Writing at the Powell's Café

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

Riffing with TC Boyle

Every time I meet up with Tom, it invariably becomes this dope riff session on writing, culture, and music.  We end up talking about our favorite writers, our MFA days, our different views on craft, SoCal cultural mythology, East Coast/Midwest nostalgia, famous writers we've worked with who changed our life, a short bitch session on literary agents, random Rock'n'Roll references, followed by a short Q and A where I ask him questions about reading for the New Yorker Festival and going on tour in Europe and his revision process.  Today, more than ever, I felt like we were two friends in two very different stages of our literary career, just kicking it for a half an hour.  Some of the highlights of this convo included:

1.  Tom gave me some love for "The Invisible Dress," a chapter from my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, that he read as part of the Writer-in-Residence deal at USC.  He said it was one of the best things he's read of mine in a while, but then he stopped himself and said, "but you've written a lot of great stuff, so . . . "  I laughed when he said that

2.  After he said that sometimes he likes to "rewrite" classic short stories like The Overcoat, we began crooning about the Russian masters like Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, all of whom I read voraciously in college.  Diary of a Madmen, The Nose, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, Notes from Underground, The Idiot, War and Peace, The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, were some of my most treasured novels back then.  And for Tom too, a connection I didn't even know we had

3.  Tom told about his experience being an editor for the Best American Stories 2015, which honestly, sounds totally fucking exhausting.  It was especially interesting to hear him talk about how he picked thetwenty stories for the collection

4.  Tom talked about switching from Viking to Ecco, his sadness about leaving one editor and his happiness about working with another

5.  Tom said he thought this was gonna be my year.  I told him I hope he's right.

6.  Tom asked me how things were going at UCI (very good).  Then, he asked me if I was applying to tenure track jobs this year, which I am.  I explained that I'm applying to every decent, great, and awesome, tenure track job out there located in or near a major metropolitan area, even jobs out of my league, because you've got to.  Someone will get those jobs, why not me?  He replied, "Now, you just need a book contract and everything else will fall in line for you with your PhD."  In his own sweet but indirect way, Tom implied that he's waiting to write a blurb for me and honestly, I can't wait for that.  In fact, sending him, Aimee, Percival, Valerie Sayers, Frances Sherwood, and Steve Tomasula emails for blurbs will be one of the sweetest parts of finally getting a contract because I'll get to thank them for all of their support, advice, and insight over the years

7.  Tom talked about his days as the fiction editor at the Iowa Review where he basically picked the stories he liked the most, and then sent his recommendations to Robert Coover who picked from Tom's shortlist all the way from London

8.  Tom talked about how fucking slow McSweeney's is, even with marquee writers like him.  They bought one of his stories a million years ago and still hadn't published it yet, which eventually made his agent, Georges Borchardt, badger them a little bit.  "I really don't care," Tom explained, "because they already bought the story."  Must be nice to have such an illustrious publishing career that you actually don't give a shit when McSweeney's gets around to publishing your short story.

9.  Tom and I agree that Tobias Wolf's Bullet in the Brain is one of the gold standards by which other short stories should be judged

10.  I feel like now, more than ever, Tom is waiting for me to make it big.  I feel like my time is coming.  He feels like my time is coming.  I know he believes in me as a writer with talent and stubborness to burn, which is an amazing source of confidence and support for me, but now I have to go out and slay this dragon myself.  I'm the only one who can do it.  I know he'll be cheering me from the sidelines, which I feel blessed about

It's A Beautiful Day When People Are Talking About Your Fiction

I really love emails like this.  To be honest, this is the kind of email that I dream about as an emerging fiction writer.  For a split second, I get to remember how good it feels to publish something + have people read my fiction.  Even if it's just a short story in a literary journal.  Here we go:

Hi, Jackson,

Our library hosts a short story discussion group. At our meeting this morning, we discussed “The Blue Men Inside My Head” (as well as Nabokov’s “Symbols  & Signs” so you were in very fine company!) Anyway, had a very lively conversation about your work, especially the ending. Opinion was divided equally about whether Xavier actually got back at the muggers or if that was just inside his head (to go back to the title.)  We were wondering if you had any thoughts about it that you might share.

By the way, our group read T.C. Boyle’s “Tooth and Claw” last year and really enjoyed it as well. I’ve recommended Drop City and Tortilla Curtain to quite a few people over the years.  It is easy to see, from your writing style and subject matter (and humor!) why he must be such a great mentor for you. 

Best wishes for all your writing projects!


L**** C*******
Adult Services Librarian
West Wyandotte Library
1737 N. 82nd St.
Kansas City, KS 66112

At Least I Know My Writing is Hot

And the battle continues, my friends:

Dear Jackson Bliss,

Pleased to have your project, " . . .", what a provocative title.  Clearly, your writing is HOT, which is why Tom Boyle recommended you, I’m sure.  And yet, I’ve found that I’m just not connecting w the material in the way I’d hoped, and am having some trouble w the narrative voice. It somehow reads more like a memoir than a novel, and can feel predictable. Of course, I could be totally wrong about this, and a big house may be excited to sign on. Otherwise I see this as a better fit for a smaller house, in which case you don’t necessarily need an agent. This is entirely an objective opinion, as you know, and I’ll wish you the very best with another agency!

Shall be cheering you on, and thank you again for the look, and for Tom’s kind referral.

Sandy Dijkstra

After the bad news, I did the one thing that always makes sense after a big rejection, I submitted my novel to Graywolf Press.  Ding, ding:  Round 9.

Sent My Second Novel to Sandra Dijkstra

If you'll remember, Tom ran into Sandra Dijkstra a year and a half ago at some literary event + asked him if he could recommend any up-and-coming fiction writers to her. TC Boyle was kind enough to recommend me (which was relatively easy for him to do because I'd just taken a workshop with him the previous semester so my work was pretty fresh in his mind), after which, she told him to tell me I should send her my novel. So, I stopped by Tom's office where he promptly hand-wrote a referral letter for me on SC stationery, sealed the envelope + then plopped the letter in outgoing campus mail. I was so flattered + excited. But then a week later, I sent Sandra Dijkstra a query letter with my first novel + I never received a reply. To be honest, I was really pissed off.

But because I'm a stubborn motherfucker + also because glitches in the matrix happen all the time, I decided to write Sandra Dijkstra a year letter with a new query letter for my second novel, just to see what would happen. And miraculously: It turns out that they never got my first query letter. This shit happens all the time, man. If anything, I was relieved to hear they hadn't received my first query letter because I was superfrustrated at not getting a response. Anyway, long story short, they apologized for not getting my first email but told me they'd love to read my second novel, so I've been doing a master revision for the past two weeks + I just sent them the entire novel a few minutes ago. Would it be fucking amazing if they picked me up? Hell yes. Do I think this is really gonna happen? No idea. See, one of my biggest problems is that I always think everything could change in a flash + I keep pushing for that moment to happen. But I make no assumptions, I just cross my fingers during these liminal moments + keep on writing. Maybe it'll work out. Maybe not, but either way, it's a chance I didn't have before.

Talking about Mountain Lions at TC Boyle's House

LB + I were in Santa Barbara last weekend.  I mentioned this to Tom earlier in the week + he told me to stop on by his house.  I believe the exact words he used were "pop by for a bit."  LB was fidgeting during the whole car ride, at the Vietnamese restaurant where we ate lunch with the unfriendly waitress, driving up the hill to Tom's place.  We parked on the street, kicked open a stuck gate door + saw this:

Then we walked down the pathway where Tom eventually greeted us at a side entrance. He gave us the grand tour of his amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house (which was the partial inspiration of The Women, a fact he pointed to us as we were talking around, taking in the pouring sunlight inside his house). I knelt on the floor and looked through Tom's glass bookshelves, filled in neat, long rows of his books translated into 12 different languages. Man, I thought, this dude is the straight dope. He's the real thing.

After introducing us to his 17-year old cat, who seemed shocked that I'd interrupt her during her catnap to pet her, we met Tom's wife (Karen) + then walked into the backyard and to an adjacent yard where Tom's daughter lives (I guess). Then we drank red wine with Tom, Karen, one of Tom's gregarious millionaire neighbors whose teeth were eerily perfect + his Siberian wife, Tom + Karen's daughter's boyfriend, Spence, + this dude who looked vaguely familiar, who was housesitting for Tom's daughter + I believe was also in the process of making Anne-Marie's book trailer for Two Dollar Radio Press. But I dunno, maybe I totally fucked up that whole who's who. LB + I politely passed on the stinky French cheese (because we're both vegan), but did nibble on potato chips. And man, some of the things we talked about were absolutely strange. A few highlights:

1. Speaking in French with The Man with Perfect Teeth (ah, combien tu me manques, la langue française!)

2. Getting in a long, heated, but largely one-sided argument with Tom's wife about what a total fascist Steve Jobs was + how much better Bill Gates was. The truth is, I love me some Apple products, but I abhor Apple labor practices in China in much the same way I abhor the manufacturing of virtually all tech stuff in Asia. I also love/admire the hundreds of millions of dollars that Bill Gates has donated to charities, as well as his immunization project since his retirement from Microsoft. But, as I pointed out, Bill Gates was as much of a fascist when he was Microsoft's CEO as Steve Jobs was with Apple (both of them stealing shit from the little guy), so it's a wash. This is where I thought we were gonna come to a compromise, but then Karen started ranting about the way Steve Jobs disowned his own daughter. This is when Tom came to my rescue + said that the topic we were talking passionately about was one of his wife's little obsessions.
--It's not an obsession, she snapped.
I laughed, sipped my wine, and realized I kinda liked Karen's spunk. She's got chutzpah, man

3. Getting in a prolonged conversation with Tom + the neighbor with the perfect teeth about--of all things--brown bears, moose and mountain lions. Tom said he's seen several mountain lions during his strolls around his neighborhood + had almost run into several bears too. I was thinking: Man, I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this conversation

4. Talking with Spence about living in Argentina for a year + learning the art of voseo + rioplaténse Spanish

5. Hearing Tom call my wife LB (which is my nickname for her that I claim is her actual name whenever I introduce her to people. Actually, it stands for "little bug," but Tom said he liked LB, in part, because it's like "TC")

6. Getting in a nice, long conversation with Tom about The Ninjas of My Greater Self, which he's probably going to read this summer since he's my thesis director. I told him that after not hearing from Sandra Dijkstra for a year, I'd sent her office a new query letter for NINJAS + got a gracious response soon after explaining that they never got my first query letter (which I totally believe) but that they'd love to read NINJAS. Tom seemed pleased about this. You have to remember: He ran into Sandra Dijkstra a year ago, who'd asked him if he had any writers to recommend + he told her about me + she'd shown interest in reading my work, so Tom had written a personal letter on my behalf right in front of me in his office. Then, I'd sent the agency a query letter for BLANK + nothing. Now, we know why. Obviously, this new development is much promising for me. FYI, I'm revising NINJAS for like the 100th time + I'm planning on sending Sandra Dijkstra my novel sometime in the next week. I also learned through talking to Tom with my stained, red lips + tannin in my teeth, that Sandra Dijkstra represents another one of Tom's former students, Chris Abani, author of Graceland, among other novels, so maybe, just maybe there's even a little precedent on my side. Either way, it's still an opportunity I didn't have before I was one of his students, so I'm extremely honored to have this chance.

7. Right before LB + I left, I told Tom about my vision: I want to become a spokesperson for a cultural revolution that embraces technological innovation (like my fucking dope new ipad I use to read the Huffington Post + Le Monde) but also consciously embraces old skool media, like record players + most importantly for me, hardcover books! He liked it. T

8. I confessed to Tom that I'm a writer because it's the only thing I'm actually great at. Sure, I can play piano + write electronic music pretty well. I'm proficient with foreign languages. I love understanding people + relationships, I'm intuitive + a passionate lover. I'm also a pretty good cook + my sense of style is respectable. But, writing is the thing I'm really fucking good at, the one thing where I feel I can make an important + unique contribution to this world. I may not be able to figure out a viable two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, but I can write the fuck out of a novel.

9. Tom told me I'm like him because my writing has a lot of energy + I love giving readings, I love the performative, interactive element of being an author as much as I love the writing itself, which is important. That's when I realized that I'm just a little bit like Tom (or an early version of him), which is probably one of the reasons I applied to SC in the first place, to work with such a literary legend.

Disappointing Form(ish) Rejection from Georges Borchardt

Dear Jackson,

Thank you for sending in the complete " . . . ". Several of us here have now read your manuscript and I'm afraid we are just not quite passionate enough about this project. This is, of course, completely subjective and I'm sure you'll find the right home for this soon.

Best of luck,


I don't know what makes me sadder, the fact that Georges rejected my novel or that he sent me a fucking form rejection. Fuck, man. This hurts inside. I'm not gonna lie. But, after I get my shit together--and I will, make no mistake about that--I'm gonna pick myself back up + send my novel to some more agents. My novel has a place in this world + I need to figure out where that is. For now, I'm gonna listen to Arcade Fire, get my snack on + send out some submissions to journals.

I don't give up. I just don't. I can't.

There's Something Kinda Punk Rock about You, TC Boyle

I stopped by Tom's office yesterday to get his signature for my qualifying committee forms + also shoot the shit. I haven't chatted with him in quite awhile except for the occasional email. I have to say, I wasn't disappointed. Among the many highlights of our conversation, we talked about:

1. Tom's relationship with John Cheever at the Iowa Writers Workshop (IWW) who apparently was always drunk all the time, but was also gentle, insightful + brilliant considering he got kicked out of high school for smoking + never returned.

2. Tom's relationship with Raymond Carver, who he said, like John Cheever, drank and smoked all the fucking time. TC Boyle told me that for a while, Iowa was distancing itself from Raymond Carver, but that he + all of his classmates thought that Carver was a genius + that once the NYT Review of Books starting heaping a shitload of praise on Carver's work, the IWW asked him to teach a workshop.

3. Lan Samantha Chang, who Tom calls "Sam." I confessed to Tom that I wasn't particularly impressed with Hunger + that I'd read other Iowa fiction writers that I was much more impressed with. Tom said he hadn't read Hunger, but agreed that he didn't think she was an amazing writer based on the stories he'd read of hers, but he also argued that she had the hardest job in creative writing, which is probably true. I wouldn't want that gig. Too much pressure, man.

4. Dave Eggers, who Tom said was one of the nicest guys in the business. Not a great writer or a great reader, for that matter, an evaluation I happen to agree with having met Dave at his book signing at the Notre Dame Literary Festival back in 2006, but by all means, an important writer if for no other reason than his 826 volunteer organization, the creation of McSweeney's, The Believer, his political engagement of Sudanese causes + his annual Nonrequired Reading Anthology are all awesome, important + amazing literary things that make this world a better place. But in terms of Eggers's reading persona, that's a totally different deal. In fact, Tom mentioned that while he liked Dave Eggers a lot as a person, he found his performance as a public reader left much to be desired, in part because instead of actually reading his novel to his audience/fangirls/fanboys, Eggers mostly talks about random shit, cracks jokes, tells stories, which Tom sees as belittling Egger's own writing. And I have to say: I agree.

Near the end of our chat, I told Tom that I knew there was a reason that I always wanted to work with him when I was working on my MFA: --There's something kinda punk rock about your attitude as a writer that I really enjoy, I said, in part because it happens to be close to my own vision, though I lack the awards.
--Oh, they'll come, he said, and someday when your novel is getting a lot of buzz, you'll have to deal with all of this too.
--Well, anyway, I guess I see a kindred spirit.
That's when Tom smiled, we shook hands + said goodbye. It was a perfect chat with TC Boyle.

Well, Here Goes Nothing

So I finally did it, I sent my complete, fully revised manuscript + sophomore novel, The Ninjas of My Greater Self, to agent extraordinaire, Georges Borchardt, agent of Elie Wiesel, Ian McEwan, Robert Coover, TC Boyle, who is also in charge of the estates of Tennessee Williams, Aldous Huxley + John Gardner, this is the man who first introduced America to Lacan, Barthes, Bourdieu, Fanon, Duras, Foucault, Ionesco + Sartre. Yes, this dude is a big fucking deal, representing over 8 Pulitzer Prize winners + 2 Noble Prize winners, in fact, he may be the biggest fucking deal I've submitted to in my entire life. And while sending him my novel (which he asked for in its entirety last year after I'd sent him the first 145 pages + an outline) honestly scares the shit out of me because it puts me on the chopping block, at the same time, I kinda want to get this over with, one way or another. Does that sound bleak? I guess it does. But Ninjas is the best thing I've ever written yet. It's a fucking awesome novel, it really is.

And at this point, while nothing would make me happier in the whole fucking world than for Georges to pick me up as a client, if he doesn't, I guess at this point, I want to know that, accept that + go on with my life + stop pining for something that's not gonna happen. It's just the realist in me. Of course I'd be bummed if he didn't give me a shot, but I'd find a way to soldier on. Hopefully, though, he loves this novel enough to say yes. God knows how that would totally transform my writing career . . . I hope he sees what I see. It could be the beginning of something massive if he did.

LA Times Festival of Books = Awesome

These past two weeks have been a blurry, pretty little mess of everything: Grading final portfolios, writing my final paper on Joan Didion for my Post-Western Representation class, waking up early on Saturday morning to go to the LA Times Festival of Books where I bought the new McSweeney's + Granta, attended a forum on literary journals with the editors of a Public Space, Granta, Black Clock + saw Tom read his short story, "The Lie." I also celebrated my--gasp!--37th birthday + went to Santa Monica with LB where we loitered around and smelled the Ocean air + bought a couple things for our upcoming trip to Beijing.

Here are a few highlights:

Gogo! Doing Yoga with his Daddy

LB's Genius for Gift-Wrapping

B-Day Vegan Cupcakes

Tomorrow! Tomorrow!

Proof that Part of America Still Reads Books

The Entrance to Bibliphilia

LB Magnetically Attracted to the Kinokuniya Kiosk

Where Cute Plastic Things Come to Be Reborn

Makes Me Dizzy

Tom Representing at the Bing Theater

Listening to the Enemy: Literary Journal Editors from Granta, A Public Space + Black Clock Tell You Why They Just Want a Good Story Even Though almost All of the Shit They Publish is Agented Fiction

The Endangered Species: Homo Literarius

Talking Field Exam Reading Lists + Agent Referrals with TC Boyle

Since he's my thesis adviser + also a former teacher of mine, TC Boyle told me to stop by his office soon after the recommendation snafu to talk about my Post WWII reading list for fields. I also wanted to talk to him about getting a referral to Sandra Dijkstra. Stop on by, he emailed. After teaching, that's exactly what I did, a slight spring in my step. Must be the sunshine.

1. Field Exams

When I walked into his office, the dude looked fucking exhausted.

I shook his hand + said:
You look fucking exhausted. I am, he said, leaning his head back.I saw you on Bill Maher's Real Time.Oh yeah?
I nodded.
Yeah, it's the only time I've seen you in a group of people where you're not talking the whole time.
We both laughed.
I don't like dealing with talking heads.
After chatting a little more, I handed him my proposed reading list for the field exam I'll be doing with him, post WWII literature. He read the list + nodded:
Well, this looks great.I'm not sure what critical connections I'll make yet, but once I've read 1/4 to 1/2 of them, I'm sure I'l see them.Well, I've read almost every book here.I haven't a read single book on that list. That's why I picked'em.
He looked up.
I thought it would be a perfect excuse to read a bunch of books I've always wanted to read but haven't.That's brilliant.

2. Sandra Dijkstra

Once we'd finished figuring out the details for my reading list, I paused, turned to Tom + said:
—So can we talk about Sandra Dijkstra?—Sure. It's time to get you an agent so you can get your books published. What's up?—Well, I'm still waiting to hear from the Irene Goodman Literary Agency but I'm getting antsy + I don't want to wait anymore, so I wondered whether you might give me a referral.—Of course. I told you I'd be happy to.I took a look at her client list + it's pretty rad.*Well, I already talked you up to her.—Awesome.—Okay, how about this? I'll write her a letter right now. When will you send her a manuscript?—Tomorrow.—Great. Okay, are you going to send her Ninjas?—I'm not sure. I kinda want her to take a look at BLANK before I send her Ninjas. But I haven't decided yet.—Okay, well, he said, pulling out a piece of SC stationery + scribbling a note to Sandra Dijkstra, I'll send this today, should get to her by tomorrow + you'll send your manuscript to her tomorrow + a short letter mentioning some of her clients you admire. . .—Okay, great.

I'm not sure what's going to happen with any of this + I haven't closed the door to the Irene Goodman Literary Agency at all, but a little competition won't hurt anyone. Besides, from reading literary agent blogs, I get the very strong impression that agents are naturally fierce with each other + accept competition because they have to (it's part of the industry), even embracing it sometimes. So we'll see what happens. Even so, I'm flattered that Tom actually talked me up to such a big agent. That shit is flattering.

Now, back to The Ninjas of My Greater Self

*Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Lisa See, Susan Faludi, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan

When TC Boyle Treats Your Success as a Fiction Writer as if It's Inevitable when It's Not but You Really Want it to Be

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my Turkish friend Marve(y) on campus. It was one of those perfect, idyllic LA days + I was laughing about, fuck I dunno, something, when Tom walked up to me + said: --I recognize that laugh a mile away.
--Hey Tom, I said. Oh Tom, this is my friend Marve(y)
--Hello, she said, blushing.
--Hi, nice to meet you, he said. Then, turning to me: Jackson, he said, stop by my office sometime. Let's talk.
--Okay, cool, I said.

The moral of the story is: When TC Boyle goes out of his way to say hi to you + tells you to stop by his office, you fucking stop by his office.

The next week, I did just that + went to his office.

--So, he said, what did Georges say?
--He said that he was impressed with my writing but also had some concerns that I had too many narrative strands in Ninjas, but he didn't want to prejudge, so he told me to send him the whole manuscript once I was done.
--Good, he said, smiling.
--Of course, it won't be ready for a year until I have a definitive draft. I'm only to page 200.
--Me too, but anyways, that's good that he wants to read the whole thing.
--Yeah, I guess so. How fast do you crank out a novel?
--Pretty fast. I'm working on a historical novel right now about the San Juan islands. I think we already talked about this.
I nodded.
--Listen, I was talking to Sandra Dijkstra. Are you familiar with her?
The truth is, I was trying to figure out whether my friend from Glenn Loomis Elementary School, Greta Dijkstra, had changed her first name + was friends with Tom for some bizarre reason. Finally, I decided that didn't make any sense, because, truthfully, it doesn't. I shook my head.
--She's a good agent. Tough, but very good. She asked me if I had any writers I could recommend to her. So maybe if it doesn't work out with Georges. . . Anyway, check out her website.
--Wow, awesome. Thanks Tom.
--The crazy thing is, I said, on the same day I got Georges's response, I also got a solicited email from the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
Tom gave me a blank face.
--They do commercial, literary, genre + literary non-fiction.
--Oh, that's normal. Even Georges did a workout book with Jane Fonda.
--Really? I said, incredulously.
--Sure, why not? Some things just fall on your lap like that.
He nodded.
--They asked for the whole manuscript of BLANK + also an outline of Ninjas.
--They're going to pick you up, he said.
--I dunno Tom, I'm playing it cautiously.
--Well, this is great. Maybe it'll work out with Georges. But if not, this might just be perfect for you. Or you can send something to Sandra.
--I also sent my story collection to Greywolf.
--Oh, he said, great press. I think that's a great idea: publish your stories with Graywolf + then get one of your novels out there. That's the way to go.

I love Tom, I really do + I especially appreciate how he talks about my own success as a fiction writer as if it's inevitable. It's a beautiful, wonderful thing to have someone like him giving you that kind of encouragement. But right now, at least for right now, it doesn't feel inevitable. I'm not being pessimistic (it's not my thing at all). I'm just being cautious. A secret part of me feels that it will happen--all of it--but admitting that out loud makes you sound arrogant + cocky + when it comes to this industry, I'm neither. Still, you have to believe things are going to work out. Otherwise, you stop hoping. And when you do that, you start writing solipsistically (or you stop writing--something I could never do), which means, you ignore everything that's flawed + amazing + impossible + heartbreaking about this world. Then you're really fucked.

Georges Borchardt Responds

Georges responds at last. And I'm still in agent limbo. . .
Dear Jackson Bliss,

It took me a little longer than I thought to get to THE NINJAS OF MY GREATER SELF, which you sent in. I’m very impressed with your writing and particularly liked the section called “Girls…”. I’m concerned, however, about the novel moving off in too many different directions, but I probably should not pre-judge before seeing the whole manuscript (which I’d be happy to read when it is ready).


Georges Borchardt Reads Half of the Ninjas of My Greater Self + Outline

I will not read into this whatsoever. I won't expect anything to come from it. I won't let myself indulge in daydreaming (well, not any more than usual). I won't let this fuck with my mind or raise my hopes because the fall will be too precipitous, the ground is too rugged + bony, + while my backbone is really strong, stronger than it's ever been, my skin is still soft. I'm hoppa after all.

Even so, even so, I wrote Georges Borchardt after TC Boyle sent him an email telling him about me (+ mentioning some of my publications--I only know that because Tom asked me in his office to repeat some of my pubs to him so he could tell his agent). I wrote Georges + asked him what he wanted from me + this was his reply:

Dear Jackson,

Yes, three chapters would be fine, or better still all the finished portions; and an outline of the as yet unwritten or unfinished portions would be helpful.



So, for the past three days, I've been polishing chapters, figuring out which ones were too rough to be sent + which ones showed promise. Then I wrote an outline of the entire novel (both the finished + unfinished chapters), which has helped me a lot in figuring out the endgame of this novel, how characters will intersect, shit like that. The exact same thing happened to me with Lynn Nesbit, who asked for the same thing, giving me the perfect excuse to work on + work out the plot of BLANK. And while obviously, she didn't pick up BLANK (her daughter, Priscilla Gilman, did seem to respect it though), Lynn Nesbit's request became the perfect excuse to figure out what the fuck was going on with my novel. This time, I have some pubs, I have the support of a famous writer, I have a small but direct contact inside the publishing world with someone who actually publishes authors with whom I share some aesthetic, literary, intellectual, socially-conscious + creative kinship. More than anything, I've got a--miniscule, but nevertheless tiny little--chance now.

I have no fucking idea, on the other hand, what's going to happen. But at least I've got hope. At least something's happening.

Anyway, stay tuned for more details.

What a Mensch

TC Boyle is a true mensch. Since today was out last day of workshop, we filled out evaluations, workshopped our last three manuscripts + then once we were done, Tom went around the room + gave each writer a free book of his--a personally dedicated + autographed--book, specifically targeted for each writer. In case you're wondering, Tom gave me East is East, which is pretty fucking perfect for me since my current novel is about a Japanese-American boy who looks completely white + ends up ultimately in Tokyo, trying to figure out who the fuck he is.

Inside, Tom wrote:


With thanks and in appreciation of your work.

TC Boyle


What a mensch. What a fucking mensch.

Getting Some Love from TC Boyle

Though it's just workshop props--and we all know that workshop has its own warped gravity, its own rules, blind spots + personality cults--I'm gonna fucking take the encouragement wherever I can get it. Here are Tom's comments for my last workshop manuscript (three chapters from my second novel in progress, Ninjas of My Greater Self). True, it may be just workshop feedback, but this shit makes feel good + sometimes, that's all we need to keep writing:


You don't need a workshop, you need a contract. This is so rich and beautiful and heartfelt that I'm won over to the project all over again. Here we can feel Hidashi as a character, vulnerable, angry + brilliantly observant, which (to my mind) wasn't necessarily the case in the earlier sections. But now you are getting to the beauty of things + dramatizing instead of posing + listing. Great stuff. Truly!

p.s. Love Hidashi's take on hipsters + the value of being hip
p.p.s. Love too how you're moving the story through these brilliant and hilarious scenes of dialogue

For a couple days, I'm gonna stand tall. Then, it's back to work.

Playing the Referral Game + Junot Diaz Comparisons

Yesterday, TC Boyle admitted to me in his office that he made all of us in workshop read Junot Diaz (+ 3 other authors from Doubletakes), in part because he wanted the class to see some of the stylistic similarities between Brief Wondrous Life + yours truly.

--You know, I called that, I said. I actually told someone that I wondered whether you had us read Junot Diaz because it was similar in some ways to my own writing.
--No, it's true, he said.
--But I didn't wanna be egocentric, so I dismissed it as stylistic coincidence.
--No, you were right.

Fuck, how flattering is that shit?


Last year back when were just getting acquainted in our roles as writer-mentor, I asked TC Boyle one day in his office--because I'm ambitious like that--if he would give me a referral to four agents I was particularly in love with (Nicole Aragi, who I send a query letter to pretty much every year, Mary Evans + Eric Simonoff, both of whom have never responded to me, + Georges Borchardt, Tom's own agent). His response was fair: Let's work together in workshop in the fall + then I'll be happy to. Well, I never forget a promise, especially one involving my own writing career. So after we talked about the last two chapters I'd recently workshopped from The Ninjas of My Greater Self (my second novel), I asked him again + he was good to his word. It's an easier sell now I think because he has a much better idea of my aesthetic. And also, because he was especially impressed with the first chapter I submitted to workshop, "Girls: A Four-Movement Symphony by the Beastie Boys," the good thing is that he won't have to lie about my skillz. I could be wrong, but I don't think Tom goes out on a limb for his students unless:

1. He thinks they're talented
2. They initiate it themselves

So, I think it's a good sign he was still willing to give me a referral, but it's just a small step, one that promises nothing but opens up a new, dreamy--and very unlikely--possibility. But now, the real work begins. Getting a referral doesn't necessarily mean shit in this industry unless:

1. The agent has room in her/his client list, and most importantly:
2. They love the shit out of your novel. And just as importantly:
3. They know they can sell it

And of course, even in the best case scenario that all 4 agents ask to take a look at BLANK or Love + Porn--which won't happen--it's still very possible that I'm exactly where I was before I asked him.

And yet, yet, what other choice do I have? I have to risk the possibility of rejection in order to get my writing out there + create a readership. I have to do it for me + I have to do it for my art. I don't know another way except to keep pushing. Eventually, something breaks down, right? Eventually, someone pushes through. Why not me? Why not me? I ask you.

One Day of Love, Then Back to Reality

It's just some workshop props, nothing else. But hey, for just one moment, I'm gonna enjoy it. I'll fucking take the encouragement wherever I can get it, to fight the armies of cost-benefit analysis.

After I got home from workshop, I finally read Tom's critique of my manuscript of "Girls: A Four-Part Symphony by the Beastie Boys," a self-contained chapter from my second novel, The Ninjas of My Greater Self.

Here's an abridged version of TC Boyle's critique, verbatim:


Astonishing stuff. The language sings + the sensual details, of sex, + beauty + food + all the rest, make this very rich indeed. I have no qualms whatever--this is finished work.

There are perhaps a couple of places where the language calls attention to itself + perhaps the narrator protects his hipness a little too strenuously, but who cares? This is rich + nuanced, + the smart, funny, hyperactive voice carries it all the way.

Yeah, for a couple of seconds, it felt really good to read that.

But now (a day later), it's time to get back to reality: I'm still the same person I was yesterday, just another talented, aspiring fiction writer with just a few great publications. I still have a lot to prove to myself, to my critics + to all the people that won't give BLANK a chance in an industry filled to the sky with smooth, polished writing that has no soul, no vision + makes no attempt to create original, important, socially conscious, powerful, beautiful + ambitious art.

Carry on.