If you’re interested in the writing workshop I’m leading, click here.
This past week, the Chicago Tribune ran this review of my novel, The Fugue. The reviewer, fellow Chicagoan Dmitry Samarov, called the book “magisterial,” said it goes for all the marbles and compared it to Dostoevsky.
Other commentators have compared my writing to other writers that I love, including Nelson Algren.
All these conversations are insane. They don’t feel real. I’m certain a moment is arriving when a director or other puppet-master will say, “We’re finished, thank you,” then turn off all the lights, unplug the equipment and send all the players back to reality.
I have so many questions about how this all happens. How is it that you read the books of the writers you love, write your own book and then end up getting compared to them? The comparisons are obvious compliments. But what’s going on? Have I internalized these forms, or are they attractive to me because I found parts of myself swimming in them, parts placed in a text long before I was born?
Today, I’d just like to nudge the director or puppet-master, if s/he’s reading. Don’t turn off the equipment. Not for a while, anyway. I’d like to keep this insane conversation going.
Here’s a self-portrait I took of myself in Queens, NY.
This is about a 24 minute video of me answering moderator Amy Danzer’s questions following my reading at The Looking Glass Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois on February 18, 2016. Yes! That gorgeous bookstore in the background is right here where I live. It’s worth visiting just to see the decor (and to buy a bunch of books, obviously).
In this video, I answer questions about why I’d want to write a literary fugue, what place setting plays in my writing, how art helps with trauma, and what audience I had in mind while writing.
Enjoy, and do share.
Also, be sure to check out my fledgling YouTube channel. It’s sure to grow as I gather more videos.
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:
You know who you are. You’re not square. You’re not like those people over there, those regular people, the ones with 9-5 jobs in skyscrapers and homes in suburban wastelands. You’re hip and cool. You have tight pants and a fedora. We’re in awe.
Not really. It’s one thing to listen to Arcade Fire because the band is good, and to have remixed your own versions of various Radiohead tracks. Yes, it’s cool to be the only guy in your Starbucks who knows MC Conrad. It’s ultra-cool to go The Metro or CBGB twice each week to know the scene. But we have to face it. Being cool and being alternative are two different things. Here’s the truth: it’s cool to be alternative, but it’s not alternative to be cool.
Virtually anybody can be cool. You just need to be finished with high school, live in a city and take a photography class or major in graphic design. You see? Instant cool.
If, however, you want to be alternative, it takes more than tight pants and a gold phone. It isn’t necessarily better to be alternative, of course. But it does require doing things that few people do.
1.) Listen to contemporary classical music
Here are some names: Claire Chase and ICE, Eighth Blackbird, CUBE. If you search through all the members of ICE, for example, you’ll find a network of music that’s unlike anything you or your friends have heard.
Here’s another name: Arvo Pärt. He’s not a hipster. If his music does not kick your ass, there’s no hope for you. You’re going to hell.
2.) Read literary fiction
Sure, Charles Dickens was really boring in high school. That’s because you read him when you were a child. But you’re older now, and you’re worried about being too similar to all those people over there. One way to be different from them is to develop empathy. Literary fiction offers you this lesson.
Don’t look for a list of names from me. The list of Great Books is out there, and they are all available for free in local libraries. Investigate some of the stories you think you know. They’re different from the movie version, believe me.
If you want to really be alternative, subscribe to a literary magazine. You can follow virtually all of them on Facebook and Twitter.
(Note, reading literary fiction is different from simply getting an MFA or flaunting your copy of Gravity’s Rainbow in a Cleveland Starbucks. You can read literary fiction without doing either of the aforementioned.)
3.) Learn a foreign language
Yes, Spanish counts. But so does Icelandic. What are you going to do with Icelandic? Funny…you never asked that question when you bought the turquoise drapes or when you signed up for graphic design. You can do the same things with graphic design as you can with Icelandic: fuck all, or whatever you want.
4.) Cook your own food
No, it’s not alternative to go to the latest BYOB in Williamsburg. Everybody’s doing that. The alternative people in the urban west cook for themselves (and others). They do it instead of playing Xbox or posting pictures of their appetizers on Facebook. They bring their own lunch to work or school.
5.) Read multiple newspapers
In any format. And if not every day, then at least regularly. And don’t worry too much about the Dining or Entertainment sections. Your friends will tell you about that. Worry instead about the Business, Science and World sections. If you read those, your friends won’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
But you will know, finally, that you’re completely different not merely from those people over there but also from most of your friends. Ironically, once you gather the narrative they’re missing, it will become very difficult to look down on them or anyone else. I’d explain why, but I’d need you to read the news first.