Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a game of literary tag. Writers answer a few questions about a work-in-progress, then tag other writers, who do the same, tagging more writers and more– forever. It’s like a chain letter, or a pyramid scheme for people who have no money.

Ron Tanner, as full of skill and talent and generosity as anyone you'll ever meet, tagged me. I’ll tell you about my latest project starting with the next paragraph. And I’m tagging Patricia McNair (The Temple of Air), Steve Yates (Morkan’s Quarry and Some Kinds of Love), and Elisabeth Dahl (Genie Wishes) who will tell you about theirs.

What is the working title of your novel?
That’s a great question, because the answer changes by the minute. You can help decide. Which of the titles below most entices you. Put your answer in a comment.
a. The Genius of Pain
b. Wells
c. Painless
d. The Strange True Tale of the Surgeon Dentist, Horace Wells
e. Better keep thinking, hombre.

Horace Wells
Where did the idea come from for the novel?
While researching a scene for a novel that wasn’t working, I re-discovered the story of Horace Wells, a 19th-century dentist from my hometown who is widely credited with “inventing anesthesia.” I say that I “re-discovered” his story because what I had known about Horace was only part of his history. My awareness was limited to what you’d expect of a kid who mostly knew Horace as a bigger-than-life statue at Bushnell Park: inventor of anesthesia, benefactor of humanity, Christian son of Christian citizens, etc. But now I was also learning about his “melancholy” and his addiction to chloroform, and about that night he spent with prostitutes in Manhattan, and about the publicity war he waged against a former student and rival to win credit as the sole inventor of “painless surgery.”

I cranked out a novel synopsis in three days and sent it to my agent. Drop the other project, he told me. Write this one.

What genre does your manuscript fall under?
Historical literary fiction

Which actor would you choose to play your character in a movie rendition?
Give him mutton chops, and yeah, Jessie Eisenberg (The Social Network) could play Horace. Another troubled genius for his resumé.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
GENIUS OF PAIN is an historical novel that fictionalizes the life and death of Horace Wells, a 19th-century dentist and anesthesia pioneer, who was addicted to the gases he used for humanity’s benefit.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The first draft took about a year, but it would have taken longer if I hadn’t been able to spend three weeks at a writer’s retreat cranking out the last 100+ pages.

What other books would you compare your story to within this genre?
I’m trying to write a wide-ranging historical literary novel, so readers of 19th-century books such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might enjoy this story. Recent practitioners who have inspired me include Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda or his more recent Parrot and Olivier in America), William Kennedy (Quinn’s Book) and Edward P. Jones (The Known World).

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Horace himself. He and his life are much richer and more complicated than I’d been led to imagine as a schoolboy, and his secrets and torments and successes all raise questions that still seem relevant to humans in pain. To be human is to hurt, and to seek solace, whether that be in meditation or ether or heroin or Vicodin. So much about our pain and its relief is a mystery. Horace explored all that, and he’s helping me do it, too.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Here’s a sneak-preview of the first few sentences:

“The girl whimpered, then yawned a stuttering low moan, and had you been among those in the room with her and her festering tooth on that November day in 1844, you would have been cowed by her pain, awed and struck dumb. The month had been unseasonably warm and bright, and earlier that morning a groundskeeper had enjoyed the weather as he wiped the windows clean; now a cracked pane left a bent shadow sharp on the floor boards. In the low sun’s blue-yellow light, on a table pushed against a bare wall, a dentist’s tool kit lay open but not yet used.”

Monday, November 05, 2012

Goucher College II

Post-Sandy, The Greatest Show's Goucher College appearance is rescheduled for Election Day, Nov. 6.

Vote, and then swing by Van Meter Hall, room 101, at 1:30 p.m.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Captured on film at the Mark Twain House

On that July 6 evening in Hartford, the 68th anniversary of the circus fire, when I read from The Greatest Show at the Mark Twain House, a local public affairs network was there to film. The Connecticut Network has made the video available. If you weren't there and you'd care to watch, you can by clicking here.

Saturday, August 04, 2012


Mr. Boh, mayor of the Land of Pleasant Living
The book blog of Baltimore's Style magazine -- Baltimore Book Talk -- offers this new review of The Greatest Show. Thanks Celeste Sollod! If we ever meet, I'll buy you a Natty Boh.

Monday, July 02, 2012


One of my favorite book blogs, The Quivering Pen, has published a mini-essay I wrote about the challenge I sometimes face–to cry or to curse–when I give public readings from my work. Here's an excerpt:

 Put me in front of a group of interested listeners, and ask me to read from something that has been part of my life for so long­­­–over which I’ve worried/exulted/banged my head–and my throat will tighten.  My eyes will burn and sometimes tear.  I’ll swallow hard, as if to keep down a “Holy Sh-t.” 

I promise, the whole essay is rated G. I'd let my goddaughter read it, if she could read.

And you, reader, might want to check out more of The Quivering Pen. David Abrams, whose forthcoming Iraq war novel, Fobbit, has been called an "instant classic" by Publishers Weekly, offers several gems a week about books new and old. Here's two of my favorites, in which David remembers two of his (and mine, and probably several other people's) favorite writers: Lewis "Buddy" Nordan and Flannery O'Connor.

Bonus tidbit: David lives in Butte, America, hometown of Evel Knievel, and he makes the best shrimp and grits in Montana.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Foreword Reviews magazine just made my day.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

There and Back Again

Not since 1992 have I lived in Hartford or Connecticut. That’s twenty years elsewhere from the city where I was born, where my grandparents and great grandparents are buried, where my Mom and Dad met while she waitressed at a Friendly’s and he took lunch breaks from his job pumping gas, where I scribbled notes as high school athletes dunked or wrestled or leapt.

But every day, I’ve written my way back home.

It’s peculiar, making literature about a place while far from it. With mailing addresses in Arkansas, Montana, or Baltimore, I’ve nevertheless lived in Hartford every day.

 • At Hartford Public High School and in the city’s North End and at my grandparents’ kitchen table via House of Good Hope

• At the Civic Center and Elizabeth Park and Weaver H.S. via The Greatest Show

Now I’m almost done with a novel set in 1840s Hartford, dreaming familiar place names–Asylum Avenue, Dutch Point–into a long-ago reality.

That’s not the same as my body being in Hartford, of course, except that sometimes it is. Now and then, the Hartford I imagine becomes so real, and I see so precisely its detail, that a glance to the window reveals a Montana or a Baltimore that looks no more true than a landscape on a movie screen.

William Kennedy, a favorite author and inspiration, writes exclusively about Albany, New York. He also lives there. Sees it every day. Still, I can picture him looking away from his desk and feeling a moment of disorientation that he’s not in his imagined city. He notes in an essay that the Albany portrayed in his books isn’t the same as the Albany where people live. “It’s my Albany,” he says, and that distinction makes sense to me.

Bank Square Books in Mystic
My Hartford isn’t Hartford. But maybe it’s close enough to fool people that it’s their Hartford the same way it sometimes fools me.

It’s also true that writing my way home doesn’t only happen in my head. This Saturday, for example, May 5 from 1-3 p.m., I’ll be signing copies at a fantastic indie bookstore, Bank Square Books in Mystic. Later in the summer, on July 6, the anniversary of the circus fire, I’ll read at the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

Thanks to Annie Philbrick at Bank Square Books and Steve Courtney at the Mark Twain House for the homecomings.
Where M. Twain lived, Hartford

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A rump-de-diddly fanfare!

Among the cool things about the 21st-century is that not only do you get to write a book, and not only do you get to help make a short film based on the book (sometimes called a book trailer), but you also get to put together a soundtrack for the book. 

Which was not as easy as I'd thought it would be.

But I tried. And now, thanks to the music and literature blog Largehearted Boy, everyone can know exactly what tune I had in my head when I wrote the grand finale circus scene in the story, "The Greatest Show." (Lest you think the choice was some ironic and hip pick like The Trammps' "Disco Inferno," it's not... because "ironic and hip" isn't a suit I wear.) You can also argue with my choices of music to go with "Mrs. Liszak" or "Son of Captain America," or "History Class."

So here you go: a little Jiminy Cricket, a little Derek Trucks, a little Benny Goodman, and a little Schoolhouse Rock.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Monday, April 09, 2012

A gryphon? A unicorn? A novel-in-stories? Some other strange beast?

If you happened to be listening to WYPR's Maryland Morning this a.m., you may have heard me chatting with Tom Hall about the book. (If you didn't, you can listen here.

At the start of the interview, Tom referred to the book's opening, which I've been calling "a story", as "the first chapter." Time and again he said, "Chapter," and I said "story." And then he noted that the front of the book says, The Greatest Show: Stories, but that he thought he was actually reading a novel. He said he couldn't imagine reading the stories out of order, as he might in what is usually advertised as a short story collection. So he asked: What is this book?

Last fall, I sat on a panel at the Baltimore Writers Conference, which panel also included Susi Wyss and Jerry Gabriel, who have both written books that include linked short stories. We talked about the linked stories in general and this question in particular. Jerry's in Drowned Boy are linked. He said so. Susi calls her book, The Civilized World, a "novel-in-stories." She points out what she thinks is a significant difference (and I'm paraphrasing here): that a novel-in-stories has a definitive narrative arc from the first story to the last. That arc, I think, might be one of plot or one of character, but the stories taken together do make for an experience akin to reading a novel, one of developing characters and tension that leads to a climactic and fulfilling experience at the end.

So, Edward Jones' stories, linked by place in All Aunt Hagar's Children and Lost in the City, are purely linked stories because there's not so much a rising arc of development. Winesburg, Ohio, in which we watch George Willard grow and change and eventually leave home, would be more "novel-in-stories."

Tom Hall pointed out, via a tongue-in-cheek definition from writer Chris Offutt, that a novel-in-stories might actually be best defined as a book that hoodwinks readers into buying a short story collection.

And that may be true, too.

In poetry, forms follow particular conventions. A villanelle is not a sonnet. There are clear differences in the number of lines and how the lines are structured. Even the parts of a poem are easily differentiated: a couplet is clearly not a tercet.

Fiction is more amorphous, but we still sometimes talk about the forms as if we want fiction to be like poetry; we crave definition. These sorts of arguments (is it a novella or a long story? A novel-in-stories or linked stories? A short short or a micro-fiction) are entertaining, sometimes, but I'm not sure they are terrifically useful. Fiction in all its forms is so wildly irregular. A novel is 1,000 pages or 150. It's in first person or omniscient or third or a mix.

Then, it seems, the question is less about what a book of fiction is, how we define it, and who is doing the defining. Does that work belong to the writer, the publisher, the reader?


A writer's intention might be to write a book of linked stories in the tradition of Dubliners, then find that an agent or a publisher "a novel" and the reader decides, "These are really just stories."

As I told Tom, my intention with The Greatest Show was to write stories. I didn't even know at first that I was writing a book. But when I figured that out, I began to knit the stories together and even to write some stories specifically to fit the book. I intended to write stories. I didn't have the experience of writing a novel. I'm doing that now. It's different.

Yet, when I write stories I do hope to grab something of the novel's largeness, of the sense that something in the lives of my character's is huge and changing, perhaps for all time. Maybe that's why my stories are so often long. And maybe a bunch of stories that try for something novelistic -- and are linked by character and place and tragedy -- gives a book the feel of a novel.

So what is The Greatest Show? A novel? Novel-in-stories? A collection of linked short stories? 

If you read it, maybe you'll let me know.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Scenes from the birth of a book

Proud papa at the LSU Press booth, AWP-Chicago, for the book's birth  

Grad school pals Alison Pelegrin (poet) and Tom Franklin (novelist) at AWP

Book launch cake! (carrot, oh my yes)
Greg Sesek of Ivy Bookstore enabling readers at the book launch party

First live-bookstore reading at One More Page Books in Arlington, VA

My childhood neighbor from Connecticut showed up! Kristine bought three copies. She's an example for us all.

from the parents and brother and sister, adding to the festivities

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, at Nighbird books with Donald "Skip" Hays, my thesis director, and his wife Patty

with Lisa Sharp, owner of Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, a store with real songbirds indoors

In Oxford, Mississippi, with Sheri at William Faulkner's house.

with novelist Jennifer DuBois and all-around fabulous writer Tom Franklin, preparing to read at the Oxford Conference for the Book

Ole Miss indoors

Oxford outdoors: The justly famous Square Books

Friday, March 16, 2012

Woooo Pig!

The Greatest Show is about to return to the land of its birth, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I'm calling all my fellow Hogs. I'll read at Nightbird Books on Monday night, and some good folk in the community's press corp have taken note. Thanks to Kyle Kellams of KUAF radio and Michelle Parks of CityWire for their careful attention to the book. Click here for Kyle's March 15 Ozarks at Large radio report and here for Michelle's feature story.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Why the long face, Mr. Fiction Writer?

Over at The Missouri Review's blog, I contemplate why in fiction I'm drawn to what's beautiful and sad.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

In which I humbly acknowledge the smarts of a Towson U. English major

The Greatest Show is launched. Reveled at the mega-conference for writers, AWP (more on that to come), and tonight I'm home after a reading on the campus where I teach. Many friends in the room, and students, and former students. One of the best things about the night? An English major in our secondary education track introduced me and the book. I had no idea what she'd say, but she nailed it. The book is exactly what she says. We make 'em pretty good at Towson U.

Here's her intro: 

Michael Downs is an English Professor here at Towson University. His first book, House of Good Hope, won the 2007 River Teeth prize for literary nonfiction, and today he’s going to be reading for us from his new collection of short stories; The Greatest Show, which was inspired by the famous 1944 Hartford circus fire. I personally had never heard of the fire before reading the book, and wasn’t sure what to expect from it.

The first story, Ania, immediately caught my attention and pulled at my heart. I found myself immersed in the life of a hard working Polish woman, who was new to America, and desperate to give her 3 year old son a happy life. So desperate, in fact, that she stole tickets to the circus from her employer. Little did she know that the decision to steal those tickets would change her life, and the life of her son, Teddy, forever.

Although the fire inspired the stories, once submerged in the book I found that the fire wasn’t the main focus. It was about people; Ania, Teddy, Nick, Franco, Lena, and so many other characters were left with scars from the circus that day. But without the fire, Nick and Lena may have never married and Franco would have never been born. Without the fire, Suzanne would have never gone to the strange woman with the scar, Mrs. Liszak, when she was in need.
In the stories, Michael Downs takes us from the circus fire in 1944, to September 11th 2001, and after. He shows us the connections that exist between events, and between people, and that we all live each day without realizing that we have our own role in the greatest show.

Thanks, Toni Townsend.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


The Greatest Show makes its debut this coming week at a conference in Chicago. AWP will draw at least 9,300 writers, teachers of writing, and students of writing to hear writers speak on panels, to hear them read, and to buy their books at the book fair. It's astonishing to think that

1) There are that many writers and aspiring writers in these United States

2) That in reality there are way more than 9,300, because plenty aren't coming

3) That 9,300 of us are willing to travel to Chicago to hang out with fellow scribes. In winter. We kinda like each other, I guess.

Anyhoo, if you are among the multitudes, I'll sign copies of The Greatest Show at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 2, at LSU Press's table. Also on the LSU's docket: the amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson signs her newest volume, Secure the Shadow, and poet Alice Friman will sign her book, Vinculum.

Geaux LSU!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Cover that Drifted Away

Flying Alinga Flaming Ring, 2009,
smoke on paper, 60x40 inches

Two summers ago, I met an artist who paints circus scenes with smoke. Beautiful, haunting, dream-like. Rob Tarbell and I were both in residence at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a farm in the mountains near Lynchburg where folks provided us and two dozen other artists with three squares a day, a comfortable dorm room, and a studio in a barn. “Knock yourselves out,” they told us. “Make art.”

Rob made his while protected by a hazmat suit. Like some bio-terrorism researcher, he’d step inside a tent-like contraption of shiny plastic and ductwork, and he’d affix a canvas overhead. In his hand was a stick, and clipped to the end of the stick was a photo negative or a credit card or some other material full of toxic chemicals. When he touched flame to the fuel, acrid, potent, deadly smoke rose to stain the canvas. A whiff was all it took. Any more and the canvas would start to look like the inside of a chimney.

When I first saw Rob’s art, The Greatest Show didn’t yet have a publisher. But already I envisioned his work on the cover. I asked, he said yes.

He calls the series of circus paintings, “Smoke Rings.” I love how he compares what he does with smoke to what animal trainers do with animals. Both take advantage of the natural tendencies of their subjects to have them do something unnatural. A horse will rear up on its back legs; but only a trainer can teach it to stay up there, balance, and then walk. Rob lets the smoke rise and stain, but he directs it to make pictures, something it wouldn’t ever do without him.

So, yeah. I was smitten. I still am.

But a cover isn’t art alone. It’s also marketing. Months after I met Rob, I read a New York Times piece about book-cover designs that publishers had rejected. Among the reasons, the Times informed me, were that some covers were too light. “White covers,” the story read, “don’t look good on Amazon.”

And I recalled those white backgrounds behind the smoky zebras.

Nevertheless, when my editor at LSU asked whether I had ideas for a cover I forwarded Rob’s work. “They are pretty cool illustrations,” I heard back, “and rather timeless and dreamy-looking—but not very colorful.”

So instead, LSU’s design editor created the beautiful, striking, haunting cover, which is art and also visible on Amazon, and more wondrous than I could have dreamed.

Still, I want people to see Rob’s smoke paintings and their ambiguous, otherworldly tension between childhood fantasies and danger, images that sear my Greatest Show self.

Alinga Trio with Anna Karma Fala, 2009, smoke on paper, 30x44 inches

"Later his dog met her cat, and it was a day before the cat would come out from under the house."

Ha ha. I like this story.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

My father didn't go to the circus

Edw. H. Downs, Age 3

On the day of the fire, July 6, 1944, Ed Downs (then called Ned) was three years old and his parents were already separated and on their way to divorce. My grandfather came by the house to pick up my father, planning an afternoon at the circus. He and my grandmother argued. Who knows the reason. You’re not taking him anywhere! she said.

Hundreds of people did go, though. One hundred sixty-eight died. Ned stayed home, missed out, survived, thank God.

Years later, my Irish great aunts would make the sign of the cross during family gatherings. They’d say, “Thank God that Ned didn’t go to the circus that day.”

That’s the family story. Perhaps the story is apocryphal. When last I mentioned it to my father, he said he didn’t remember hearing it. But I did hear it, years ago. He might have told me. Or maybe his brother did.

Someone must have told me that story. Because the story is the reason I made the main character in The Greatest Show a three-year-old boy when he and his mother go to the circus. That’s the age my father would have been had he gone. In my head, I sent another three-year-old boy in my father’s place. A famous writer I’ve heard speak has often instructed, “Don’t write about what happened in your family. Write about what you fear might have happened.” So when I sat down to write about the circus fire, I created a little boy named Teddy.

…[S]uddenly he’s toppling off the bleachers, falling through air, a little boy in summer shorts and shoes with laces knotted twice, plummeting through heat and the rush of air, too young even to imagine that there is something called death. On the ground his body won’t work anymore. Bits of straw tickle his nose. He can’t move. Heat like the most savage cold weighs on him, and the weight eats away his clothes, invades his skin and the skin under his skin. What’s worse is the fear, his trembling heart, the emerging awareness that his mother is not the world, and that the world hates him.

Ned Downs never made it to that circus. So I sent Teddy instead.