Things I Wrote, Mid-to-Late October Edition

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This week, I’m going to see a lot of live music. I spent Sunday night at a sold-out show at Silent Barn, where I got to see Radiator Hospital play what was perhaps the strongest set I’ve seen of theirs in the last year; also on the bill were Girlpool, who took familiar musical ingredients and reassembled them in a way that felt incredibly fresh. Tuesday evening, I saw Monomyth, who tapped into a fine legacy of woozy-sounding Halifax indiepop bands. Tonight, I’m off to see Protomartyr and S and Obits play a show, and I’m mightily excited about that. It’s looking like I’ll be seeing live music at some point on each of the next four days, and I’m even more excited about that.

***

I wrote an essay on horror and genre expectations for Electric Literature. And I used a Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace reference in the title, which I am eternally grateful to editor Lincoln Michel for keeping in.

At Tin House’s blog, I talked with Akhil Sharma about his novel Family Life, which is terrific.

At Hazlitt, I got to write at length about Kerry Howley’s fascinating Thrown and, more generally, the phenomenon of academic and intellectual writers delving into visceral subcultures.

At Biographile, I wrote about Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, which offers both a smart look at expatriate Soviet literature and the factors that caused the book’s subject to make a move towards fascism, and the new anthology Come Here Often?, in which numerous writers discuss their favorite bars.

Reading (and Listening) to the Ominous

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Yesterday, I read at WORD–the second October in a row when I’ve gotten to take part in what I hope is an annual reading of scary and creepy fiction. WORD’s posted a couple of photos, if you’re so inclined.

What impressed me most about it was that everyone involved was a really dynamic reader. Michael Cisco–whose The Narrator is one of the most unpredictable, unsettling works of fiction I’ve read in the last few years–shifted seamlessly from a more academic style to channeling the voice of a man engaged in some unsettling metaphysical activity. Christopher Buehlman read a scene featuring vampires in 1930s New York; he did a fine job of differentiating between the voices of two different storytellers, and he gave each a slight accent and made both convincing–no small accomplishment. And Katherine Howe spoke about the history of accusations of witchcraft in colonial America, and blended an abundant knowledge of the subject with an accessible, conversational approach.

And, as befits the night, all of the work was unsettling in its own way: Buehlman’s narrative blended urban grit with unpredictable moments of horror; Howe’s account of witch trials brought their more unnerving aspects to the forefront; and Cisco’s contribution found the nightmarish aspects of a surreal world. It was a fine night, and it’s left me with a lot of reading to do.

Some Recent Writings

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I’m turning 38 at the end of the month, which is weird. As I commented to a friend yesterday, this puts me formally in my late 30s; I no longer have the “I’m in my mid-thirties” line to fall back on. And this is probably okay. I’m trying to do a better job of defining myself by, well, mostly anything that isn’t my age. Going for a prioritization of things done rather than years lived. Is that always easy. No. The “I’m getting old” line is an easy one to fall back on, especially in a city; especially when you go to a DIY show and worry that the person at the door wonders if you’re an undercover officer or something. (This might be my own paranoia, to be honest.)

This essay by Alexandra Molotkow helped to put a lot of things into perspective for me. The whole thing is eminently quotable; this one, from the end, seems apt as I type this right now.

“Being relevant” is just the effort you make to know what people who aren’t you are caring about.

It’s a good way to think of things, I think.

***

At Wondering Sound, I talked with Brooks Headley about his excellent new cookbook and his time drumming in bands like Universal Order of Armageddon and (Young) Pioneers.

At OZY, I interviewed Vikram Chandra about his terrific book Geek Sublime.

For Biographile, I talked with James Essinger about his biography of Ada Lovelace, and wrote about two new books that create fictional riffs on the lives of some of the 20th Century’s most distinctive artists.

At the Jewish Daily Forward, I wrote about Ronna Wineberg’s novel of Jazz Age Chicago, On Bittersweet Place; and about Brian Morton’s novel focusing on an aging radical writer, Florence Gordon.

Some Writing About Comics

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Things I am mightily excited about: I’m starting to do more writing about comics. An essay I wrote for The Quietus touched on three main points of reference: Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy of novels, Edan Lepucki’s novel California, and Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s comic Trees. More overtly in the realm of comics: I talked about Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly and Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s East of West in an essay for Electric Literature about how both works make vastly different uses of similar themes and images.

I’m trying to do more writing outside of my comfort zone, and this is–I hope–the beginning of one aspect of that.

Imagined Travels In Halifax, In Albany, In The Pirate City

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[Quick note: this was originally read earlier this year at The Book Report Reading Series. Figured I'd reprint it here, because: why not?]

Sometimes we write things and we don’t know why. Sometimes we know all too well why we write about certain things. And sometimes, the things we write about weigh on us in ways we can’t really process, leaving damage in their wake. This is about a book that none of you are likely to read. That’s probably okay. While the term “drawer novel” is increasingly misleading, in this age of writing digitally, I can say for certain that a copy of the manuscript I’m about to talk about resides in a drawer in my apartment. Whether or not that’s healthy, I can’t entirely say.

From 2006 to 2009, I worked on a novel called The Freestanding. It’s not the first drawer book I have; only time will tell if it’ll be the last. It isn’t that I’m dissatisfied with it as much as I feel that its flaws are beyond my abilities to mend. Maybe that’s why it now lives in a drawer, literally and metaphorically speaking. Maybe that’s why I still haven’t finished up a self-imposed task now a few years old: take the first third, alter a few elements, and get a nicely creepy novella out of the whole experience. It’s tempting, but there are newer and shinier things to draw my writing attention away from it.

The Freestanding follows a few months in the life of a young man named Crispin. That his name has a certain heroic cachet is entirely intentional, and somewhat ironic. Crispin is, to put it mildly, a bit of a fuck-up. He works a frustrating office job, and the main thing that gives his life purpose is his time outside of work, which is largely spent researching an artist who disappeared in the early 1980s. Crispin is also, often violently, consumed by fits of self-loathing, at least to some extent motivated by a break with his family several years before. He finds himself drawn to a woman in his social circle, but they never quite manage to connect. The novel opens with Crispin in a relative idyll, visiting friends in Halifax; but by the end of the first of the novel’s three parts, he will have alienated his friends and abandoned New York.

This disappearance is motivated by the discovery that the artist whose life he’d been tracking renounced the work that he did — transgressive, transformative stuff — and eventually re-emerged a conservative politician, who in turn abandoned his family when news of his old life was revealed.

A contact made through his research leads Crispin to a job in Albany, working for a startup. There, his office is shared with a one-armed Austrian with ties to the Actionist art scene of the 1960s. Crispin trudges around Albany, sometimes driving outside of the city into the rural spaces of upstate New York, and becomes fixated on a stretch of roadway lined on either side by a series of low trenches. Holes for a construction project or graves or something more ominous. It’s here that The Freestanding starts to become more surreal; names for two of the three parts were taken from Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and Glenn Branca’s Hallucination City. The latter, while not intended to be taken literally, was meant to lend a certain mood to the proceedings.

Eventually, Crispin departs from Albany, driving to an unnamed place dubbed “the pirate city” in one particularly florid passage. In my mind, at least, it was a couple of run-down blocks in Maspeth replicated for as far as the eye could see. There, he takes a job at a bar; he encounters a conservative pundit whose columns he’d been hate-reading for much of the book, and he discovers the artist-turned-politician, now a broken man living in solitude, shattered from his own guilt and, it’s implied, years of self-abuse. Crispin confronts the man whose life he had once admired and had grown to loathe; words are said, and Crispin leaves this city behind in turn, on his way towards an approximation of human functionality.

***

This was my first attempt to write something that long; I’d written a pair of novellas beforehand, but little else longer than a short story. And so I had a fairly detailed outline, and I feel that much of the novel’s problems come from hewing too closely to it. As The Freestanding proceeds, the hand of Plot becomes more and more noticeable, to the detriment of the rest of the story being told. There’s a reason that I debate salvaging the first third, rather than the whole thing.

Also, in the theoretical novella version of this, all of the holes in the earth beside the road outside of Albany are mouths, buried beneath the earth. I’d still like to use that image somewhere.

 

It wasn’t until a year or two after I’d finished it and set it aside that it occurred to me what I’d been inspired by. By which I mean: I was born in 1976 and came of age reading science fiction and so, yeah, I read Ender’s Game when I was around 14. I went on to read more from its author, Orson Scott Card, and eventually stopped, and would, a decade or so later, find myself recoiling from some of the most odious sentiments about sexuality and politics and society that I’ve ever encountered. It’s fair to say that Card wrote the first adult novel that appealed to me. And the first book I read on the subject of writing was a book titled How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by the same author.

And so that’s the question: am I writing right now because of the work of someone whose political ideology I find repugnant? And is that, fundamentally, the poison pill within everything I have written and might write? In the end, I had to decide that the answer was No. But it’s impossible now for me to look back at The Freestanding and not find it utterly suffused with this debate. It was never conscious, but it runs throughout it as surely as anything. It’s a long meditation on a question that will occur to writers for as long as the writers who inspire us let us down in some way, large or small.

***

Towards the end, when I was debating whether to shelve it, I posted to a comment thread on a well-known book blog. The topic was, in fact, when to put your book into the drawer. I posted something to the effect of being on the fence, and that I wasn’t sure what to do. One of the blog’s proprietors responded by saying, more or less, “If you’re asking this question, my guess is that you already know what the answer is.” And at the end of the day, they weren’t wrong. Still, there’s something disquieting about it: that line between the self-doubt that plagues nearly every writer i know and the genuine self-awareness that tells us when it’s time to move on.

But I also remember listening to a handful of Castanets and Phosphorescent albums over and over; I remember sitting in my own apartment, in friends’ apartments, in coffee shops in Oregon and Iceland to work on this. And I remember the feeling of finishing the first draft of the thing, and of stepping outside at two in the morning and looking up at the sky and thinking, I finished this. And I remember the depression following the realization that this wasn’t a salvageable project and that moving on from it would be better. Whether it was a learning experience, I can’t say. There might be more reduction to be had, or this might stand as the last glimpse of it. A vanishing, or a new consideration. A learning experience, or a three-year obstruction. It’s a question that can only be answered by continuing to write.

Notes on “Airport Hotel Ghost Story”

This week, there’s a new issue of Midnight Breakfast, and one of the stories found there is by me. It’s called “Airport Hotel Ghost Tour,” and there’s a story behind it. Maybe two. Maybe three.

In the fall of 2011, I traveled to New Orleans for the first time. I was there for what had been billed as an engagement party but turned out to be a post-wedding party (not a bad surprise, as surprises go), but as I was only there for a long weekend, I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time there as I would have liked.

I had an early-morning flight back to New York City on Monday morning, as I’d decided that I wanted to try to get in to work rather than use a vacation day. And so, rather than stay somewhere in the city as I’d done the two previous nights, I found myself staying at a hotel near the airport, having a last dinner of comfort food. As someone who grew up in central New Jersey, I have nothing against comfort food, but relative to some of the meals I’d had in the past forty-eight hours, it seemed a huge disappointment.

“Well, maybe I can work this into a story sometime,” I thought.

That notion rattled around in my head for a year or two. Somewhere along the way, it combined with another memory from a previous vacation, involving signs for a ghost tour and a lonesome man standing, waiting for someone to arrive who’d go on it. And basically, that memory and the memory of the airport hotel dinner came together, and this is what emerged.

The hotel hung low-slung like a truncated letter U. There was a long stretch with two abbreviated wings facing out over an emptied pool, around which yellow caution tape had been half-assedly strung. To Marco, it seemed less a warning than someone’s beshat detritus, or a celebration’s weather-worn aftermath. From the second floor, it seemed like a giant’s grave, waiting to be filled.

 

The hotel’s outline reminded Marco of a kind of fortress, designed to obscure the adjacent takeoffs and landings. It seemed to Marco that this had been a failure. Though the planes’ ascent and descent was cloaked, their sound was not; removed from the accompanying visuals, there was only that sort of terror, the sound of nearby engines and metal, hurtling or falling less than a mile away. The sounds and sensations that this shelter released could only summon sharp anxiety and catastrophe’s illusion. Who needed ghosts, Marco thought. He continued up the stairs, following Otto.

If you’d like to read the whole story, you can do that here.

Teaching a Course at LitReactor

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A quick pause for self-promotion: this December, I’ll be teaching an online course at LitReactor. I’m especially excited to join the list of writers who have taught there, which includes D. Foy, Grace Krilanovich, Vanessa Veselka, and Lidia Yuknavitch. Here’s a quick bit from the description:

Writers cut their teeth on short stories. It’s where you learn the importance of good submission practices. It’s where you build your name and your reputation. It’s where most writers get that first taste of holding their own words in a bound, printed format.

But getting your stories published in a quality literary magazine takes more than just emailing 2,500 words to a dozen email addresses. A successful submission must be sent to the right publication and must hook the reader—but people who read for writing magazines aren’t normal readers.

While you can find blogs and books devoted to creating characters and showing instead of telling, it’s harder to find advice on the elements of story that get them past the gatekeepers.

You can learn more, or register for it, here.

Notes on Amazon, etc.

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Late last week, Alex Shephard wrote a long piece for MobyLives about the current clash between Amazon and Hachette, and how authors have taken sides. The whole thing’s totally worth reading, but particularly this section:

I make no bones about the fact that I think Amazon has been bad for literary culture in America, but I don’t want to take it away from anyone. If Konrath and other self-published authors are happy with the way Amazon is working for them, then that’s great for them and it’s great for literary culture. I just want Amazon to also work for publishers and I don’t see why that’s a problem. The goal should be to grow literary culture, not stifle it. There’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution and this certainly isn’t a fight to the death.

Or at least it shouldn’t be.

***

For my money, I used Amazon for a while in…say, the early-to-mid 00s. Then I started realizing things: I was obsessive about getting free shipping, but generally ordering two trade paperbacks would take me just below the $25 threshold for that, so I’d end up ordering more, so in trying to get free shipping, I’d end up spending $10 or $12 more than I’d planned. And inevitably, shipping would still take the better part of a week. So I started heading to local indies: when they were around, Coliseum Books was located a few blocks from where I was working at the time. Then I started spending more and more time at McNally Jackson (then McNally Robinson). And then WORD opened about five blocks from my apartment. And I noticed that–regardless of any other factors–ordering a book through a bookstore was going to take roughly the same amount of time as going through said online retail giant. Plus, there was the added bonus of interacting with people. Smart people. People who, in many cases, have become friends of mine. For me, this wasn’t a hard decision at all. Since then, I’ve  embraced the idea of supporting independent bookstores wholeheartedly; there were also, though, entirely practical reasons for me to make that first move.

***

Shepard also goes briefly into the question of bookstores not selling Amazon Publishing books. I can only imagine that there’s got to be something frustrating about being on the Amazon Publishing side of things: many of the books that they’ve done seem like the sort of work that would be designed for handselling–but it’s not surprising (and very understandable) that indie bookstores want nothing to do with work coming from a corporate entity that has its eye on supplanting them. And it’s also worth noting that Neal Pollack’s recent defense of Amazon ended up being more of a defense of Amazon Publishing than anything else.

I have bought two books that Amazon Publishing’s done: Benjamin Anastas’s memoir Too Good to Be True, and Shawn Vestal’s Godforsaken Idaho, both of which I enjoyed. For the record, I got the former as a Christmas gift, and ordered the latter via Powell’s. (And, at the time I’m typing this, I see that Vestal’s book has won the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize; I’ll be curious to see if this changes anything with respect to how bookstores handle it.) I’m also planning to pick up Nicole Haroutunian’s collection that Little A is publishing when it comes out next year–I like her writing (we published one of her stories at Vol.1) and her work with Underwater New York (who, full disclosure, have also published one of my stories.) Where I’ll get it remains to be seen, but I’ll certainly be handing money over to someone for it.

Conducted a Q & A at Greenlight

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Last week, I got to talk with Luke B. Goebel, whose debut novel Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours has done a pretty excellent job of getting lodged in my head this year. It’s a sprawling work that also cycles back in on itself. As the title suggests, the format gets a little blurry: it’s a novel that’s also a collection of stories, some of which are the same story handled in different fashions, as the book’s narrator works through issues of grief and abandonment. English Kills Review has a recap, and the interview itself should be available soon in both audio and text forms.

Some Notes on Writing About “Cool Choices”

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So: I wrote about S’s new album Cool Choices for Dusted. It’s an album about aging and frustration–not aging in the “fuck, I’m a few years from the grave” sense, but aging in the sense that it sinks in that you’ve chosen a path in life that doesn’t quite jibe with what many around you are doing. It’s an album that resonated a lot with where my head’s been lately. The fact that it’s a noisy, cathartic album with plenty of catchiness doesn’t hurt, either. As someone who’s long enjoyed Jenn Ghetto’s music–whether in S, Carissa’s Wierd, or her Blink-182 cover band Silly Goose–this is a particular high point, I think, even as it mines frustrations and the detritus of a relationship for often-painful lyrics.

***

Also in the “things I’ve written recently” camp: reviews of books by Deborah Levy and Stuart Rojstaczer for the Jewish Daily Forward; thoughts on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s autobiographical novel Where the Bird Sings Best for Biographile.

Flashlight Below My Chin, Speaking Ominously

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Last year, I was asked to take part in a cosmic-horror-themed reading at WORD. The result was “The Wenceslas Men,” a story of which I’m especially proud. It looks like this will be an annual thing, and I’ve been asked back for this year’s edition, at WORD in Greenpoint on Wednesday, October 22nd. Here’s the official description:

Get ready for Halloween with Christopher Buelhman (The Necromancer’s House), Tobias Carroll of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Michael Cisco (Member), and Katherine Howe (editor of The Penguin Book of Witches), who will do their best to give you nightmares with a joint reading and signing.

I’m especially excited to be reading with Michael Cisco, whose novel The Narrator was a head-twisting work unlike anything I’ve read before. And now: to write.

Read a Bit Last Week

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Read last Thursday at Pacific Standard as part of The Disagreement Reading Series. I was asked to read “The Wenceslas Men,” and thus did. It’s funny–I’ve been working on a story that I thought would suit the series for a couple of months now. It’s one of the most overtly comic things I’ve written (and, in writing it, I’ve had to restrain myself from basically doing a bad Kingsley Amis impression.) Amusing, then, that the story that I did end up reading at the series is one of the bleaker things I’ve done.

I’ll be at it again this Wednesday, at Cakeshop for the Mixer series. I’ll likely be reading part of a longer story that I read an earlier version of earlier this year (if that makes any sense at all.) Either way, it should be fun–and I really like the idea that I’ll be reading in the same space where I’ve seen a lot of friends of mine play music over the years.

Bought Some Books, Bought Some Records: Hudson, NY

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I went up to Hudson, New York for Basilica Soundscape this weekend. I’ll have more to say about the festival–either here or at Vol.1 Brooklyn–but I wanted to do a quick post about a pair of books and a trio of records I picked up when there.

Books
Yoko Tawada, Where Europe Begins
The last time I’d been to Hudson, I spent a lot of time at The Spotty Dog, which combines a very good bookstore and a very good bar. Do you like a well-put-together fiction and essays section and/or excellent craft beer on tap? Then you could probably spend some time in here. Spotty Dog also ended up running a pop-up shop at the festival, where I picked up Tawada’s collection, knowing little more about it than the description and its evocative title.

Breece D’J Pancake, The Collected Stories
One of the books I brought up with me to read this weekend was Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses. In it, he repeatedly praised the work of Enrique Vila-Matas, who falls into the “acclaimed writers whose work I’ve never read” category. Earlier today, I stopped by Spotty Dog to see if they had anything of his in story. They didn’t–but I did see a copy of Breece D’J Pancake’s collected stories on the staff picks shelf, and as I’d been meaning to read it for a while now, it seemed like as good a time as any.

Echo
At the festival merch table, a zine was for sale, assembled by some of the same people who had put together the festival itself, and with contributions from many of the artists who I had seen/would see over the course of the weekend. Seemed like a no-brainer.

Music
Gamelan Dharma Swara: Gamelan Dharma Swara
Saw this massive ensemble the first day. I’d heard good things about them from Chris Weingarten, and they didn’t disappoint–theirs was a huge, sometimes ecstatic sound, unlike nothing else on the bill.

Curtis Harvey: The Wheel
I ended up walking past FatCat Records’ store on Saturday, and poked my head in. Curtis Harvey has one of my all-time favorite rock voices; I helped put a Rex show together when I was at college, and reviewed his solo debut Box of Stones a couple of years ago for Dusted. I’d forgotten that this album had come out earlier this summer, so: mistake resolved, hopefully.

Emily Reo: Olive Juice
Emily Reo’s Saturday-evening set was one of the festival’s highlights for me: her sound brings together a solid core of pop songwriting with more ethereal elements, including a lot of effects on the vocals. It doesn’t hurt that her set included a terrific cover of Built to Spill’s “Car” which captures the original’s heartbreakingly bittersweet mood while branching out into an entirely different musical vein.

A Fragment, and Another Reading

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Worked on some editing and some revising yesterday; ended up reworking a very short, possibly comic piece that I’d begun earlier in the summer. I ended up pulling this bit out of it, as it didn’t quite fit; figured I’d post it here because it stands on its own pretty well.

Home reaction test kit, and that desire to discover limits. A night of striking myself in the elbow and knee, waiting for the twitch. No twitches came; bruises were raised the following morning. The week that followed involved inching past stray objects; the fortnight of flinching. Sold the mallet to a neighborhood kid four months later. He had his Viking act ready to go, he told me.

Also: I’ll be reading next week in Brooklyn. Specifically:

September 11 at The Disagreement Reading Series at Pacific Standard, beginning at 7 pm.

Upcoming Events: Two of Them, Both in September (Plus One More)

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Greetings. It’s September, and summer seems to be pulling off one final reminder that it’s out there: temperatures are lurking around 90, the humidity is grotesque, and the sky is occasionally just awash with haze. Apparently, this is my week for listening to the new Radiator Hospital album Torch Song, which is growing on me quite a lot, as well as Freaking Out, the debut from Attendant (aka the project of Radiator Hospital bassist Jon Rybicki). It’s a very classicly autumnal indie rock album: there’s some of the moodiness of Dinosaur Jr. and Beat Happening in there, and I’ve been enjoying it quite a lot.

I’ve got a couple of fall events coming up. These are the first two, and I’ll be announcing more as formal announcements go up. (And by “formal announcements,” I pretty much mean “Facebook event pages.”)

On September 17th: I’ll be reading at Cakeshop as part of Mixer. Also reading? Lev Grossman, Porochista Khakpour, and Dia Felix, with music from Russ Marshalek. The Facebook page for that is right here

On September 22nd: I’ll be interviewing Luke B. Goebel at Greenlight Bookstore about his terrific debut novel Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours. Should you want to RSVP to that on Facebook, you can do so here.

I’ll also be moderating a panel on the second day of this year’s Slice Literary Writers Conference, with a focus on editorial meetings.

More soon.