A week from Saturday, I’ll be reading at the Difficult to Name Reading Series’s holiday reading. There’s a trailer for it above, and you can see a photo of a much younger (I think) version of me about 2/3 of the way through. I’ll be reading something short and strange and vaguely Christmas-themed, along with excellent folks like Kevin Nguyen and Bijan Stephen.
Went to Death by Audio on Monday night. I arrived late, just before the place sold out, to catch a fantastic, inspiring set by Priests and a decidedly catchy one from Future Punx. I didn’t get there in time to see Downtown Boys, and given that a number of friends with great taste in music have raved about them, I wish my timing had worked out a little better. (Apparently I also missed this.) Monday was the kind of day when I was working for about twelve straight hours; by the time I left my apartment, I felt the strange sensation that comes from not having interacted with anyone face-to-face for much of the day. The outside world seemed surreal, unmade.
At Vol.1 Brooklyn, I talked with Kathy Page about her fine collection Paradise & Elsewhere.
At Biographile, I wrote about “Literchoor Is My Beat,” the new biography of James Laughlin, who founded New Directions.
It’s been a relatively quiet week, I’d say. Some preparations; lots of hunkering down and reading nonfiction for a host of freelance assignments. Ordered some coffee from Chicago’s Metropolis Coffee, because it is delicious. Increased my total of bags of books to take to Housing Works to something close to ten.
I’ll be reading at this weekend’s Moby-Dick Marathon, which was a fantastic experience in 2012, and should be equally excellent (if not better) this time out. Things kick off tonight; I’ll be reading between 6 and 7 tomorrow, at the South Street Seaport Museum.
And, if you go to the Marathon’s website, I can be seen in a group shot of many NYC-based writers studiously consulting our copies of Melville’s book. (Taken, like the one above, by Joshua Simpson.)
In news of things I’ve written: I talked with The Wilds author Julia Elliott for Vol.1 Brooklyn, and profiled Clemens J. Setz, author of the newly-translated novel Indigo, for OZY.
Best laid plans, etc etc. In the end, I didn’t make it out of the city on the 31st, but I did venture down to Philadelphia a couple of days later to see my friend Maria’s band No Other play at Johnny Brenda’s with Ex Hex and Speedy Ortiz. And it was a fine show: basically, smart music, lots of guitars, lots of distortion, lots of taking things in unexpected ways.
A day later, I went to St. Vitus for a release party for the fourth issue of The Pitchfork Review. There, I heard good readings from Zachary Lipez and Amanda Petrusich and Jayson Greene, watched Brooks Headley give an absurdist cooking demonstration, and saw a fine set from Weyes Blood, a band whose new album The Innocents has been dominating my turntable for much of the past week and change. (That and Moonface’s City Wrecker EP–and I’d argue that the two have a similar sensibility, so that’s probably no coincidence.)
At Electric Literature, I wrote about fiction where reality itself is rewritten.
After a weird gasp of almost-summer-ish weather, Brooklyn seems to have veered back into appropriately autumnal weather, which I wholly support. I’m heading out to the Rockaways tomorrow for a solo “I am getting older” trip, which I am hoping will prove to be a good idea. Then? Watching smart readers in conversation at WORD on Saturday; watching marathoners dash past on Sunday morning, and possibly cheering until my hands are sore. (This is what happened in 2011.) I’m guessing coffee will also play a part, as it often does.
At OZY, I interviewed novelist Nuruddin Farah.
At Biographile, I wrote about Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.
At Dusted, I wrote about Terry Malts’s Insides EP.
At Vol.1 Brooklyn, I interviewed No Other about their new 7″ and Edward Carey about his new novel.
In other news, I wrote a story called “Some Things I Botched,” and Dolan Morgan published it at Everyday Genius.
This one was written in the middle of a lot of things. I’m pretty sure I’d given notice at my old job at the time that I started writing it, and it was very much intended as something to counterbalance something that was much more dense. This ended up bringing together a lot of ideas that had been rattling around in my head for a while–one image for well over a decade.
Also noted: the faun I nursed back to health. He lay beside the highway one night when I drove by. Feeding him wasn’t so hard; house-training was harder. Harder still was hiding him from the hunters: that sound of hounds barking outside, the sequential knocks skipping from door to door, the horns in the hallway.
This is somewhat of a piece with two other stories I’ve been working on. One of them is the one that I read at WORD’s night of scary stories–there was a riff on the word “we” in “Some Things I Botched” that I wanted to develop further, and that ended up veering into said story. There’s another story I’m working on involving lower-division soccer and abuse of one’s ability to officiate weddings that’s also in a similar realistic/not-realistic vein. Hopefully one or the other will find a home somewhere before long.
Anyway! Back to “Some Things I Botched”–if you’re curious, you can read the whole thing here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.