Saturday, October 15, 2011

Soup and Salad: Rejection Sucks, Daniel Woodrell, Inside Denis Johnson, Other People, The writer as entrepreneur, Shann Ray plants seeds of atonement, The Radium Age of science-fiction, Reading during Hurricane Irene, Short Stories vs. Novels: Round 22

On today's menu:

1.  Leslie Pietrzyk is sick and tired of rejection: "In the end, I DO NOT believe that, like cream, all good work rises to the top. I’m convinced that a lot of good work simply gets lost or set aside or overlooked or forgotten; many good writers simply give up."  It's a nice Howard Beale-ish rant, one that eventually erupts from every writer who's sick and tired of getting return SASEs (Old School) or assembly-line emails ("Though we enjoyed your work very much, in the end we...").  But after the red clears from our faces and the veins stop throbbing, it's time to get back down to the business of writing, submitting, writing, submitting, et cetera--all the while, watching out the window to see if we can see our ship come in.

2.  Daniel Woodrell is one writer whose luxury liner has finally pulled into port after he's spent most of his career writing off the radar of most readers.  While I wasn't as enamored with it as most critics, I was still happy to see the movie version of Winter's Bone do so well at the box office, catapulting Woodrell to a larger audience.  This year has already seen the repackaging of three of his earlier novels into a handsome trade paperback called The Bayou Trilogy; and now, his new collection of short stories, The Outlaw Album, has just been released.  Joey McGarvey has an excellent review over at The Millions which further convinces me this is the must-get book of the year:
In Woodrell’s superb new collection, The Outlaw Album, characters are fueled by desperation, anger, and (one suspects) a sense of humor either incomparably keen or completely nonexistent. How else could you explain the book’s first sentence, found in a story called “The Echo of Neighborly Bones”?: “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.” After burying his neighbor in a makeshift grave, this Boshell makes a habit of stopping by whenever he’s feeling blue. Nothing takes the edge off a rough day, or soothes the memory of his wife’s tears, as well as going at the rotting corpse with a heavy stone or a blunt hatchet.

3.  I love studying and discussing the Process of writing--dumping the nuts and bolts out onto the table and sorting them according to size and shape--that's why I thought these scans of Denis Johnson's notes for Train Dreams were especially cool, including the enigmatic "Eagl Scout" on one notebook page.  Most of the handwriting is hard to decipher, but that just lends itself to the impression Johnson was in such a rush to get everything out of his head and onto the page that his pen couldn't keep up with his thoughts.

4.  Have you heard?  Brad Listi of The Nervous Breakdown now has a weekly podcast called Other People in which he talks to "people who write stuff, people who write books, people who sit there all day long staring at a flashing cursor, people who write even though they're deep in poverty, people who continue to try to write books even though the books they're trying to write are eluding them, people who quietly endure the monumental frustration of trying to put the words in the right order."  The first episode was a conversation with the never-boring Jonathan Evison who may or may not be wearing pants during the phone interview.  Subsequent podcasts feature Victoria Patterson, Blake Butler, Emma Straub, Greg Olear, Jessica Anya Blau and other, um, people.  Click to the site, cock an ear, enjoy!

5.  Though New West seems to have gone the way of the tumblin' tumbleweed (a moment of silence, please, for the dearly departed), books editor Jenny Shank isn't letting the grass grow under her feet.  She's started contributing to PBS' Media Shift, including a nice piece on how authors need to be their own entrepreneurs in a "Brave New Book World."  She writes:
      I live in Colorado, and I've never met my agent or my editor, who live in New York. There have been a few phone calls, but most of our interaction has occurred via email. We copyedited my book [The Ringer] digitally, using Microsoft Word's track-changes feature. I've never had the sense that someone has "been looking for me." Rather, I knew from the start that it was my job to go out and look for people who might write a review, interview me, or maybe even buy the book.
      I'm not complaining--I accept this self-marketing as part of publishing a book today. My chance to publish my first book came now, in the middle of massive changes in the publishing industry--the rise of e-books, the fall of Borders, and a prolonged economic downturn that leaves people with little disposable income for books--and I'm thankful to have this opportunity.

6.  Jenny also has a good (though rather short) interview with Shann Ray (American Masculine) in a recent issue of High Country News.  Here's how the conversation kicks off:
      Q: You've said that redemption is one of your favorite themes in literature. Why is that?
      A: I think people are hungry for it. Coming out of modernism and branching into postmodernism, we have a glut of irony, cynicism, nihilism and characters that are difficult for people to identify with -- characters that are so interiorly dark or shattered that they're not going to rise to any type of redemption, they're just going to fall and make the reader feel like that's just life and that's what you have to do. Last century was the bloodiest in history, with 120 million war-related deaths; I think that we can see why (contemporary literature) would want to emphasize the nihilism and the emptiness of life. But I believe there's a need for balance. I feel like a lot of the new territory in writing will come from attending to the desolation, but not ignoring the consolation, not ignoring the notion that there is in each person the seed of the potential for atonement or redemption.

7.  HiLowbrow has 10 classic examples of dustjackets and "boards" (the paper- or cloth-covered stiff cardboard forming a book’s covers) from what they call the Radium Age of science-fiction (1904-1933).  As a collector of vintage books, I'm drawn to these dustjackets in ways that are inexplicable and perhaps best left private.  I love them all, but I'm especially turned-on by the board art of The Panchronicon, the 1904 novel by Harold Steele Mackaye.  I want me one of them there airships!

8.  I'm behind in catching up on the backlog of email and so a few "Soup and Salad" items have been sitting in my Inbox for well over a month.  Here's one from the Reader's Quest blog which I've been meaning to tell you about: "Reading During Hurricane Irene."
      I tried again to concentrate on Tolstoy while the wind roared over the roof. It was impossible to see the corners of the ceiling--never mind anything that might be happening outside--but I could barely resist the urge to get up and try to look out a window that could shatter at any time. The dog hid in her crate and we tried not to flinch when we heard the unmistakable crack and thud signaling the demise of one of the seventy-foot tulip poplars somewhere behind the house. At least it hadn’t fallen on the house. “I like the candles, Mom,” said my 13-year-old with a reassuring smile. “It smells like Christmas in here.”
      Tolstoy wasn’t going to happen, at least not until the storm had passed us over. Instead I opened the Book of Common Prayer to read the Service of Light and Evening Prayer:
      “Be our light in darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all the perils and dangers of this night….”

9.  And here's another must-read from back in August: Josh Rolnick's "My Life in Stories" from The Millions:
      “So,” the agent said, “I like your stories. Are you working on a novel?”
      I was sitting in the venerable Dey House, the 1857 Victorian home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, meeting with another agent--the fifth or sixth I’d met since I’d arrived in Iowa City. She sat in a chair, facing me, across a large wooden desk, the question lingering in her eyes.
      I’d known the question was coming. Every other agent I’d met had come around to the same thing, eventually.
      The answer--the truth--was that I was not. Writing a novel. Perhaps eventually I would. But at the time, I was writing stories, exclusively. Even worse, the stories had nothing to do with each other. They had no re-occurring characters; they were not linked, even thematically. I had a vague notion that one day, the stories would miraculously interweave into a collection that felt somehow organic. But try telling that to an agent, whose job it will be to actually sell your book. The starry light goes out of their eyes. They hand over the obligatory business card, ask you to keep in touch.
      No, I thought, eyeing her across the desk, I do not have a novel.
      “Yes,” I said. “I do.”
      She leaned forward, intertwining her fingers on the blotter.
      “What’s it about?”
      Here, I paused. There was still time to save myself. It’s about nothing. I don’t even have an idea. I haven’t written a single word. I don’t know what came over me.
      But I had come across something interesting the week before, while researching a short story.
      “It’s about life saving stations. Funded by Congress in the 1800s?” I sat back, hoping to discern some flicker of interest in her expression. “They were a precursor to the Coast Guard. Red houses that dotted the Atlantic Coast, manned by young men--kids, really. They’d stand watch in a storm, waiting for shipwrecks.”
      Her eyebrow went up. “Tell me more.”
      “Well, when they spotted one, they’d head out in a small dinghy--a rescue crew. My novel’s about a saving station crewman on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A terrible shipwreck in a violent storm.”
      I swallowed hard. Clearly, she could see right through me. My career as a writer was over before it’d even started.
      “It’s a love story,” I added.
      “I love it!” she said.
      And that was that. I’d been writing short stories seriously for half a dozen years. Revising, polishing. Sending them out. Tallying rejections. Revising some more. I’d published one story by that point, with a second forthcoming. And she was all but ready to represent me on the basis of a few-sentence novel synopsis I’d concocted right there on the spot. Practically from thin air.
It only gets better from there.  Like I said, a must-read.

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