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.

Now Reading

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

Up Next

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca.

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 Jun 7 – July 2, 2010

Big Sky

Since returning from AWP in early April, I’ve been preparing to query agents, and I’m happy to report that this week I’ve finally reached the end of this process—and the beginning of the next phase of actually finding new representation. It’s taken much longer than I anticipated, mostly because of a few rewrites that became necessary in these middle stages of editing. (With big thanks to my wife Nicole for helping me to see how the shape/plot arc of Hyphenates Part I was not all it could be.) My first-choice agency requested full manuscripts almost immediately and is now deliberating. Wish me luck! Coincidentally, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a pretty big-time agent at the end of last week requesting some work. That was pretty cool. Maybe I’ll be sending him something before long, depending on how my first-choice responds.

It’s been somewhat of a weird process the last six months. My first agent left her agency right before Christmas last year, which left me without representation. It was kind of jarring at first, to be let loose like that. I’d probably put too much stock in having an agent, let my sense of self-confidence become too large based upon the fact that, like Don DeLillo, Al Pacinco and A-Rod, I had an agent out there stumping on my behalf. We worked together for over a year on my story collection and, what turned out to be failed, first novel. There were a lot of good things that came from the relationship–such as the idea to switch focus to the historical thread I’m telling with Hyphenates–and I feel much richer for the experience. But it was nice to move on, frankly, to have some free space to work out exactly what I was doing with my books, to dig deeper into myself, and to do so as a writer, rather than as a producer of potential market share. It reminded me of the reasons why I really love doing this, having the chance to indulge daily in the small acts of creation and destruction that eventually tease out a story. These six months have given me the opportunity to refine my projects considerably. And I’m thankful for them. But now, it’s time to get back in the game, to pursue book publication with all I’ve got, and to provide for my family as best as I’m able.

Next week it’s back to work on Part II, which is nearly completed in rough draft form. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll have it in some kind of acceptable shape and can move on to actually finishing the book by the end of this year. Not to jinx myself or anything.

Thanks a ton to all my readers who helped work my manuscripts into shape before I sent them off, sometimes on very short-notice. Amber, Bill, Mary Helen, Nabina, Nicole, Travis—you’re the best! And likewise for Jonis, Brent, Gregory, Justin, and Timothy, for giving advice and being advocates on my behalf. All of you are also the best.

-Nicole, Maddie and I were off in Fort Collins last weekend at a wedding. The photos in this post are from the trip.

Maddie really loves weddings.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“She was in the same clothes as before, the heavy red dress, torn and dirty by then. Her hair was thin, unpinned and breezy about her face. ‘Is that her?’ Strauss asked. ‘That’s the one you were on about last week?’ Jacob said, ‘Yeah,’ still with his hand on the Pfarrer’s shoulder, their faces close together as they stared at the girl. She was only twenty yards away from them, steadying herself against the trunk of a locust tree, one of the trees Jacob had slept under his first night in Omaha. ‘Her betrothed skipped town,’ Strauss said. It was obvious that the girl lived on the street now, that her family had turned its back on her, or she’d gone crazy and willingly exposed herself to the mutilating fractions of a city.”

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

Electric Literature for “The Current State of the Universe”; Alaska Quarterly Review for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Nashville Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life.”

Just Finished

The Turk and My Mother by Mary Helen Stefaniak. The first novel of a beloved Creighton professor, this one is highly enjoyable. A kind of folksy post-modern historical novel that seems largely drawn from family history and deals with the tumultuous love lives of our parents and grandparents before we knew them. MHS has a second historical novel coming out this fall, by the way.

We drove up into the mountains in a thunder storm and didn't run over any of the many bicyclers!

Now Reading

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman.

Up Next

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall.

Books That Came in the Mail

What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. Novel History by Mark C. Carnes. Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. Three Delays by Charlie Smith. The Great Lover by Jill Dawson. Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.