Weeks of Aug 31-Sept 13, 2009

Novel Work
It’s been kind of a slow couple weeks. For reasons that will become obvious by the end of this entry, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing lately. I was able to finish up work on the first chapter of Part II, which was nice. There are a few spots that need some work before I even start revising, but I’ll probably just push forward into the second chapter before I worry about that. Was able to get some nice stuff down about the prostitution camps of Hell’s Half-Acre, the lowest of the red light districts in the early days of Omaha. It was kind of strange, but I recalled quite a bit of stuff from a history course on the Progressive Era I took in 2004 as an undergraduate. It always amazes me how much of that stuff sticks. No matter how much research I do, the writing usually seems to find its way back to some obscure anecdote I heard years ago—something that has been fermenting for a long time in the mustier parts of my subconsciousness, I suppose. I always did do well on the comprehension and retention sections of the CAT tests in elementary school, however, and it’s paying off now.

Nicole and I spent Labor Day weekend in Portland, which was palpably refreshing. About a half-dozen or so of our friends have moved out there in the past couple years, so we had ample company to enjoy the Oregon drizzle with. Old friend and rising visual artist Alexander Felton (who is apparently “ungooglable,” but you should try anyway) graciously showed us around his studio. We really enjoyed seeing some of his artwork and discussing it in terms of Baudrillard and in other PoMo ways. After two hours and a few Hamm’s, I only knocked over one of his plaster pieces, which isn’t too bad for a lumberjack like me. Felton was recently visited by some representatives of the Whitney who may be hanging his work next year, so send some kind thoughts his way.

One more quick thought on Portland. I’m not sure if any other authors do this, but I really enjoy seeing my published work in famous bookstores, so we absolutely had to stop by Powell’s in order for me to physically hold a copy of BNAV 2009. This is where it gets weird. As I stroll up to the shelf of fiction anthologies, I notice that another customer is browsing through the different volumes of BNAV and she just so happens to be holding a copy of 2009! I’m very excited, of course, and, as she turns to the Nam Le story, it occurs to me that maybe I should give her a little sales pitch. Maybe talk the book up a little. Maybe even offer to sign my contribution if she’s interested. But I didn’t say anything to her—I felt like enough of a stalker glimpsing my name over her shoulder—and she put the book back on the shelf. Should I have gone for the hard sell? Should I have risked embarrassment and just pulled out my pen and started signing? In hindsight, I should have gone for it. Just claim to be Mehdi Okasi and sign the book.

Dispatch from The Open City
“The heat intensified as they made their way in among the beduin camp. Timber piles had been driven into the mud and live copper wires strung between the poles held small illuminated bulbs. There were long rows of canvass tents, one after another, each with a woman reclining on her cot behind the door flaps. Some of the tents had crudely printed flyers pinned to their front, advertising some exotic fantasy or another. There were a multitude of variations—Mother Russia, the Queen of Siam, the Schoolteacher, Marie Antoinette, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Nun—but inside their tents the women all looked the same to Jacob. This wasn’t a high-class brothel where men who could afford a woman of different skin color or accent, or a famous traveling “lady barber” like the real Calamity Jane. These were desperate women, more than likely local, shipped in from the provinces to occupy a fetid stall in Hell’s Half-Acre before being shuffled off to a similar fate in Kansas City or Minneapolis. The camp had been constructed to be temporary—a premium placed on mobility—but Jacob had the sense that it had been established here for a long time. The only thing that changed was the women.”

Personal Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Low Rent for “You Know That I Loved You,” Queen’s Quarterly for “Let Your Hair Hang Low,” and Fiction Circus for “Lycaon.” A lot of near-love this week.

Now Reading
White Noise by Don DeLillo. Just about finished. I don’t want to say too much right now, as this post is getting pretty long, but this truly is an amazing book. Maybe not my favorite DeLillo work, even—I think Underworld is a more significant work and just as well written—but one of my top five overall. Word for word, DeLillo pens the best sentences going. It’s such a joy.

Up Next
Exiles by Ron Hansen.

Link of the Week
(downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The theme this year is “The Sordid Arts of the Cheap Paperback.” Events are held from September 17-19 and include panels on “The Comforts of Crime in Scary Times,” “The Writer’s Life in the New Economy,” and “Vampires Love Zombies: the Art and Language of Horror,” among others. There will be poetry written then read about trashy paperback art at the Joslyn, a Ted Kooser book launch, and a literary happy hour to cap the events. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area this weekend.

Featured Market
Electric Literature. These guys have gotten a ton of press after their debut issue and much of it is deserved. They offer three ways to enjoy their product (varieties of digital and paper) and are doing some exciting things in terms of digital media and promotion. They also pay contributors $1000 a story, which is nice. It will be interesting to see if they can make this model work, but I say take your shot now, this one is a fast mover.

Ron Raikes: In Memoriam
On the way back from Portland we learned that Ron Raikes had been killed in a farming accident. Raikes was mostly known for his work restructuring the Nebraska education system as a State Senator and by consolidating small rural schools and in creating the Douglas-Sarpy Learning Community he has affected most people in the state. As a politician unafraid of controversy, the name Raikes ignites strong emotions in many people. (I believe Stephen Colbert even referred to him as “the Rosa Parks of resegregation” at one point, although the new funding model he and Ernie Chambers created lumped together funding sources from both inner city and suburban school districts in the Omaha metro—something that still seems impossible.)

All of this aside, Raikes also happened to be the father of one of my closest friends. It’s been a tough week coming to terms with the loss and doing all that we were able to for the family. The Raikes family has represented something special to me in the decade or so that I’ve known them, because they are such a phenomenal collection of hard workers. Each of them intelligent, talented, and driven to succeed, yet these attributes were rarely tainted by false ambition or pretension. There’s a certain intensity in the way they go about their business that was striking to me. It seemed exceptional in a place like Nebraska where almost everyone strives to land somewhere in the middle—an honest and systemic lack of ambition that often leads to the glorification of mediocrity. It was important to be around people like my friend Justin Raikes and his family. These people who have helped me strive for bigger things. Their example has opened my mind to so many new possibilities and ideas—and for this I’m thankful.

 

You will be missed, Ron Raikes.

 

Conor Oberst was wrong about you. You did good.

Week of August 23-30, 2009

Novel Work
Put down some pretty good work this week, if I do say so, writing on pre-Prohibition German beer halls and the free-lunch counters that were standard in most American bars and taverns in the early 1900s. For this I’ve mostly been writing from old photos I’ve found from the era (thanks Omaha Public Library) and a few descriptions taken from immigrants corresponding back to Germany about their experiences in America. I’m not really sure how historically accurate everything is at the moment, but I’m not too worried about it. The strategy has been to first write the story as well as possible, getting the characters and plot established, before getting into the minutiae of history. I’m sure a few things will need to be changed when I get to that point, but I’d much rather be inaccurate historically than boring literarily. I’ve done quite a bit of research in advance of starting—things that have given me a decent idea of the spirit of the age, the demographics of the city at this time, what the political landscape was, the kinds of jobs my characters might have—so it isn’t like I’m going into this blind. It’s just that I’m not constantly cross-checking the work as it’s put down. At the Key West Literary Seminar this January, which I was grateful to attend due to the generosity of their donors, Russell Banks spoke about how people often find fault with his historical work because it isn’t a precise representation of how things most likely happened at the moment he’s written about. Banks kind of laughed off such criticisms, saying that he isn’t really all that concerned with history because his focus is on the fiction. If something needs to be stretched, a river moved or a step-son created, to make the story he’s trying to tell work, he feels free to do that. (Although Andrea Barrett took the exact opposite stance.) That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking here with Part II of The Open City. The novel will live or die based upon the verve of the narration, not the veracity of the history it invokes.

That being said, one thing I would like to do soon is visit the microfilm at CU library to read through a few months worth of newspapers from the time—the long-defunct Omaha Bee in particular, Omaha’s tabloid rag from the early Twentieth Century. When Ron Hansen came to Creighton in the spring he spoke of how he did this when writing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In fact, Hansen was able to consult the local Missouri papers nearly every morning in order to immerse himself in the same era his characters had lived in. He was teaching at the University of Michigan at the time, where the library contains an impressive archive of old newspapers. Pretty cool stuff. My narrator is looking from a contemporary viewpoint back to 1919, so it isn’t necessarily imperative that I get the lingo of the era just right, but I’d like my characters to have a sense of it. That is, while the dialogue should ring true, the narration isn’t trying to approximate the voice or style of that era. Still, it should be helpful in regards to what kinds of clothes people were wearing and by what names they referred to certain objects.

Dispatch from The Open City
“Jacob followed Strauss and his friends into the Potsdamer, to an iced oak keg of beer and then up to a narrow balcony on stilts that was bolted to the walls. The dance hall was an immense room on the second floor of a corner brick building. Its plaster walls depicted gaudy murals of naked goddesses and grim knights at arms against the Hydra. The floor was occupied by families and groups of friends resting amid tables and benches in a crescent surrounding the band, beyond that a stage partly obscured by monstrous glass chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. There was a colossal serephina organ, two violists, and a fagotto bassoon that were accompanied by a trio of women vocalists who seemed to encircle the song’s melody with their rolling harmonies. There were leggy dancers on stage, heads adorned with peacock feathers, a plaster statue of the patron goddess Germania looming high above the stage. Performers from a gymnastics club would come on later to exhibit their strength and flexibility. Everyone in the crowd was drinking, both men and women, some of the older children, but Strauss assured Jacob that there were never fights. Everything was carried off with precise order, as if each of them had been assigned a role they would gladly perform.”

Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
BOMB for “The Current State of the Universe.” And, I’m not sure if this exactly fits this category but, my story “The Approximate End of the World” was accepted for publication by Boulevard and will appear in the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary issue in March of 2010. Very excited about this.

Just Finished
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. I really fell under the spell of this book for a while, but was disappointed by its ending. It kind of seemed like a copout. The big referendum fails because of voter apathy, which was kind of nice. But then, all of the relationships that have been on collision course throughout the novel just sort of fizzle—as if the novel itself had become apathetic. Chief Jammu and Barbara are killed by a bizarre mirroring of bullets to the head. Probst drives around on county roads to avoid what has happened until he’s shown meeting with his daughter to grieve for slain Barbara, but nothing further. I would have liked to see what happens when the characters actually have to deal with the consequences of their actions, but everything wrapped itself up before that could happen. Still a very good book—and probably not the kind of narrative that really deals with consequences. It’s a book that exalts big ideas, rather than one that spends time lamenting the fallout of big ideas.

Now Reading
White Noise by Don DeLillo. This has been my “favorite book” for a long time, but I haven’t read it in a long time either. We’ll see if it can withstand the test of a reread. So far I’m enjoying it, but it’s a little tedious getting through all of the theoretical grounding DeLillo is doing before really putting the screws to his characters. If I remember correctly, the narrative didn’t really start humming until the Airborne Toxic Event.

Up Next
Exiles by Ron Hansen. We’re reading this for the online class on novel writing I’m taking as a non-degree seeking student through the graduate program of the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Link of the Week
Littoral. The blog of the Key West Literary Seminar. Check out the audio archive of past seminar readings and lectures. Very cool stuff.

Also, I’ve neglected for too long to thank my lovely wife Nicole for setting up this blog for me. Thanks!

Week of August 2-8, 2009

Novel Work
Doing the final work on the rewrite of Part I. It’s taken since March to get to this point, but I feel much more comfortable with what I’m doing now. Having gone from 100-pages of a third-person POV focusing on one character to 115-pages of a first-person narrator (who is a minor character) writing through the POV of three other characters, it feels like a pretty big accomplishment just to make it back to this point. Still not quite where I need to be, probably, but I’m getting there. Expanding the POV and playing with the notion of a first-person narrator acting as an omniscient third-person narrator has been very freeing in terms of character development. It came about from two main catalysts, the first being my agent’s suggestion that I had been writing the novel as if it were a really long short story—meaning, among other things, that I was locked too strictly into the limited POV of one character, ignoring potential angles other characters could add to the story. Second, was the need to kind of energize the voice, giving the voice of the story an angle within itself by allowing the narrator to have a stake in things, biases, etc. Basically, taking advantage of the big canvas I’m working with. The work seems to be much better and more interesting too. I’m looking forward to starting on Part II soon!

Dispatch from The Open City
“The animal pushed its pink nose out the sleeve to sniff the air, its rat nose twitching as Michael watched with disgust from a few feet away. Michael rubbed the knot on the back of his head, he ran his fingers through his hair, then reached back, realizing that books too can be weapons, tapping the bindings of the volumes near him until he found a thick one.”

Short Story Work
Put the finishing touches on a draft of “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again” and submitted it to the Esquire Fiction Contest just before their deadline. They mandated the title, by the way. I kind of like how it ended up, but it was a little frustrating to have to send off this version. With the generous help of one of my readers (Travis) it became apparent that the story should be set in the main character’s office building rather than his apartment. I’ll have to do a rewrite before the year is over.

Dispatch from “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again”
“The girl didn’t run when she saw Andy walking towards her, but held to the door handle dumbly, kind of pinching her legs together, bending at the waist. She wore old tennis shoes, the laces gray and dingy, and had a skinned knee, a bloody spot turned black on her dark legs. Up close, Andy assured me later, there was a dovish quality to her eyes. The girl had orange irises that flashed desperation.”

Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Indiana Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.” McSweeney’s and One Story had previously sent very nice personal emails rejecting “The Current State of the Universe.” These near misses can often be misleading, but hopefully a big publication is on its way soon.

Just Finished
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. After reading this novel, it makes me think that maybe 2666 was mostly finished after all. Bolano definitely has a propensity for ending narrative threads in an abrupt and ragged manner. Probably another “ambitious but failed novel,” but Bolano is just so pleasurable to read I didn’t really care. Great book!

Now Reading
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. About half-way through and really enjoying it, despite some reservations. In her Times review, Maria Russo notes that the collection is “remarkably consistent in pacing and tone,” which seems to be its biggest failing, in my eyes. Each story is great, but they all seem to hit the same notes and almost all are written from a first-person POV. Peelle is obviously adept at finding and inhabiting a character’s voice, which is a highly enjoyable aspect of her work, it’s just that when each story reads and feels the same, they kind of lose their power, I think. I’m hoping the second half of the collection offers a little more variety.

Up Next
White Noise by Don DeLillo

Also, please check out my story “The Uninvited Guests”  on the website of Johnny America if you haven’t yet.