Monday, August 26, 2013

HIstorical fiction from Franklin and Fennelly


Popular southern novelist Tom Franklin has entered the domain of historical fiction before, first with his bestselling Hell at the Breech (2003) and then again (sort of) with his lurid, black-comic, historical fantasy Smonk (2007). So it's not surprising to find myself using this space to review another historical novel with his signature attached to it, namely The Tilted World, scheduled for release in September.   What's different this time is that Franklin isn't the author but the co-author, the other co-author being none other than his energetic and ambidextrous wife Beth Ann Fennelly, she of well-deserved poetry and nonfiction fame (and current director of the esteemed MFA program at the University of Mississippi).  It's hard to know what made Fennelly want to jump into fictional waters or Franklin to move aside so gracefully to allow her a place in the pool, but readers will be glad for their mutual cooperation.  The historical setting for The Tilted World is the Great Flood of 1927—an event, the authors note in their engaging afterword, that not only displaced thousands of southerners and came with a political fallout similar to that which followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but which permanently altered the social and political landscape of America.  An event as titanic as that one certainly deserves a fictional retelling, but what proves more relevant to, and interesting in, the novel is another aspect of 1920s American history: prohibition.   After all, the America Franklin and Fennelly depict is an America very late into the peculiar experiment, an America in which revenuers can easily be bribed or otherwise made to disappear, where the revenuers themselves when off duty enjoy illegal whiskey as much as anyone, where things have gotten so bad Herbert Hoover has to create a special task force of select, honest revenuers, because so many in the service are uselessly corrupt.  In such an America move our two protagonists: Ted Ingersoll, a former army sharpshooter and one of those honest revenue agents, and Dixie Clay, a young wife of a Mississippi bootlegger who, only after she marries and realizes exactly how her husband makes his money, discovers she is quite the natural at making moonshine herself. 

What brings the two protagonists together is a child--orphaned due to a violent raid on a bootlegger--that Ingersoll needs to find a foster home for, and the fact that Dixie has recently suffered through a series of dispiriting miscarriages.   Indeed, Dixie is quite glad that Ingersoll found his way through the woods to her home, so glad she puts aside her natural suspicions.  And not surprisingly, Ingersoll takes a shining to the pretty, freckled, whip smart young woman.  There are a few roadblocks to romance though.  First of all, Dixie is married.  Second, she's a bootlegger.  Third, a historic flood is about to release itself upon the American South.  And fourth, her cad of a husband Clay is, unknown to Dixie, conspiring to commit a severe act of sabotage against their hometown and just at the worst possible moment.  Will love prevail?  Well, maybe so.  

Cagily focusing The Tilted World on two equally significant protagonists—one male, one female—the two different writers develop the novel on separate tracks for most of its length, permanently bringing together the protagonists only about three quarters of the way through.  (And fittingly with a powerhouse, nearly perfect scene that features a medical emergency with the child and some brilliantly calm parental nerves.)  It’s impossible not to imagine Franklin acting as the writer of Ingersoll or to imagine anyone but Fennelly as the originator of Dixie, who discovers her true role in life after Ingersoll gives her the orphan to raise as her own.  Throughout, Fennelly portrays Dixie’s struggles to align who she is with what she is allowed to do.  Not merely a pretty, innocent woman done wrong, Dixie is a proud craftsman, a woman given the unusual job of running the still because of her bootlegger husband’s frequent sales trips.  She proves not just capable at making tasty moonshine but superb at it, so good her husband insists she sacrifice quality for quantity so that he can better keep up with demand and turn an even better profit.  Dixie refuses to submit to this violation and comes up with a better plan: she increases the quality even more, so that her customers will be willing to pay many times what they would for ordinary liquor and in the process earn her husband the enhanced profit he seeks.  This sly strategy to both maintain her self-respect and pacify her husband fails in the end.  But then again everything is destined to fail in the light of the unprecedented natural disaster released upon Mississippi.  

Franklin’s Ingersoll, meanwhile, is a loveable, quietly heroic galoot.  While he’s a well-crafted and credible hero, what fascinates the reader in his chapters is less Ingersoll himself than the world of revenuers, those men trying to carry out a strange job against impossible odds, cultual lethargy, and their own growing distaste for the hypocrisy of it all.  In the Ingersoll chapters, Franklin’s taste for the lurid, the off-color, and the folkloric rise to the fore, engendering the fine entertainment we have come to expect from him. 

Eventually, of course, the two separate tracks of the novel merge, and half the delight of the book from that point on is guessing which scenes and what lines and which character impulses one of the authors suggested to the other.  It is a credit to them both that the latter chapters, when Dixie and Ingersoll are bound together, are as seamless and engaging as any in the book.

The Tilted World is a well-told, commercially viable literary novel set in the time of a notable historical event.  It’s no knock to the novel to say that one can easily imagine a movie coming from it.  It is that tight of a creation.  Of course, as with any book there are flaws.  One could wish for an even stronger emphasis on the flood itself and the resulting geo-political damage, or for a further exploration of the history of enforcement of the Volstead Act—but it’s a novel not an academic treatise.  One could wish that the inevitable pairing of Dixie and Ingersoll seem a bit less inevitable and the sex scene between them a little less ludicrous and a lot less telegraphed; one could wish for a few more characters who seemed less like types we’ve seen in southern fiction before.  On the other hand, when two writers of very different styles and sensibilities work together it is always a risk that they will cancel each other out, that what makes each most idiosyncratic, even masterful, will be sacrificed in the name of compromise, with the result being a muddled mess of competent but finally uninteresting writing.   It’s safe to say that that did not happen to Fennelly and Franklin in The Tilted World.  Rather than blunting each other’s strengths they seemed to have enhanced them.  In fact, it seems as if it’s the poet Fennelly who discovers and probes and solidifies the heart of the book, while it’s the fiction writer Franklin who keeps the story humming along at a steady pace.  That’s a delicate dance few writing couples, to say nothing of writing married couples, can pull off.  It’s a pleasure worth the price of admission to see Fennelly and Franklin make it work.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A new blog future


I started Creating Van Gogh with the idea of thinking through and expounding on various issues I was confronting in my attempt to write a compelling, credible historical novel: What were the "rules"?  How   do I handle this research thing?  What exactly is the proper function of the imagination in historical fiction, and is its function any different than for any other kind of fiction?  What do I do with contrasting historical "facts"?  What am I allowed to do when borrowing work that my character, in real life, created?  These are only a few of the many questions I've considered in my four years of doing this blog, and I've gotten some useful answers from my readers.  Of course, there are plenty of questions I probably should have considered but didn't.  And along the way, as various professional and personal events have unfolded in my life, I've written about other issues not strictly related to historical fiction: some crazy administrative developments at my university, for instance, and how the public conception of a writing professor rarely corresponds with the real nature of the job.  I've written about a Novel Writing Workshop I teach; what I've learned; how I might do it better.  I've written about four different AWP conferences and the UK's Great Writing conference; I've written about Toad Suck Review, the journal I help edit; I've written about the connections between running and writing.  I've recommended books; I've reported on some of my publications.  In short, Creating Van Gogh today is less about historical fiction, or about my Van Gogh novel, than it is about the state of imaginative writing generally and the art of teaching imaginative writing.  Yes, that's right, I'm guilty of making another writing and teaching blog.

That being the case, I've decided to create a new blog this fall that in its very conception is broader than the my original conception for Creating Van Gogh and thus fairly allows me to discuss any relevant issue or development or fantastic idea I've heard about in regards to the literary life and the unique nuturing of literary lives that takes place in university settings.  As I said, I've been kind of doing this already, and so it's probably time for the blog itself to match the identity of the content.  I haven't finalized a name yet.  I'm toying with a few possibilities, Letteratti being the one I like the most right now.  When a name is finalized, you'll be the first to know.  Meanwhile, after a few more entries, Creating Van Gogh will go into suspended animation.  It won't quite end; that is, I certainly can see myself putting up the occasional post, especially for any updates regarding my book.  But for the most part it will be in a state of rest.   I began the blog while I was in the throes of finalizing a draft of my novel.  Now that the novel has been published, it seems like a good time to let it nap.

                                                                *    *    *

Other publishing updates: It's been an unusually active summer for me in terms of placing my work, both long and short.  Traditionally, literary journals go into suspension during the summmer months, but as more and more journals go online, it's not unusual anymore to find journals that read and publish all year round; and sometimes this means a dizzyingly fast turnaround between acceptance and publication.  One online journal thankfully caught me by phone the day before I was to leave on an extended trip to Europe.  A trip in which I had NO phone service and limited internet access.  Whew!  They informed me of the acceptance and said they needed a recent photo of me, which I proceeded to pose for and my wife proceeded to take.  I emailed it to them that afternoon and within a week my story, and the picture, was up on their web site.  

In any case, here's a countdown of my publications/acceptances this summer, with links to the works provided where possible.  In May, an excerpt from Days on Fire appeared in Versal, the great English-language journal published in Amsterdam.  In July, I was the featured contributor on the journal's blog.  You can check out my answers to their rather creative questions here.  Also this summer, I published (in a somewhat trimmed down state) my quirky story "Homeroom" (written as a series of high school homeroom announcements) in theNewerYork Press's Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (EEEL); I published the longish story "Home Visit" in Gemini; and I published the memoir essay "A Minute Inside the Ocean Cafe, July 1980" in Squalorly.   Meanwhile, my half-personal/half-journalistic essay on marathon running, "Thirteen More Miles," is soon to appear in the journal 1966, a magazine conceived with the fantastic idea of focusing on research-driven narrative nonfiction.  (The link takes you to the journal but not to my essay--I promise it will be there soon.)  Finally, as I reported in my post of last week, I placed my historical short (long) story "On Cherry Street" in Pembroke.  The story should appear this fall.

And, the best news of all is that Days on Fire is out and available on Amazon and Barnes &, capping a summer that has been quite the whirlwind for me--in more ways than one.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Another long wait pays off


Well, it's been a summer of results after long waits.  Of course, it's well known that patience is a virtue, and I like to think that's true, but there's no life like the writing life to test the maxim.  And test it and test it and test it again.  I once had to wait four years between a story being accepted and finally appearing in a journal.  The journal was a long-established one with a great reputation, but it had a backlog of accepted works and was undergoing a series of staff and format changes.  Things there seemed mighty chaotic.  Many months after accepting the story they told me I'd have cut its length by 50% or just withdraw it.  50%?  If I hadn't been so happy to have the story accepted by this journal, I would have pulled it immediately.  I mean, 50%?  I wondered if after a cut of 50% it would even be the same story anymore.   But I buckled down, found the necessary solutions, trimmed my story, and sent it back to them.  All done, I figured.  Any day now I should see it appear, albeit in reduced form.  It was then they told me it might take a while longer for the story to appear, given the structural changes they were enacting at the magazine.  Was I willing to wait?  Sure, I replied, I can wait a bit longer.  I just didn't realize that would mean three years.  But just as I was about to give up on the esteemed journal, the story indeed was published.

Admittedly, the waits don't always work out.  I once had a different story accepted by a small press (no longer in business) that published a series of really intriguing, thematic anthologies.  The story was a peculiar, idiosyncratic magic realist piece I'd written in grad school--a story I really loved but had had a hard time placing, so I was more than gratified by the acceptance.  The publisher sent me a publishing agreement to sign, which I dutifully filled out and fired back to them.  The book, I was told, would take about a year to appear. Well, a year later I'd heard nothing, so I called the press at the phone number listed on the papers they sent me.  They picked up right away.  What's going on with that anthology, I asked.  The woman I spoke with had an immediate answer: "Next year."  Okay, another year's wait.  I didn't like it, but I could handle it.  The following year, again having heard nothing more from the press, I called again.  This time I got the head editor on the phone.  Straight off, he apologized for the delay.  Then he informed me that he'd had trouble lining up the necessary financing to publish the book--apparently other volumes he'd created were in similar straits--but he expected within the year the book would finally appear.   "I love putting these anthologies together," he said.  "The problem is finding the money to actually print them."

 I appreciated his honesty, but I had to wonder why his press continued to advertise for submissions to new anthologies when he couldn't bring out the books he'd already created.  Something there was structurally dysfunctional.  It was about this time that I explained the situation to a new colleague at work.  He asked the name of the press.  When I told him, he smiled.   "You're going to have to wait even longer," he said.  Apparently, a book of poems by a friend of his had won a contest sponsored by this press.  After waiting several years for his book to be published, my colleague's friend just gave up and starting submittng the book to other presses, one of which did eventually publish it.  I wondered aloud about how the first press--the one I was dealing with--felt about that.  "Oh," he said, "they didn't mind.  They actually suggested he do that, if he didn't feel like waiting anymore."  At this point, I'd given pretty much given up hope of "my" anthology ever appearing in print, but I allowed the press another six months to a year before I contacted them one more time.  Again, I got the head editor on the phone.  When I reminded him who I was and mentioned the name of the anthology he'd promised to publish, the man just sighed: a huge, hopeless, defeated, guilty rush of air.  This time there was no talk of next year.  The most hopeful thing he could say was, "I'd still love to publish that book someday."  At that point, I officially gave up on the anthology.   And no, it was never published.

This summer has been a bit brighter as far as waits go.   As I reported in last week's post, my Van Gogh novel, Days on Fire, so many years in the making and shaping, is finally out and available via several means, including, Amazon UK, and Barnes and   And, as a terrific followup to that news, I got a email last week from Jessica Pitchford, the editor at Pembroke, a literary magazine headquartered at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke.  Pembroke is a journal I've been trying to break into for years.  Almost as soon as I began submitting stories to national magazines, I was submitting to Pembroke.  Year after year, I sent them pieces that I was pretty sure would work, and should work; and while I came close, I was always turned down.  Well, for this submission I sent Jessica a story called, "On Cherry Street," a historical fiction that is part of my story-collection-in progress, Island Fog, every story of which is set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  "On Cherry Street" is one of my favorite stories in the whole book.  Perhaps my absolute favorite.  I've read portions of it twice at conferences--most recently at the Great Writing Conference in London in June--and it always generates interest.  Where can I find the story?  I want to read all of it.  I want to know how it ends!  Problem is, it's that particularly tough literary sell: a long short story.   (It's over thirty pages.)  Its length alone limits the number of journals I can send the story to, and then there's the simple fact that it may or may not fit the "tone" of a given journal, even one that takes long stories.  Well, just last week, I found out that Jessica had accepted "On Cherry Street" for Pembroke.  She liked it so much she was moving other pieces around and changing their sizes in order to make room for it.  Wonderful!  So I've killed two birds with one stone: I've placed a story that I really love and have dearly wanted, for its own sake, to see in print; and I've finally made it into Pembroke!  After how many years now . . .