“Nobody’s Stranger,” a new (and also very old) twisted Miami-noirish short story of mine, goes up in two parts at Medium this week.
I say “old,” because I wrote the first version of it in Harry Crews’ class at the age of twenty. That early draft got lost, but my friend Andy and I reminisced about it (and about studying with Crews) on this site nine years ago, and afterward I wrote this version.
Since then I’ve tinkered with it here and there but it’s mostly been sitting around in a folder. Not long ago, Julie read and liked it, so when Lizzie asked if I had any fiction she could consider for Open Ticket, her great new Medium collection, I sent it along. She’s read big chunks of my novel-in-progress (excerpted at Narrative), which is very different, so I was nervous. To my surprise and delight, she asked to run it.
I’ve been meaning to create a slideshow of my New York Times Magazine columnlets, for my own archival purposes more than anything, and I’ve finally done it. They appear in the “One-Page Magazine” every Sunday, in print and online. My ambit is loosely historical, so I don’t always focus on books and writers, but in one way or another I often do.
My New York Times Magazine columnlet this week is about Chris Offutt’s attempts to bake a “Bible Cake” recipe (first published in a Kentucky P.T.A. cookbook in 1967) without cursing.
Just about every time I mention a piece of writing in one of these tiny columns, it’s because I hope everyone who sees it will seek the thing out and read it. This one is no exception. I hope I captured a fraction of the flavor (sorry) of Offutt’s full essay, which appears in The Oxford American.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen about his forthcoming novel, The Sound of Things Falling, is only available in the galley, but it’s a fascinating prelude to an excellent book.
My father used to theorize, proudly, that Bowers v. Hardwick was based partly on reasoning from some law review note he wrote. The details are hazy in my memory, and the claim was always speculative, not to mention (characteristically and horrifically) grandiose, but whether or not my father actually helped preside over this era of hatred and bigotry, I’m thrilled it is finally coming to an end.
I sometimes miss writing here, on this website. It seems so old-fashioned to me now, a tiny Internet island disconnected from everything else. I remember first starting to type in this little box, or one very much like it, and the wonder and excitement and anxiety I felt when people responded from their own little boxes and linked to what I’d written. That was eleven years ago. Eleven years!
I’m not the sort of person who wishes things had stayed as they were. I like Tumblr and Twitter, etc., etc., and I’m interested to see what comes next. But I do feel a little wistful from time to time for the newness of the experience of typing some stream-of-consciousness thing like this — which is not at all what I was expecting to write when I opened up WordPress — and setting it loose into the world.
Now I’m putting that energy into my book, which feels good and right, but I wanted to say hello to any longtime readers who might be passing through. So, hello out there! Isn’t this blogging thing crazy?
Right now, apart from my novel, I’m working on a dream of an assignment for another of my favorite magazines. I’m so excited, I keep wondering if I made this up. But I have a contract, so if all goes well, you can read it there eventually.
Finally, I need to thank the illustrious Bud Parr of Sonnet Media, who quickly redid my site and got it back online the last time it went belly-up. If you’re looking for someone to design and maintain a website for you, you really can’t do better than Bud.
Happy summer, you guys! If you were here, I’d make you a salty dog. We could drink them on the terrace with all my herbs and flowers, and my lemon tree, which survived the winter indoors, but we’d have to do it really quickly. It’s getting ready to storm.
Putting together packages for Quarterly Co. has been a lot of fun and a lot of work. I’m ironing out the details for for my very last one right now.
The most recent shipment included Colson Whitehead’s Colossus of New York, art from Molly Crabapple, a short story from Roxane Gay, (a link to) Patty Griffin’s “Florida,” and a letter. The subject was places. Muriel Spark, Roland Barthes, Denise Levertov, Bill Hickok, and Breaking Bad made appearances in previous packages, which were about work and grief, but not the combination thereof.
I’m also excited to be contributing to the Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail. My dispatch goes out in June. Subscriptions are $5 monthly, if you’d like something fun to keep the bills company in your mailbox.
For the weekend’s New York Times Magazine, I wrote about the increasing popularity of traditional Jewish rituals among American evangelical Christians — including, in a small but growing sector, “bar mitzvahs” for their kids. The article, “Oy Vey, Christian Soldiers,” appeared in the March 22 issue, and you can see some photos and videos of these practices in a related post.
For NPR, I review Rachel Kushner’s brilliant lightning bolt of a novel, The Flamethrowers, which straddles two revolutions: the squatter-artist colonization of Manhattan’s SoHo in the 1970s, and the rise of Italy’s radical left during the same period. An excerpt:
Its young artist narrator, Reno, is wistful and brutally candid at once, with a voice like a painting — lush and evocative — but also like a scythe. “Enchantment,” she says, describing her dashed hopes after a one-night stand, “means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.”
It’s impossible to choose a favorite thing in Jerusalem so far, but right now I believe it may be the Bulgarian feta with hyssop and sun-dried tomatoes that’s laid out every morning with the rest of our hotel’s immense breakfast spread.
Mark and I don’t see each other nearly often enough these days, and it’s been great to roam the city and catch up. Boaz is smart and charming; it’s easy to see why his radio show and his blog are beloved here. And I adored Naomi, whose first novel, Disobedience, I praised on this site years ago and whose game-writing I’ve always wanted to know more about. She and I nerdily compared iPad apps and promised to meet up in New York to talk about being refugees from fundamentalism.
Max and I spent Monday in the Old City, and had drinks and dinner that night at Mona (yum) with the writer Menachem Kaiser, Israel Museum Director James Snyder, and some other fine people. Yesterday was all about the book fair, but after drinks at the National Library, Max, Mark, and I slipped off to dinner at Eucalyptus.
This morning Max and I head to Bethlehem for a few hours, and then we’ll meet up with Mark at Yad Vashem. Tonight we dine at Canele. Tomorrow morning we go to the Israel Museum for the new Herod exhibition, and in the afternoon to the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane. Early Friday morning — a little after midnight — we head home. So far, thanks to my body’s time zone confusion, I’m averaging three-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night. I’d really like to get a nap in; for now I have jetlag limericks from Facebook friends.
Max took this photo, looking east from the Tower of David Museum, on Monday afternoon.
I’ve updated events page to include upcoming appearances at the Pratt Writers’ Forum, Jerusalem International Book Fair, and 2013 AWP Conference, and a reading from the anthology What My Mother Gave Me, at Greenlight Books.
My contribution to The Awl’s Year in Advice series includes many tips from Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, most notably how to shake off (and not to be) a pisseur de copie. A selection:
His writings, she says, “writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words. … Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.” “Pisseur de copie,” she hisses at him one morning in the park where he faux-casually lies in wait for her.
“‘Won’t you call me Hector,'” he says, after pretending not to hear and cajoling her for a while, when she dismisses him with a “Mr. Bartlett.”
“‘No,'” she says, “‘I call you Pisseur de copie,” and takes her leave. And though it costs her two jobs, she insists on continuing to call him this, not only to Hector himself but to everyone else, just about every time his name is mentioned. It’s almost involuntary, she says, “like preaching the gospel.”
I can’t decide whether it’s more narcissistic or more fair-mindedly self-critical to compare oneself to cretinous novel characters, but I do it all the time, and the negative example of Hector Bartlett is something I increasingly reflect on now when I’m thinking of posting my opinion on some subject or considering whether to take an assignment. I think: Is this something I really care about? Am I actually informed about this, or do I have enough time and interest to become genuinely informed about it? Do I have, if not yet a clear picture of exactly what I want to say, a conviction that I have something to say? I’ve used roughly the same metrics in the past, but they’re stricter now. While I adore and have benefitted greatly from being alive in a time when anything I want to say can be published online immediately, the instant gratification machine that is the Internet also has a high potential to encourage indiscriminate urination of prose. Also, life is short, I am still not finished with my book, and there is more than enough tergiversating to go around.
I admire Justin Taylor’s short fiction but haven’t read his novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, because the book I’m still working on is also about religion and takes place largely in Gainesville, and though his sounds different and is set quite a few years later I didn’t want to steal anything or to second-guess myself or my work any more than I already, naturally do.
(One of the curses of being such an incredibly slow fiction writer is that talented novelists invariably end up wandering into territory you’ve mentally — and irrationally — cordoned off as your own. When that happens, you just have to keep going. Or so I tell myself.)
Obviously I can’t speak at all to Paul Elie’s criticisms of The Gospel of Anarchy in “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” this weekend. But I am interested to read Taylor’s book and Elie’s own novel whenever I’m fully, finally finished with mine. Meanwhile, I agree with Elie’s contention that “Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time [primarily] as something between a dead language and a hangover.”
That’s a photo of Red Hook flooding, from Sam Sifton’s Twitter feed. It worries me that I haven’t even seen photos of, just for example, the Rockaways or Coney Island, both of which were largely impassable last night, if you can judge from Twitter and FDNY scanner reports.