The dangers of experiencing life through the goggles of blind progress or through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, the dissolution of community, gentrification and its ramifications--intended and unintentional--are some recurring themes in my Black Hawk fiction. When I found out that AWP was going to take place in Minneapolis this year, there was one sight I wanted to see...
When I wrote "Shangri La Dee Da," a story about a lonely man chasing the dream of never-ending McDonalds McRib sandwiches (ironically, not a Black Hawk story), I used Google Street View to get a sense of the neighborhoods throughout the Midwest which the narrator visits. When I explored the neighborhood around the McDonalds at 548 W Jefferson Ave in St Paul, I was in for two pleasant surprises. I came across a giant mockup of an old bottle of Grain Belt Lager. The details of that advertisement and of Grain Belt's slogan, "The Friendly Beer" spoke to me and informed me in some way about the desire for human connection my narrator was seeking. And across the street from the Grain Belt advertisement was what appeared to be a decrepit brewery. That structure and Bay City, Michigan's city hall became models for Black Hawk's La Mancha brewery.
I clicked on Google Maps Street View this morning in preparation for my visit this weekend. The giant beer bottle is still there, but the accompanying signage now advertises Schmidt Artist Lofts. And a quick scroll across the street reveals the old brewery reborn as trendy condos for hipsters "with champagne tastes on a beer budget."
And so it goes.
In a followup to the publication of "Lucha Libre" which appears in Heavy Feather Review 3.2 (There's a nice piece about that issue in American Microviews and Interviews.) the editors asked me some questions about my work. Here's a bit on what constitutes good writing for me:
While I don’t often hear writers arguing about highbrow versus lowbrow the way Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer may have on some smoke-filled talk show set forty years ago, there are still palpable ripples in that critical pond. Nicholas Sparks, Suzanne Collins, Gorge R.R. Martin. Those names will conjure notions of “low brow” prose for some. Say what you will about the technical ability of those authors, they know how to keep their readers turning the page. Ultimately, isn’t that at the core of what we do?
On the other hand, an unspoken highbrow ideal occasionally pops up in creative writing programs around the country. This is where I encounter writers with little regard for their audience or acknowledge no audience at all. These are the narcissistic, naval-gazing, ennui-wracked authors forever concerned with the solipsistic “I” (whether or not working in first person). Beyond a lack of consideration for audience, this class of writers walls their fiction off from readers by steeping it in the murky world of metanarrative or drenching it in sneering irony. When called out in a workshop or review, these writers often hide behind the term experimental as if that excuses a lack of story or character development. I’ll own up to dabbling in this when I was a younger writer. I’d pull off tricks on the page simply because I could, not necessarily for the benefit of the story. Today, with my dying breath, I’ll argue that boundary-pushing fiction can and must tell a good story.
At this point in my career I don’t believe it’s my place as an artist to write stories that draw attention to themselves as works of art. The artifice in my fiction, if there is any, is the complete and absolute dissolution of artifice. I work diligently to make sure there’s no hint of the puppeteer’s stings. The task I set for myself as an artist is to produce an immersive world—both familiar and fantastic—while always remembering to give a damn about my characters and to write characters who give a damn about something.
You can read more about my writing influences and interests at Heavy Feather Review.
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.
In a followup to the publication of my story "Goodwill" in BULL: Men's Fiction, I was asked to comment on stress management; the main character dreams of smashing some of the knickknacks his mother hoards. Instead of writing about stress in general, I took the opportunity to write about creating narrative tension by not allowing characters to blow off that steam. Here's what I came up with:
I think there’s got to be a release valve, whether that be smashing tchotchkes or working a heavy bag or lifting weights. At least for me there needs to be. And it’s always healthy when I’m letting go of that energy. It’s like a controlled burn in the forest. Most importantly, it allows me to work. I’m not one of those people who writes to let out their feelings. I need to let that anger, anxiety, fear, or whatever out before I show up at the page.
So it’s healthy to release that pressure, but as a writer I’m not interested in characters who manage their frustration in healthy ways. How damn boring would it be to read about well-adjusted, normal people? I want to see how long my characters can keep that valve shut. Let that pressure build and build and build. I want to hear that teakettle whistle. Junior dreams about smashing that salt shaker, but he never acts on that impulse. Likewise, at the end of the story, he knows he should say something to his mom about her hoarding problem, about her not getting over the dad’s leaving, but he’s never going to say anything. It’s that not doing of things—the regret that goes along with it and the anticipation for the blow-up at some point—where I find an infinite source of narrative tension.
All the Proud Fathers, the book-length manuscript in which “Goodwill” appears is packed with characters not acting, not releasing that tension, and then blowing a gasket in some way. There’s a boxer who keeps training for a title shot that passed him by a decade ago and ends up trading punches with the cops instead of the champ. There are family men approaching middle age who seek an escape from their bourgeois lives by obsessing on a shared childhood memory of a mysterious Gypsy encampment in the middle of their city. There’s a luchador who rises to the heights of the professional wrestling world only to buckle under the pressure of being the top guy. He ends up in a two bit promotion wrestling bears in the North Woods of Wisconsin.
If there’s a common thread to all those stories (and, maybe, a recurring pattern in the way I craft narratives) it might be that building pressure, that frustration when it comes to withholding action, and how it manifests in unexpected—sometimes destructive, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes fantastic—ways.
This is my first blog for the website. I'll check in from time to time and discuss new projects and publications, maybe talk about teaching, or gush about books, movies, and other forms of entertainment I'm consuming. Right now I'm marking-out for Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear, easily my favorite read of the last 12 months (yes, that's including all my readings for comps), and Buster Keaton movies; I'm thinking of screening Keaton clips for my writing students and having them try to write out the actions they see Keaton performing. Writing movement can be so damn hard. Not too long ago I spent an entire day figuring out how to describe Uncle Angelo cracking his neck.
The editors at Lantern Journal asked me to write a short introduction about "Faustino and the Enormous Gamecock," which they'll be publishing later this spring. I'm really excited about that publication. They pair some wonderful artwork with text. I can't wait to see how they envision my story. The story is very much a Black Hawk story, but it's also an experiment in structure. It's a framed story without the closing frame. In my essay for Lantern I wrote about that structure and my choice not return to the shell story. Here's what I came up with:
The first draft of Faustino and the Enormous Gamecock was an origin story for a character in a novel I’d been writing. That character, a luchador (a masked professional wrestler), makes an ill-fated career decision to unmask after an important match. Earl Atlas, the boy obsessed with the naked woman in Faustino and the Enormous Gamecock, grows up to become that wrestler. While concerned with matters of Earl’s identity in the original draft, the project morphed into something else in revision. At the time, I’d been reading after story which made use of the frame structure, a story in flashback bookended by a story in the present. While these were tidy and effective ways to structure narratives, I didn’t always find them satisfying (to read or write). In Faustino and the Enormous Gamecock I wanted to blow up that frame. There are no rules that say one must come out of a flashback. After all, masters like Stuart Dybek and Gabriel Garcia Marquez frequently break this convention as they bend memory and time to serve their stories. Ideally, when the reader comes to the end of my story the lines between Señor Faustino and Earl have blurred. Faustino’s “flashback” puts him at roughly the same age as Earl in the “present” story. The narrative voice reinforces this when it begins referring to Señor Faustino as “the boy” during the rooster and dog story. If I’m doing my job, I believe I don’t need to close the frame. I think that suggesting what could happen next is more than enough for my audience. Readers are active, intelligent, and imaginative people, and it would be demeaning for me to map out the final movement of Earl’s story. If Earl takes Faustino’s warning to heart, that there are some secrets that should never be revealed, then I can’t think of a justification for Earl or the narrator to betray those instructions and tell us if he finally climbs up on the roof. To quote Señor Faustino: “Keep your mysteries.”
I usually don't enjoy writing about my writing but this little piece was fun for me. It was fun to explain why it's ok to write a framed story that' s missing the closing frame. Fun to write about honoring and respecting my reader. Fun to remember that sticking to my guns and listening to that intuitive voice has paid off. Fun to remind myself that it's ok to ask, Why not?
Which brings me to why not start a website? I always told myself I'd get one up and running once I published my first novel or collection of stories...when I was a real writer. I'm done with waiting for someday to come. Today's the only one I have any influence on. So here we go...