First Saturday Catch-up #2

Here we are, the first Saturday of February.

READING:
Principles of Navigation by Lynn Sloan. This book was sent to me by Caitlin Hamilton Summie, and the plan, once I’m finished, is to get Lynn Sloan on the podcast. At first, I’d thought this novel was a bit too domestic: a couple is trying to have a baby and has a miscarriage. However, as I read, I found the emotional and psychological depth to be fascinating and engaging. It’ll be out this month. I recommend it.
What’s also interesting about this book is its publisher, Fomite. Fomite is run by Marc Estrin, novelist, cellist, activist and fellow Unbridled Books author (I may have to get him on the podcast, too).

Still taking my small doses of Primitive Mythology by Joseph Campbell.

I’d share a To Be Read list, but it’d be too damn long. I have a 5 shelf bookcase where three shelves, one of them stacked two deep, is all “to be read” – and that’s just fiction. My bookcase dedicated to non-fiction is also littered with the “to be read.” Most of my read books are still in boxes at my mother’s house.

WATCHING:
Saw the documentary Fed Up, about the sugarfood” processed & manufactured “edibles” industry. I’m not taking the “Fed Up Challenge,” but I am attempting to keep my consumption of added sugar to the recommended daily allowance of 24-36 grams (or 6-9 teaspoons) a day. One 12oz can of soda, generally exceeds the daily allowance of added sugar. It is fucking strange what the food industry puts sugar in, and why: bread, salsa, crackers, pasta sauce – you know things we might think of as “savory” instead of sweet – basically turning everything we eat into some degree of candy so that you’ll eat more. You’ll learn that not all calories are equal and that all this sugar basically turns off the body’s natural “I’m full, stop eating” mechanism.

Oh, and speaking of candy, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Cadbury ban. Claiming “brand confusion” Hershey has won a ban on British chocolates (Cadbury brands) being imported to the United States. I think the most telling paragraph in the article is the following:

Cadbury chocolate varies around the world. In the UK, the first ingredient in a classic Dairy Milk bar is milk. In the United States, where Hershey has the license to make and sell all Cadbury products, the first ingredient is sugar. Ms Madeley says her customers wouldn’t buy the US kind even if she stocked it.

Give Fed Up a watch. And check out the American Heart Associations’ sugar guidelines (unless you’re a detective, it’s hard to find this exact info on the USDA site because the sugar industry lobbyists got it buried).

Arrow is back for the second half of its 3rd season, and I eagerly await my download each week. At one of my recent salons, a friend and I had a semi-geek-out moment discussing comic book movies and TV shows. I was never a big comic book reader when I was a kid. Sgt. Rock and G.I. Joe comics were my favorites, but they never turned into any kind of gateway drug. I think my childhood comic book geek was stunted when my father took away my comic books after a confrontation I had with a babysitter involving a BB gun. That’s a long story, that ended with my father, a few years after confiscating my comic books and BB gun, finally hearing my side of the story and conceding that, despite beaning the babysitter’s brother (who was older than me) with an empty plastic milk jug, I had attempted to retreat from the screaming, aggressive babysitter more than once until I was cornered in my own room. “I suppose if you’re going to point a BB gun at a babysitter that might be the time to do it,” he said and gave me back my comics and BB gun – neither of which I ever used again. So, basically, the comic book movies are scratching that long ago suppressed itch. It must be something similar for my mother as well. She’s a big fan of the comic book movies, and is my regular date when a new one comes out.

Wetlands: a German movie about a troubled young woman who ends up in the hospital after a shaving accident. It’s . . . bizarre and funny . . . and, at times, gross. It’s on Netflix now (all links contain spoilers, read at your own risk). Oh, and the most disorienting and strange moment for me was when the teenaged girl main character goes to the hospital there’s no talk of money or insurance, and she herself signs her surgery waiver all without her parents being notified (in fact, the doctor asks if she wants her parents notified at all). At first I thought, wait, that doesn’t seem right . . . then I remembered: Germany has universal coverage.

LISTENING:
Bob Dylan – Blood on The Tracks
My “soundtrack” to Far Nineteen.
Still, of course, in love with this Greg Dulli cover of the Leonard Cohen song – Paper Thin Hotel. I think you can still get a free download of the song on the Afghan Whigs website

Greg Dulli “Paper Thin Hotel” from Columbia Records on Vimeo.

 

 

PODCAST NEWS:
This Monday will be the release of my conversation with Bonnie ZoBell for The Outrider Podcast. Bonnie is the author of the recent book What Happened Here. It’s very good. She has a great personal story, and a very good book with What Happened Here. I’m not telling you anything else because you should listen to the show.

Speaking of which, do you listen on iTunes or Stitcher? Either one, would you please go give the show a rating and review it? I’d greatly appreciate it (ok, caveat, if you hate it, keep that shit to yourself).

Up after Bonnie is Greg Michalson, co-publisher and editor at Unbridled Books. Greg is a fabulous person, also with a great personal story. After it comes out, pair it with Fred Ramey’s episode from December (iTunes) and I think you’ll start to see why Unbridled has such a solid catalogue and why, as bittersweet as it is, so many of their authors get snatched away by the big presses. These guys are doing the dirty, privately rewarding, but often publicly unrecognized work of discovering talented new writers. Go give them some love, buy some Unbridled Books (especially mine).

– My wish list of literary people to talk to for The Outrider Podcast
Michael Ondaatje (although I fear I’d be dumbstruck)
Jeff Talarigo
Will Christopher Baer
John Berger (fear of being dumbstruck)
Nina Revoyr
Steve Heller
WRITING:
Still working on Far Nineteen, my novel inspired by the 1921 Race War in Tulsa, OK, and their buried car time capsule.

I’ve brushed up a couple of short stories that my ex-girlfriend, Rebekah, said were good. One of them is called “Dr. Zeus” and is about a man whose girlfriend sends him to a fortune teller then, while on the way home, he witnesses a shooting that begins to change his life. The other is currently called “Sunny” and is about a young man who is feeling homesick and alone in a new town until he stumbles into a diner and meets an old couple and the young waitress they call Sunny.

SUBMITTING:
This weekend I’m submitting The Palace of Winds, my loose retelling of Jason & The Golden Fleece set during the Depression, to a contest. Wish me luck.

I plan to submit “Dr. Zeus” and “Sunny” to journals by the end of the month.

RANDOM THOUGHTS (seriously, random. Don’t look for a logical essay here)
These random thoughts were inspired by this article on the Good Men Project website: Five Important Things Women Don’t Know About Men.

All five points resonated with me – even #5. But the one that really set me to thinking was #3 – There’s a reason for that emotional repression.

I wouldn’t lay 100% of the problem on testosterone, and I think Noah Brand makes a stab at it in that section, but I’m sure there was a word limit he had to meet. As it is, in a kind of Nature vs. Nurture analysis, Brand seems to land heavily on the side of Nature being dominant when, it is really more 50/50.

A side note here: one of the things that often irritates me in “modern American public discourse” i.e. internet comment threads and person to person debate, is that people often think the personal exception trumps the broad general argument. For example: someone says “Black people are still racially discriminated against” to which someone (usually a white someone) says “I’ve never discriminated against black people.”

Back to the point: testosterone is, indeed, a hell of a drug, but boys are teachable. In the right environment, with an attentive parent, all those teenage hormonal, testosterone driven urges can be managed without sacrificing the sweet little pre-testosterone boy.

Jay Mohr, in his 2012 special “Funny For a Girl,” talks about how little boys are the gayest people in the world (he’s punching us in the penis too hard – ?). I laughed the hardest during that bit because I saw myself as a boy in Jay’s description of his son. Before puberty, I knew I liked girls, but I also felt no shame or embarrassment or “gay panic” at holding my best friend’s hand in the dark.

Also, biologically speaking, the human “default setting” is female, meaning that whenever something goes wrong during gestation, the fetus attempts to reset to female. If there are two X chromosomes, we usually don’t see many genetic problems because there’s a back up gene on the other chromosome that can be used. With the XY combination, there’s a chance that a faulty gene on the mother’s X, won’t have a replacement on the father’s Y.

Here’s were I’m starting to go: with the intersex condition there are two common conditions that affect the human XX (female) pairing (a third really only affects cattle), but there are seven conditions that affect the human XY (male) pairing – almost all of which are caused by a lack of testosterone during gestation, or the inability to convert testosterone or block estrogen. Which is to say that biologically, it’s riskier to make a male than a female. Then, once that boy is born, society, generally, tries to squeeze boys through ever narrower and narrower passages. Don’t act like a girl (don’t cry, don’t complain, don’t whine, don’t talk about your feelings unless you’re going to talk about how angry or horny you are). Don’t act like a fag. Be ready to fight. Establish your dominance, whether in sports or debate, or nerdery . . . learn to use the threat of violence but don’t be violent unless you have to be violent.

Huh? What?

Anyway, it’s all led me to think a lot about my own urges to anger, to rage, to my own expressions of violent catharsis – the wall punching, the obscenity screaming and teeth gnashing, the door slamming, the object breaking and the subsequent bouts of shame and guilt that followed. I console myself that I’ve not hit or punched or kicked anyone since I was thirteen, but it’s a thin consolation considering that my last girlfriend cited those door slamming table thumping, curse laden bursts of rage as the reason she was scared of me and wanted out of the relationship. That is perhaps the biggest personal humiliation and source of shame for me – that everything else I ever felt for her was overshadowed, erased, by my occasional inability to control the beast.

This often influences what I choose to write about in my fiction. War. Violence. The failure of romantic relationships.

Historical District


Catch-22: Why I Need An Agent.

        Recently, I spent a Saturday afternoon with my ex-girlfriend, Rebekah. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we talked about books. I’m a writer, she’s a bookseller. We met while working together at Watermark Books a few years before I sold The Evolution of Shadows. She helped me with the final revisions by reading the novel out loud to me several times. Sadly, it took us eight years to figure out that in pretty much every relationship category we were incompatible.

        During our long conversation, I realized that during the eight years we struggled to make our incompatibilities work, we’d lost touch with the one thing that brought us together and that did work: her ability to catch my literary weaknesses and blind spots. Any decently self-critical writer will know how valuable it is to have a good reader who can spot the flaws in a story we’ve overlooked out of familiarity or fatigue. It’s the same quality a writer looks for in an agent.

        One of the many literary things Rebekah and I agree on is that I’m terrible at self-marketing, especially the query letter. It’s one of the reasons it took me so long to get Shadows published, and probably why it’s taking me so long to get The Palace of Winds placed. My lack of skill at self-promotion is one of the core reason I’ll never self-publish. It’s probably a part of the reason why my podcast is languishing with such small ratings. It’s a weird psychological predicament: being a writer who wants to be read and loved for that writing, while at the same time being embarrassed by self-promotion because I’m hyper aware of my flaws, both as a human and a writer, and also because I don’t want to be seen bragging about myself, only to fail to live up to my own boasts (If I could master a Thomas Pynchon-like personae I’d be in heaven).

        The best piece of authorial public relations advice I ever got was from Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who noticed me deflecting praise in one of her workshops. She pointed out that people find it off-putting when they tell you they like something and you shrug it off (they also dislike arrogance, which is something else I try to avoid, but, according to Rebekah, I also fail at). Bobbie knew that if it’s someone’s natural inclination to deflect praise, telling them to simply knock it off won’t work. So, Bobbie gave me a phrase that acknowledges the praise and assuages my urge to be self-critical. Whenever someone praises my writing, I reply with “Thank you, but I’m not half as good as I want to be.” Mastering that line in grad school helped me get to a point where I can simply say “Thank you” and leave it at that.

        Of course, what I’ve not yet been able to find is a trick for the query letter, which is frustrating because if I had an agent, I’d probably be relieved of writing the query letter (I think – I hope); however, in order to get an agent I have to write a good query letter (fuck it all). Consequently, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to write a good query letter – the perfect query letter for the agent I’m courting, in fact that I end up putting it off or giving up because it’s too painful and fraught with anxiety. All the advice I’ve read or heard about writing query letters never seems to help. It’s either specific to certain genres, like mystery or suspense, which have a plot hook that can be spun into some thrilling opening paragraph. The more general advice is way too prescriptive – tell the agent how you learned about him or her, provide a synopsis and a bio, say goodbye; write a letter that shows the agent or editor a little of who you are, but don’t be so casual or familiar that you come off as unprofessional or timid or desperate.

        Here’s the basic query I’m using, minus the opening paragraph, which I try to personalize to each agent.

Dear XXX,

XXXX

The Palace of Winds is a loose retelling of Jason and the Golden Fleece that borrows some biographical elements of my late grandfather’s life on the road during the Great Depression. In 1930, Carl “Bud” Malott leaves Kansas for California with a group of friends with the hope of rebuilding his family’s fortune, which his uncle squandered in reckless stock and land deals that were wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash. After making the journey across the American southwest and encountering Klansmen on the hunt, jealous boyfriends, incestuous preachers, and a possible gunslinging legend beset by harpies, Bud lands in Los Angeles determined to win his fortune and return home a king. However, while working for a boxing promoter, Bud falls in love with a wealthy young woman named Madeline, the daughter of a rival promoter with mafia ties whom Bud reluctantly agreed to spy on. After Madeline kills her mobster brother to protect Bud, the two flee Los Angeles for Montana. There, during a desolate winter hiding out and tending sheep in the foothills above Helena Montana, Madeline makes a tragic decision that finally forces Bud to return home alone and poor, but much wiser.

My first novel, The Evolution of Shadows, was published by Unbridled Books in 2009. It was a November 2009 Indie Next Pick and a 2010 Kansas Notable Book. I have a BA in Creative Writing from Kansas State University and an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. For the last year, I’ve hosted The Outrider Podcast, where I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a number of very talented writers, including Rachel Weaver, Pauls Toutonghi, Timothy Schaffert, Peter Geye, Andrea Portes, Laird Hunt, and National Book Award finalist, Emily St. John Mandel.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my query, may I send the complete manuscript for review?

Sincerely,
Jason Quinn Malott

        The other thing I agonize over is summarizing the story because I have a hard time teasing out the one sentence summary, which some well-intentioned asshole put in my head as being important. “You should be able to summarize your story in one sentence,” is something I’ve read and heard ever since picking up my first copy of Writer’s Digest back in high school. Well, fuck. Okay. Here it is:

        The Palace of Winds is a loose retelling of Jason and the Golden Fleece set during the Great Depression.

        Do I trust that whoever reads the letter knows that particular myth? I thought everyone did, but I’ve popped off that line to people I assumed were mythologically literate and they didn’t know it. I gave someone a portion of the manuscript to read and they thought I was redoing The Odyssey and O’ Brother Where Art Thou. But what if I over explain in the letter and the agent does know the Jason myth? Well, then I’m a condescending asshole, right? It’s also kind of important to me that the story happens to borrow some biographical elements from my grandfather’s life because I’m trying to say something about family, mythology, manhood, masculinity, and paternity, but my grandfather wasn’t anyone famous and, of course, no one wants to hear my theory of everything in a query letter, right (so says Rebekah).

        So, let’s try this:

        The Palace of Winds is the story of a Carl Malott who sets out for Los Angeles to win back his family’s fortune but ends up falling in love with the daughter of mobster who kills her brother to protect Carl.

        Meh. Right? Or maybe not. To me, it undersells the story and neglects that it’s set during the Depression, and that the mobster’s daughter plot line doesn’t develop until almost 200 pages in to a 300 page book.

        Anyway.

        The other thing I’m not very good at is asking for help, especially from friends who I know are busy with their own things. I don’t want to ask unless it’s desperately important, which means, for me, the ask should only be made if it’s for a manuscript. A query letter isn’t desperately important, plus I have a feeling query letters are equally mysterious for them, even my agented writer friends.

        So, here I am, struggling with a query letter that I hope will win over an agent enough that he or she will read my full manuscript instead of firing back a rejection note so that I can – at the very least – be partially relived of ever having to write a query letter again, which would allow me to concentrate on writing and revising the next book, which I’m much better at than asking for attention. Seriously, if I could write a story, give it to someone I trust who would then get it out to the world. there would be so much less anxiety in my life.

        Looking for an agent, for me anyway, is like asking the prettiest girl in school to the prom. Or, I suppose, to be more age appropriate, it’s like online dating. For someone like me, who is painfully self-conscious and acutely aware of his own flaws as a writer and a person, it doesn’t matter how well I’ve washed up and dressed, or worked and revised and polished, the two warring halves of me – the hyper critical editor and the preening egotist – are impervious to any rational thought. I desperately want someone to see me, to love my writing, to ooh and aaah over the little (flawed) gem I’ve created, but I’m absolutely paralyzed by the thought of the person I want to notice me seeing the flaws that I see in myself and seeing them as large as I think they are.

        Yeah, yeah, fear of success vs. fear of failure – I get the whole drill. I grew up with a wanna-be therapist for a father. I understood “projection,” “denial,” “shame spiral,” and “fear of success” long before I had pubic hair. So, you see, it’s this self-induced paralysis created by my conflicting desires that almost demands that I find an agent.

        The only problem is, I have to first get past my self-induced paralysis.


First Saturday Catch-up #1

I’m starting something new this year. Going to start off slow, of course, with just one post a month that’s not about a new episode of the Outrider Podcast.

Here we go:

READING:
Here are the books I’m reading as of today:

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology by Joseph Campbell. – To me, if someone is going to make a case about the importance of storytelling and literature to the human species, to our development and evolution, to our uniqueness as the only storytelling animal on this planet, whether it’s Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly who wrote a nice little book called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age or Jonathan Gottschall who claims to offer the first unified theory of storytelling that includes data from neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, then they have to start with Joseph Campbell. The fact that there is no mention of Campbell in the bibliography or index of either book is rather telling of their incompleteness (especially in Gottschall’s case).

Now, I think part of the problem is that since Campbell’s death in 1987, the, dare-I-say-it, “mythology” of Campbell has been tainted by George Lucas and the Star Wars trilogy and the rise of the self-help culture. Campbell’s great and compelling life’s work into the origin, meaning, evolution and significance our first and most basic stories – our mythologies and religions – the sources of our earliest art – has been reduced to cheap plastic toys and the self-help catchphrase “Follow your bliss.”

Rut by Scott Phillips – I should have read this a long while ago, but, of course, as most reading goes with me, I acquire a book and put it on my to read shelf with all the other unread books I have, while I’m still reading some other book. Then I buy another book, and maybe another. I used to have an entire bookcase dedicated solely to books I’d not started reading yet. Anyway. Get out there and read some Scott Phillips. He’s fun and dirty and chaotic, as all good crime fiction should be.

What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell – This is a new writer for me. Her book was sent to me by my publicist friend Caitlin. It’s pretty good . . . so far (dramatic timpani)

WATCHING:
Californication starring David Duchovny.
I’ve never subscribed to Showtime, so I’d heard about this but never bothered to track it down. Now the series is over and all seven seasons are on Netflix. I’m bingeing. Duchovny plays Hank Moody, a New York novelist who’s stopped writing after moving to L.A. and having his third novel turned into an awful Rom-com staring Tom Cruise. There’s lots of drinking and smoking and sex with women who aren’t his long-time, long-suffering partner and mother of his daughter as Hank struggles to get his shit together.

LISTENING:
Every time I start a long project (and, really, I seem to only be working on long projects anymore), I create a playlist of songs that are intended to help me lock in a mood while writing. It evolves as the story evolves and as I find new songs. This is one of the reasons why finding new music is so important to me.

Right now, I’m listening to my playlist for a project called “Far Nineteen.”

Name Album Artist
1 Elegia Low-Life, New Order
2 Crime Scene Part One Black Love, The Afghan Whigs
3 Murder Substance [Disc 2], New Order
4 Hell Hound On My Trail The Complete Recordings [Disc 2], Robert Johnson
5 Mistakes We Knew We Were Making Straylight Run, Straylight Run
6 The Scientist A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay
7 Last Dance Disintegration, The Cure
8 Transatlanticism Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie
9 Existentialism On Prom Night Straylight, Run Straylight Run
10 Wild Horses Hot Rocks Disc 2, The Rolling Stones
11 Magic The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner, Ben Folds Five
12 Wild Horses Blind, The Sundays
13 Instrumental 523 Villa Elaine, Remy Zero
14 18th Floor Balcony Foiled, Blue October
15 Recovering The Satellites Recovering The Satellites, Counting Crows
16 How It Ends How It Ends, DeVotchKa
17 Dreaming My Dreams No Need To Argue, The Cranberries
18 Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Smashing Pumpkins

I’m also high on the following albums right now.
Loom by Fear of Men
Do to The Beast by The Afghan Whigs
Farm by Dinosaur, Jr.
Blonde on Blonde, by Bob Dylan – especially Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

WRITING:
The project for the foreseeable future is the one currently titled “Far Nineteen.” It’s set in a fictional town called Ketowah, which is very loosely based on Tulsa, OK. In other words, I didn’t want to have to a lot of research on Tulsa itself, but was fascinated by its racial history, especially the 1921 riot that leveled the African American Greenwood District, and the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere they buried in a time capsule.

SUBMITTING:
I sent out a small clutch of submissions for the completed novel The Palace of Winds, and so far have gotten nothing but rejections. I’m incredibly self-conscious about my query letters, and about writing a synopsis. A lot of my writer friends encourage me to submit with more frequency and vigor, the so-called shotgun approach, but I prefer to submit like a sniper, which means I spend a lot of time researching the agent or publisher I want to submit to.

I’ve had a few people try to encourage me to self-publish. Normally, I try to brush it off, but if you’ll scroll down the blog posts here, you’ll find my epic essay “Why I will Never Self-publish.” It was an attempt to lay this “helpful advice” to rest for good, but apparently I was too wordy, and the self-publishing champions were a little too short attention span-y to read more than the first few paragraphs, and a little too self-conscious about their own publishing choices to see that I wasn’t attacking their choice to self-publish, but rather stating the very clear and practical reasons why I, personally, would never self-publish (I write slowly, I suck at self-promotion, I’d have to take out a loan to publish the way I’d want to publish, etc.).

So, I’ll take this month of January to get a few more submissions of The Palace of Winds out the door. I’ve got a few agents and a few small presses I’m sniffing around, trying to get a good feeling about. If any of my writer friends have an agent they’d like to recommend, I’d love to hear about the agent (or maybe you could tell the agent about me?).

The Palace of Winds is the first of a planned three book cycle experimenting with ideas about mythology and its dissolution, manhood, family, and American folklore. This first book is a loose retelling of Jason and The Golden Fleece that borrows some very broad elements from my grandfather’s life on the road during the Great Depression. He spent time in L.A. working for a boxing promoter, herded sheep in Montana, and rode freight trains for a time following work around the country. Those things happen in this story, but there are also violent Klansmen, incestuous street preachers, three harpies tormenting a legendary gunslinger, a mob kingpin’s daughter who murders her brother, a dark, desperate winter hiding in the mountains, and a long, sad journey home.

That’s it. Be sure to grab the latest episode of The Outrider Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or at my website.

And new cat.

Dawn


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