"One Last Smoke"
As Richie reaches the car, his cigarette has burned nearly all the way down. He sits behind the wheel, alone with his thoughts, remembering, and flicks the dead stub through the window.
From his first meeting Richie admired Bill, sensing the older man’s confidence, his calm, his quiet strength. Bill would lean back in the folding chair, hands behind his head and legs stretched before him, and effortlessly tell the story of his life. Not like Richie—hunched over, elbows on knees, staring at the floor—and the others, who stammered out their stories when they could tell them at all.
Richie looked forward to meetings and especially the quiet times afterward, when they would linger outside on the sidewalk, smoking, gazing at passing cars, chatting about the week ahead.
Bill would bum a cigarette—"That’s another one I owe you,” he would say—and as he lit up, Richie would brush him off, saying, “You only owe me the one.” Bill smiled as the smoke billowed from his lips and rose past his eyes, where Richie recognized his knowing look.
The words—his own, the others' encouragement and the group leader's guidance, Bill's chatter while they smoked—always reassured him, but also faded whenever Richie found himself alone. Late at night was the toughest time, when he couldn’t sleep and again felt that thirst.
“I could really use a belt,” Richie said on the phone, struggling to keep his voice from cracking.
“You don’t need it,” Bill replied. “You’re better than that. You’re strong. Booze doesn’t rule you. Live without it.”
The call would sometimes go on for an hour or two, Richie admitting his weakness over and over, Bill saying he would get through this, until Richie felt the urge fade away and calmness settle in. He often wondered if Bill, despite his brave words, ever felt the same weakness and doubt.
Once, at the end of a call, Richie thought to thank him.
“You’re the best, Bill. It’s like you’re my guardian angel.”
“I don’t believe in angels, or any of that stuff,” Bill replied. “But don’t tell Dennis I said so.”
They laughed. Dennis was their group leader, full of faith and scripture, invoking Bible passages for strength and encouraging prayer, like all of the group leaders.
“Not a real angel, then," Richie said. “Figurative.”
“That, I’ll take. Your figurative guardian angel.”
In the car Richie peers at the dark clouds looming in the distance. He worries about the Marlboros he left on the gravestone getting soaked, and ruined.
“I’m only taking the one,” he had said, palming one and lighting. "Now you’re paid up. We’re even.”
Richie hopes the rain will hold off, for hours and maybe days, so someone else can enjoy one last smoke there. He pictures that someone, smoking, musing over the cheap angel figurine—Richie bought it with the cigarettes, at the Citgo on the drive over—and remembering Bill.
Bill, who also helped that someone through the toughest times.
(I wrote this piece as an entry for the Summer Flash Fiction Series at Midwestern Gothic, where it failed to make the cut, so I've posted it here instead.)
Photo Credit: "James Dean Grave (Detail)", by David J. Thompson
What I'm writing
As I mentioned earlier, I had two specific writing projects for 2014. The second project, a serialized story, was completed on December 30. I wrote the story, a pseudo-noir with the working title "Get in the Sentra", in twelve monthly installments, with each written in longhand on a postcard. I mailed each unedited installment to my writer friend Joe Peterson; knowing that Joe was eagerly awaiting the latest installment was great motivation for me to keep writing. I'm fairly pleased with the story, despite the fact that right now it's only a first draft; I'm looking forward to hearing Joe's feedback as I craft the story into finished form this year. I'm also still deciding whether to attempt to get it published as a conventional story, or to be faithful to the story's original conception and somehow get it serialized.
What I'm writingThe first of my two 2014 writing projects has been completed. It's called Fifty Sketches; I hesitate to say "stories", since only three or four are full drafts right now, and probably ten more will never even make it that far, with the remainder being in various stages of becoming genuine stories. I wrote one for each week of the year, excluding the first and last weeks which I took as a breather. I wish I could say that I finished each two-plus-page piece within its weekly timeframe, but the truth is that I regularly fell a week or two behind, and had to scramble to get back on schedule.
Most of the sketches were written early on weekend mornings, before my family woke up and the house was nice and quiet, though during a few of those catch-up periods I got up at 4:30 a.m. on weekdays to get some writing done before I started to get ready to go to work. The good thing about writing all of these raw sketches one after the other, without going back to edit, is that I now have a nice pile of material to work with. The bad thing is that it's a pile of material: far from finished, and with me lacking a good grasp of exactly what I have. Even after reading through the list of titles, I realize that there are at least ten sketches that I remember nothing about.
One of my writing goals for 2015 is to read through this material thoroughly, several times, to see which sketches have the most potential to become legitimate stories. And then begin the arduous process of building, cutting and polishing the raw material into something worthwhile.
The other writing goal is to finally get back to work on my "trio" of novellas. I've written about 15,000 words of the first ("Junker", which I set aside early this year) and the details of the other two are slowly coming to me. We'll see how all of that goes, but given my typically slow writing pace, it could be quite some time until this concept comes to fruition.
What I'm writing
I haven't been doing any book-length work this year, but I'm still writing my weekly two-page stories. Nothing publishable there yet - still mostly first drafts that I haven't worked on further - but a lot of promising material. Whether or not any of it ever reaches finished form, it feels good just to be productive. I always feel much better about myself after a few early-morning hours of weekend writing.
On Friday afternoon the first hints of a new story came to mind, after seeing two older ladies walking arm-in-arm down Wells Street. An uncommon sight, at least on days when the Civic Opera isn't doing a matinee performance; at any rate, I don't think there are matinees on Fridays, so I'm not sure what brought these two ladies downtown. Yesterday morning I wrote the first draft ("Muriel and Lillian") which I edited in the afternoon into some semblance of a finished story.
Or so I thought. This morning I woke up half an hour before the alarm, and as I lay there, the story came back to me. I thought about the ending, which now seemed too tidy and summary, and came to the realization that the story isn't finished yet. Since then I've had further thoughts on how to continue the story and reach a more satisfying conclusion. Interesting how the mind works.
Doing the work
This week I found myself inspired by the following quote from Ted Thompson:
I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered.
A few days ago, I woke up an hour before the alarm, but instead of resting awake in bed, I got up, went to the kitchen and did edits on a story draft ("The Golden State") that I wrote earlier this summer but had since ignored. Thompson's comment was running through my head as I got up and did the work, and I'm glad I did. Because I do think this story, and my writing in general, matters.
(Via Matt Bell.)
"Mother and Child, Tuam"
I wrote this story yesterday morning, after being saddened by this report a few days ago. Ordinarily I sit on new stories for a while, and slowly hone them into shape before loosing them on the public, but this one had an urgency I couldn't resist. For the most part this has been only minimally edited from what was originally written, so I apologize in advance for any errors or inconsistencies. Getting the story out seemed more important than getting it perfect.
Mother and Child, Tuam
Rest assured, dear, that your child is in a better place. Now, I can’t recall, was it a boy or a girl? A boy, yes, that’s right, a dark-haired imp, full of spirit, destined from birth to be trouble. What’s that? Red-haired? A ginger? Oh, I had forgotten that. Even more so, then. Full of trouble, though maybe with the right guidance from the sisters over there he might have found his way into the holy life. Maybe even had the call, and became a priest. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing? Glorious, even.
Maybe that’s what his life has become, though they do things differently in America than we do here. Life there is...freer, they probably say, but I say looser. To them faith isn’t so important, just a part of their lives with their careers and chasing money, and not the biggest part as it should be. The men carouse, the women smile and spread their legs, and if something happens there’s a doctor to take care of it. Carousing men, loose women.
Why no, dear, I don’t mean to say you were loose, wanton, even if the same something that happens to American women happened to you. That Kenny of yours...right, that Gordie, he should have done right by you, marrying and making you an honest woman. Instead of a fallen woman. Now, dear, don’t cry. You can’t deny you’re a fallen woman, no matter that Gordie was the cause of it. Yes, you’re fallen, but the wonderful thing about falling is that you’re not down forever, but you can take the hand of God and be lifted back up. This is 1955, not the Dark Ages, and you won’t be stoned to death for your sins. You’ll be forgiven, if you’re truly repentant, and lifted back up. Which will be easier without the burden of a child.
Your boy is off in America, with a good family - originally from Cork, I recall - and surely has a better chance at a good and holy life than he would here, with you. That is, if he can fight the temptations. The Church isn’t as strong there as here, but there he can be raised in the faith and someday find honest work, in a factory at least and not here digging ditches or the like.
Why yes, dear, of course he’s in America, with a good Cork family. We had to take him away that one night, deathly ill with what we feared was consumption, but after a few weeks in hospital we found it was a false alarm, and we brought him back to you - don’t you remember how he hiccuped and smiled when I handed him to you? - and soon he was right as rain. Yes, he did come back, and not long after the sisters found a home for him in America.
We’ve done well, surprisingly well, in finding them homes. Far better than one might expect from a small order in Galway, and an even smaller mother and baby home, far from America or London or even Dublin. But Mother Eileen has close friends in Dublin and New York, sisters she went through convent school with as a child, who know powerful people who know families eager to adopt children from the old country. We’ve sent hundreds of boys and girls to England and America, and though we’re supposed to be humble I must admit my pride in our success. Indeed, hundreds of children, maybe seven or eight hundred, I’ve lost count...
Yes, dear, we brought your boy back from hospital. Enough. I’m tired of reassuring you, over and over. He was sick, very sick, when we took him from you, but he recovered enough to bring him back. I handed him to you myself, remember? He hiccuped, and smiled. But maybe you were delirious then, even hysterical. Yes, I remember now, you certainly weren’t aware of all that went on back then. After you delivered the baby you weren’t right for a long time. Now, don’t cry. Enough. Enough!
And don’t keep asking about your boy. He’s healthy and safe and living with a good Limerick family. No, Cork - a Cork family in America. Yes, he’s healthy and safe, and there’s no need to worry. So, enough.
I've been published by Akashic!
Powell's reading, this Wednesday!
I'm doing a reading this Wednesday (7 p.m.) at Powell's University Village (1218 S. Halsted in Chicago, adjacent to UIC) with my good friends Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson, along with several other writers. I'll be reading a story from my still-unpublished Chicago collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. Come one, come all!
Happy Birthday, Wheatyard!
My debut novel Wheatyard turns one year old today, having been published on April 30, 2013. At last check, 94 paperback copies have been sold, plus there have been 374 free ebook downloads. It's been a fun year - plenty of good wishes, a handful of nice reviews, a tiny bit of cash, but first and foremost the reassurance that all of this writing is worth the trouble.
I really enjoyed reading "The Afternoon Party" at the Goreyesque reading last night, but even more I enjoyed hearing the other readers, especially Danielle Wilcox with "Little Sister" (with a wonderfully unexpected narrator) and the incomparable Joe Meno with "The Use of Medicine", a vivid story (from his first story collection Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, and written in direct tribute to Edward Gorey) which perfectly captures the adventurous curiosity, innocence and sadness of childhood.
Afterward I reintroduced myself to Meno, and thanked him for being an ongoing influence and inspiration. I took a writing seminar from him years ago, before I had even published my first story, and his positive response to my work (specifically my novice novel, Eden) really helped me believed that yes, I was indeed a writer.
My sincere thanks to Todd Summar and the rest of the Goreyesque crew for letting me be part of this.
"Goreyesque: A Tribute to Edward Gorey"
I'm very pleased to announce that I will be reading at "Goreyesque: A Tribute to Edward Gorey", next Tuesday (April 29) at Loyola University Museum of Art, along with Joe Meno, Sam Weller and several other local writers. LUMA is hosting a traveling exhibition of Gorey's works, and the reading event should be a fine tribute to the great artist and his influence on younger writers. The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m., which the first half devoted to readings and the second half to viewing the exhibition; the entire event is free. I'll be reading my Goreyesque piece "The Afternoon Party" which, at just 26 words, might just be the briefest public reading in recorded history. I might have to deliver it with ponderous, deliberate gravity (I'm thinking of some sort of James Earl Jones/Orson Welles hybrid) just to stretch it out to a full minute.
"The Way Business Is Done"
I am thrilled, thrilled to announce the publication of my short story "The Way Business Is Done", in the latest edition of CCLaP Journal, the arts journal of The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. The story is one of my oldest, having been written way back in 2005 and previously racking up almost thirty rejections elsewhere, and tells the story of a corrupt Chicago alderman (based heavily on Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna) and his ill-fated attempt to secure a transit monopoly for a local tycoon (based heavily on Charles Tyson Yerkes). However, I threw in a twist, given that Kenna worked against Yerkes during the latter's ill-fated scheme in 1899; Kenna's primary city council rival, Johnny Powers, was Yerkes' actual point man for buying up votes. I made the switch due to rich and irresistible personalities of Kenna and his First Ward cohort, Bathhouse John Coughlin.
My hearty thanks to Jason Pettus and Allegra Pusateri for taking on this story. CCLaP Journal is a beautifully designed publication that I am truly proud to be associated with. The journal is available in pdf or online at Issuu (like all CCLaP publications, a donation is politely requested for those reading the electronic versions), or in a fine paperback edition for $9.99. With all of the prose content and especially the color photography, that $9.99 price is really a bargain. I can't wait for my contributor copy to arrive.
What I'm writing
I wish I could report that I've been diligently working on Junker during the past few months, and will soon have a finished first draft, but that's not at all the case. I've barely touched the manuscript this year (I'm stuck at about 15,000 words), and though the story still occupies my mind from time to time, the actual writing of it is on hold for now.
Fortunately, I've still been writing regularly, thanks to two resolutions I set for myself for 2014. First, every week I'm writing a new 1-2 page (400-800 word) story, on whatever subject comes to mind. Or actually, due to their brevity and the need to start a new piece each week, it would be more accurate to call them sketches or introductory pieces, with only a few of them so far being complete, self-contained stories. Several of the stories were riffs on various books I've been reading (Budd Schulberg, Knut Hamsun, William Maxwell), and two are even potential introductory chapters for book-length concepts I've been kicking around. I'm giving myself the first and last weeks of the year off, so this project will give me fifty pieces of raw material to further hone into finished stories or even books.
And lest I end this year with just fifty pieces that may or may not ever be finished (the latter being more likely, given my work habits), my other project is a serialized story, in which each installment is written by hand (with no editing) on a postcard, and mailed to a writer friend of mine. I have no idea where the story is going, but with any luck I'll come to some sort of resolution by the end of the year. I wrote the first installment in January and the second in February, and though I had hoped to write a new one every few weeks, it's looking like monthly installments are more realistic. Having a reader waiting to read my next installment has really been effective motivation to keep writing.
So, while nothing is happening with the novel, at least I've still been writing on a regular basis. With any luck these exercises will keep me limber and sharp if and when the novel ever comes back to me.
"The Afternoon Party"
I'm very pleased to announce the publication of my piece "The Afternoon Party" in the debut issue of Goreyesque, an online journal devoted to new works inspired by the artist and writer Edward Gorey. My piece was inspired by Gorey's delightfully macabre "Thoughtful Alphabet" stories (26 words each, A to Z), and was really fun to write. My only regret is that Gorey isn't alive to illustrate my story; I can totally visualize the drunken socialite and the hapless guests flittering around her, but totally lack the necessary drawing skills to bring the story more vividly to life.
Death of a thief
Until this morning, I had never heard of Ronnie Biggs and knew almost nothing about the Great Train Robbery, in which a gang of seventeen thieves robbed a British mail train in 1963 of £2.6 million (over $50 million in current dollars). But then a news story on NPR reported on his death, at age 84, which lead me to this article at The Guardian along with a string of related pieces. Without at all glorifying his crime (the train's engineer ultimately died from his injuries), I'm marveling at what a fascinating life this man had: he was involved in the heist; was arrested, convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison; broke out of prison; fled to South America and lived the good life there for thirty-six years; was abducted in 1981 by bounty hunters who took him to Barbados, which refused to extradite him; finally surrendered to British authorities in 2001 and imprisoned; and was released in 2009 due to poor health. Along the way he seems to have become some sort of folk hero, and even recorded a record with the Sex Pistols.
It seems to me that Biggs' life is the stuff of great fiction; in fact, if a crime novelist wrote something comparable, it might even be criticized as being too audacious and unreal. Still, I like to imagine writing a fugitive character like Biggs. The thought of him sitting in a bar, regaling paying listeners with his implausible story after his heist money finally ran out, is both intriguingly arrogant and poignant to me. I wouldn't write the story as explicitly about Biggs, but instead with him as inspiration. I'm filing that away in the Tenuous Concept corner of my brain.
Would You Rather...
At The Next Best Book Club blog, I have subjected myself to a slew of Would You Rather questions. Here's a taste.
Would you rather have schools teach your book or ban your book?
Having your book taught in schools gives you a guaranteed audience but, if you're someone like Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Milton, it also eventually gives you multitudes of bitter adults who curse and grit their teeth at the mere mention of your name. By contrast, getting your book banned usually turns you into an iconic hero. So ban me.
My sincere thanks to TNBBC's Lori Hettler for running this. It was great, narcissistic fun.
"Singing for the Here and Now"
My short story "Singing for the Here and Now" has been published at the online literary journal Anthology of Chicago. Many thanks to editor Rachel Hyman.
This story is the first to be published from my Chicago neighborhood collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower, and has a rather unique provenance. Years ago I wrote a short story, "Hope Cafe", about an idealistic young woman who quits her corporate job to open up a coffee shop on Chicago's South Side, just across the street from the recently demolished Robert Taylor Homes public housing projects. For various reasons that story remains unpublished, but a secondary character, Tonya, has stayed with me ever since. As I was develping Marshland, I thought up a story which had Tonya as protagonist, and which delved more deeply into her uncertain feelings about religious faith and her complicated relationship with her grandmother, both of which were briefly alluded to in the earlier story. To me, "Singing for the Here and Now" is a much deeper, richer and more realistic story than "Hope Cafe" is or ever will be, which is partly due to having a more interesting protagonist but most likely due to me having developed into a more mature writer by the time the later story was written.
I haven't published many short stories during the last few years, as my writing has focused more on book-length projects rather thainstead of individual stories. I hope to publish a few more Marshland stories in the future, but I'm hesitant to publish too many of them. If and when Marshland is finally published as a collection, I'd prefer to have most of the stories appear for the very first time, to give readers something fresh.
Where I write
The Next Best Book Club has just run my short essay about my writing space, also known as "the little eating room" just off our kitchen. My sincere thanks to Lori Hettler at TNBBC for this.
"Remember, Never Forget"
My short story "Remember, Never Forget" has been published in the final, "Farewell" issue of Skive Magazine, which is now available for purchase at Lulu.com. You can also hear me read the story here at SoundCloud.
Skive and publisher/editor Matt Ward have been very good to me over the years, publishing my early story "Can't Be Happy Today, But Tomorrow" in 2006 and my nonfiction piece "Pursuit" last year. It's truly been an honor to be associated with the journal, and I wish Matt the best of luck in his future endeavors.
"Think of how many monumental things in our lives are decided in the silence of a kitchen table."Nice interview with Peter Orner at Fiction Writers Review. The thoughts he encapsulates in the above quote come at a timely moment for me, because right now I'm struggling with my novel in progress, trying to figure out how to get the narrative out of the protagonist's head and really have something happen. Orner might say that's really not necessary, and that a story can just take place at "the kitchen table." More for me to ponder.
It's very nice to see that in his new book Orner has revived the character Walt Kaplan from his early novella Fall River Marriage, which I really enjoyed reading last year.
Fond memory from 2008
Photo by Jason Pettus. Dang, that night was cold.
"Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly.""One reason that people have artist’s block is that they do not respect the law of dormancy in nature. Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly. They have a point where they go dormant. And when you are in a dormant period creatively, if you can arrange your life to do the technical tasks that don’t take creativity, you are essentially preparing for the spring when it will all blossom again." - Marshall Vandruff
I sincerely hope my current lack of creativity is just this sort of dormancy. Looking to blossom again soon.
(Via Steve Himmer.)
Interview at Midwestern GothicMidwestern Gothic interviewed me about Wheatyard, writing, and the Midwest.
Thanks to Jeff Pfaller and Rob Russell for running the interview, and for their ongoing support. Getting my beloved but long-unpublished story "Mahalia" into the debut issue of Midwestern Gothic is one of the highlights of my writing career.
MG: Do you believe the Midwest has affected your writing?
PA: The Midwest is physically beautiful, but in a very subtle way. The beauty of other places, like the mountains of Colorado or the beaches of Florida, is much easier to appreciate, but in the Midwest you often have to look very closely, and patiently. I suppose a lot of people don’t see beauty in a field of soybeans, a weathered farmhouse or rusting factory, but I do. Living in the Midwest, I’ve learned to look closely at things, and that translates to my writing as well. There’s not much bold action or laugh-out-loud humor in my fiction, which tends to involve reserved characters, quiet situations and commonplace dialogue. I think of my writing as being understated, as is the Midwest itself.
Spencer Dew on WheatyardSpencer Dew writes a wonderful review of Wheatyard in the new issue of decomP.
But the point, of course, is never exactly what Wheatyard is writing, nor why, merely that he exists as this unceasing force, producing and producing, and that his existence and fecundity stands as an example, an inspiration...This wildness contrasts, in turn, with the carefully plotted prose of Sinclair Lewis, with the depressing practicality of Central Illinois, and with the narrator’s career-minded forward march, through boredom and bad company and bad faith. Wheatyard changes all of this, of course, by his sheer improbable and unforgettable existence, his unstoppable, irrational production, which, in that way, defies any economy.This review warms my heart, because it really makes me feel that Spencer understood both Wheatyard and the narrator, which is what every writer hopes for. My sincere thanks go out to Spencer and editor Jason Jordan - Jason has been a casual friend and supporter of my writing for several years, having published my story "Moonlight" back in 2008.
What I'm writing
Now that the Wheatyard hubbub is starting to subside a little, I'm finally starting in on a new book. It's a novella with the working title Junker, which is actually the first of a planned trio of novellas set in a small town in northern Illinois. The town isn't based on any specific municipality, but instead is a composite of several towns that I've known, including my hometown.
I prefer the term "trio" instead of trilogy, because the latter implies a series that proceeds linearally from book to book. So I'm calling it a trio, since I hope to write the books in such a way that they can be read in any order. They go together, as sort of equals, and not one after the other. The writing is very tentative and slow-going so far; I have a pretty good idea of the protagonist's story, but haven't figured out yet the best way to tell it.
Casey at 125As Barnes & Noble's Daybook notes, Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" was first published 125 years ago today. The poem has been a near-lifelong favorite of mine, which I was able to recite from memory at age eight. It also inspired one of my first published stories, "Mighty Casey", which appeared in Zisk Magazine in 2006. It wasn't until I finished the story that I realized the version of the poem I had known for so long wasn't the definitive one, but a variant that happened to end up in the book I first read as a child.
Joe Smith points to two of John Steinbeck's journal books: Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath. (Both of which I browsed heavily at a local cut-rate book store several years ago, without ever buying.) This weekend, now that the Wheatyard hubbub has begun to subside, I plan to finally start writing a new book, a novella which for now will have the working title Junk. (Not a reference to drugs, but to garbage.) I'm fascinated by the idea of writing a journal that records the progress of writing a novel, but it also occurs to me that such a project is largely the realm of fulltime writers like Steinbeck who have plenty of time on their hands. My spare time being limited, any time spent working on the journal is time taken away from the novel. And I'm already a slow writer as it is, so it looks like a comprehensive companion volume to Junk won't be happening.
It's already been a very eventful week on the writing front. Besides Wheatyard being released yesterday, the collection Daddy Cool: An Anthology of Writing by Fathers For & About Kids (which includes my short story "Prague, Oklahoma") is now available from Artistically Declined Press. Other contributors are Ryan W. Bradley, Mark R. Brand, Nik Korpon, Caleb J. Ross, Corey Mesler, C.L. Bledsoe, Nathan Holic, Robert Arellano, J.A. Tyler, bl pawelek, Jason Fisk, Matthew Salesses, Seth Berg, Robert Duffer, Dave Housely, Dan Coxon, Fred Sasaki, John Barrios, Tom Williams, Davis Schneiderman, Patrick Wensink, William Walsh, Brian Allen Carr, Mike Smolarek, James Claffey, Joseph G. Peterson, Sean Beaudoin, Greg Santos, Richard Thomas and Ben Tanzer. Great bunch and, I suspect, great collection. I'm proud to be part of it.
What I'm writingI haven't done one of these updates in a long time, what with all the flurry of activity around Wheatyard. But I've been making slow progress on my story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. The hand edits of the fourth draft are now done, and I'm gradually typing them up. (Maddie and I have been sharing my Macbook ever since her HP laptop crapped out, and since she needs that for school during the week, I've only been able to type up edits on weekends.) I have six stories updated so far, most of which involved just changing stray words here and there. But the next story, "Regular" (set in the Morgan Park neighborhood), will take a lot longer to update. After getting some great feedback from Ben Tanzer, I junked the entire first half of the story and rewrote it from scratch. The junked scene was previously way too obvious and blunt in delivering its message, and while the setting remains the same (an Irish corner bar on the southwest side of Chicago), the dialogue and action has been completely rewritten, and is now (I think) much more subtle and natural.
This fourth draft is about a month away from being finished, after which I might send it out to one more reader. Meanwhile, I'm starting to scout out potential publishers. I just hope getting Wheatyard in print will open up more doors, and Marshland won't be as difficult a sell as the novella was. I'd rather be writing than selling, and I'm already mentally sketching out my next book (actually, "books").
Wheatyard! Success!I am thrilled to announce that my novella Wheatyard will be published by Kuboa Press, with a scheduled release date of April 30. My deepest gratitude goes out to publisher Pablo D'Stair for giving a good home to this waifish orphan of a book. For the record, I started writing Wheatyard in November 2005 and finally finished it roughly two years ago, and since then it's been making the rounds at numerous indie publishers. So, for seven-plus years the book has been either in process (being written), in limbo (languishing in manuscript for far too long deep inside my messenger bag) or in circulation. I'm very eager to soon take this next big step.
Three things in particular drew me to Kuboa. First, Mel Bosworth re-published his novella Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom with the press. Bosworth's novella (which I read and enjoyed) is a low-key, plainspoken story of everyday life - no clever literary twists, no gratuitous violence, etc. - that has some vague parallels to Wheatyard, so I figured that any publisher who was receptive to the style and tone of Grease Stains might like Wheatyard as well. Second, Kuboa has a unique publishing model: physical copies of its books are published only in mass market paperback format (not the conventional, more expensive trade format) at a retail price of only $3, and the e-book version is free via Smashwords, so the focus is making the books widely available at a very affordable price. (Exposure is exactly what I need as a debut author, and not any concern for making money.) Lastly, "kuboa" (or "kuboaa") is an invented word that briefly appears in Knut Hamsun's Hunger, my favorite novel ever. It wasn't until after I accepted Pablo's publication offer that I learned that the name of the press is a direct reference to Hunger; Pablo says that Hamsun influenced him artistically more than any other writer. So while I didn't know about the Hamsun connection when I first discovered Kuboa, the mere possibility of that connection kept me interested.
I'll have more details as the publication date gets closer, so stay tuned. I'm very excited about finally publishing my first book, though admittedly I'm also pretty nervous over having to promote myself to the general reading public instead of just to prospective publishers. Selling doesn't come naturally to me at all, though at least I'll have a product that I totally believe in.
Varney the Vampire: A Literary Remix
I'm pleased to announce the publication of Varney the Vampire: A Literary Remix, a group project organized by GalleyCat. Here's the publisher's description:
"A crew of dedicated GalleyCat readers remixed a single page from Varney the Vampire-a bestselling vampire novel from the 19th Century filled with enough star-crossed romance, vampire action and purple prose to inspire another Twilight trilogy."The ebook is free for downloading at Smashwords. My remix page is near the very beginning, under the heading "Varney X-Files by Peter Anderson." It should come as no surprise that my family has been re-watching the entire series run of The X-Files over the past year or so, and we're currently partway through Season Five. I had a lot of fun writing this homage to that great show.
Daddy Cool. Cool?
I'm very pleased to announce the upcoming publication of my short story "Prague, Oklahoma" in Daddy Cool: An Anthology of Writing by Fathers For & About Kids, from Artistically Declined Press. The story is one of my Farm Security Administration photograph stories (collected in my unpublished chapbook This Land Was Made For You and Me) which, thanks to its father-daughter dynamic, is my favorite of the bunch.
I humbled to be part of the stellar roster of indie writers in the anthology: J.A. Tyler, Robert Duffer, bl pawelek, Seth Berg, Matthew Salesses, Mark Brand, Nik Korpon, Nathan Holic, Caleb Ross, Corey Mesler, CL Bledsoe, John Longstocking, Jason Fisk, Robert Arellano, Barry Graham, Chad Redden, Dave Housley, Dan Coxon, Jesse Jordan, Fred Sasaki, Ryan W. Bradley, and Ben Tanzer. The publisher is running a Kickstarter campaign to defray publishing costs, with tons of cool premiums offered. ADP is doing great work, so not only will your contribution bring you some fine swag, it will also keep a worthy indie press going. Double win.
A thoughtKent Haruf published Plainsong at age 56. So, while I still have some more time, I really have to get moving.
"From the Mouths of Babes"My great friend Ben Tanzer is writer-in-residence this month at Necessary Fiction, and he has generously published my essay, "From the Mouths of Babes", in which I discuss the unexpected origin of my novella, Wheatyard. Though I've referred to the book's origins many times here in the past, this essay is probably the most concise account I've ever written. Enjoy.
"...flowers grew not in pastures but in vases on restaurant tables..."Sharp passage from Sinclair Lewis' short story "Moths in the Arc Light":
To Bates at thirty-five the world was composed of re-enforced concrete; continents and striding seas were office partitions and inkwells, the latter for signing letters beginning "In reply to your valued query of seventh inst." Not for five years had he seen storm clouds across the hills or moths that flutter white over dusky meadows. To him the arc light was the dancing place for moths, and flowers grew not in pastures but in vases on restaurant tables. He was a city man and an office man. Papers, telephone calls, eight-thirty to six on the twelfth floor, were the natural features of life, and the glory and triumph of civilization was getting another traction company to introduce the Carstop Indicator.Bates is a workaholic - or, more accurately, an officeholic, who spends long hours at the office even when he has no work to do. During those idle and lonely times he stares out his window at the building across the street, watching the comings and goings of the officeworkers there. During the past year or so I've been mulling a novel about the workers in a single office building in Chicago, and wondered about the right way to effectively narrate the interweaving stories of many disparate individuals. Maybe just this vantage point - someone watching from across the street - is the way to go. As I continue to read the Lewis story, I hope I gain some revelations on that problem.
Literary remixesAs I mentioned earlier, I am participating in Mediabistro/ Galleycat's latest literary remix project. Over the weekend I wrote the first draft of my contribution to the remix of Varney the Vampire. My assigned passage (the original of which was chock full of comically bad dialogue and melodrama) is now reimagined as a scene from a 1990s cult-favorite TV show. I had a lot of fun writing this piece, but that's all I'll say about it for now. Publication of the complete mix should be sometime in November.
The last remix project I worked on was the Horatio Alger novel Joe's Luck; I remixed my passage as a Sherlock Holmes story, which I have reproduced below.
"I caught dat boy standing outside," pointing to Joe.For non-Sherlockians, Reichenbach Falls was the site of the fateful fight (in "The Final Problem") between Holmes and his arch-nemesis Moriarty, which concluded with the two of them falling off the cliff and plummeting to their presumed deaths. Reportedly, Arthur Conan Doyle had grown tired of writing Holmes stories (despite their enormous popularity) and killed off the legendary detective so the writer could move on to other subjects. But the public outcry was so great that Doyle finally brought Holmes back (with a very dubious explanation of how Holmes had survived his fall from the cliff) and went on to write another 23 Holmes stories, including what is generally considered to be the greatest Holmes story, "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
"Ah, young blackguard, now I've caught you! I've been eyeing you for weeks!"
"Joe" found himself collared, wondering why he was thought to be young and worrying whether his true identity—Dr. John Watson—would be revealed.
"Weeks? But I've only been here for two days," he objected.
"Take him to jail!" exclaimed the German, who called himself Morgenthaler but whom Watson knew in fact to be the evil Moriarity.
Inspector Lestrade began to apprehend Watson when a commanding voice arose.
"Release that boy!" urged the sandy-haired man.
Watson barely suppressed a smile as he recognized his disguised old friend, Sherlock Holmes.
"If you interfere, I'll arrest you too."
"Release that boy!" Holmes repeated, "and arrest the German for assault."
Watson felt quite relieved, believing Holmes had at last neutralized his greatest nemesis.
"Who are you?" Lestrade demanded.
"My name is Dupin, one of the new commissioners." Watson marveled at the wit of the alias. "Your superior."
"I beg your pardon, sir," Lestrade fawned. "I didn't know who you were."
"Nor do you know your duty, Inspector..."
"Frankly, Lestrade, doing inspectors' work for them has me at wit's end. Oh, very well then—you have made a false arrest. The German is your man."
"So shall I arrest him, sir?" Lestrade asked.
Moriarty trembled in Lestrade's grip, anxious for his fate.
"No, you may release him. His conduct may be excused, given the breaking of his window."
Watson tensed again, anticipating Moriarty's escape from Holmes' unknowing grasp. He wondered if Holmes, in not recognizing Moriarty despite his renowned powers of observation, had finally become debilitated by his morphine habit.
"I will be relieved," Holmes sighed, "to escape next week on my tour of the Reichenbach Falls."
Watson saw Moriarty arouse upon hearing Holmes' destination, but could not reveal Moriarty to Holmes nor the looming danger lest he reveal Holmes as well.
"Incompetent inspectors simply exhaust me. Most should be demoted to mere officers. And as for you..."
Watson remained silent, sensing imminent doom.
"As for you, officer, unless you are more careful in the future, you will not long remain a member of the force."
“The story loses everything when you try to put things in service of a theme.”
I share some thoughts on Richard Wright's Native Son in my latest post at the Contrary Magazine blog.
Rejection number twelve arrived last week for Wheatyard, from a small but well-regarded press whose publisher I've known casually for around a year and first met in person at AWP last winter. Though I doubted that the book would be a good fit for the press, I took a low-risk chance based mostly on the personal relationship. So I'm not very surprised at the rejection. Fortunately, over the weekend I connected with another small press which has a fairly unique publishing model, and is actually looking to fill slots its current publication schedule. (Which is a refreshing departure from many of the publishers I've researched lately, who have either suspended operations or are booked solid for the next five years.) So this morning I submitted the manuscript. I have several reasons to be optimistic about this latest one, and as always I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed. Onward.
Technology and literary fiction
Last week The Millions ran an interesting piece by Allison K. Gibson on technology's place in literary fiction.
I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen’s rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email.
This got me thinking about my current project, the story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. (Admittedly, its status wavers daily between "in progress" and "about to be abandoned." I hope it's still the former, but I can't say for sure.) Without diving into the manuscript for reference, it occurs to me that the technology in the stories (which occur in roughly the 2003-08 timeframe) probably isn't any more advanced than cable TV and compact discs. I'm not sure there's even a cellphone or pager anywhere. The lack of modern technology was not at all intentional - in fact, I wasn't even aware of it before reading Gibson's essay - and I'm not sure the presence of smartphones and social media would change the stories very much. And in fact, most of my characters are older people (sixties and up) who are not likely to embrace technology.
But just off the top of my head I can also think of three or four younger characters (teens and twenty-somethings) for whom walking around with their noses buried in their iPhones, or regularly updating their Facebook status, would be perfectly normal (and even expected) behavior. As I revisit the manuscript (or if I revisit), I'll be on the lookout for logical points where technology could subtly be added. I'm not sure it will change the plot at all, but at least it can make the narrative more true to life.
Rejection number eleven just arrived for Wheatyard, from top-shelf indie publisher Melville House. I'm not exactly sure why I queried there, other than their open submissions policy and longtime commitment to novellas. In hindsight it now seems like I was aiming impossibly high. Wheatyard is currently with five publishers, but one of those submissions is now pushing nine months and is most likely a "no." On the other hand, two of the publishers are edited by acquaintances who graciously agreed to look at my manuscript, and hopefully will offer a more sympathetic reading than I've been getting with over-the-transom submissions. Onward.
Onward, but...today has actually been kind of rough. Besides Wheatyard, I had a story submission declined elsewhere. And Andy Griffith passed away. Looking forward to the brief respite of the midweek holiday tomorrow.
I have a new piece, "Pursuit", published in the June 2012 issue ("Real Dreams") of Skive Magazine. Here are the opening sentences:
The cattle are coming down the chute and I’m standing there watching with another guy, and we’re inside a chain link fence. One of the cattle manages to slip through the chute and there he is, a mean looking bull, standing twenty feet in front of us, his red eyes glaring and steam undoubtedly pumping out of his nostrils, just like all those bulls in the cartoons used to be.
And it gets even weirder from there. I'm not sure whether to call this fiction or non-fiction. It's a faithful transcription of a dream I had while in college, which was so striking and vivid that I wrote it all down immediately upon waking. On the one hand, it's fiction in that it only happened in my mind, but it's also sort of like non-fiction in that I didn't actively create it. Maybe this is yet another genre within creative writing, perhaps called "dreamtion" or something like that.
This is a big issue of Skive, with 58 writers telling their dream stories over 165 pages. If you're interested, you can purchase the print issue for $11.96 (a temporary discount of 20% from the cover price) here at Lulu.com. (I haven't ordered mine yet, but assume there's a standard shipping charge, too.) Skive is a fine Australia-based journal that published one of my earliest stories way back in 2006, and from my proof copy I can attest that this latest issue is a beautifully crafted edition.
My very special thanks to editor/publisher Matt Ward, not only for taking on this weird piece, but also for giving a huge ego boost to my fledgling-writer self by publishing that earlier story.
Express and Ellison
I've been keeping a private journal to accompany the writing of my on-again, off-again novel, Express. Here's yesterday's entry, which I'm hoping marks a real turning point.
"That was all I needed, I'd made a contact, and it was as though his voice was that of them all."
That line is from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which I'm currently re-reading. I haven't touched Express for nearly six weeks now. Leon's story just wasn't coming to me, but I also couldn't see skipping to the other protagonists while his story is still so utterly unfinished. So I want to stick with Leon, even though his story isn't going anywhere. Sometimes I just need a shove when I get stalled like this. And I might have just found that shove, from Ralph Ellison.
Ellison's quote describes his narrator taking the stage for the first time, in a packed arena, and how he overcomes the potentially overwhelming atmosphere by zeroing in on the voice of a single crowd member, making one connection out of thousands. Suddenly I can see Leon doing something similar - like Ellison's narrator, he will be intimidated by his first performance with the big band, and will cope by connecting with just one audience member. That person might be the woman he earlier saw standing by the cigarette machine, as he listened through the alley door. And she might be the girlfriend of either the bandleader or the club owner, which could add sort of a forbidden-fruit sexual tension to the situation.
It still remains to be seen whether anything ever comes of this. The story is coming to me very slowly.
Another rejection, plus a sort-of-rejection, for Wheatyard this week. (Counting both, the total is now ten.) The first was from a brand-new small press in the Midwest that just started soliciting its first submissions during the past month. Though I was already acquainted with the editors and they really liked the writing, they said it wasn't quite what they were looking for, and so took a pass. The second was from another small press that I queried last summer but never heard back from. I followed up today and they promptly replied, saying that with a recent surge in queries and their print publication schedule already being full for the next few years, they are only taking submissions for potential ebook publication. Though I know ebooks are where the industry is heading, I really want to see Wheatyard in print, so by mutual agreement with the press I formally withdrew my submission. I still have a few more irons in the fire, so I'm brushing off both of these setbacks. Onward.
My latest essay, "Changing neighborhoods", is now up at Contrary.
Wheatyard just got its eighth official rejection, from a small but growing Midwest publisher whose editor I met at AWP. The editor was very gracious, even agreeing to read it outside of the official review period, but admitted a personal aversion to stories about writers. Interestingly enough, I generally don't prefer reading those stories either. The book is now in submission with four publishers; however, two of those publishers have had it for quite some time now, and once I finally follow up with them I suspect I'll have more official rejections to report. Onward.
What I'm writing...
...nothing for now, but with a little initiative that will soon change. In late January, I mentioned that I had begun conceptualizing my latest fiction concept, Express. But I haven't touched it since then - in February, the Month of Letters project used up all of my prime evening-train writing time, and thus far in March I've been unexpectedly preoccupied with the story story anthology Great Tales of City Dwellers. But that book will be done soon, and then I'll able to return to my usual regimen of morning-train reading (William Trevor's Felicia's Journey, as part of my annual Irish March) and evening-train writing.
But though I haven't written any of Express since January, I've still been working on it mentally, entirely in my mind. And I've already reversed my earlier reversal, in which I had considered moving Leon's setting to Chicago's South Side. But that's an area I really don't know well, and I just can't shake that Elston Avenue image out of my head. So now I'm thinking that while Leon first strives to make a splash in Bronzeville's jazz clubs on the South Side, it's Elston where he finally winds up, as the book opens. I probably should just start writing before I have a chance to change my mind again.
Gong!Rejection number seven just arrived for Wheatyard, from another small press. They gave me a two month turnaround, which I can hardly complain about. I'm not too disheartened on this one, since I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the press anyway - I sent it out mostly on a whim, and I'm not sure my writing fits their style. And it would have been awkward repeating the name of the press to my mom, among others. The book is now under review with four publishers, including one which I queried this week. Onward.
Wheatyard has been declined for the sixth time, with the latest by Seven Stories Press. (I've refrained thus far from naming names, but will do so in the future when I've been treated fairly and respectfully, as was certainly the case here.) I knew Seven Stories was a longshot, but they have an open submissions policy and have long championed Nelson Algren (my literary hero), so even the slight possibility of being published alongside Algren made a query impossible to resist. Though their rejection letter was fairly boilerplate - not even mentioning Wheatyard by name - at least it was on actual company letterhead and personally signed by the editor. Despite being yet another rejection, I'm very glad I gave this one a try. Onward.
From north to south
I'm in the early, conceptual stage with my novel, Express. The first section will be about a former jazz musician and now homeless man named Leon. I envisioned his story revolving around Chicago's Near Northwest Side (near Elston and Armitage), taking its cue from this old sketch which I wrote more than ten years ago, while I still lived in the city. The book will be very much about loss, both for the city as a whole (Algren's line "some sort of city-wide sorrow" is always present when I think about this section) and for specific characters. The setting of Leon's section comes straight from that sketch, and involves the departure of heavy industry from that neighborhood and the resulting economic impact.
But this morning I missed my usual train, and had to take the Rock Island Line instead. I ride the Rock Island now and then, and usually sit on the right side of the train, but today I sat on the left side, which provides a westward view as the train rolls through the South Side. This change in perspective drew my attention to the neighborhoods, so much so that I couldn't concentrate on my reading. I set my book aside, and focused on the passing view outside. The South Side is a tough place to begin with, and appears even more grim on a cloudless winter day. As I saw block after block of shabby houses, I was saddened with the realization of how solidly comfortable and middle-class these neighborhoods once were. My mom is a South Sider, having grown up in Auburn Park during the thirties and early forties before the family moved to the western suburbs in 1945. She has only rarely been back to the old neighborhood since, and not all for several decades, so heartbreakingly decrepit as it has become.
I finally came to the realization that Leon's story is, instead, that of the South Side. The North Side may have endured decades of decline, but it's gradually come back during the past twenty years. Much of the South Side, I'm afraid, will never come back. It's been hollowed out by the departure of factories and blue-collar jobs, then white flight and finally the diminished social safety net, leaving behind only the poorest of the poor to mostly fend for themselves. That's not the case with most of the North Side, and thus Leon's story would be much more compelling if set somewhere to the south. The deterioration of the South Side is a metaphor and frame for Leon's steady decline, from the heyday of Bronzeville's jazz clubs to the tumultuous sixties and the exodus of prosperity from that decade onward.
Now I'll have to rethink most of Leon's story. His circumstances will remain mostly the same, but the entire setting would have to shift, to neighborhoods that I'm not as intimately familar with as my old North Side haunts. Writing this won't be as easy, but I think it will be a better story for it.
A small East Coast press, which I greatly admire, has apparently declined Wheatyard without even telling me. I sent them a query last summer, and after not hearing anything for months, I asked a writer friend of mine (who has published a book with the press) to casually inquire about the status of my submission. The publisher told my friend that he wasn't interested in my book, and that he doesn't reply to queries unless he's interested. In other words, no news is bad news. Though it doesn't seem like that much of a bother to send a boilerplate email to a writer as notification of a rejection, apparently that publisher feels otherwise. This now makes five official rejections for Wheatyard, but never mind - I just mailed off a new query (with sample chapters) to another East Coast press yesterday. The fact that I went to the trouble of stuffing a manila envelope and trekking to the post office should tell you how much I revere this publisher. Fingers crossed. Onward.