Monday, January 23, 2012

Up to 150


Well, at least the first hundred were fast. This post counts as no. 150 for Creating Van Gogh, a project started back in 2009 and still continuing despite some rather obvious fallow periods. I can't say that when I started Creating Van Gogh, with the specific intention to write about issues I was encountering as I worked through my Van Gogh novel Days on Fire, that I expected it would last into 2012. But I didn't expect it wouldn't either. I was simply ready to get going and see what happened. As I mention above, that first 100--fueled by a fall sabbatical and by constantly encountering new concerns about, and new challenges in, my manuscript--were written in only nine months or so. It's taken me a year and a half to add another fifty posts and reach the "sesquicentennial" mark. Clearly I slowed in my postings after the summer of 2010, but I've also broadened the scope of the blog. Hopefully to good effect. After all, if the purpose of this blog is only to write about the composition of one novel, then after the novel is done there's no point in still going on with it. But that's not the only purpose, and I think there's a good deal to be gained by going on. If nothing else, I've made new friends and colleagues through this blog, one being writer Cathy Day, who is not only writing historical fiction but attempting to remake how creative writing is taught in the academy, a subject of great concern to me too, as you can probably tell by my constant references to the university where I teach. Another such colleague is Erika Dreifus, internet wunderkind, who has not only produced a terrific collection of short historical fiction, Quiet Americans, but who maintains several great web resources for writers, including her blog, Practicing Writing. Creating Van Gogh has also allowed me to raise and explore questions related to historical fiction generally, not just my Van Gogh novel; to discuss various issues going on in the academy and the culture; to recommend books I've enjoyed; to report on conferences like AWP; to tell you about my latest fictional projects; to let off steam (for instance about the debacle of defunding the National Writing Project and other important literacy programs); and even to think through conumdrums like literary agents, as I did in my last post. I've tried not to stray too far the subject of historical fiction, and I've strenuously kept this blog from being about "what I ate for lunch," but I do recognize that to give Creating Van Gogh new life and to keep it going, I can and should comment on several different writing and fictional concerns. Because historical fiction is fiction, first and foremost, and it has a lot more in common with creative writing generally than with history writing. At least that's what I think, and that's what I'm going to keep saying, as long as Creating Van Gogh is around.

Here's hoping for a 150 more posts in the coming years. And let's hope too that they are a fruitful 150. Thanks to everyone who reads.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The mysteries of agents


Writing and attempting to publish a novel is certainly an education. Sometimes you just don't know what's really up, even when you are sure you do. I've had mystifying reactions from agents over the years, but none so mystifying as the one I received from one New York agent in recent months. Last spring, I worked quite closely with this man and his agency as we moved through the usual writer-agent introductions and on to a regular, sustained back and forth about my Van Gogh novel. Some background: Based on my original query letter, the head of the agency called me at home one night early in 2011 and we had a great conversation. He's an older gentleman; a world traveler; quite dignified; and quite a pleasure to talk to. He asked me to send him the entire manuscript of Days On Fire (then called Yellow). Soon after our conversation, I mailed the agent my manuscript, and his office began a careful scrutiny of its contents. The agent eventually wrote me to say that they were impressed with the novel but would like to see a vigorous rewrite, and he sent along a list of specific suggestions. The suggestions seemed reasonable, and so I conducted a substantial revision, more or less staying faithful to their wishes. I mailed the agent the new version, which he and his staff scrutinized just as carefully as they had the first one. As a result, they pronounced it closer but not quite there yet. They asked for additional rewrites, again listing specific concerns. I threw myself into the next revision and tried to make it as exactingly perfect as possible. I have to say that over the course of months of working with this agency I felt the book getting tighter and better; I felt certain this last revision would be the one to put it "over the top." No other agency had expressed such sincere interest in the novel; and I had never engaged in such an ongoing, cooperative, mutually respectful relationship with an agent before. That alone was significant and satisfying, but more significant and satisfying is the benefit it had for my book, which is finally all that matters. Near the end of May, I mailed to them what I hope would be the "final" version of the book, at least the final version before they agreed to represent it to publishers. I felt good about the whole project and about the relationship. My writer friends agreed that the fact the agency kept wanting to see the book and wanting me to work on it suggested a strong interest on their part. After this third manuscript made its way to the agency's office, I received a warm email from the dignified older gentleman--the one whose name is on the agency--saying how glad he was to receive the latest version, and while it would take them "several weeks" to review it and respond, he was looking forward to doing so. So far so good.

The summer passed. I taught a class. I went to the pool some. I took a vacation. I began writing new short stories. Fall came. The semester started at the University of Central Arkansas, where I teach. Students began turning in assignments. I became involved with all the usual teacherly busyness. It took me until the beginning of October to realize that the "several weeks" had become a rather significant period of time. Four months to be exact. I decided to send a polite, brief email to the agent to see how the review of Days on Fire was going and to ask if perhaps I had missed some communication from them. I sent the email from my office at school. I got up, walked across the whole to my wife's office (yes, she's on the same floor) and said something like, "Well, now at least I'll find out what's going on." I had some business in another building, business that would take an hour or so. So I headed off, looking forward to my return, when I would open up my email and find out where matters stood for my novel. (Up to this point, when I had emailed the agent I always received a reply within an hour--sometimes faster. And their examinations of the novel typically took five weeks or so.) Well, when I next checked my email there was no reply from the agent. Hmmm. I gave it a couple weeks, emailed him again from a secondary email address I use, but again I received no reply.

At this point, I was completely befuddled. If they were still reviewing the book, why not just tell me? Or if they were ready to say "no," why not tell me "no"? If they had in fact already said no, and I just missed the message, why not tell me that? No uncomplicated answer to my questions presented itself, but one thing seemed obvious: No one ignores emails from a person they want to have an ongoing business (or personal) relationship with. Apparently, they had decided not to represent the book but also apparently had decided not to tell me. Some writers I've talked to reject this notion as cock-eyed. "They wouldn't reject your book and not tell you," the writers say to me. No, of course, you wouldn't expect any agent to do that, especially not an agent with a fine reputation and storied career as this one has had. (You'll just have to trust me on that characterization.) But, considering all the facts, and applying Ockham's Razor, that's the only answer I can come to. For the heck of it, in December I sent the agent a Happy Holidays message, along with a reminder that I had not heard from him yet about the book. I didn't expect any result from the message, and I got none. So things remain as muddled as ever.

A rather old-fashioned agency in many good ways, this agency is also old-fashioned in that it has no web presence to speak of, and does not even advertise a phone number. Email is their preferred method of communication. So in case you are wondering why I don't just pick up the phone and call, that's why. Clearly, the time has come to start fresh with new agents. This isn't really a problem. As a writer you have to do that any time you get a rejection from an agency. But what stings this time is that as of last May no rejection seemed to have been imminent--and then none was ever sent. Exactly nothing was ever sent. A colleague of mine, who will publish his book of short stories with a British press next year tells me I should just give up on American publishers and turn my attention to England. While I haven't "given up" on American publishers (no American publisher has even seen the book yet!) I probably will follow my friend's advice, not because of his success, but because I had been thinking the same thing myself for some weeks and even years now. My wife has just published her study of university creative writing programs with a British press, and she has nothing but good things to say about the experience. [Stephanie Vanderslice, Rethinking Creative Writing, Professional and Higher, 2011]. Yes, I'll move on--both to other American agents and to British ones--but as I do so I know I'll recall my relationship with this agent with wistfulness and regret. Not for his (implicit) rejection--rejection is to be expected in the writing life--but for the confounded mystery of it all.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Fast and loose?


My latest creative project, which for last several weeks has seen me involved in drastic, medically necessary line editing, is a series of stories half in historical in nature and half not. I've mentioned this in a couple blogs since last summer. What binds the stories is the
setting--Nantucket Island, Massachusetts--but I've found some similar themes evolving across the stories, whether they are contemporary or historical. I guess this isn't surprising since all the stories arise out of the same imagination.

The earliest story, chronologically, takes place in 1795. (Interestingly, this was the last story to be drafted.) The catalyst for the story was reading about an actual, and rather significant, event from that year: the robbing of the new Nantucket Bank by a group of off-islanders during the Nantucket's June sheep-shearing festival. No robbery is good for those victimized, but this crime proved particularly divisive, as accusations began flying wildly (cunningly?), especially from the mouth of the bank's president, one Joseph Chase. Islanders very quickly took sides in laying blame. On one side were the Quakers, who tended to be Jeffersonian Democrats; on the other side were the Congregationalists, who tended to be Federalists. Each side thought they had an explanation for the crime and were sticking to their guns, despite evidence to the contrary. This is especially true in the case of the Quakers. (Chase was part of their ranks.) At one point, William Coffin, a Congregationalist and Federalist--and someone suspected of being involved with the robbery--had to carry out his own investigation on the mainland, because the mostly Quaker, Democratic bank directors refused to look into, or didn't want to believe, clues and rumors that pointed to culprits from there. After months of searching off-island, Chase actually brought back to Nantucket two men from New York who admitted to the crime. But the bank directors, too busy trying to pin the crime on Coffin and his Federalist allies, never took the suspects seriously, and the two men were later permitted to escape. It proved a disastrously acrimonious episde for the island, and in the years following Nantucketers tended to look back on the pre-1795 years as a period of prelapsarian grace.

The Nantucket Bank robbery is a fascinating story--with even more complications that I've suggested above--so I couldn't resist approaching the event fictionally. It's probably worthy of a novel, but for now I've merely written a long short story. While I've stayed true to several facts about the case, I've also changed many facts, left others out, and am ignorant of still more. My characters, while based on real participants, are given new names and identities, and revised personal backgrounds. Also, in trying to shape the robbery into a coherent story, I've conflated the timeline and eliminated certain events and people that were significant to the historical account. Whether it works as a story is my main concern, not whether it works as history. Right now I can't tell because I'm still very close to it. My main worry for now, actually, is that because it's based on a real case I encountered in a history book (Nathaniel Philbrick's wonderful Away Off-Shore), I'm trying for too much historical perspective. But I have a feeling that historians, and perhaps Philbrick himself, would say that I'm playing way too fast and far too loose with the facts.

However, I wonder aloud--and am wondering in this post--if by giving my characters invented names and (mostly) invented identities, I have opened up exactly that "fast and loose" space for myself. I guess that's why I did it. (I say "I guess" because it was an intuitive choice. I didn't labor over it; I just did it.) Unlike my Van Gogh novel, I am not using real names. (Altough I am using a real event and a real island.) In my novel, I can fairly be charged, if in just a few spots, of creating an "alternative history." In completely abandoning real names and identities does the fiction become more or less alternative? Can a writer be criticized for not sticking to the "known facts" about a character if that character is fictional? What if the fictional character is in some vital ways drawn from a real person? Does this create a meaningful distinction or a distinction without a difference? Oh, the entangled mental waters one wades into when one starts blending history and fiction. But, then again, that's the fun of it, right?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Dancing with historical fiction


Happy new year, everyone, wherever you are in the world. It's been a while since I've posted, so I figure it's time to get cracking! And that's good, because a subject came up in one of my classes last semester that I've been wanting to write to you all about. As I've mentioned on this blog before, one of the courses I teach at the University of Central Arkansas is called Forms of Fiction. It's not a literature course, but we certainly do read plenty of short stories as we survey some of the genres contemporary fiction writers work in. One of those genres (of course) is historical fiction; and I was pleased to see that this past semester more of my students took up the challenge of turning the research I assigned into finished historical fictions. One of the more interesting of these fictions was based on the Dancing Plague of 1518, a truly bizarre episode that occurred in Strausborg, France and resulted in hundreds of people dancing involuntarily for days on end, perhaps as many as a hundred of whom finally succumbed to stroke, heart attack, or exhaustion. The Plague started with one inflicted woman, known as Frau Troffea, who began dancing a jig in a street in Strausborg. Others joined her and within a month's time up to four hundred people were dancing and, here's the rub, they seemed unable to stop despite their apparent desire to stop. Contemporary accounts refer to looks of "fear and desperation" on the faces of the dancers. Strangely (well, is anything not strange about medicine in the 16th century?) the best answer medical practitioners could come up with was to encourage the dancers to dance more! They cleared fields and opened dance halls; they hired musicians to play. Apparently the thought was that in this way the illness would work itself out. All that happened, however, was that more people danced and many people died.

In my student's story, Frau Troffea occupies a fittingly prominent position. She is set to dancing by St. Vitus, whom she has unwittingly offended. (According to an old Catholic superstition, crossing St. Vitus can lead to compulsive dancing.) It was a promising, if somewhat rushed story, but whatever the story's deficiencies I am grateful to its author for introducing me to this fascinating case. Turns out that British historian John Waller has written a recent book about it, called The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness (2009). Of course, the question anyone must ask is, Why did the people dance? There are various modern explanations, medical in nature, for the phenomenon, none of which completely satisfy. Waller's best guess is mass psychogenic illness resulting from several years of extreme psychological stress, malnutrition, and disease. I'm not sure that explanation completely satisfies either, but unless you want, like my student, to blame it on St. Vitus, that's what you're left with. In any case, it's a fascinating subject and well worth looking into. Thanks to Karen Cochrum for my introduction to this Weird But True tale.