quite a while since I last offered up a review of my activities. All the way back in April! A few things have gone down since then, such as…

-I finished a draft of my novel, The Uninitiated, that I’m very happy with and sent it off to agents for consideration. (Read here about the finishing.) So far I’ve heard back from two of my top five choices that were queried, with one passing and another asking for full manuscripts on both my novel and short story collection! Who knows if anything will come of this–as the one who requested the fulls did so despite not technically considering new clients at the moment–is that a good or bad thing?–but I’ll take good news when I can get it. We’ll be heading off to New York for a few days in October, and it would be nice if I had a couple meetings/interviews to add to the itinerary by then. We’ll see.

-Not a lot of travel over the summer months. A trip to Niobrara for a few days, a weekend in Kansas City for my mom’s graduation from seminary school and Clara’s first Royals game, a week of commuting to Lincoln for the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. The fall should offer a bit more excitement. NYC, El Salvador. (!!!)

-I was tipped off recently that my story “Welcome Home” from Best New American Voices 2009 and Boulevard was taught at Southern Connecticut State University this fall. I know of three other colleges where the story has been taught–Penn, Drexel, and City College of San Francisco as part of a program for returning veterans–in addition to a high school in Illinois. This is so cool, and delights me to no end.

-My novel was also named a finalist for Tarcher/Penguin’s Tarcher Top Artist writing competition. I haven’t seen or heard anything about a winner being named, so I guess it still is a finalist.

-I left Prairie Schooner after four years plus of service. See post-mortems here and here.

-My book review of Shira Nayman’s A Mind of Winter can be found here, and of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich here, or Richard Burgin’s Shadow Traffic and Ron Rash’s The Cove here. My review of Yannick Murphy’s The Call is in the current issue of Pleiades.

Sporting: As the final couple weeks of regular season major league baseball wind down, the KC Royals look to have a solid hold on third place in the AL Central division. They’re still pretty mediocre (owing to long stretches of horrible play in April and July) but at least haven’t been nearly as disappointing as the Indians and Twins have been for their fans. Or for Tigers’ fans, for that matter. That’s something, I guess. Life in the AL Central isn’t so much about winning games, it’s about being less miserable than your rivals.

Notre Dame is off to a rousing 3-0 start, their best on the gridiron since Ty Willingham’s 8-0 start in 2002. With a home game against Michigan tomorrow night, and with Stanford, @Oklahoma, and @USC still on the schedule, this team could still easily go into the tank. That being said, I’ll still predict an Irish victory over the Wolverines this weekend. I’d feel a little better if ND had a few mini-Ditkas on the team, but I’ll stick with my gut here. Notre Dame 87, Michigan 2.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

“Fred was the one who found him face down in the creek, over on the other side of their claim. He drank horse cleaner. That’s how he did it. It must have hurt horribly. His eyes lost their pigment. Hair fell from his head. Fred came and got Jacob. He showed their father unmoving in the creek. They wrapped his body in a blanket and brought it to the barn. They didn’t dare bring it in the house. Neither said this, but they both understood. The body stayed in the barn until the Pfarrer came out with the J.P. to get it.”

Just Finished

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. A readable and well-done book. Nice suspense. I really didn’t like the epilogue, although I pretty much never like epilogues. A good book, though, certainly.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This book had been hyped so much before I read it that it couldn’t quite live up to everything I’d heard about it. It was good, but I think This Side of Brightness was better.

A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman. A post-war mystery set mostly in Shanghai, Long Island, and London in the 1950s, A Mind of Winter offers plenty in the way of sex and drugs, mistaken identity, and ill-fated love affairs. These are characters who believe, explicitly or not, that the rules of society do not apply to them.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A compelling novella about the life of a rambler and the struggle to tame Idaho in the early parts of the last century.

Now Reading

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Loving this so far. It’s been a long while since I had time to tackle a broad, long novel like this.

Up Next

The Dark Corner by Mark Powell. Not yet released, but I’m looking forward to it.

Boulevard No. 81

Boulevard 81, the new home of "On a Train from the Place Called Valentine."

My contributor copy of the Spring 2012 issue of Boulevard arrived in the mail today!

Not only does the issue contain my short story “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine,” but there’s also fiction by Stephen Dixon, non-fiction by John Barth  and Josip Novakovich, and poetry by Albert Goldbarth, Andrew Hudgins, and Floyd Skloot, among many others. (Did I mention John Barth?!) It’s a pretty stellar lineup. One I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of.

Boulevard puts out such a consistently great product. It’s hard to believe this is my third story published by them. “Welcome Home” appeared in the Spring 2008 issue–before it was anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009 and received special mention in the back of Pushcart Prize XXXIV. “The Approximate End of the World” was in the Spring 2010 edition, and will be noted as a “Distinguished” story in a forthcoming edition of New Stories from the Midwest.

Here’s an excerpt of “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”:

It isn’t until later, when the freezing wind cuts through her, that Amy Gutschow actually considers what she’s doing. This is late December after all and she’s riding north on the bed of a railcar after sunset. She nestles into her downy black coat, shoves her hands deep into its pockets, and waits for the train to pass through a town where she can jump into a grassy ditch and roll away from the rails. She’ll have to call her father, wherever she lands, and beg him to pick her up, the way she did in college. A tall man with a dopey mustache, her father would wear gray sweatshirts and blue jeans, if he came for her on a weekend, or a tweed jacket and corduroy pants if he had to take time off from work. He never asked why she needed him, but just came for her, humming almost happily as they returned home. “My baby girl,” he’d say, as if it were part of an old song. “What has happened to you now?”

Cheers!

“Welcome Home” Used in Veterans’ Class

I learned something very exciting this week, as it looks like my story about an Iraq War veteran returning home from the desert–“Welcome Home”— was in fact used as part of the City College of San Francisco’s Veterans Educational Transition Services! If you look down at the “Homework” section at the link below, my story is listed, right next Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. How awesome is that?! And humbling. It makes me a little nervous and queasy.

You can find a description of the class here: Foundations of Military Experience: Stress, Challenge, and Success.

Throughout time and history all nations face the challenge of how to reintegrate their military service members into the civilain world. Most societies have processes to accomplish this. The Samurai were not allowed back into villages until they spent a month or so in mountain retreat spas. Ancient Greeks had plays where they enacted the challenges faced by returning warriors for the whole society to witness. Native Americans had sweat lodges and story telling rituals to pass on hard won wisdom. 

I’m very excited and proud to have my fiction be a part of this class and program. Hopefully it works well for them, as the program looks to have great potential for improving the lives of our servicemen and their families. Awesome.

“Welcome Home” originally appeared in Boulevard and was anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009. So another round of thanks is in order for Richard Burgin (Boulevard editor), John Kulka and Natalie Danford (BNAV editors), and Mary Gaitskill (BNAV guest editor) for getting this story out into the world. Thanks!

[Please note, btw, that Best New American Voices 2009 is down to $4.09 at Amazon.com right now. So if you’re interested in the story, that’s over seventy percent off the cover price, it might be a good time to buy.]

Also, if you know of any vets who might be interested in participating in one of these classes, please pass along this link. It looks like a lot of the classes are free, they get college credit, and they can participate online if they don’t happen to live in the Bay Area. This is a pilot program, and I’m sure UCSF would appreciate all the help they can get in developing quality courses.

February in Review

-I was lucky to see the National Christmas Tree when I was in Washington DC last month—as it fell over in a windstorm a couple weeks after I visited. My walking friend and I commented to each other at the time that the tree looked to be in pretty bad shape. Apparently it was! The tree I saw was installed during the Jimmy Carter presidency. A replacement will be planted this spring.

Another cartoon from the Evening Omaha World-Herald, from 1918, this one on the threat global domination posed to local fishermen.

-The reviews I did last year for Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil were mentioned in a couple different Best Books of 2010 lists. Here are the links:

http://bygonebureau.com/2010/12/08/best-books-of-2010/

http://robaroundbooks.com/2010/09/afterthoughts-kapitoil-by-teddy-wayne/

-A healthy portion of “Welcome Home” was put up on Google Books, as it appeared in Best New American Voices 2009. It’s not all there, but most of it is.

-“Welcome Home” was also mentioned on the news page of the Arts & Sciences College at Creighton University, where I did my MA. I should note, however, that the story may be selected for the Warrior’s Journey coursework. Nothing is official as of yet. If I hear anything I’ll be sure to post about it, as having my work included in that program would certainly be my biggest accomplishment to date. I’m very proud that they asked to use the story.

-My review of Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie was published on The Millions.

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

McSweeney’s, Epoch, and Shenandoah for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Missouri Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; and Crab Creek Review for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Just Finished

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back.”

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. A fantastic novel. Smart, melancholy and funny. I’ve only read two of his books so far, but Hemon is one of my favorite writers. He’s really great, and I need to make the time to read all of his work.

Up Next

Other People We Married by Emma Straub.

[Note: I’m trying something new with the format for these posts, going to whole months in review rather than what was turning out to be 3-4 weeks in review. It isn’t much of a change, except that I’ll be pulling the longer topical and reflective sections out and making those into their own posts. The month in review posts will be more bullet point stuff. Not much of a change in content, but more and smaller posts. Hopefully that’s a little easier to consume.]

Pushcart Prize Mention

My short story “Welcome Back” (also published as “Welcome Home”) was in the Special Mention section of the Pushcart Prize XXXIV anthology! The section is for “important works” that were not reprinted in the book. I didn’t even know it had been nominated, so this was very surprising.

This story was first published in Boulevard as the winner of their Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers and was later anthologized in Best New American Voices.

Pretty cool stuff!

On a somewhat related note, I read over the weekend that the Best New American Voices anthology will be going on hiatus following the current 2010 edition, since Harcourt isn’t interested in continuing. This is really too bad, as this is one of the best year-end collections out there and had turned into a major way for young fiction talent to break into the industry. Especially for writers who didn’t go to Iowa or Columbia or Hunter, BNAV was perhaps the best way to get the attention of agents and editors. Series editor John Kulka is confident that another publisher will pick up the anothology, although it will take a few years to get going again. Best of luck to John and fellow editor Natalie Danford. Hopefully we’ll see it back on shelves again soon.