Saturday, December 08, 2007

Long Time No Post

Hi, all--sorry to be silent for so long. It's been a busy six months, and I just haven't made the time to check in with the long posts I'd been planning. But I have heard the complaints, so here I am.

Why've I been busy? Well, work, as always. And in early summer I got to do some traveling in support of the GRANTA list--had a great time reading in Minneapolis, Iowa City, Chicago, and Toronto. The listmates with whom I read were, without exception, fabulous people to get to know: Akhil Sharma, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Kevin Brockmeier, Yiyun Li, John Wray, and Karen Russell. All great people; all wrote great books.

I was also fortunate enough to spend some days driving cross-country with GRANTA's then-editor Matt Weiland and his wife Gina (Matt's since moved on to THE PARIS REVIEW). That was a blast. Luckily we all liked the same music, since I'm insufferable on that front. Minneapolis is Matt's town; I'll always be thankful he and Gina took me to the Electric Fetus, which as you might imagine is a record store full of goodies.

But that trip aside--I spent the summer working on a new novel. Not the one I've been complaining about to some of you for a couple of years now--THAT book and I needed some time apart. I turned instead to another idea that's been kicking around in my head, and have written well over 100,000 words since June 1. Not all of those are permanent words, mind you, but I really love this project. I won't predict an ETA, but it'll be done sooner rather than later.

Also: I finally got my butt to a gym. As of this week I'm down 33 lbs. from May, with many more to go. My GRANTA pic was what did it, in the end. Another 15-20 lbs. and I'll post a Before and After shot in this space.

And finally: My new story, "Pitch Black," is available in the poker-mystery anthology DEAD MAN'S HAND, an anthology edited by the inimitable Otto Penzler, and published by Harcourt. Look for it in bookstores everywhere. The story's a new direction for me--dark comedy, I'd call it. It also features not one, but two bad death metal bands.

That's all for now. I'll try to be more attentive--thanks for your posts!

Monday, April 09, 2007

In Defense of Long Acknowledgements

I mentioned in my BBC post below that I had a chance to debate (briefly) Ian Jack on the length of my acknowledgements in WE'RE IN TROUBLE. And it's true: I have four pages of acknowledgements. This is unusual in the world of literary fiction, which I knew when I wrote the list. But apart from a couple of snarky comments in otherwise positive reviews of the book, the list itself didn't get much comment, upon the book's release.

Then, prior to the announcement of the GRANTA Best Young American Novelists list, Ian Jack wrote an introduction to an issue of GRANTA in which he spent two and a half of his own pages questioning the wisdom of my four pages. He kept me anonymous, since the context of the introduction was that Ian was reading contenders for the final BOYAN2 list. But I'd seen the intro already, and was torn between excitement (I'm under consideration!) and annoyance (someone else is making fun of MFA programs, yee-ha). Then, last month, part of Ian's introduction was reprinted in HARPER's. That Ian Jack, he gets around.

I want to stress that Ian and I have spoken about this, and Ian insists his questioning has all been done in the spirit of fun and banter--as was our radio appearance. And I do believe it's true. But all the same, I find myself in the position, now, of having to defend my acknowledgements.

Let me see if I can sum up Ian's objections:

1) Long acknowledgements devalue a literary work, calling into question the originality of the writing (especially if many of the people thanked are one's valued classmates in an MFA program).

2) Maybe long acknowledgements are in fact a sign of the author's ego--only a writer convinced of the magnificence of his prose would thank so very many people for making such a glorious thing possible.

3) He doesn't understand MFA programs and what they do.

I can't argue point number two--I have an ego, but I don't believe I have THAT much of an ego; then again, can one really judge one's own ego? I'll leave that for anonymous posters from Georgia to decide. But as for the rest--

I really don't want to discount Ian's points. He has a right to his opinions, certainly, and also he has a critic's right to make whatever he wishes of the material released between the covers of any book. Once I write something and release it into the world, I cease to have control over it. So be it; if I can accept that fact about my fiction, then I also have to accept it about ancillary material.

But I can say I had none of this in mind when I wrote my acknowledgements. I composed my book during a particularly dark time in my life; in 1999 I lost my first wife, Joellen Thomas (to whom the book is dedicated) to cancer, and I wrote all of WE'RE IN TROUBLE in the years thereafter. In order to do that I went back to school--I attended Ohio State's very fine MFA program from 2001-2004. Prior to Joellen's death it's fair to say my life was difficult, in particular my childhood. I don't say all this to beg for sympathy--I truly don't. Rather I want to offer it as context; I can look back over my past and see any number of times when I needed the help of others in order to keep moving forward, to maintain my ambitions, to put words on the page. I think it's fair to say I could not have gotten where I am now without the support and kindness of lots and lots of people.

I'm also bothered, as so many others are, by the general disdain in American society for people who pursue intellectual or artistic goals. Writers aren't valued here they way they are in, for instance, France. Much of my time as an adult, writing, has been spent justifying myself to people, or hearing dire stories about how so few "make it," and how it's, say, financially irresponsible to pursue the path I was pursuing.

So when I learned that my book was going to be published, I felt I owed a debt to those who encouraged me along the way. I also thought that, publishing being what it is, I might never have another opportunity to thank the people who helped me along--one book is no guarantee of another. I also thought I might poke at the notion that writers do what they do alone--I don't feel as though I'm the lonely, tortured, friendless novelist working under a single harsh light in his garret. And yes, I wanted to acknowledge the help I got at both graduate writing programs I've attended--Ohio State's, and also the M.A. program at Miami of Ohio, where I both learned a lot and met Joellen.

So, yeah, the acknowledgements got excessive. I really didn't have to thank the coffee shops where I did a lot of my writing. But after a while making that list of names got to be fun. Why NOT thank Anton at Cafe Apropos? He thought it was great I was working on my book in his shop, and chatted with me about it all the time. Why NOT thank the teachers in high school who could have dissuaded me from writing my dumb fantasy novels? Denise Beck, I salute you! Why not? A dream of mine, an unlikely one, had come true. Why not say thanks to the people who didn't shake their heads and call me crazy, while I was having it? At the end I called it what it was--the first line of the acknowledgements asks readers to forgive me an "indulgence." I figured (and not, I think, unreasonably) that someone not in the mood could simply not read the names.

So that's all I thought I was doing. In a later post I'll write about MFA programs, and the bad (and infuriating) rap they get.

In the meantime I'll let you know that I plan to acknowledge Ian Jack in my next book...

GRANTA Appearances

I now have my appearance schedule in support of the GRANTA Best Young American Novelists 2 issue--due out in the U.S. on April 24. I'll be making three stops, as follows:

Friday, April 27 at 7 p.m.
The Loft
with Yiyun Li and Matt Weiland

Monday, April 30 at 7 p.m.
Iowa City
Prairie Lights Bookstore
with Kevin Brockmeier, Yiyun Li and Matt Weiland

Tuesday, May 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Barbara's Bookstore/Oak Park
with Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Karen Russell and Matt Weiland

I'm looking forward to these events, to say the least. At each stop we'll be reading, and Matt Weiland (who is GRANTA's U.S. editor, and a nice guy) will presumably be speaking about the issue and its goals.

Hope to see you at one of these appearances! For more info in general about the GRANTA list, click here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

BBC Interview

Earlier this month I took part in a brief interview on the BBC radio show the Today Programme, along with GRANTA editor Ian Jack; we debated the length of my acknowledgements. (For those who don't know--I have four pages of them in my book. Maybe in an upcoming post I'll talk about this in more depth.) Had a great time, even though it meant staying up late here on Pacific time. Thanks to Ian for setting it up--very gracious of him, actually, to give me a small shot at a rebuttal.

The irony of it was, I got contacted after the interview by an old friend, Susan, who I'd lost touch with--turns out she'd moved to England. She found this page, said hello . . . and then I got to tell her she was in the acknowledgements I'd been discussing.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

It Burns Us, Precious

[Even newer] colors for the blog! Lori in Chicago says the old format hurt her eyes, but I think really it was her feelings.

This is, incidentally, why I do not work in design.

Complaints about the new colors? Leave a post...

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Best Young American Novelists

I finally get to reveal news I've been sitting on for a few months: I've been chosen for GRANTA's 2007 Best Young American Novelists list. I first heard in November, when Ian Jack called to let me know the news; I then spent a month and a half working on a piece for the forthcoming issue in support of the list, due out at the end of April. The story is called "That First Time," and is, I'd say, similar in tone to the ones in WE'RE IN TROUBLE.

I still don't know what to say about this. I'm honored, I'm humbled (especially given my fellow listmates; see below), and still more or less in disbelief. Ten years ago I used the last list to guide my reading tastes, and now to find myself on the other side of the page is . . .

Here, I'll tell you what it's like to be on GRANTA's Best Young American Novelists list: you spend a long time fussing around with your blog posts, knowing you're supposed to be terrific at self-expression, before finally shrugging and copping out with an ellipsis.

Normally at this point I'd start spewing thanks, but since Ian Jack took me to task for just that behavior in a recent GRANTA introduction, I'll have to sit tight and communicate it telepathically.

(Fingers pressed to temples, staring furiously at the horizon and beyond, toward London; Ian Jack stirs in his sleep and mutters, 'That grateful bastard,' before resuming his fitful slumber.)

To the rest of the presumably less-thanks-averse judges--A.M. Homes, Meghan O'Rourke, Edmund White, Paul Yamazaki, and Sigrid Rausing: I am deeply, deeply grateful.

So what's next? Some tour dates, possibly, depending on many factors. I'll post any appearances the moment I know them.

I do want to congratulate my listmates before I sign off. Here, as promised, is the lineup:

Daniel Alarcon
Judy Budnitz
Kevin Brockmeier
Anthony Doerr
Jonathan Safran Foer
Nell Freudenberger
Olga Grushin
Dara Horn
Gabe Hudson
Uzodinma Iweala
Nicole Krauss
Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Yiyun Li
Maile Meloy
ZZ Packer
Jess Row
Karen Russell
Akhil Sharma
Gary Shteyngart
John Wray

I wish I could say I've already voraciously consumed every book by every author on that list, but I haven't. Seems this one's going to guide me just as the last one did.

Lastly: A quick shout-out to Anthony Doerr--I found out the full list when everyone else did, but I'm proud to say I guessed Tony's place here pretty easily. He is a fine writer and a gentleman. He is the Artist Formerly Known as Snowflake. Go read him; go read them (us!) all.

Now I'd better go write something.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Colts Win! Colts Win!

Not like you need me to tell you that. But I like that I can!