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?