Recently I've started compiling essays I've written and interviews I’ve done about my fiction as preparation for my dissertation defense. While doing so, I found this craft essay about the writing of “The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery.” That story is an adapted chapter from my novel-length manuscript, The Deathmask of El Gaucho. It appeared in the debut issue of The Museum of Americana in the summer of 2012.
What’s most striking to me when I re-read my thoughts from two years ago is how much in terms of theme (father-son relationships, Catholicism, loss), setting (Deathmask took place in the greater Rustbelt including what was to become Black Hawk), and a character or three (Flaco, Pig, El Gaucho) found its way into my dissertation, All the Proud Fathers.
I always tell my students that there’s no wasted energy when it comes to writing. Those false starts are necessary to chisel something out of the subconscious. (Case in point, I tried writing a story about an ill-fated honeymoon in Northern Michigan this autumn. That didn’t take root, but there was an image, a particular color of the water on the Little Traverse Bay which prompted the story I’m working right now; and I'm pretty sure this one’s a story with legs.
I'd do well to learn from the lectures I give my students. And so I tell myself there’s no wasted energy with “The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery," a story about Pogue Malone, the mythic wrestler who was stabbed in the heart by his illegitimate son during a title defense in Newton, Iowa. But there is that twinge of regret. I like this story. I like the epic voice. I love the collective point of view (which I write about in the craft essay). Yet while this is about fathers and sons, it is not about Black Hawk; it isn’t a story for All the Proud Fathers which is—like Dubliners and The Coast of Chicago and Winesburg, Ohio—first and foremost about place and the people of a place.
Likewise, it’s not a story which is going to fit with the untitled collection I’m nearing completion, one which primarily focuses on stories that experiment with form and structure: “Shangri La Dee Da” is a modular story about a lonely man who drives around the Midwest eating McRib sandwiches, “El Gaucho Has the Flu” is a story masquerading as a piece of journalism, “Trajectory” is the story of an ill-fated game of Lawn Darts told through a series of game instructions.
“The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery” doesn’t seem to experiment with structure in any way, at least not one that I can see (if any of you can make the argument that it’s doing something interesting with structure, let me know), so this one will go in the figurative drawer, an orphan for the time being… I have been scribbling down some notes about a period piece, what I think will be a novel about the Great Acorn Wars and the Gypsy King’s Inferno, two cataclysmic events in the history of Black Hawk. Those events, I’m pretty sure, occurred at some point during Pogue Malone’s title reign. So who knows? I hear they like wrestling in Black Hawk. Maybe The Pogue wrestled there at some point.