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.
Just made my third stab at the Nelson Algren Short Story Award, submitting my recent story "Echoes Down the Line." Previous attempts were made with "Mahalia" (later published in Midwestern Gothic) and "The Way Business Is Done" (still unpublished). I have pretty much zero chance of winning, but there's no entry fee and they accept online submissions, so I went right ahead anyway. Today is the last day for entries.
What I'm writing
I don't want to make too much of this, given my chronic inability to transform fiction concepts into finished manuscripts, but I just wanted to mark this event in case my latest idea ever comes to fruition. Last night I started writing a novel, with the working title "Express." I've been kicking the story around in my head since the late nineties, but only lately has it finally begun to coalesce. It involves three main characters who live very different and separate lives, and though I have a pretty good idea of each character's story, the biggest challenge will be drawing the three of them together. I'm not interested in writing three discrete novellas, but instead one cohesive novel. I will be focusing on this one for the next few months, then set it aside to simmer while I resume the next round of edits for Marshland.
It's too early to tell if anything will ever come of this, but at least I'll have something creative to occupy my mind for a while.
Last night I finished the second draft of my story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. After making steady progress with the edits, I had a mechanical setback in November when my older laptop suddenly died (broken hard drive, from the sound of it) and left me without a portable machine. I also lost the second draft of the book's first four stories, which were on the hard drive when it went down. At that point my pace slowed dramatically as I had to edit at home on another laptop (the battery on this one is dead, thus rendering it not-portable) whenever I could. Then in mid-December Julie bailed me out when she got a "new" (factory-refurbished) MacBook and gave me her old one. (Not that my MacBook is at all as inferior or a hand-me-down - it's a big upgrade over the Dell and HP laptops I had been using.) With the MacBook, I was able to write on the train again and whipped quickly through the edits, and I now have a decent manuscript.
I'm sending it to the printer today and soon will hand it off to a few trusted readers. I anticipate two more rounds of revisions before it's ready to send to publishers, which I'm targeting to happen by the end of 2012 at the latest. I'm pretty happy with what I have so far, and have found writing this book to be much easier than Wheatyard was.
Wheatyard was just turned down for the fourth time, by one of the very best independent presses out there. They said that while they were "intrigued" by the story's premise, it just didn't fit their fiction needs. Which, for all I know, might just be their boilerplate language for rejections. As has been my habit, I immediately turned around and submitted a query to another great indie. One of these has to hit eventually. Onward.
Note to self...
...write a short story, or at least a character sketch, around this passage from Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks.
Meanwhile, his buffet is meager, and the customers are few. Once his young wife breathed life into the place, but since her sudden death he has aged. He neglects the buffet and sits by the window most of the day, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.
Brief and plainly written, yet with so much hidden depth.
"...the unknown reader I sometimes say I imagine..."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, James Salter (talking with Dan Pope) brushes past a question about formal recognition of an author's accomplishments (publication, awards, etc.) and reflects on a surprise reader reaction to one of his books:
There are few thrills like the first one, but not long ago at a party a woman I was being introduced to said simply, "Did she really just read a magazine?" She was referring to a scene in A Sport and a Pastime. She assumed I would know. My God, all the things of inconsequence she might have said! I don't remember her name, but she was the unknown reader I sometimes say I imagine, the woman in her thirties or forties who perhaps lives in Buenos Aires.
It must be a thrill for any writer to encounter a reader who mentally retains the big themes or major characters or settings of one of the writer's books, but even more so when they remember a tiny detail like the one Salter mentions. That shows how vividly rendered the tiny detail was, which really points out the writer's skill. Most writers can nail the big theme or major character, but if one can also nail the tiny details, now that's a real writer.
I also like Salter's idea of the "unknown reader", which to me means that one reader out there which the writer is trying to connect with. It might mean simple motivation for the writer ("This is who I'm writing the story for") or a reality check. For me it's the latter. When I'm writing, now and then I imagine a few specific (not "unknown") family members and friends as future readers, and ask myself: "Would my reader think this character is believable? That this is really how people talk? That this plotline is plausible?" All of which keeps me grounded.
At MobyLives, Paul Oliver has written a nice piece on Ashtabula, Ohio and its local Occupy movement.
While Wall St. is certainly the fortress of everything the movement is fighting against, a city like Ashtabula is everything that the movement is or should be fighting for. The 99% is a wide-ranging demographic, but at its bottom is the forgotten mill and port towns. Places like Ashtabula, Ohio or York, Pennsylvania.
Though I've never been there, Ashtabula will always have a place in my heart, as it was the setting of my first published story, "Ectoplasm". (The inspiration for the story was the same Dylan lyric that Oliver mentions.) Clearly, the same economic conditions that drove my story continue today, and have even worsened. I'm not sure that my protagonist would have still had his teaching job in 2011.
Yesterday I finished the second draft of my new story collection, Where Once the Marshland Came to Flower. Though the title is a nod to a line to Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make (each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood), the impetus to my collection was a single line ("and some crack team from Washington Heights") from Lou Reed's "Halloween Parade." That line came to mind one morning five years ago as my train approached the Washington Heights station on Chicago's South Side, and as it stuck with me I began to imagine a collection of Chicago stories, with each inspired by a song from Reed's New York album. The book would never have existed without Lou, and particularly that great album, and even more particularly that memorable song. So in Lou's honor, here's the song:
Lou Reed, "Halloween Parade"
New, at ContraryMy latest column - on my observations and presumptions of a single suburban street - is now up at Contrary.
I just received rejection number three for Wheatyard. I really had high hopes for this one. The publisher is an up-and-coming indie outfit that really seems like it has its act together, and they liked the first two chapters I sent last spring well enough that they recently requested the entire manuscript. (For a writer, I suppose that's like getting a second interview from a prospective employer.) Unfortunately, though they said they admired my writing and had many nice things to say about the book, it just didn't quite work for them.
One specific issue they mentioned was a supposed lack of impetus for the narrator's fascination with the protagonist; though other readers have also made this point, I thought the impetus was fairly clear, and if I said it any more explicitly I might as well beat the reader over the head with it. Since I feel like I need to keep moving ahead with my writing and working new material, I'm hesitant to dive back into the manuscript for yet another revision, so for now I'm keeping it as-is. If some publisher likes the book well enough to give a tentative acceptance that's contingent on resolving the impetus issue, then I'll do more revisions.
This rejection was a real disappointment, but I'm not despairing - in fact, I've already submitted it to another well-regarded publisher. Onward.
"Lines For Autumn"The trees surrender
For another year
Reds oranges golds browns
Wither in resignation
When the winds come up
Leaves shimmer down like sleet
Crackle and pelt the ground
Later to soften with the rain
Bedding for next year's growth.
"...it isn’t so much a city as it is a vasty way station..."
Perhaps the most frequently quoted passage in Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make is this one:
Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
Certainly a memorable quote. Yet it is immediately preceded by this:
You can live your whole life out somewhere between Goose Island and Bronzeville without once feeling that, the week after you move, the neighbors are going to miss your place. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a vasty way station where three and a half million bipeds swarm with the single cry, "One side or a leg off, I’m gettin’ mine!" It’s every man for himself in this hired air.
That attitude - of the disconnected and indifferent nature of city residents - has been with me throughout the writing of my current story collection, Marshland. Most of my characters are loners, and though I greatly admire unified story cycles like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, I didn't even try for such a thing with my book. Each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood, from West Pullman to Rogers Park, Garfield Ridge to Austin to Dunning, and the characters in each story don't cross paths with characters in any other story, with very few of them even setting foot outside of their immediate neighborhood. And even within those tight confines, few have neighbors who will miss their place the week after they move.
"You have to have two stories to have a story."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Grace Paley talks (with Nell Freudenberger) about her short story "Somewhere Else", which is set in both China and the Bronx:
You know - the thing is this: if I just wrote about China, it would be a report, more or less. You have to have two stories to have a story. That's what I've been teaching my classes. You need two stories, at least. And for a novel, of course, you probably need more. I couldn't find the other story. I mean, I wasn't conscious of this; my idea that you need two stories came long after I wrote everything. I said, "Oh, that's what I was doing."
I had never thought of story-writing that way, but it makes perfect sense. You do need two stories to make a story; otherwise, it's just a sketch (or, in Paley's words, a report). Unless you have conflict, you don't really have a story. It doesn't have to be two parallel story lines with separate protagonists that ultimately collide; instead, it can be two aspects of a single protagonist: past versus present, internal versus external, work life versus family life.
Thinking about the story collection I'm working on right now (working title: Marshland), I can already recognize that the stronger stories are indeed comprised of two stories, and that the weaker ones may have an interesting premise but are flat because the conflict (those two stories) is absent.
"We Who Are About To Breed"
The group blog We Who Are About To Die has graciously published my guest post, in which I share my thoughts on the intersection of writing and parenting. My sincere thanks to Patrick Wensink for the opportunity.
This week at the Powell's Books blog, Amor Towles is discussing "closing time", that brief tentative lull that occurs in bars between last call and heading home (or elsewhere). Yesterday Towles' piece was on Frank Sinatra's "One For My Baby" (a tune I definitely need to download), and today it's Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" (which happens to be my favorite Hemingway story). Very interesting narrative. And the shameless self-promoter in me can't resist using this as an excuse to point once again to my own story, "Clean and Bright", which was published at the online journal Joyland in 2009 and retells Hemingway's story from the perspective of the old man in the café.
"Moored"The abandoned boat bobbed at anchor, rocking heavily when ships lumbered past. Below deck the man labored, hands unsteady and eyesight hazed, cursing as he picked shot pellets from the raw wound in his thigh. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. He prayed there weren't more, that the gin would disinfect well enough, and moved in closer with the needle and Trilene he had found.
The second rejection of Wheatyard just arrived. It was from a small publisher that I thought I might have an "in" with (via a mutual friend), though the publisher probably wasn't aware of that connection. When I submitted I refrained from any name-dropping; I kind of want the book to stand on its own merits, independent of any connections, even if those connections might open doors for me. The notification was standard boilerplate ("We've decided to pass on this one") and not too encouraging. Given the volume of submissions that publishers are seeing these days, I'm sure I'll get many more like this before the book finally finds a home, so this doesn't trouble me very much. Onward.
"The Tranquil Peace of the Alley Smoker"
The way was only lightly traveled. The building had no loading dock and no delivery trucks coming and going, with the traffic limited to the occasional taxicab shortcutting through, from one one-way street to the next. From where she sat, on a narrow concrete ledge behind the building, curled over a paperback with a cigarette clenched in her fingers, she was only vaguely aware of the cars that flashed past at the far end of the alley. Their colors flicked by, barely seen at the furthest edge of her vision, their engines growling suddenly before silencing again. For her the street and the rest of the world were far away.
The smoke wisped upward from the dimming ember of ash, the cigarette close enough for the next quick puff while keeping the smoke from her eyes. She pored intently over the words, devouring them, flipping page after page with the thumb of her left hand, unconsciously waving the cigarette in midair like a baton. Soon she would return to the office and work, but for a few moments more she would linger, deep within the mystery, inhabiting it, living alongside the other characters, transported back decades into the past.
That subject line is in honor of Chuck Barris, and marks the first time that my recently completed novella Wheatyard was booted off the stage; that is, declined by a publisher. My plan is to post an update here whenever I get an official "no" from a publisher, while keeping all names anonymous. In this instance, the editor was extremely kind, reading the entire manuscript and giving me his decision and constructive criticism in only about nine hours. He also said it was the first time he had received an over-the-transom (that is, unsolicited) manuscript, which is certainly some sort of distinction. Onward.
One of the downsides to publishing online is that sometimes websites go defunct, without warning, and your work is lost. But not always lost forever, as I've pleasantly discovered. I first found the wonderful Internet Archive from its vast library of live music recordings, but only recently learned that it also archives old web pages. So here are two lost stories of mine that I rediscovered yesterday:
"Guaranteed", in Spillway Review: Spillway was a New Orleans-based journal that managed to survive Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I sent them "Guaranteed" before Katrina, but after the storm I just assumed the journal was no more. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from them months later, and the story was published in 2006. But the journal has since disappeared. Reading this early story, I now realize that my work had much more humor than now. Maybe I'm getting old and serious.
"Have a Pleasant Commute on Metra", from This Is Grand: Chicago literary impressario Jonathan Messinger (featherproof Books, The Dollar Store, etc.) once ran this site, which collected true stories from CTA trains and buses. Somehow I managed to convince him to take this brief Metra piece, one of my earliest publications which first appeared in 2004. I later sent in another Metra piece, "So Much On My Mind", but when the site went black soon after the piece was orphaned, and I published it here instead.
"Heroes can't be emulated if you don't really know how they live."
There it is: the theme (motif?) of my next novel.
Milestone is finally reached
Wheatyard is finished. (Or momentarily finished, until some editor starts tearing it apart.) I first started writing the book in late 2005, and just this morning, sitting in a drafty corridor in Union Station, I typed in the final edits. I didn't even mind the cold. When I stepped outside the sun was shining and I didn't mind the cold there either. I'm relieved and maybe even a little proud of myself for getting this done at last. Soon I'll start hunting for publishers, but for now I'm savoring the moment.
Kindled and Nooked
I am thrilled to announce the publication of my short story "Mahalia" in the debut issue of Midwestern Gothic, a sharp-looking quarterly journal from Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Mahalia" is one of the first stories I wrote after finally getting serious about writing, way back in 2003, and after all these years it remains the story that's closest to my heart. It's been rejected over forty times by various journals and contests, and though all of those rejections could have easily brought me great doubt about the worth of the story and even myself as a writer, I never stopped believing in the story. Finally getting "Mahalia" published is, to me, a real validation of my writing, and I couldn't be happier to see it in print. My very special thanks to founders and editors Jeff Pfaller and Robert James Russell.
You can buy Midwestern Gothic here, either in print ($12) or ebook/PDF ($2.99). Plenty of great writers are in the debut issue, which I highly encourage you to check out.
Tools of the trade
Okay, so "tools of the trade" is somewhat misleading, because "trade" implies I make a living at writing, which is certainly not the case. Still, they're tools, specifically: a Hewlett-Packard laptop which mercifully lost its Internet connection to a virus, and is now free of all online distractions; an H-P power cord for recharging; a Maxtor external hard drive for file backup; a Wilson-Jones looseleaf binder for manuscript printouts; a Rhodia notebook for handwritten revisions and random ideas; a Uniball pen for jotting edits; and a lowly but incredibly essential binder clip, which holds the manuscript and/or notebook pages open as I type. And not shown in the photo is my favorite tool of all: a handcarved wooden pen that Julie gave me as a birthday gift very early in our relationship, which I use to write all of my longhand first drafts. All have served me well in whatever writing success I've had.
Having a last name that starts with "A" has often had its disadvantages (one being that, with assigned seating, I usually had to sit in the front row in school) but in this case it has really paid off.
What I'm writing
I'm finishing up the fourth draft of my novel-in-progress, Wheatyard. For almost three years now I've been carrying a hard copy of the manuscript (bound in a navy blue Mead binder) to and from work in my messenger bag, for it to be handy should the editing whim strike me while I'm riding the train. That copy is now heavily marked up, and also supplemented by a newer notebook where I've been jotting ideas and longer revisions as they've come to me. During the past few months I've been transcribing all of those edits into a new Word file on my laptop, but even seeing all those words on a screen hasn't prevented me from feeling (undoubtedly aided by the constant presence of that messy hard copy and notebook) that the book is still an unruly mess that's far from completion.
That is, until this morning. I'm still working on one critical section (in the second-to-last chapter, and what I think of as "the revelation scene"), which I wanted to print out in order to do further revisions. However, our home printer recently ran out of ink, so I emailed the document to myself so I could print it out at the office. (Relax, Employer, it's only ten pages and not the entire manuscript.) On the train this morning, while checking email on my iPhone I came upon that self-sent message, and opened up the Word file. And up it popped, looking neat and tidy and not unlike several published ebooks that I've been perusing on my phone.
Immediately it occurred to me that, indeed, this does look like a book. And reading through it, the writing is good. GOOD. Not perfect yet, but good. I now realize that I'm a lot closer to finishing this book than I had assumed. In another month it should be ready to send to publishers. Hurray!