Happy Birthday, Wheatyard!
My debut novel Wheatyard turns one year old today, having been published on April 30, 2013. At last check, 94 paperback copies have been sold, plus there have been 374 free ebook downloads. It's been a fun year - plenty of good wishes, a handful of nice reviews, a tiny bit of cash, but first and foremost the reassurance that all of this writing is worth the trouble.
High praise from Karl Wolff
Yes, it's been an unusually busy day of blogging, but I've saved the best for last. Karl Wolff, staff reviewer at Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, has named Wheatyard as his Best First Novel of 2013, as well as Best Overall Book Design of the year. He calls my narrative voice "by turns, tender and vicious," which is flattering - tender, maybe, but I never thought of my writing as vicious. Maybe a new side to explore? (Karl reviewed the book for CCLaP back in June.)
I had nothing to do with the book design, the credit for which goes Pablo D'Stair, the publisher of Kuboa Press, for overall design and Carlos M. Gonzalez-Fernandez for the cover art. Interestingly, Karl is the second person I've known who commented favorably on the mass-market paperback format. Though I was wary of the format at first (which I had previously associated with Harlequin romances), I soon fell in love with the compact dimensions. It's a beautiful little edition, and Pablo and Carlos did a great job. Kudos to them.
Wheatyard reviewed in American Book Review
Matt Baker writes a great review of Wheatyard in the latest issue (September/October 2013) of American Book Review. (It's just a coincidence that this issue's focus in on "Sex Writing." Nary a hint of sex in Wheatyard, alas.) Here's an excerpt:
What makes Anderson’s straightforward novel so refreshing is the way he portrays the student-mentor relationship; we’d expect the student (the narrator) to fill his role enthusiastically, a pleasing kind of subservience, but rather, the narrator is intrigued by Wheatyard’s nudges to write, and introduction to storytelling, but it isn’t until the end that the narrator unearths, on his own and at the right moment for him, this urge to write.
The full review is here. I've heard great things about ABR but haven't read it yet, so of course I'll be buying a copy. I encourage you to do likewise.
Wheatyard reviewed, then reviewed againIt's been an unusually busy day for Wheatyard. First, this fine review from my good friend and writer Paul Lamb.
The reader, just like the unmoored graduate who is the narrator, is invited to speculate on the things left unsaid, to fill in the story that is untold, and in the end, to complete the tale in whatever way is most satisfying (including the tantalizing "satisfaction" of never really ever being able to know).Then there's this equally fine review from James Claffey at Philadelphia Review of Books.
Anderson’s book is a subtle examination of the writer’s struggle, of the ghosts of Wheatyard’s parents and spectral sister, and of the importance of storytelling. Despite Wheatyard being a physically small book, beautifully produced by Kuboa, it is also a big, brave book written with precision and wholeheartedness.Thank you, Paul and James!
Interview at Midwestern GothicMidwestern Gothic interviewed me about Wheatyard, writing, and the Midwest.
Thanks to Jeff Pfaller and Rob Russell for running the interview, and for their ongoing support. Getting my beloved but long-unpublished story "Mahalia" into the debut issue of Midwestern Gothic is one of the highlights of my writing career.
MG: Do you believe the Midwest has affected your writing?
PA: The Midwest is physically beautiful, but in a very subtle way. The beauty of other places, like the mountains of Colorado or the beaches of Florida, is much easier to appreciate, but in the Midwest you often have to look very closely, and patiently. I suppose a lot of people don’t see beauty in a field of soybeans, a weathered farmhouse or rusting factory, but I do. Living in the Midwest, I’ve learned to look closely at things, and that translates to my writing as well. There’s not much bold action or laugh-out-loud humor in my fiction, which tends to involve reserved characters, quiet situations and commonplace dialogue. I think of my writing as being understated, as is the Midwest itself.
Interview at Fiction Writers ReviewMy good friend Nick Ostdick interviewed me for Fiction Writers Review, about Wheatyard and the writing life.
Given how much we’ve discussed real-world time constraints for writing fiction, was this why you chose to keep the book small in terms of time and place?Cocktails are on me, Nick, next time we meet.
Generally, I prefer novellas and short novels that tell a small story vividly and thoroughly, usually from a single point of view and a single setting...To me the best novels are the ones that don’t explain everything, but give the reader just enough hints about the full story to keep the reader questioning and thinking about the story long after it’s finished. I know everything that happened in Wheatyard’s past, but I’m not telling. I trust the reader to come up with their own conclusions.
Spencer Dew on WheatyardSpencer Dew writes a wonderful review of Wheatyard in the new issue of decomP.
But the point, of course, is never exactly what Wheatyard is writing, nor why, merely that he exists as this unceasing force, producing and producing, and that his existence and fecundity stands as an example, an inspiration...This wildness contrasts, in turn, with the carefully plotted prose of Sinclair Lewis, with the depressing practicality of Central Illinois, and with the narrator’s career-minded forward march, through boredom and bad company and bad faith. Wheatyard changes all of this, of course, by his sheer improbable and unforgettable existence, his unstoppable, irrational production, which, in that way, defies any economy.This review warms my heart, because it really makes me feel that Spencer understood both Wheatyard and the narrator, which is what every writer hopes for. My sincere thanks go out to Spencer and editor Jason Jordan - Jason has been a casual friend and supporter of my writing for several years, having published my story "Moonlight" back in 2008.
Karl Wolff reviews WheatyardBelated thanks to Karl Wolff for his fine review of Wheatyard at CCLaP.
Despite this rather bare-bones summary, Wheatyard is a wonderful little book. If one is inclined, one could read it in an afternoon. The novel also explores the challenges and ever-present despair involved with those aspiring to get into the writing business. Publishing has just as many dreamers and wannabes as Hollywood and major league sports.Count me as one of those wannabes.
Wheatyard at The Page 69 TestMarshal Zeringue's Campaign for the American Reader blog empire is a longtime favorite of mine. Today he was generous enough to publish the short essay I wrote about Wheatyard for his Page 69 Test blog. The concept behind "the page 69 test" is simple: when you come across a new book, open it to page 69 and read that page, and if you find that sample intriguing, the book might be worth exploring at length. By page 69, the author should be well past the introductory formalities and be fully into the narrative, so that page probably gives a good flavor to what the book is like. I picked up this habit from Marshal and now apply it, almost subconciously, to almost every book I find. My sincere thanks to Marshal for running this piece.
Wheatyard at Largehearted BoyBook Notes is a long-running series at Largehearted Boy in which writers discuss music's role in their books, either as part of the narrative or as a soundtrack to the writing process. Given my passion for both literature and music, and being a big fan of the blog, today I'm totally stoked by the appearance there of my piece on the music in Wheatyard, specifically R.E.M, Morrissey, fIREHOSE, the Feelies and Guided by Voices. Before I started writing the piece, I thought music was only incidental to the narrative, but the more I thought about it, the musical references really reflect the main characters' personalities and subtly but meaningfully impact the plot. Many thanks to David Gutowski for accepting and running this piece.
MadmanYears ago, while on a meandering drive through my native McHenry County, I came across a old steel bridge that spanned a railroad. (If you've read Wheatyard, this bridge partly inspired the creek scene from early in the book.) This was near Harvard, a town which once billed itself as "the milk capital of the world." Spray-painted on the bridge supports, amongst many other names and messages, was one that has stuck with me: "Milk City Madman."
That name still makes me smile, and I can't help wondering what that guy is like now, and how much "madness" he has retained. My guess is that he's now thick around the middle from too many weekend afternoons on the couch with sixpacks of Bud Light, and has four kids, a roof that needs repairs and, in the back of the garage, a snowmobile that hasn't been ridden in fifteen years. Just a hunch.
"Ideas are just ideas until you sit down and write..."My great friend Ben Tanzer writes a wonderful review of Wheatyard at The Nervous Breakdown. Gracias, mi amigo.
My author copies of Wheatyard arrived yesterday. The finished book looks fantastic, and I couldn't be happier. My bulk shipment should arrive later this week.
This Podcast Will Change Your LifeMy great friend Ben Tanzer interviewed me for his podcast, over lunch earlier this month at Chicago's wonderful Pittsfield Cafe, talking all about Wheatyard. I must be getting better at this, because I was much more eloquent than usual, with only a minimum of ums and uhs. It's also available on iTunes - search for "This Podcast Will Change Your Life", episode 62.
Wheatyard is published!
My debut novella, Wheatyard, is now available at Kuboa Press, either in paperback ($3.95 plus shipping) or e-book (free!). It's been a long and grinding road getting here, since I first started thinking about writing fiction during the late 1990s, through several false starts over the following years and then finally starting Wheatyard in 2005, finishing it in 2011 and accepting Pablo D'Stair's wonderful offer earlier this year. It's nearly impossible to thank everyone, but if you ever enjoyed any of my short stories, talked to me about books, or just indulged my blog posts, you helped me to keep writing, keep pushing and make this book happen. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
Final excerpt from WheatyardWheatyard comes out one week from today, on Kuboa Press. Here's the final excerpt, from chapter ten:
But he spoke little, never looking me straight in the eye, as if embarrassed about what he had said that afternoon, as little as it was. Though he showed a flash or two of his old spirit, his mood was unlike anything I had seen during our three months of friendship—muted, subdued, detached. He mumbled a few stray comments about his manuscript and the publisher, but nothing more definite or decisive than anything I had heard before.I've really enjoyed posting these teasers over the past ten weeks, which I hope have whetted your appetite for the entire book.
Excerpt from WheatyardThis week's Wheatyard excerpt, from chapter nine.
He said nothing, looking down at his folded hands, still sitting sunken deep into one end of the broken couch. Before him, perched on an aluminum TV tray, was his battered Smith-Corona typewriter, the constant companion he had fondly spoken of several times over the past few months. The typewriter sat sideways, facing a folding chair, where he must have sat as he worked. Next to the typewriter sat a half-empty jar of Folgers Crystals - the apparent fuel for his writing binges - and below on the floor teetered a stack of typed pages at least two feet high.Publication date is two weeks from today. Preorders are now being taken.
Excerpt from WheatyardIt's Wednesday, which means that I'm a day late in posting this excerpt from Wheatyard, this time from chapter eight:
He certainly wasn't a sunbather. His pasty skin suggested he only went outdoors when he needed to—house to truck, and from truck to Simon's or Mullen's Tap or The Grind or Cellar Books. The sedentary act of sunbathing didn't fit him, nor the vain goal of a deep tan. I guessed that his house was such an oven that day that only sitting outside offered any relief. But not even being outside separated him from his writing; hence, the notebook and what must have been his latest misunderstood masterpiece.Pre-orders are now being taken at Kuboa Press.
Wheatyard is now available for pre-order from Kuboa Press. And above is the fantastic cover, designed by Carlos M. Gonzalez-Fernandez. The reality of all of this is finally sinking in for me.
Excerpt from WheatyardIt's Tuesday, so that means another Wheatyard teaser. From chapter seven:
"He's got manuscripts floating all around this building. I don't remember that one in particular, but I've read several others, and some of my colleagues have, too. He comes here looking for an expert opinion, though he never puts it that way. He's never on bended knee, in supplication, begging for validation. He'll hand a manuscript over casually, as if it means nothing to him, saying something like, 'If you have some spare time, maybe you could look this over.'"The release date is now less than a month away, on April 30, from Kuboa Press.
Excerpt from WheatyardThis week's Wheatyard excerpt, from chapter six.
He paused and fished a piece of Bazooka bubble gum from the depths of his coat pocket. Opening the wrapper, he unpeeled the comic inside, reading it with a thoughtful look as he popped the gum into his mouth and began to chew. He grinned to himself, some idea clearly having occurred to him, and carefully tucked the comic back into his pocket. I immediately wondered if some future story of his would include Bazooka Joe as a character.Publication date is five weeks from today. Still doesn't quite seem real.
"I’ve written a book," you say. "Now how do I get published?"I wrote a lengthy column, "'I’ve written a book,' you say. 'Now how do I get published?'", over at Contrary which relates the publishing odyssey of Wheatyard and offers some advice to aspiring writers. Actually, when you consider that's my first column there since August, I guess the column isn't that long after all, at least on a per-month basis.
Excerpt from WheatyardTeaser from chapter five of Wheatyard...
Mullen's Tap was a bar and, as I saw from a glance at the digital clock on the microwave, it was only 10:15 in the morning. My reluctance to accept such an offer from Wheatyard was fully justified. But his tone was amiable, carefree, as if he had already forgotten my brazen empathy with readership- and profit-obsessed editors a few days before. Maybe I was being given the chance to reconnect, to study him further.Publication date (April 30) is now just six weeks away! I should be getting my first look at the cover art either this week or next. When I do, then all of this will finally start to feel real.
Excerpt from WheatyardAnother Wheatyard paragraph, this time from chapter four.
All of that was moderately interesting, but I was already right in the middle of his strange little world — drinking coffee on a ninety-degree day in a trenchcoat, talking over the boisterous Kierkegaard conversation at the next table between two scruffy college lifers, the incomprehensible manuscripts and that decaying ranch house out in Tillsburg — and I wanted to know more about that, to make sense of it all. The fictionalized life of a Hardee's cashier in upstate New York seemed trivial in comparison. For me, that life was unreal, imagined, while the enigma sitting across the table from me was real, perplexingly real.In case it slipped your mind, Wheatyard is out on April 30, from Kuboa Press.
Excerpt from WheatyardAnother week, another excerpt from Wheatyard.
Or maybe I was just desperate, trying to figure this guy out, and read too much into it. Maybe Marilyn and Ahab and a bloodthirsty hawk were really nothing more than Marilyn, Ahab and a bloodthirsty hawk; maybe, as the old joke went, a cigar was just a cigar. Maybe Ahab and Long John Silver were mere homages to beloved boyhood seafaring tales. Maybe Wheatyard was just toying with all of us, presenting a cast of characters so audacious that overeducated readers like me couldn't help grasping for metaphors.As I've mentioned before, and will mention many times more, Wheatyard comes out on April 30 from Kuboa Press.
Excerpt from WheatyardAnother teaser paragraph from Wheatyard, this time from chapter two.
The heat inside the car was stifling, with little relief from the wind that whipped through as we sped at sixty-five along the farm roads. The temperature gauge was running dangerously high, so there was no way I could run the air and risk overheating the engine. Wheatyard might be able to replace his own carburetor, and wring two free beers out of a reluctant bartender, but there was no way he could conjure up a fresh supply of coolant out here in the vacant countryside. The annoyance act that worked so well for him at the bar probably wouldn't work on the nearest suspicious farmer.
Excerpt from WheatyardMy debut novella Wheatyard will be released by Kuboa Press ten weeks from today, so on the next ten Tuesdays I'll be posting a short excerpt from each chapter, just to build some anticipation. From chapter one:
There stood a rumpled, bemused figure, shaking his head like a gently scolding schoolmaster. He was of below-average height, a few inches shorter than me, with an unkempt beard, greasy hair which hadn't been washed for a week or more, and intense brown eyes which peered at my selection—which I unconsciously began to return to the shelf—with a riveting stare.
What the hell is Wheatyard about, anyway?It recently occurred to me that, with all my talk about trying to get Wheatyard published and finally getting my offer from Kuboa Press, I've never really explicitly explained what the book is about. It's weird being so immersed in creating a book that, although all of it makes perfect sense to me, it's very hard to succinctly explain it to others. So, as I continue to craft my elevator pitch, here's the standard written description I gave to prospective publishers.
Wheatyard is the story of the enigmatic, unpublished writer Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard and the unnamed narrator (a business school graduate stuck in an Illinois college town, jobless, after graduation) who improbably befriends him. During the course of a summer the two circle each other, with Wheatyard eager to exert his authority yet wary of revealing his personal life while the narrator struggles to focus on launching his finance career but finds himself distracted and passively fascinated by the writer. Though at first polar opposites, they gradually yield their idealistic extremes and arrive at a common ground that will better position themselves for the rest of their lives. The book meditates on art versus commerce, idealism versus pragmatism, and independence versus survival, as it reveals the lives of two very different people who have more in common than they realize, and also celebrates the subtle beauty of the rural Midwest.
Since Wheatyard has been accepted for publication by Kuboa Press, today will be my final rejection post for the book. And the rejection was the most prestigious I've ever gotten - from Alfred A. Knopf. Knopf is a rarity among big publishers in that they accept unsolicited, non-agented submissions (though they undoubtedly publish an infinitesimal number of those books, and maybe none at all) so on a whim I sent them a query letter and sample chapters. Then one day, shortly after accepting Kuboa's offer, a fat envelope from Knopf arrived in the mail. I thought it might be a free book (publishers still push unsolicited review copies on me, now and then), but was surprised to see that it contained their rejection letter (shown above) and my full submission. Though the rejection was no surprise, I didn't expect them to send back the whole thing, instead of recycling it. The package was still in its binder clip with my self-addressed reply envelope at the back, so I doubt that their reader did anything more than browse a few pages before rejecting it. As you can see from the photo, the letter is a boilerplate photocopy, though at least somebody went to the trouble of writing in my name by hand.
In the past, I would conclude these Gong! posts with a few stiff-upper-lip words meant to convey self-confidence and resilience, though that wasn't always what I was really feeling at the time. But now that Wheatyard has found a home, I'm passing along this Knopf rejection for curiousity and amusement. Onward...to Kuboa!
Wheatyard! Success!I am thrilled to announce that my novella Wheatyard will be published by Kuboa Press, with a scheduled release date of April 30. My deepest gratitude goes out to publisher Pablo D'Stair for giving a good home to this waifish orphan of a book. For the record, I started writing Wheatyard in November 2005 and finally finished it roughly two years ago, and since then it's been making the rounds at numerous indie publishers. So, for seven-plus years the book has been either in process (being written), in limbo (languishing in manuscript for far too long deep inside my messenger bag) or in circulation. I'm very eager to soon take this next big step.
Three things in particular drew me to Kuboa. First, Mel Bosworth re-published his novella Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom with the press. Bosworth's novella (which I read and enjoyed) is a low-key, plainspoken story of everyday life - no clever literary twists, no gratuitous violence, etc. - that has some vague parallels to Wheatyard, so I figured that any publisher who was receptive to the style and tone of Grease Stains might like Wheatyard as well. Second, Kuboa has a unique publishing model: physical copies of its books are published only in mass market paperback format (not the conventional, more expensive trade format) at a retail price of only $3, and the e-book version is free via Smashwords, so the focus is making the books widely available at a very affordable price. (Exposure is exactly what I need as a debut author, and not any concern for making money.) Lastly, "kuboa" (or "kuboaa") is an invented word that briefly appears in Knut Hamsun's Hunger, my favorite novel ever. It wasn't until after I accepted Pablo's publication offer that I learned that the name of the press is a direct reference to Hunger; Pablo says that Hamsun influenced him artistically more than any other writer. So while I didn't know about the Hamsun connection when I first discovered Kuboa, the mere possibility of that connection kept me interested.
I'll have more details as the publication date gets closer, so stay tuned. I'm very excited about finally publishing my first book, though admittedly I'm also pretty nervous over having to promote myself to the general reading public instead of just to prospective publishers. Selling doesn't come naturally to me at all, though at least I'll have a product that I totally believe in.
"From the Mouths of Babes"My great friend Ben Tanzer is writer-in-residence this month at Necessary Fiction, and he has generously published my essay, "From the Mouths of Babes", in which I discuss the unexpected origin of my novella, Wheatyard. Though I've referred to the book's origins many times here in the past, this essay is probably the most concise account I've ever written. Enjoy.
Rejection number twelve arrived last week for Wheatyard, from a small but well-regarded press whose publisher I've known casually for around a year and first met in person at AWP last winter. Though I doubted that the book would be a good fit for the press, I took a low-risk chance based mostly on the personal relationship. So I'm not very surprised at the rejection. Fortunately, over the weekend I connected with another small press which has a fairly unique publishing model, and is actually looking to fill slots its current publication schedule. (Which is a refreshing departure from many of the publishers I've researched lately, who have either suspended operations or are booked solid for the next five years.) So this morning I submitted the manuscript. I have several reasons to be optimistic about this latest one, and as always I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed. Onward.
Rejection number eleven just arrived for Wheatyard, from top-shelf indie publisher Melville House. I'm not exactly sure why I queried there, other than their open submissions policy and longtime commitment to novellas. In hindsight it now seems like I was aiming impossibly high. Wheatyard is currently with five publishers, but one of those submissions is now pushing nine months and is most likely a "no." On the other hand, two of the publishers are edited by acquaintances who graciously agreed to look at my manuscript, and hopefully will offer a more sympathetic reading than I've been getting with over-the-transom submissions. Onward.
Onward, but...today has actually been kind of rough. Besides Wheatyard, I had a story submission declined elsewhere. And Andy Griffith passed away. Looking forward to the brief respite of the midweek holiday tomorrow.
I certainly never expected this.
This assessment was based on several paragraphs from Wheatyard. I tried a second excerpt, from the same chapter of the book, and got Wallace again. Then a third try, again from that chapter, gave me Arthur C. Clarke. The only Wallace I've ever read was one single essay, and I've never read Clarke, so it's doubtful that either writer was even a subconscious influence on me.
Another rejection, plus a sort-of-rejection, for Wheatyard this week. (Counting both, the total is now ten.) The first was from a brand-new small press in the Midwest that just started soliciting its first submissions during the past month. Though I was already acquainted with the editors and they really liked the writing, they said it wasn't quite what they were looking for, and so took a pass. The second was from another small press that I queried last summer but never heard back from. I followed up today and they promptly replied, saying that with a recent surge in queries and their print publication schedule already being full for the next few years, they are only taking submissions for potential ebook publication. Though I know ebooks are where the industry is heading, I really want to see Wheatyard in print, so by mutual agreement with the press I formally withdrew my submission. I still have a few more irons in the fire, so I'm brushing off both of these setbacks. Onward.
Wheatyard just got its eighth official rejection, from a small but growing Midwest publisher whose editor I met at AWP. The editor was very gracious, even agreeing to read it outside of the official review period, but admitted a personal aversion to stories about writers. Interestingly enough, I generally don't prefer reading those stories either. The book is now in submission with four publishers; however, two of those publishers have had it for quite some time now, and once I finally follow up with them I suspect I'll have more official rejections to report. Onward.
Gong!Rejection number seven just arrived for Wheatyard, from another small press. They gave me a two month turnaround, which I can hardly complain about. I'm not too disheartened on this one, since I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the press anyway - I sent it out mostly on a whim, and I'm not sure my writing fits their style. And it would have been awkward repeating the name of the press to my mom, among others. The book is now under review with four publishers, including one which I queried this week. Onward.
Wheatyard has been declined for the sixth time, with the latest by Seven Stories Press. (I've refrained thus far from naming names, but will do so in the future when I've been treated fairly and respectfully, as was certainly the case here.) I knew Seven Stories was a longshot, but they have an open submissions policy and have long championed Nelson Algren (my literary hero), so even the slight possibility of being published alongside Algren made a query impossible to resist. Though their rejection letter was fairly boilerplate - not even mentioning Wheatyard by name - at least it was on actual company letterhead and personally signed by the editor. Despite being yet another rejection, I'm very glad I gave this one a try. Onward.
A small East Coast press, which I greatly admire, has apparently declined Wheatyard without even telling me. I sent them a query last summer, and after not hearing anything for months, I asked a writer friend of mine (who has published a book with the press) to casually inquire about the status of my submission. The publisher told my friend that he wasn't interested in my book, and that he doesn't reply to queries unless he's interested. In other words, no news is bad news. Though it doesn't seem like that much of a bother to send a boilerplate email to a writer as notification of a rejection, apparently that publisher feels otherwise. This now makes five official rejections for Wheatyard, but never mind - I just mailed off a new query (with sample chapters) to another East Coast press yesterday. The fact that I went to the trouble of stuffing a manila envelope and trekking to the post office should tell you how much I revere this publisher. Fingers crossed. Onward.
Wheatyard was just turned down for the fourth time, by one of the very best independent presses out there. They said that while they were "intrigued" by the story's premise, it just didn't fit their fiction needs. Which, for all I know, might just be their boilerplate language for rejections. As has been my habit, I immediately turned around and submitted a query to another great indie. One of these has to hit eventually. Onward.
"Life doesn't have to prove itself."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Shirley Hazzard (talking with Vendela Vida) discusses the place of coincidence in fiction:
Hazzard: In that same book (The Transit of Venus) I say a similar thing: that one wouldn't dare put into a novel the amount of coincidence that occurs in life itself.
Vida: Yes, one of the characters says: "I've thought there may be more collisions of the kind in life than in books." Maybe the element of coincidence is played down in literature because it seems like cheating or can't be made believable. Whereas life itself doesn't have to be fair or convincing.
Hazzard: Life doesn't have to prove itself. Life happens; we have to accept it. Reading fiction, the disbelieving, skeptical critic likes to feel in control. Yet his own existence, all existence, is subject to the accidental element, to the inexplicable or magical, or dreadful intervention that cannot be justified by logic.
I completely agree with her, partly because I'm facing a similar quandry with publishers' reactions to my novel, Wheatyard. Not with coincidence - nobody has yet questioned the plausibility of the narrator (a recent business school graduate) first encountering the eccentric, reclusive writer Wheatyard. Instead, questions have been raised as to why the narrator becomes so fascinated/obsessed with Wheatyard.
I think I did address this question - as I tell in the story, just a few weeks after graduation, the unemployed narrator has already begun to doubt the corporate finance career he once so thoroughly believed in, with his growing disillusionment making him more receptive and attracted to Wheatyard's independent lifestyle and outsider status. Not that the narrator is eager to embrace that sort of lifestyle himself, but it does show him another side of life that he hadn't experienced before, with Wheatyard's sudden appearance becoming an interesting diversion from his own depressing prospects. Of course I could have spelled out the point more bluntly, but bluntness is something I generally hate in fiction. I'm a quiet, subtle person, and I'd rather tell my stories quietly and subtly than hit the reader over the head with my message. I don't understand the need to baldly explain everything - Why is the narrator so fascinated with Wheatyard? - when the reader could easily take the cues I've given and answer the question himself.
Just as Shirley Hazzard doesn't feel the need to justify coincidence, I don't feel the need to justify my narrator's every motivation. That's just how he is. I've already explained enough.
I just received rejection number three for Wheatyard. I really had high hopes for this one. The publisher is an up-and-coming indie outfit that really seems like it has its act together, and they liked the first two chapters I sent last spring well enough that they recently requested the entire manuscript. (For a writer, I suppose that's like getting a second interview from a prospective employer.) Unfortunately, though they said they admired my writing and had many nice things to say about the book, it just didn't quite work for them.
One specific issue they mentioned was a supposed lack of impetus for the narrator's fascination with the protagonist; though other readers have also made this point, I thought the impetus was fairly clear, and if I said it any more explicitly I might as well beat the reader over the head with it. Since I feel like I need to keep moving ahead with my writing and working new material, I'm hesitant to dive back into the manuscript for yet another revision, so for now I'm keeping it as-is. If some publisher likes the book well enough to give a tentative acceptance that's contingent on resolving the impetus issue, then I'll do more revisions.
This rejection was a real disappointment, but I'm not despairing - in fact, I've already submitted it to another well-regarded publisher. Onward.
"There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without."
- Booth Tarkington, who was born on this date in 1869
Echoes of sentiments expressed by my narrator in Wheatyard, though those were about Central Illinois, which has very similar terrain. I've never read Tarkington, but I think I'll add The Magnificent Ambersons to my Summer of Classics longlist for next year.
The second rejection of Wheatyard just arrived. It was from a small publisher that I thought I might have an "in" with (via a mutual friend), though the publisher probably wasn't aware of that connection. When I submitted I refrained from any name-dropping; I kind of want the book to stand on its own merits, independent of any connections, even if those connections might open doors for me. The notification was standard boilerplate ("We've decided to pass on this one") and not too encouraging. Given the volume of submissions that publishers are seeing these days, I'm sure I'll get many more like this before the book finally finds a home, so this doesn't trouble me very much. Onward.
That subject line is in honor of Chuck Barris, and marks the first time that my recently completed novella Wheatyard was booted off the stage; that is, declined by a publisher. My plan is to post an update here whenever I get an official "no" from a publisher, while keeping all names anonymous. In this instance, the editor was extremely kind, reading the entire manuscript and giving me his decision and constructive criticism in only about nine hours. He also said it was the first time he had received an over-the-transom (that is, unsolicited) manuscript, which is certainly some sort of distinction. Onward.
Wheatyard: more unconscious influences
Several years ago I posted about unconscious literary influences - specifically, bits of Kent Haruf's Plainsong - that somehow snuck into my novel-in-progress, Wheatyard. The Haruf influences were relatively minor. But when I read Joe Pintauro's 1988 Algren essay just last week, I was floored by this passage that describes Algren's house in Sag Harbor:
Almost every inch of wall space was covered with heavy framed homemade collages consisting of old headlines, letters, clippings, and photos depicting the recent history of the world in terms of rape, war, sports, violence, literature, and art. Framed photographs, paintings, and documents hung from thick nails that bristled the walls. At the foot of the stairs was a huge blowup of the famous photograph of a Vietnamese girl, doused with napalm and running toward the camera screaming. Nearby, another blowup depicted a man from Bangladesh carrying his wife, who looked as if she had been beaten or raped. From the walls stared D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln: "The family heirloom is that Lincoln — my grandmother saved that. It was from Lincoln's assassination. She was in New York at the time. Oh, I’ve got stuff don’t have room for," he said in all innocence. "I’ve got almost all the wall space used up that I can." Only the corner where he kept his desk and typewriter was spartan and clean.
The plastered-wall aspect of Algren's house is heavily echoed by Wheatyard's living room, which is similarly covered with magazine advertisements, studio photos of old movie actors, German Expressionist artworks and the like. But the strange thing is that until I read Pintauro's description of Algren's house last week, I had absolutely no recollection of it. I certainly hadn't read Pintauro's piece before.
The only place I could have possibly read that description was from Bettina Drew's autobiography of Algren, A Life On the Wild Side. I checked my copy, and discovered that Drew had indeed quoted from the Pintauro passage, though I hadn't remembered that at all. So while I hadn't read the biography since around 1998, I didn't write my own description of Wheatyard's living room until 2005 or 2006. And yet somehow Pintauro's description of Algren's house (via Drew) must have subconsciously stayed with me all that time, and finally resurfaced as I wrote about Wheatyard's own eccentric dwelling, years later. Odd how the mind works.
Milestone is finally reached
Wheatyard is finished. (Or momentarily finished, until some editor starts tearing it apart.) I first started writing the book in late 2005, and just this morning, sitting in a drafty corridor in Union Station, I typed in the final edits. I didn't even mind the cold. When I stepped outside the sun was shining and I didn't mind the cold there either. I'm relieved and maybe even a little proud of myself for getting this done at last. Soon I'll start hunting for publishers, but for now I'm savoring the moment.
What I'm writing
I'm finishing up the fourth draft of my novel-in-progress, Wheatyard. For almost three years now I've been carrying a hard copy of the manuscript (bound in a navy blue Mead binder) to and from work in my messenger bag, for it to be handy should the editing whim strike me while I'm riding the train. That copy is now heavily marked up, and also supplemented by a newer notebook where I've been jotting ideas and longer revisions as they've come to me. During the past few months I've been transcribing all of those edits into a new Word file on my laptop, but even seeing all those words on a screen hasn't prevented me from feeling (undoubtedly aided by the constant presence of that messy hard copy and notebook) that the book is still an unruly mess that's far from completion.
That is, until this morning. I'm still working on one critical section (in the second-to-last chapter, and what I think of as "the revelation scene"), which I wanted to print out in order to do further revisions. However, our home printer recently ran out of ink, so I emailed the document to myself so I could print it out at the office. (Relax, Employer, it's only ten pages and not the entire manuscript.) On the train this morning, while checking email on my iPhone I came upon that self-sent message, and opened up the Word file. And up it popped, looking neat and tidy and not unlike several published ebooks that I've been perusing on my phone.
Immediately it occurred to me that, indeed, this does look like a book. And reading through it, the writing is good. GOOD. Not perfect yet, but good. I now realize that I'm a lot closer to finishing this book than I had assumed. In another month it should be ready to send to publishers. Hurray!
Hüsker Dü did the job last evening, and I eked out three or four pages of line edits. Not a major accomplishment, but at least it's a start. Slow and steady wins the race, right?
What I'm writing
My weekdays give me two hour-long blocks of down time: the train ride to and from work, morning and evening. Mornings I've set aside for reading, as then I seem to be at my sharpest and most refreshed, which I need to fully engage with serious fiction. But when I'm tired I can't really focus well enough to read, which is why I've devoted my evening train ride to writing, which is a less passive and more mentally engaging pastime. The evening train is also essentially the only time I write, since when I'm home in the evenings and on weekends I focus on family time instead of the relative isolation that writing requires. (Yes, I'm surrounded by others on the train, but I keep totally to myself and have no "train buddies.")
Since my last update on my progress on Wheatyard (a post which seems, when I read it now, overly self-congratulatory and/or self-pitying), I've done almost no work on it. This despite originally wanting to have this draft finished (and readied for submission to publishers) by the end of December, and then (when that didn't happen) the end of March. What little writing I've managed during the past month was a flash fiction piece which, due to its brevity and derivative structure, didn't really require that much effort. The rest of the time I've squandered playing euchre on my phone, browsing The Reader, or napping, which puts me no closer to getting Wheatyard published than I was before. I might even be further away now, as what little momentum I had achieved a month ago was soon left behind.
None of this latest update is at all intended as self-pity, and I hope it doesn't come across that way. I'm just trying to impart what an ongoing struggle this book has been. Inevitably I have my sights on newer, fresher story concepts that I want to pursue, but I know that if I don't show any ability to finish a book - and Wheatyard, despite its stagnation, is the closest I've ever come to finishing - then thinking of other books is totally pointless.
This week I'm trying another tack. Over the weekend I burned three heavy albums onto my iPod - Hüsker Dü's The Living End (live shows from their final tour, in 1987), Minor Threat's Complete Discography and Sonic Youth's Dirty. Those albums are pretty out of character with the lighter, poppier stuff I usually listen to, and I thought it might jar me out of my evening-train rut - not only keeping me awake, but also away from euchre and focused on writing. Those three bands brought such power and passion to their art, and if I can inject even a tenth of that into my writing, it might be enough to get this book finished. We'll see.