A lot can happen in a short span of time. A month and a half ago I wrote Doldrums Redux, my first blog in over a year. I tried to explain the reasons for the hiatus. Among those reasons, I questioned how prudent my choice of literary agency has been, and admitted that I was considering a change. Two weeks after posting, this happened:
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Redux:adjective/ brought back —used postpositively
In Latin, redux (from the verb reducere, meaning "to lead back") can mean "brought back" or "bringing back." Redux belongs to a small class of English adjectives that are always used postpositively-that is, they always follow the words they modify. Redux has a history of showing up in titles of English works, such as John Dryden’s Astraea Redux (a poem "on the happy restoration and return of his sacred majesty, Charles the Second"), Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux, and John Updike’s Rabbit Redux.
So in a literary spirit of postpositivity I shall now bring back my FictionDoldrums blog. Why the absence, one may ask. It would be easy enough to read between the blogs (or at least glance back at the previous entry) and see that over a year ago I received a series of heartening/disheartening rejections. That might be reason enough. The complete rationale is more complex. These are the three main elements I will discuss in brief.
1) The aformentioned rejections
In truth, rejections are not so hard to take. I have been making work of one type or another for all of my adult life. The process has generally followed a pattern of experimentation, refinement of technique, critique by other artists, further refinement, and exhibition to intended audience. Rejections are a part of the critique process. I am more alarmed by lack of feedback than by harsh feedback. With harsh feedback [or constructive feedback (or positive feedback)] I have a path forward. When I get no response from an audience, I am left to roll all the possible problems around in my mind. The imagined critique I form on my own is usually far less charitable than any I've received from a reader/viewer. Still, rejection is never fun. Acceptance is preferred.
|(Pontas founder Anna Soler-Pont at the agency)|
2) Weirdness with my agents
Pontas, international Literary and Film rights agency is located in Barcelona, Spain. To recap, I signed with Pontas several years ago at a time when they were making a concerted effort to prove their capacity to represent English language authors. Pontas has a mission that I feel proud of and list of diverse and accomplished authors that I'm pleased to be associated with. To sign with an agency located in Europe rather than New York was a risk. But Pontas appealed to an idealistic, romantic streak that I often keep hidden under a hard shell of mock grumpy pessimism and sarcasm. It also fed into my apparent need to do things my own subversive way rather than the easy way.
The weirdness stems largely from the fact I've felt shuffled around from agent to agent. First, Carina, who introduced me to that agency and sold the idea of taking a chance with Pontas. Then Patricia, who sold my book to a great little UK publisher (Skyscraper). For a time, Marina. Next Jessica, who worked closely with Marina and started out aggressively supportive of my second book Missing People but was quickly sidetracked by the demands of representing a Man Booker finalist, Chigozie Obioma. The year I've been away from the blog coincides with the year Jessica spent with her focus elsewhere. And now, I am in the hands of Leticia.
A few months ago I was approached via LinkedIn by an English language novelist that was considering signing with Pontas. I wanted to give honest advice, and I struggled with it. Mostly, I've liked working with everyone at the agency. Each has had different strengths. My largest doubt is in relation to the capacity of the agency to make good deals with major US publishers. But ultimately I recommended Pontas to her, with some caviots learned through personal experience. She sent me a note to let me know she joined the Pontas family.
The skill of teaching has a limited shelf life and by last year I had reached the sell-by date; meaning that if I hoped to have the option to teach again, I had to get serious and step in front of a classroom or suffer total experience atrophy. In the past I have taught drawing, design, and ceramics courses. Because most of my work is currently written, I made the decision to seek opportunities in English departments. A good friend and artist Jean Bevier, currently the Museum Store Product Designer at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, suggested I look into teaching at Dominican University in River Forest. She had been there in the design department and had glowing things to say about the student body.
Last summer I met with three faculty members and achieved something remarkable: I convinced a group of literature professors that my interdisciplinary background, my publishing record, and my past teaching experience would make me an asset to their program. This is no small feat; because as much as liberal artists like to believe they are progressive and inclusive, the truth is that academic departments are territorial and tend to dislike change, move slowly, and hire people who have taken a well-trod academic path in order to reach their department. It is a measure of their openess and level of desperation that I was given a shot. I taught in the Fall, was observed and given an alarmingly good evaluation, taught in the Spring, and have been invited back in the coming Fall.
In summary, mildly disheartening circumstances with my second book, complications with my agents, and the time and emotion suck of teaching a new class, in a new place, in a new department made it a challenge for me to find the time, energy, will, or the positive content necessary to blog over the past year.
What's changed? Summer is here and that gives me both time and energy. And, on the cusp of officially leaving my agents, they were contacted by a British writer/director who asked to option my first novel for a screenplay. So, as I write this, that contract is being (painfully) slowly hammered out.
Of course, other things happened in this past year. I wrote some. I was in a student film. I exhibited a bit. Some of my articles for JAB were honored in a fancy way that involved people in white shirts and black vests offering me free booze and baby-size snacks, all while glad-handing with muckety mucks.
Until next time.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Rejections are a part of the publishing process (for me at least). So here I offer a smattering of recent comments from editors. These are not run of the mill rejections. They are not form, summary rejections. These are rejections from well-placed editors at major publishers, some of them with their own imprints. They are often complimentary and sincere. I think they demonstrate a love and respect for narrative and those who devote themselves to writing. Take a look. At the end of the blog I’ll share my growing impressions, gleaned from painful experience.
Thank you for thinking of me with Brandon Graham’s work. Missing People is an impressive novel, and I admire Brandon’s talent for switching points of views throughout the manuscript. He captures Chicago, and movingly renders the effects Etta’s disappearance has on her parents. I was impressed by the emotional nuance.
The premise is so intriguing, and I love how Graham reflects on family, its dissonances, and its inextricable ruptures. I was immediately pulled in.
I have been going back and forth about this one because it’s really terrific; I love the different points of view, the diverging ways the family members deal with grief, and the prose itself is lovely.
Etta's disappearance is so gripping and I admire the control the author has over his eccentric characters. I liked reading about Townes especially.
It's not a fast read - and I mean this as a compliment - the writing is too good to rush through.
It’s very accomplished and assured, and a powerful read. Thanks for giving me a chance to read such an impressive novel.
Brandon Graham, who I can so clearly see is an amazing talent...
His writing stands out – and always leaves such a strong impression on me.
Thank you so much for giving me the chance to read Brandon Graham’s MISSING PEOPLE. There was a great deal I admired about this novel, Graham’s resonant prose not least among them. There is an uncommon richness to the way this novel develops, rare in a book with a thriller’s plot at its heart.
The storytelling is brisk, clear, and compulsively readable throughout, and one is presented with a strong sense of place with the authors’ attention to Chicago. The development of the characters around Etta make her present in every scene. Newton struggles with her disappearance and adjusting to normal life after war. Meg and Charlie’s relationship falling apart, along with Townes’ guilt all made it feel like Etta was still present in the plot, six years after her disappearance
Brandon Graham portrays radically different responses to loss movingly, and he captures disparate corners of Chicago with a clear and observant eye.
He’s tremendously talented and I really enjoyed reading.
I enjoyed the structure and the writing. Townes’s section in particular held a unique appeal. There is great rationality and deliberateness in the characters’ actions and thinking. Though, of course, they are ensconced in a situation outside of their control. I shared the manuscript with a few others here to see what sort of consensus I might make… a general acknowledgments of this being an impressive debut.
Both of us admired the novel, which is very well written, but neither of us feels able to publish it in the right way. It’s not quite a literary or reading group novel, and it’s not quite a crime novel, so falls between stools—which can be a fine place if a given book just isn’t categorizable, but depends therefore on an editor falling in love and making the book a special focus and a passion.
I enjoyed the panoramic perspective this book takes in not only tracing the story of a missing person, but also honing in on the crushing negative space that’s left behind, reverberating through the hearts of multiple people.
1) The publishing industry is full of professionals who are passionate about good work. But, the mark of success as a professional in the field is to publish not only good work, but also profitable work. The path to profitability is made easier with clearly defined marketing strategy. And so, like so many intersections of the arts and capitalism, the marketing machine does hold sway over the choices editors make. The systemic dynamics can take something kind of pure and taint it with a tad of hypocrisy.
2) Original, memorable narratives are good in that they distinguish themselves from the avalanche of manuscripts editors read constantly. Conversely, original narratives are problematic because they are not sure things, and are challenging to handle. They require extra work and may never pay off. This is a shitty situation.
3) Lastly, I know solutions that have served me well in the visual arts my not work in commercial publishing. Namely, playing around the edges of genre; or anticipating reader expectations and subverting those in order to make social commentary.
To summarize: I wrote another quirky book that succeeds very well on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean it will find success in the marketplace. It's important though, to bare these lessons in mind as I move on to the next project. Books are long projects, and if I am going to make the time and energy commitment to dive in again, if I am willing to open myself up to more criticism, then I should at least wring what I can from this experience.
London Book Fair is ramping up, and I hope the right editor will believe in my work enough to put in the extra work to help it find the readers it needs.
On a slightly more upbeat note, Good For Nothing has done well with readers. Here is a new review I found on Amazon.
Good For Nothing is an approachable story on the complexity
Good For Nothing is an approachable story on the complexity of seemingly mundane decision-making. Though I found parts of it humorous, I also found parts terribly sad. Graham does a great job of bringing the main character Flip to life - I often thought he could be someone I knew or even be myself at times. As a result, I was endlessly thinking about people around me, and how they got where they are in this world. The novel is one that catches your attention from the outset and makes you want to follow through to the finish.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Nihilism is often defined thus:
ni·hil·ism/ˈnīəˌlizəm,ˈnēəˌlizəm/ noun: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.
|Bust of Epicurus|
Philosophically speaking, there are many examples and several incarnations of this type of thinking in the history of Western thought, starting as far back as the pre-Socratic sophists in Greece. For instance, Epicurus (born around 270 BC) lived through the defeat of Alexander the Great and the collapse of the Hellenistic era. He seemed ambivalent about the existence of the Greek gods and argued that man’s highest goal should be to reach a state of being utterly free of care. It's easy to argue that nihilism is a codified pessimism and a natural outgrowth the human condition and our tendency toward periodic despair in the face of difficult change. Perhaps the faster the systemic changes in our increasingly interconnected human community, the more prevalent the nihilistic attitudes. After all, our current historical moment, postmodernity, has been called the nihilistic epoch.
Terry Pratchett on the futility of political nihilism- "Don't put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That's why they're called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes." From Night Watch
A few flavors of Nihilism
Existential Nihilism- Life is without inherent meaning.
Political Nihilism- Political systems are pointless and should be overthrown.
Epistemological Nihilism- You can never truly know anything.
Ontological Nihilism- Nothing is real so there is nothing to know.
Moral Nihilism- Nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral.
One of the most complicated examples of nihilism is that of the Futurists. I referred briefly to the Futurist Manifesto previously on this blog. http://fictiondoldrums.blogspot.com/2011/02/experimental-fiction-graphic-design-and.html It might be worth looking back if you're interested in the manifesto's relation to graphic design.
In short, Italian Futurism (Futurismo) was a social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century. It emphasized speed, technology, youth and violence and objects such as the car, the aeroplane and the industrial city. It glorified modernity and aimed to liberate Italy from the weight of its past. This form of nihilism saw more value in the soulless perfection of an automated machine designed for destruction than it did in the souls of the people that those machines would chew through.
|Umberto Boccioni, 1913, Unique forms of Continuity in Space|
The Futurist Manifesto (as published by Marinetti (Paris) Le Figaro, February 20, 1909)
1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
6. The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
This marks the 96th post on this blog. I know it isn't a particularly significant number. I'm aware it makes more sense to wait for the 100th post to make a big to-do. But, I choose to be contrary.
To commemorate this dubious milestone, I'm sharing a recent short story.
B( l )eached is both a story and the name of a larger colaborative Artist's Book that will be published in 2015. The AB was concieved and organized by Mike Koppa of The Heavy Duty Press. It was inspired by a stack of beachfront postcards purchased on a trip to North Carolina's Outer Banks. Artists were asked to alter the postcards. The resultant mixed media collection inspired the narrative below.
I could trace my childhood by brushing a finger over a map’s dry surface. Starting from a modest ranch, part of off base housing, in Newport News, Virginia. Sliding my finger south I could pass it over six homes along the Atlantic coast in the Carolinas, Georgia and eventually end in a spot south of Miami where the land stops. My family settled there near some of my mom’s family.
My first lungful of air was filled with the scent of the sea. When just big enough to walk, I remember looking down at my cherubic toes in hot sand. Up en pointe I punched holes in the beach. Chubby feet balled to catch the grit and hold it, to grasp the new sensation and not let it loose. The wind blasted grains and mist against me. A wet line of foam surged toward me, sweeping sudden and cold over my feet. Later my cloth diaper, heavy with seawater, came loose, the weight bending the safety pins until they popped and gouged a red, angry line down my thigh. My parents and big sister laughed at my nudity and I was happy.
After college, I rebounded like a kid’s cheap yo-yo, drawn one state at a time back along the coastline until I married and built an academic life outside our nation’s capital. My grandmother Daisy passed away last semester, and as the most responsible living relative, I’m flying down on my sabbatical to tie up a few loose ends, liquidate a few assets and pay some outstanding bills. Plus, my wife and I need the break.
I don’t keep a resume. Hell, now that I’m tenured I barely keep my CV up to date. But I know CV is short for Curriculum Vitae, which is Latin for course of life. And that’s what’s on my mind as I feel the jet engines slow, feel my stomach drop.
Out the window, as we swing in a wide turn around Miami, I see Biscayne Bay. I was here in ’82 when Christo and Jeanne-Claude ringed the islands down there with Pepto-Bismol colored plastic sheeting, like some grotesque halo, or a misguided, gaudy Shinto celebration of nature. Supposedly it killed a lot of pelicans, the plastic. Those massive birds dove in whole flocks to catch fish in their bucket mouths and came up under the pink sheeting to suffocate, their corpses accidental and grisly additions to the exhibition. At least that’s what I heard back then.
My rental car takes me down roads whose names I should know, past sights that used to be commonplace. It’s funny how memory works. The shiny, happy, bright images of a ten-year-old are dulled with layers of failed responsibility and pessimistic attitudes about consumerism and tainted politics. The color leaches out of everything given enough time. Or maybe my eyes are just tired.
In Homestead, where I attended middle-school, I stop at a wide spot next to the road to buy avocados, a mango and three oranges from a Cuban man with boxes of fruit lined-up on a card table. I sit on the hood of my car and pitch strips of orange peel into the tall grass. The sticky, sweet juices run into my whiskers while the sun bakes my forehead. Seagulls cry out overhead and catch the air in their wings as they glide into an adjacent parking lot. From above, the rising waves of heat from the flat surface must have looked like deep, dark water. I watch them squawk in protest, hop around and peck through the gravel for food. Soon they give up and get back to the sky. I take their lead and drive toward the fish camp.
The strip of road that leads to Key Largo has beach on both sides. In the shallows off to the right a flock of flamingos stand on one leg. I’ve been told flamingos have white feathers. Their usual pink coloring comes from the red algae in their diet. This flock bothers me. They are faded and pale. Not the flamboyant, vivid birds I remember.
The last time I saw my grandmother alive was at my grandfather’s funeral, years ago. She’d gotten arthritis bad and her hands were like a knot of white root vegetables. She’d been forced to give on planting the flowers she’d always loved and instead stuffed cheap plastic flamingos into each of the terracotta pots that lined her little porch. When she hugged me, she’d had strength left in her arms, nearly crushed me.
I’m mostly here to clean out an old storage unit where my grandparents kept some things after Andrew did its damage and the insurance company shafted them. Their house had stucco the color of guacamole and big white awnings that folded down like protective metal wings over the louvered windows in a hurricane. The awnings were no help when Andrew stripped half the roof off and filled the house with storm water and palm fronds. The gators ventured from their canals around the citrus groves and swam in the flooded streets. After things dried out my grandfather Jan found a big old granddaddy gator had made a nest between two mangled banana trees in the back corner of the yard. By that time it was clear they were abandoning the house, so he left the backdoor open in case the gator needed anything amid the moldy carpets and swollen floorboards.
The fish camp is at the far end of Key Largo and consists of a series of cinder block cabins facing the sea, a long pier to stand and fish from, a place where the charter boats come to pick up guests, and a narrow stretch of beach, baby dunes, and ragged sea grass. The exterior of the cabins are each a different color. The woman at the office hands me the key and tells me I’m staying in the Honeydew suite. After I unpack, I sit at a picnic table near an abandoned fire pit and eat slices of ripe mango in the dark as the wind comes off the water. I take my cell phone to call my wife, the light is harsh in the night, and bugs immediately start to gather. I slip the phone back in my pocket. I know she doesn’t want to hear from me.
In his retirement my grandfather Jan had loved two things, and neither of them was his wife Daisy. The first was a sky blue T-bird convertible. He always claimed he couldn’t drive it in the spring because over-sized mosquitoes were drawn to its color and would cover it so thick it looked like its hood had been flocked black. But he couldn’t find the heart to sell it, even when his cataracts were too bad to drive. The other love of his life was his Slash2 BMW motorcycle.
After drinking black coffee on the pier as the sun comes up, I find both of his prized possessions in the storage unit just off Truman Avenue near the tip of Key West. It only takes two days to sell the T-bird for more money than I expected. I use the cash to pay Daisy’s remaining bills and to have the BMW tuned-up, and purchase new tires, a new battery, and fresh spark plugs.
That takes a few days. During that time I visit the Hemingway Museum, eat fresh seafood and fresh fruit. I watch old couples dance like kids. I watch kids lay on the beach, not speaking, like old couples. I drink too many girly drinks with ridiculous umbrellas. I end up addle-brained and ashamed, thinking Papa Hemingway would never make me a tragic hero in his next book.
As the sun sets on my fourth night I walk along the beach and people watch. Little children play in the surf tossing a Frisbee into the ocean and watching it wash. An old Japanese couple walks together, shoulders touching and a metal detector skimming the sand in front of them. A bald woman in a see-through dress carries a big bottle of Champagne in one hand and a glass that she keeps refilling in the other. She comes right toward me. As I watch without appearing to watch, she unslings her oversize purse, and like a magic act, a white dog hops out. She leans over drunkenly to let the enchanted canine drink from her glass. She refills it again, holds it high in a toast to me, I smile and we part ways.
That night I build a fire and sort through musty boxes of papers from the storage unit. Old family photos of people I don’t recognize. There are several black and white images of my grandparents as a young couple on a beach, her hair long and light from the sun. There a snapshot of them rolling in the surf like a staged press photo to promote that Pearl Harbor movie, From Here to Eternity. They looked happy, giggling too much to give a serious kiss. I slowly burn everything except one stack of images, a few faded postcards like you'd find on a wire spin-rack, a leather motorcycle jacket in reasonable shape, and a decrepit helmet with goggles attached.
I drive the rental car back to the lot where I got it. I walk into the airport and tell lies about a family emergency to three different people until I’m refunded the majority of my return ticket. I spend nearly a third of the refund on the cab back to the garage where the bike is waiting.
I’m cautious for the first few miles, feeling out the breaks, the heavy boxer engine sticking out either side of the frame like nubby wings. It doesn’t take long before it feels like an old friend. I stop at a roadside stand that sells Cuban coffee and sandwiches. I knock back the coffee, put the sandwich in my saddlebag for later. I text my wife instead of calling. I can’t imagine enough time has passed for her to want to speak to me, the pain of my hurtful confession still too sharp. But I want her to know I’m coming. I’m taking the long way up old coast roads. Taking my time, letting the wind ease the sharp edges and the sun beat on me until the garish colors fade to white.
In other news: my beloved book dealers have included one of my small books in their Around the Kitchen themed catalog for January. You can find it at the link above and follow it to a number of my books and zines, just for fun.
Lastly, Good For Nothing has been out in the world for almost eleven months. In that time, I've managed to complete my second novel, Missing People. It is now with my agents who will be taking it with them to the London Book Fair, to kick off the new season of book industry conferences. Wish us luck.