Tag Archives: Fiction

ICYMI: New story, “Orville’s Song,” published by Burlesque Press

For those who didn’t see it on my Facebook or Twitter feeds, my new story, “Orville’s Song,” has been published on Burlesque Press’s online journal, The Variety Show. Read it here for free. And please like, share, forward, etc.

Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — IV

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 4

 Up at 7 am CST on this, the final day of AWP ’15, and already contemplating next year in Los Angeles, when I’ll hopefully have some new publications to make me feel like less of a poseur—I greeted what turned out to be a breakfastless morning (no supplies, no time to order) on which my shower and shave and tooth-brushing feel positively Sisyphean, a beautiful cloudless day in Minneapolis, warm enough to make you sweat on your walk. By 8:30 am CST, Kalene and I have quit the room.

We split up in the Convention Center, heading to different sessions and, in my case, a pit-stop for a caffeinated beverage. The line for coffee snaked around corners, the people surly and red-eyed and territorial; do not come between writers and their coffee, lest you put your very life at hazard. No thanks. I stopped by a food kiosk for a Diet Pepsi, a 20-oz. bottle consisting of what appeared to be plastic, not gold, but which nevertheless cost me four dollars.

My 9 am CST session consisted of a panel of editors discussing what made a submission leap off the slush pile and into their magazines—or the trashcan, depending on the piece. They shared a lot of advice, much of which can be boiled down to this: “make sure your story/poem/essay fits my personal taste.” They talked a lot about finding your unique voice, being “surprising”, and the like. Of course, those sorts of nebulous, subjective areas are really life-long projects for any writer, and so much of it seems to come back to luck—getting the right piece in front of the right person at the right time. The editors weren’t able to give much insight on how to write a piece that would necessarily appeal to any subjective criterion—who could give such advice, and what would it be?—but they did provide a lot of helpful hints on things like following guidelines to the letter, being professional in any contact, and so forth. They also hinted at trends that writers might not be aware of, such as how they are seeing so much dark content that humor—even dark humor—stands out these days. Good to know. I enjoyed this session very much; the editors all impressed as knowledgeable, passionate-about-literature people with whom you might enjoy sharing a beer.

I was particularly gratified when the editor of Juked discussed how tired he was of stories that begin with the protagonist’s waking up for no particular reason and going through a typical, boring routine before anything happens. He also hates personified body parts, which I can understand, given how many times my recent students have written things like “He gave a sigh” (how? Did he wrap it up in a gift box and send it by UPS?) or “The smile crept onto his face” (where was it before? On his leg?).

After that, I skipped out on a session I had planned to attend and hit the Book Fair, where I scored some copies of journals to show my classes.

Next, “Marketing Your Small Press Books,” a session I really need, so maybe one day I can sell more than fives of copies at a time. (Have I mentioned that The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light is available through fine online retailers everywhere?) This session was a blast. The panelists shared a lot of great practical device and a good deal of humor. I’d tell you what they said, but I’ll probably be using some of the techniques quite soon, so you’ll get to experience them first-hand. You can thank me later.

Back to the Book Fair for one last pass and a few more journals. I was hoping to chat up some more editors from small presses, since I’ve got a second collection of stories that I haven’t placed yet, even though most of the tales therein have been published in various journals. Of course, around 2 pm on the last day, said editors and staff are more interested in selling their books (for the press’s sake, for the authors’, and for the aching backs of those who have to lugged the unsold tomes back across the country), so very little of said chatting up was accomplished. Still, I grabbed a few more journals for classroom use (and my own reading pleasure, naturally).

Here, a bit of editorializing. When you know a lot of writers, and especially when you get a boatload of them in one place like you do at AWP, you hear a lot of understandable grousing about journals and presses and editors and agents and publishers and how they’re all out to get us and ruin our careers, either by tanking the publishing of our work or by not taking what is obviously brilliant in the first place. You also hear a lot of equally understandable griping from publishers and editors about how not enough people are buying their books and journals.

I think both sides need to remember that we’re in this together. I’m in a slump myself, so I know how hard it is to have your work rejected, especially when you honestly believe in it, when you KNOW it’s good. Rejection sucks. Lots of rejection sucks a lot. But I don’t think for a minute that there exists a cabal of editors who have a list of writers they automatically reject. Whether we’re talking a single poem or a book-length work, we have to remember that “quality” really is a subjective term, and what one person loves, another may feel indifferently about or even hate. It doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong. If someone passes on our work, it doesn’t mean that they themselves suck or that we have no talent. It just means they don’t see the connection between our work and their journal/press, even if we do.

On the other hand, editors/publishers who rant about sales should remember that writing literary works and teaching are not clear pathways to riches. It happens, but it isn’t what you’d call easy or common. Many AWP attendees are graduate students who share rides and pile a half-dozen people into a hotel room. Many others are adjuncts, who are criminally underpaid, or tenure-track professors at places that can’t or won’t pay what the professors are worth. Others are starving writers who don’t have a teaching gig—the writer/barista, the writer/construction worker, etc. In short, you can’t assume that everyone who comes to AWP carries with them a truckload of disposable income that they’re just hatefully withholding from you.

Plus, you can only buy and ship so many books at once. A lot goes into buying books at an AWP outside your home city. It is unlikely that many attendees aren’t buying your books because they’re out to get you.

I think we can all be better to each other.

We stopped by the UPS store to ship all our books home and there finally met up with our friend Robin Becker, fiction writer extraordinaire (check out Brains if you haven’t already). We hadn’t seen Robin since she left LSU ahead of us, way back in the early 2000s, so we had a snack and a beer in the hotel bar. The chat was lovely, the company awesome. I’m only sorry that I had to spend half the time on the phone, fighting with the world’s least helpful and most sarcastic customer service representative. “Superior” Shuttles my ass. This is the last time I use that company.

A one-hour nap later, we met my good buddy Ash Bowen for one more meal and a couple rounds of Guinness at Brit’s Pub. We had a great time and talked about our pasts, art, our lives today, art, food, art, and why making art in a world that devalues it hurts so much. Ash, thanks for your encouraging words. I needed them.

Back to the room by 8:30 pm CST for some grading, packing, and writing this dispatch, and the time is now 12:47 am CST. In eight hours, we will rise, finish packing, eat lunch, and head to the airport, and then it’s home to Las Vegas and, perhaps, one final dispatch.

AWP, AWP, AWP—we’ve all been there.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — III

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 3

Today, we might have grouped most of our experiences under the general heading of “mishaps.” You can’t use something with a darker, more serious connotation like “disaster” or “debacle” or “catastrophe,” because nothing terrible happened, but a lot of little inconveniences added up to a day that was less than it could have been.

At 9 am CST, the first of our alarms sounded. We shut it off. At 9:30, the backup alarm blared until somebody smacked it upside its head, after which it got the message and left us alone. We awoke at 10 am CST and ordered breakfast—in my case, ham and eggs, fingerling potatoes, grilled veggies, and toast. I did not bother with lunch.

Our hunger and exhaustion having ruined our chances of making our first scheduled session of the day, as well as a friend’s book signing, we finally stumbled out of our room at approximately 11:35 CST, headed for a session on applying for an individual creative writing NEA grant. Having seated ourselves around 11:45 CST, we got word of a minor issue in our room (don’t ask), so Kalene headed back to deal with it. I stayed long enough to discover that I was attending the exact same session that I attended last year, and we were once again discussing poetry submissions because I had somehow missed the fiction submission deadline. This….THIS is what happens when you teach five classes and serve on seven committees while trying to write. Something inevitably slips by, no matter how structured you are, and it’s usually something important. Now I can’t apply for an NEA grant until 2017.

Kalene texted an update about our situation at the hotel, and I wasn’t learning anything new, so I bailed and headed back.

The situation-that-shall-not-be-named required a trip to Target, and it was cold outside (Minneapolis in April, but hey, it wasn’t snowing like it did yesterday), so we decided to take the free-ride bus to the store. We sat down at a covered stop and shivered in the wind, watching buses pull up on the other side of the street and rumble away in the wrong direction until we said, “Screw this,” and started walking. The store lay only three or four blocks to our north (I think), and we were enjoying the chance to see a bit more of downtown—clean, modern, not as many people walking about as you’d think—until we started to cross what I have already come to think of as That Stupid Intersection.

We had barely stepped into the crosswalk when a car driving parallel to us suddenly put on its left blinker and veered our way. “Wait!” I cried, sure that we were about to be flattened, but the car merely changed lanes at seven thousand miles per hour and went on its way. Unfortunately, Kalene tried to heed my warning while walking much too fast for her own good. She managed to step in the one piece of broken pavement that I saw for at least a block. She turned her ankle, cried out, and fell onto her knees, scraping the skin off one of them. Then she rolled onto her back and lay there groaning. By this time, a bus was bearing down on us and showing no signs of stopping, so I reached down and yanked her upright. We stepped back onto the sidewalk and assessed the damage as the bus passed on by us like nothing had happened. The driver didn’t even glance our way.

Like the trooper that she is, Kalene kept going. We reached Target, bought our supplies and some snacks and first aid stuff, and headed back. We were going to catch a bus so she wouldn’t have to walk, but she decided that she would rather not let her ankle stiffen up, so we finished the trip on foot.

Back to the room for a bit of relaxation (for me, that meant a twenty-minute nap) before we headed back to the Convention Center (yep, Kalene was still walking) for two sessions.

The first one featured T.C. Boyle, Ron Carlson (for this semester’s CW students at CSN, he’s the one who wrote “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”), and Susan Straight. The panel was about the importance of place in creative writing (hey, CW students—think “grounding,” “setting,” etc.), specifically the landscape (physical and otherwise) of southern California. Straight and Carlson read short pieces from existing novels, while Boyle read a thus-far-unpublished story about a guy who invents a five-pound burrito. It struck me as very Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I mean that as a compliment. All three were great, of course.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to buy their books and or meet them because our next session started right away—a live NPR conversation with Louise Erdrich and Charles Baxter. The talk veered from memorable bad reviews to books that evoke a certain place/time in the writers’ minds to what the panelists wish that they had known when their careers were just beginning. Both demonstrated a sense of humor that most good writers have and that are often on display only during readings.

We had nothing scheduled afterward, and I had picked up copies of Baxter’s latest short-story collection and Erdrich’s award-winning novel The Round House, so we lined up to get them signed. A first for the Rileys, whose bad luck in minor matters is legendary—we were second in line. Usually we’re more like seven hundred and second.

Mr. Baxter was warm and gracious. He chatted with Kalene about the dangers of Minnesota roads as he signed my book. Ms. Erdrich was more reserved, but not in an unfriendly way. One gets the feeling that, like me, she’s a bit of an introvert and thus more comfortable in front of large crowds than when she’s chatting with people one on one. In spite of that, she took Kalene’s hand and complemented her on her style. I told Ms. Erdrich that this moment, speaking with her one-on-one, was our main motivation for coming this year, and I wasn’t lying. The pedagogy and craft talks are invaluable, and I admire the various other writers very much. Who could possibly dismiss T.C. Boyle or Baxter or Dybek or Prose? Still, I find that Erdrich’s work speaks to my own individual sensibilities in ways that I can’t quite explain, so I really wanted to meet her. She seemed surprised but touched that we felt that way about her books.

From there, we picked up Maya and sent across the street to the Hyatt, where we ate supper at the Prairie Kitchen and Bar. I had a ribeye (I’m eating more meat than I should on this trip, which is to say more than almost none, but after a rough day, I was in the mood to rend some flesh), while Maya chose a burger. Kalene had a mac and cheese dish with some kind of chicken in it. It was all good, made even better for me by a couple of margaritas on a mostly empty stomach.

Afterward, we returned to our room, where I graded a few papers and wrote this dispatch in about fifteen minutes.

I’m beginning to think any profundity in these little pieces may have to come later, upon reflection, because by the time I’m ready to write them, it’s late and I’m tired and I’ve still got grading to do. Still, this was our least busy day in terms of conference activities, and I’m just now winding down at 10:40 CST.

If any of my CW students are reading this, though, I’d like to share something that Ron Carlson said about place: “Nothing happens nowhere.” Every story has a setting, and every setting has a feel, a texture, an atmosphere. Within that setting—desert landscape or bedroom, alien planet or storm-tossed ocean liner, meth lab in the California mountains or a dude ranch or an urban diner—people live. They act. They talk to each other. They think. They react, to each other’s actions and thoughts and to their own emotional turmoil and to the setting itself. Place is not just a backdrop. It’s a living, breathing, absolutely necessary part of any story, and a writer at any stage ignores it to his/her peril.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve said it before, as have thousands of writers before me, as will thousands after I’m gone. If you’re a writer and you haven’t learned that lesson yet, there is no better time than now.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 II

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 2

So I woke up this morning to a rainy Minneapolis that looked more like Seattle allegedly looks than Seattle did last year. As I got out of bed, I still felt weary, but at the same time, my blood pumped with exhilaration as I pondered another day full of writers, books, pedagogical panels, and craft talks. I love the free exchange of ideas you find at conferences, the passionate way that people voice their beliefs and philosophies combined with their open acceptance of others’ methods and thoughts.

It sure as hell beat Facebook this afternoon, where I saw more “If you don’t agree with ___________ in all cases and all circumstances, I’ll unfriend you” posts. My response is always, “You’d probably better unfriend me, then, because I tend to think about complexities and variations and shadings, and I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with or supported anything 100% of the time.” Meh.

A quick breakfast bar and shower, and off to our first session, walking fast enough to work up a good sweat inside my aptly named sweatshirt, you could already feel the city’s balance tip as more and more writers poured into it. More people walked the skyway from our hotel to the Convention Center, and over near the registration kiosks, the handlers had opened up the gated labyrinths that you might recognize at Disneyland or Six Flags. All around us, a steady thrum, the sound of several thousand voices muttering and shouting at once.

My first session of the day was titled, “How to Write and Publish a Book while Teaching Five Classes,” a panel of note for anyone in the two-year college system, not to mention all the underpaid and overworked adjuncts out there. Advice ranged from letting yourself off the hook for not producing as much as your peers with two-two loads to teaching summer courses exactly never to taking unpaid leaves to attending writing retreats. Some advice seemed more practical if, say, you’re pretty sure you have enough savings or other sources of income to take a year off without pay, but I appreciated the perspectives. The session also led Kalene and I to have a serious conversation about how much pressure I put on myself to produce, publish, and grade so thoroughly that my students could never possibly have any questions. Basically, we decided that I’m driving myself into an early grave and that I need to accept that it’s okay for me to write and not teach during at least some summers, that it’s okay for me not to spend forty-five minutes on each student paper, and so forth. Now all I have to do is implement all that advice.

Next, our first stop at the Book Fair. We spent some time at the LSU Press and Southern Review table, where we learned that James Olney had passed away. We hadn’t heard. James co-edited the Review with Dave Smith while we were in graduate school, so the news saddened us.

Next, we stopped by the tables of some publications from which I got fairly recent personalized rejections—One Story, Pleiades, Gulf Stream, Ploughshares. I wanted to thank the personnel for their kind words. Hopefully some of those near misses will see the light elsewhere, and these staff members will remember me in the future.

We made sure to stop by the Crab Orchard Review table and say hi to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble—great editors and poets, excellent people with generous hearts.

I spoke to one editor who publishes books that he hand-stitches personally. All proceeds go directly to maintaining his press or to his authors. Take that, world of corporate publishing. There are still those who love the art more than the profit. I plan to say more about this at a later date.

We ate lunch inside the Fair—burgers and fries, passable but unspectacular.

My second session was titled, “More Than Luck: How Publishers Select Literary Manuscripts.” Somehow I missed the fact that it was concentrating on poetry contests, but I was struck by how the advice often ran to what I tell my first-semester creative writers—follow the guidelines, make sure you know what your press publishes and that you want to be affiliated with it, etc. Meanwhile, Kalene ducked upstairs for a session on crafting literary page-turners and came back with a bunch of advice for me. I’m already excited to try some of it out.

Back to the hotel room for a quick nap, and then it was on to supper in the North 45 bar and restaurant downstairs, where we were joined by the incomparable Ash Bowen. I hadn’t seen Ash since 1997, and ye gods, how I missed him. We spoke about writing and music and family and our shared past and where our lives have taken us. We talked so much that we both only drank two beers, which I can usually pour in my eyeball without ill effect. Outside the restaurant and before the meal, we ran into BJ Hollars and Lucas Southworth, two writers we knew from our time in Alabama. All three of these gentlemen have produced work that is very much worth your time and money. Buy their stuff, right after you pick up a copy of my book. (Heh heh)

From there, we hoofed it back to the Center in time for Karen Russell’s keynote address, which touched on dolphins and Melville and playground equipment and poetry and about a million other artifacts that, on the surface, might have seemed unrelated, but part of her point was that you should allow yourself to play instead of “just getting to the point” as if that were the goal of all art. Another point was that things that seem unrelated on the surface often reveal connections when we examine them with open minds and hearts. She sometimes read a lot of complex stuff pretty fast, but it was a fun talk. I get the feeling she’d be fun to have a cocktail with and spitball ideas for stories. In fact, a lot of her quirky tales remind me of what I’ve tried to do in some of my own work.

I have to make that comparison, because right now, nobody else is. See what I mean about how you need to buy The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light? (Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, and other fine online retailers!)

This dispatch is nowhere near profound or insightful—it’s more summative than analytical—but it’s 11:15 pm CST and I still need to write, grade six papers, and get up at 7 am. Somehow, I get the feeling that not everything will get done.

Where are those “Teach Five Classes” people when you need them? Maybe they can give me advice about working and attending conferences, too.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 1

Ah, travel—asleep at 1 am Las Vegas time (PDT), then startled out of a now-forgotten dream at 4:30 am, an hour so ludicrous and detrimental to sanity that it should not even exist. Even milkmen and grumpy old cigar-smoking guys running newsstands would shake their heads and groan. My wife Kalene got up first and showered. I fell back asleep. Half an hour later, she woke me up to tell me that I could sleep another extra hour because we had gotten a text from Delta Airlines. Our flight was delayed an hour and a half. I had never been grateful for a late flight before, and for a moment, I flashed back to last year’s AWP trip, when my flight to Long Beach got delayed so long that I missed my connection and had to head for Seattle the next morning. But once I realized the implications of what Kalene was saying, though, I nestled deep into the covers and crashed until she dragged me out at 6 am.

The fingers of my right hand and the muscles in my forearm have ached all day because I spent over thirty minutes last night setting up our DVR for the next week. Our Cox remote only recognizes that you’ve pushed a button after you’ve done so four or five times, so multiply that by recording five to ten shows a night for the next week, and you can probably understand why I’m sore. (“Why doesn’t he just set up a series recording?” you might wonder. It’s because our multi-room DVRs sometimes just decide that they don’t feel like doing what you’ve told them to do, and often, having little time to watch TV on a given day, I only discover the problem when I’m trying to set up more recordings. The joys of cable! “Why doesn’t he get DirecTV or Dish or something?” you might be asking. It’s because we currently live in an apartment that we rented sight unseen upon accepting employment in Las Vegas. Ours is apparently the one apartment in the building that, for shadowy reasons I only partially understand, is not allowed to have any equipment mounted on the exterior walls. Whee!)

Out the door at 7 am, we dumped on bag of trash in the dumpsters and took Broadbent to Russell to the freeway to Flamingo, cursing every slow driver and flipping off every red light. We arrived at our parking facility, the Silver Se7ens Casino (their spelling; don’t get me started), though to tell you the truth, we picked another place on the Internet but somehow got booked at the one place we knew we wanted to avoid. The last time we parked there, the shuttle rules were so labyrinthine that we missed it and had to pay a cab to take us to the airport, even though we had already paid for parking and the shuttle. When we got back to Vegas, we went to the wrong level of McCarran Airport and missed the shuttle back, so we had to take another cab to Silver Se7ens, meaning we paid for two shuttle rides and never actually even saw the vehicle. Imagine our displeasure at clicking on the “book it” button for off-site parking at a different hotel and then finding that they had dumped us back in Silver Se7ens’ lap anyhow.

We were instructed to park, unload our luggage, go inside to let them know we had arrived, and then park the car. Knowing that we were only going to be there for a minute, we parked behind a shuttle van. My daughter Maya and I unloaded while Kalene ran inside. As soon as we shut the trunk, a burly security guard tooled up in his golf cart and said, “I’m gonna need you to move that car. This area is for shuttle parking.” When I told him that we were there for the shuttle and were simply waiting for our parking assignment, he said, “Oh, okay. So you’ll just be here a minute. That’s good, because the shuttle is gonna be back [looks at his watch, incredulous] any minute now.” Then he looked at me expectantly.

“I knew something like this would happen at this dump,” I said to Maya. I didn’t even bother to ask what the big white bus-looking thing that we had parked behind was, if not a shuttle. I simply loaded all our bags back in the trunk. As I finished, Kalene came out with our parking permit, and we drove around to the garage and up to the fourth level, where we left the car, lugged our bags to an elevator, zoomed down to the casino, fought our way through tourists, and finally arrived back outside, twenty feet from where we started.

The shuttle, whose imminent arrival had so concerned the guard, showed up thirty minutes later. It was a van, much smaller than the bus-like vehicle we had so foolishly thought it might be fine to park behind for five minutes. We piled inside and took the ten-minute trip to Departures, where, as I disembarked, I was promptly almost flattened by a bus being driven by, it seemed, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

Inside the airport, there was virtually no line at the bag-check counter or security, and no one decided that today would be a good day to pull the Rileys out of line and wand them and pick at their laptops and stare suspiciously at their phone chargers. We made it to our gate in plenty of time.

For breakfast, a big slice of pizza from the airport’s Metro outpost. Though our flight was delayed, the gate personnel were on duty already, and they worked their magic so that we could all sit together. When we booked the flight, we had chosen seats next to each other, but of course that didn’t take, and they had spread us all over the plane, me in the fourteenth row and Kalene and Maya in different sections somewhere in the twenties. Now we all boarded together, sat together, and fell asleep together as soon as the plane cleared the runway.

Twenty minutes later, I woke up. My memories from Delta Flight 1851, with service from Las Vegas to Minneapolis:

  • When asked for my beverage choice, I picked coffee, which I never do on flights because it sometimes hits my bowels and bladder like a sledgehammer, sending me scurrying for the insidious inventions known as airplane lavatories, so small and cramped and loud that it simulates the effects of riding in a coffin to one’s own funeral via a major freeway. This cup was good to me, though. I got up only once afterward.
  • However, we were flying coach, and when the airline personnel moved our seats, they put Kalene and Maya in my row, near the front of the plane, so the coach lavatory was approximately a quarter-mile away from us, the way often impeded by the refreshment carts, which are engineered to fit (barely) in the tiny, cramped aisle in much the same way that a drawer fits into a cabinet. Of course, we could have just headed up to the much-closer business-class potty, but airplanes are such obvious symbols of the American class system that I’m always half afraid that some sonorous claxon is going to sound as soon as I pass the curtain, that some air marshal will tackle me and cuff me and then lecture the rest of the coach-riding riffraff on the perils of not knowing one’s place. So, yeah, I waited on the carts to move.
  • Speaking of class—for those who have never been on an airplane, you have more room in business class, and a flight attendant dedicated to serving the ten or twelve of you on that side of the curtain. When I have flown business class, I have known the exquisite sensation of stretching my legs all the way out without kicking anyone or banging my shin on the underside of a seat, taking off an inch of skin. I have had someone take my coat and hang it up for me. I have had attendants call me by name. I have been asked for my beverage preference and gotten whatever I wanted without extra cost. Contrast that with coach, where you are crammed in two or three to each side of the aisle in a configuration that a sardine would dismiss as too restrictive. You don’t get premium drinks unless you pay for them, credit cards only; you get a small plastic cup of juice or soda, perhaps a cup of coffee. Today, I watched business-class customers be served full breakfasts in real dishes and on actual platters. Then I watched those who had upgraded to a “comfort seat” be served from a fruit-and-muffin basket. Then it was our turn. I got a cup of coffee in a small Starbucks cup and two ginger snaps. Two. Ginger. Snaps. Don’t tell me there’s no American underclass.
  • Across from me, some guy spent the entire flight frantically rearranging everything on his computer. We weren’t close enough for me to see what he was doing, so I didn’t feel like I was snooping as I watched him open multiple windows and cut parts of a document out and paste that part into an email and send it and then go to other documents and cut out parts of them and paste them into different emails and send them and on and on, ceaselessly, for three hours. He looked like one of those computer experts you see in action films, the ones who create a sophisticated virus and hack a major secured network in thirty seconds with nary a typo. Maybe those people really do exist, though from the images I spotted, this guy appeared to work for an auto manufacturer.
  • On the way, I read the first chapter of a novel that won the Pulitzer for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Within a page and a half, I found what appeared to be two misplaced modifiers. Now let me assure you that the chapter was mostly excellent, in terms of grounding and characterization, deft use of exposition a bit at a time, and so forth. But those modifiers haunted me. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would have been enough to get most people rejected, regardless of their manuscript’s strengths, and that led me to a long, dark reflection on the entire publishing industry and how random things sometimes seem.
  • People sleep ugly on planes—necks cranked hard to one side, giving them the appearance of having been throttled to death; mouths open wide enough for you to throw things in there; strangers’ heads falling onto other people’s shoulders. It makes me wonder what I looked like during the first twenty minutes of the flight.

Arrival in Minnesota at approximately 3:20 CST—naturally, we deplaned at a gate so desolate that we needed to take a taxi just to reach the taxi stand. Without this option, we hoofed it for God only knows how long, barely making it to baggage claim before somebody hauled our luggage away.

Observation—on its outskirts, Minneapolis in April looks much like Mississippi in January. Downtown seems shiny and clean, even when it’s overrun by writers…and today, it wasn’t nearly as overrun as it’s going to get.

Our room in the Millennium Hotel is nice but small. The bathroom door is either so modern or so old school that it doesn’t have a lock; it slides shut, and then you have to trust your roomies not to burst in on you. It’s got two double beds, meaning that Maya gets one to herself, while Kalene and I have to adjust to not having our queen-sized mattress. I expect some elbowing to occur later. The hotel has no distilled water for my cPap machine, and there is apparently no pharmacy or grocery outlet within walking distance, so I am faced with the rather silly task of paying for a taxi in order to procure a gallon of water. That, or not, you know, breathe while I sleep.

The registration process was a breeze this year but for the walk. From the hotel to the convention center to the specific part where registration occurs is about as far as the hike from our airport gate to the taxies. I’ve gotten my exercise for today.

Dinner at the hotel bar—Scottish salmon with mixed veggies, fingerling potatoes, and arugula. It was an excellent dish. To wash it down, I tried a local brew called a Surly Furious. If there were ever a beer made to fit my personality, it’s that one. As I joked on Twitter, it even has the bitter aftertaste.

We retired to the room by 6:30 pm CST, where I have thrown this dispatch together through the fog of exhaustion that makes any grading or work on a manuscript unlikely. Perhaps tomorrow, after a few sessions but before Karen Russell’s keynote speech.

It seems to me that writers gather together like this, in spite of snafus and grumpy airport personnel and the bone-deep exhaustion that sets in before you even get your lanyard, because, in part, writing is a solitary, lonely activity that much of the world can’t wait to dismiss. From people who get up in the morning and make the effort to insult you on Twitter to the comments sections of website articles you’ve written to the odd guy who shows up at your signing with blood in his eye, the average artist in any medium must first struggle against his/her own sense of inadequacy and a lack of funding, against a government that devalues what keeps us human, against hatred and small-minded sniping and careless words. Here, at AWP and other events like it, we can come together, support each other, reach out and make contact.

Yet these places also exacerbate one’s sense of never having met one’s goals. There is a comparative element that is at times inescapable—“look how little I’ve done compared to so and so.” There is, if your specific friends don’t show up, the lack of the very community that you’ve come to seek.

In a few weeks’ time, we’ll be able to look back and measure the effects of this year’s conference on our self-images, our contacts, our careers, our art. Now, we’re busy living it. This was my first day.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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#MyWritingProcess #BlogTour

“My Writing Process” Blog Tour

My friend C.D. Mitchell tagged me as part of the Blog Tour. I always appreciate the opportunity to publicize my work and that of other writers, so for whatever it’s worth, this is my contribution.

What am I working on these days?

I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. Due to spending several years in graduate school without much time to submit my work, I’ve got a pretty good backlog of text that I’m shopping. My somewhat-experimental novel-in-stories The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light dropped about this time last year. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine online retailers. I’m spreading the word about it as much as I can.

I’m currently submitting two works to independent publishers. One is Mulvaney House, another somewhat-experimental novel. It traces the (d)evolution of a single house in southeast Arkansas from the late 19th through the early 21st centuries. It is first inhabited by ill-fated Irish immigrants; later, its ownership passes to a disillusioned World War I veteran. Because that situation does not end well either, the house becomes the local “haunted,” “cursed” place that all the smart kids avoid and that all the cool kids want to explore. In the 1960s, it becomes the setting for a star-crossed interracial romance, and in the early 21st century, three teenagers spend the night there just to prove that they can. Serious carnage ensues.

I’m also submitting my second story collection, tentatively titled Bedtime Stories for Insomniacs. Most of the stories therein have been published. In terms of subject matter, it’s a pretty eclectic book. There’s a serial killer story, a couple of tales that make use of mythological creatures, some gritty realism, and some humor.

I’ve gotten some kind words about the projects, but whether they will ever see the light of day is anyone’s guess.

Oh, you thought I was through? Not yet—I’m also shopping The Dead House, a literary ghost story. It’s a novel-length work set in central Texas, though many of the characters are from south Louisiana. The book is a supernatural thriller detective fish-out-of-water story. I’ve gotten a few nibbles from literary agents; I’m hoping to land one soon.

In terms of new work, I’m currently drafting a post-apocalyptic novel set in the South. I’m also three stories into a new cycle that will, I hope, become a book one day.

I recently submitted a screenplay that I adapted from one of my published stories. As I have no contacts in Hollywood, I don’t expect it to go anywhere, but hey, they have to option somebody’s script, right?

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

I’ve always thought that this kind of question is best answered by critics and scholars, not writers. I just tell stories. Some editors have compared various stories I’ve written to writers as diverse as Jack Kerouac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elmore Leonard, and Ernest Hemingway. (I’m not egotistical enough to say that I agree, but I really appreciated their saying it.) I think a couple of my stories read like they were written by the love child of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. What all this means, I think, is that you can get a pretty good read on my basic format and style, but the content and how I employ that style may vary widely from piece to piece. I try not to write the same thing twice, and if I do delve into an area that I’ve visited before, I try to change perspectives, or voices, or tones, or something that will make the work seem a little fresher.

I don’t know what my genre is, other than “literary,” so no matter what similarities and differences a given reader sees between my work and that of any other serious writer, they’re probably on the right track, even if what they say contradicts somebody else.

Why do I write what I do?

Why does anybody write what they do? I never know what to make of this question. I can only tell you this: I believe that real writers do what they do because they are compelled. You don’t do it for fame. Writing literary fiction for money is a mug’s game. You don’t do it for all the groupies because most of us don’t have any (well, maybe Chuck Palahniuk). You do it because you can’t imagine a life where you don’t do it.

When I don’t get my two daily writing sessions in, I feel incomplete and guilty. When I don’t get at least one session, I feel out of sorts, angry with myself, despairing about the time that has passed. When I don’t write at all, I want to punch somebody, often myself. I have stories and people and dramatic situations in my head. Some of them are funny or sad and sick or cool. Others will probably never really go anywhere. But I have to find out what might work, or I go a little nuts.

As for where I get my ideas, my standard answer is, “A warehouse in Poughkeepsie. Don’t tell anybody.”

Seriously, though, they come to me as I live—sometimes from a bit of conversation I overhear, sometimes from an image I see in life or a movie or a magazine, sometimes from that place deep within my imagination where everything begins with “What if…?”

I write down every idea that I can. I’ve got files of them, ideas for stories and novels and essays and screenplays and comic book series and TV shows. I add to the piles fairly regularly. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to all of them. Some of them probably suck. My job is to write as many of them as I can, and to write them to the best of my ability, and hope that some agent, editor, or publisher will believe in me, in my story. After that, you pray that the piece will find its audience, but you can’t really control that, or the publishing side. You can only write and submit and not give up.

How does my Writing Process work?

I look over my list of ideas and see which one speaks to me at that given moment. Sometimes I’ll outline how I imagine the story will go, but even when I do, I allow for organic and spontaneous growth, when the people in the story do something that I didn’t expect. Most of the time, I just write until I complete the narrative arc. I do a full draft without worrying too much about how well it all holds together.

With my book, I revised extensively, several times. With the novel I’m currently shopping, I revised ten times before I ever submitted it. I’ll tinker with any given story for a couple of drafts until it seems to chug along pretty well.

Then I submit.

In this business, you have to expect rejection unless you’re already a household name. To succeed at any level at all, you have to strike the right combination of talent, learned skill, perseverance, and luck—getting the right piece to the right gatekeeper at the right time. Unless you have personal contacts at an agency or publisher, that’s about all you can do.

I’ll generally send out a piece to a half-dozen places. If nobody takes it, I revise again and find other places to submit. I keep doing that until I find the right home for it or I decide that maybe it isn’t as good as I thought it was. I have yet to self-publish anything, but I’m not above it if the industry never accepts what I truly believe is a story worth telling.

Once someone accepts a piece, I am perfectly willing and able to tinker with it if an editor sees areas that need work. Sometimes I insist on leaving something as is if I feel changing it will fundamentally undercut my integrity as a writer and the story I want to tell, but I pick my battles carefully. I have yet to meet an editor with whom I could not work amicably and productively.

As for my day-to-day process, once I’ve chosen a project of any length or type, I try to write at least twice a day for an hour each time. It isn’t always possible, but I do my best. I tend to work on a couple of projects at once—a potential novel chapter and a story, a story and a screenplay, etc. In grad school, I was forced to multi-task, and I have yet to break the habit completely. Right now, for instance, I’m revising a text and working on a new story. I’ll revise for a session and write for a session. I’ve found that setting time limits, rather than specific word counts, works better for me because of my other time constraints.

I’d like to thank C.D. Mitchell for tagging me.In turn, I am tagging two of my writer friends who occasionally blog, Robin Becker and Sean Hoade.

Robin Becker is a graduate school buddy of mine. She has recently accepted a teaching position at Ole Miss. Her zombie novel, Brains, is available in bookstores and online.

Sean Hoade is a fellow Las Vegan. He has been a prolific self-publisher; his latest work, Deadtown Abbey, is hilarious and weird, and I mean that in the best possible sense. He has recently contracted to write a series of undead-themed books for a traditional publisher, so look for them in the near future., coming to bookstores near you.

#MyWritingProcessBlogTour–C.D. Mitchell

Much like “The Next Big Thing Self-Interview” series that went around on the Internet a while back, the “My Writing Process Blog Tour” asks a writer to answer a series of questions on his/her blog and then tag three other writers. C.D. Mitchell tagged me, so I am re-posting his blog response here. Next week, I’ll post my own. C.D. will publicize my post, and I will tag three other writers who blog. With any luck, they will all respond and publicize my blog entry in kind. I will, in turn, publicize their posts. All backs get scratched.

Without further ado, I give you C.D. Mitchell, author of the short story collections God’s Naked Will and Alligator Stew.

I became a part of this process when Tamara Linse tagged me to follow up on this blog tour. I generally do not participate in such things, but this seemed intriguing, so I tossed my hat in the ring and tagged two fellow writers I admire, Shonell Bacon and Brett Riley to follow me. So here goes!

What am I working on these days?

I am working on a yet untitled novel that will involve smuggling of guns, drugs, and illegals up the Mississippi River and its navigable waterways by riverboat barge. A chapter of the novel, one that deals primarily with President’s Island in Memphis, is scheduled to appear in Memphis Noir sometime this fall. The novel deals with river barge traffic, a largely unregulated means of travel during the early 1990’s. I envision a mix of Mark Twain, Robert Earl Keen and Cormack McCarthy in the final text. My main character has purchased an electric shock therapy machine at a flea market in Mississippi and will eventually use it to collect money on fronted drugs.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

A recent review of my story collection “Alligator Stew” called the writing “Dirty Realism.” Many of the reviews of my work posted on Goodreads andAmazon.com have observed that I write about situations others shun or ignore. I create real characters faced with desperate situations. I don’t spend six pages describing in flowery language how a dog crosses the road to take a shit in the ditch. That is not to say that sentence construction, word choice and rhythms are not important to me. They are, and they must be important to all writers. But my emphasis is story. Shit happens in the stories I write!

Why do I write what I do?

Because too many others lack the courage to face the reality of life. I write to expose the incredible hopelessness faced by the schizophrenic, by the impoverished, by those cursed with bad luck and misfortune. I write to expose the hypocrisy of the Bible-thumping zealots who would steal our freedoms away and impose by law their own brand of morality upon US citizens. I write because I have to. It has always been a hunger I must feed. I write because the best day of writing is always the best day of my life!

How does my Writing Process work?

I have always heard of binge eaters and binge drinkers; I am a binge writer. I develop an idea for a story or book. I note it in my journals and I write about the idea. I research and develop the characters. I read newspaper articles and interview people. At some point, the influx of information builds like water pressure behind a dam until I am forced to open the floodgates and release the weight of all that has accumulated. I have binges where I write every day, and during those times I commit to 500 words a day. Promising myself 500 words allows me to sit down when I have little time, and to get up when I simply must leave. But more often than not, 500 words become 1500 or even 2000. I endlessly revise, going back and rereading as often as I can. For instance, my current novel has had me researching Electric Shock Therapy Machines on the internet and trying to buy one on Amazon.com. I have interviewed a close friend of mine who ran river boats up and down the Mississippi and intra-coastal for thirty years. I am booking an evening ride on the Memphis Queen so I can approach President’s Island from the river, and I will also make a trip to the Island and hopefully spend some time exploring the Wildlife management Area that exists there within the city limits of Memphis. I have just begun the writing of the book, and the research will continue. 

C.D.’s original post can be found at http://cdmitchell1964.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/my-writing-process-blog-tour/.

His whole blog can be found at http://cdmitchell1964.wordpress.com/.

Please visit his website at https://www.cdmitchell.net/.

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 5

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

5.         Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Back in graduate school, we thought about making “I Survived Gravity’s Rainbow” t-shirts, but we never did. Perhaps it’s because we knew that, in spite of the book’s labyrinthine plot and dozens of characters, the book is something to be savored, not survived.

World War II is on, and Tyrone Slothrop finds himself meandering through the European theater, seeking Rocket 00000, a particularly deadly weapon. To say much more about the plot would be futile and just plain mean, since half the fun (and frustration) of reading the book for the first time is trying to keep things straight—who’s who, what they’re doing, where they’re doing it, and why. Dead people don’t necessarily stay that way. Kinky sex is had. Double agents appear; limericks and bawdy songs supplement the traditional narrative; and eventually, our protagonist—what? Explodes? Disappears? Evaporates? Becomes irrelevant?

Gravity’s Rainbow is truly a tour de force. You may have to read it two or three times before you start to get a real handle on it, but it rewards repeated readings. Though it takes place in wartime Europe, it is one of the quintessential texts of Postmodernism, and a book that is somehow very much American.

Other texts that would work well: Mason and Dixon; The Crying of Lot 49; Inherent Vice.

4.         Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

A candidate on the list of books that might actually qualify as the mythical “great American novel,” Melville’s Moby-Dick is another book that rewards repeated readings. From what I have gathered from talking to different people, the usual experience goes something like this. First reading—you get lost in all the footnoted material (or, worse, you read an edition with no footnotes and stay lost half the time) and the minutia of cetology, and so you’re afraid you missed half the plot. Second reading—you retain more of the information; you notice material that you may have missed the first time; and you realize that, in terms of plot, not a lot actually happens. Third reading—you start to appreciate the genius.

About that plot: our narrator, Ishmael, arrives in Nantucket, determined to go to sea, basically because he is sick of people in general (a feeling with which I can relate). He meets Queequeg the harpooner in a hotel. Together, they sign on to the Pequod, a whaler.  The ship sails, and they meet the monomaniacal Ahab, who reveals his true agenda—to find and kill the creature that took his leg, a white whale named Moby-Dick. The Pequod sails about the world’s oceans, asking other ships if they’ve seen Moby-Dick, killing a couple of different kinds of whales, and philosophizing about the nature of whales, humanity, obsession, revenge, religion, history, and a dozen other subjects. Eventually they find Moby-Dick; things go badly.

That’s about it.

In between all that, we get some of the most eloquent first-person narration in world letters and from the American Romantic era in particular. The action sequences are detailed and thrilling. The philosophy is thought-provoking. The symbolism is deep.

As Ishmael says, “Surely these things are not without meaning.”

The result of all this is a book that is absolutely essential. I never get tired of it. If you have the wherewithal to stick by it, it will grow on you.

Other texts that would work well: Typee; Billy Budd; Redburn; White Jacket; The Confidence-Man; the collected short works, which would include one of my favorite stories in existence, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

3.         The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

War literature is often hard to take—for the former soldier, who might find him/herself forced to relive painful memories; for the civilian, who often has to wade through buckets of blood and gore, gallows humor, and the foulest of foul language; for the writer, who must give part of him/herself and live down in the trenches with the characters. Yet this kind of writing is crucial to the evolution of the world and the world spirit of which we are all a part. Art does not have to be pretty; in fact, it often needs to be ugly, horrendous, painful, so that it can drag kicking and screaming into the light things that we might otherwise gloss in order to avoid discomfort.

I’ve said this before. I say it again because Tim O’Brien’s—what? Linked story collection? Novel-in-stories?—The Things They Carried manages to be ugly and painful and unutterably beautiful, often all at the same time.

It’s an abstract examination of concepts like war and bravery at the same that it’s a concrete representation of how those concepts can manifest. It is a minute examination of how war affects the individual psyche even as it follows a group of men and the ways that they connect and disconnect, laugh and cry, live and perish, zapped while zipping.

From the opening story that scrutinizes all the different ideas that the words “things” and “carry” might mean, to the unravelling of the very concept of narrative in “How to Tell a True War Story”; from the coming-of-age-in-a-pressure-cooker tension of “On the Rainy River” to the gender-complicated heartbreak of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”; from the personal recriminations of “In the Field” to the desperate search for closure in “Field Trip”; from the loss and disconnection of “Speaking of Courage” to the redemptive power of stories in “The Lives of the Dead,” every single line and word in this book is indispensable.

Along the way, O’Brien examines such American concepts as patriotism and courage, individualism and group membership, language and action, war and that elusive concept we call peace.

The Things They Carried is a staggering artistic achievement and a deeply personal experience. Buy it yesterday. Read it now. Remember it forever.

Other texts that would work well: Going After Cacciato; If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; July, July.

2.         Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

I knew that McCarthy would make the list, and that, if it were truly an ordered list, he would be near the top. I was not sure which text I would go with. How do you choose between Blood Meridian and the shattering experience that is The Road? Or the Border Trilogy? Even the short and highly disturbing Child of God or the mediocre-according-to-critics No Country for Old Men? Suttree, Outer Dark, The Orchard Keeper…any of them are worthy of this list.

While I almost went with The Road, and might well do so if you asked me to remake this list tomorrow, I must, at least for today, choose Blood Meridian: or, the Evening Redness in the West as the McCarthy book I cannot do without.

The scene: the American southwest in the late 19th century. Dramatis Personae: The Kid, our protagonist, a teenaged survivor with a vicious streak a mile wide; The Judge, the towering, hairless, possibly supernatural philosopher who just might literally be a devil; Glanton, the leader of a gang of bloodthirsty thugs who scalps Native Americans for fun and profit; and Glanton’s gang, any one of whom might make the subject of a long case study in socio- and/or psychopathy.

Based on historical events, Blood Meridian chronicles the travels and acts of this gang as the drown the southwest in gore, not all of it from “Indians.” We are witness to literal massacres. Death is never further away than one careless word or unguarded facial expression. Through it all, McCarthy’s unforgettable characters ponder the nature of humanity, of war, of freedom, of God. The Judge’s speeches alone are endlessly quotable and chilling.

Some find the book hopelessly bleak, and it’s tough to argue against that characterization, except…

Well, near the end, the Kid shows us a couple of glimmers of a human soul. What happens to him as a result is wrenching and ambiguous.

Several years ago, I gave the book to a relative who wanted a good read. The next time I saw her, she said, “What the heck did you get me into?”

Pick up the book and find out for yourself.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named texts. Start with The Road, which won more awards than a Spielberg film, and go from there.

1.         Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner.

Among the world’s people of letters, Faulkner has perhaps been the biggest influence on my own work, though he might have to duke it out with anybody else on this list (and a few dozen others) for that honor on any given day. He’s also another writer whose works are almost impossible to choose from. Even his minor works (if you believe in the viability of such a term) are good, thought-provoking reads.

During the 1920s and 30s, Faulkner went on a roll that is among the most creatively satisfying in history. The works normally described as his masterpieces were written during that time—not just GD,M but also his most complex work, Absalom, Absalom! (which was originally in this spot); his master class in point of view and voice, The Sound and the Fury; his insightful examination of race and class, Light in August; his surprisingly pot-boiling novel, Sanctuary; his story collection/novel-in-stories The Unvanquished, which takes us through the Civil War and beyond; and his OTHER master study in point of view and voice, the darkly comic and deeply sad As I Lay Dying.

One of my graduate school professors, a national authority on Faulkner and southern literature, once called Go Down, Moses Faulkner’s greatest work about race. That is, of course, debatable. But there can be no debate that this book—another collection/novel-in-stories—is a masterpiece of creative energy and daring.

Focusing on the families of old Carothers McCaslin, an antebellum plantation patriarch, the book begins in pre-Civil War times with the hilarious, deadpan, at times slapstick yet still dramatic tale “Was.” We first learn that there are two sides to old Carothers’s family—the white side and the black side, the latter of which resulting from his forced miscegenation—i.e., rape—of his female slaves, thus the references to Tomey’s Turl as “that damn half-white McCaslin.” The characters we meet in “Was” are the ancestors of those we’ll meet in the other stories, notably McCaslin Edmonds, Ike McCaslin (who would inherit and, out of shame, repudiate the land of his fathers), Carothers Edmonds, and Lucas Beauchamp, the African-American descendent of Old Carothers by the male line.

What follows in these stories is often funny; see, for instance, the way that Lucas outsmarts all the educated white men in the area. It is often shocking and emotionally draining; see “Pantaloon in Black” for one example. It is often confusing; try reading the second half of “The Bear” just once and see if you can keep it all straight. But the book is always fascinating and powerful.

Here are only a few topics you will encounter: family connections; how race impacts family connections in the south; economic class, and how race impacts it in the south; gender roles and assumptions, and how race impacts them in the south; the disappearance of nature in the face of encroaching urbanization and development (look for the heartbreaking images in “The Bear,” a story that is mythic in its scope and aims); the responsibility of an individual for his sons—or his fathers; how we relate to our elders; and the illusory nature of what we often call progress.

Look for characters like those named above and Sam Fathers, who brings to the book his own convoluted history;  Boon Hoggenback, the backwoods anti-marksman who loves his dog more than his own life; and the Beauchamps, whose familial drama is as powerful in its own way as anything in literature.

You can’t go wrong with Faulkner. If you start with this book, look up a family tree so you can keep track of who’s who and how they are related. Then sit back and watch the master work.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named works; The Uncollected Stories; The Town; The Hamlet; Soldier’s Pay; The Wild Palms; Intruder in the Dust.

There you go—the top 25 books on my ideal bookshelf, at least for now. If you haven’t read them, get started. You’re never too young—or too old—to appreciate greatness.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 3

[NOTE: this is being posted only hours after the announcement that Elmore Leonard had died. It’s a dark day for writers everywhere. God bless him, his family, and his legions of fans.]

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

#15.     Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I have a confession to make: this is the only book on my list that I haven’t actually read. I’ve read the rest of them several times, but I have never even opened this one. So why is it here?

Put simply, I love David Foster Wallace’s work. When he killed himself a few years back, one of American literature’s lights went out. He had a real command of the language, a knack for making dull-on-the-surface subjects interesting, a vivid imagination. He was a writer’s writer.

Some people call Infinite Jest his masterpiece. Others call it a doorstop, inaccessible, too postmodern for its (or your) own good. Based on the rest of his work, I know I’ve got to read it someday, but things keep getting in the way—work, obligations, life in general, other works whose very page counts aren’t as daunting. Keeping it on my bookshelf, always and forever, is the only way I’ll have a chance.

If you have tackled Infinite Jest, please feel free to comment here.

Other texts that would work well: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; The Pale King; Consider the Lobster.

#14.     The Stand by Stephen King.

King is often dismissed as a hack who churns out genre dreck with the regularity of good bowel movements. I won’t argue that every book or story in his oeuvre meets the standards of great literature; a few are poor (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a fun story undone by a deus ex machina ending), some are too self-derivative (From a Buick 8, too close to the stronger Christine), and some are done well up to a certain point before going off the rails (Black House comes to mind).

But most of his works are, at worst, excellent page-turners, and many transcend the pop-culture, genre-fiction ghetto (not that I believe in those things anyway). There’s a reason some critics have crowned him the 20th century’s Edgar Allen Poe. The Stand, another doorstop tome, is his masterwork. It’s also one of the best apocalypse texts you’ll ever experience.

For those who don’t know the basics: thanks to a government experiment gone awry and lax security at a military base, the United States—and, soon enough, the world—is caught in the grip of a modern-day plague, a superflu colloquially known as Captain Trips. The disease is airborne and easily spread through contact with another infected person. Soon, almost everyone in the world is dead, and the global population’s suffering is shown in horrific detail through the eyes of characters who will survive. Once the dying stops, those who remain must determine how to live in a new, mostly empty world where, as one realizes, all the old toys (cars, camping gear, nuclear missiles) are lying around, just waiting to be picked up.

The survivors converge on two locations. Through visions of an old woman, the good, noble people seem drawn to Denver by way of Kansas. Those with a greater sense of self-interest and the plain old assholes gather in Las Vegas, where a supernatural being of increasing power plots the destruction of the Denver society.

Who goes where? How will the two factions re-create society? What happens when the two groups become aware of each other? And how will each individual choose to meet his or her fate?

A novel as grounded in human free will and individual strife as in cosmic questions of fate and good vs. evil, The Stand is King at his best. Above, I’ve linked to the “uncut” version, which should include all the sections that King originally had to cut due to his publisher’s financial concerns (when art finds itself at the mercy of the bean-counters, we’re all in trouble). Feel free to read the abridged version if you wish, but the longer one is richer, denser, more gripping.

Even if you’re a literary snob, make your own stand and buy this book.

Other texts that would work well: pretty much anything from the mid-1990s or earlier. The Shining comes to mind, as does Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, It, or the various short story collections, though if you like horror fiction, start with pretty much anything he’s done. For good latter-day works, Desperation comes to mind, but you should also read the Dark Tower series at some point. Under the Dome is worth your time, too.

#13.     The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Of all the American Modernist poets, Stevens is the one I keep coming back to. His cool clinician’s voice often belies the passionate intensity of his imagery. The dense, fecund ideas in his work never cease to engage my intellect and my imagination.

Start with his oft-anthologized works—“Anecdote of the Jar”; “The Snow Man”; “Peter Quince at the Clavier”; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and more. You’ll find rich ground for exploring and understanding how poetry works, what literary Modernism means, and how the two intersect with very human, often mundane concerns. In fact, his work often takes the mundane and makes it seem strange, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.”

Move on to his Modernist smackdowns of institutions like religion in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” and “Sunday Morning.” He delivers a pretty good manifesto in “Of Modern Poetry.” And he produces what I have often described as my favorite poem in the language, “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

I’ve touched only on some of his most famous works, but his collected poems will take you wider and deeper than this. If you’re looking for light verse or easily found meanings, stay the hell away from Stevens. If you’re in the mood to be challenged and intrigued, pick up his collected works today.

Other texts that would work well: rather than send you to Stevens’ individual books, I’d suggest you broaden your reading of the Modernist era. Pick up a collection or three from T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound if you’re in an elitist mood. Read William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost if you want seemingly simple but deceptively deep text. Try Marianne Moore if you are in a mood somewhere in between. You could also try H.D. if you’re of a mind.

#12.     The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie.

One of the best contemporary writers, Sherman Alexie is a treat for readers of all ages. His YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a hoot for adults, too. His novels and short story collections are consistently high-quality. He deals with very serious postcolonial issues, but don’t think his works are all doom and gloom. While some of his work is deadly serious, he often uses humor as a way of dealing with trauma—his people’s, his own, his characters’.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven follows that pattern. Some stories are bleak, even apocalyptic. Others are side-splittingly funny. Some of the best ones are a mixture of both, as in the hilarious and heart-breaking “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The stories in this book are interlinked. You’ll meet characters who struggle with reservation life—their love of community, their hatred of the poverty and alcoholism, their struggle to reconcile their conflicting emotions. You’ll be thrust facedown into that poverty, into those shattered lives, into the Res itself, a kind of refuge from the white world that is also a very effective, soul-deadening prison. You’ll see yourself reflected in the characters, both Native and white Americans, and you’ll feel both empathy and shame.

If you are only open to very traditional forms of storytelling, writers like
Alexie might freak you out (as any postmodernist might, for that matter). But if you are interested in the strivings, the triumphs, and the failures of humanity and our nation, you need to seek this man out. Come with an open mind. Leave with a better soul.

Other texts that would work well: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Reservation Blues; The Business of Fancy-Dancing; Ten Little Indians; and pretty much anything else he’s written, including the film Smoke Signals, the adaptation of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

#11.     Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.

Another collection of linked stories (or a novel-in-stories) by another Native American author, Love Medicine is only one of several excellent works by Louise Erdrich. Less humorous than Alexie’s but just as insightful and devastating, this work follows the intersecting lives of two Native American families over the course of several decades. As the families fight, intermingle, intermarry, and fight some more, the reader is treated to the burgeoning of a great American voice.

Here, as in Alexie’s work, you will meet Native American characters at war with mainstream society, with their families, with themselves. You will find alcoholism, domestic abuse, jailbreaks, and one honest-to-God tribal battle in a factory that makes cheap plastic replicas of Native American artifacts like spears, bows and arrows, and headdresses. You will also find the sheer strength and beauty of the human spirit as it refuses to be shattered in the crucible of modernity.

What happens when you attempt an ancient love ritual but substitute mass-produced ingredients for the real thing? What happens to a love triangle when all three people are old? What happens when the love is so hot it burns down a house?

Husbands and wives struggle to understand their children, and vice versa. Old loves are rekindled in the unlikeliest of places. The white world constantly threatens to intrude, even though we seldom see it on the page. And always, always, always the families plod onward, eking out an existence on land they do not always even own. The shimmering power of their endurance is a joy to behold. Read this book today.

Other texts that would work well: A Plague of Doves; Tracks; The Round House; The Painted Dove; The Bingo Palace.

More soon….

 Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 2

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

#20.     Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin.

One of the best works by a great 20th-century author, Going to Meet the Man is a collection of short stories that examine, among other issues, the ways that racism scars both the oppressed and the oppressors. Baldwin deals with issues that mainstream America has worked hard to sweep under the rug—not just racism, but also sexism, classism, and homophobia—and, like the best art, he drags those issues back into the light. Art can be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be, and it often needs to be something else. Baldwin is not afraid to take his work to those places.

From the opening familial drama “The Rockpile” to the religion-meets-secularism-meets-race-meets-sex story “The Outing,” from the oft-anthologized “Sonny’s Blues” to the absolutely devastating and horrifying title story (one that always freaks out my students), this collection is essential, not just to your bookshelf but to America.

Other texts that would work well: Go Tell It on the Mountain.

#19.     Birds of America by Lorrie Moore.

Lorrie Moore may be the best writer that most people don’t seem to have heard of, and Birds of America is one of the best short story collections most people don’t seem to own. Combining wit with a sharp eye for detail, Moore creates works of great beauty, hilarity, deep sadness. Plus, she’s got some of the most interesting titles out there.

In “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” she examines the everyday tragedy of the badly sick child with keen insight. “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens” looks at how important pets can be in our lives and the different ways that people grieve—even people who, ostensibly, should feel both happy and lucky. “Real Estate” takes the reader into a life that has gone horribly wrong in many ways. The stories are full of death, language so sharp it may cut you, pathos, emotional distance. If you have never experienced this collection, do yourself a favor and buy it today.

Other texts that would work well: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

18.       Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Whenever I want to feel transcendental, I read either Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my experience, Emerson is a bit too esoteric for modern readers outside academia; sometimes he’s too esoteric for me, and I read/write/teach literature for a living. Thoreau is more accessible and just as eloquent.

For those who don’t know the “plot” of this nonfiction work—back in the mid-19th century, Thoreau decided to put aside most material things and squat near Walden Pond, a body of water close by Lynn, Massachusetts. For a little over two years, Thoreau lived there in solitude, welcoming the occasional visitor and walking about the pond and township whenever the desire arose. He lived as simply as possible, relied mostly on himself, and pondered the nature of society even as he removed himself from it. In Thoreau’s own words:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

What Thoreau discovered—about society, about humanity, about nature, about himself—is worth your time. Is progress really progress? Thoreau thinks not, and he articulates this idea in ways that would later find echoes in literary/popular cultural figures such as Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. “We do not ride upon the railroad,” he says. “It rides upon us.”

Structured through specific chapters that deal with the work’s major ideas, Walden is part early environmentalism, part spiritual journey, part philosophical treatise, part memoir, and fully worthy of its place on my ideal bookshelf.

Other texts that would work well: I’d seek out his various essays and poems—perhaps start with Collected Essays and Poems, which contains “Resistance to Civil Government” (sometimes called “Civil Disobedience”) and other important works like “Slavery in Massachusetts”—or, lacking that, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

17.       Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

I love poetry, but I’m only putting a few works on this list because I’m mainly a fiction guy. No ideal bookshelf of mine could ever be complete, though, without Walt Whitman’s masterpiece. Often credited, rightly or wrongly, with inventing what many call “free verse” (T.S. Eliot’s claim that it doesn’t exist notwithstanding), Whitman revised Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime. He saw his work as being just as organic as the sprouts after which it was named, and he often let the poems grow, often trimmed them, let some of them die and planted seeds of others.

From the simple missions statement found in “One’s Self I Sing” to the complex, multifaceted “Song of Myself”; from the passionate, some say shocking, sensuality of “I Sing the Body Electric” to the melancholy of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; from the national spirit of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to the deeply personal yet universal “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Whitman’s work spans the universe, the body, the soul. It erases borders between traditional dichotomies. It feeds the soul in ways that resemble the effects of holy texts. Indeed, one of my old professors used to say that when she wanted to be uplifted, she read one of two texts: the Bible or Leaves of Grass.

If you have never read Whitman, it takes some getting used to—the long lines that often seem to (but don’t really) meander, the catalogues, the odd spellings, the repetition. But Whitman is worth the effort. Pick up the book today; he stops somewhere waiting for you.

Other texts that would work well: try one of the collected prose volumes. Concentrate on Specimen Days. If you’re not in the mood for prose, support the works of another great 19th-century poet—Emily Dickinson or the in-my-opinion-underrated-as-a-poet Stephen Crane.

16.       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Huck Finn is often wrongly dismissed as a children’s book. If you dismiss it as such, you’re making a mistake (and probably thinking of Tom Sawyer). Twain’s masterpiece is about a child, but the themes and ideas are very much adult-oriented.

Huck Finn is also often dismissed as a racist text. Critics who call it racist are right to a certain extent, though not because of the use of the “n-word.” That onerous word does appear far too much for comfort, but that’s part of Twain’s point. Twain was a Realist who, by definition, believed that literature ought to record life as it is, not as it should be. Southern white people used that word constantly. So do Twain’s characters. The novel’s (unintentional) racism lies in Twain’s failure to create realistic black characters rather than caricatures.

Still, when your young white protagonist chooses to go to hell rather than turn in his enslaved friend; when he makes the conscious decision to help Jim escape in spite of everything society has tried to make him believe; when he recognizes that those on top of the social ladder rest at the bottom of the moral hierarchy, we might recognize the book as a flawed but genuine attempt to critique racism, not perpetuate it.

“It’s enough to make a body ashamed of the human race,” Huck says in reference to how two white conmen trick rural rubes out of their cash. “He had a dream, and it shot him,” Huck says about Tom Sawyer’s misguided Romanticism. And when Huck decides to “light out for the Territories” rather than stay in a corrupt society, Twain reveals his own beliefs about what he once called the “damned human race.”

Huck Finn is often hilarious. It is often thought-provoking. It is often touching. But to the discerning reader, it is never anything but one of the finest pieces of literary art ever produced. If your school system bans the book, move, because you’re surrounded by idiots. Read this imperfect critique of American racism, this adventure story, this comedy, this living novel and join the conversation about a truly American text. Ernest Hemingway allegedly said that all 20th century literature comes from Huck Finn. I don’t know if that’s true, but it does cast one of the long shadows in which we writers labor and create.

Other texts that would work well: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Life on the Mississippi.

Join us, won’t you?

More soon…

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com