My Interview with the hilarious and talented fiction writer Bryan Hurt (who is both a friend and a classmate of mine from SC) was published today at Full Stop. In some ways, it's less of an interview (which tends to be stuffy, formal, and intellectually demonstrative in like an annoying way) and more of a playful conversation I could easily have had with Bryan one random night at a swanky wine bar or something in DTLA. As far as "interviews" go, this one has a great flow to it I think.
I'm at Powell's right now, sitting in the café and looking through the window across Burnside. This is a view (dream) I've enjoyed many times in my life, especially the three years I lived in Portland, back when my only dreams concerning my writing, was publishing my short stories in great literary journals and someday getting into a legit MFA program. Eleven years since I was here last, I can't help but take a personal inventory of my life, noting the achievements I've fulfilled and those that I'm still trying to achieve. Among other things, I realize that:
1. Contrary to what I assumed in 2003, when I took my first fiction workshop at the age of 28 at Portland State, publishing a short story in an excellent journal, even publishing a bunch of short stories in many respected journals, doesn't mean you've "made it" at all as a literary fiction writer. Or maybe it did once, but then you begin moving the goal posts with each tiny success
2. Getting accepted into a legit MFA program doesn't mean you've "made it" either
3. Ditto with a legit PhD program
4. Ditto studying with famous authors (all of who have tried, each in their own way, to get their agents to pick me up as a client)
5. One of my biggest fears since the day I realized I wanted to be a literary fiction writer, was not publishing my novel, short story, and memoir manuscripts. My second greatest fear was being one of those professors who teaches writing, but who hasn't published his books. Right now, these two fears resonate with me, not because I think I'll never publish my manuscripts (actually, I think I'm incredibly close right now because I have many agents reading my first and second novels and just as many indie presses reading similar and different manuscripts), but because before you're a published author in the book sense of the word, you're nothing. Or at best, you're simply a published author in the literary journal sense of the word, which isn't the same thing.
6. As I was talking to my good friend Leigh, two nights ago, at this vegan trattoria, it hit me that as a fiction writer trying to make a career publishing his novels in hard copy, I'm essentially fighting for a lost world. A world that doesn't even exist anymore to anyone except literary fiction writers
7. I need to find an illustrator and a coder and then finish my electronic novella, Dukkha, My Love, as soon as possible because I can still leave my mark in that medium, regardless of how long it takes me to publish my other work
8. On the flip side, at the cost of sounding smug, I'm happy with life right now. I'm in love, I'm married, we have a bomb loft apartment in DTLA and two small dogs that we absolutely adore. I have an awesome gig teaching hybrid class of lit, creative writing, rhetoric, and comp, at a great school (UC Irvine). Besides that, I'm healthy. I get to travel with my boo at least once every year. And with the exception of this annoying reoccurring red patch on my cheek (that is either eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, or rosacea--and makes me feel like an angry lush clown), I think I look pretty good for my age.
9. I think I'm at a very major threshold here. I'm hopeful, shamefully, possibly even unjustifiably hopeful about my future. My hope is that in a few years, I get to come back here to Powell's not as a customer, but as an author. Until then, I keep fighting, keep submitting, keep improving my manuscripts
Yesterday, I got the good news that my short story "My 12-Step Program for Yuki Hiramoto," which is part of my debut collection Atlas of Tiny Desires, was accepted by the Santa Monica Review. Of course, this is fucking awesome, not only because I've been sending the SMR submissions since oh, 2005, when I started my MFA program, but also because it's one of the best journals out there. Certainly, one of the top west coast journals. And, while I know the publishing landscape has changed a shitload since then, I happen to know that my friend and mentor, Aimee Bender, found her agent (Henry Dunnow) after she'd published her own story in the Santa Monica Review, so there's always hope when you're getting your shit out there for the world to see.
So, she sent me his email address because Aimee knows practically everyone in the business, + a few days ago, Lou responded. This is what he said:
Your e-mail was a great greeting for me on my return home. Thank you so much for your kind words on “Crazy Life.” That story has pretty much had a life of its own. It’s now been published about eight times and a young San Antonio film maker, Dora Peña made a short movie based on the story about four years back. Gets used a lot in L.A. Unified High Schools. One of my former students from UCLA used it in her Honors class at Long Beach Poly – a class composed of 16 young chicanas. Dorothy mentioned she’d had me as a teacher. They accepted, finally, the possibility that I might not be Chicano, but refused to believe I was a guy. I had to show up and talk to them. Interesting discussion. I describe that story as “involuntarily researched”, a phrase I stole from Carolyn Chute. It was where I grew up and who I grew up with – A place called Toonerville and I didn’t date an anglo girl until I was out of High School - Dulcie is based on a couple girlfriends from that era and Chuey on a whole lot of guys that I knew.
Glad to hear about your own experience writing from a Latina P.O.V. I find it immensely freeing, as I am sure Flaubert did, to put yourself in someone else’s high heels, and if it crosses cultural boundaries as well, so much the better. You can’t worry about identity politics – or as we used to say on my block, “The Fri-jolier than thou.” One of my other favorite stories, “The Garlic Eater”, is the story of a Korean grocer (That one I did have to research. Heavily) and I ended up feeling the same way about Mr. Kim as I did about Dulcie. I liked the time I spent in his head very much. I’m sending you an archive link for that one, from one of my favorite magazines. Failbetter. Love publishing on-line, doesn’t cost your friends anything to read you:
"The Garlic Eater"
Delighted to hear you are working with Aimee. She’s the real deal. You couldn’t be in better hands. Great writer but also an excellent human being. Please give her my love. I’ll be writing to her shortly. One of my former UCLA students is also teaching in your program, Dana Johnson. Introduce yourself if you don’t know her already. And if you see me at some literary gathering – I’ll be the fat guy with a beard older than you are – introduce yourself. I owe you a beer for making my day.
All my best,
The guy you met at the café, was Hafeez Lakhani, my PEN “Mentee” (such a strange word). Great guy, I’m really enjoying working with him. I’ll send you an invite to his final reading for PEN
I'm totally bummed, frustrated, a potential victim of pigeonholing? Would my collection have been more seriously considered if every story was about China? Or written from an African point of view? Is my collection too all over the globe? Do you know how many collections of short stories I've read in the past 10 years that don't have a thematic thread at all? Why does Nam Le get to write stories in Iowa, Colombia, Japan, Vietnam? Granted, he's probably a better short story writer than I am, but I still honestly feel like the stories in my first collection give the readers a beautiful, powerful, touching piece of the world that hasn't been written enough, or at all. For example, how many short stories have you read that take place in Burkina Faso? Or that follow the story of a letter traveling from West Africa to California? Or that deal with race + class in SoCal? Or that are about a Peruvian pepera who falls in love with a tourist she drugged? A hipster who falls in love with a hallucination in Buenos Aires? An obscure fiction writer whose greatest fan is a porn star? Two strangers who meet with the help of their love beepers in Tokyo? A girl who falls in love with a painting in the Art Institute of Chicago? Two teenage basketball players in Kansas who fall in love? A nerd who gets his revenge by inventing a paint bomb that covers his attackers in paint? A woman who cheats on her husband with the female tango instructor in Argentina? An insurrection of teenagers that loot Muncie?
I'm not pretending my stories are technically perfect, because they're not perfect. But on many levels, they are unique. They're touching, powerful, beautiful, slightly off-beat stories about the human condition, + I hoped that a press like Graywolf would want to publish something fresh, socially-conscious + international like this. But they didn't. And now I'm bummed.
Anyway, here's the gracious letter:
Dear Jackson Bliss,
Thank you very much for submitting " . . . " to Graywolf Press.
There's a lot to enjoy here in terms of the diversity and range of the stories, and we felt like you inhabited these characters well--you made their voices your own. I'm afraid that we did feel that stylistically there were several stories that seemed a bit out of place, such as " . . ." or " . . . " Despite the strength of some of the work here, it didn't feel cohesive enough as a collection. So we've decided against this.
Sorry to disappoint, but you've done some good work, which deserves recognition. Thanks for thinking of Graywolf, and best of luck in finding a good home for this elsewhere.
With best wishes,
And my response:
naive question, but is removing those two stories too cosmetic to resolve the lack of cohesiveness? just curious.
okay, well, since i'm not expecting a response back since i know you have many submissions to deal with, thank you graywolf press. you're a kickass press + it would have been great to work with you. i just wish i had more books to submit to you, but sadly i don't.
peace, blessings, thanks,
Anyway, as much as I admire you Graywolf Press--+ I do, I really do--you had your chance to publish something by Jackson Bliss before I became big + famous + now you've lost your chance forever. It's time we parted ways. But of course now I sound like the dude who says I quit after he's already been fired, which of course, is exactly what happened. My consolation: I get the last word.
2. I just sent Sandra Dijkstra a 25-page sampler of BLANK with a query letter. Hopefully she'll be intrigued enough that she'll want to read the entire manuscript. Based on her client list, I think she'll appreciate the strong, smart, independent female characters, the multicultural crew, the ambitious + intersecting plotline + above all else, the novel's return to history + culture, the love of language + the joy of storytelling in BLANK. But if for some--tragic--reason she rejects BLANK, I'm still planning on asking her if she'd like to see $67 for My Favorite Dictator, my collection of short stories +/or whether she'd be interested in reading Ninjas once it's finally done--whenever that is.
1. I haven't gotten a story accepted since last April, which is close to 10 months!
2. I'm still waiting for my first short story to get accepted from 2010. In other words, while I "30 Roofies" was accepted by Quarterly West in April of 2010, I submitted that story in 2009! To this day, I haven't gotten a single story accepted thus far that I submitted in 2010 + I submitted a 103 manuscripts! Even more fucked up, I only have 19 manuscripts left, which includes one agent, one publisher + a bunch of literary journals. Statistically, that's pretty fucking grim!
3. Part of the reason I'd love to have an agent, is because I'd love to stop submitting manuscripts to journals. It takes too much time away from my writing + time is already scarce enough commodity as a grad student!
4. I remember a conversation I had with Aimee + she said that most of the time, a dry spell occurs right after a string of acceptances + I'm starting to think she's on to something. I know I can't expect les bon temps rouler forever. After ZYZZYVA, finally getting my copy of the African American Review, + then Fiction, The Loudest Voice + Quarterly West, that shit can't go on forever. I know. I know. I know. But after seeing all of that momentum since 2009, it's really hard to let it go + even harder to start the momentum over again. I almost feel like after I get my next story picked up--inshallah--I'll get a couple more within a couple of months after that. But maybe I'm being too goddamn optimistic again!
5. In the big scheme of things, really, this dry spell forces me to realize how far I still have to go in my own writing career. By that I mean that while I'm happy/honored to publish novel chapters + stories in good literary journals, I never write fiction for the sole purpose of publishing it in literary journals, that's just a means to an end to get my name out there, to work with editors, to connect with readers, maybe some day find an agent + ultimately get my novels published + into people's hands. There's a lot of room for humility here too (though I think humility is an overrated quality, artistically speaking) but just as much for determination. I will get my shit out there someday + the almost 100 rejections I've gotten this year only make me more determined to publish BLANK + $67 for My Favorite Dictator + finish Ninjas too. Don't know how, but I'm gonna make it happen!
6. While it's ridiculous to make this call, I have a feeling I'm gonna get some good news in March-April. Don't know why, just a feeling I've got. And if I'm wrong--definitely happens--then whatever. I'm gonna keep writing. Someday, it's gonna work out. I just don't know how yet. Call me crazy. Call me misguided. Call me vain. As I see it, 2011 is gonna be a good year!
Exactly one minute after hanging out with Aimee, I received this email from Graywolf Press, that pretty much broke my heart:
Dear Jackson Bliss,
Thank you very much for submitting "BLANK" to Graywolf Press.
We certainly found a great deal to admire in your work, but when it came time to make a publishing commitment, I’m afraid we decided we couldn’t make you an offer. It’s always difficult to make these decisions and to write letters like this one. The small number of books we can publish each year unfortunately puts us in a difficult position in terms of taking on a lot of new work.
We will say, though, that your enthusiasm about New York is fresh and infectious, and we did enjoy much of this. Unfortunately, we didn't connect with the voice here as well as we'd have liked. This is, of course, simply a matter of taste, and others may feel differently.
In any case, thank you for having Graywolf in mind. We wish you the best of luck in finding the right publisher for your work.
With best wishes,
I have crazy love/respect for Graywolf Press. They pretty much epitomize everything that is awesome about indie presses (e.g. great selection of published novels, including translations, a devoted, smart + savvy editorial staff, national distribution, publishes literature that is aware of the greater world around us). So you can imagine the heartbreak when I found out they'd rejected BLANK. My big concern with BLANK has always been that it's too structurally ambitious, too conceptual + lyrical, too socially plugged-in + too unorthodox for most of the big presses. So my concern, my big concern, is that if the awesome indie presses won't take a chance on a sui generis novel like BLANK, then frankly, who the hell will? I mean, the only way I'm going to get Little, Brown to publish BLANK is if I have a love affair with Paris Hilton or protect Jessica Alba from a mugger with my dinner toothpick.
But my conversation with Aimee helped me get my shit straight:
1. I have to remember that I'm working on a second novel right now, which means that I'm not going to be sending out as many manuscripts as I normally do, which means I'm also not going to be getting pieces picked up as much as I'd like. But that's part of the whole creation process when you write. Working on a novel is your downtime to create, revise + invent. Most of the time, your novel will be hard to split up into pieces + published anyway, so you shouldn't worry about the publishing game for quite awhile.
2. Every major writer always has a tipping point. For her, it was publishing a short story in the Santa Monica Review, which helped her find an agent, get published in an anthology +get Girl with a Flammable Skirt published, all happening in quick succession. Obviously, I don't know if I'll have a tipping point (though I believe I will) or when it'll happen (though I sense it'll happen while I'm in LA). All I can do is keep writing, submit when I can + remember that I'll get my time. I hope.
3. After she offered me one of her vegan samosas, I asked Aimee what Jim Sheppard's writing trajectory was like.
--I'm not sure, she said, but I'm sure he paid his dues just like we all do.
And somehow, that's comforting to know that other writers that are now national players have had to slowly create their own momentum too just like I do, just like almost every writer has to.
4. I apologized to her about bringing in an Anis Shivani article for the class to discuss in our workshop last year in light of Shivani's most recent bitch session about literary publishing in the Huffington Post that came out a few weeks ago. Anis Shivani picked Aimee as one of the 15 most overrated contemporary writers
--Oh, don't worry about it, she said, smiling. --Actually, I'm completely flattered to be mentioned with those other writers: Amy Hempel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Vollman, Lydia Davis.
This is when I told her: --Aimee, for the record, I think it's really hard to write like you. I've never seen anyone who could write you convincingly. Besides, theory's got nothing on you.
--Thanks, Jackson, she said, blushing, --I appreciate that.
I guess writing is tough for everyone right now.
I've been submitting stories to ZYZZYVA since I first heard of it in Portland, Oregon in late 2002 where the journal still has quite a following--it's one of the best journals in the West Coast + just in general. I'm pretty sure the first thing I submitted was a very drafty version of "City of Sand" years before it was ready for print + was sad when HJ didn't write any feedback on my rejection letter. The rumor used to be that Howard Junker commented on every story, which the rejection note even commented on. Later on, I'd cheat and send ZYZZYVA stories every Christmas I was with my mom in Solana Beach for a month (since the journal only accepts writing by West Coast writers). Anyway, seven years later, now that I'm living in LA + working on my PhD + working with amazing writers + building my weight up, so to speak, I finally got a story accepted, sent in good faith, of all things. Ah, perseverance + karma: that cosmic cocktail. Anyway, be on the lookout for my story, coming achew in the Spring. Holla!
1. I spent some time with TC Boyle on Monday where we talked about "Hipster Nirvana," a story of mine I gave him to critique that had been giving problems since I wrote it last year in Buenos Aires. Granted, I've revised + edited the shit out of it a million times since that first draft, + it's in much better shape than it was six months ago, but still, there can't be a better moment for any writer than when TC Boyle tells another one of this his students that you're a fine writer, or even better, when TC Boyle wrote in his critique that your story had moments of transcendent beauty. WTF? Are you serious? Did I just hear that right? Transcendent beauty? Shit, I'll fucking take that.
2. Kicking it in Aimee Bender's office listening to a recording of Flannery O'Connor read her story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Something about that moment, the intense richness of O'Connor's voice + accent, Aimee Bender opening up her office to me + some other students, simply sharing the experience together, right before workshop. It was magical somehow
3. Kicking it with Keith at Astroburger where I ate one of the best vegan rib sandwiches + fries I've had in a long time, talking about black narratology, hip-hop, LA + girls. Also, we finally decided on a handshake--yo, that's important stuff man. How else are you gonna know how to greet your friends?
4. Discovering the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die" only 15 years after it came out. Fuck, this is an amazing album. Hip-Hop doesn't get smoother/smarter/grittier/more real than this. I don't appreciate some of the misogyny, machismo + gun worship, but this album as a whole is fucking awesome. And don't take my wrod for it, TIME magazine rated "Ready to Die" one of the 100 most important albums of all time. By the time the glossies know what's up, this automatically makes something 10 years old . . .
Here are some things I learned about him:
1. No one knows how to make Aimee Bender blush more violently or more quickly than Jim Shepard. It's like a skill he has--making Aimee Bender embarrassed. I've tried it, but it's really hard. But this dude is a natural. He was joking about how he was going to tell us about her dirty sexual past + the next thing I know, her face is the same color as her V-neck (a bright, Hester Prynne burgundy). Later on:
--I've never seen you blush like that before, I said.
--Yeah, it just happens, she said.
--This one time, I was being a little aggressive with one of my students + then I started blushing.
--It's like preemptive blushing.
2. Jim Shepard is really fucking funny. After my friend Lisa made a comment in class about how she wished Michael's story about alcoholic, illiterate cartoon characters didn't feel so cartoonish, Jim Shepard countered with:
--That's like having a character made of carrots who says I'm Carrot Man, and then someone says: well, I like this character but I just wish he wasn't made of carrots.
It's a strange thing to say, but in context it kinda makes sense. Only Jim Shepard would make up an example of a vegetable character announcing his name like that. Like You'd Understand Anyway is full of characters that introduce themselves to the readers in the beginning through self-intros: I'm Sparticus Andromicus, or the example I gave Jim in the hallway when I suggested he show up to his readings dressed like a trojan with a shiny sword in his hand: I'm Jimicus Shepardicus. His response: well, anything with a breastplate, really . . .
3. Jim Shepard is better at shutting up the grab-the-mic people in my workshop than Aimee is because he's unattached to his students, probably less sensitive + doesn't have to live with the consequences of his workshop conduct. He also had a strange way of treating the manuscripts in workshop like they were published stories, something they clearly weren't. This was a cool approach insofar as we were forced to find our own entryways into the story + discuss the real issues at stake--something we only tend to do once we're convinced a story is important enough. This was a wack approach insofar as it became way too difficult to actually critique the two stories, something they both needed. I'm not sure if this is because he's used to working with undergrads that are often more polite + happier at getting faint praise than grad students are, or if this is just how he rolls. But it was fascinating seeing his approach to workshop, though too constraining for my tastes
4. What I relate with most in Shepard's characters is the way his stories celebrate the brutal gap between what they want to do + what they end up doing. When I asked in the Q + A if this was a deliberate motif of his stories, he said it was, which relates to my final observation:
5. One of the coolest things JS said all night was this:
It's okay for a character not to know everything. Actually, it's almost important that he not. But a story has to be smarter than the narrator + smarter than its characters. Otherwise, the author doesn't own his defects + we don't connect to the characters because we don't see their flaws. We see the writer's flaws, which is always a problem even if unavoidable
You know, I think she might be on to something.
I remember the first thing she wrote on the blackboard, it went something like this: perfect execution is not the point of workshop. I had confessed to her that I kinda hate the game fiction writers play (myself included) where our first short story in workshop ends up becoming our manifesto, our place for creating first impressions. That first manuscript is almost always a declaration of talent instead of a confession of vulnerability. As writers, we hate being vulnerable, in part because we're vulnerable all the time. But there's something manipulative about trying to control what people get to see of you, especially since inevitably they will figure it out anyways. I don't have a problem with someone submitting new--and possibly kick-ass--stories for workshop they've never workshopped before. In a way, that seems to be the point, to workshop pieces you're the most excited about. But I do have a problem with people who submit stories of theirs that have already been workshopped and praised (major revisions notwithstanding), published, stories they submitted to get into the program they're now in, or more rarely, stories they know for a fact are simply radder than rad. I don't see the point of this, and that's why I really appreciated Aimee encouraging us to submit stuff that is raw but ready to be looked at (as opposed to stuff that is raw, but that hasn't been worked out yet). Workshop should be the place that you get helpful, critical suggestions for pieces that need output, not the place where you're constantly covering your ass so that people don't tear you apart. I'm glad Aimee Bender set the tone of workshop, and also glad, I guess, that she appreciated my honesty, because it embarrassed me a little bit. I'm not gonna lie.
I'm glad I'm in her workshop. Now, the question is, what do I have that's raw enough for this workshop.
1. FSU (PhD program in Literature + Creative Writing)
2. USC (PhD program in Literature + Creative Writing)
Now, maybe some of you are asking me: you already have a M.F.A., why the fuck do you need another degree in creative writing? The answer is simple: I don't. But what I do need, is more time to write and publish. And it's not going to happen by teaching English in Buenos Aires and running all over the city like an amateur speedwalker. By the time I get home, I'm exhausted. Another thing: I picked Notre Dame to get my M.F.A. because I really liked Valerie Sayers, Steve Tomasula + Frances Sherwood, not to mention it was closer to Chicago, which ended up being the best choice for me, even though I really like and admire Indiana University's MFA program very much. Tony Ardizzone seemed like an awesome guy too.
This time, I'd really love to work with Robert Olen Butler, Julianna Baggott, Suzanne Stuckey-French, TC Boyle + Aimee Bender, so really, any of the above mentioned programs would do for me. Also, this time: Florida or LA will work just fine for me. More than anything, I just want to write, learn from the best writers in the world, read 200 amazing novels, and flourish. I've got the talent, the persistence and the devotion, I just want more time to become the next big thing, and maybe expand my network in the process. Holla!