In the Classroom

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


A couple of lit mags I've recently received in the mail: Midwestern Gothic & Fifth Wednesday Journal. If the cover of Midwestern Gothic looks familiar it's because Janey took the photo, which appeared on this blog a while back. It's of the bowling alley here in Monmouth, long gone out of business. We found out that her image had been chosen for the cover about two weeks after the editors accepted my story "Your Place in the World," which appears in Issue 3 alongside all kinds of excellent, including pieces by my friends Cyn Kitchen and Kevin McKelvey and Jason Lee Brown.

This issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal contains my essay "On Helplessness." I haven't had much of a chance to read through the rest of the issue, but I can say this: It's gorgeous. I've received a lot of pleasure from just holding the thing in my hands, and I'm thrilled to have this essay find such a great home.

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This past weekend I drove south with six students to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we participated in this crazy three-part reading organized by the interns at Slash Pine Press, Slash Stitch Burn. You probably weren't there, which is too bad, because it was a lot of fun. There was a reading in the morning at a haunted mansion. There were walking tours that involved undergrads and grad students reading historical and/or invented fictions/poems inspired by Tuscaloosan haunts. And then that night there was a bonfire and hula-hooping and juggling. I read while the bonfire roared at my back and a kind young man lighted my manuscripts with an electric lantern. I read this--and that recently published essay I mentioned above. It really was a pretty great day.

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Last April, Twelve Stories published a little story of mine, and then a couple months later, they asked if I'd like to come on board to help edit the fourth issue. I don't do much of this kind of thing, but I said yes and then got busy reading submissions and discussing the stories with the other editors--Molly Gaudry and Eugene Cross. Last week, Issue 4 went live. You should go and check it out. Right now.

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Origami Zoo Press has decided to put another book out into the world. (They just made the announcement, and I'm pretty excited about it, I must say. You can read more here.) Do you remember the first chapbook Origami Zoo Press released? It looked like this:

It sold out its limited-edition run pretty quickly, which was great, but then it just kind of disappeared. You know, like a phantom. Now, though, to celebrate their return, they've re-released Phantoms as an e-book for the Kindle. It's priced to sell, and filled with nine little stories that might be just the kind of thing you'd like to read on your electronic reading device. Maybe? Think about it? Additional versions may or may not be forthcoming. I'll try to keep you updated.

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Lastly: Jane and I started a new collaborative project in early October. This particular post has gone on long enough, so I'll say only this: It's about food and my late mother's recipes and the Midwest and family and cooking and nostalgia.


The Woodlands

The above photo wasn't taken in The Woodlands, Texas. Jane took it on one of our drives, somewhere near Keithsburg, I think. We were over that way the other night to pick some blueberries, but I didn't see any roadside ponds or geese.

Thanks to a late freeze, the crop at the U-Pick blueberry place isn't so great. The farmer let us know this before we started picking, and it occurred to me: There is no one quite so pessimistic as a farmer. There are probably reasons for this, though.

The reason for this post: I have a new story up over at American Short Fiction. If you want to, you can call me Mr. July. The excellent Marian Oman also asked me some questions about the story, and you can find my answers here.



Last fall, my story "American Bulldog" was published in a theme issue of the Crab Orchard Review devoted to writing from and about Illinois. I wrote a little blog post about the pride I felt when this story appeared, and about the time I've spent wrangling with my identity as a Midwestern writer and person, about my love/hate relationship with this place I've lived most of my life, about my love/hate relationship with myself. Well, maybe it didn't delve too deeply into those things, but it could have.

I'll say this, now: When I talk to students sometimes about where I'm from or about where they're from, I encourage them to feel some pride for that place. They can get mad at it--they can even hate it--but they can't do just that. I then flash my version of a gang symbol: My ring and middle fingers twined, my thumb tucked, I point the horns of my index and ring fingers toward the ground, making an M, and then I flip it over to make a W. Usually, as I execute this little maneuver, I'll bark out 'Mid-West' like I'm one of the people who calls things out during a drum line performance. My students laugh, and it's supposed to be funny, but not just that.

I think there's something about the Midwest that is opposed to being proud, even of the place where you grew up. The problem with this is that if we Midwesterners aren't speaking up for it, or representing it in our fiction and photography and films, then we're going to be stuck with outsiders' renditions of this place, which aren't always so generous or accurate, which we might not even recognize. 

A couple months ago, Ohio University Press released an anthology, New Stories from the Midwest, designed to shed some light on this region of mine, and I was thrilled that the editors, Jason Lee Brown and Jay Prefontaine, were able to make such a thing happen. Here is a snippet of what Lee Martin has to say in his introduction to the book:

"The nineteen writers in this anthology have … spoken for their distinct groups — their submerged populations — in stories that will delight you with their artistry, challenge you with their circumstances, entertain you with their charms, and above all, give you a sense of how complicated, flawed, ugly, and exquisite we all can be.”

Then, very recently, I received an email from Jason Lee Brown letting me know that my story "American Bulldog" had been selected for next year's anothology, guest-edited by fellow midwesterner (and, like Lee Martin, one of my favorite writers) John McNally, which will be published next year by Indiana University Press. The contributor's list, too, is stacked with some of my favorite writers, some of those people, actually, who taught me how to see this place in new ways, who helped show me how I might be able to write about it.

Photo by Jane. She and I have driven by this sign, which stands near the road next to the Eagles Club here in Monmouth, hundreds of times, but neither one of us noticed that "Dances Alone" bit until just last week. We're trying to decide if it was recently added or if we'd just missed it all along.



I was looking through Jane’s photostream hoping to find an appropriate image for the following news, and this seemed as appropriate as any.

Ken is smiling. His hair is a little wrecked. He is shirtless. You can see the seam where his shoulder connects with his torso.

Which is to say: I was honored a few weeks back to learn that my manuscript of stories, Tell Everyone I said Hi, was one of three finalists for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction from Sarabande Books. I do love Sarabande, and I do wish I would have won, as that little book of mine has now been a bridesmaid in not one, not two, but three national contests, twice at Sarabande and twice more at two other presses who run pretty excellent contests for story manuscripts. Still, like Ken, I’m smiling. Honored to have my name listed alongside writers like Karen Brown and Daniel Mueller and Andy Mozina and Maura Stanton. And, like Ken, who was placed inside a light box Jane made in order to have the above photo snapped, I am humbled. It's as if I’ve showed up somewhere I didn’t even realize I’d been invited not wearing a shirt. It's as if all the seams holding my parts together are visible, ready at any moment to split.



Two Things

Just yesterday, my story "Adaptations" went live over at Necessary Fiction. I gave some quick insights recently into the stories behind some of the stories I've been publishing, but I don't think "Adaptations" has much of a backstory. I was mostly working one sentence at a time and seeing where each one led me. I did, however, most certainly come across this while I was working on it. I also might have had somewhere in the back of my mind Kevin Wilson's story "No Joke, This Is Going To Be Painful," which was published a while back in Tin House.

In other news...I wrote in my very last blog post about Mariposa and my story "fourteen," published last fall at matchbook. Then, last weekend, I found out that "fourteen" had been listed as one of the storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2010, along with a bunch of cool stories I've read over the past year--and some I'm looking forward to reading. storySouth only distinguishes stories that are over 1000 words long, and so technically, this is the first story I've published online that qualifies for the distinction, which makes it even cooler to make the long-list. Fingers crossed this little piece o' mine, which Edward Mullany and Brian Mihok helped whip into shape, makes it to the next round...

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