Novelist

Posts tagged “David Abrams

The Next Big Thing

“Fobbit” author David Abrams was kind enough to tag me in this ongoing string of posts. The idea is that you answer a standard set of questions about your current work in progress—or whatever is next in your pipeline—and then tag a few others. I’ll do that at the end of this post.

(By the way, “Fobbit” is great. Great! You should read it. And from the sound of things, you should look forward to reading “Dubble,” too.)

What is the working title of your book?

“Julep Street,” which follows “Evergreen,” the conceptual title. When I finished the thing—or, rather, when I finished it to the point that I was ready to send it to my agent—the manuscript bore little resemblance to the original idea I had. (These things happen, alas.) And thus, it also had little fealty to the title I picked out for it when I started. That’s one of my little idiosyncrasies. I can’t write the first word, much less the 70,000th, without a title. Even one I’m going to eventually drown in the tub.

“Julep Street” is the fictional name of the main thoroughfare in the fictional (and unnamed) Kentucky town I’ve conjured, and it’s the artery that supplies blood to most of the story, so it makes sense as a title. Still, I resisted it for a long time—mainly because “Julep Street” sounds a little like the title of a book a failed movie novelist (played by William Hurt) would write. But it’s the best I have, so it’ll have to do for now.

Though the town in “Julep Street” is fictional, it does have a real-life inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

On the list of Top Ten Reasons Craig Is Likely to Wallow in Relative Literary Anonymity, being unable to align with a genre has to rank pretty high. “Julep Street” has literary themes—everything I write does—but I don’t think I’d call my work “literary fiction” unless I were willing to kick my own ass for pretentiousness. On the other hand, with this book more than anything else I’ve written, I directly confront my fear of obsolescence and my uncertainties about God, all in 61,000 tidy words that generally buck my over-reliance on simple declarative sentences.

So, yeah, literary fiction, I guess.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Actually, now that I think of it, William Hurt is not a bad choice, especially if he’s still carrying around that extra weight from “A History of Violence.”

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

One lonely man is made a relic before his time—and proceeds to lose his shit.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Two months? Three? It’s hard to tell where first drafts end and the million tiny adjustments and major overhauls and sentence tinkerings begin. I started in the early summer of 2012 and turned it over to my agent last month.

I will say, for what it’s worth, that quick first drafts tend to be a good harbinger for me. I’m not suggesting here that the writing is easy. Goodness no. It’s not, ever. But when I’m connecting with the work and the characters and I feel myself slipping into the screen as I go along, only good things seem to happen on the other end.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t want to be difficult here, but I’m just not good at the compare-this-book-to-another-book game. Those comparisons usually end up being skin-deep anyway. Further, I tend to think cinematically when I’m writing and reading. On that note, I’d say that there’s a little “Falling Down” in this book, and maybe a little “Cast Away,” and perhaps even a little “B.J. and the Bear,” if you can picture “Bear” as an ancient yellow Lab rather than a cheeky chimp. No Sheriff Lobo, though. (God, yes, I am a child of the ’70s and ’80s.)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Several things:

1. I built a career as a newspaper journalist. Perhaps you’ve read about our industry’s struggles (on the Internet, no doubt). Further, I’m a newspaper production editor, a particularly endangered subspecies of journalist. Do you think I might have some questions about my long-term efficacy as a gainfully employed citizen? Maybe.

2. One of the things I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about is self-identity and the terminology we use to present ourselves to the rest of the world. When those words come from some external source (“I’m an engineer at General Dynamics,” “I cut the meat at Albertsons”), we give up power; someone else can render those definitions moot if the quarterly reports don’t look good. The main character in “Julep Street,” Carson McCullough (yeah, yeah), has spent his entire working life self-identifying as a newspaper editor. It is how he thinks of himself. It is the face he wears for others.

But what if, without warning, there were no more newspaper office to go to? Then what?

3. One of the less-than-complimentary reviews my second novel, “The Summer Son,” received on Amazon was from a thoughtful fellow who contended that the absence of any fulsome reference to or thoughts about God undermined its effectiveness. The subtext of this criticism was that I, the author, just didn’t have anything to say about God. That’s not true. I’ll admit that my thoughts tend to be muddled and searching, but they exist, and in Carson I found a vehicle for exploring them. (Sidenote: A Facebook friend once accused me of being hostile to God, which is both incorrect and silly. I’m hostile toward religion, mainly because the worldwide story of religion is told in hostilities. I’ve never been hostile toward God, even if I have profound questions about who (or what) he is and how he operates.)

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

It’s funny. I just got finished with a Q&A about my new novel, “Edward Adrift,” and in it I mentioned that I tried to avoid the usual road-trip tropes of a hitchhiker and an unforeseen destination. Well, “Julep Street” also has a road trip, and in the revision phase, I added a hitchhiker. One of my trusted early readers made that suggestion, saying that if Carson was going to go on a big, sloppy road trip, he should bathe in all its excesses.

On that note, an excerpt is probably in order:

The miles fall away in a soliloquy.

“See, the thing was, I knew when I met Sonya—that was my jezebel, I told you that, yes?—I knew I would fall. I am not a strong man, no sir, I am not, and when I met Sonya, I knew I was not strong enough to stay away from her. I tried, Lord yes, I tried. But I fell. I knew I would.”

The highway man gave his name as Jagur, which Carson figures to be the fakest name ever, but who cares? Carson introduced himself as Jerry Joe Ray Bob Dale—“honest to goodness,” he said—and faked out the faker. Now Jagur sits in the passenger seat and dangles a hand into the backseat of the car, stroking Hector’s undercoat and sending the dog into contented sleep.

“Wait,” Carson says. “ ‘Fell’? So you, what, boinked this Sonya chick?”

“An unnecessarily crude assessment, I rather think, but yes, that is what happened.”

“So what?”

“She was not mine to boink, as you colorfully put it. I am a married man. I have a daughter who is on the student council and the Honor Society. I should have no time for jezebels. It was a sin.”

“So what are you doing out here? Go home. Be with your family. Forget Sonya. A mistake.”

Jagur’s hand leaves Hector and palms the dashboard. The hand is massive, vascular. He sweeps it across the dash, leaving a grooved trail of dust behind.

“Are you married, Mr. Ray Bob Dale?”

“That’s Mr. Dale. The rest is my first name.”

“My apologies. Are you married?”

“No.”

“Ever married?”

“No.”

Jagur again massages Hector. “Forget Sonya, you say. I could sooner forget a knife plunged into my heart. God is testing me, Mr. Dale. When I told my wife—”

“You told your wife?”

“I am not a keeper of secrets, Mr. Dale. When I told my wife, she and God said that I should leave the house and venture into the world. The truth of the matter is that she said only that I should leave the house. It was God’s idea that I go into the world. My penance is out here. My test is out here. And when I have passed it, when I have satisfied God, I shall return again to my wife and to my daughter and to the world I am not presently fit to live in.” 

When and how will it be published?

We shall see, on both counts.

*****

Now, to keep this thing going, I’ll tag …

LynDee Walker, whose debut novel, “Front Page Fatality,” has turned into a big hit.

Stant Litore, who writes literary biblical tales of the voracious undead.

Elisa Lorello, the dazzling author of “Faking It” and “Ordinary World,” and quite possibly the most ardent Duran Duran fan alive.


Off to Missoula and other adventures

I told you I’d be back.

A few quick things …

The Montana Festival of the Book is this weekend in Missoula. Actually, it starts today, and in a cool collaboration, it’s being held in conjunction with the annual conference of the Western Literature Association, which means Missoula will be crawling with even more literary luminaries, if that’s even possible.

If you’re within driving distance of Missoula this weekend, I implore you to check out the incredible list of events and deliver yourself unto them. It’s going to be a great couple of days, and I’m proud to be able to join in the fun.

A few programming notes:

On Friday at 1 p.m., I’ll be at the Missoula Public Library with David Abrams (the forthcoming Fobbit), Keir Graff (The Price of Liberty) and Jenny Shank (The Ringer) to talk about literature blogs and how they’re influencing the lit world.

Saturday at 11, I’ll be back at the library for another panel — this time with Keir, publisher and poet David Ash, author and e-publisher Kathy Dunnehoff and publisher Dave Batchelder — to talk about the wild world of independent publishing and self-publishing. The bottom line, at least for me: Between the gold standard of the Big Six and the wasteland of poorly conceived, horribly written vanity projects, there’s a big, vibrant, thriving world of publishing. I can’t wait to chat with these folks about it.

After that, I’ll choke down some lunch and be back at Festival of the Book World Headquarters (aka, the Holiday Inn) for a reading from The Summer Son at 1 p.m.

****

Speaking of The Summer Son

It’s being featured this month as one of Amazon’s hot 100 reads priced at $3.99 or lower ($2.99, to be exact). So if you’ve been holding out or you just bought one of those snazzy new e-readers, now is a good time to jump.

****

Speaking of e-readers and e-books …

Just this week, I made a new e-book available for the Kindle and the Nook. It’s called Scenes of Suburban Mayhem, and it’s 17 very short stories that you might remember from The Word series here at the blog (which I’ve mostly taken down, now that many of them are compiled in this e-book). I originally wrote 21 of the pieces, but some of them just weren’t up to snuff. These 17, totaling about 16,000 words, are the ones that were best received here and other places I posted them.

For a cool $2.99 — less than a cup of designer coffee, and better for you — it’s yours.

To purchase for the Kindle, go here.

For the Nook, here.

See you next week!


Q&A: David Abrams

David Abrams

David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen blog is a friend to writers and readers everywhere, politely but persistently banging the drum for literary fiction, giving authors an outlet to write about their experiences and giving exposure to recently released and upcoming books (as well as the occasional tune).

Along the way, David has occasionally updated folks on the progress of his own novel, Fobbit. Earlier this month came the most welcome news of all: Fobbit has been acquired by Grove/Atlantic. Even in his happiest moment, David was plugging for others. Here’s a snippet of his e-mail announcing the acquisition of Fobbit: “All I can say is, I am honored and thrilled to have my manuscript accepted by the same publishing house who brought you A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent–all books I count among some of my favorites.”

David was gracious enough to answer some questions. Here we go …

Give us your 25-words-or-fewer elevator pitch for Fobbit.

Elevator Pitch #1: Two groups of soldiers muddle through the Iraq War: infantry “door-kickers” on patrol and cubicle-worker “Fobbits”–those who never leave the security of the Forward Operating Base.

Elevator Pitch #2 (if we were going up another couple of floors): It’s the love child of Catch-22 and The Office.

Where did the idea for the novel come from?

It’s an explanation which requires some backstory, so bear with me.  In January 2005, while serving on active duty with the 3rd Infantry Division, I deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I was a sergeant first class with the division’s Public Affairs Office and would be working media relations in the task-force headquarters.  After being in the Army for 17 years, this was my first combat deployment and I had no idea what to expect.  Most of my co-workers had already been to Afghanistan or Bosnia-Herzegovina; some of them had felt the hot wind of bullets flying past their heads.  I felt inadequate, completely out of my element.  Here I was, a senior non-commissioned officer, and I was supposed to be a level-headed, decisive leader able to clearly see ahead to the next step and the next step after that.  Instead, I was a bundle of nerves.  On the plane ride into Baghdad, I was crammed into the hull of the C-130 with everyone else, the weight of the Kevlar helmet crushing my skull and the flak vest cracking my ribs, and thinking I might die–not from a terrorist’s rocket-propelled grenade but from a stress heart attack.  I won’t lie: I even let out a couple of nervous squirts of urine in my underwear.

By the time we landed and walked out into the hot Baghdad sunshine, I’d worked myself into a lather of anxiety.  But when I reported to work at the task force headquarters the next morning, I was surprised to find I was working in a cubicle jungle–something that resembled a call-center at any U.S. corporation’s customer service.  Replace the chatter about grid coordinates and roadside bombs, and we could easily have been working the Turkey Hotline at Butterball on Thanksgiving Day.  Here we were, supposedly in the white-hot center of war, and people were sitting around designing PowerPoint presentations, filling out spreadsheets with statistics from sniper attacks, and playing computer solitaire.  Off to my left, I swear I heard the hiss of an espresso machine at someone’s desk. My vision of war had suddenly turned into a farce.  Not that I was working with clowns and buffoons or that we weren’t deadly serious about the business of war–we were, believe me.  But there was so much comic potential to be mined here that I knew I had to capture it in words.

Fobbit started as a series of journal entries I kept during that year in Baghdad.  I was under the delusion that I’d be the Ernie Pyle of the Iraq War.  But instead of going out with soldiers on the business end of rifles–the GI Joes of Pyle’s world–I ended up staying back at the Forward Operating Base (the FOB) and it wasn’t long before I realized I was one of those despised “Fobbers” or, more popularly, “Fobbits”–rear-echelon Hobbit-like soldiers who rarely left the protective shire of the FOB.  Fobbits were a bit of a joke over there–one officer even went so far as to design a Fobbit “combat patch” (I can’t remember what it looked like, but it was probably a pair of crossed pens and a pillow set against a Twinkie-yellow background).  I went around telling myself, “I may be a Fobbit, but at least I’m not out there playing the Death Lottery every day.”

In truth, I was too busy working at my desk in headquarters to go “outside the wire.”  I worked 12-hour shifts 6-and-1/2 days a week and only had enough energy at the end of the day to go back to my hootch, type a new entry in my journal and read a couple of chapters in my Dickens novel.  Eventually, I had a good amount of material in my journal–enough for a book–but the problem was, it was boring.  I mean, who wants to read about a soldier whose greatest fear is getting a paper cut when he loads a ream of paper into the printer, or whose biggest daily challenge was deciding between the short-order line or the full-course option at the chow hall?  So I started to think of ways I could amp up the story of a Fobbit and soon the idea of a novel came into my head.  I could still use what happened to me over there, but I would embellish it.  Thus, I arrived at the “truthiness” of war.  When I got down to the business of writing the novel, I took much of what I had, but then I turned the volume up to 11.

How long did you work on the novel before you considered it ready to start submitting to agents?

I was incredibly lucky, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming kind of lucky.  An agent, Nat Sobel, contacted me while I was still over there in Baghdad.  He’d seen some of the journal entries I’d written which had been posted at The Emerging Writers Network website and he reached out to me through EWN’s proprietor, Dan Wickett.  Almost from the get-go, Nat encouraged me to view the war through the lens of fiction.  One of the most significant and meaningful emails he ever sent me went like this: “I’ve come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public.  And, only a modern day Yossarian can be that vehicle.  That’s you, buddy.”

I should note that while I appreciate Nat’s encouragement, I’m not worthy to touch the hem of Joseph Heller’s robe.  Even though the ghost of Catch-22 haunts the edges of Fobbit, and I toss it around as a comparison, I know I’m not even close to Heller’s mastery.  So, short answer to your question: I started working on Fobbit in 2005 and turned in what I’d hoped was a polished near-final draft to Nat in January 2011.  It went through several more revisions after that–Nat and I going back and forth via email–until I felt it was ready to send around to publishers.  Nat started shopping it around in late August.  Three weeks later, I had another of those pinch-me moments when Grove/Atlantic made an offer on the book.  I’m still living in the glow of that Cinderella moment–can’t quite believe it’s real.

What is your writing process like? Do you write at a certain time each day, strive for a word count, that sort of thing?

Before Fobbit came along, I was a very sporadic writer–thoroughly undisciplined.  If there’s a way to Not Write, I’ll find it.  But, somewhere in the third year of working on Fobbit, I decided this was getting me nowhere.  If I kept this up, one day I’d be sitting in the nursing home telling everyone about this novel I was “writing” but still hadn’t finished.  So, I hurdled some inner wall of procrastination, got my shit together, and established a daily routine for myself.  Now I set the alarm for 3:30 every morning, come downstairs and write.  For the last year-and-a-half, too much of that time has been taken up with the distraction of writing a blog, but in theory, this is the time I work on my novel and short stories.  I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that 3:30 to 7:30 am routine for about three years.  I never hold myself to a certain word count–it’s always a question of completing a “beat” in the narrative–you know, the natural rhythmic pauses in a story when I feel I’ve reached a stopping point for the day.

Do you have a group of “beta readers”? How do you find reliable feedback while you’re working?

Prior to Fobbit, I didn’t normally send my work to others–I’m too insecure about my writing to just “put it out there”–but after the second draft of the novel, I figured I should have one of my most-trusted Army buddies read it to make sure I didn’t completely fuck up the facts.  I was, after all, a Fobbit writing about infantry tactics, techniques and procedures.  That friend of mine read the manuscript and pointed out many glaring errors and places where I had no idea what I was talking about.  He saved my bacon on more than one occasion.  Which is not to say that I won’t still get it wrong in places–but if I do, I’ll just fall back in the safety net and say, “Hey, it’s fiction–what did you expect?”

I also had another trusted reader–a former editor at Narrative magazine–who offered to take a look at Fobbit.  She helped me see the ways I could make the story better by improving the narrative structure of the book.  I owe her big time for helping me see the possibilities of what Fobbit could be and where it was headed in the wrong direction.  I’ve also posted a few excerpts from the novel on my blog and readers have been very good about telling me what works and what doesn’t work–advice I cherish.  Now, I don’t think I’ll ever again send a book off to a publisher without having at least one other trustworthy reader run their eyes over the pages.  I live in relative literary isolation here in western Montana and I need that kind of feedback, that broader perspective.  Having a “beta reader” is a crumbling of pride, I suppose.

Like many of us, you’re a working stiff in addition to carving on novels, writing short stories, maintaining a blog, being married. How do you balance everything?

Caffeine and cocaine.  Okay, I’m kidding about one of those.  Having a very patient, understanding and supportive wife is also essential.  I’d advise it for every writer.  Then again, not everyone can be as lucky as me to be married to Jean (aka The Best Wife in the World).  She’s one-of-a-kind and is definitely the center of my balance.  She calls me on my bullshit, holds my feet to the fire, and greets me at the door every night after work wearing a sexy French maid’s outfit and holding a glass of wine.  Who could ask for anything more?

You’re an active book reviewer. In what ways has turning a critical eye to other’s work made your own better?

Turning that around, because I’m a novelist I hope I’m a more sympathetic critic.  I’m a firm believer in John Updike’s rules for reviewers–the first of which is “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”  This doesn’t mean I should only write positive reviews–it’s entirely a good thing to warn readers away from a bad book–but I always strive to see the author’s intent and then determine whether he or she fulfilled that intent.  As far as my own work is concerned, I think every book I read makes me a better writer–even the bad ones.  Lame-and-lazy novels make me mad (“If they can publish this junk, then why can’t mine be published?!”) and make me determined to write a better book, give me angry confidence to pole vault over these kind of literary turds.  By the same token, good novels hold the bar high and make me want to reach for excellence.  Reading just one excellently crafted sentence written by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford or Flannery O’Connor fills me with a little despair, yes, but it also makes me want to grab the pole vault and spring into the air to their heights.

Several months ago, you had your first public reading from “Fobbit,” at the University of Montana Western. What was that experience like?

Not only was it the first public reading of Fobbit, it was also one of the first public readings I ever gave in my career.  The only other time I publicly read my fiction was years ago as a graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and all I can remember of that experience was a shaky voice and rivulets of sweat trickling down my back.  The reading at UMW was phenomenal.  The crowd was small but very appreciative.  I’d go back to Dillon for a reading in a heartbeat.

You’ve also had a few interviewing coups, notably Thomas McGuane, who sat in your kitchen while you pitched questions at him. What did you learn from talking to him?

Tom is a very gracious, down-to-earth individual, someone who makes you feel at ease from the first handshake.  He was kind enough to sit down with me at the start of his book tour for Driving on the Rim.  We talked for an hour or more and we had a wide-ranging conversation–everything from fly-tying to Don Quixote.  The thing I took away from him?  Never stop being a good, decent human being, no matter how many books you’ve published or awards you’ve put on your mantel.

Did you have an “aha!” moment that solidified your desire to become a writer? Where does the passion come from?

God, the answer to that is complicated and long-winded.  There have been so many “aha!” moments, I don’t know where to begin.  Okay, how about this?  My first moment as a writer was back in 1969.  I was in first grade and I had just published my first book, “The Lady and the Clock.”  It was a masterpiece of crayons and stapled paper.  I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe it involved a wealthy woman, an impoverished clockmaker and the tragedy of a broken spring.  I can still remember the satisfaction of making words which, when put together, told a story from Point A to Point B to Point C.  This was something I had cobbled together from sounds in my head!  Before I put crayon to paper, this story didn’t exist.  There’s a magic and mystery to that act of channeling stories onto the page, something I feel even today as I sit here typing.  Back in 1969 was the first time I felt the thrill of bringing something to life.  Years later, I would probably have said I felt a little like Frankenstein assembling his monster–making something from nothing.

What up-and-coming writers should the rest of us be reading, in your estimation?

If you haven’t read Alan Heathcock’s short-story collection Volt, then your reading life is incomplete.  Do it!  Do it now!  It’s simply some of the best fiction–short or otherwise–I’ve read in a long, long time.  Other new-ish writers who have impressed me include Shann Ray (American Masculine), Cara Hoffman (So Much Pretty), Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness), Lindsay Hunter (Daddy’s), Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men are Gone), Justin Torres (We the Animals) and William Lychack (The Architect of Flowers).  And, even though she doesn’t need any more press, I’d have to recommend Tea Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife.  I’m also reading the much-hyped The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and am pleased to report that, so far, it’s living up to the buzz.  Among poets, everyone needs to read Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) who has produced some of the most important writing about the Iraq War–his poems burn inside you for months afterward.

A contrived question, but I don’t care: You’re going to be gone from home for a month and can pull only one author’s canon off the shelf and take it with you. Who’s it going to be and why?

Dickens for the endless delights.


A trip back in time, newspaper style

Earlier this week, my buddy and author/blogger David Abrams was kind enough to feature an essay by me on his blog, The Quivering Pen. It was a part of his ongoing series My First Time, in which authors share breakthrough moments in their writing lives.

It’s a testament to the popularity of this series that several months passed between my submission of the essay and its publication. Reading it again this week, I was struck by just how much has changed — and how much hasn’t — between my first front-page newspaper story at age 18 and my current career as a newspaper copy editor now, twenty-three years later.

Let’s start with the physical newspaper itself. Here’s a look at the front page of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram from December 18th, 1988, the day my story appeared (the reason I have a copy: I’m fortunate enough to have a mother who thinks everything I’ve ever written is golden, and who catalogs it accordingly):

The design looks a bit rudimentary, doesn’t it? At that point, while desktop publishing certainly existed, papers the size of the Star-Telegram generally had not made the capital investment to put design terminals and full-page outputters into their buildings. In those days, a layout editor would draw his/her design on a piece of paper called a dummy sheet, and the type would come out in long strips called galleys that would then be cut up by compositors and arranged somewhat like a puzzle. To get those color boxes in place, sheets of amberlith or rubylith would be cut and shot in the four-color process. Color photographs would be put in place through a similar process. Everything would be shot into negatives, and then the negatives would be used to create the aluminum plates that went onto the press.

The thing that really hits me now, looking at the page, is how wide it is. I measured it at 14 inches. By contrast, the paper I work for now, The Billings Gazette, has a page 11 inches wide (and less than 10 for the “image area,” the space for the news and photos).

At right is an image of the Gazette Page A1 that I designed for Monday’s edition. In addition to having a more modern look, it was leagues easier to put together. Everything happened at a single desk, on a single computer. Desktop publishing software is sophisticated enough to allow for applying stylized effects to photos (as I did with the promotional strip at the top, blending the photo with a background screen), to change the widths and numbers of columns of type with a single keystroke, to send the page, once finished, directly from my desk to the four plates — cyan, magenta, yellow, black — that impressed this image onto thousands and thousands of pages. None of this, of course, comes as any great surprise to anyone these days, but I think it’s an interesting contrast with how I learned the trade two-plus decades ago. Back then, if a layout editor wanted to change, say, the width of the type from the the cover to the jump page, he/she would have to apply laborious typesetting code to the story on the editing end, then go to the typesetter and hope that the break came where he/she needed it to. If it didn’t? Back to the editing terminal to adjust the coding. Now, type flows from one box shape to another with the greatest of ease.

On December 17th, 1988, however, I wasn’t in the office building a page. I was in a football stadium in Waco, Texas, trying to conjure a color story about the fans of the Southlake Carroll High School team. To write my story, I had a Radio Shack TRS-80 (affectionately called a Trash-80), which you can see at left. See that screen? When you were writing a story, you could see only a few lines at a time, and if you had to backtrack to check something you already wrote, well, let’s just say that it wasn’t so easy as CTRL-F. It was, instead, a lot of backtracking and squinting at dot-matrix characters on a gray screen in search of a certain passage or fact.

What the Trash-80 lacked in utility, however, it made up for in durability — I can’t tell you how many times I dropped it on hard surfaces like sidewalks and colleagues’ craniums, and it survived all of them — and tactile pleasantness. The keyboard, while a bit small, was incredibly easy to use for a touch typist like me. I came to love the Trash-80 and wish now that I had salvaged a few of them when they left newsrooms 15 years ago or so.

When it was time to transmit, I needed a direct connection to a landline, which wasn’t always easy to find in high school gymnasiums. I whiled away many hours in school offices — a fax machine line was perfect for transmission — and teachers’ lounges, listening to that pleasing whirr and ping of the TRS-80 as it sent my stories to where they needed to go. Now, of course, reporters in the field file in all kinds of ways — modem to modem, wireless, tweets, mobile phones and, in a pinch, by dictating a story to a fast-typing colleague back in the office.

In my essay, I wrote about a despondent few hours when the paper came out on December 18th, when I figured the story I’d written wasn’t good enough because I couldn’t find it anywhere.

As I said in the piece:

It was below the fold of the paper, a little three-inch sliver of type in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, but there it was.  I’d missed it on the first pass because it was a companion piece to [Gil] LeBreton’s, with a tiny elliptical headline.  In my frantic search through the paper, I’d simply mistaken it for part of LeBreton’s story.

LeBreton — or, as we know him, “Leb” — was (and is) one of the paper’s star columnists, and accordingly, his story had been given top billing. You can see it here:

The headline, if you can’t see it, reads “State champs | By third quarter, Carroll knew …”

And several inches below, you can see my moment of glory:

The continuation of the headline: “… what Dragon fans had known all along.” (There’s also, sadly, the precious byline of “Craig E. Lancaster.” What can I say? I was 18 and thought that a middle initial would make me more writerly.)

It was a huge thrill to see this story in my hometown newspaper, and it remains one of the biggest moments of my career. At that young age, I thought I was on my way, that if I could make the front page as a teenager, I’d no doubt be winning Pulitzers by the handful in the years to come. Things didn’t quite work out that way; within a few years, I’d made the hard left turn from aspiring reporter to full-time editor, someone toiling behind the scenes and someone whose name rarely shows up in the newspaper. It was the right choice for me, a job that better suits my sensibilities. And now, of course, my writing ambitions play out in a different way.

It’s not what I would have imagined for myself twenty-three years ago, but I wouldn’t change a thing.


Grab Bag: Unfashionable

I want to buy a cold drink for Stephen Harrigan and a copy of his new book for me.

And then I want to thank him for saying this:

“In terms of modernism, or postmodernism, or post-postmodernism, I tend to be a bit of a philistine. In reading and in art, I’m always drawn to what seems to be perpetually unfashionable: a narrative, a plot, a story, deep emotional feeling. I’m not interested in art that doesn’t move me or stir me in some perceptible way.”

That last sentence is the money part of the quote, and with it, Harrigan pinpoints why I’ve felt despair at some of the reading I’ve done in recent months. Barren, scorched, grotesque tales that in all their exquisitely tuned beauty of language crowd out things that are essential to my enjoyment of a story: cohesive narrative, some point other than the up-close examination of navel lint, and most of all, empathy for the characters on the page. That these sorts of stories are finding wide critical acclaim is a bit of a puzzlement to me, as my own take on them seems to set me outside the conventional wisdom of what constitutes good literary writing. That’s not a place I’m used to being, or want to be. (And to answer the inevitable question: Is it professional jealousy? Well, fuck, yes. On some level. But that lies mostly in the envy over the reviews, not in my sense of the stories’ merits.)

I’ve had some interesting conversations about this with my friend David Abrams, the tireless author and blogger at The Quivering Pen. His enjoyment comes from the richness of language, a sensation he once described to me as a “ping” that he feels when a sentence captures his fancy.

He describes that sensation in a recent blog post, where he extols a passage in Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam:

There’s something about the last sentence of the first paragraph in Nadzam’s debut novel which snaps me to attention with its clear, clever imagery:

About the tops of upturned trash bins, black flies scripted the air.

I like the construction of the sentence, the specificity of the flies’ blackness, and especially that verb “scripted.”

I’m with him on the introductory prepositional phrase; it has pleasing cadence and imagery. With the rest of the sentence, I’m less impressed. The blackness of flies strikes me not so much as specific as stunningly obvious. And “scripted” is a leaden verb here, one that lands on the ear with a thud. For me, though, the question goes beyond a sentence. My interest in a work is more overarching. That’s why I nod vigorously when I read these words, from screenwriter William Broyles Jr., about the aforementioned Mr. Harrigan:

“He’s about as far from David Foster Wallace as you could get, and he’s not as pitiless as Jonathan Franzen. But he has just a close and clear and unblinking ability to look at human behavior.”

That’s what I demand from my reading — particularly so the idea of “clear.” My friend David, I know, requires the same. We just seem to find it in different places sometimes.


Progress Report: 5/10/11

Things are moving on, if incrementally, on several fronts …

THE BIG SKY, BY AND BY

Awaiting a proof copy of Ed Kemmick’s collection before doing the initial run. In the meantime, I’ve been pulling together the fact sheet (take a look) that will go out to booksellers and reviewers. By the end of the month, we’ll begin taking pre-orders of this fine book.

THE NEW NOVEL PROJECT

I added a couple of thousand words in the past week and am starting to see the field clearly, at least in terms of the first third of the book. Much like last week, though, it’s far too early to say whether this one has the legs to reach the finish line, so details on subject matter, characters and other substantive stuff will have to wait.

It does have a working title, though: Somebody Has to Lose.

BEYOND THE WORD

Remember The Word, my weekly writing exercise that’s based on the inspiration of a single word? Thanks to flash-fiction genius Meg Pokrass, I snared an invitation to Fictionaut and have begun cross-posting those short pieces there, in some cases using the feedback to hone the writing a little more. (For an example of this, see how Insatiable posted here at the blog and what it’s become at Fictionaut.)

(For more on the truly astounding Megz, see this piece she wrote for David Abrams’ blog.)

I can’t tell you how much fun it has been to experiment with the very-short form, especially while I’m trying to wrestle a bigger novel idea to the ground. I’m learning a lot about how to put a full story in just a few hundred words, and I’m confident those lessons will make me a better writer across all forms.

In the week ahead, I’m hoping to put down a lot of tracks on the novel, as it will be my last chance for some significant work before I disappear for a week in New York. Fingers crossed …