Sunday, December 7, 2014

Self Publishing in a World of Literary Democratization

Vanity publishing, it used to be called. It happened because the author of a book was not willing to go through the gauntlet of rejection and revision. I've seen so many self-published books in which the author was not well-served by the publishing outfit that was happy to take the money but not at all willing to provide editorial services to save the author from his or her self. That's the history.

But in recent years the big house publishers have been overwhelmed by the number of submissions of viable manuscripts. They can't publish them all. Worthy manuscripts are rejected and end up in boxes. Part of this dilemma has been solved by a whole raft of small presses emerging. These presses make beautiful, well-edited books. Authors accessing these presses are not self-publishing, but they are making a tactical decision to get the book out and in front of people, and to begin the next one. My book, Forty Martyrs, soon to be published by Burrow Press of Orlando, FL, has stories in it that are 25 years old, go back to 1986. The stories in the book have been cited in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize and have to be seen as worthy of print. One of the stories appeared in the Kenyon Review, one the New England Review. One of the happiest of developments with Burrow Press is that they are giving me the opportunity, over a year, to make the manuscript the very best it can be. With the help of Ryan Rivas of Burrow Press, I'm combing over the stories, I'm working to sequence the stories in a proper and defensible way, so that there is a "flow" to the narrative, without impeding each story's ability to stand alone. I'm working with Olive Kitteridge as a model, one of my favorite books ever. This is not vanity publishing. The principles of Burrow Press used to be the principles of the big houses, in the time of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Regrettably, the big houses now are not run by book people. They are corporate, and they have to generate a profit for their stockholders. How many "blockbuster" biographies of Burt Reynolds and the Clintons do we need?

But there is a place for self-publishing. Authors who are well known format and proof their own work, make their own beautiful book, and put it on the market. They reap the profits straight away. Well known authors are not going to press with manuscripts that are not proofed and are not beautiful books. The big houses no longer market or fund book tours. The promise of publishing by a big house is, like many things in these times, receding. Self-publishing is a tactical option for a career author. It is not a newbie shortcut.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

More on "River," the Final Story in Olive Kitteridge; Anticipating Revisions of Forty Martyrs

Elizabeth Strout

For a few weeks I've been thinking about "River," the closing story in Elizabeth Strout(pictured above)'s wondrous novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge.  As noted before, my interest is self-interest -- trying to solve a problem in my own novel-in-stories tentatively titled Forty Martyrs..  I wrote my novel-in-stories over 25 years.  When I won the Flannery O'Connor Award, the series editor, the amazing and wonderful Charles East (RIP), recommended that my long story (40 pages) "Forty Martyrs" come out of the collection because it was the 12th story in the set and would have run the book to over 300 pages.  At that time, I thought "Forty Martyrs" was my best story ever (circa 1986), but we agreed it could serve as foundation for another book.  In 1994, eight years after its omission from Silent Retreats, the story appeared in the New England Review, thanks to acting editor of the NER David Huddle, and that year was listed in "100 Other Distinguished Short Stories" in the back of Best American Short Stories 1995, affirming, I thought then, that it was my best.  Still I've never regretted it being omitted from Silent Retreats.  I was, I thought then, banking it for the future.  It was the first story that included (in cameo) my second recurring character after the infamous Skidmore of Silent Retreats.  His name was Lowell Wagner, a clinical psychologist and college professor, and in a way it could be said that he is the Olive K. of Forty Martyrs, the glue holding the stories together.

I was a psych minor in undergraduate school, and I met regularly with Jim Kenny, chair of the psych department there, for four years.  I count my therapy in undergraduate school as 40% of my liberal arts education, and I embraced social psychology as my minor in my doctoral program at UVa.  I have a number of friends, including Jim Kenny of course, who are shrinks, psychologists, and MSWs with whom I check after writing something about Lowell, just to make sure I'm tracking with best practices and worst mistakes of professionals in the field.  I have most of the recent diagnostic manuals on my book shelf, well thumbed through and bristling with post-its.  The Lowell stories in FMS currently number seven, not counting the closing story "The Kopi" which was a pathological mess and didn't work at all.  The stories have all been published in good places.  Since publication they've been massaged to click with one another in that interesting way of novels-in-stories.  Don't laugh, but when I first started writing Forty Martyrs Suite, I thought I was inventing that form. I thought then that that was the form a short story writer should attempt when writing long work. I had many ideas about it all:

  • the stories could be read in any order because they weren't really set down in chronological (it turns out that it's best if they are read in the order in which they appear in the book);
  • the overall effect of the book would be a series of slices of life, which is how life is experienced (I thought back then);
  • if read out of order, no harm done except getting a peek at the book's future, what happens, which is of minor interest in a character driven novel;
  • the final story would not be saddled with the task of pulling things together because in real life nothing pulls everything together -- we just move on (I still think that);
  • the links between and among the stories are not plot links but character links (the action of the story in a novel-in-stories happens in the mind of the reader as she gets to know the characters and as the characters act).

Chapters in a novel-in-stories are called "stories."  The stories are self-standing, can be marketed to journals and magazines.  Published alone, they are not excerpts from the novel.  They are stories.  I pictured a thin vertical line between interconnected story collections and novels-in-stories.  My copy of Olive Kitteridge doesn't categorize the book as a novel or a collection.  It is, as they say, what it is.  Still, readers like a sense of direction in long work, so the publishers will say, but Olive Kitteridge has no sense of direction.  We don't actually follow Olive around Crosby watching what she does, nor does the plot thicken.  Each story is like a new beginning, and the point of view characters are frequently not Olive or Henry but someone else in the town and Olive just happens by.  What the reader can count on in the book, since the plot doesn't really ever tighten down or amp up the tension, is Olive being her rough-hewn, complex, outspoken, sometimes impossible self.  We get glee simply from "knowing" Olive and marveling at the consistency with which she behaves in the way we know she will.

The Book

At the opening of "River," we see this one more time.  She lives alone now, and has settled into routines and habitual thoughts, such as she doesn't mind dying but wants it to be quick.  She is, as usual, fast to judge others, usually uncharitably, negatively.  When Jack Kennison wanders into her path as she's backing up one day, she recognizes him and recalls how she and Henry thought Jack was an elitist idiot.  This is typical stuff from Olive, and Strout is letting us review her (Olive's) behaviors and malfunctions, all of which make us feel we really do know her as we approach the end of the book.  But we have also seen Olive be quite giving in the foregoing stories, how she attempted to counsel a starving girl, how she intervened when she encountered a former student who might have been a few minutes from shooting himself, how she stayed in touch with her husband for years while he lingered in a comprehensive care facility with no ability to communicate.

Midway, then, in "River," she comes upon Jack laying on the walking path where she takes her routine early morning walks. She hurries to his side and comes out with a prototypical Olive query.  She barks, "Are you dead?"  He's not.  He is recently widowed and depressed. While sitting on the bench he had fainted.  Jack is having intimations of mortality.  They are a mile from her car (and his), and when she says she's going for help, Jack says, "Don't leave me alone."  Just as Olive doesn't want to die slowly, Jack doesn't want to die alone.  Somehow she gets him up onto the bench, and she sits with him for a while until he's ready to walk back to the cars.  She takes him in her car to a doctor, and waits hours while the doctor runs tests to try to diagnose the problem.  Jack sends a nurse messenger to the waiting room to tell her he's worried about her sitting out there all that time, and Olive realizes she has a real purpose being there, and she likes having a purpose, she is more than willing to wait for him and to give him a ride back to his car.

This begins the soul connection between Olive and Jack.  After a couple of political arguments that end in a draw, they settle into each other.  Nothing we would have remotely expected from Olive.  In former years neither of them would have chosen the other, but at this time they do.  Olive figures a few things out about people, how for years she's been driving them off, and Jack's mood levels out.  Olive has changed on this journey.  The journey has changed her, in the nick of time. That is the reward of the book for the reader.   

What tendencies does Lowell have that we are concerned about, and what is the prognosis for him addressing these matters in his remaining years?  Is it feasible that there could be signs of his changing  in the last story; but first, is the reader really tracking Lowell's malfunctions or does the book design demonstrate them too quietly, like butter on toast spread too thin?  That is the puzzle for the revision, and for the last story in Forty Martyrs.  Not a capstone, not a pulling together of all the random plotlines.  Rather, simply some promise that the book knows what it is about and that there's hope for Lowell, my flawed protagonist.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout -- Many Thoughts

A good way to begin this would be to give you the chance to read the NY Times' review of Olive Kitteridge back in April of 2008, before the Pulitzer, because this blogpost will not be a review, but a review will help as background.

A couple of years ago I became familiar with Olive Kitteridge because I understood it was a novel in stories, a form I was working in with my set of stories tentatively titled Forty Martyrs Suite, as in a "suite" of stories.  I was very interested in how Elizabeth Strout might pull this form off, because I found that I had painted myself into a corner with my effort. I felt compelled to write a capstone story that "pulled it all together."  I was all worried about keeping the set not random-seeming--in other words making a novel of a set of short stories but keeping each part of the novel a stand-alone story.  This matter didn't concern the author of Olive Kitteridge at all.  Her character Olive pulled it all together by her very existence. In the review from the Times, Louise Thomas says that Olive was a big woman and large personality and seems to operate on the book like a planet, influencing all the stories with a gravitational pull to the center.

In my recent reading of the book, I took a careful look at the last story, "River," which joins Olive (spoiler alert) after the passing of her husband Henry.  She frequently thinks to herself that at 74, she doesn't mind dying so long as it is quick.  After a stroke, Henry lingered a number of years in a rest home, incapable of communication or of even letting Olive know he was consciously present.  She didn't want that for herself, for sure.  In the story's opening, she nearly runs over Jack Kennison while backing up, and this sends her into her usual judgmental spiral, calling him an idiot (to herself).  People would say of Kennison that he was always happy to let the world know he was well-off and went to Harvard, and Olive couldn't understand why he and his wife would ever have bothered to settle in a house they built that wasn't even on the water.  "Idiots!"

The story in other words gives us, at its opening, the usual Olive, full of opinions about people and almost never generous ones.  Circumstances however unfold that place Olive with Jack, the most unlikely of persons for her to be with, and all things being equal, she observes, he probably wouldn't have picked her either.  And somehow her recent loneliness helps her understand how she cuts people off, occasionally hurts them, and drives them away (as she'd been doing with her grown-up son ever since he married the wrong woman and moved away), but Jack would not be driven away even by her insults, which he was capable of answering back with equal pointedness, something Olive was not accustomed to and which settled her down. So after this booklength tour of normal human interaction in Crosby, Maine, the story ends up with Olive and Jack together, teaching each other a few things they've been needing to know for most of their lives. It is apparent in "River" that Henry wasn't right for Olive, unable to stand up to her and get her to realize and summon her best self. But Jack, depressed about the loss of his own wife, and worried about being alone to the end (because after the way he treated her, his gay daughter wasn't likely to come back to him), reached out to Olive and touched something in her that hadn't been touched before, yes even at that late stage.

This story, "River," is most likely why Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer, but we have to read the whole book for the last story to work as it does, for us to see the effect Jack has on Olive, who is, to say the least, a hard case. The story works mysteriously.  Not a capstone. Not a culmination. Not a resolution.  Rather, a gorgeous display of Elizabeth Strout's uncommon command of how human beings are.

I wish I could say this story solves my problem in Forty Martyrs; rather it gives indication that I have more work to do so that my last story in this novel-in-stories provides a revelation that makes the journey worth it without presuming to solve anything. It could be I have a couple more stories to write before I arrive at a clear view of the close.  Anyway.  I am convinced that this form, in fiction, is one of the most satisfying to read.  If you haven't, read Olive Kitteridge, and then get back to me here in "comments" so we can talk about it.  :-)

Sunday, June 30, 2013


Pilar, Hemingway's fishing boat, built for him in the 1930's, in this picture is completely reconditioned and displayed on what used to be the tennis courts at Hem's house in Cuba, Finca Vigia.  Pilar now belongs to the Cuban government, along with the old estate which up until fairly recently (not sure when actually) had been sitting there undisturbed since Hemingway got outta Dodge in 1960 with the revolution overtaking the island.  I don’t think Hem knew he might never see the place or the boat again.  Paul Hendrickson wrote a book, Hemingway's Boat:  Everything He Loved in Life, And Lost covering the Pilar years, 1934-1961. (Skidmore turned me onto it a few months ago and I have it on Kindle now and am much enjoying it.)  I have read the Hotchner and Baker bios of Hemingway, and probably, sorry to say, am more drawn to the biography than I am to Papa's original work.  With each biography I read, a new dimension of Hemingway opens up.  I think probably to some extent, short of 100%, each of the bios is true (and we benefit from the varying angles the writers take), but Hendrickson's book is different and quite compelling.  For one thing, it is by no means told chronologically.  For another, Hendrickson went out and found some of the surviving relatives and the old friends from the Pilar phase.  Because it's ostensibly about the years Hemingway had Pilar, there is a lot of fishing in it, and many runs from Key West to Cuba and Cuba to Bimini, a lot of competitions, boxing, trying to catch the biggest blue marlin, and literary stuff by the bushel (Hemingway and Fitzgerald had the same editor at Scribner's, the fabulous Max Perkins).  Perkins, thus, was the meat in the sandwich between these two modernist literary giants who also were jealous back-stabbing drunken jet-setters, one with killer instinct, one not.  Guess which is which.  

Hem aboard Pilar, age 50

Pilar was a beauty, Hemingway's own little clubhouse for action, fun, flirtation, and taking pot-shots at Nazi submarines. He actually owned a tommy gun.  One of the most interesting comments Hendrickson makes is about Hemingway's rapid deterioration.  He was just shy of  sixty-one when, clad in a red robe, he shot himself with both barrels in the foyer of his Ketchum, Idaho home.  His wife, fourth, Mary, had taken steps to prevent this, but not very energetic ones considering Papa was determined and perhaps genetically pre-determined.  The guns and the ammo were separated, the key to the gun cabinet in the basement not very well hidden.  

It was 1954 when Hemingway was in Africa and he and his wife (Mary) were involved in two separate plane crashes inside of a week (  Hemingway was terribly burned in the second one.  Hands, legs.  And burns like that affect the entire system.  He already had skin cancer, covered with his famous beard, probably because of all the rays he captured while navigating the Gulf Stream over 25 years.  He drank to excess (putting it mildly), Hendrickson offers, because he was uncertain, tormented, and packed inside himself a lifetime ton of Catholic guilt (see the Gertrude Stein quote at the bottom of this blog).  He was self-medicating, Hendrickson theorizes, but whatever --  all those malfunctions separately let alone combined aren't good for the brain.  I was saying above that Hendrickson quoted several friends of Hem who said he didn't seem to have a middle-age, how he was rather robust at 45 and in his fifties was an old man.  The picture of him above was taken at 50, before the plane crashes.

For about seven years, Hemingway lived in a corner suite of the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana.  This was his transition period between Key West (and his second wife Pauline) and Finca Vigia (Cuba) (and his third wife Martha Gellhorn).  He was drinking plenty, and, so he said in letters to his editor, Perkins, he was writing in the morning and fishing in the afternoon.  But we must remember my favorite observation from the Baker biography, that after 1930 and The Sun Also Rises, and certainly after the great A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway was more famous in America than Babe Ruth. Check it out:  He was a writer (!), more famous than the Babe.  After he got his boat in 1934, celebrities, politicians, movie stars, rich people of all stripes and genders, converged on him to deep sea fish, party, and cavort.  Writers are of two minds -- they need more privacy than most and get cranky if they don’t get it, but in reaction to that they can be party animals when they get away from the worktable, and in Hem's case, centrifugal force pulled him to his boat and the life of a jet-setter and gifted self-promoter. Well, so, the Hotel Ambos Mundos was a sort of writerly hideout where he got work done – probably more work done than he was accomplishing in the second floor study above the garage in Key West..  Mornings mostly.  In the afternoons he might be hosting someone on Pilar.  In the evenings and very late at night, often by himself, he cavorted in the seedy back streets of Havana.  Hendrickson confesses that he's not sure when the transition from Pauline and his three sons to the beautiful Martha Gellhorn actually began.  "Ambos Mundos" means "between two worlds."

Hemingway in the last year or so, only 59 or 60 years old.

He was born in Oak Park, IL, suburban Chicago, the son of a doctor.  I thought I read in the Hendrickson book that Ernest was raised Catholic, but I couldn't find it when I looked back. Thanks to Rollins College Hemingway scholar Gail Sinclair, I corresponded with Hendrickson and asked about that.  He clarified that Hemingway was not raised Catholic but marginally converted in the post-war period and then became only a bit more of a practiciing Catholic when he was married to Pauline and living in Key West.  Overall, Hendrickson told me, Hemingway never was particularly religious. This is a revision from my original blog in this space, based on Hendrickson's and Sinclair's input.  His father, worried about possible amputations because of the onset of diabetes (well, who knows what all he was worried about -- he did leave a letter but I never believe those) shot himself with a pistol in the master bedroom of the Oak Park house in 1928.  Five  Hemingways over three generations (email from Gail Sinclair) killed themselves, beginning with Hem's father and ending with his granddaughter Margaux. Few of those suicides were as natural as Ernest's, because for him life was lived large as a blood sport. At least 8 severe concussions in his life, including being blown up in WWI at the age of 19 or so, car wrecks, skylights falling on him, two plane crashes in a week, oh and don't forget the guy loved to box. And then there were the shock treatments.  Aboard Pilar trying to shoot a shark; he once shot himself in both legs with a pistol. 

While I believe his deterioration happened because of celebrity, self-medication, concussions, burns, shock treatments, and probably some genetic inevitability (many signs his father was bipolar [using a contemporary term]), and began perhaps as late as 1950 (though Hemingway's book A Moveable Feast, some of his finest bitchy writing, appeared after his death, a good part of it was written in the 1940s; in the late 1950s part of his depression had to do with his mournful realization that he couldn't write anymore). Gertrude Stein, such a friend and admirer of his, ruthlessly turned on him as a disappointment much earlier than 1950 and made an enemy for life.  She said he abandoned his best literary self around 1925.  This is she, taken from Hendrickson's book:

When I first met Hemingway he had a truly sensitive capacity for emotion, and that was the stuff of the first stories; but he was shy of himself and he began to develop, as a shield, a big Kansas City-boy brutality about it, and so he was “tough” because he was really sensitive and ashamed that he was. Then it happened. I saw it happening and tried to save what was fine there, but it was too late. He went the way so many other Americans have gone before, the way they are still going. He became obsessed by sex and violent death.*

*Hendrickson, Paul (2011-09-20). Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (p. 277). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I strongly recommend Paul Hendrickson's book about Hemingway and Pilar if you have an interest in the man himself. As a writer (though I'm not Hemingway of course), an Illinois boy, doctor’s son, and a failed Catholic myself, I was pulled through it like a man obsessed.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013



HIM:  Damn everything but the circus!  (To himself) And here am I, patiently squeezing fourdimensional ideas into a twodimensional stage, when all of me that's anyone or anything is in the top of a circustent... (A pause)
ME:  I didn't imagine you were leading a double life -- and right under my nose, too.
HIM (Unhearing, proceeds contemptuously):  The average "painter" "sculptor" "poet" "composer" "playwright" is a person who cannot leap through a hoop from the back of a galloping horse, make people laugh with clown's mouth, orchestrate twenty lions.
ME:  Indeed.
HIM  (To her):  But imagine a human being who balances three chairs, one on top of another, on a wire, eighty feet in the air with no net underneath, and then climbs into the top chair, sits down, and begins to swing...
ME (Shudders):  I'm glad I never saw that -- makes me dizzy just to think of it.
HIM (Quietly):  I never saw that either.
ME:  Because nobody can do it.
HIM:  Because I am that.  But in another way, it's all I ever see.
ME:  What is?
HIM (Pacing up and down):  This:  I feel only one thing, I have only one conviction; it sits on three chairs in Heaven.  Sometimes I look at it, with terror; it is such a perfect acrobat!  The three chairs are three facts -- it will quickly kick them out from under itself and will stand on air; and in that moment (because everyone will be disappointed) everyone will applaud.  Meanwhile, some thousands of miles over everyone's head, over a billion empty faces, it rocks carefully and smilingly on three things, on three facts, on:  I am an Artist, I am a Man, I am a Failure -- it rocks and it swings and it smiles and it does not collapse tumble or die because it pays no attention to anything except itself.  (Passionately) I feel, I am aware -- every minute, every instant, I watch this trick, I am this trick, I sway -- selfish and smiling and careful -- above all the people.  (To himself) And always I am repeating a simple and dark little formula...  always myself mutters and remutters a trivial colourless microscopic idiom -- I breathe, and I swing; and I whisper:  "An artist, a man, a failure, MUST PROCEED."
ME:  (Timidly, after a short pause):  This thing or person who is you, who does not pay any attention to anyone else, it will stand on air?
HIM:  On air.  Above the faces, lives, screams -- suddenly.  Easily:  alone.
ME:  How about the chairs?
HIM:  The chairs will all fall by themselves down from the wire and be caught by anybody, by nobody; by somebody whom I don't see and who doesn't see me:  perhaps by everybody.
ME:  Maybe yourself -- you, away up ever so high -- will hear me applaud?
HIM (Looking straight at her, smiles seriously):  I shall see your eyes.  I shall hear your heart move.
ME:  Because I shall not be disappointed, like the others.

                                                                                                      --  from "i  six nonlectures"
                                                                                                                         e e cummings