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  • Train Dreams: A Novella
    Train Dreams: A Novella
    by Denis Johnson
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    Bluets
    by Maggie Nelson
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    We the Animals: A novel
    by Justin Torres
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Thursday
May012014

Short Story Month

I spent much of April reading and thinking about poetry, and now it's May, Short Story Month. I try not to be biased, but the short story is probably my favorite literary form.

Way back in 2006, I published what I think was my fifth short story, and the second one I'd published online. The story was called "Estate Sales," and it was accepted and published at juked. A lot of time has passed since then, but in the month of September, 2006, when "Estate Sales" was published, juked also published stories by Mary Miller, Claudia Smith, and Justin Taylor, among many talented folks. I was grateful to John Wang for agreeing to publish my story--and for helping me to make it better. I was also grateful to him for all of the great and inspiring work he was publishing back then.

And to be honest, juked is still publishing stuff I find exciting. It's always worth checking out.

In honor of Short Story Month, here's "Estate Sales" as it appears in my collection, Tell Everyone I Said Hi.

*     *     *

Estate Sales

My mother-in-law, Amanda, kicked the bucket and my father-in-law, Bill, started going to estate sales.

Bill drives a boxy red Ford truck with a handmade, wood-and-welded-iron bed extending from the cab. He spent two months of his retirement building this truck bed, and it’s a sturdy, monstrous-looking thing. On the highway, he cruises steadily at forty-five miles per hour, and I often pass him in the morning when he is on his way to a sale somewhere in Illinois and I am on my way to the university where I teach. On clear, fogless mornings, I know it’s his truck from about a mile back.

Bill used to be a mechanical engineer, but since his retirement, he’s doing his best to look like a hillbilly—growing his hair and his beard long and brown and scraggly. When I notice his truck’s handmade bed up ahead of me on the road, I sometimes get a glimpse of his brown beard blowing out the open window of his driver’s side door. He looks like something from another era, but he’s a whiz with email, and he carries a cell phone.

Sometimes, when I’m behind him on the road, I’ll call him on his cell phone to find out where he’s headed. He tells me the name of the town, and what the sale is featuring: a hay baler, thirteen years of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, tools. He usually sounds pretty excited, pretty with it for a widower. He’ll ask me about Claire, my wife and his daughter, and about what I plan on teaching that day. For a wannabe hillbilly, he’s respectful of the liberal arts. At some point, I’ll pass him, beeping the cruddy horn of my Prius as I pull up alongside him. I’ll show him the palm of my right hand, in a little wave, and he’ll give me a two-finger deal, a kind of sideways peace sign. I’ll tell him good luck at the sale, and we’ll hang up.

This morning, I see the enormous bed of Bill’s truck ahead of me on the road and a ribbon of his beard streaming out his open window. I whip out my cell and call him, and the phone rings four or five times before he picks up. “Gabriel,” he says. He never calls me by my full name. It’s usually “Gabe,” sometimes just “G.”

“William,” I say back.

Bill sighs into the phone, and something inside me makes my foot tap the brake a couple times to slow down the car.

I wait for him to say something, to ask me about Claire, or what story I am going to teach that day, and when he doesn’t speak, I get nervous and break the silence. “On your way to a sale?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I’m out in the woodshop, stripping an old school desk.”

I can hear the wind blowing through his window, and the same NPR station I’m listening to playing behind his voice. I wonder if he can’t see me yet in his rearview mirror, and I slow my Prius down even more.

I could call him on the lie, try to make a joke out of it. “Really, William,” I could say. “That isn’t your Ford I see half a mile ahead of me? That’s somebody else’s beard I see fluttering out the driver’s side window?”

Bill’s hairy cheeks would flush pink up there in his cab, and he would chuckle a little. “Well, actually,” he would say. And then we would reconcile the thing, just like that.

Instead, I sit here listening to the wind coming through his window, to the radio. I think about how since Amanda passed, Bill’s spent hours wandering through dead people’s houses, looking at their paintings hanging on the walls, and their televisions, and salad spinners, all of it for sale. I think about all the times he’s loaded the monstrous back end of that truck with other people’s stuff and how, once he gets home, he piles it all up in his garage, and woodshop, and living room. Lately, when Claire and I go to visit him, it’s like walking through a junk shop, just trying to get to the bathroom or the refrigerator. It’s something I could probably make fun of him for, or at least offer to help him get organized, but I keep quiet. Maybe someday I’ll wake to find Claire not breathing in bed beside me, and things’ll change.

For now, I reach up and turn the volume of my radio down all the way, and I hear Bill’s voice. “Gabe?” he says. “Gabe. You there?”

I wonder how long he’s been saying my name, how long I’ve been imagining myself inside his house.

Up ahead, I see his brake lights flash two times, and I worry I’m caught. I tap my own brakes again.

I’m doing about twenty-eight. I’ve never seen the highway at this speed, and it’s no more majestic: row after row of corn and soybeans; a few pine windbreaks between the homesteads.

“Yeah, Bill,” I say. “I’m here.”

“So you on your way to school?” he asks.

“I’m just getting ready to leave the house,” I say, and for a second I am back in my own house, kissing Claire on the cheek, gathering my briefcase and cup of coffee, my keys. I get a feeling inside me I’ve never actually had when leaving the house in the morning. Even the soybean fields look a little different, greener. “Good luck with that desk,” I tell him.

“Oh, it’s being a bear,” he says. “Some clucks painted the thing white.”

“Some clucks,” I repeat, and we tell one another goodbye and hang up.

Without the radio going, I can hear the zipping sound my tires make on the road. I see Bill’s brake lights flash again, and I tap mine just the same.

I set the cruise control at twenty-five, let him widen the gap between us.

Sunday
Feb232014

February

I took the above photo about thirty minutes ago. I like when melted snow reveals things that have been hidden for weeks, months.

I have a few brief things to cover here. Up first is the obligatory AWP events schedule run-through:

Thursday, 2/27 at 10:30
Willow Room, Sheraton, Seattle

How Many Readers is Enough? (,  ,  ,  ,  ) Using this provocative question as a starting point, panelists at various stages in their writing lives will examine the idea of the writer’s career. In a world that tends to value completed, marketable products—the success of which is measured in terms of sales figures, Amazon rankings, and the awarding of prestigious prizes, etc.—how do we view our own ongoing creative work? How do we maintain our affiliation to the less tangible incentives for writing, such as connecting with readers?

 

Friday, 2/28 at 3:00
AWP Bookfair

Marie-Helene Bertino & I will be signing copies of our books. Come by and say hi.

 

Saturday, 3/1 at 10:30
Room 304, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3

The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story: A Reading from Prize-Winning Story Collections. (,  ,  ,  ,  ) Join the winners of three prestigious short story awards, The Iowa Short Fiction Award, the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, as they read selections from their debut collections and discuss publishing via the contest circuit rather than through traditional publishing channels.

Jane's making the trip to Seattle, too, and we also have plans to visit the Seattle Art Museum, and Bainbridge Island, among other places. If you have any suggestions about things we should check, holla at me.

*     *     *

Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program has posted Episode 7.2 over at their website. Here's the description of the program:

Finding Place in the Placelessness: Chad Simpson and Monica Berlin talk with assistant editor John McCarthy about the under-appreciated, rich culture and beauty that is thriving in the Midwest in part one of this two part special celebrating what it means to be Midwest. This show was done in collaboration with Museum of Americana as part of their Midwest-themed issue.

It was a lot of fun driving down to Springfield with Monica and hanging out with Jim & John, who are both pretty awesome. And a bonus: For some reason, I don't hate the sound of my voice in this. Maybe I'm just getting more used to it.

*     *     *

And speaking of that Midwest-themed issue of Museum of Americana: It's live and it features work by all kinds of people I've known and admired over the years, including Monica Berlin, Curtis Crisler, and Steve Trebellas. While you're over there, be sure to check out the art & photography section, too, which features great work from Daniel Farnum, Andy Mattern, and Susan Moore.

*     *     *

Lastly: Issue 2 of Winter Tangerine Review is out and contains my story "Resources." I'm still waiting on my issue to arrive, but it looks like it's going to be a good one. Plus, the editors have kindly nominated "Resources" for a Pushcart Prize.

*     *     *

I think that's everything. If it's not, I promise, you'll never know what you might have missed.

Tuesday
Oct012013

October 1st

Last October 1st, Jane and I ate cake and drank Prosecco to celebrate the release of Tell Everyone I Said Hi. The last couple weeks, I've been wondering what it means for a book to turn one year old. Specifically, I've been wondering what that number might amount to in human years. It might be argued that literature lasts forever, that this book of mine is but an hour or half a day old, but I think we all know that's not really true. Still, it's been a fun year. I kept my expectations low, and they were exceeded times roughly a million.

Since I last updated this blog, a few things have happened. But first, a little story: Before I went to graduate school, I was working as a juvenile probation officer. It was a tough gig, and I was pretty good at it. Most of the hours I spent away from juvie, I was reading and writing, trying to get better at this thing I loved. This was a while ago, 2000-2002. Jane and I were living in Champaign-Urbana. During that time, I found Dan Chaon's book Among the Missing at the local bookstore. I'd never heard of Dan Chaon, but I saw that it was a collection of stories, and I checked out the blurbs. The blurbs, and this was when the book was in hardcover, were amazing. I think Lorrie Moore wrote one, and Michael Chabon, and Jean Thompson. All of these writers I loved and admired. I bought the book and started reading it that night when I was on break at the detention center. It blew me away. I mean, it filled me with envy. I wished I'd written each and every one of that book's stories.

Later that week, my friend Aggie Zivaljevic told me about a book she'd just read called The Esther Stories by Peter Orner. Aggie had read a few of my early attempts at writing, and she saw something in Orner's work that she thought I might appreciate. I made another trip to the bookstore, grabbed a copy, and began reading, again, that night on break at the detention center. And again, I was just blown away, filled with envy and awe. I don't think I've ever again read two books back-to-back that impacted me so deeply.

Fast forward a dozen or so years, and I'm working as a professor. One of my colleagues just so happens to be pretty good friends with Peter Orner, and Peter, well, he has a new book out, a collection of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, so this colleague of mine was bringing him to campus. This was a couple weeks ago. Here's a picture of Peter. Peter was coming down to Galesburg from Ann Arbor, and he was running a little late. The crowd had gathered, and one of my colleagues asked me to read something of Peter's to fill the handful of minutes between when people might start to get restless and Peter would arrive. I picked up a copy of The Esther Stories and read the first piece. Halfway through it, I was feeling the pull of the past, the duplex Jane and I had once inhabited in Urbana, the raw desire I had back then to string sentences together into story. I couldn't believe that I was standing before a room filled with people and doing this simple thing, reading a beautiful story out loud to them. The moment was powerful, somewhat crushing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks from that, and Jane and I were headed back to Champaign-Urbana for the Pygmalion Music Festival & the Pygmalion Lit Fest. This was just this past weekend. We arrived on Thursday, had drinks, saw some music. On Friday, Jane had to travel to Springfield for work, and I stayed at the hotel to work on the novel she and I have been writing together. That night, I read from that novel in a space just one block away from the coffee shop I used to write at in Urbana on my days off from the detention center. Later that night, I saw some more music, listened to other great writers read their stuff. Then, the next day, I was sitting in a beer garden in Champaign, and who was taking the stage? Dan Chaon. He read from his novel-in-progress, and that moment was not unlike the one I experienced when I was holding Peter Orner's book in my hands and reading from it to my colleagues, to strangers and my students.

All of which is to say, this life I've been living has felt somewhat charmed lately. In certain ways, it's felt unbelievable. And now this book of mine, it's turned one. This last trip we made to C-U, Jane and I didn't even drive by the detention center. We probably should have.

*     *     *
In other news: I really dig Story Swaps, and earlier this summer, I contacted Scott Garson to see if he'd want to swap stories. He was up for it, so we got in touch with Faith Gardner, and she was game, too. I love the story of Scott's I read, but I'm not sure I did it justice. Scott, however, knocked my story out of the ballpark. I might never be able to read that thing again.



*     *     *
A couple weeks before the Pygmalion Lit Fest, I traveled down to Macomb to give a talk and read some fiction at Western Illinois University. Barb Harroun was an amazing host, and I loved getting to meet and talk with some of her students. The talk I gave was on the impact place has had on my writing. I'm thinking I might post it here on this blog sometime.

*     *     *
The week before I traveled down to Macomb, Jason Braun came up to Monmouth to interview me for his radio show, Literature for the Halibut, which airs on KDHX, out of St. Louis, about my upcoming talk. You can listen to the first part of the interview here.

*     *     *

Lastly: I have a new story coming out in Winter Tangerine Review. It's called "Resources." I like this one, though it's encountered some resistance in the world. I'm glad it's finally found a home at WTR, and that they've given it some editorial attention, some care and love. I'll let you know when the issue has made its way into the world.

Sunday
Sep082013

September

It's September, which means the grass here in Illinois is long dead. Soon, the leaves will change. Just yesterday, first-year students at Knox moved into the dorms. I met with seven of them and took them out to dinner to welcome them to campus.

It's September, and I haven't updated this blog all summer. A year ago, I was three weeks from TELL EVERYONE I SAID HI's officially dropping. Those were exciting times. Soon, the book is going to celebrate its first birthday, and to be honest, things are still pretty exciting.

Back in July, I was something of the writer-in-residence at yeah write!, an online writing community full of lively and engaged folks. Here's a link to the last post I wrote for them, which includes links to the first three.

More recently, Fourth River, the literary magazine of Chatham University, ran an interview I conducted with Abbey Hood. Abbey asked some great questions, was a real pleasure to correspond with. (Please ignore the photo posted with the interview. I've never liked it, and thought I'd had it scrubbed forever from the Internets. But I was wrong. And, yes, I'm a little vain. I apologize.)

A few reviews continue to trickle in. Here's one by R. Jess Lavolette that was published in the Notre Dame Review. Reviews unavailable online have also shown up in recent issues of Mid-American Review & Sycamore Review.

Lastly, I have some pretty cool events/readings coming up. The first one, soon, is in conjunction with this exhibit at the Western Illinois University Art Gallery. Jane and I traveled down there on Thursday for the exhibition's opening reception. Here's an Instagram pic from the event. I'm grateful to Barb Harroun & Ann Marie Hayes-Hawkinson for asking me to be a part of it all. On the 16th, I'll be giving a gallery talk at 12:30, talking about the impact of place. On the same day, at 4:00, I'll be giving a reading, doing a Q&A.

And there's more goings-on, including an upcoming trips to Champaign & Columbia, Missouri. Details can be found on my Events page, which I just updated.

I also spent some time tonight updating my Books page. Maybe check it out?

And speaking of books: I spent much of the summer co-writing a novel with Jane. So far, we think it's pretty good. If the whole thing doesn't blow up in our faces, we hope to have a working draft done by the beginning of the new year. Keep your fingers crossed for us?

Tuesday
Jun112013

Early June

The above video doesn't have much to do with anything, I suppose. Or maybe it has to do with everything.

The writer Andrew F. Sullivan, author of the June 2013-released story collection All We Want Is Everything (look at that cover!), from Arbeiter Ring Publishing in Canada, tweeted something at me today that went like this: A good recipe for sorrow: "Hold on Magnolia" from Songs: Ohia paired with a heavy dose of Chad Simpson's story "Tell Everyone I Said Hi."

I'd never heard of Jason Molina/Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co, but I read about him while listening to "Hold on Magnolia," and holy shit. My heart was breaking all over the place. And then there was that gorgeous footage in the YouTube video of the demolition derby in Columbia, Missouri.

Man.

I still don't know how I missed Molina for so long--and during all of those years when I was listening to Uncle Tupelo & Wilco & Son Volt & Jay Farrar & Whiskeytown & Ryan Adams. I'm going to buy the Songs:Ohia album right now.

But back to the reason for this post, which was just supposed to be my touching base, catching y'all up on things now that school's out and I have the time:

Right around the time I wrote my last blog post, an excellent review of Tell Everyone I Said Hi, written by Alexander Lumans, a guy who writes some pretty great stories himself, appeared in The Collagist. I really love this one. I mean, the dude quotes Mary Ruefle.

A little while later, I was interviewed by Sarahana Shrestha for The Short Form. She asked me some great questions, and I was grateful for her insights into the book. It's always a pleasure to talk with people who are smarter than you are, especially when they don't hold that kind of thing over your head. Plus: That website! I love the look of that thing.

And then a review of TEISH appeared in the PANK blog. This one was written by Dawn West, another great writer/thinker. I didn't think I could like a review as much as the one that Alex wrote for The Collagist, but this one is right up there with it, for sure.

I think that's everything for now. I'm entering summer mode--hunkering down to get some real work done. And I've been making some plans to give readings and visit classrooms come Fall & Winter. In case I haven't been clear: I'm still feeling pretty lucky about all this.