The past few months have been hectic but fun. The first was my inertia-grappling transition from sabbatical back to teaching, which has in many ways been great (to get to work with new fiction writing students, get back with my colleagues). Also, and ongoing, is the house that Jen and I moved into seems to require new attention every week (leaks, refrigerator, something else that’s banging around right now that I haven’t quite disseminated). For a day we were certain the house was haunted, because one night we heard furniture shifting around upstairs; later we learned this was not due to a ghost, but an earthquake. Lucky… us?
Since my last post, some great things have happened. The first is that HUSTLE was named a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. This was stunning news for me and the novel, and I am thrilled and humbled by this huge honor.
Another is an interview I wrote with Lauren Groff is now up at The Rumpus. I am very happy to have this piece up at one of my favorite online sites, and appreciative of Lauren for answering my questions. Here is a link to the interview.
That’s about it. I have a few other things happening, namely work on the new book and a few side projects happening. More to come soon.
Currently Listening To: The Japandroids
Currently Reading: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
Here is a link to an article that recently appeared on Bookslut’s website, titled “We Can’t Choose Our Families,” where the writer talks about HUSTLE in conjunction with a few other recently released novels that examine the lives of adolescents growing up in difficult family settings. Many thanks to Colleen Mondoor for including HUSTLE in such a thoughtful article, and thanks to Bookslut for running it.
Here is the link: http://www.bookslut.com/bookslut_in_training/2012_05_018931.php
In other news, I’ve been busy in the past few months working on my new book and doing a couple more readings. My most recent reading was at Texas Christian University, where I met with two of Professor Nat O’Reilly’s classes, examining the literature of suburbia. I had a great time with Nat and the students, discussing topics ranging from music that influenced the writing of HUSTLE to economic, class, and gender issues presented in the book. During the reading that night, I got to hang out a bit with the awesome poet and memoirist Alex Lemon, then take questions from the audience. One was from my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. DeLotto, who asked what I miss most about Texas. Though I was tempted to say Whataburger, I answered, “The way people talk, especially the vendors at Farmer’s Markets. Have you seen them? Those guys selling vegetables out of the backs of their pick-ups, sitting in lawnchairs, keeping track of their sales with little notebooks they keep in their overall chest pockets? They say things like ‘critter doctor’ instead of ‘veterinarian’.”
Other stuff happening:
1.) I just bought and moved into my first house. It is massive and kind of creepy looking, and I love it. My writing space is the entire third floor/attic, which is 24 feet by 15 feet, all fir hardwood floors and pine wood panel walls. It’s where I’m at now, in fact.
2.) I’m prepping for my fall fiction writing classes, incorporating new stories by writers like Lori Ostlund, Andrew Scott, Lauren Groff and several others that I’m excited to teach. Looking forward to meeting my new students.
3.) Elliott Bay in Seattle sold out of all its copies of Hustle.
4.) I’m about to summit Mt. St. Helens.
BTW, Nat is a really good poet with two great chapbooks, Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010) and Suburban Exile: American Poems (Picaro Press, 2011), and you should check out his work. Here is one of his poems (originally published in Cordite Poetry Review):
We stayed up all night
with the daughters of Russian
immigrants, lounging by the fire
in hobo coats and corduroy
trousers, listening to The Cure
in the dark, talking until dawn,
watching the sun rise over the bay.
After sunrise, we made coffee
and pancakes for the sisters
and their parents, unconsciously
auditioning for the role of missing
son or future son-in-law.
Exhausted and content,
we walked to the station
late on Sunday mornings,
caught trains travelling towards
home, slouched in near-empty
carriages, tried not to fall asleep
before we reached our stop.
We walked from the station
across a silent, empty campus
to our solitary rooms, unaware
that our comforting weekly ritual
would soon quietly fade away.
Currently Reading: Virginia Woolf’s biography, by Hermione Lee
Currently Listening To: I’m admittedly on a Weezer kick and feel awful about it. It’s like eating at Pancho’s. I am feeling equally awful about also being on a Red Hot Chili Peppers kick. I used to listen to them a lot in high school (when Mother’s Milk came out), and loved them, but they fell off my radar. I recently saw a live performance and was reminded what an amazing band they are, so I’ve been playing catch-up. Also, AC/DC…. Sheez. I’m just now adding all this up. What the hell?
Okay, so: I once wrote a letter to Kurt Vonnegut, and Kurt Vonnegut responded. In my letter I explained why I was writing him: I’d been instructed by an English teacher to pick someone I’d always admired and send her/him a letter, expressing my admiration and gratitude. I told Kurt that I had intended to write Carl Sagan, but sometime between putting pen to paper, Carl had died. I told Kurt that with Carl’s passing he had moved up my ranks and was thus receiving my letter. I discussed in the letter some personal things about my life that had taken place that past year – the passing of my younger brother and my house burning down, among a few other things – and said his work had helped me get through the tough times, and I appreciated him for that. To make sure Kurt actually got the letter (it had to go through his publicist at DoubleDay) I included a thank you card to his publicist. I never expected to hear back. However, three months later I went to visit my mother at our house in Arlington, Texas (I was living in Denton at the time) when she handed me an envelope with no return address. I figured this was someone wanting me to apply for a credit card or something. But instead it was a single piece of paper, and on it, there was typed:
Find here my thanks for your friendly and wide-open letter. You are smart and brave and I hope you stay okay.
He signed the letter with an asterisk, and if you know the novel BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, you know what that means. Also, he drew a picture of himself smoking a cigarette.
I was OVER THE MOON with joy. Today the letter is framed and hanging in my office at the university where I teach, PLU. You should come by and see it.
So, why am I writing about Kurt Vonnegut? Because I recently got to walk in his monstrous footsteps by participating in the annual GET LIT! Festival in Spokane, Washington, hosted by Eastern Washington University. He too read at GET LIT! a few years ago and I almost went but could not because of grading. I knew at the time his health was poor (was he ever healthy, smoking 40 packs a day?), and he did pass away soon afterward. Anyhow, it was amazing and humbling to now find myself taking part in a festival in which he took part, just a few years ago.
And what an amazing event it was. This year, other readers included Susan Orlean, Colson Whitehead, Steve Almond, and Jess Walter. I got to do a panel on setting, moderated by Jonathan Frey, at North Idaho College with Lori Ostlund, author of THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD (whose dialogue is incomparable – untouchable, it is so precise) and another great writer K. L. Cook (who speaks of craft with an eloquence I’ve rarely seen in any writer, definitely not from someone so young). I read with Christina Garcia and taught an in-depth workshop on setting with about twenty-five students. All great. All great. The reading was kind of my favorite part, admittedly, because I thought of Kurt. The experience was transcendent. Also, it was fun to see Gabrielle Calvocoressi read (filling in for Ted Kooser, who couldn’t come out because of weather/flight issues). Gabby’s most recent collection APOCOLYPTIC SWING is like taking a grater to your soul, it is so stirring and wonderful and surprising. And finally it was wonderful to hang out with Jonathan Johnson and Melissa Huggins, my former PLU student, who is now organizing the festival. Talk about coming full circle. And really-finally, thanks to Melissa Opal at Auntie’s for making sure HUSTLE was available, and thanks also to Wendy Call. Rock on..
Here is an article on the panel that Joyce Hargrove wrote for The Sentinel. The article does a really good job of capturing our different thoughts and approaches, and it reminded me of the very smart thoughts and advice on setting that Lori and K.L. offered up. Also there are pictures of badasses doing tricks on motorcycles, so there’s that to entice you. Here’s the link.
What I’m currently reading: Aeneid, Virgil
What I’m currently listening to: Master of Puppets, Metallica
I recently had the pleasure of reading at the Artsmith Salon on Orcas Island. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest a short time, and I’m ecstatic at every opportunity to hop a ferry and venture out to the San Juan Islands, so to get to do a reading on Orcas was pretty much perfect, and I was thrilled to get the invitation from authors/directors Jill McCabe Johnson and Jennifer Brennock.
The islands are always great to visit. Hippy pastoral with tremendous heart. Land and farms galore. Here is one place, later in the day:
Orcas has this terrific art salon. In their literary series, guest authors read and talk about their books, then everyone shares their work, drinks wine, and eats. It is typically hosted at the charming Kangaroo House, a Bed and Breakfast owned by Jill and her husband Charles (also a Texas native).
The day was awesome. After arriving on the island, I only got lost once while trying to find the Kangaroo House (because I get lost everywhere I go); I got to spend some time reading beside a lake before the event; and Orcas has a great independent bookstore, Darvill’s. Most importantly, I got to meet, hang out with, and hear work by all the writers, except Jennifer (which was too bad, because I’ve since read some of her material, and it’s great). I had a great time sitting up late into the night with Jill (whose work I already knew, and whose short story floored me when she read it that night), talking about our current projects. I can’t wait to get back, to see more of the island and to hang out with these folks again. Here are two pictures (JB standing, Jill seated).
I feel lucky and honored to have gotten this invitation and this experience. Thanks so much to everyone involved.
NOW ONTO WILCO AND THE BRIEF STORY OF WHY HUSTLE HAS NO EPIGRAPH…
The next night, I met my friend Kelly in Seattle, and we saw the band Wilco at the Paramount. Wilco was important to writing Hustle. Revising it, really, because I wrote the final version toward a line from a Wilco song that I’d intended to use as the book’s epigraph (a trick I learned while reading Kurt Vonnegut’s archive in Bloomington). It’s from a song titled “She’s a Jar.” The line – which is perfect – is: “When I forget how to talk, I sing.” Unfortunately I couldn’t use it because I couldn’t get the rights. Not because of singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy or Wilco’s management – neither had any idea this was happening – but because a person working for one of the two (yes, two) companies holding the rights to the lyrics made it impossibly difficult. I went back and forth with him for over two months, until the conversation reached Kafka-esque absurdity. As the publication date approached, I decided to let it go. When I tried to think of a new one, my editor Robin suggested I only use an epigraph that would be meaningful like that one. Finally I decided to go without, and I’m glad for the decision.
If you’re interested, here is a link to a video of Wilco performing the song:
She’s a Jar
What I’m Currently Reading: Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot
What I’m Currently Listening To: Whatever the name is of the new Maroon 5 album and REM’s new collection
Many thanks to LitChat for selecting Hustle as a favorite novel of 2011. I can’t begin to express how honored I feel and how thrilled this makes me.
Here is the link to the announcement and here is the full list:
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (Anchor)
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, Wesley Stace (Picador)
Hustle, by Jason Skipper (Press 53)
Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews (Harper)
The Coffins of Little Hope, by Timothy Schaffert (Unbridled Books)
The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson (Ecco)
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday)
The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (Random House)
The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortise, by Julia Stuart (Doubleday)