Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bóg dał, Bóg wziął

Bóg dał, Bóg wziął. That’s a Polish proverb, included on the dedication page for House of Good Hope, just beneath my grandparents’ names. It means “God gives, God takes.” Walt and Helen Petry both were dead by the time the book was published in 2007. Thus.

The phrase came to mind the day before Christmas when House of Good Hope’s publisher returned publication rights to me. This means the book is out of print and the publisher will make it no more. Theirs was a business decision I understood. It took four years to sell the first print run–a slow unraveling. The press offered to keep the book available in a single e-edition (via Barnes and Noble). I asked them to commit to full publication or give me back the rights, per our contract. The publisher’s terse reply arrived amidst a few holiday cards. “This letter will serve as official notice...” etc. I was disappointed that it had not begun, “Dear Michael.”

So now, HOGH has gone out of print just as The Greatest Show is poised to come into the world. Sad irony, that.

After I read the letter, I poured a nip of Scotch and toasted the book. Then I wandered room to room, as if the mail had brought news of the death of an old friend I once knew well but hadn’t talked with in a few years.

House of Good Hope was a necessary book for me to write. It wasn’t cut out to be a big seller, that I knew, but without it, I’d never have gotten my current job as a professor teaching creative writing. More importantly, I’d never have had friendships with the men who are the book’s primary characters. I made the book with the hope that it would honor the memory of my grandparents and give my family an historical record. Likewise, I wanted to create something Hiram, Eric, Derrick, Joshua, and Harvey could give their children to say, “This was your father once.” I wanted to write something that praised Hartford as a place worth our attention. I wanted to better understand why we leave places we love and what price is paid when we do.

All of that sounds like a eulogy, but it isn’t, because HOGH isn’t dead. The book has come home, its rights mine again to do with as I please. My literary agent encouraged this path. He mentioned the ease of creating a Kindle edition, how simple it is to create a print-on-demand copy. His agency could help. Why let the book languish?

So now, House of Good Hope is out of print and poised to return if I so choose. I can revise it if I want, or not, or update it, or not. Or maybe years from now another publisher will ask for it. Maybe it will just sit for a while, not languishing, but waiting, because how God gives and takes, and in what order, and how often, is always a mystery, and who knows what comes next?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Greatest Show, on film

I  dreamed of clowns reading sentences from my book. These dreams were visual with no sound or narrative coherence. As with all dreams, they felt perfect and unrealized. The clowns all looked happy and friendly, and they recited sad sentences about the Hartford circus fire. Ah. Irony.

Months later, hundreds of miles from home, I squatted in the hallway of an old factory, holding a dry-erase board where I had written, “It’s all pain, right?” and a clown named Annabelle recited that line as my friend Brian filmed her and recorded the sound.

“So how does a little clowning make anything worse?”

“Let’s do another one closer,” Brian said.

I’m no filmmaker. To realize my dream of clowns and sad sentences, I telephoned my friend, Brian McDermott. Brian lives in Massachussets and teaches videography and journalism at UMass-Amherst. We met when he was a student in classes I taught at the University of Montana. But he’s a talented photographer and writer who didn’t need to be taught anything, really. He always knew what to do with a photograph or a video or a story.

Writers don’t have many opportunities for artistic collaboration. There’s only one chair at most desks, and that’s where we work. But ever since a stint at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, I’ve thought more and more about collaboration. While at VCCA, I spent lots of time talking with visual artists and composers, and their ideas about art were exciting and in many ways, for me, new. Later, I noted how Ron Tanner, a writer and friend, put together a book trailer for which he did the animation, gathered friends to read different parts, and asked another friend, who is a marvelous composer, to write an accompanying music score. What Ron did was something new — literary but also a different art altogether. It was, I suppose, that most collaborative of arts: a film.

That’s what I wanted for my happy clowns reciting sad sentences.

And that’s how I found myself holding onto a dry erase board and saying, “Maybe a little slower this time?”

Chris Oakley
As the dream unfolded, it took on the idiosyncracies of those other dreammakers. Once, I’d imagined an array of clowns soberly and in normal voices reading my sentences. But Nettie Lane, aka Annabelle, had her own ideas and Annabelle had her own voice. She had read the entire stories from which her lines came, and she gave them nuances and subtle and strange, delightful intepretations I’d never have been able to imagine. Brian had recommended using performers other than clowns, and had even found the circus studio to provide them. So that afternoon we also worked with a trapeze artist and a contortionist. The trapeze artist suggested she recite while hanging upside down.

And Brian? Brian’s mind never stopped working. He suggested we vary the backgrounds (“There’s a spot with a sign that reads, ‘Not an Exit,’ “ he said), and in every case he chose well. He wanted to shoot B-roll of the performers performing to edit into the readings. He directed them to face light. From behind the camera, he laughed and encouraged.

Two hours later, we were done.

Then it was Brian’s turn to sit alone at the desk. He combed the internet for royalty-free music. He edited with care. He sent me several versions to approve. I began to notice how he married images to words, how he used images as transitions. I saw my script and my unrealized dream of clowns become something else – and that something often contradicted my own visions. But it was far better than anything I could have imagined on my own.

Born from my book, but something else entirely. Something new. It is a trailer, and so it is a marketing tool in service to The Greatest Show. But it stands alone, too, I think, as the collaboration of five artists, thrilling and disturbing in its own ways.

Here it is.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The View from My Keyboard

Here is where I play with my imaginary friends
My good pal Patty McNair has put a great spin on the idea of a writer's blog by featuring writers' workspaces. She calls it View from the Keyboard, and in it she includes pictures and short essays featuring the spaces where writers put together their words.  I'm glad that she invited me to contribute. She says some nice things about me, too, and if any one of them proves to be true, I'm super grateful.

While you're checking out my workspace at her blog, you might also take a look at her new short story collection, The Temple of Air. It got a great review from Booklist, the American Library Association's magazine, and it's on my list of must-reads.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! It's a cover!

Many, many thanks to Laura Gleason, the design and production manager at LSU Press, for this stunning work.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Here's a nifty, sad thing.

A fellow named Curtis Eller, who calls himself a banjo-playing punk yodeller, or something like that, released a song a few years back about the Hartford Circus Fire. I’m late to the party, but that’s because I only just got my invite. Curtis the Man hisself sent an e-mail to those of us in a Facebook group dedicated to the circus fire.

An angry yodelling banjo player
On Curtis’s website, some unidentified scribbler writes in first person that Eller’s band American Circus “plays more waltzes than any band I know, though no one ever feels like dancing.” That’s probably because the songs are all grim and sad, having to do with John Wilkes Booth and Richard Nixon and the Triangle Shirt Factory fire and a burning circus tent.

I love sad walzes.

My favorite part of Curtis’s circus-fire song is the line about how “the ashes still stick to our shoes.” That’s some good gritty realism.

And except for the nightmares and the coughing 
It’s like the circus never passed through
Enjoy your own sad turn…

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Introducing our new CFO and mascot

This is Big Top Monkey.
    My wife found him at a local craft store. We were looking for an ink stamp that I could use to gussy up my letter press broadsides (see previous blog post). I like Big Top Monkey so much that I might use him to stamp copies of the book when I'm asked to sign it. So, we've all got that to look forward to.
    He's also my new computer desktop wallpaper and my Facebook profile pic.
    Give him a warm round of applause, will you?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hot type

A typo. Can you catch it?

    I don’t text.
    Which reason would you like? There are so many. How about these: all those thumbs, all thos misspeled words. LOL. :) I compulsively edit my Facebook status reports. How could I bear to text?
    There are other reasons.
    Yet texting is like typing, you say. You build words and sentences a letter at a time.
    No, I say, it is not like typing. I learned to type a long time ago. I use all eight fingers and both thumbs. It’s easy to delete a line and write a new one.
    I don’t text, but I thought a lot about that the other day, when I built a paragraph of 172 words out of metal, letter by letter.
The type drawer
    Let me start again.
    For all of June, I was fortunate enough to be a writer-in-residence at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. This meant that I lived with four other artists and writers in a big house, ca. 1914, ate dinner prepared nightly by a chef, and worked to revise a novel. I wrote every day, missed my wife and dogs, and once went into town to see the world’s largest boot.
    You can read more about the Anderson Center here. It has a compelling history, and it has made a real difference for the arts in Minnesota, nationally, and internationally. The grounds of the center also include an alternative high school and a small independent publisher called Red Dragonfly Press.
    Scott King runs Red Dragonfly. He publishes mostly poetry, and quite a few of the books are done in the modern way: designed and typeset on computers. But equally important to the operation are his 19th-century printing technologies. In the old way, Scott casts letters out of metal, arranges them as words and poems, and then applies ink to press them into elegant, old-style pages and books. This is, in the old parlance, hot type. (Current publishing uses cold computer type).
    Scott was kind enough to instruct me in this traditional fashion of typesetting and then let me have at it. With his help, I assembled 959 characters of Dante font, 12-point type, with spaces, one tiny piece of metal at a time. It took me 2½ hours just to build the paragraph.
   “That’s pretty fast for a first time,” he said. “You might be a natural.”
   Isn’t this like texting?
   Sort of not.
Scott positions the hot type on the press
    Back in another life, when I was first learning the newspaper trade, we were taught to count headlines. We were allowed so many spaces in a column, and that count changed depending on the size (points) of the letters. So, a capital W (huge width) was worth two points. A lower case i was worth a half. You wrote your headline, then added up the count to see if your words would fit.
    This practice was a remnant from the days of using hot type. Letters and words do have physical properties: widths, heights, and, in hot type, even weights. In composing my paragraph metal letter by metal letter, I was reminded of this.
Hours later...
    It’s good, sometimes, to get back to the beginnings of things. I took up hunting to learn what it meant to kill, gut, skin and butcher an animal before eating it. It seemed an important thing to understand if I continued to pull shiny packages of meat off grocery store shelves. Likewise, I know photographers who believe it is important to learn the practices of a darkroom, even in these days of point-shoot-Flickr.
    I would like my creative writing students to one day build their sentences out of metal. I want them to understand the weight of letters and words. They would learn which words are truly extraneous. They would come to value use over utilize. They would learn that to build your words from metal, you must love them.

Monday, May 16, 2011

SALT Publishing announces Scott Prize winners

Congrats to winners of the Scott Prize from the UK's SALT Publishing. Of the ten shortlisted books, including The Greatest Show, at least five will be published in the next eighteen months, including three with SALT, one with Black Lawrence Press, and mine with LSU Press. In these times, when it is more and more difficult to publish short story collections, it's good to know there are still presses out there willing to support the form. Kudos to Jen Hamilton-Emery, fiction editor at SALT, for putting together such a great short list.

And while I'm at it, let me put in a plug for my favorite SALT book of the moment: Eduardo Chirinos' Reasons for Writing Poetry. Eduardo is one of Peru's premier poets, a writer I met when we were on the faculty at the University of Montana (he's still there). I've heard him read poems in Spanish and listened to the same poems in English, and I could listen todos los dias to them in either language. Thanks to G.J. Racz for the exquisite translations. Now all of us who don't read Spanish can enjoy Eduardo's art.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Dateline: Maple Avenue

For the first time since 1993, I’ve got a byline in the Hartford Courant. You can read my op-ed here. It’s prompted by what I saw in the video below, which shows Hartford police investigating a shooting on a Maple Avenue sidewalk in the city's South End, a few doors down from where my grandparents used to live. Not much happens, but watching the video put me in mind of themes I wrote about in House of Good Hope, ideas about how neighborhoods are perceived. So I typed, sent a few sentences to the Courant, and there you go …

My thanks to Peter Pach, who was a columnist during my few years at the paper and is now an editor for the editorial section. It was a treat to work with him.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I'm pleased to announce that Louisiana State University Press has decided to publish my story collection The Greatest Show as the Spring 2012 book in its Yellow Shoe fiction series.

Yellow Shoe? As editor Rand Dotson tells me, the name is from someone misunderstanding LSU fiction as "Yellow Shoe" fiction. I like a press with a sense of humor. Thanks to the good folks at LSU, and especially to Michael Griffith, the series editor, for choosing my manuscript.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Should I read Water for Elephants? Or not?

Circus literature in the news:

1. Water for Elephants, the mega-historical-hit novel, is about to be released as a mega-historical-hit movie.

2. Death-Defying Acts, a poetry collection of testimonies from circus performers, is a finalist for a national award given to books from independent publishers.

Which am I more likely to read? The novel? Or the poetry?

The poetry.

I’d very much like to read the poetry. The publisher, Wordfarm, is a fine young press that first made an impression in my home when my wife brought home a book called Bright Shoots of Everlastingness. It had a stunning cover and essays that included one that had appeared in Best American Religious Writing. Since then, Wordfarm has also published Alan Michael Parker’s funny, tender novel Whale Man.

Why I’m less likely to read Water for Elephants I can’t exactly say. Something about my reluctance feels like insecurity. The book is a big hit. It’s fiction about a circus. I’ve written fiction about a circus. Why compare? When I was working on House of Good Hope, I one day saw another book that put a cold lump in my gut. The Pact was, like HOGH, about city kids making a promise to return to the broken city they love. Their city was Newark; I wrote Hartford. In The Pact, the young men all return home and become medical professionals. It’s a true story, but it seems to me less true to life than the more complicated ending of HOGH. But The Pact has sold better. Much better. It may well be a better book than HOGH, but I haven’t read it.

I tell myself I need to read The Pact. I tell myself to read Water for Elephants. A friend once gave me a novel called The Aerialist. It’s about a circus. My friend recommended it. I should read that one, too. After all, the guy who designs Chevy’s mini-vans must look at Ford’s.

But then I tell myself: chill. Competition in the writing world might follow a different model. Sprinters on a track and field team don’t watch each other. The other runners are a distraction. Instead, runners focus on their own form. They rely on their strengths and try to mitigate their weaknesses. They study and practice and study and practice and when the gun goes off go like hell.

And I do study. All the time I read stories that inspire awe, stories about a serial killer called The Misfit, or a shell-shocked soldier in Italy, or an Irish woman who wants to write about Chekhov and oysters. Those gold-medal stories make me want to clear my desk, open the laptop and aspire.

Still, I wonder. What do other writers do? Read the contemporary books that are like theirs? Or not?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The shortlist for the Scott Prize

Here's some great good news. My short story collection manuscript, The Greatest Show, is on the shortlist for The Scott Prize, an award that carries publication with the fine independent press, SALT Publishing.

SALT is an international publisher, headquartered in the U.K., with a bunch of great books and writers in its catalogue. Congrats to all those who made the shortlist. I've checked you all out, and I’m feeling lucky to have my manuscript among yours.

The Greatest Show came out of my unending fascination with my hometown, Hartford, Connecticut, and its history. On July 6, 1944, a fire erupted during a matinee performance inside a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus tent, killing more than 160 people and injuring hundreds more. My father would have been inside the tent that day had his divorced parents not argued and his mother kept him from an outing with his dad. Years later, when I was an adult, the fire still haunted Hartford's cultural consciousness. My stories grow out of that haunting.

My gratitude goes to the folks at SALT.

Back inside the tent

from Charlie Chaplin's movie, The Circus
This blog started as an experiment, a high-wire walk with no practice and no net. What did I know of blogging? Nada. But I stepped out there and fell and climbed back up and learned something. Then, I pulled the curtains.

It was time for a new show. For more than two years my blogging mojo has gone into HimPlus17, where my wife and I chat about our age difference (I’m 17 years younger).

But I’ve kept this blog in reserve, mostly for the title. It’s the same as a short story collection I’ve been dreaming up. Someday, I thought, I might need a venue for news about the manuscript as it became a book.

Not quite there yet. But that collection is finished ... and I’m hopeful, especially now. Why?