12 Winters Blog

Authoress progress, Weeping, and a little Tempest

Posted in July 2010 by Ted Morrissey on July 21, 2010

My working on the Authoress, my novel in progress, slowed down for a couple of weeks, in large part because I was tidying up the manuscript for Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella with collected stories.  Novellas have been a hard sale, unless your name is something like Stephanie Meyer, but I’m hoping by pairing the novella with already published short stories, it will be easier to place.  It took longer to edit and compile the various pieces into a single manuscript — and it took more of my creative energies than I’d anticipated — and as such my writing was affected. But with Weeping put to bed so to speak, I’ve been back at the Authoress this week. I’ve also been doing some home improvement stuff, and these projects, though they’re not that cerebral, have been a distracting influence as well. Along with writing, I’ve also begun some research on nineteenth-century printing processes. Having it right per se is not pivotal to my book, but I’ve been throwing around some terminology, almost since page one, and I want to make sure it’s accurate. So far I’m finding that I’ve been pretty much on the mark, but I’ll probably tweak some language here and there. A metaphor has also been suggested to me via the research; I may pursue inserting the metaphor — letting it just percolate for now.  Since it’s a work of fiction I don’t consider myself a slave to historical accuracy, but authenticity is crucial to historically based novels and being accurate with those sort of details (the printing processes of the period) can go a long way toward establishing that authenticity.

In addition to the research, I’m back to reading Ulysses, specifically the “Circe” section, which is the longest and quite possibly most challenging section of the novel, essentially book-length in itself. Taking the form of a dramatic script, it is a dreamlike narrative. I haven’t done any serious scholarly research on Joyce’s work, but this “Circe” section seems to anticipate the narrative technique of Finnegans Wake, which has been described as the journey from wakefulness through the catacombs of sleep then back toward being awake at the conclusion. I’ve been trying to alternate reading a section of Ulysses with reading a shorter (probably more contemporary) novel, as there are many that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get to; I’ve “fit in” works by Hawkes, Nabokov, Solares, and Süskind whle reading sections of Ulysses. Last week I read a sizable chunk of Tom Rachman’s very new novel The Imperfectionists, and it was very good (it strikes me as more of a conceptual novel, though I don’t mean to imply that makes it somehow not a novel and certainly not less than a novel). I found it laugh-out-loud funny at times, and touching at times — but I abandoned it nevertheless. I felt a bit guilty, as it deserves to be read in full, but I didn’t seem to be in the mood for it. Being contemporary, it talks of cell phones and computers and the Internet — things my real world is filled with, and for some reason I don’t want to read about such stuff, not in a novel anyway. As a writer, I don’t want to write about such stuff either.

I’ve been circulating the first chapter of my novella as a stand-alone piece titlted “Melvill in the Marquesas,” and I’ve just started sending around a 2,000-word short story titled “The Composure of Death” (it’s a knee-slapper). It’s difficult to find open markets in the depth of summer, but already in mid-July things have begun to reopen, meaning that more and more journals have started to read again, though the flood gates won’t open until late August, early September; in other words, with the start of the academic year.

Finally . . .  I’ve been meaning to say something about the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest, which I saw several weeks ago. In a word, it was good. The Festival productions are always professionally done and enjoyable to watch. I was a little taken aback by the presentation of Prospero; he seemed too kind-hearted, not edgy enough for my Prospero tastes. I was most intrigued by the set design and costuming. In addition to its being part of the backdrop, a brilliant blue sky with ponderous white clouds was also rendered on the floor of the stage — implying I think that all of the play’s action is taking place in a sort of ethereal space. This ethereal-space impression was added to by the costuming, especially Ariel’s, which consisted mainly of body paint: sky blue with white clouds added on back and chest; then as pants he wore sort of knee-length breeches made of puffy white material, rather cloud-like if you will. At the pinnacle of the backdrop was the shape of a long-winged bird, maybe dove shaped, but filled in with the same sky-blue sky with clouds design that was on the stage floor and on Ariel (and the other spirits, too, for that matter). In some regards, the ethereal space is perhaps suggestive of the play’s taking place as much in imagination as in theatrical reality — in the playwright’s imagination? Or the audience’s? Perhaps Prospero’s or Miranda’s? I’m not sure — but I’ve been pondering it at some level since seeing the production. The Festival is also doing The Merry Wives of Windsor this summer, and I hope to get to it (though it’s turned into a busy summer in its way).

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Ulysses, the Odyssey, and Suskind’s Perfume

Posted in July 2010 by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2010

I’ve been meaning to add a blog post for a while, but I’ve discovered my summertime routine doesn’t lend itself to blogging. I’ve been writing quite a bit each morning on my novel in progress, and by the time I reach a point where I might blog, I’m about written out. I hear of creative writers who hammer away on a novel, etc., for hours and hours at a time, but I find that a couple of hours per day is plenty. Still, I’m making much steadier progress than I did during the academic year, where I was limited to writing twenty to thirty minutes a morning, Monday through Friday. I spent most of June editing and revising what I had written of the manuscript, so it’s only been the last couple of weeks that I’ve been moving steadily forward with the plot. There are faint traces of the end of the novel in the air, but I’m trying to resist the scent so that I don’t rush through the end of the book. I’ve resigned myself to not finishing until perhaps next summer in hopes that I’ll have the patience to fully develop the concluding sections.

On the reading front, I completed a couple sections of Ulysses, specifically the “Nausicaa” and “Oxen of the Sun” sections. I must confess that I’ve been reading some notes along with actually reading the novel (especially SparkNotes), and I’ve found them most useful. However, a reference in the “Nausicaa” analysis underscored for me what I’ve found to be a regular, well, shortcoming with many people’s approach to reading Joyce’s novel. I’ve noticed that some academics and/or just plain Ulysses enthusiasts have only a vague knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey — in fact, I’ve run into more than one Joycean who says he’s never read the Odyssey. To return to the case in point, the SparkNotes writer says that in the Odyssey, Nausicaa “discovers Odysseus asleep on the beach” (p. 63), which, strictly speaking, isn’t an accurate way to describe the action of the poem. In Book VI, Nausicaa and her servant girls, at Athena’s divine urging, have come to the river to do the washing, and their youthful frolicking awakens Odysseus, who has been asleep in the foliage. Hearing them, Odysseus reveals himself to the young women (well, not totally, thanks to a sprig of leaves he modestly holds in front of himself). Hence to say that the princess discovers Odysseus asleep on the beach is not quite right — it’s more that Odysseus discovers the young women on the beach. I know some may see it as a picayunish point — and the description of their meeting may be more the result of editorial compression than the SparkNotes writer’s lack of intimacy with Homer’s story — but it does seem to suggest someone is more familiar with Ulysses than with the Odyssey. I would think that if someone is going to devote him- or herself to developing a profound understanding of Ulysses, then one of the first orders of business would be to develop at least a solid understanding of the Odyssey.

Taking a breather from Joyce (ha — you’ll see), I’ve been reading Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume (translated from the German by John E. Woods), and it’s very, very good. Besides the author’s virtuoso treatment of describing smells (something most creative writers don’t do very much of under normal narrative circumstances), I’ve also appreciated his representation of eighteenth-century France, especially Paris.

In addition to working on the Authoress, I’ve been continuing to circulate “Melvill in the Marquesas” (rejections are starting to trickle in), and I discovered my short story “The Composure of Death,” which, frankly, I had all but forgotten. However, I cleaned it up a bit and began sending it out as well.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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More Ulysses and the monetary value of literature

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 31, 2010

A couple of days ago I tweeted that I was “#amreading” Ulysses and one of my former students, via Facebook, expressed surprise that I was still reading Ulysses.  I have stopped periodically to focus my reading on other texts — for example, because I’m teaching this African American literature class right now and I’ve revamped the syllabus since the previous go-around, I’ve spent some quality time on classic slave narratives, and last week I took a couple of days to read some Wallace Thurman — but I’m also a slow (and careful) reader, so Ulysses is the sort of text that takes time.  I’ve been chipping away at it since around Christmas, and I’m less than halfway through, working on the “Cyclops” section presently.  The student who made the comment is a good one, and an avid reader.  Still, though, I’ve noticed that young folks — the dwindling few who still read for pleasure — are disinclined to read classics.  I use “classic” here to mean a text that challenges them intellectually, even just a little.  As such, the idea of reading something like Ulysses (an extreme example I realize) becomes increasingly alien to the culture’s mindset.

Something else I wanted to touch on here:  the monetary value of literature (that is, serious contemporary literature).  I was doing some research on William H. Gass, specifically his meganovel The Tunnel, which appeared in, I think, nineteen excerpted installments between 1966 (when he began writing it) and 1995 (when it was published in whole).  I was at Brookens Library at University of Illinois, Springfield, and I was tracking down various excerpts that appeared in journals like The Iowa Reivew and TriQuarterly.  I was astonished to see that a journal like The Iowa Review cost virtually the same in the 1970s as it does now, about $9 for a single issue.  Had the cost of literary journals kept pace with inflation, that $9 journal in, say, 1975, would cost more than $35 today ($35.49 to be exact, according to The Inflation Calculator online).  Working in the other direction, something worth $9 in 2009 should have cost $2.08 in 1975.  Publishing literary journals has always been a for-loss proposition for the vast, vast majority of such journals; and that hasn’t changed, except perhaps for the relatively new phenomenon of  ejournals, as opposed to traditional print journals, as ejournals have very little overhead cost.

What this data suggests to me is that literature — again, serious contemporary literature — was of greater value to the public at large (or at least the journal-buying public at large) thirty years ago.  That is to say, people were willing to spend more of their discretionary income on a literary journal in 1975 than they are now.  Journal editors today have difficulty moving print product.  Imagine if they were charging more than $35 for a single issue.  Contemporary literature in the form of hardback books is approaching that price tag, but journals are still roughly $9 per issue.  I daresay it would be almost impossible to sell a literary journal for thirty-five bucks, which is the main reason that serious contemporary literature is rarely published in hardback today.  University and other small press publishers release novels and story and poetry collections in paperback, with a significantly smaller price tag than hardback, and even then it’s an uphill battle to get folks to buy them.

This statistic — that the relative value of serious contemporary literature is about a quarter of what it was in 1975 — seems to jibe with how the culture feels to those of us who are compelled to produce serious literature.  Once in a while I’ll have students ask me who my favorite writers are, and I’ll throw out names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Gass, and they’ll respond with a “never heard of him.”  I know.

Speaking of eliterature, the first issue of Spilling Ink Review is scheduled to appear this week (which includes my story “Walkin’ the Dog”).  Meanwhile, I’ve been typing my manuscript “Weeping with an Ancient God” — long, and not very interesting story, but I haven’t had an electronic version of the novella, so I’m typing the manuscript (and making revisions along the way).  I’ll also type up some older short stories for which I no longer have electronic copies (e.g., “Fische Stories” that appeared in Glimmer Train Stories).  I’d like to publish “Weeping” as a novella with collected stories.  And of course I continue to work on The Authoress.  In another week, The Authoress will move to the top of my priority list, and I’ll be able to write at a much faster pace — very much looking forward to that.

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More Ulysses, progress on Men of Winter

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

I’ve been reading “The Wandering Rocks” section of Ulysses and enjoying it very much.  I especially appreciate Joyce’s overlapping of images and micro-incidents to tie together otherwise disparate scenes.  Also, the language play, especially in the scenes centering on Stephen Dedalus, is breathtaking.  I frequently stop, go back, and re-read sentences and whole paragraphs, etc., in pure wonderment at what Joyce has managed.  Case in point:  Joyce writes, “She dances in a foul gloom where gum burns with garlic.  A sailorman, rustbearded, sips from a beaker rum and eyes her.  A long and seafed silent rut.  She dances, capers, wagging her sowish haunches and her hips, on her gross belly flapping a ruby egg” (p. 241 1990 Vintage International edition).  The word “seafed” is a good example, too, why one must pay close attention when reading; it’d be easy to misconstrue it as some sort of verb, when it’s actually a fairly straight forward adjective, like sea-fed, as in fed by the sea.  The hyphen would help, but gods bless Joyce for not giving us one there.  I’ve always liked compound words, like seafed, but I’ve found most editors are very uncomfortable with them.  When my story “Communion with the Dead” was published in The Chariton Review, the production editor broke apart several of my compound words, for examples, making “bluelight” into “blue light” and “steppingstone” into “stepping-stone.”  I stated my preferences but left the final version up to her (it was the first story I’d had published in sometime, thanks in large part to focusing on my doctoral studies, so I was just grateful to get something in print again and didn’t feel especially combative over it).  She opted in just about every case for the more conventional spellings.  I hope to publish a collection of stories eventually, and I figure I’ll set things as I’ve always wanted them in that volume.  I’ll need to turn away from Joyce for a couple of days as I’m teaching The Blacker the Berry (1929)  by Wallace Thurman in my African-American literature class, and I’ll need to spend some quality time with the text.

On the Men of Winter front, the publisher is moving forward with it and has assigned an editor and graphic designer to my book.  I was contacted by the graphic designer, Julie McAnary, yesterday.  After checking out her website, I’m especially pleased and excited that she’s been assigned my cover.  I had roughed out an idea for the cover using Word, but I’m also quite open to her developing some cover designs as well (again, especially since looking at her work online).  In the past, when designing A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity, I’d used Quark and then Adobe InDesign, but I no longer have access to either software so I wasn’t able to pull my cover idea together in the way I imagine it — but that’s all right: I’m comfortable with Julie’s handling the work and am looking forward to seeing what she comes up with.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on The Authoress.  I’m in a section that is especially challenging, as the narrator is observing multiple frenetic things happening at once.  I know it will require much work, much writing and rewriting, to get right — but that’s the fun of it.  I enjoy sitting down with a draft and going through it with the proverbial finetooth comb, adding and taking away and rewording.  I’ve always found that when I revise I almost always add (and reword).  Very rarely do I feel that I’ve overwritten a section; my journalistically bred barebones style tends to make my first drafts under- rather than overcooked.  My academic year is all but over (save for the African-American lit class, which runs to the end of June), so I’m chomping at the bit to get to writing and working on The Authoress in summertime earnest.

“Walkin’ the Dog” has been taken by Spilling Ink Review and will be included in the journal’s inaugural issue, which is supposed to be out June 1 (very fast turn around, but that’s one of the advantages of epublishing).  I’m very pleased and impressed with their website, and look forward to seeing what they do with my story.  SIR, which is edited by Amy Burns, will also publish an annual anthology in print, but not with everything that’s been online.  With the publication of “Walkin’ the Dog” I’m out of stories; I’ve published every story I’ve written (well, every one since I finished my master’s and had something of a clue as to what I was doing) — which is a sort of odd feeling.  I’m so used to looking for outlets and sending off stories (and receiving rejection after rejection before someone says yes), it’ll be strange not to go through that process:  But I’m not complaining. tedmorrissey.com

Ulysses, African-American Authors, et al.

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 16, 2010

I continue to make my way through Ulysses.  This morning I finished reading episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis.”  It was especially meaningful to me for several reasons.  It’s a highly literary episode, as the characters, especially Stephen Dedalus and the poet A. E., discuss Shakespeare and, in particular, their various theories about Hamlet (and Hamlet and king Hamlet).  Before reading Ulysses, I had not seen the parallels between Homer’s Odyssey — a text that I’ve taught for years — and Hamlet, a text that I’ve taught but it’s been awhile. Both, for instance, are very much concerned with the absent father (Odysseus and king Hamlet), and in both the returned father spurs them to violence against intruders to their home (the suitors and Claudius).  The bipolarity of faithful Penelope versus faithless Gertrude is interesting, too.

Perhaps the most intriguing notion to come out of my reading of episode nine, however, is the idea that Joyce was exploring the dichotomy between Aristotle’s rationalism (represented by the cliff-dwelling Scylla) and Plato’s more organic idealism (the maelstrom Charybdis).  I’ve been teaching and studying the Odyssey for years, but I’ve never thought of Odysseus as having to navigate between these philosophical poles — and the dangers associated with sailing too closely to one or the other.  We can see this metaphor played out in our everyday lives.  In education, for example, it seems that the Aristotelean has run amok with an overemphasis on standardized testing (crystallized in the politically named “No Child Left Behind” legislation) to the detriment of the more flexible and organic pedagogies, associated in this paradigm with the Platonic.  That is, President Bush and the architects of NCLB wanted to treat students as if they were software that could be tweaked into superior performance — and dismissing the complexly organic nature of complex human organisms.  Standardized testing has its place in education, but we mustn’t sail too closely to the rocks; a more moderate course is needed.

I’ve also been (re-)reading some slave narratives as I’m currently teaching one of my favorite courses at the college, Introduction to African-American Authors.  I’ve taught it several times over the last four or five years, but I overhauled the syllabus, placing greater emphasis on the early slave narratives (Equiano, Prince, Douglass, and Jacobs), and also on the Harlem Renaissance.  Regarding the latter, this new emphasis has allowed the poetry of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes into the reading list, as well as the novella The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman.  For the conclusion of the course, I’ve also switched out Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) for The Bluest Eye (1970).  Of course, in revamping the syllabus the age-old problem has manifested itself:  for everything the syllabus giveth, it must taketh something else away.  In this case, I’ve lost some writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (and Walker’s concept of “womanism” as opposed to feminism).  These are great losses to be sure.  I’ll have to evaluate this incarnation of the course once we finish in mid-June.

I continue to work on The Authoress and am very pleased with how it’s taking shape.  I have a more solid sense of the ending, but it remains many, many words away, and I’m deliberately avoiding marrying myself to the ending as I envision it now — I want the narrative to have the autonomy to assert its own wishes and needs as we go along.  The fine folks at Punkin House Press are getting things in order.  I still haven’t been contacted by an editor there regarding Men of Winter, but it will no doubt happen soon.  Their plate is mighty full, to put it mildly.  Speaking of autonomy, PHP’s philosophy is to let writers have their own space to create and to promote themselves.  On the one hand, I very much appreciate this noble philosophy, but, on the other, some writers could probably use a bit more guidance when it comes to presenting themselves to the world.  I can offer no citation, but I’ve heard that when Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat”) would send his work to his publisher, the junior editors would draw straws to see who had to edit his writing, which was filled with misspellings and ungrammatical musings.  Creativity — even if a sort of genius creativity — does not necessarily make one a master of the English language, which is why the gods invented editors.

And speaking of unmasterful endeavors, I continue to tinker with tedmorrissey.com — but there probably isn’t a lot more to do until Men of Winter gets closer to an actual release date.

Ulysses and my new website

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 2, 2010

Somehow or another in my college coursework and general bibliomania, I managed to miss pretty much all of James Joyce, other than reading Dubliners (1914) in bits and pieces over the years and including “Araby” on my syllabus when I’ve taught Intro to Short Fiction at the college; and I’ve always considered my lack of familiarity with Joyce as an enormous gap in literary knowledge.  Hence one of my post-doctoral goals was to catch up on my reading of Joyce.  In the fall I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and over the winter I began Ulysses (1922).  Other pressures forced me to leave the text be for a time, but I’m back at it, and in the last week or so I’ve read the “Lotus Eaters,” “Hades” and “Aeolus” sections,  and I’m working on “Lestrygonians.”  Ulysses is a difficult text to be sure, and it requires focus.  There have been a few episodes in which I’ve become enthralled as a reader and have been lost in the story, but for the most part it has required some concerted effort to stay with the narrative threads and make some sense of them.  I doubt that I’ll pursue Joyce in a scholarly way, and I can’t see incorporating Joyce into my teaching other than via the stories from Dubliners, but it’s time well spent nevertheless.  From a creative writing standpoint, Joyce’s experimentation and narrative courage, if you will, are valuable lessons to be learned or at least to be reinforced.  I was inspired by the overall structure of Ulysses in the writing of the central section of The Authoress.

Speaking of The Authoress, writing has been going well.  Though with over 200 pages of manuscript, I feel that the story is still waxing; it may end up being a fairly long novel, which is all right:  I’ve always felt like the conclusion of Men of Winter was a bit rushed.  A literary agent had been waiting to see the completed manuscript for three years (not with bated breath, mind you — but I was ever mindful of her expressed interest and was anxious to get it into her mailbox).  And of course once she read it, she decided not to represent it anyway.  And I may be mistaken (whatever “mistake” means when it comes to art):  perhaps the conclusion is as it should be.

This past week I launched tedmorrissey.com, devoted to my creative writing endeavors.  It’s very much a work in progress, and pretty low-tech as websites go these days.  But it seems a virtual necessity to have a dedicated web presence as a contemporary author.  Once Men of Winter gets closer to release, I’ll add some additional features.  One of the things I need to work on, I feel, is a trailer for the novel — as far as I know it’s a twenty-first-century phenomenon to have a trailer for a book.  One of the folks I follow on Twitter makes trailers, so I’m thinking of approaching her, but I’m also considering making it myself.  It would definitely be a learning experience (like starting 12 Winters Blog and tedmorrissey.com).  The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House Press, a brand-new press, is coming along.  I can’t imagine the numbers of irons they have in the fire, as it were, attempting to launch a commercial printing house along with a vanity press, a marketplace for self-published books, and a literary journal — simultaneously.  God bless em.

I submitted a proposal to write a chapter for a book on the artist and society; my chapter would be about William H. Gass’s The Tunnel.  I should hear within a couple of weeks whether or not my proposal’s been accepted.  The chapter will be due September 1 if it’s accepted.  If it’s accepted, I’ll enjoy diving back into The Tunnel; but if it’s not, that will be time I’ll be able to devote to other projects — it’s a win-win either way.

Men of Winter to be published, and Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Posted in April 2010 by Ted Morrissey on April 11, 2010

Well, it only took about ten years, but I’ve found a publisher for my novel Men of Winter.  Punkin House Press has offered to bring it out as both an ebook and an actual book.  Punkin House, whose CEO is Amy Ferrell, is adapted(ing) to the realities of publishing in the twenty-first century, I believe.  For years editors/publishers have reacted to my book-length work in more or less the same way:  They like it, they think it should be in print, but just not by them because they won’t make any money off of it.  At a glance it appears that there are just as many publishing houses as there were twenty years ago, perhaps more.  But, in fact, the same thing has happened in the publishing world that has happened in the TV and radio worlds — a few large corporations have acquired or driven out of business the smaller publishing houses, so what may look like a dozen houses is actually just one parent-owned house whose only interest is making a lot of money.  So you have a small group of “name” authors who publish continuously, and thousands of worthy authors who can’t get the time of day from a larger publisher because a “no-name” author isn’t going to sell enough product to make it worthwhile (and, of course, no-name authors remain with no name in the business).  Independent and university presses have tried to fill the void, but budget and staff restraints allow them to publish only a handful of titles each year.  Also, these sorts of presses, especially university presses, tend to evolve very slowly in terms of using technology and adapting to market trends because they’re associated with bureaucratic systems that are driven by inertia rooted in tradition (that is, bureaucrats tend to stick with what they know, even long after it’s proven ineffective).  Meanwhile, I continue to look for a journal to publish “Walkin’ the Dog,” which is really the last publishable story I have; and I work on The Authoress (novel in progress).

On the scholarship front, I’ve been busy tracking down the various portions of William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel that appeared as excerpts or stand-alone pieces over about thirty years.  So far I’ve mainly been acquiring the pieces and I haven’t had the opportunity to sift through them with care.  What I’m especially interested in is how Gass may have revised them before they appeared in the novel itself.  When I compared “The Old Folks” that appeared in The Kenyon Review with its counterpart, “The Ghost Folks,” in The Tunnel, I found a few — but significant — changes.  I’m still interested in the metaphor of the tunnel itself as being rooted, psychologically, in the phenomenon of the fallout shelter.  I was surprised at the references to tunnels and basements in Nabokov’s early novel Bend Sinister; likewise, I’m only a few pages into John Hawkes’s 1949 novel The Cannibal, which is set in a bombed-out German town, and I’m finding very interesting references to basements, etc.  For example, in the opening chapter the character Balimir is set to work digging a pit in Madame Snow’s cellar, and we are told that as Balimir sits at the top of the steps all of Germany is at his feet.  Similarly, Madame Snow herself “felt the vastness of community that was like burial, spreading over all borders and from family to family” (New Directions 1962 edition p. 17).  That is, the entire town seemed to be underground.

I’m anxious to read on and see where these threads lead my research.