If you’re interested in the writing workshop I’m leading, click here.
I was interviewed in anticipation of this weekend’s reading at Water Street Studios in Batavia, IL. You can read the whole interview here.
The reading will take place this Sunday, March 19th, at 7:00 at Water Street Studios: 160 S Water Street, Batavia, IL
Hope to see you.
I’m happy to announce that the pre-launch for my upcoming novel, The Fugue, is underway. You can find pre-order information here at the CCLaP website. I also encourage people to check out what kind words Jason Pettus, CCLaP’s owner, left on the novel’s Goodreads page. “This is the literary novel for those who love literary novels…”
The Fugue started out back in 2000 when I was a student in New York. One night I wrote a vignette titled “Juri’s Window”. Juri was a painter and sculptor living in Amsterdam, perhaps in the mid 90’s, where he collected unemployment benefits and sculpted from trash. The vignette was simple: a description of a window Juri put together out of glass bottles and the remains of a discarded fence. I looked at it as a writing exercise.
But this character pestered me, kept appearing in my work. Soon the name had changed to Yuri, and he had a family, a girlfriend. Later, I moved him from Amsterdam to my hometown of Cicero, and his family gained a complex history of flight and displacement. Eventually he’d been accused of arson and murder. I realized I had a novel.
I messed around with various drafts for years. But in the summer of 2006, at that time working in Bloomington, Indiana, I felt the book, clocking in at about 135,000 words, was finished, and I started trying to sell it, going about it in the traditional way, sending cold queries to strangers.
Mind you, obsessed with The Fugue, I had not published a single piece of short fiction at that point. I don’t know how many rejection letters I collected—for a while I had been assembling them in a scrapbook, but in time I had no place to put them, and far from motivating me, they were just trash mail, most of them the usual form rejections. What kept me writing queries were the nibbles. This Midtown agent asked for the first 50 pages; that Chelsea editor asked for the manuscript. Now another agent wanted the whole thing. After reading, she told me her colleague might be a better fit and forwarded the text along.
The people who read it in whole or part all said about the same thing: “You don’t have a platform, and this book’s too difficult to market.” I took to heart that they didn’t say, “Your writing is shit.” It left me enough to maintain the feeling that I could be a writer. But I hung up The Fugue as a failure and set it under the bed, so to speak.
In the summer of 2007, I started writing Finding the Moon in Sugar, a project that occupied the years leading up to my first child’s birth in 2009. And then I took on smaller writing assignments, including a stint with The Good Men Project.
Part of the reason I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar was to get my name out there. I wanted to have something gripping but fun to read from during events, and I thought the best way to learn how to market a book—a work of literary fiction, to the point—was to get out there and try to do it.
Last autumn, 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon at RUI, a reading series here in Chicago. I hoped, at best, to sell a couple of copies, maybe learn about some new writers. At the bar, Sheffield’s, I ended up sitting next to a man, Jason, who had a lot to say about selling books. Turned out he had a publishing house. After my reading—I read the scene when Andy hears opera music for the first time—Jason asked me if I had any short stories. Sure, I said. I have plenty. But when I checked out his website, I figured, what the hell. Maybe I’ll tell him about The Fugue.
This holiday season, the book that started out as a vignette will hit the shelves and e-readers. In anticipation, have a look at the cover. It’s gorgeous:
Note: I was asked by Mikhail Iossel to write this text. It ended up posted on his Facebook.
Early this summer, I needed to ride a train and a bus across Chicagoland, a trip that would take a good hour or so. Buying coffee, I looked in my bag to find I had forgotten to bring a book, so I went to my neighborhood bookstore to browse around. My desires were straightforward: a book of shorts, either poems or essays or stories, something that would not weigh down my bag very much. And I wanted to spend less than ten dollars.
Several books caught my eye, but I finally settled on a tiny little tome, a simple black and white cover. It was titled Dust, a collection of essays by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The blurbs said something about memory and dreams, favorite topics, but besides this, I had no idea who he was. I knew he had been translated from Russian, and I trusted Dalkey Archive Press. The book also cost less than six dollars.
The first sentences engaged me in a way books rarely do. As the initial paragraph made its way through my mind, I felt Dragomoshchenko’s prose was braiding strands of light among my thoughts; the effect was a trancelike wonder at the power of words to evoke spaces and sensations in the imagination. I had to stop reading for a moment to begin again—perhaps I was not concentrating properly. But this was simply the effect. The sentences were about something familiar, even tactile and intimate—knives, streets, shells—and yet his ideas and gestures flowed from one unexpected moment to another, cutting at angles that seemed invisible, passages that operated by association and accident, but also depended on some perverted mathematical principle, perhaps algebra. I read slowly, patiently, and let go of any need to understand this man, this Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. I simply let myself experience his beautiful visions, accept his gifts.
Later on in the summer, all the way in Vilnius, Lithuania, I attended the opening reception of the Summer Literary Seminar. I ended up in a conversation with Elizabeth Hodges, the publisher of the St. Petersburg Review, who handed me a bookmark, one of these meant as an advertisement for the journal. Among the names of people the journal had published—it leaped out to me—was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko.
I grew excited, “This guy! This guy! I read this guy! This guy’s a trip!” Someone else in the world knew him? Someone else liked him? Here was a person who had published him? “I stumbled on his book, totally by accident, and it blew my mind.”
I learned that he had only recently died. The news hurt me, a curious kind of pain. It was not the hurt I have felt when relatives or loved ones have died, but very much like the kind that pangs when I hear about the death of a colleague I had worked with overseas, or if I hear that my old professor’s heart stopped beating in the middle of a lecture. Reading Dragomoshchenko is like swimming in his consciousness; at least for me, it was like knowing him across a dozen births and reincarnations. He and I were once goldfish sharing the same bowl; later on I was his housekeeper, and now he was this writer who braided light in my head.
Hodges told me that Michael Iossel, the director of the seminar, had been Arkadii’s close friend. I had to tell him about my accidental discovery. While speaking, I watched a restrained, sublime pain soften Iossel’s expressions, loosen his posture. He told me about Dragomoshchenko’s methods and relations with others in Russia, few of them very good. I took mental notes on what else to read even when I already knew I’d read anything that existed in English.
It is easy to explain this as synchronicity—how often do we run into friends and colleagues of artists we admire? In one way, my encounter with Dragomoshchenko, then with Hodges and Iossel, is exactly the same as being hit by leaves falling from the same tree at different moments of the day and in different parts of the forest. In another, it is the same as searching out for those leaves, the leaves of an elm, in a space where all the other trees are maples or oaks. I read Dragomoshchenko because he is exactly the kind of writer I’d read, and I met his colleagues because they are also interested in these kinds of letters.
Even so, it illuminates something I’ve always believed about literature. Reading a book is not just to engage the thoughts of an author but also to join a community. It’s invisible, spread out over great distances, even foreign to itself, barely aware of how large or small it might be. Despite all this, it is real, enormously powerful and deeply intimate.
Writers must remember this when they stare at their words and wonder, “Why the hell should I bother with this tripe?” There’s no reason, actually, just as there is no reason to invite friends for dinner or ride the bus across town to meet colleagues. But when we do it, and when we share, we create and maintain communities which contribute to what makes life interesting. Books improve bus rides for strangers and make distant friends in the process.