‘The Setting is Provincial’

Writing from my hotel room in Amsterdam, the final day of my short overseas reading tour. I’m staying at the Ambassade hotel. Flipping through the guest book yesterday, I was floored to see the names of countless authors who have stayed here before me: Tobias Wolff, Wally Lamb, Jhumpa Lahiri. To name a very few.
Maybe 20 feet from my window is the Heren Gracht, one of the many canals sluicing through Amsterdam in a series of diminishing U’s. Right now, the Frederik Albert boat is passing by, long, low, glass-covered, Dutch flag waving at the rear. It’s a gray day. The row houses across the canal are dark inside.
I read last night from “Pulp and Paper” at The English Bookshop here in the city. There were about a dozen people packed into a bright, intimate space, surrounded on four sides by books. British, mainly. An Aussie. A couple of Americans. The shopkeeper, a native of South Africa.
Maybe it’s being over here that suggested it. But I decided to do something different. At the start, I told a story I’d read in the introduction to Gunter Grass’s “Tin Drum.”
(I know Grass admitted a few years back that he was conscripted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and he recently wrote a poem assailing Israel for its threats to attack Iran, but he is also Germany’s most famous living writer and public intellectual, a Nobel laureate, and, so on my flight into Berlin, I’d decided to read the introduction.)
Grass says that in the summer of 1959, he met the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff at a hotel in Zurich.
“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” Wolff said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?”
“I don’t think so,” Grass replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces–”
“Say no more,” Wolff broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”
I told this story last night before reading from “The Herald,” my story about the Central Jersey newspaper reporter — perhaps the most provincial in a book of provincial stories set in New Jersey and New York.
The anecdote gave me confidence somehow. That I had standing, in a way, to come to Berlin and Amsterdam and read these stories. It answered, in part at least, a question I’d posed to myself: why am I here?
And it has me thinking about what’s next for me. The novel I’m working on is set in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ve never been there. (Though I hope soon to go.) I’ve always struggled with this as a writer: how to imagine, faithfully, the things beyond our experience.
The dictionary definition of “provincial” is: “of or relating to a province.” Also, though: “limited in perspective.”
Perhaps it’s in this sense, imagining the life of a single person — their loves, their hopes, their fears; their daydreams and the ways they combat boredom — that writers find the courage to begin.

Reading Fiction in Berlin

I have to admit, I really didn’t know what to expect at my reading Tuesday night in Berlin.
I’ve done maybe 20 readings in the U.S. since “Pulp and Paper” was published in October, but this was my first event overseas. I was reading in English, of course, at an English bookshop. But, still, I wondered, would my stories translate well? Would a German audience “get” the humor? Would they laugh at the Mr. Potato Head joke?
I was staying with a friend in Berlin, and we’d scouted out the book shop the day before. I was reading at Saint Georges Bookshop on Woerther Strasse, in a cafe-lined section of the city. It was, it turned out, a Bank Holiday May 1, and so Paul, the proprietor was opening the store just for my reading.
Almost immediately upon entering I loved the vibe. Long, narrow shop with floor-to-ceiling books, lined up or slanting into one another. A well-worn brown leather couch in the back, and milk crates on the floor filled with books. A stepladder propped against the wall, and billboards pinned with notices. I particularly loved the selection near the front: novellas, presented alone, not in collection, with sparse, bare white paper covers with perhaps a splash of color. I picked up Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which I’ve read, and Yukio Mishima’s “Patriotism,” which I had not. I also picked up a slim hardcover volume entitled: “Instructions for American Servicement in Britain 1942” which contains this excellent advice:

You will find that English crowds at football or cricket matches are more orderly and polite to the players than American crowds. If a fielder misses a catch at cricket, the crowd will probably take a sympathetic attitude. They will shout ‘good try’ even if it looks to you like a bad fumble. In America the crowd would probably shout ‘take him out.’ This contrast should be remembered. It means that you must be careful in the excitement of an English game not to shout out remarks which everyone in America would understand, but which the British might think insulting.

(I think I’ll try that next time I’m at a Phillies game. “Good try!” J-Rol! See how that one flies.)
The day of the reading, I arrived a bit early. Paul set up the rear of the shop, and pretty quickly the store was crowded — my friend had invited a number of friends and colleagues, but there were also a few walk-ins. Paul sold wine, beer, and juice, and we mingled for a half-hour before everyone took a seat and the reading began. There were about 30 people there — every seat taken — far exceeding my expectations.
I read “Funnyboy” first. And what struck me, as I got into the story, was that the German audience seemed to “get” the humor in a way that even many American audiences have not. They laughed at the various punchlines. But they also laughed at the bitter, cynical voice of the first-person narrator. I don’t think that’s something that’s ever happened before. And I had to wonder: was it something cultural? Is there something in the German experience that makes the bitter vitriol of a mourning father more funny? (I should say — I agree with them; it is funny, in the way that gallows humor is funny. It’s just not something audiences generally seem comfortable laughing at.)
Surprisingly, perhaps, the more difficult moments for me in the reading came at the implicitly Jewish references.
Maybe that has to do with how we’d spent the previous two days. We’d visited the low-key memorial at the train station near my friend’s house in the southwestern part of the city — which just happened to be the spot from where Berlin’s Jews were deported during the Holocaust. You can read on the rust-colored iron walkway a long line of data:

28.10.1942/100 Juden/Berlin-Theresienstadt

And on, and on.
And then we walked through his lovely garden neighborhood. There were birds cooing and parents pushing baby strollers, and the scent of flowers everywhere in bloom on the air. And every so often, we would stop in front of a house and he would point out a subtle gold square inlaid into the sidewalk with the name of the Jew who had lived there, along with his or her fate. So:

Dr. Fritz Demuth … Deportiert Auschwitz

And:

Bertha Dessauer … Murdered Auschwitz

These memorials were powerful for there understatedness. And, marking the stately homes of Jews who once lived very ordinary lives on these blocks, there was something about them infinitely more powerful than even the grandest of memorials or museums. Someone was taken from that house, right there, and shipped from the train station down the block, near the outdoor street cafe, to their death in a concentration camp. And not so long ago. It was impossible, looking at these squares, to think of “us” and “them.” Suddenly, it was all “us.”
And there I was, 70 years after these Jews were deported and murdered, a Jewish author reading in the heart of Berlin. I know so many have come before me with Jewish books. I know that Berlin is a place today where Jews live normal lives. I know Germany has been a stalwart ally of Israel, reckoning in countless ways large and small with its murderous recent past. My book is not specifically Jewish in theme. And yet I must admit, I hesitated when I got the reference to the “cheery beery bim bom” Acura. (The description comes from a song any Jewish child would know.) When I said the name of the protagonist — Levi Stern — out loud for the first time. When I spoke the name of the love interest, Melanie Mendelsohn.
Standing there, reading these stories, I was marking myself as a Jew; perhaps even, in some miniscule way, contributing to history’s new march, helping Berlin inch forward, toward whatever the future holds.
They applauded at the end. Several times. I’m more thankful than they could know.

How I Fixed ‘Mainlanders’ After 13 Years

The question came from the right side of the room: “Why is it that ‘Mainlanders’ took 13 years to write?”

I was at Politics & Prose a few days ago, and I’d just finished reading the first third of ‘Mainlanders,’ a coming of age Jersey Shore story. I’d spoken about the fact that one of the reasons I wanted to read ‘Mainlanders’ in DC is because it was the first story I submitted to my fiction techniques course at the Johns Hopkins MA in writing program 13 years ago. And, I explained, it was the very last story I finished before sending my collection to my publisher earlier this year.

Why, a woman wanted to know, did ‘Mainlanders’ – a story about adolescent yearning – take so long to write?

A very good question.

‘Mainlanders’ is about two boys, Nick and Tubby, from fictionalized Bay City, NJ. They grew up at the beach. The beach is all they’ve ever known. Tubby’s father is mayor (and plumber), and Nick’s is captain of the Miss Bay City fishing boat. They have the hots for two girls, Anna and Caitlyn — tourists they spied on the beach while bodysurfing one day.

The basic story arc is straightforward: Nick and Tubby fall head over heels, and make their move — asking the girls on a date.

And yet it would be difficult, honestly, to count the number of failed drafts of this story over the years.

The main reason: In most early drafts, the girls were flat-out mean to the boys. I realized earlier this year, after a fantasic critique from a trusted reader, that the story would work much better if readers empathized not just with the boys in their quest, but also with the girls, the objects of the boys’ desire. If readers could feel for the girls as well as the boys … if they could think, in effect, You know what? I get Nick and Tubby — but I also get Anna and Caitlyn … I understand why everyone does what they do … well, then you really have a story.

I went back to work, trying harder to work through the girls’ motivation. I dialed down the meanness. The girls became much more likable.

Thirteen years later, I finished the story.

Tough Question at Prairie Lights

Halfway through my reading at Prairie Lights in Iowa City last night, a woman raised her hand and asked about my story, “Funnyboy.”

She asked, essentially, whether Missy Jones — a sort of bumbling high school cheerleader — is really just a stereotype. A flat, easy characterization the relies on and propagates false assumptions. It was a fair question, respectfully asked — even if the questioner seemed somewhat annoyed by the portrayal.

My answer to her: You’re right.

I’d only read the first third of the story. Up ’til that point, the only view we have of Missy Jones is through the eyes of Levi Stern, a bitter, sarcastic, angry father who blames her for killing his son in a traffic accident. Levi’s perspective is absolutely one-dimensional. He views Missy, to that point in the story, as the stereotypical achetype of a high school cheerleader. And worse.

It’s not until later in the story (the part I didn’t read) that Missy actually comes in as a character. My hope is that once she’s actually there, on the page, she starts to take shape as a flesh-and-blood person, by the end fully-formed, one perfectly at odds with the stereotype Levi expected to find.

It left me thinking about the what happens, at a reading, when we read only part of a story. Our stories, and our characters, are vulnerable to partial- or mis-interpretation. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the point of a reading: accessing a small part of a larger whole on its own terms, listening to what that part alone has to tell us.

I certainly learned something. And I’m thankful for the question.

Where Stories Start

The other day, during a panel discussion on “place as character in fiction” at the Iowa City Book Festival, my co-panelist Don Waters asked me a question:

Do you ever want to write about a place you can’t get access to?

He mentioned a few such places on his list: a huge, land art installation on private property in the Nevada desert; the U.S. government’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. What do you do, he asked, when you want to write about a place, and you just can’t get in?

I hedged. I talked about an anecdote from Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” King relates that when he was writing “From a Buick 8,” he had some scenes take place in a state trooper car, travelling the Pennsylvania Turnpike. King made the details up out of whole cloth in the initial writing. He let his mind run free as he created. Later, he rode in an actual cruiser with an actual trooper — and then went back and fixed the details he got wrong, or added new ones for authenticity.

This, I said, reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from E.L. Doctorow:

Henry James has a parable about what writing is. He posits a situation where a young woman who has led a sheltered life walks past an army barracks, and she hears a fragment of soldiers’ conversation coming through a window. And she can, if she’s a novelist, then go home and write a true novel about life in the army. You see the idea? The immense, penetrative power of the imagination and intuition.

I have this quote typed, and taped to my wall behind my computer monitor. There is something in the spirit of this that I need to believe, as a writer, is fundamentally true.

But if I’m being honest, I sometimes have my doubts. I envy writers like Don, who are drawn to subjects far beyond their experience.

I didn’t say it at the time, but Don’s question gave me pause. Truth is, I’ve never really been drawn — as a fiction writer — to the unknown, the tantalizingly out-of-reach. What most interests me are the places I can map when I close my eyes.

I sometimes think that every story I’ve ever written starts in the exact same place: the rooms of my childhood. On Grant Avenue in Highland Park, with the window overlooking the street, and the photo-sensitive streetlight that buzzed to life at dusk. On Joan Road, Long Beach Island, where the beds were always itchy with humidity and sand. On Ohayo Mountain Road in Woodstock, charged with the smell of wicker and vitamins and Grandma’s assertive black coffee.

There, because in those rooms, the world was still filled with a penetrating, thrilling wonder. In those rooms, anything was — anything still is — possible.

‘Like the Song’

One million or more short story readers can’t be wrong.

According to Paul Vidich, cofounder and publisher of Storyville, there are between 500,000 and 1.5 million American adults who are “frequent readers of short stories.”

You can read about how Vidich comes to this number in this piece in The Millions, “Publish or Perish: The Short Story.”

Vidich argues that short story writing is alive and well today, noting that some 2 million American adults (annually?) publish creative writing, and there are 150,000 creative writing MFA students who have graduated in the last 20 years — “all of whom learn to write and read short stories.”

But, he argues, at the same time:

Short story reading has declined. With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories. And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel. The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell

(See my blog post: “Keep it Short“)
What gives? Vidich attributes the decline to the decline in mass market magazine readership.

Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies.

He concludes that web connected devices like iPad and iPhone can help bring the short story back as a well-read art form. I hope he’s right. Says Vidich:

Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create.

‘A Confession of Anger’

Just landed in Iowa City for the Iowa City Book Festival. Sitting in Java House, which has to be one of my all-time favorite cafes, reading the galley of Anna Solomon’s new novel, “The Little Bride.” I’ll have more to say about this amazing novel later.

In the meantime, here is a story within the story. (See how it has a beginning, a middle, an end?) Anna’s lovely description from the point of view of an immigrant, after a long, arduous voyage across the Atlantic in steerage, sighting America:

Land looked at first like a storm. A piling on of clouds at the horizon, a confession of anger, which suddenly revealed itself to be solid. Trees, rocks, city.

Rock Me Like a Description of a Hurricane

As I read Lauren Groff’s story, “Above and Below,” in the New Yorker summer fiction issue last night, I found myself riveted by her description of an oncoming hurricane. The character watching the storm come in has recently become homelss. She’s living in her car:

A hurricane developed over the Caribbean but only its edges lashed the shore. Still, during the scream and blow, the camphor rattled its branches against the top of the car and the wagon shook so hard she was afraid the metal would twist and the glass would break. The retention pond overflowed and water licked up to the hubcaps. She lay as quietly as she could and listened and watched: she was a thin shell of glass and steel from the raw nerve at the center of herself. She felt the storm come closer, charging near; she waited with a painful breathless patience. But before it arrived she fell asleep.

That’s a short story, right there. A complete story within a story. Like a Chinese doll.

That sentence — she was a thin shell of glass and steel from the raw nerve at the center of herself — sets me on edge. I want to say: aren’t we all. Just this close to twisting and breaking apart.

Keep It Short

Why is it that short stories, and short story collections, are not as popular as novels, memoirs, creative nonfiction, or just about any other writing form?

This may be an odd first topic for a debut short story writer to address in his first blog post. But it’s something I’ve given a great deal of thought. I mean, even before the advent of Twitter, this was short attention span nation, right? Wouldn’t people flock to a form that can be read, start to finish, at one sitting? On a bus, or a subway, or waiting in an airport security line?

I should confess off the top that my evidence for the unpopularity of short stories is anecdotal. Publishers have told me that selling just a few thousand copies of a short story collection would by most standards be considered excellent. Every literary agent I’ve ever met has told me that short story collections don’t sell. It’s great that you’re writing stories, they say, over and over, but have you written a novel?

I’ll address how I came to write short stories in another post. For now, I’ll just say that after awhile, this line of inquiry gets exasperating. So much so that in one meeting, when the umpteenth agent asked if I was working on a novel, I said yes, as a matter of fact I was – and promptly made one up, on the spot. Continue reading