12 Winters Blog

Interview with Lynette D’Amico: Road Trip

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 30, 2015

Twelve Winters Press doesn’t solicit submissions as a general rule. Sometimes we’ll have a call for submissions for a special project, but otherwise, as a publisher, I see myself as more of a hunter-gatherer. That is, I keep my eyes and ears open for interesting projects, and when I pick up a scent, I track it down to see if it pans out.  I believe it was in the summer of 2014 that I received the Quarterly West newsletter which included an announcement of the winner and finalists of its annual novella contest. One of the finalists was “Road Trip” by Lynette D’Amico. There were several finalists, and I’m not sure why that one stood out to me. I’m a big fan of the road trip motif — I’ve taught Homer’s Odyssey many, many times, as I have tales from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and I’m a fan of Kerouac’s On the Road, and McCarthy’s The Road . . . and so on. So maybe it’s as simple as that.

Road Trip - front cover for DIGITAL

I went about tracking down this Lynette D’Amico person on the Web (which took a little doing), and introduced myself and Twelve Winters via email. She responded, and come to find out, her novella had been three times a bridesmaid. Prior to the Quarterly West finalist finish, her little book also had been a finalist for the Paris Literary Prize and, as part of a collection, for the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She had some other impressive writing credentials, including placing a piece with The Gettysburg Review, “Ashes, Ashes,” that had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She said in her email that being contacted by a publisher took some of the sting out of her third close-but-not-quite finish, and she agreed to send me the manuscript.

I was blown away by her novella — its complexity, its intricate structure, its mixing of genres, its main characters who are thoroughly lovable in spite of their glaring flaws, and its offbeat humor. I very much wanted to bring this strange little book into the world. We began our negotiations. I entertained the idea of bringing “Road Trip” out as part of a collection, but ultimately we agreed that it should stand on its own as a novella. The story is highly intertextual, so I liked the idea of perhaps mixing in yet another mode of communication in the form of illustrations of some sort (at least, I think it was my idea — maybe Lynette suggested it first . . . I could easily be persuaded she did). Ultimately, Lynette found some photographs from the Wisconsin Historical Society and from a book titled Death of the Dream that she wanted to include in the book. The odd and often haunting photographs definitely added another layer to her already multi-layered novella.

I enlisted the aid of a couple of the Press’s loyal editors to read the manuscript and work with Lynette to finalize it for publication; then beginning in about March of this year I re-entered the process, and Lynette and I went about creating Road Trip in its final form, in print and digital editions. (Lynette is at work on an audio version of Road Trip as well.) On June 22, 2015, the novella entered the world. I sent Lynette some interview questions about her book and her process, and what follows are her unedited responses. SPOILER ALERT: At times the interview drifts into details of the novella you may not want to know before reading it (I wouldn’t have).

Lynette-6

The travel narrative obviously has a rich history. The Bible is filled with travel stories. There’s Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, with your own book perhaps being more closely related to Kerouac’s On the Road. Why do you think the travel narrative has been so attractive to storytellers, and what specifically attracted you to it for Road Trip?

Isn’t it a version of the travel narrative that we all see ourselves as coming from somewhere on our way to somewhere else? Well, maybe that’s a version of the travel narrative written by white men of a particular social class. When I was 21 or 22, I tried to wrangle a posse of girlfriends to drive from a first-ring suburb of St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. My friends wanted to bake on a beach, so I wrote to chambers of commerce, collected maps, a sleeping bag, and hit the road alone. I made it as far as Taos before I exhausted my credit limit and my own capacity for adventure—sleeping and not sleeping in my car with all the doors locked at state parks.

The notion of the road trip immediately inspires a sense of the unknown; it has its own engine—we’re heading out from Point A to Point B, or to points unknown. I needed a trajectory for Road Trip, something that would propel the story forward, and place the characters of Myra and Pinkie in time and space, and a literal road trip does the trick.

There’s a line in a story by Paul Yoon, “So That They Do Not Hear Us,” that I get caught on, “. . . there was a time she had departed and was now wishing to return to.” This nostalgia for returning is also a part of the mythology of a road trip: we want to go back to where we started, and the inherent sadness of the road trip for Myra and Pinkie is that even if they get back to where they started, even if they return, nothing will ever be the same again.

Some of the travel narratives I mentioned have a significant supernatural element in them—as does your novella. What do you think the connection is between travel and the supernatural?

Travel removes us from the familiar. In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she says that “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” The expectation of the travel narrative is exploration of the unknown; to turn a corner or come into a clearing, where “I have never seen this place before” and the unexpected becomes possible.

Flimic references that inform Road Trip include David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, the Cohen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Wizard of Oz, and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. And by “inform,” I mean I paid attention that if you’re on a road trip, something’s gotta happen along the way, and I like it when the something that happens along the way is a little weird, or incorporates unreal elements.

A few years back my spouse and I were staying in a cabin in the Adirondacks. We woke up early the morning we were due to leave and rather than go back to sleep, we packed the car and got on the road before dawn. There were no cars on the road, no lights; it was foggy and misty, and all of a sudden we saw a one-armed figure in the middle of the road. Polly was driving. We both screamed and Polly, who has the reflexes of an athlete, swerved and braked hard. We looked around and there was no one on the road. We kept driving. Did we really see a one-armed man on a foggy road? And where did he go? In writing, and perhaps in life, anything is possible on the road—one-armed hitchhikers, or red-headed hitchhikers in one-piece bathing suits and flip-flops pulling doughnuts and mini-bottles of vodka out of a bottomless purse.

The structure of Road Trip is decidedly nonlinear. You have several characters embarking on various storylines, and the reader constantly shifts between these storylines, as well as back and forth temporally. How did this rather frenetic structure come about? Was it planned early on in the composition, or did it develop more organically while you were writing Road Trip?

Nothing was planned! I so rarely work with any kind of intentionality unless I’m writing an essay, but even then I leave plenty of space for discovery. Road Trip started as one straight-line short story called “No Brakes”—the story of Myra and Pinkie—more or less. It was a big sprawling mess, but from the one draft I had the last words, “no brakes,” and in subsequent drafts I wrote towards that line. It was always fragmented, but I had sections in it about Ed Gein, the Plainfield, Wisconsin, killer who is the model for Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, which didn’t make the cut and sections called “What Does My Mother Have to Do with This” that were kind of funny stories about my mother talking about death, but their destiny was foretold by their heading. Then my first semester in grad school I worked with the brilliant Kevin (Mc) McIlvoy, who taught me one simple thing about braiding story chords (I don’t mean that he told me one thing; he told me a million things, but I actually managed to hold onto this one right thing): He referred to the turns in the long version of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos: “You thought we were entering a pond? No. You thought we were entering a lake? No. Here: the ocean. The ocean: hear.” His comment translated into some kind of circular, touch-and-go movement in the story. Mc encouraged me to think about fragmentation­—breaking blocks of text into small islands to introduce a rhythmic discontinuity and dynamic disjunction into the narrative. To my surprise, as I broke the main narrative down and split the secondary narrative into discrete modules, I was able to see the shape of the story. In pulling everything apart, the story came together for me.

Myra Stark (the narrator) and Pinkie have a complex relationship. What do you think is at the core of their friendship? Are you basing this complex friendship on any real-life models?

In all the conversations and discussions I’ve had about this book, I’ve never tried to explain the relationship between Myra and Pinkie, except maybe to myself.  Early feedback I got on the story was that Myra was so mean to Pinkie wasn’t I worried that readers wouldn’t like her? I also heard that Pinkie was beyond believable infuriating. Beyond believable in a story with ghosts and an animated butter and cheese doll? Well, it doesn’t hurt my feelings if readers don’t like Myra or Pinkie. My interest is in creating complex, difficult characters that readers want to argue with or talk to on a long road trip. My interest is that readers keep reading.

I had in mind a complicated relationship between two women, a relationship if not as clear-cut as lovers, then maybe a friendship betrayed, or a friendship of history and habit and conflicted feelings. In my own life, I’ve had friendships that blew up, I’ve disappointed and been disappointed by friends. I wrote pages and pages, which is my way of thinking, trying to discover a relationship that existed beyond estrangement and death. What I discovered in the process was that I wasn’t really interested in Myra and Pinkie making peace. Theirs was a relationship that would extend in its contentiousness beyond death. One of my models for Myra and Pinkie’s relationship was Sula Peace and Nel Wright from Toni Morrison’s Sula. Sula is a devastating novel about the relationship between two black women from the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The story follows Sula and Nel from the 1920s as young girls, then young women; their falling apart, and through the death of the title character, which corresponds with the slow decline of the black community they come from. When Sula is ill and alone, Nel visits her and asks her a question she had been struggling with since the friends had ceased being friends after Sula slept with Nel’s husband:

“I was good to you, Sula, why don’t that matter?” Sula turned her head away from the boarded window. . . . “It matters, Nel, but only to you. Not to anybody else. Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”

“Being good to somebody is just like being mean to something. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.” That line is at the heart of the relationship between Myra and Pinkie.

Road Trip was originally part of a collection (which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2012). How is Road Trip similar to and different from other pieces in that collection?

Other stories in the collection, although not all the stories, use similar nonreal elements as appear in Road Trip, such as ghosts, and a couple of the stories try to be funny. I think a problem with the collection is that Road Trip was in it. The other stories are about families: mothers and daughters, sisters, and the relationships you are born into versus the relationships you choose. Road Trip might have been too much of its own animal to work with the collection.

For a long time the novella, as a form, was “persona non grata” in the publishing world—too long to be published as a story, and too short to be taken as seriously as a novel. But the novella’s status seems to have improved in recent years. Major houses are publishing them, and some have even fared well in national contests competing right alongside full-length novels. How do you personally feel about the novella form, compared to story and novel writing?

I love the novella form. I went around for a while pitching a book that was going to be comprised of three novellas! That plan fell by the wayside due to lack of interest—not on my part but on the part of every publishing venue that I approached—but I like to keep a novella percolating on the back burner, something to dip into from time to time. I’m still new to novel writing. I’m writing a novel, but I am a little shy about saying that I’ve written a novel yet. Time will tell. The only form that I feel sure about before I write it is the short story. Sure, in that I usually know if a short story is going to be a short story when I start writing, although I’m open to surprises too.

The most obvious way to differentiate novellas from stories and novels is, of course, by word count, which is typically in the 20,000 to 40,000 word range—but word count is only one indicator of what a novella is and it doesn’t address form. Author Debra Spark, who I had the great fortune to work with at Warren Wilson, has an essay about the novella in her book on the craft of writing called Strange Attractions. She refers to Howard Nemerov’s essay “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel,” and says that novellas “must represent not simply a compression but a corresponding rhythmic intensification, and not just for plot—which we expect from most fiction—but for design.” Rhythmic intensification to me means exerting pressure on every element: language, sentences, paragraphs, which is compounded by and propelled by tone. It’s a process of distillation. The best way I can think of to illustrate what I’m talking about is with these few novellas and short novels that are particularly important to me:

The Body Artist, Don DeLillo.

I am a freak for DeLillo and then I go through periods where I can’t read another word of his. The Body Artist is a drifty, dreamy book with the thinnest of plots and the first fifty pages or so is this excruciating chapter of a domestic scene that is written kind of like in real time. The book is like a dream. I love The Falling Man by DeLillo too.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I reread or listen to Gatsby two or three times a year. I would like to write a collection of essays from lines from Gatsby. Every line opens a world.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

Another drifty, dreamy novella, and the first chapter in which the main character tells his own death in the context of the house he built falling down around him is brilliant.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

The main character of Train Dreams is opaque and unreflective, but Johnson evokes a whole way of life and period of history through the character Grainier—of logging and the woods and labor and heartbreak in Idaho in the early part of the twentieth century. I love this book as an example of how to tell a story through characterization.

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell

I like my fiction a little slapdash and hard-edged, language-driven or image-driven or just voice-y—funny, snappy voice-y. So Long, See You Tomorrow isn’t that kind of book. It’s such a quiet, meditative book, but I read it, then listened to the audio file of the author William Maxwell reading it, which is an extraordinary experience, then I read it again. And maybe a few more times. I’ve heard the book referred to as a nonfiction novel because the first half of the book is written like a memoir in which the author William Maxwell is the central character. He tells an account of a murder on a tenant farm outside of Lincoln, Illinois, the small Midwestern town where Maxwell was born and lived until he started high school. The second half of the book is a fictionalized account of the murder from a third-person omniscient perspective. I love that this book tells the same story many different ways.

Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje

The subject of the novella is a fictionalized account of the life of New Orleans jazz trumpet player Buddy Bolden. The novel incorporates point of view jump cuts, lists, lyrics, descriptions of photographs, and invented and historical interviews in an attempt to enter the character and historical figure of Buddy Bolden. The presentation is disjointed and imagistic and opens up whole worlds.

Why Did I Ever, Mary Robison

Funny as hell. And sad. Written in 536 little sections. Not an extra word.

Road Trip must have had a fairly long and adventurous trip of its own before being published. Could you talk about your efforts to get it into print, and what kind of a journey that was for you as a writer, including emotionally.

Over the past several years, Road Trip was a finalist in a few well-considered contests—always a bridesmaid, as they say. Every time I got on one of those close-but-no-cigar lists, an agent or two would contact me and ask “what else you got?” Nobody was interested in a novella, or in the novella as part of a collection of short fiction. I think Road Trip didn’t really work in a collection. If the collection had won some prize, that might have made a difference, but generally, what I heard from agents was that they wanted a novel, and there’s nothing like the attention of a few publishing professionals to completely derail my writing practice and sidetrack me from the work, which is ultimately what matters. So, I tried to keep my head down and just keep focused on the page.

I had stopped submitting Road Trip to journals—the few that are open to considering novella-length work—but I’d gear up and send it around to the couple of novella contests that come around every year. After an appearance on the finalist list for the 2014 Quarterly West Novella contest (which I lost to Nathan Poole, a fellow Warren Wilson alum, which by the way, if you’re a fan of the novella or just gorgeous writing, read his winning novella Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost or his collection of short fiction from Sarabande, Father, Brother, Keeper), you contacted me. As I think I said to you in my initial response, nothing takes the sting out of losing like a query from a publisher. I was impressed with Twelve Winters’ dedication to independent publishing, your commitment to publishing literary titles that might be a little off the beaten track, as well as your plans to expand the press’s fiction list. Let me just say, too, that I have a lot of writer friends who operate like literary hoarders. Playwrights who are holding out and holding out—they don’t want their work to be produced at a small local theater in case Steppenwolf or The Public wants to consider their play, writers who have their marketing plans in place before they finish a first draft. The upshot is an unproduced play (or an unpublished book) sitting in a drawer or on a computer file. I started writing later in life, and besides feeling the pressure of age in a youthful field, I want my work to be in the world. I liked that Twelve Winters is an entrepreneurial endeavor. I liked that you are a reasonable guy who is interested in working with his authors to make the best books possible. I liked that you were willing to take a chance on my weird, sad-funny novella. I think it’s worked out.

How did a Midwesterner with “a prairie eye” end up in Boston? Does your writing tend to focus on the Midwest, or do you sometimes find your East Coast environment an appropriate setting for your fiction?

I lived a lifetime in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Then my spouse, who works in theatre, got a job offer in Chicago. While she was in Chicago interviewing, my mother died. We sold our house, I quit my job, and we moved three months later.

After kicking me around for a year or so, Chicago became my best friend. I came to think of Chicago as my place. And then we moved again. To Boston, following Polly’s career again. We’ve been here now for three years. Boston has been a culture shock, more so even than the traffic in Chicago, where I drove for three years without ever making a left turn. There’s the cost of housing in Boston and the contrast with all the hardscrabble Massachusetts hill towns and then all these tiny, tight New England states. I can drive for twenty minutes and cross three state lines. I miss having an uninterrupted view. I miss driving for hours and hours and the unchanging landscape. I miss parking. To find my place here, I’m considering the ocean, which is right across the street from where we live in South Boston. I’ve lived with Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, both beloved to me, but the ocean requires a different relationship. I haven’t written anything yet about the East Coast, beyond ranting emails, but I likely will.

Could you talk about your writing process? Are you someone who consistently follows a routine, or do you write more in fits and starts as ideas and inspiration come to you?

I try to write everyday, which some days is more aspirational than realistic.

I think of it as exercise—another aspirational pursuit. If I don’t have a couple hours to write during the day, then I at least try to engage my current project in some way—through research, which can include reading, watching movies, listening to podcasts, music, eating whole boxes of dry cereal and bags of chips—I’ll use anything. Of course having an open-ended definition of research sometimes means that I lose days on the internet reading about how to frame a door, or birds of the prairie, or just googling writer bios in publications that have rejected me and comparing their lives to my own.

What are your current writing/creative projects?

I’m presently finishing a novel called The Third Twin, which is about renditions of home, how to make a home, homesickness, homelessness. It might be a reaction to moving around so much. Myra Stark appears in The Third Twin too. I also have a collection of short fiction called Below the Surface.

You’re a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the escalating number of MFA programs, and whether or not they actually help someone to become a better writer and establish a career as a writer, etc. What are your thoughts on the “MFA question”? How did Warren Wilson and its instructors nurture (or hinder) you as a writer?

I spent years trying to write over weekends, or in one-week or two-week increments—my allotted vacation time—or early in the morning or late at night, between working full-time. When I met Polly, I was introduced to the work of some of the best theater artists in the country—Lisa D’Amour, Deborah Stein, Kirk Lynn, Dominic Orlando, Sherry Kramer. My proximity to the world of theater and playwriting allowed me a fuller understanding of what it means to be an artist and the odds against gaining any kind of recognition or audience for your work. It was the example of many of these theater artists that pushed me to consider what I was doing with my own writing and what it meant to pursue a career as a writer. I saw the value of formal training in my chosen field, the necessity of credentials, and the importance of being connected to an academic institution or a professional organization. I decided to pursue an MFA. Writer friends, who had gone back to school later in life, recommended low-residency MFA programs.

My MFA program was a great gift to myself. Since I had been making my living as a writer in advertising and marketing communications, I came into the program thinking that I really didn’t have much to learn. It took one residency to disabuse me of that particular delusion. I listened to James Longenbach deliver a lecture on the excess of poetry to show how excess can be used to heighten a poem’s meaning, citing examples from Ezra Pound’s Canto 74, Emily Dickinson’s “The vastest earthly day,” John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and my head blew off. I realized I didn’t know anything. But I knew the difference between inspiration, a first draft, and material that was ready for an audience. I didn’t take rejection personally. I trusted my skills and I was prepared to start over every day. With the help of brilliant mentors and an intentionality that considers the arc of a student’s development as a writer throughout the program, I cultivated a craft lens to consider what I’m doing in my work and how to look at the work of other writers. I came out of the program a better writer, reader, and editor, and I’d also say, a better cultural citizen as part of a community of Warren Wilson alumni that extends after graduation.

So to get back to the question, earning an MFA changed me as a writer and a person, and it allowed me entrance to a supportive and far-reaching community of faculty and alumni.

I don’t pay much attention to the pervasive rhetoric that circles around every season or so, calling out that MFA programs in creative writing are mass producing mediocre writers who support the uninspired and uninspiring literary journals and elite publishing venues that publish work by the same crew of insiders from insider MFA programs. I am mostly indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy. Where I’d shed blood is over the line that creative writing can’t be taught. Teaching is complicated, writing students are varied, and my life is forever changed by the dedication and generosity of my teachers.

Who are some writers or works of literature that have been especially important to you? What have you learned from them, either about writing or about living?  

In addition to the list of books above, I’ll add a few others: Lewis Nordan, author of (among other titles) Wolf Whistle, Music of the Swamp, and Lightning Song. Some time ago, I heard Lewis Nordan read in Minneapolis with Dorothy Allison. I was at the reading for Dorothy Allison, but what I remember was Lewis Nordan reading an extended scene from Wolf Whistle, which is a fictional account of the murder of Emmett Till. The scene Nordan read was from the point of view of Bobo’s—the murdered child’s—“demon eye,” the eye that is knocked out by the killer’s bullet. Nordan gives Bobo a voice in death that was not available to him in life. Not only does the dead boy’s vision expand to see past his own death into the lives of characters he hadn’t encountered previously, he also sees into the future and the significance of his murder, “worlds invisible to him before death.” The scene is devastating and out of place and so audacious. I read Nordan to model how to tell a sad story funny. Ditto with Lorrie Moore, Mary Robison, Sherman Alexie, and—Samuel Beckett? I saw a production of Endgame at Steppenwolf Theatre when we lived in Chicago. There was an Eastern European woman sitting next to me with her grandson, I presumed, who looked to be about 11 or 12. Before the show started, she leaned over to her young companion and said, “To understand everything, you must first understand the Nothingness. This is the Nothingness.” I think the Nothingness is pretty funny.

It wasn’t until I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, for grad school that I was anywhere south, but I read so many Southern writers, like Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tennessee Williams to understand the use of voice, language, tone, velocity, and relationship to place.

An author that I turn to often is Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping is my version of a perfect book. I like imperfection in novels, sideroads, an authorial breakdown or two. If a work is shorter, I have higher expectations. Perfection is realized in Housekeeping. It’s just a book that I love so much. I love those sad sisters, I love the elegant, image-dense sentences, I love the lake, I love the name of the town—Fingerbone! When I was writing many of the stories in my collection Below the Surface, I looked at Housekeeping for a view of another version of family, and on the first page of my novel, The Third Twin I have this quote from Housekeeping, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.”

Books that I’m living with at the moment, and by living with, I mean literally, the books I have piled on every surface in my apartment:

Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon. This is a beautiful novel where the pressure on the language drives the story. Not much happens. Almost no dialogue. Close third POV. A North Korean war refugee is relocated to Brazil. On a sentence by sentence level, an exquisite book.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine. My particular interest is in how Rankine incorporates visual art into her poetry. She and her husband, the videographer John Lucas, made a series of video “Situations” that are referred to in Citizen. The book is a living document, or art installation.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. I’m not a theory head. I like to read bits and pieces of theory to sort of launch off of, but mostly it’s not my thing. My thing is story. I write creative nonfiction too, so when I’m reading The Argonauts, I’m considering the story first, then form and structure, POV, language, and then somewhere down the line, if I get around to it, I’ll think about the ideas. Nelson’s subjects—falling in love, making family, motherhood, change and transition inherent in any relationship and the queering of those constructs—are reflected in the form of the text which are short little paragraphs.

What compelled you to use historic photos in the novella? What do you hope they add to the novella as part of the reading experience? How’d you go about finding them?

For me, the photos are all about entering the story. I visited the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, this past spring to do photo research.

A book of photographs by William G. Gabler of abandoned Midwestern farmplaces was one of the inspirations for Road Trip. The book is The Death of the Dream and two of the photographs from that book appear in Road Trip. When I came across Gabler’s book I was living in Western Wisconsin on 20 acres in an L-shaped farmhouse. I had grown up living in new houses, built to order. Living in a rural area in a house that was built at the turn of the century, on land that had been cleared and cultivated and then gone back to woods, excited my imagination. From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, “…the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

In that farmhouse I dreamed and those dreams enter everything I write.

I came across another book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, which is a collection of photographs by the nineteenth century photographer Charles Van Schaik taken in the city of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The photographs are paired with news reports of suicides and murder, infant death, crime, mental illness, and business failure. The images cast a spell. The first time I looked at Wisconsin Death Trip, I kept the book in my car. I didn’t want the book in the house, I didn’t want it in the place where I ate breakfast and slept; the book is at odds with the idea of shelter.

When I started thinking of Road Trip, I used Death of the Dream and Wisconsin Death Trip to set the scene, so to speak, for the story. Then I became fixated on a photo of threshing from the Wisconsin Historical Society. This photo evoked Road Trip for me, which is kind of funny because it’s not an image of a wagon train or any other kind of a road trip—it’s a photo of threshing with horse-drawn wagons in the early 20th century. The photo ultimately didn’t make it into the book, but it was an early contender for the cover image and it was my screen saver while I was writing Road Trip. Then I saw the image of the mannequin in the window of a hat shop in Black River Falls. I wrote the scene of Carmella shaping a butterhead girl/man with a mustache based on this image. The photos in the book are not necessarily specific to the time period of the Starks’ story line, but I was more interested in conveying atmosphere rather than hyperrealism. So in some instances, the photos informed the story and in others, the story is enhanced I hope by the photos.

Lynette D’Amico worked in publishing and advertising for a decade. Today, she is a former ad writer and graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Ocean State Review and at Brevity and Slag Glass City. She is the content editor for the online performance journal HowlRound. Born in Buffalo, New York, she has lived in St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago. She makes her home in Boston with her love Polly Carl.

(Author photo by Meg Taintor)

Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 13, 2015

The following paper — “Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving” — was presented at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, which ran from June 11 to 13, 2015. This paper was part of the “Voice and Point of View” panel on June 13. Other papers presented were “Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration” by Buzz Mauro and “The Art of Narrative Telling: Transforming Cheever’s Voice” by Grant Tracey. In addition to presenting, I also moderated the panel.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

I’m here today to talk about writing my novel An Untimely Frost, which I worked on between about 2006 (I think) and 2011, eventually publishing it via my own press, Twelve Winters, in 2014—Twelve Winters Press, by the way, has a table at the conference. The inspiration for the novel was Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley.  It seemed to me that a romantic relationship between the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the author of Frankenstein could make for an intriguing chemistry.  I didn’t know where or when I’d learned of that rumor, and I wasn’t especially interested in verifying its accuracy because I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to write a fictionalized biography of Irving and Shelley and their time together.  Rather, I was going to use them as sources of inspiration and an armory of period details as needed. [As noted, I didn’t research the actual relationship between Irving and Shelley when writing the novel; however, in preparing this talk I came across this rare bookThe Romance of Mary W. Shelley, John Howard Payne and Washington Irving (1907)–which would be of interest to anyone who wanted to know more about the famous authors’ “romance.”]

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

For an earlier project, which resulted in the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, I wrote a fictionalized biography of author Herman Melville’s real-life experiences among cannibals in 1842.  I was dedicated to staying true to the established details of Melville’s life and times, which made for a challenging artistic endeavor.  I like to believe that the novella turned out pretty well, but oftentimes I did feel hemmed in by reality and by Melville’s biography.  Not to mention, real life rarely provides us with a satisfying narrative arc, which tends to handicap a novelist.  It’s a bit like running in a three-legged race.  It’s an experience all its own, but there’s no helping that the entire time one is keenly aware of how much easier it would be to race the usual two-legged way.

weeping-with-an-ancient-god-front-cover

Thus, when I began writing about Irving and Shelley, I had no intention of shackling my creativity to their real lives.  I began by concocting fictional names for them, eventually ending up with “Jefferson Wheelwright” and “Margaret Haeley.”  I also decided early on that Jefferson Wheelwright would be my first-person narrator.  I obviously had some familiarity with Washington Irving—and I’d taught “Sleepy Hollow” a couple of times in a college course—but I didn’t feel that I knew him and, more importantly, his voice well enough to create my Jefferson Wheelwright persona.  To prepare, I did read several biographical sketches of Irving and more of his fictional stories.  However, what I really wanted to steep my brain in was his real-life speaking voice, and the closest I could come to that, given that he lived in the early and mid nineteenth century, was to study his published letters.

I got hold of two collections in particular, both edited by Stanley T. Williams.  One collection, brought out by Harvard University Press, concerns Irving’s letters “from England and the Continent, 1821-1828,” and the other, brought out by Yale University Press, consists of his letters “from Sunnyside and Spain,” spanning the years 1840-1845.  I made use of both collections, and in fact one of the epigraphs for the novel comes from a Madrid 1842 letter.  However, I found the letters from the earlier period to be more helpful since they correspond more closely to the time frame and the geography of my novel’s setting.

I culled the letters, along with biographical information, for two sorts of material.  First, while I wasn’t writing a fictionalized biography based on Irving’s life, I was open to transferring and transforming real-life details from Irving to my creation, Wheelwright.  Second, and more vital, I wanted to capture as nearly as possible Irving’s narrative style.

Without reading through the biographical notes and letters in their entirety again, it’s difficult for me to recall all that I borrowed in terms of real-life details and events.  I did skim through the letters in preparation for this presentation, and I was surprised in a couple of instances regarding details that in my recollection I had wholly made up, but in actuality stemmed from my research.

One of the character details that I know I extracted from Irving’s letters had to do with a skin condition of his legs and feet that plagued him in the 1821-28 period.  For instance, he writes from Germany on August 20, 1822:  “I grew very lame in trudging about the dutch [sic] towns, and unluckily applied a recipe given me by old Lady Liston (may god bless her, and preserve her from her own prescriptions!)—it played the vengeance with me [. . .] I could scarcely put my feet to the ground & bear my weight upon them [. . .]” (“Wi[e]sbaden” 19).  Elsewhere Irving talks about seeking treatment from various physicians.  I decided early on in the writing process that some sort of foot condition would be part of my Jefferson Wheelwright’s situation.  I guess I vaguely thought it might have some metaphorical value, connecting to his fear that he was not evolving, not moving forward, as a writer and artist.  In An Untimely Frost, Wheelwright requests the aid of a London physician, Dr. Carter.  In Chapter 2, I write,

On the first morning, he listened to my complaint while touching and gently kneading my feet and toes, which were blotchy red, except around the toenails where the skin was a vibrant purple.  Spots on my feet were pained to the touch while my toes were dead numb. [. . .] The good doctor said it was a circulation problem; he said that even though exercise irritated my feet, rest was counterproductive, that we must increase the blood flow to nourish the nerve fibers.” (11)

In reality, Irving was laid up for days and even weeks with bouts of his “cutaneous condition,” but I didn’t think that would make for an especially exciting narrative, to have Jefferson Wheelwright lying around his hotel room for days on end nursing his feet, so I had Dr. Carter prescribe exercise.  Carter becomes an important character in the novel—although when I first introduced him in the second chapter I had no idea whether it would be a cameo appearance or lead to a larger role.

In addition to physical details I also borrowed one of Washington Irving’s personality traits, namely his lack of interest and acumen when it came to business affairs.  He let his elder brothers manage the family’s business interests, while he focused on his literary aspirations.  In my novel, I write:

So far I was having a splendid time lounging in the gigantic bed at The Saint Georges [hotel], drinking the black-black Italian coffee, and scribbling my tale.  I even felt a brief—brief, mind you—pang of guilt at the idea that this is what I did to earn my keep in the world.  Like many of the Wheelwright men, I’d tried my hand at business, but to dismal results.  I simply do not have a head for numbers and inventories and so on—I can conjure whole worlds with my pen, yet adding a column of numbers and arriving at the correct result seemed beyond me (I believe because midway I would lose interest and begin daydreaming of haunted castles on lonely, wind-swept cliffs). (10)

There were numerous details from Irving’s life, especially his writing life, that I commandeered for my purposes, but even more important was capturing Irving’s narrative style—and in particular the style he used in his letters to friends and family, which was somewhat different, on the whole, than his published authorial voice, such as in The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall stories.

I wrote a brief essay about trying to capture Irving’s voice for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series (it appeared in number 54 and I reprinted it in An Untimely Frost).  Since it is brief and to the point at hand, I would like to insert it here in its entirety:

Like the vast majority of writers who have come out of a university creative writing program, I was taught to write contemporary literary fiction.  However, for over a decade now, I’ve been mainly attracted to historically based narrative, both as a reader and as a writer.  When we think of writers tackling a story or novel set in another time and another place, we imagine them doing extensive research on things like people, on the chronology of events, on various aspects of the material world they are attempting to fabricate—and we tend to imagine rightly.  For me, though, there is another sort of research that must go on as well, the results of which are not as easy to spot in a story as, say, an infamous assassination or an obsolete gadget; and that is researching the structure of language itself.  It can be a nebulous term, but what I’m most interested in is a setting’s voice.

Voice should contribute to the ring of authenticity, to be sure, but, more than that, voice can actually compel the movement of the narrative; voice can shape its structure.  William H. Gass spoke to this phenomenon in a 1976 interview for The Paris Review, saying that “word resemblance leads you on [as a writer], not form.  So you’ve really got a musical problem, certain paragraphs you are arranging, and you imagine you are orchestrating the flow of feelings from one thing to another.”  Gass summed up by saying, “Once you get your key signature, the theme inherent in the notes begins to emerge:  the relationship between art and life and all that.”  Gass, author of some of the most admired books in the English language, suggests that the physical structure of the words on the page—and the meanings, feelings, moods that they convey—help guide the writer to, essentially, everything else in the narrative:  plot development, characterization, theme, setting. . . .

The importance of this sort of research in historically based fiction is nicely illustrated in Charles Frazier’s highly acclaimed novel Cold Mountain, which is set in Civil War-era Appalachia.  In an interview available online, Frazier said, “I wanted the language of the book to create a sense of otherness, of another world, one that the reader doesn’t entirely know.”  Frazier did library research regarding the material world he was creating, finding “words for tools and processes and kitchen implements that are almost lost words.”  Beyond that, however, he was interested in “getting a sense of the particular use of language in that region, the rhythm of it.”  Frazier culled period letters and diaries for much of his information, but he also had the benefit of having actually heard “that authentic Appalachian accent” when he was a child.

For my own writing I’ve been attracted to more distant times and places, and as such have not had the benefit of hearing period speakers so printed examples of voice have been my guideposts.  Nevertheless, the feel and rhythm of the language can filter into one’s writing by paying attention to the linguistic structures.  For my current project I’ve been creating a first-person narrator based on the American author Washington Irving.  It isn’t a fictionalized biography.  It’s more that Irving’s persona has been the primary inspiration for my protagonist.  When I first became interested in the project, I tracked down an obscure collection of Irving’s letters that he wrote between 1821 and 1828.  The book has been invaluable to me in my effort to develop an effective narrative voice.

Simply put, in Irving’s day a well-read New Englander structured the language in ways that sound quite foreign—quite exotic even—to us now.  Take, for example, this letter written at “Beycheville,” France, October 17, 1825:

I have had something of a dull bilious affection of the system which has clung to me for more than two weeks past. . . .  The greater part of Mrs Guestiers household, who have lately removed here, are unwell—I have tried to shake off my own morbid fit by exercise—I have been out repeatedly hunting, as there were two packs of hounds in the neighborhood, but though I have taken violent exercise I do not feel yet reinstated by it. (50)

The terms are spectacular, yes—heaven help anyone who contracts “a dull bilious affection” and Irving’s reference to “violent exercise” makes me think of junior high P.E. class—but even more meaningful to my eye and ear are the syntactic rhythms.  Today one might say, “I’ve been feeling sick for a couple of weeks,” but for Irving the “affection of the system” has “clung” to him “for more than two weeks past.”  The structure implies that his sense of unwell-being is a sort pernicious companion of whom he can’t quite rid himself, in spite of his taking “violent exercise”—giving the act of exercise a physicality, as if it were an item from the apothecary’s pantry.

Yet I have no particular interest in my protagonist’s contracting a bilious affection or partaking of violent exercise.  Rather I want the structure of the language.  I want to tell my own tale, but I want to form the sentences as Irving might have had he written of the same events nearly two centuries ago.  I normally keep the book of Irving’s letters on my nightstand, and every so often I open to a random page and read awhile, perhaps a few pages but often as little as a sentence or two, because I’m not searching for information:  I want to keep retracing the sentence rhythms in my brain, like wagon wheels along a worn track, so that when I sit down to write, the words flow as naturally in the direction of his prose style as if he (or someone like him) were composing them himself.  (I must go now—I feel the onset of a bilious affection.)

There haven’t been a lot of reivews of the novel, and the ones that have appeared are somewhat mixed—but the reviewers seem to appreciate the narrative voice that I was able to create.  For example, Anne Drolet writes in the North American Review:  “Morrissey styles Wheelwright’s voice after the patterns and idioms of 19th-century British speech, and that choice lulls the reader into the historical setting” (47).  I presume being lulled into a setting is better than being jarred into one.  Cécile Sune says in her blog Book Obsessed:  “The writing is beautiful and elaborate, and is a testament to the research Ted Morrissey conducted for this book . . . As a result, it feels like a Victorian novel”—ultimately, though, she only gave it three out of five stars on Amazon (damn it).  And most recently William Wright writes for the Chicago Book Review:  “There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost.  It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James [I like that line], which proves to be an intriguing combination”—but Wright concludes with “Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph.  As it stands, it was a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.”

I’ll tell you what, critics are hard to please.

My five years floating around in the fictional consciousness of Washington Irving was an interesting artistic experiment, and it really stretched me as a writer.  When I finished with the novel, I began writing a series of interconnected short stories—each in third-person, with shifting points of view, and set for the most part in an unnamed Midwestern village in the 1950s.  I finished the twelfth and final story just a few weeks ago, and eventually I’ll be bringing them out in a collection titled Crowsong for the Stricken.  I’m considering other long-term writing projects at the moment, and one idea is to return to nineteenth-century London, but not Jefferson Wheelwright.  Never say never, but I believe I’ve said all I care to say in the voice and persona of Mr. Wheelwright.

Works Cited

Drolet, Anne.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  North American Review Fall 2014 (299.4):  47.  Print.

“An Interview with Charles Frazier.”  BookBrowse [c. 1997].  Web.  9 June 2015.

Morrissey, Ted.  An Untimely Frost.  Sherman, Ill.:  Twelve Winters Press, 2014.  Print.

—-.  “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.”  Writers Ask #54.  Portland, Ore.:  Glimmer Train Press.  Print.

Sune, Cécile.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Book Obsessed 10 Oct. 2014.  Web.

Williams, Stanley T., ed.  Letters from Sunnyside and Spain by Washington Irving.  New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1928.  Print.

—-.  Washington Irving and the Storrows:  Letters from England and the Continent, 1821-1828.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1933.  Print.

Wright, William.  “A Hot and Cold ‘Frost.’”  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Chicago Book Review 18 May 2015.  Web.

(Note that the portrait of Washington Irving was obtained via Wikipedia at this link.)

Interview with Beth Gilstrap: I Am Barbarella

Posted in February 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2015

In 2011 Beth Gilstrap, an MFA candidate at Chatham University, contacted me by email about interviewing me (ironically) for The Fourth River literary journal. My first novel, Men of Winter, had been released at the end of 2010, and I was anticipating my publisher bringing out another book, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, so our conversation focused mainly on writing those two works. Beth and I exchanged a few emails, and then wrapped things up with a phone conversation. My publisher reneged on bringing out my second book, and things ended badly between my publisher and me — but it was the proverbial final straw in convincing me to establish my own press, which I did, Twelve Winters, in 2012. I eventually brought out a revised and expanded edition of Men of Winter and also Weeping with an Ancient God. I wanted to reprint the Fourth River interview in each of the books, so I contacted Beth asking for her permission. I checked in on her website in 2013 and again in 2014 to update her biographical information that I included when I reprinted the interview, and I noted each time her growing list of publications.

I Am Barbarella front cover

Then, in 2014, I was reading fiction submissions for Quiddity literary journal, and a familiar name popped up in my Submittable queue, Beth Gilstrap and her story “Juveniles Lack Green,” which I admired very much. And I obviously wasn’t alone in that opinion, as it was given the thumbs up by several readers and ultimately the fiction editor, David Logan. The story ran in issue 7.1 of the journal. Beth’s story appearing in my reader’s queue was serendipitous because not long after that I was scouting around for projects for Twelve Winters, and I recalled Beth’s story. Given the number of published stories that she’d accumulated I figured she must have a collection ready for publication. I emailed her to see if that was the case . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. I was impressed by the composite collection that she’d created, and I’m very happy to say that I Am Barbarella was released in print February 19, 2015. Digital editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and Beth is working on an audiobook as well.

Turn about is fair play, so I sent Beth some questions about her collection and the writing of it. What follows are her unedited responses.

Beth author photo

I Am Barbarella is a composite collection (or short story cycle), where we have a fairly large cast of characters who show up in various stories, or are alluded to, or events in their lives from other stories are alluded to.  What drew you to this form for the book?

I went into my MFA program with a novel chapter and an idea for a fairly complicated story told in the first-person plural point of view. It was an attempt to capture a sort of Southern noir small town groupthink as I saw it. As you might expect, there was little left of my self-esteem or the story by the end of my first workshop. I still like the idea of that story, but I was nowhere close to being able to tackle something so left of center. Then, my mentors (Sherrie Flick, Diane Goodman, and Robert Yune) suggested reading books like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and that was when I decided I loved this approach to longer works. This type of book is a hybrid form. I set out to write stories that would be able to stand on their own and have been able to place a number of them as short stories, but they also work thematically in the collection.

It was my intention from the beginning to explore the impact these characters’ actions had on each other, the sort of ripple effect of secrets and heartache. Even the stories that aren’t interconnected on a character level are spiritually connected. I fell in love with the mosaic form. I like how the picture looks when you pull the camera back to reveal the structure in its entirety and I like moving in and looking at the individual tiles such as the elderly neigbhor’s lifelong secret from her best friend or the Dad’s desire to finally leave now that all his family duties have been fulfilled. It felt more playful than a traditional narrative form and I hope I structured it in a way that builds tension — a sort of slow reveal of each character.

How do you think a composite collection differs, in the writing of it, from a collection of independent stories, or a full-fledged novel?

I think it’s an extremely difficult form for a first book. It’s a bit like juggling and having someone on the sidelines who keeps throwing other objects into the mix. Maintaining consistency with such a large interconnected cast of characters and a broad timeline takes major organization and commitment. It is something you must set out to do. What I lacked in organization in the beginning, I made up for with a general idea of what I wanted to achieve and a rabid determination to make this book in this form work. This is my first book and writing it taught me so much about how to approach the novel I am working on now. In some ways, it made writing straight short stories more difficult because I tend to get attached to characters and want to spend more time with them.

You were rethinking the order of the stories up until a few weeks before the book went to press.  How difficult was it to come up with what you felt was the proper order?  What were some of your guiding principles in ordering the stories as you have?

It was all about the tension for me. I had a handful of other stories from the Loretta/Hardy/Janine cycle, but once I took those out and put in some of the shorter flash pieces, I liked the conversation the stories had with each other. These stories move along a continuum of existential angst. I originally had “Spaghettification” last because I felt the last line of that story was a hopeful way to end. Last lines matter as much as first lines. I tend toward the dark side of the force, but not always, and I wanted to highlight that fact, but in the end “B-Sides” was the natural ending of the book. Thematically, the book needed to end with Janine’s point of view. There’s a line in an earlier story, which reads, “You can get so much from B-Sides.” How can you not end with the story with a title built from that line?

How much time have you spent with these characters?  In other words, when did you start writing about them?  Do you plan to return to some of them in future projects?

I wrote the first draft of the first story (“Paper Fans”) in 2010. Four and a half years. I am finished with most of these characters, but my novel does include Dim and Sunday from “Yard Show.” It’s a tiny story that has led me into writing a rather large book.

Charlotte, North Carolina, where you were born and raised and still live, is a common setting for the stories.  Some of the characters have also spent time in Pittsburgh, where you earned your MFA.  How important is “place” in your writing?

For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.

Sometimes a character says things that aren’t kind about your hometown.  How much of that criticism of Charlotte is purely fictive, and how much is your own sense of the place?

Some of it is fictive and based on the perception of Charlotte as nothing but banks, barbecue, and Nascar (Even The Onion did a piece on Charlotte), but a great deal of it comes from a natural desire to break away from my hometown. Most people I grew up with have moved away. When I meet someone and tell him or her I’m from Charlotte, I am usually met with shock. Most folks who live here aren’t from here. I started this book immediately after our plans to move to Pittsburgh fell apart. I was heartbroken. As I wrote the book, I realized I had not ever committed to my town. I had not tried to find kindred spirits here or participate. I no longer take my beautiful city for granted even if I still long for more of a literary community here. As a vegetarian artist who has never been terribly interested in sports, it has been difficult, but I also recognize how much I tend to isolate myself. That’s the tough thing about connecting with other writers. I know there are some here, but we’re all so terribly introverted we never socialize.

How do you think the book will be received by residents of Charlotte?  Perhaps even family and friends who may see themselves reflected in your writing?

I hope people will recognize the truth in the book’s (and its author’s) complicated relationship with Charlotte. As far as friends and family, I hope if they see themselves, they’ll recognize that I’ve tried to draw each character with empathy. Most characters are not based on any one person, though. These characters are processed in my brain blender. They are little bits of me and everyone I’ve known swirled together into a version of truth. This is why I love fiction.

Music plays an important part in many of the stories — and in fact you compiled a playlist to accompany the book.  Where does that emphasis on music come from?  Are you a musician yourself?

I am not a musician, but I’ve always wished I’d learned to play an instrument. My older brother is the musician in the family. He got his first guitar when I was ten. His learning to play and compose and write was my background music. I watched and wrote in my notebook. There were times, like when he went through his black metal phase, that I wanted to take a chainsaw to his guitar, but now I am so grateful for it. It was such a unique experience. We were alone a lot since we were children of a single mom and we challenged each other to be creative. He encouraged me to tell stories. I listened to everything he did and all the records he played. I dated his band mates as a teenager and went to their gigs and though I rarely talked, I listened and wrote. I wrote my first album review for the high school paper. I married a man who worked in a record store when he was young. Music is vital in our home. I cannot write, cook, drive, or take a walk without it.

You’ve taken on the role of editor-in-chief of Atticus Review.  How does that role impact your own writing, or your artistic sensibilities?

Well, as I’ve adjusted to the job and addressed a submission queue of greater than 600, I’ve definitely spent less time on my own writing. I’m still trying to find the balance between being an editor and being a writer. I am a work in progress, but I am proud of what we’ve done at Atticus in a short time. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to put other people’s work into the world, to give back in that way. It is so exciting to discover a story in the slush pile and to be able to make someone happy. It has taught me to be more patient with my own submissions and it has also taught me patterns in what types of stories are overdone. I won’t be writing any dystopias anytime soon. And I always valued personal rejections before, but now that I’m an editor myself I value them even more. It really is a big deal to receive one.

Describe your writing process.

When I am at my best, I am extremely diligent about my process. I have a schedule for myself and I stick to it. I read early in the morning, walk my border collie (when it’s not in the single digits outside), and write for the rest of the afternoon — usually 4-5 hours. Lately, it’s been taken up with editing work. I hope to get back to my regular schedule once I have my sea legs as an editor.

You’ve been working on an audio edition of I Am Barbarella.  Do you tend to read your work aloud usually?  Describe the experience of recording the stories.  Do you think they’re well-suited to oral performance?

I always read my work aloud. It’s part of my editing process. If I trip over words or don’t like the way a sentence flows as I read aloud, I revise. Recording is frustrating, but I think the final product will be great. I don’t think my book would sound right read by someone else. Maybe that means I have control issues, but most of my favorite recordings are author-read — they’re these little time capsules. Nothing compares to being able to hear that rare recording of Virginia Woolf’s or Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And yes, I think most “Southern” literature is well-suited to oral performance. My grandfather never learned to read, but he was the best storyteller I knew. We’re trained for it, whether we realize it or not.

Beth Gilstrap’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, among them Ambit, Superstition Review, Quiddity and the minnesota review. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh and serves as editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she still lives with her husband and enough rescue pets to keep life interesting. (Author photo by Tatyana M. Semyrog)

Interview with Rachel Jamison Webster: The Endless Unbegun

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 19, 2015

In the fall of 2013 I attended a reading at Edwards Place, an historic home in Springfield, Illinois, and one of the readers that evening was Rachel Webster, who read from her poetry collection, September. I was very taken with her poetry and her presentation of her work. My fiancée (now wife) Melissa and I were anxious to speak with Rachel afterward and to get a copy of her book, which I ended up admiring very much. The following year I was looking for projects for Twelve Winters Press, and I heard via the literary grapevine that Rachel Webster had a manuscript she was interested in publishing — but it was not an ordinary collection, which of course piqued my curiosity even more, since the Press’s main mission is to publish literary work that is especially difficult to place because of its risk-taking nature.

The Endless Unbegun front cover

I contacted Rachel via email, and she graciously sent me the manuscript, under a different title, and I discovered that it was a hybrid collection of both short prose pieces and poems, and that it told an ambitious, multi-layered story that took place over several centuries. In a word it was wonderful, and exactly the sort of project that seemed tailor-made for Twelve Winters Press. Email exchanges began, and we worked out an agreement to bring out the book in print, digital and audio editions. Rachel wanted to revise the manuscript further, which she did over several months. Then late last fall, 2014, she sent the Press a significantly reworked book, including a new title, “The Endless Unbegun” — and the editors at Twelve Winters and I began the very rewarding process of bringing the book to print, working closely with Rachel at every phase.

Publication was delayed a bit when Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program interviewed Rachel for their upcoming issue, 8.1, and Rachel floated the possibility of including the interview with the book. I thought it a terrific idea, so with Quiddity’s editors’ permission, we prepared the interview for inclusion in The Endless Unbegun. The Quiddity interview focuses in large part on the philosophical and theological ideas that are at the heart of the book, so for the below interview, I deliberately turned my attention to other issues.

The print edition of The Endless Unbegun was released February 5, 2015. Editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and the audiobook is in the works as well. I emailed Rachel some questions, and here are her unedited responses.

Rachel Webster 2

You’ve said that the book began as a novella and eventually became a hybrid collection of short prose pieces and poems. I’m wondering if, for you, certain subjects lend themselves to prose expression more naturally, and others to poetry? And if not subjects, then perhaps themes . . . moods?

Yes, definitely.  When I write prose I am combining voices — the voice of the artist, as well as the voice of the teacher or friend.  I know that I am talking outward to another, and so my understanding of that audience is invariably woven into the form and content of the prose.  In this sense, I usually write prose in a way that is reflective of some wider societal or temporal situation.  Even if I am writing prose from my own experience, I am connecting it actively with what I suspect is a shared experience.

Poetry also reflects shared experience, but that connection is trusted in a more intuitive, subterranean way.  It happens way beneath the ground.  So the act of writing poetry — for me — feels like talking deeply to myself, tracing my own subconscious or dreams, my own deepest memories or questions.  I don’t write poetry thinking about audience at all — I just follow the rhythm of the words, and I really interrogate my own feelings and questions in the poem.  There is no “other,” because the self is the aperture to the other.  That was especially true of the poems in The Endless Unbegun, which are elemental and very physical in their rhythms and knowing.  When they do talk to a “you,” they are love poems, and meant to share my deepest being with the “you” as beloved, who only late in the game becomes the reader.

I think of this poetic space of connection as pretty unusual and rarified, and so my idea for this book was that a prose novella would sort of walk the reader into a more and more poetic, metaphorical space, and that in this way, it would be like walking deeper and deeper into a relationship.  The fact is, we meet on the level of persona and appearance, and then we move further and further into knowing one another (and ourselves, ideally!) in an elemental and soulful way.  Eventually, we are at the archetype — the repeating pattern, where we realize that all of our deepest, most individual experiences are not original at all!  They are human, and therefore shared.

Is there a piece in the book that was the one that led you to realize you were beginning to write this book — as opposed to simply writing another related piece that would eventually be published as a stand-alone narrative or poem?

This one was always a book, which was why it was tricky to publish many of these poems individually in journals.  The book came on in a torrent, and held me in its sway for months as I wrote and rewrote its first drafts, and the poems in it were always deeply intuitive, somehow merging story and poetry, self and other.  It was like they needed their own space, their own book, to make sense.

I experienced this book as a crossing over into a new wavelength.  I learned to write more from my own intuitive power, and less from some expectation of form or audience.

You made some significant changes to the manuscript after it was taken by the Press for publication. Did thinking of it as a book that was actually going to be out in the world — as opposed to simply an ambitious creative project — influence how you approached revision? And if not that, then what led to the major changes in the manuscript?

Well, because the book was so intuitive I felt that I needed to do some rearranging and clarifying to externalize its themes a bit more, and guide the reader through its movements.

I also put the prose novella back in. I had been taking that out as I sent out the manuscript, because it didn’t fit most contest guidelines.  But when Twelve Winters accepted the manuscript and I thought about what I most wanted to share and explore with this book, I knew that it was important for me to have this strange, layered shape, and these characters who are recognizable to us, and who also have rich universes within — like any of us.

And finally, I took out a couple of love poems and added some new ones — simply to make the emotional experience of the book present to me again.  A book that was important to me for many years is Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. It is a book about elemental feminism, and the creative process in which Estes retells fairy tales and folktales to track archetypal shapes in a life.  She talks about the woman as creator and says that when a project feels stuck, or stalled, we should just take something out, get rid of something, in order to lighten its energy and renew it again.  I really experienced this phenomena with The Endless Unbegun.  I took out some poems, added three new ones, and then changed the title, and the book was made new again — like, finally, it had found its moment in time.

What’s the manuscript’s history as far as publication? In other words, how long did you work on it as a book-length project? Had you approached other publishers? What made Twelve Winters seem like a good fit for the book and for you as an author?

I worked on this as a book-length project for a decade, and I always believed in it, but I suspect there was too much going on for editors to see it clearly or to trust its voices. The poems themselves seem more performative, archetypal and intense than a lot of what is being published right now.  It was a semi-finalist for the Dorset Prize a long time ago — maybe in 2007.  And its poems inspired the creation of a band in 2008 — called the Very Small Quartet. I read many of these poems and musicians in the quartet set them to original music, and we performed them live around Chicago. Then Dancing Girl Press published some of its poems in a chapbook called “The Blue Grotto” in 2009.

Twelve Winters was wonderful to work with because the relationship was always founded on respect and understanding of the author’s own experience.  I did not feel that I had to fit this book into any one container, or even one genre, but could really present it in its best possible shape and form. That has been a thrilling opportunity for me as an author, and the entire process of finishing this book has been a pleasure. The Twelve Winters readers and editors were respectful and encouraging, but also meticulous in editing, crediting and proofreading, and so I knew that we were releasing a book that we could all be proud of.

You’re working on an audio edition of the book. One can imagine that poets especially are interested in performing their work for an audience, as opposed to offering it in print only. What are your thoughts or hopes regarding producing an audiobook of The Endless Unbegun

I love reading my poems aloud.  They are usually woven together by sound, and I think when I read them, the listener/reader can really enjoy that and get swept into a more physical, subconscious rhythm.

I am seeking a grant to pay for a really strong recording of this book, because I want to be able to share it in an audio form, in my voice.

What are some of the challenges of recording your poetry, besides any technological ones? 

Well, none really.  Just little technical things, like don’t wear bracelets that jangle, and don’t lisp.  Oh, and the technical glitch of the ego, of course.  I never like my voice when I hear it again.  It is embarrassing. It always sounds too slow, sad and deep to me.  But it is my voice, and I am the one to vocalize my poems.

I co-produced a radio series on poetry for WBEZ a couple of years ago and had to listen to so many hours of my own voice during the production process that I learned to detach from it, much like the way you have to detach as a writer from the idea that an experience is yours.  In the end, these are just two more tools — the voice, the experience — that you can use to share with others.

You teach courses in poetry at Northwestern University and you’ve worked with younger writers as well. Teaching is time consuming of course, and it can be energy draining, but how does teaching influence your writing in positive ways?

I feel so fortunate that my day job is to talk with 20-year-olds about poetry!  And what they teach me, more than anything, is that all of this work is relevant, even necessary.  I mean, if you are just out and about reading the billboards in this country and watching the sitcoms, this stuff we are doing seems pretty anachronistic and irrelevant.

But in my classroom, I get to see how deeply we seek meaning, how much we crave the kind of relational intelligence and emotional awakening that poetry creates.  I watch students embark on this experience of creating and evolving consciousness, and they help me to evolve my consciousness, as well.  My students come to poetry classes, because they want to, because poetry provides a space for us to talk about these ideas of relationship, of creation, of trusting the intuition, and acknowledging the deeper self, and we need these conversations — now more than ever.

And the Jon and Marisol sections, especially, are dedicated to my students.  I put them back in because they represent a kind of atrium in life where we may find ourselves, maybe especially in our twenties or early thirties — the sense that we want to drop down deeper, we want to relate to people soulfully, but our coolness and our intelligence somehow prevents us from sharing all we know and sense.  I think my students are weathering those situations quite bravely, and their earnestness and intelligence gives me hope.

What are you writing now?

I am working on two projects.  My prose project is a book of personal essays that circle experiences of birth and death.  They take place during the first years of my daughter’s life, and during the illness and passing of her father from the disease ALS, when I was caregiver to both.  These experiences were simultaneous, which led to many personal challenges, but also to rich reflection on what we consider opposite — birth and death, heaven and hell.  I now experience these states as related, even interdependent.

My poetry project is a collection of poems written in the voices of Native Americans who can verbalize a very earth-centered, relational consciousness.  Some of these voices are not unlike Radegunde’s, who, as a Pagan, had a different relationship to time and to the earth, but they are taken outside of the context of Christianity, and placed in another time in history.

Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of the full-length poetry collection September (Northwestern University Press, 2013) as well as two chapbooks, The Blue Grotto and Leaving Phoebe, both from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems and prose writing have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Narrative, Tin House and The Paris Review. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern and edits universeofpoetry.org, an international anthology of poetry. (Author photo by Richard Fammerée.)

Interview with John McCarthy: Extinguished Anthology

Posted in October 2014 by Ted Morrissey on October 30, 2014

Last March, Twelve Winters Press released [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, edited by the Press’s contributing editor John McCarthy. At the time I didn’t have the presence of mind to interview John about the book, but the Press has recently announced its Pushcart Prize nominees from the anthology, so I thought it would be appropriate to post an overdue interview.

Extinct cover - front

John and I have known each other since around 2008 because of our mutual involvement with Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program. I was a founding editor who eventually took a step or two back to prose reader; John was an intern who eventually assumed the role of assistant editor. When I launched Twelve Winters Press in 2012, John was quick to lend his support. Knowing his talents and work ethic I was happy to hand him the reins on an editorial project for the Press. In the winter of 2013 we sat down to a Thai dinner and brainstormed possible themes for an anthology. The ideas were flying fast and furious. I recall that I spitballed the possibility of a collection of literary zombie stories. John was … dubious. Somehow we eventually came up with the general idea of extinction, which was refined to extinguished and extinct–and John, as I knew he would, hit the ground running.

We composed the wording for the call for submissions of poems, prose poems and flash fiction, and posted it on Submittable and here and there. Then I sat back and let John and the Press’s associate editor Pamm Collebrusco do what they do so well. They meticulously read and sifted through the submissions that soon began pouring in, selected their favorites and worked through the editing process. John designed the cover and interior pages. I got involved again at the very end for an additional proofreading and to actually publish the anthology, which ultimately offered the work of 37 contributors from five countries. I couldn’t be more pleased with what John and Pamm had produced.

Here, then, is my interview with John (via email) about his editing the anthology.

John McCarthy photo

John McCarthy

What attracted you to the theme of “extinguished and extinct”? What about it made you think it would yield plenty of interesting material?

Part of good writing–part of its goal–is to craft something timeless, something universal people can relate to. When I started brainstorming themes, I decided the best way to do this was to address something permanent. I thought of a line from Larry Levis’s poem, “My Story in a Late Style of Fire,” when the speaker is lamenting a former lover and explains “even in her late addiction & her bloodstream’s / Hallelujahs, she, too, sang often of some affair, or someone / Gone, & therefore permanent.” And what is more permanent than the total, absolute absence of someone or something? Extinction, death. I didn’t want the anthology to be just about a personal death. There are plenty of grief anthologies out there, but in a sense, all poetry is about longing, grieving, lamenting, or venerating the fleeting. I wanted to expand this idea of the permanence of loss to anything: things that are endangered of becoming extinct; things that are extinct that deserve a modern voice; as well as a traditional elegy for a person or thing. I wanted it to address personal emotions as well as open up dialogues about socially conscious topics such as the importance of eco-preservation as well as race and gender. I didn’t want it to be just an anthology about wooly mammoths or dinosaurs, I wanted writers to redefine or reinterpret the word extinction. I wanted them to apply this word to specific entities and abstract concepts. I wanted to make something permanent by pulling it from permanence. Levis is lamenting this woman because she is lamenting someone she lost before him, so it’s this other absence–her own experience with extinction–that inhibits her ability to be totally present with Levis, so in a way, extinction for me means seeing beyond the duality of things dead and things living. It means appreciating absence, acknowledging it in such a way that it really isn’t absent anymore. Once something is, it is forever. That’s a certain kind of philosophy with a lot of debate to it, but it was the jumping ground to a lot of great work which I received.

How many submissions did you receive (more or less)?  Were you surprised by the response?

I got about 1,500 submissions in total. I wasn’t surprised considering how well the calls for submission was promoted. My surprise was with how much quality writing I received and had to sift through. I was worried that the extinction theme would generate a ridiculous amount of genre stuff dealing with zombies, nuclear fallout, all that apocalyptic stuff, which is fine in its own regard, but it was not what I was looking for with the anthology. I received a couple submissions like that, but not as many as I would have thought. I had to decline a lot of good work, too. I had 37 contributors in total, but if I had unlimited page space, I would have accepted around 50 I think. I got quality submissions dealing with everything from extinct animals, to foreign dialects, to pokemon, to jukeboxes, even rotary phones, libraries, and turn-tables. It was exciting to see so many people interpreting and reimagining these historical contexts in new voices. It was cool to look at things that are “gone, and therefore permanent,” but were given light to everything we lost.

Did ideas for any other themed anthologies come to you while reading through the submissions?

Yes, I want to do an anthology dealing with the opposite of this anthology. “Things not yet existing.” I want to see how imaginative and prophetic writers could get with things that don’t yet exist in the world or how curet existing things might get reimagined in a contemporary context. Obviously, I would worry about receiving too many hard science fiction submissions, but I would open it up to any extrapolation of the idea dealing with things that are existing currently. Like maybe a Latino president would be an awesome prophecy, a new kind of rug that floats around the house, maybe a new way of giving birth, or escalators to the moon. I would really look for inventiveness. I would also like to do an anthology of short stories or formal verse at some point. I always have ideas, always looking for platforms to execute them.

How did reading submissions and editing the anthology impact your own writing?

I love working with the persona poem and the elegy. I think it is fun to piggyback off of other persons or events in time. It helps develop a stronger sense of empathy within the work. It was a good exercise to work and edit other people’s interpretations of their personas and the elegies. There is so much you can do with projection. Memory is the world within the world. Working with this anthology helped me access, explore, and appreciate that inner world.

John McCarthy has had work appear or is forthcoming in RHINO, The Minnesota Review, Salamander, Jabberwock Review, Midwestern Gothic, Oyez Review, and The Pinch among others. He is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he is a contributing editor at Poets’ Quarterly and the assistant editor of The Museum of Americana and Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program. Follow him @jmccarthylit.

Interview with J.D. Schraffenberger: The Waxen Poor

Posted in July 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2014

I don’t recall the exact year that I met Jeremy Schraffenberger (2005? — give or take), but it was definitely at the University of Louisville during its annual literature and culture conference. I chaired a critical panel on which Jeremy was presenting a paper. As the day progressed and we ran into each other here and there, we discovered that while we both enjoyed academic writing, creative writing was our true passion — mine, specifically, fiction, and his poetry. Over the years we often met up in Louisville, and when my first novel, Men of Winter, came out in 2010, Jeremy was kind enough to help me set up a reading in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of Jim O’Laughlin’s Final Thursday Reading Series. By then Jeremy (who publishes and edits under the initials J.D.) was on the tenure track in the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa and part of the editorial masthead of the North American Review. In the summer of 2013 I was able to return the favor and arranged for Jeremy to come to Springfield, Illinois, to be a “Poet in the Parlor” at the historic Vachel Lindsay Home; while he was in town, he also gave a fascinating talk on the history of the North American Review and its fast-approaching bicentennial (in 2015) — the talk was hosted by Adam Nicholson at The Pharmacy Art Center.

In 2012, I established Twelve Winters Press with the intention of using it to bring out my books, or keep them in print, and to bring out the literary work of others. Last winter I contacted Jeremy about possibly working with the Press on some sort of project under his editorial direction — and much to my delight he informed me he had a collection, The Waxen Poor, that he was interested in publishing. He sent me the manuscript, which I was able to read (again, much to my delight) before meeting him in Louisville for the conference this past February. After his reading in the beautiful Bingham Poetry Room in Ekstrom Library, we sat down to cups of coffee in the Library’s Tulip Tree Café and discussed his collection and made plans to bring it out this summer.

I’m happy to report that The Waxen Poor is indeed out. See Twelve Winters Press’s Poetry Titles page for full details.

The Waxen Poor - front cover (1)

I interviewed Jeremy via email about his intriguing collection, which includes poems published in such notable journals as Brevity, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many others. What follows are his unedited responses to my questions. When I had the honor of introducing Jeremy at the Vachel Lindsay Home, I said that I always enjoyed his readings because he was the sort of poet that I respected most: one who takes his poetry seriously but not himself. I believe this engaging combination of qualities is apparent here.

Jeremy for The Waxen Poor - 400 (1)

What’s the time span represented by the poems in The Waxen Poor? That is, how early is the earliest poem and how recent the most recent?

The earliest piece in the collection — and the one that really sparked this whole project — is the prose poem “Full Gospel,” which was originally published in the summer of 2006 in Brevity and was later reprinted in Best Creative Nonfiction. I bring this up only because I find the question of genre interesting. I originally wrote “Full Gospel” as a poem, but then as I started to revise, I became less and less interested in lines and line breaks and more and more interested in segmentation or braiding as a way to craft the piece. I can’t say that I was consciously blurring generic boundaries — I was just trying to write something true — but I’m still not quite sure how to categorize it. Is it an essay? A poem? A prose poem? In the end, I suppose, that’s not terribly important, but insofar as it might reveal something about the composition process — in this case, I think, how memory is organized — I think it’s an intriguing question.

Two other early pieces are the first one in the collection, “Brother Tom,” and the last, “Born for Adversity.” It was important, I think, that I knew where I was heading as I wrote and revised. I would certainly not consider The Waxen Poor a novel in verse, but I did feel that there was something of a narrative arc, if not an actual plot — even if it remained subtextual — that guided me along as I worked. I had a clear sense of the beginning and I knew the end, and so the challenge became what to do with the long expansive middle. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “True connoisseurs … are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

The most recent poem in the collection is the sequence of “Judas” poems, which came as something of a surprise to me as I wrote them. I hadn’t expected to cast “Brother Tom” as a Judas character, but there it is. Sometimes you can’t — and maybe you shouldn’t — control your characters. You can see that I’m trying to complicate Judas/Tom, though, by calling him “A man of tradition, assassin of the ages, / My translator, my traitor, my Judas, my friend” — the same kind of complication I’m attempting to bring to the entire collection. These “Judas” poems came to me about three years ago, and so The Waxen Poor represents five years of work.

Did you set out to write a collection around the topic of “Brother Tom,” or did the concept of collecting them develop over time? Either way, can you describe the thought process behind the collection?

In my mind The Waxen Poor was always a cohesive project. After “Full Gospel” I began organizing individual pieces around the character of “Brother Tom.” I wanted to explore this fraught relationship between two brothers, each of whom is like the other but also quite different — one a poet, the other struggling with mental illness. The poems are meant to be both personal and more broadly mythological, and I’ve tried to balance (or “harmonize” might be a better word) the experiential with the imagined, the everyday with the elevated. You could also say that the project is in some ways a coping mechanism, like Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That is, how are we to deal with the pain and suffering in the world but through our art? When trying to understand and contend with something like mental illness, some of us turn to art, to poetry, for answers.

Many of the poems seem to be highly personal in their subject matter. Can you discuss the process of tapping into those emotions via the creative process?

As I said, I see the collection as something of a coping mechanism — but then in some ways, all art functions as a mechanism of this kind, even if you’re not dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. What do we make of this world around us and all of the various experiences we have? How do we give our lives any kind of meaning but by forming it, shaping it? Even the most experimental, appropriative forms of conceptualism in which all subjectivity has been evacuated are ways to cope.

That said, there are some poems in The Waxen Poor I can’t read in public anymore because they’re too emotionally difficult for me to get through, but I think that probably means something important is happening. I try to tell this to my creative writing students, that if something is too painful to write, you should write it, not for the sake of therapy — though that might end up being part of it — but because when a poem is difficult in this way, you’re getting near something that you care deeply about, even if it’s in ways that you can’t quite articulate yet. When we find a form for our pain or confusions, we’re allowing others to identify with it, with us. We’re letting our readers in.

The form of these poems varies considerably, and there are even some prose poems included in the collection. Can you discuss the interplay between subject and form for you as a poet? For example, how much one influences the other?

I’m a formalist insofar as I believe that form is meaning. To sever the two is to do a deep violence to the poem — and to misread it entirely. I think it takes a long time before this insight, which is easy enough to say and understand intellectually, sinks in deeply enough for it to be true as a writer. Or at least this has been the case for me. The prose poem is a perfect example of this fusion between form and meaning. I never set out to write the prose poem sequences you find in this collection. Rather, I discovered that this was the form the poem had to take — especially the somewhat surreal ones in which the thoughts and images and phenomena all seem to tumble forth, like consciousness itself. Likewise, some of the unrhymed sonnets in the collection were discovered. That is, as I began writing, I felt the rhetorical movement of the sonnet happening, the turn, and so I began shaping it accordingly. This means paying attention to more than just the “subject,” more than what the poem is supposedly “about,” and opening yourself up to different ways of knowing.

But there are a handful of exceptions. The poem “Abecedarian Advice” is a received form that I didn’t “discover” but rather imposed on myself as a challenge. And the four “Meds” poems are acrostics that spell out the names of the antipsychotic drugs “Haldol,” “Thorazine,” “Zyprexa,” and “Lithium” down the left margins of the poems. I like the way these formal experiments turned out because I found that I ended up thinking about things I never would have thought about before. The somewhat arbitrary restraint can ironically be very liberating. In fact, I think the acrostic is the most underrated form. With other forms, like the sonnet, for example, you’re dealing not only with external characteristics like rhyme and meter but also an internal rhetorical shape that isn’t always the right fit for the poem. The acrostic, though, can accommodate absolutely anything. It gets a bad rap and seems unsophisticated because we’ve all written them in elementary school. But I think there’s something refreshing about the form’s simplicity.

Several of the poems in the collection had been published individually, but it seemed that you hadn’t been circulating the collection for a while. Can you discuss the history of the collection in terms of your thoughts on its publication as a whole?

Well, I did send this manuscript out into the world for a while, entering it into contests and open reading periods at a handful of presses that I like. But I’m a constant and somewhat obsessive reviser, so I pulled it back and have been working on it periodically for a few years. I’d add a poem, remove a poem, tinker with the chronology, worry over line breaks. Was it Valéry who said that a poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned? I guess that feeling had something to do with it — a desire not to abandon the poems. And because it’s a collection that I care deeply about and is in some ways very personal, I felt it had to be just right — and it had to find the right place, too, that would present it in the way I think it needs to be presented. I’d say it’s finally ready for the world, and so I’m excited now that it’s found a great home with Twelve Winters.

You play with both Christian and Classical allusions (and bring these together in the title and cover illustration, which you found). Why overtly connect these two traditions?  What do you think is the effect of their interplay in the collection?

First, I’d say that even though I am not a Christian, Christian symbols and metaphors are culturally inescapable. And so these stories and images live with us and inform our very identities quite deeply. To deny them is to deny a rich vein of cultural and personal meaning. So, too, with the Greeks. As much as the Christian bible, the Iliad is a foundational text that we should allow to enter and affect our work, even today. In this way, I’d call myself a traditional poet — though that word “tradition” rings vaguely conservative, doesn’t it? What I mean to suggest is that I’m traditional in that I attend to the past — this great gift of literature that has been left to us — and try to make meaning of and from it. I’m reminded of something Barry Lopez wrote: “If art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.” I suppose I’d say that what I’m trying to do is in this collection — and in all of my work, really — is to respond to the letter that’s been sent to us from the past, while writing a letter of my own in the present. Not to mix my metaphors, but I believe artists are not so much influenced by tradition as they exist at a confluence, where the past meets the present, like two rivers meeting.

With your wife Adrianne Finlay being a novelist, you’re a two-writer household. I suspect that creates an interesting dynamic. Can you discuss what that is like, and how it may affect your own creativity?

My wife is always my first reader — and my best. Having another writer in the house is always beneficial for when you want to know if something makes sense or sounds right. But also because there’s a mutual understanding that we each need time to do our work, and so we make time for each other in that way. Of course, a big difference is that she deals with long narratives while I deal with shorter lyrical pieces, and so we’re often trying to accomplish much different things. For Adrianne, I think, clarity is very important — as is plot — whereas I might value strangeness or obscurity in a poem. As a poet, I also think the form is just as important as the meaning — as I said before, it is the meaning — but writers of novels I think tend to be less interested — not uninterested, just less interested in the overt music of language. Or they want to foreground something else. To dwell too decidedly on sound and language might interfere with the story. That said, we both teach fiction and poetry, and so we’re each well enough acquainted with the other’s genre to be good readers. And so, while The Waxen Poor is, indeed, a collection of lyrical poems, I do think that my work slips in and out of narrative and dramatic modes, too. That’s something I think I pay more attention to because of Adrianne.

What projects are you working on now?

What’s been occupying a lot of my creative energies lately is my work as associate editor of the North American Review. The magazine was founded in 1815, so we’re about to celebrate our bicentennial, which is really quite remarkable. I mean, how many things in the United States get to celebrate a bicentennial? It’s exciting but humbling. At any rate, I’m directing a conference to mark the occasion. We have so many great events planned, including keynote readings by Martín Espada, Patricia Hampl, and Steven Schwartz. People can find the call for papers here.

I’m also editing a book called Walt Whitman and the North American Review, which collects the seven essays Whitman published in the NAR in the last decade of his life, along with the many reviews, essays, and articles on him and his work that appeared in the magazine’s pages. Editorial work is challenging but also deeply gratifying.

J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s the author of the collection of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his two daughters and his wife, the novelist Adrianne Finlay.

(Author Photo by Adrianne Finlay)

 

 

Anthology released by Twelve Winters Press

Posted in April 2014 by Ted Morrissey on April 6, 2014

I’m pleased to report that [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist was released last week by Twelve Winters Press, which I founded in 2012. The anthology is a collection of poems, prose poems and flash fiction all dealing with the theme of extinguished and extinct, from animals to plants to languages to eras, and much, much more. The anthology was edited, and in fact the project was directed, by John McCarthy, with much support from the Press’s associate editor Pamm Collebrusco.

Extinct cover - front

John and Pamm received thousands of submissions last fall and eventually narrowed it down to work by 37 writers and poets from the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore: Elmaz Abinader, Majnun Ben-David, Lauren Camp, Jennifer Clark, Rebecca Clever, Susan Cohen, Meg Eden, Frances Gapper, Damyanti Ghosh, John Gosslee, Laura Hartenberger, Parul Kapur Hinzen, Daniel Hudon, Douglas Jackson, Zeke Jarvis, Amanda Larson, Christina Lovin, Mark McKain, Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Elizabeth Deanna Morris, Travis Mossotti, Ezra Olson, Lynn Pedersen, Cindy Rinne, Matt Rotman, Freya Sachs, Susan Sailer, Danielle Sellers, Mary Senger, M.E. Silverman, Judith Skillman, Darren Stein, Ursula Villarreal-Moura, J. Weintraub, Lenore Weiss, Laurelyn Whitt, and Lee Tyler Williams.

I had nothing to do with selecting the work and in fact didn’t read the pieces until they were already laid out in the proof of the anthology. Perhaps I’m biased, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how exceptional the work is. It’s literary and accessible, and provides incredible variety in both focus and form. The link above is to the anthology on Amazon; however, it’s available from a growing list of global sellers, including Barnes & Noble and Espresso Book Machine. Check the Poetry Titles page at the Twelve Winters Press site for a complete list (which will be expanding daily for a while).

Currently only the print edition of the anthology is available. We’re working on digital editions (complexly structured poetry and e-readers are not always happy bedfellows, so it’s taking longer to get the digital editions out than we’d hoped — but we want them to be as readable as possible and to do justice to the original work).

My thanks to John and Pamm, and also to my partner in all things, Melissa Sievers, for her support and assistance, especially with mailing out the anthology copies to contributors.

Keep an eye on Twelve Winters Press as we have several exciting things in the works, including J.D. Schraffenberger’s forthcoming poetry collection, The Waxen Poor, with a tentative release date in August. Follow the Press @twelvewinters.

tedmorrissey.com

 

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2014

My paper, “Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C,” was presented Feb. 20, 2014, at the Louisville Conference on Literature Culture Since 1900 as part of the panel “The New Adventures of Old Debates: Postmodernism and the New Sincerity,” chaired by Nick Curry, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘Everything is ending but not yet’: Post-Modern Irony and the New Sincerity in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Katherine Leake Weese, Hampden-Sydney College; and “Liminality and Dialogism: Dreamscape Narratives in Donald Barthelme’s Postmodern Paradise” by Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior. (A much abridged version of this paper appeared as a review in North American Review, 298.4. Search this blog for other Gass papers.)

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Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

by Ted Morrissey, University of Illinois Springfield

A long and complex novel, or series of novels . . . may present us with a world complete through every principle and consequence, rivaling in its comprehensiveness the most grandiose philosophical systems. (Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” 9)

With the release of Middle C in 2013, William H. Gass’s third novel, one imagines that Gass has attempted to do just that:  present us with a world complete.  For the past half century, William Gass has been one of America’s most prolific essayists and literary critics, as well as one of its most receptive interviewees.  Consequently, his ideas about writing, especially about writing the novel and what makes a great one, are well documented, and they’ve remained amazingly consistent decade after decade.  Middle C, even more so than his previous two novels, is a praxis of his most heartfelt theories—which makes it a deliberately challenging read, deliberately aimed at a rapidly disappearing readership.  What is more, given Gass’s age, Middle C may prove to be the final argument in his legendary debate with John Gardner in which aesthetics was pitted against morality as the rubric for assessing great literature.

Gass, who was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924, is a self-acknowledged slow writer of his own fiction.  Therefore, his novels have appeared with great gaps of time in between:  Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (1995), and now Middle C—with an iconic collection of stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a highly experimental novella (?), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and a collection of novellas, Cartesian Sonata (1998), rounding out his books of fiction.  Meanwhile, the professor of philosophy, retired from Washington University in St. Louis, has published ten collections of essays and criticism between 1970 and 2012.  Conversations with William H. Gass, a compendium of just some of his copious interviews, was released by University Press of Mississippi in 2003.

This paper will deal with Gass’s concept of narrative structure that he refers to as layering, his views on characterization, and his sense of morality’s proper place in fiction.

In Middle C, via the novel’s singular focus, music professor Joseph Skizzen, Gass demonstrates the narrative elements he believes to be essential to great fiction, but also the ones that have prevented him from being a best-selling author—though they have garnered him numerous honors and accolades, including the American Book Award for The Tunnel, a ponderous novel twenty-six years in the writing, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Though not a musician himself, Gass has long been fascinated with musical composition and has tried to structure his novels as if they were orchestral arrangements.  More important, Gass’s nonlinear structural technique that he refers to as layering mimics musical composition, he believes, because the goal of a great novel is to affect the reader as a whole creation:  “[T]he linear element in fiction is inescapable and must be dealt with, used just as it is in music, but there are other elements too, equally important.  So I have a kind of view of a work as being layered:  certain layers, or certain aspects of it, are nonlinear and certain aspects are linear. Then what becomes interesting is the tension, the contrasts, contradictions between the layers” (Janssens 60-61).

The result of layering is a narrative that shifts relentlessly between Skizzen’s childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond to nearing retirement age, forcing readers to acquire their temporal bearings with each new section.  It is useful that each phase of Skizzen’s life tends to take place in a distinct setting with different casts of characters (except for the professor’s mother, Miriam, as she is a constant throughout).  Gass also provides some assistance in how he references Skizzen as either Joey or Joseph, but ultimately the two names appear side by side in the novel as if the young and old versions of his character become conjoined twins and experience the world through dual perceptions.

The merciless shifting in time is due to the thematic elements in the book. Gass writes in “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” “But there are some points in a narrative which remain relatively fixed; we may depart from them, but soon we return, as music returns to its theme” (49).  In The Tunnel, Gass employed a twelve-part structure suggestive of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pattern.  “That is how I began working out the way for the various themes to come in and out,” said Gass. “It’s layered that way too” (Kaposi 135).  In Middle C, Gass has returned to the concept of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system but even more overtly.  For one thing, Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, like Alan Berg and Anton Webern, are discussed at various points in the novel via Professor Skizzen’s lectures; and Skizzen himself effects the aura of a Viennese intellectual, reflective of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of musical composers.  Also, throughout the novel Skizzen wrestles with a sentence, or series of sentences, having to do with the destructive nature of the human race, as he continually composes the thought, critiques it, and revises it.  Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation:  “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352).  Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.  The twelve-tone system has four parts, described as Prime—Retrograde—Inverse—Retrograde Inverse.  As such, the primacy of “First Skizzen felt” is represented literally with the word First, while “mankind must perish” suggests the retrograde movement of the species from existence to extinction.  “Then he feared” marks the inverse of Skizzen’s initial impression, and “it might survive” is the retrograde inverse because it reverses his belief that mankind will become extinct and concludes that it will actually persist.

In a microcosmic sense, Skizzen’s capturing of the perfect expression of his fears about the human race reflect Gass’s overarching strategy of novel composition, which he expressed in a 2012 Tin House interview:  “You want to organize and make sense out of it on a conceptual level as well as a physical, or musical, level.  And indeed, a spatial level.  Like a parking garage, there are a bunch of levels” (Gerke 41).  On the page, Gass, as he often has, uses typographical features to suggest the multilayered nature of Skizzen’s expression, by indenting, tabbing and boldfacing the words, so that visually they draw attention to their deeper meanings and associations. This evolving thought about humanity is associated with another reoccurring element in the novel, Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum, which is a collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, and handwritten notecards that detail horrific human actions:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby:  the Inhumanity Museum. . . . Sometimes he changed the [name] placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum. . . . Daily, he would escape his sentence to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record. (55)

And just as Gass returns to the evolving sentence throughout the novel, he also references the Inhumanity Museum and its growing record of atrocities.  Hence, the motif of humans’ inhumanity to other humans demonstrates one of Gass’s other important theories about fictional narrative:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  He writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (“The Concept of Character” 49, 50).  Perhaps Gass’s interest in developing ideas as characters and not people stems from his most fundamental affections.   In the Tin House interview, he acknowledged that he “hate[s] the species” and aligns himself with Spinoza’s advocacy of “lov[ing] ideas” (Gerke 33, 36).  People, he says, are less trustworthy than objects, and the singular focus of Middle C, Joseph Skizzen, reflects that lack of trustworthiness in that the music professor is a complete fraud who constructs his career, and his very life, from forged documents and fabricated CVs.

Gass said that Skizzen was based on a real history professor at Wooster College in Ohio who was living under a false identity and on the run from both the English and Canadian authorities.  Gass remarked, “I want to talk about—or deal with—somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort.  Professor Skizzen obtains his position with false CVs [. . .] but he gradually expands his dreamland to include the classes he starts to teach” (Gerke 37-8).  Skizzen’s falseness even extends to his supposed admiration of Schoenberg, whom he chose as a pet topic because no one knew much about him.  Perhaps Skizzen’s irreverent strategy reflects to some degree Gass’s own choice of Schoenberg’s twelve-part system to use as a controlling structure for his fiction.  In writing criticism, Gass had to stay within the boundaries of expectation, he said, but for his fiction, which has been more important to him, “there are no expectations, there is no job to fulfill,” allowing him “to be more outrageous, or daring” (32).

Gass’s emphases in Middle C on inhumane behavior and on Skizzen’s profound falseness represent another of his theories about artistic, versus popular, writing.  On the one hand, Gass has said that significant novels need to be about significant themes.  In the essay “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” Gass writes, “[T]he form and method of metaphor are very much like the form and method of the novel. . . . [T]he artist is able to organize whole areas of human thought and feeling, and to organize them concretely, giving to his model the quality of sensuous display.” He goes on,

[T]hen imagine the Oriental deviousness, the rich rearrangement, the endless complications of the novel conceived as I suggest it should be, as a monumental metaphor, a metaphor we move at length through, the construction of a mountain with its views, a different, figured history to stretch beside our own, a brand-new ordering both of the world and our understanding. (68-9)

Yet this world-altering effect must be executed via mundane plot details.  Gass said, “. . . I want to avoid as much as possible situations, extreme situations whose reality is strong because then the reader is reading it like a newspaper or something.  If you’re going to write aesthetically about it, you have to defuse its power in order to get anybody to pay any attention to the nature of the prose” (Gerke 42-3).  He said that “ninety percent of bad literature” was due to writers focusing on the sensational act itself, the part of real life that is “quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (43).  As such, Professor Skizzen’s achievement of the perfect twelve-part sentence about humans’ inhumanity acts as a kind of climax for Middle C, and Skizzen’s feared defrocking, which occupies the final pages of the novel, is a sort of anticlimax juxtaposed against the truly climactic narrative event.

This avoidance of the extreme situation has been practiced by Gass ever since his very first written narrative, from about 1951, the novella “The Pedersen Kid,” which carefully sidesteps descriptions of child abuse, molestation, kidnapping, rape and murder, leaving them merely implied on the fringes of the plot.  And in The Tunnel, Gass’s most ambitious work, the Holocaust remains in the background while the novel’s protagonist secretly digs a hole to nowhere in his basement.

Gass is in his ninetieth year, and it’s all but certain that he will not write any other novels.  He’s said that more novellas, stories, essays and literary criticism could be forthcoming, so Middle C may well be his closing argument in his famous debate with John Gardner, who died in 1982.  Gass and Gardner’s debate regarding the chief aim of fiction was often carried out in private, but it also became very public, being transcribed in various interviews and even fictionalized by Larry McCaffery in The Literary Review as a Point-Counterpoint-style “confrontation” (135).  At the risk of oversimplifying their positions … Gardner believed that literature’s highest calling was to put forward a moral, life-affirming message, while Gass believed that literature’s highest calling was to be something beautiful, a work of linguistic art.  Gass said in a 1978 interview, “There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is.  I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness.  John and others have values which they think are important.  Beauty, after all, is not very vital for people.  I think it is very important . . .” (LeClair 55).  Gardner’s view was that “you create in the reader’s mind a vivid and continuous dream . . . living a virtual life, making moral judgments in a virtual state” (49-50).

More than a decade after Gardner’s death, with the publication of The Tunnel, whose narrator, history professor Frederick Kohler, seems to sympathize with the Nazis, Gass was still clarifying his position on morality versus art in literature.  He said that his “position [had] been frequently misunderstood, almost invariably” (Kaposi 122).  He went on,

Ethical, political, and social concerns will be present in every writer’s work at every point.  The question is not that; the question is how you write about them. . . . My view is that you don’t judge a work to be beautiful because it’s morally uplifting or tells the truth about things.  And it’s perfectly possible for a work to be beautiful and not tell the truth, and in fact to be morally not a very nice thing.  Ideally of course it would be all these things at once. (122)

Unlike Kohler, Joseph Skizzen is clearly appalled by human behavior, like the Holocaust.  In his lectures on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, Skizzen contemplates how Jews were able to reconcile “the Almighty’s malevolence . . . a punishment long in coming and therefore most deserved” (209).  Thus, in the context of a novel in which nothing much happens, certainly nothing earthshattering, Gass interjects significant moral issues, especially involving humakind’s inhumane treatment of itself.  In The Tunnel, Gass created a character and a book who were “morally not a very nice thing,” and it seemed to distract many readers from its artfulness, its literary beauty.  In a 1998 interview, Gass responded to critic Robert Atler’s assertion that The Tunnel was an immoral book because of the way it treated the Holocaust by saying that it must be “to some sorts of reader an immoral book.  I want it to be for them.  I want it misread in a certain way by certain people.  It’s for me the proof in the pudding” (Abowitz 144). Gass said that he considers Middle C “a much lighter” book (Gerke 38), even though he deals with many of the same issues as in The Tunnel.  What makes it seem lighter, perhaps, is the first-person narrator’s posture toward atrocities like the Holocaust.

In the end, then, Gass has found a way to create a work of literary art while also taking the higher moral ground that his friend John Gardner advocated.  Gardner said in 1978 that his “ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books” (LeClair 55)—maybe he managed to change Gass’s final novel from beyond the grave.

Gass is adamant that he’s written his last novel as a matter of practicality—after all, eighteen years elapsed between The Tunnel and Middle C (“I can’t live forever,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)—but he’s working on a collection of essays, a collection short stories (alluded to in the mid-1990s and still not complete apparently), and he’s planning another novella or two.

Let me end on a personal and professional note:  I’m planning to edit a series of books on Gass’s work through Twelve Winters Press, and about a week ago I put out a call for submissions (of abstracts) for the first anthology, titled Critical Perspectives on William H. Gass: The Novellas.  Please visit TwelveWinters.com/submissions for details and to access the submissions portal. You can also follow my 12 Winters Blog and ReadingGass.org for updates on the project.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—. “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 55-76. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 3-26. Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Henderson, Jane. “William Gass: At 88, Gass Has Written Last Novel—But Not Last Book.” 10 Mar. 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” 1979. Ammon 56-70.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction.” 1978. Ammon 46-55.

McCaffery, Larry. “The Gass-Gardner Debate: Showdown on Main Street.” The Literary Review 23.1 (fall 1979): 134-144. Print.

Chapter One of An Untimely Frost

Posted in January 2014 by Ted Morrissey on January 28, 2014

Below is the first chapter of my new novel An Untimely Frost, published by Twelve Winters Press earlier this month. The story was inspired by Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Listen to an interview by WUIS’s Rachel Otwell.

from An Untimely Frost copyright © 2014 Ted Morrissey. All rights reserved.

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

Chapter One

The London streets confounded me. I had the address of her residence, obtained via my London publisher—how difficult could it be to find, 261½ Wicker’s Lane? How difficult indeed! The cut of my suit was like a giant flame for the moth-like streetpeople, hawking their wares directly in my face, so that I smelled their rotting teeth and breakfasts of spoiled turnips and onions. And solicitous women . . . at ten in the morning? Even Old New Yorkers waited until after a proper luncheon for such engagements, I would think.

In spite of the distractions I found the inauspicious house on Wicker’s Lane. I stood across from it and gazed somewhat in awe: here was the residence of Margaret T. Haeley, authoress of so many of my fretful nights. For months after reading Dunkelraum, before I could settle into sleep, I would check under my bed and in the wardrobe for Mrs. Haeley’s monster—ridiculous, I knew even then, for a giant to be lurking in such small places. But if it were possible at all for her monster to exist, my still childish mind must have reasoned, then it was equally possible for him to break the physical laws of space.

My wonder at Mrs. Haeley’s monster contributed in no mean part to my wanting to take up the pen myself. (Which reminded me, I still needed to finish the proof-sheets for Andersen’s Romance; Murry—that was Mr. A. B. C. Murry of Claxton House—was, I imagined, growing impatient as he wanted to capitalize on the renewed interest in America in Sunnydale, my second book and first full-length novel; there was a stage play in the works, rumored to be starring none other than Mr. Junius Booth. Murry had had the proof-sheets delivered to the hotel and the stack was waiting in my room upon my arrival. No rest for the weary, they say.)

The thought of the house’s occupant quickened my pulse but the narrow-shouldered structure itself was remarkably unremarkable: brown-stained boards (in need of fresh stain) which led one’s eye to black-shuttered windows that were too small for the house’s two and a half storeys; the windows gave the impression the old house was squinting. I recalled the boyhood trick of squinting at an object until the act of only partial seeing—of shutting out more and more light—transformed the object into something altogether of another world. I was tempted to narrow my eyes at the old structure. . . .

Church-bells’ pealing in the neighborhood broke my reverie. I was readying myself to cross the lane and call on Mrs. Haeley when I noticed a slightly built black fellow approach the house with a leather tote of wood—wood, yes, I realized, but not split logs or kindling as such—rather broken pieces of furniture: a severed table leg protruded conspicuously from the tote, which the fellow balanced quite easily on his narrow shoulder. He bypassed Mrs. Haeley’s front steps and instead went to an alternate door to the side, below street level, that I had not observed at all. A moment to fiddle with the lock and the black fellow with his sticks of furniture disappeared from view.

I waited for a dray to pass; the malnourished beast pulling it deposited a fresh dollop of manure in the lane. Then, dodging the droppings, I went to Mrs. Haeley’s front door. There was a bell-key positioned beneath a pane of stained glass, glass which was too smudged and greasy for me to make out its figures. I turned the key and heard the rattling chime within. I imagined its echoing in the empty foyer of a haunted and abandoned house. . . . Thinking of Mrs. Haeley’s monster had worked its old spell on my fancy.

I waited, listening to the noises of the streetpeople behind me. I did not want to appear rude but I turned the bell-key again. After all, I knew someone was inside. Another long period elapsed. I took my card from my vest pocket (beforehand I had added the name of my hotel, The Saint Georges) and I was intending to slip the card through the postman’s slot when I heard footsteps inside, then the bolt . . . bolts (four!) were moved aside, and the door slowly and creakily receded but only about a hand’s length. “Yes?” came a man’s voice, English but not a Londoner it seemed. It was gloomy inside Mrs. Haeley’s house but with the little daylight leaking into the narrow space I realized the gatekeeper (I thought of Macbeth’s jocular one) was the slightly built black fellow.

“Hello there; I’ve come to pay my regards to Mrs. Haeley—a mutual friend recommends me.” Friend was a bit strong as I wasn’t certain that any true ones existed in the book business but I hoped the innocent embellishment would gain me admittance.

“Mrs. Haeley is not receiving callers today, sir. Thank you . . .” and he began to close the door.

“Wait—please—I’ve come such a long way—” It was true, and my feet were starting to pain me again. “Will you at least present her my card?” I held it in the narrow opening and felt the foyer’s draft on my fingers. The fellow’s hand came up, perhaps reluctantly, to take it. The realization struck me that there was no proper servant in Mrs. Haeley’s house, just this taciturn handyman or whatever he was, who completed the task and shut the door without further word. The bolts were slid back into place.

I stood a moment at Mrs. Haeley’s door, nonplussed at being turned away so unceremoniously; then I began my descent of the five steps but halted when I heard the bolts again. The door opened more fully this time and the black fellow stood in its frame. “Jefferson Wheelwright—author of Sunnydale and the Old New Yorker stories?”

I had turned and was looking up from the second step. “That’s correct, my good fellow—at your service.” I put a finger to my hat brim (a high, round-crown affair I was informed was the epitome of London vogue, though I had not seen a one since stepping from the Chaos, an old packet whose crew made certain she was aptly named).

“Mrs. Haeley is not taking callers but she would not wish me to turn away a man of letters without some refreshment. Won’t you step indoors, sir?”

“Most kind; thank you.” I was still disappointed at not meeting Mrs. Haeley, but I was feeling most fagged and some tea and a taste of biscuit sounded quite glorious. I went in and removed my allegedly fashionable hat (it was chocolate brown velveteen made from the same bolt as my coat lapels, vest and cuffs—I was sparing no expense for my tour of England and the Continent). When Mrs. Haeley’s man closed the door the foyer was plunged into a profound gloom for which my eyes were ill prepared.

“This way, Mr. Wheelwright.”

“Your name, sir?”

“Mrs. Haeley has always called me ‘Thursday.’”

“Like Crusoe’s Friday.”

“Yes—but one better, she says.” The pride in Thursday’s voice was evident. From the foyer we went into a long narrow hall. The irregularity of the walls made me think they were in sad disrepair; then my adjusting eyes discovered the appearance of irregularity was due to the fact the walls were lined with books, stacks and stacks of books, each reaching close to the fourteen-foot ceiling. Actually it was my nose that helped my eyes to interpret clearly: the wonderful smell of old books permeated Mrs. Haeley’s house. There were hundreds of books just in the hall—perhaps thousands!

Thursday paused for a moment and deftly removed a book from the middle of a stack, about eye height, and handed it to me before turning a corner into a room I soon discovered was the parlor. Daylight filtered in through slightly ajar shutters and sheer curtains—enough light to allow me to read the spine of the book: Sketches of the Old New Yorkers. The volume, I was happy to see, was well thumbed.

Thursday took my hat. “It’s very nice—I’ve not seen one quite like it.”

“So I’m beginning to suspect.”

He placed the hat on a coat rack in the corner from which a long woolen scarf and a dark jacket already hung. The room was of good proportions with several couches and armchairs and low seats of the Ottoman style. A large oval table occupied the more or less center of the room. It all gave the impression, however, that though it was a place to welcome guests, none had been welcomed there for some time.

Thursday invited me to sit while he fetched “a nuncheon of tea and crackers.” I took a couch opposite one of the room’s three windows. I smelled the dust that was unsettled by my sitting. There were no pictures on the walls, though there were darkened rectangular spaces where ones had been hanging for years. The motif of the book continued as there were stacks here and there in the parlor, none as prodigious, though, as those that stood in the hall.

My eyes had adapted totally and I perused the volume of Sketches Thursday had handed me. I opened the cover and there was the India-ink portrait of me rendered by young Melissa Blackwood, my neighbor’s daughter during my Albany days (the Blackwoods had moved to Brussels and I planned to visit them on my tour). Little Miss had done a remarkable job on the portrait for such a youthful artist but the likeness was not perfect. Her affection for her “Uncle Jeff” had caused her to widen the space between my eyes and to thin my lips and to tuck in my ears (the ears which had acquired for me the grammar-school nickname of “Chimp”). I realized that the inclusion of my portrait rendered by such a juvenile hand was apropos in so much as the sketches themselves were unpracticed in their way, too—though at the time I considered them the masterpieces of the age. Only two years elapsed between Sketches and Sunnydale, yet they were worlds apart in craft. I trusted that my new work demonstrated a similar advancement in my technique, but I wasn’t so certain: I’d often felt in something of an artistic rut.

The musing reminded me of one of my chief reasons for calling upon Mrs. Haeley. Like the rest of the literary world, I wondered if the authoress was at work on something new. Other than the posthumous volume of her husband’s verse that she had edited and for which had written a touching introduction, nothing had come from her pen, save, I supposed, for letters to family and friends (I held out hope of becoming one of the latter).

Thursday returned with a silver tray and pot, both slightly tarnished, two delicate-looking cups, and a plate of crackers. I wondered then if Mrs. Haeley would be receiving me after all. But Thursday, after pouring my tea and adding a spot of cream at my request, fixed himself a cup and sat in a chair adjacent to my couch. I was not used to such behavior from a domestic, and it occurred to me that maybe Thursday was more than that to Mrs. Haeley. When did Haeley drown? It’d been more than ten years. Sipping at my tea, I tried to examine Thursday’s features more acutely in the parlor’s poor light: his nose was somewhat broad and his lips thick, but his hair, which was brushed straight back, was more Italian in appearance than African; so he seemed of mixed parentage.

“The tea is very good. Thank you for it.” I took a cracker from the plate. It proved stale but was tolerable (and welcome) with the tea. “When might Mrs. Haeley be receiving?”

Thursday lowered the cup from his lips. “It is difficult to say. She does not see many visitors so there is no regularity to it.”

I would imagine journalists were a constant bother to the household. She had been, after all, notorious in her youth, before Haeley’s yachting accident. I recalled the headline in the Post: Celebrated English Poet Dead! / Stephen Hæley’s Yacht Capsizes During Storm. A romantic teenager at the time, I immediately fantasized courting and wooing Haeley’s young widow, of taking his place at her side, a new King with the Queen of English literati. I had not thought of all that for years but perhaps the notion lay on the underside of my mind when I made my plans for the tour.

We sat in silence for a time with our tea and crackers. I was trying to think of something to say when there was a creaking overhead as if someone were walking about upstairs. I looked to Thursday, perhaps to confirm it was the lady herself.

“Old houses and their rheumatic joints.” Thursday smiled, his teeth as white as alabaster in the gloomy parlor.

“Indeed.” Then I had the crazy thought that Mrs. Haeley was not there at all . . . that Thursday was an invader of her home, had murdered the famous (infamous?) authoress and buried her in the yard. There were instances of actresses and opera dancers having overzealous supporters who would not leave them be and who sometimes broke into their rooms—even a case or two wherein the worshipper did harm to their chosen idol because of their twisted devotion. To my knowledge, authoresses did not generate such a following (nor authors for that matter), but there is always a first case. “How is Mrs. Haeley?”

“Oh Mrs. Haeley is fine. I make certain she gets her meals and her rest.” There was more of that pride in Thursday’s voice, though it sounded as if he were referring to a prized equine and not the lady of the house. On the one hand, I had no reason to doubt Thursday’s assertion but on the other my first impression of Mrs. Haeley’s house was not of its being a place of sound health. It seemed like a home from her fiction, a birthplace for a monster. Perhaps her upstairs apartment was all light and cheerfulness, a place she could revel in the sort of vitality Thursday implied. After all, Mrs. Haeley was still a young woman, only some eight years my senior. It was just that she achieved literary fame at such a young age, her novel the buzz of New York City, London, Paris, Brussels, all coinciding with her twentieth birthday. Quite remarkable really.

I finished my tea and crackers, feeling somewhat refreshed, which was good as I would likely have to hike up to Fullham Road on aching feet to find a cab. I had been dropped there, wishing to walk the remaining blocks, to take in the sights and sounds of the OldCity. My head was filled with London stories—of the strolling gentlemen and ladies, of the fancy carriages, of the gay chimneysweeps. This idealized tableau was not the London I found. Perhaps it was somewhere else, in another district. I wondered at the impression of Old New York my book created and whether visitors were taken aback by the genuine thing. I was no doubt giving myself and my pen too much credit.

“Well,” I said, placing my cup upon the tray, “thank you, Thursday, for the refreshment; it worked wonderfully and I feel quite able to return to the hotel.”

“I’m sorry, sir, you did not see Mrs. Haeley, but I will tell her of your visit and present your card.” We both had risen and Thursday was crossing the room to retrieve my hat.

I appreciated Thursday’s politeness but it wasn’t the same thing as insuring me a future audience with Mrs. Haeley.

He handed me my hat. “One thing more, sir, if you would.” He went to a small writing desk in the corner of the parlor and returned with a pen and ink-bottle. I understood, and sat on the edge of the couch to autograph the volume of Sketches. It took me a moment to decide what to write but after turning to the cover page I inscribed: “To Mrs. Haeley and her ‘inmates,’ Best Regards, J. Wheelwright.” The “inmates” remark, of course, was meant as an allusion to her novel, where the childhood Hans mistakes the word intimates for inmates, and it proves ominous foreshadowing. I wondered though if my cleverness—my wanting to illustrate my level of familiarity with Mrs. Haeley’s work—would be grasped . . . and appreciated. It was done now. I used the ink-bottle to hold open the front cover and first pages until my inscription would dry, and I lay the pen besides.

A moment later I was on the stoop listening to Thursday quadruple bolt the door. And the sounds and smells of Wicker’s Lane were instantly upon me. I began making my way—sore feet and all—toward the hotel, resolving to hail the first cab I saw. I felt the old melancholia beginning to stir. I hadn’t a clue what a visit to Mrs. Haeley’s home would yield, but my experience was a disappointment of the first order.

The novel is available from Amazon (print and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (print and Nook), Espresso Book Machine, and a host of global booksellers. See the Twelve Winters Press Fiction Titles page for a complete list.

Anthology submissions, Joyce quote and other stuff

Posted in September 2013, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on September 22, 2013

Last week Twelve Winters Press began accepting submissions to our anthology [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, and the global response has been enthusiastic.  Submissions are pouring in from everywhere (jut this morning we received a submission from the orbiting International Space Station … just kidding, that’d be cool).  Contributing editor John McCarthy has done a great job of getting the word out via various venues, like NewPages and Duotrope, but nevertheless he was anxious that we’d get enough submissions.  I knew his worries were unfounded.  And, according to John, we’ve already received some really terrific pieces.  We plan to take submissions through the end of November.  We’ll see if the pace slackens at all (or increases!).

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading, off and on, Gordon Bowker’s biography of James Joyce (see NYT review), especially the section regarding the release of Ulysses and Joyce’s starting to ponder what would become Finnegans Wake, and I came across a Joyce quote that’s particularly meaningful to me:

A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality. (to Arthur Power)

I like this quote especially because it reflects my own ideas about creative composition (which I’ve discussed before in this blog more than once, and also in the Preface to the new edition of Men of Winter). Also, it fueled my musings about the creative project I’ve been working at for about eighteen months (minus the ten months I devoted to writing my Beowulf book), which is a collection of related stories that I think of as “the village stories.” I wrote three stories (and some other experimental thing) in 2011, and they were picked up pretty quickly (except for the experimental thing).  Since finishing the Beowulf book I’ve written two more stories (homeless to date), and I’ve just started working on another.  Anyway, I’ve been working under the impression that these stories would coalesce into some sort of loosely held together, but held together, narrative.  So far, though, the only thing that ties them together is that they have the same geographical setting, and several characters, or their relatives, appear and reappear from story to story.

So I’ve started considering moving on to another project, conceived of as a novel from the start, that’s been on my mind, in embryonic form, for a few years now.  I think I’ll finish the story I’ve just begun (about five ms. pages into it); then turn my attention to this new novel, which will require some historical research — but that’s right up my alley.

Speaking of Men of Winter, A Revised & Expanded Edition, Twelve Winters Press (a.k.a., me) released the Kindle edition yesterday — Nook to follow in a few days. Other related issues, like copyright and lost royalties, are being hammered out with Amazon and Barnes & Noble as we go.

Also, I heard from Battered Suitcase Press, and they’re planning a November release for my e-novelette Figures in Blue, which TWP will bring it out a print edition by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 (possibly a signed, limited edition).  Meanwhile, I’ve decided to hold the release of An Untimely Frost, my new novel, until after January 1.  I’m just not going to be able to get everything pulled together in the way I want it this fall.

tedmorrissey.com