12 Winters Blog

Solares, Joyce and the difficulties of finding a small press publisher

Posted in June 2010 by Ted Morrissey on June 23, 2010

I finished Ignacio Solares’s novel Yankee Invasion this morning (about 2 a.m. — long story) and was very impressed by it — plus I enjoyed the heck out of it. I especially admire the way Solares effortlessly moves from various time periods, perspectives, and narrative voices. It’s not an especially long novel, only a little over 200 pages, with many concise chapters. In short, I recommend it. I’ve gone back to reading my way through Ulysses, specifically the Cyclops section. Going from Solares to Joyce was kind of like plunging into icy waters. While complex, Solares’s prose style is very straight forward; even with the multiplicity of time frames and narrative voices, etc., it is easy to keep hold of the various threads. Not so much with Ulysses, which requires careful reading (and re-reading and re-reading) to stay more or less on top of the text — but I enjoy that challenge, and, as a writer, I feel that I’m absorbing some meaningful things from Joyce. For Father’s Day I asked for and received a copy of Finnegans Wake. I’ve been perusing the introduction by John Bishop, which begins with what could be a rather discouraging observation for many: “There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is ‘about’ anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, ‘readable'” (p. vii, 1999 Penguin edition). I’m anxious to begin in earnest — but first to finish Ulysses (and probably another couple of contemporary authors). I did mention Finnegans Wake in my dissertation but only in that the various reading groups dedicated to the book — groups that read the text aloud line by line and research/discuss every allusion — are akin to the textual communities that developed in medieval England, whereby a literate person (usually a member of the church) would read aloud (usually the Bible) and his audience would contribute to interpreting the text. I would like to be a part of just such a Finnegans Wake group. I know: it wouldn’t be most folks’ cup of tea.

I’m still not back to composing for the Authoress, but I’ve read through the entire manuscript, about 230 pages, and did some revising and close editing (and note taking). I also have been reading some historical texts on everyday life in Georgian/Victorian London to incorporate further textual details into my novel. In reality, though, I haven’t uncovered much new material that I want to try to weave into the story, but I’ve verified that much of what I’ve already included is historically plausible. Here’s a little tidbit that I learned: copper cooking utensils, frying pans, etc., were very popular in Victorian London kitchens, but they were lined with tin because copper is toxic, so cooks had to be diligent in having their pots and pans retinned every so often to avoid poisoning their families, as the tin lining would wear off over time. Cast iron cookware was not as fashionable, but overall it was safer and less trouble to maintain. One of  things I like best about being a writer is that to be a good writer one must also be a good learner.

On the Men of Winter front, I believe the final edits have been made and the novel is ready for pagination/typesetting. I’ve also had some email contact with the graphic designer who’s doing the cover regarding blurbs. The other day I received a rejection for the novel from a university press, even though I’d withdrawn the manuscript query via email months ago and received a congratulatory email in acknowledgement of my withdrawal (these are the best sorts of rejections to receive). I bring it up, though, because in the letter of rejection, the editor said that her press was cutting back on the number of fiction titles they were going to bring out in the  coming year due to economic reasons. Cutting back! They’d only been publishing four titles a year as it was. It’s just further evidence that things are pretty bleak in the publishing world — especially the small, independent press world. Meanwhile, many small and/or university presses have stopped accepting new manuscript queries because they are already inundated. At a glance it would seem that there are a lot of these types of presses out there, but for a fiction writer (especially a white male fiction writer) the number is fairly small. I haven’t done any hard-number calculations, but it seems that the literal majority of small presses only publish poetry (poetry quite frankly is easier to publish; the manuscripts are much shorter than prose mss., layout is easier, the books tend to be much thinner in terms of the number of pages). Then you have presses who are only interested in creative nonfiction, or in translation; or they only publish women, or authors from a particular cultural arena, or authors who are gay/lesbian, or authors who are disabled, or who come from a specific geographical region (Canada or the Southwest or New England), or authors under the age of 25, or authors who are enrolled in an MFA program. . . .  When it comes to university or small presses that are willing to look at fiction from white males, it’s a relatively small number. Then you toss in factors like a press may be, understandably, only reading during certain times of the year, or it has stopped accepting new queries because it’s already severely backlogged — and looking for a prospective publisher becomes even more daunting. Intellectually I realize we white males have been dominating, well, everything in Western culture for thousands of years, including publishing, and I agree that it’s about time that other voices are heard in the publishing world (not to mention every other world); but it’s still a bit frustrating when one is looking for an outlet for one’s work.

Hence long live Punkin House Press.

I continue to circulate “Melvill in the Marquesas,” the first chapter of my unpublished novella, as a stand-alone piece — but I’ve only begun the process, so it’ll be a little while before the rejections begin rolling in in earnest. I’ve also begun typing up some of my older published stories, as  I hope to have together a novella with collected stories manuscript in the near future.


Men of Winter edits, more Solares and Morrison

Posted in June 2010 by Ted Morrissey on June 15, 2010

I’ve had the good fortune to have my novel Men of Winter edited by Cheryl Hampton for Punkin House Press. Her close attention to detail and, as such, to nuance have been most reassuring — reassuring, that is, that Men of Winter is in good hands.  I have attempted to make the narrative voice sound translated, as if English is not the novel’s original language; hence many of the sentence patterns are deliberately oddball. I think it’s fair to say that it took Cheryl a few pages to get the rhythm of what I was up to, but once she did, her editing was spot on, often times suggesting changes that were improvements but still in the proper “oddball” voice.  One of the issues we discussed, via emails, was the use of compound words, like “snowcountry” and “streetpeople.” We’ve been in agreement to go with the compound words in the final version of the novel, as the unusual compounds contribute to the voice’s oddity. We agreed on one exception, however: “dining room” for “diningroom.”  For some reason, to my eye at least, the GROOM part of diningroom seems to stand out, and it’s an unnecessary distraction. Overall the edits have been minor and few, and the final version of the manuscript should be finished very soon.

I’ve been reading more of Solares’s Yankee Invasion, and I very much admire the way that the author moves back and forth in time in the narrative. The novel has a first-person reflective narrator who is at times writing about the time just prior to and during the United States’ invasion of Mexico City in 1847, and other chapters are much later as the narrator discusses with his wife about the memoir he is writing, and why he’s writing it, and what he’s leaving out, etc. There is much factual history in the novel woven in with the totally fabricated characters and events. In fact, the book begins with a timeline of Mexico’s history from 1838 to 1848, and it ends with a glossary of biographies of people mentioned in the novel, from John Quincy Adams to Francisco Zarco.  There are also several maps of Mexico and the United States from the time period. In the novel’s introduction, Carlos Fuentes (who’s been one of my favorite authors since I read his novel The Old Gringo about a million years ago) writes, “Written from the precarious vantage point of the future immediate to the novel, yet written by an author, Solares, contemporaneous to ourselves, Yankee Invasion holds a tacit invitation to see and be seen as subjects of history passing through the sieve of fiction” (xiii, 2009 Scarletta Press edition). I’m about 90 pages into the novel and am enjoying it very much. It’s an excellent example of what critic Brian McHale, in Postmodernist Fiction, calls a “zone,” a space created by the author where the “real” and the “unreal” (even the fantastic in this case) co-exist.

I’ve also been reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for my African-American authors class. I must say even though I’m an enormous fan of Morrison’s work, I’ve not been enjoying The Bluest Eye as much as I anticipated — perhaps because I’m ready to be in full summer mode and the novel is keeping me at least partially in the work-world. This is my last week to teach, though, as next Thursday is the last class session, which will be devoted to the students’ final projects.

In my creative life, besides working with Cheryl on the final publication draft of Men of Winter, I also finished retyping/revising my older novella Weeping with an Ancient God, and I’ve even been sending out the first chapter as a stand-alone piece, titled “Melvill in the Marquesas.” Plus I’ve been reading and editing the entire manuscript of the Authoress, my novel in progress, before continuing the drafting process. I’m nearly done with the 230 or so manuscript pages, and will be ready to write in earnest by the end of the week, I would think.


Yankee Invasion and Writers Ask

Posted in June 2010 by Ted Morrissey on June 6, 2010

I’m taking a bit of time away from Joyce (absence will no doubt make the heart grow even fonder) to read Ignacio Solares’s Yankee Invasion: A Novel of Mexico City (translated by Timothy G. Compton).  A few nights ago I had some time on my hands so I wandered into Barnes & Noble for some coffee and browsing.  Visiting bookstores for me has always been a bit like going to the zoo.  I love to walk around and admire the various species, take a moment every now and again to learn a little something about them — but, unlike a zoo, I can take a particularly intriguing specimen home. Several caught my eye, but it came down to Solares’s book and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume:  The Story of a Murder — which I’ve just learned has been adapted into a movie.  I’m about forty pages into Yankee Invasion.  So far it’s been about half the narrator’s personal musings and half the history of Mexico, especially in the nineteenth century, which is fine as it appeals to my attention surplus disorder. I’m going to have to switch reading gears again for a couple of days and read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I’m teaching in African-American authors class.  We just have three weeks to go, and I’ll spend two of those weeks on The Bluest Eye.  I’ve read several Morrison novels and have taught Beloved the previous times I’ve done this course.  I wanted to mix it up a bit, but I feel that Morrison, the last American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993), ought to be covered in the class.

I’ve been typing up (and revising as I go) the manuscript for “Weeping with an Ancient God,” which is a highly fictionalized biography of Herman Melville’s time among the cannibals of the Marquesas Islands in 1842.  It’s novella length and I hope to publish the whole thing eventually, but I’ll probably shop around the first chapter as a stand-alone piece (it’ll be a good side project for the summer while I continue to write “The Authoress”).  Not much progress on Men of Winter‘s publication.  I’ve had a couple of contacts with the graphic artist who’s working on the cover, and I’ve been told which editor’s been assigned to my book — but that’s about it so far.

I sent Glimmer Train Stories “Walkin’ the Dog” but had to withdraw the manuscript when it was accepted by Spilling Ink Review.  GTS‘s co-editor Linda Swanson-Davies (along with her sister Susan Burmeister-Brown) responded to my withdraw by inviting me to submit a piece for their Writers Ask or Bulletin publications, both of which examine the craft of writing and related issues.  The timing was perfect, and I happily spent a day writing a short article titled “Researching the Rhythms of Voice” and sent it off.  After a bit of back and forth regarding its length (I had to cut it down a couple of times, but that’s a good exercise in word husbandry), Linda accepted it for an upcoming issue of Writers Ask.  I was thrilled as I’m a huge fan of Glimmer Train Press — not to mention Linda and Susan, who have devoted their professional lives to promoting quality writing and nurturing writers, including me.