Indies First

Indies FirstIt’s hard to identify a trend mid-stream, but I think it’s fair to say that while this holiday weekend used to be about giving thanks to the Earth for its bounty, it’s now adapted—at least in many metropolitan centers—to a festival wherein we give back our bounty to the economy.  Turn on the TV, look on the internet and you’ll hear and read a lot of backlash—much of it rightly placed—but surely some economic stimulus beats a squash-induced coma, especially when the places you’re shopping are the local institutions that sustain our communities socially, culturally, and maybe even financially.  So if you’re if doing some holiday shopping and you’re a reader—and look you’re reading this blog, so you must be—go hit up your local independent bookstore.  Chances are, it will be staffed by smart and helpful and passionate folks.

In this vein, today for “Small Business Saturday” and “Indies First” day, more than three hundred writers nationally will be at independent bookstores having fun and showing our thanks to the fantastic bookstores we love.  I’ll be at the always awesome and eclectic Brookline Booksmith with Jessica Keener, Kris Jansma, and Maryanne O’Hara.  Come on by! We’ll be popping on pins and trying our hands at bookselling—talking about books we love, answering questions, and admitting that we don’t know where the bathrooms are.

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Updates Part One

So it’s a new semester and I’ve been busy writing new syllabi and settling into a new apartment and a lot of other things about which you, the internet, are not interested, but in that time I’ve fallen behind on updates and a website that is not current is no website at all, so I’ll spend a few posts updating:

Book Launch

We launched Horse Latitudes in style at the incomparable Brookline Booksmith. It was a lot of fun with a great turnout and no shortage of cheese and wine—like any good literary event.  Many thanks to the good people at MP Publishing USA for putting it together as well, of course, to Jamie Tan and Katie McCarthy the events folks who hosted me so generously at Booksmith. (Jamie also rescued me from a blizzard at Winter Institute and saved me a spot on her events calendar, while Katie, who is, it turns out, a miraculous stand-up comedian, oversaw the event and provided the kind of author introduction I definitely don’t deserve and will never forget).  Thanks all for coming out.  Meanwhile, as the major press run goes into production it’ll be a little longer wait to find Horse Latitudes on bookshelves or in your mailbox—unless, of course, you hit up Brookline Booksmith where there are still some of those early copies available.

 Book Launch


Also, this year at AWP, Guy Intoci, the editor who acquired Horse Latitudes, was nice enough to introduce me to the neo-noir underground—a wild group of writers, readers, and editors, and (by the look of their hotel suite) bon vivants who seemed to have some pretty specific ideas about how to navigate the anxiety of an AWP bookfair.   Anyway, this past August I had the good fortune to be interviewed by a couple of them, Pela Via and Misty Bennet, the keepers of all things noir, at ManArchy Magazine. We talked Horse Latitudes, Will Christopher Baer’s cult classic, Kiss Me, Judas, and even a little medieval lit.  Check it out—if only for the banner–and check out, also, one of the gang’s newer projects, The Booked. Anthology.

Also, some of the writers I met that night have some interesting new work up and in the world.  It never hurts to click:

Caleb J. Ross

Phil Jourdan

Gordon Highland

Friendly Praise

Also from earlier this summer—and this shows how far behind I am here—my friend and grad school professor William J Cobb (author of, most recently, The Bird Saviors, a semi-dystopian neo-Western with heart), gave Horse Latitudes a kind shout-out on his blog.

Check it out, here.

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On Cormac McCarthy, Part I

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Like all the real fanboys say: I was reading Cormac McCarthy back before it was cool.  I.e. before the Cohen brothers chucked him some indie cred (though it should work the other way) and Oprah brought his wholesome vision of spit-roasting babies in a post-apocalyptic hell to the American masses.  But unlike hipster music fans, or whoever, I think it’s great to see his vision going mainstream and I’m looking forward to “The Counselor” – the new Ridley Scott film based on McCarthy’s screenplay.  The film’s got a good cast and a pretty cool new trailer.

I can’t say it looks good. There’s something fundamentally exhausting about the slick nihilism so many of these thrillers toss off as style these days, but for me, anyway, that’s an exhaustion that kicks-in only in retrospect when I realize the film has left zero impression on me – let’s call it the Michael Mann Effect.  In the meantime, it might well be fun.  And, anyway, the amorality of postmodern experience that these films seem so eager to “explore” has never really been McCarthy’s territory, so maybe – despite the trailer – it’ll surprise me.

The New Yorker ran an excerpt from the screenplay last month and you can check it out here.  This doesn’t really read like any screenplay I’ve ever seen, and I imagine that they must have brought in some other folks to convert it to a shooting script.  (Or McCarthy jazzed it up for the New Yorker). Anyway, I’m sure they’ll be cashing in and publishing it – in which case plenty of screenwriting teachers will have to explain to their students that just because Cormac McCarthy’s screenplays are full of dense paragraphs of prose, doesn’t mean theirs can be.  This is an issue creative writing teachers have had for a while now – “I wonder if ‘aslake against the orb-canted horizon, the bloodred perimeters of the sun itself’ is really the most effective way to describe the sunset before prom?” – so it’s only fair to spread the love.

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On Margaritas

So, in my first post I promised to write occasionally about ‘literary cocktails’ and instead all I’ve done is indulged in semantic inquiry.  Why?  Basically because I can only bother to blog about what I’m thinking about and usually I’m thinking about words or how deeply committed Danny Ainge is to ruining the Celtics.  And of those only one is anything more than a glaring neon example of God’s attempt to render ‘the obvious’ to the earthlings.   But judging by the mayhem in the streets, Derby weekend did just toss out the Holy Grail of spring drinking with Derby Day and Cinco de Mayo—a two-day pub-crawl designed to kill the hipsters and frat boys alike. *

With “The Great Gatsby” film out this summer I think I’ll get another chance to turn my attention to silly outfits and mint juleps.  So I’ll save Derby Day for another post, only noting that yes, I made juleps over the weekend, and yes they were delicious, and yes I think that any drink that involves mixing silver cups AND straws, not to mention throwing back two and a half ounces of bonded-bourbon in thirty-second increments, may not be the beacon of American gentility that it’s cracked up to be, or conversely, exposes the wild and beautiful democratic nature throbbing at the heart of our exceptionalism.  Forced into the arena of false choices, I’d take the second interpretation which, for now, is neither here nor there, because I’m looking south….

Toward Mexico where Cinco de Mayo must be very different from the way it’s celebrated here, in Northern Baltimore, where, though I’m no anthropologist, its primary rituals seem to involve college kids attacking their faces with disastrous-looking margaritas in dumfounding quantity.  These drinks, produced by the jugful, resonate with damage and distemper and glow with all the bright menace of poison flowers.  Imagine these drinks with their rotgut tequila and the hot acetylene reek of cheap triple sec, their Martian-blood sour mix and spaceship chalices masquerading as glassware.  Imagine these margaritas and imagine the people who drink them! Their bad nights and worse dawns. These are the same people, of course, who, later in life, will confide to you that “tequila makes me crazy” as if it were the nature of the spirit itself that led to them running naked through the streets, barfing greenly into the pleasant spring dusk. **

So I wonder—and this is an important question, since I’ve got a book coming out some of which is set south-of the-border—Do People Drink Terrible Margaritas in Mexico?

Now for the radical honesty. I sure did. I don’t like to admit this, but this is my blog on my eponymous website and yet, for some reason, I usually feel that it’s not exactly trembling with authenticity, and so often we hear that to be authentic we have to be true to ourselves, or conversely, maybe, discover our true selves to which we then must be true.  So by this logic, or syntax anyway, authenticity must be the same thing as truth, and the truth is that A) no one is still reading; B) Polonius would have made millions on the Self-Help circuit; and C) I drank a frozen margarita in Mexico.

As far as confessions go this might not be much of a sin, but I feel that as bad as it is to consume these beverages in Baltimore, it’s got to be a lot worse to drink them in Mexico.***

But I did.  On my trip to Nuevo Laredo in March 2006.  I was a first year MFA student and the AWP conference was in Austin and just happened to coincide with the tail end of our spring break and I was just back from Honduras and already thinking about writing Horse Latitudes and I was able to talk a few other MFA students into heading down to Mexico with me before the conference began.

That trip itself may be the subject of another post.  For now, let it be enough to say that we quickly found ourselves in an outdoor plaza in Nuevo Laredo needing a drink.  Why? One of the poets was on a sombrero-buying spree, and while, to get back to my original question, I have no idea if Mexicans drink margaritas, I do know, very surely, that they do not, in Nuevo Laredo, wear sombreros.   Luckily there was a little outdoor cantina in the plaza.  I approached the bar and ordered a few beers. Instead of giving me beers the bartender looked over my shoulder at the poet wearing a huge blue sombrero.  In her hand she held a smaller identical blue sombrero. “It’s for my cat,” she explained.  And then added:  “Gato.”  Without saying anything, the bartender trudged over to the ice cream machine at the end of the bar and into glasses shaped, in fact,  like upside down sombreros, poured us four frozen margaritas.  The beer never appeared.  The bartender continued to stare very hard at the miniature sombrero.  I clasped my huge green drink with both hands.

I’m not sure if it would have been possible for us to be anything but tourists in Nuevo Laredo, but the margaritas didn’t help.  Shoeshine boys and pill-hawkers swarmed the table.  The police stopped and stared.  A kid driving a donkey cart pulled up to curb and asked us if we wanted to go to Boystown, the walled brothel down the street.  The poet in the sombrero declined.  The boy looked down at my margarita, then up at me.  “Maybe you want some Xanax,” he said.  “It’s okay, the doctor’s my uncle.”

As it turned out, I ended up using some of that exchange in Horse Latitudes. But I cut the margarita.  How couldn’t I?  It’s the azure of drinks: it renders everything immediately ridiculous.  Which leads me to wonder if there any depictions of margaritas in American letters where the drink, or drinker, is not supposed to seem frivolous or excessive?  In fact, is it even mentioned at all? Historically cocktails have played a large part in American literature, but I can’t think of any examples of the margarita making an appearance.  Can you?

*Obviously I didn’t manage to post this blog in anything like a timely manner.

**For the record: there’s nothing wrong with a real margarita, which I’ve also made recently with reposado tequila, agave nectar, cointreau and fresh squeezed lime juice, but those are about as central to the general American practice of Cinco de Mayo as a footnote is to a blog post which is why I’ve mentioned it in a footnote to a blog post.  (My next post: Recursion and Tautology in the Blogsosphere’s Meta-Text…)

*** This week, now that I’m behind on posting, Baltimore is enjoying Black-Eyed Susans for Preakness (I guess) and Boston (my real hometown) is drinking whatever you drink during hockey playoffs?  Moose blood maybe?  I’ve never managed to get into hockey.  As far as I can tell, it basically just glorifies a lot of Canadians falling down and losing teeth.

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In Praise of Cerulean

So, as I mentioned in my last post, there are words which, for whatever reason, we consider passé in literary fiction.  To be clear I’m not referring to cliché usage, (“Her eyes swam over the page and fear flooded her heart.  Tears poured moistly down her face for all the dead metaphors”) but to words themselves which, while their usage may be considered cliché in certain circumstances, are considered—no matter the context—unfit for literary prose.  For the most part, these seem to be adjectives of color.  And this pains me, because despite what I tell my students, I love a good color adjective.  Or even an ordinary one, it seems, as long as it’s referring to some shade of blue.   Anyway, here’s a partially annotated list:

Cerulean: This is a beautiful word and it’s criminal that I can’t use it without turning off at least two thirds of my readers.  (These readers, of course, are largely imagined.  Even still, they are numerous, discerning, and critical of unearned lyricism.)   At least I’m not alone in this.  Rae Bryant gets it about right in this interview with PANK.  (Though the phrase ‘fine wine’ hits my ear kind of like a sledgehammer.  Any time I hear it I can’t help but imagine a person drinking Manischewitz out of a tea-cup.)   Seriously, why can I write cobalt but not cerulean? Oh, right.  I can’t write cobalt…

Cobalt: …unless I’m referring to the Chevy (never), or a form of accidental inhalation poisoning common to potters (every other page, probably).

Vermillion: Unless referring to flies.

Sapphire:  I tried to sneak sapphire into Horse Latitudes, but it didn’t make past the first edit.  It’s too bad, because this, like ruby (see below), is a pretty distinct color, and if the writer’s job is to, you know, render something distinctly it would be nice if he could use the most accurate adjective.  I think the problem here probably comes from too much inappropriate usage.  I mean, unless we’re writing about cats, we should never describe eyes as either sapphire or emerald.  And then, more importantly: why would we be writing about cats?*

Azure: Another good one ruined by lazy descriptions of the sky.  I snuck it in to Horse Latitudes:

The sun rose quickly—it crested the far gray horizon and then it
was overhead—with the sea opening in layers of aqueous shades to
its light: aqua to periwinkle to azure, all lined, intermittently, with the
purple shadow of risen reefs where the sea caught and foamed.

I think I pulled it off.  How?  The reader, still reeling from aqueous, aqua, and periwinkle, can’t even process azure’s impossible appearance upon the page. (Personally, I would have spent the next week trying to remember if Periwinkle was a color or a character out of Dickens.)

Anyway, that’s probably a long enough list for now—though I can think of plenty more.  I guess my general question is—what is it about these words that makes them feel so oversaturated, so self-consciously faux-literary?  They’re not archaic (I long for to touch her), emptily metaphorical, or uncommon.  In fact, uncommon words, though self-conscious, are not beacons of bad prose.  Nacreous? Tellurian? Phatic?  You can use all those word with aplomb.  Or Nabokov could.  As I suggested above, the issue must have to do with a history of inaccurate usage.  If you read enough descriptions of sapphire eyes in bad novels (and only in bad novels) you come to associate sapphire with bad prose.  This is probably why, while sapphire and emerald are out, you can still use ruby.  For instance, check out this stunning passage from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer:

Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees
and the buildings are low and the world is all sky.  The sky is a deep
bright ocean full of light and life.  A mare’s tale of cirrus cloud stands
in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises
points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the
tilting salient of sunlight…In the last sector of apple green a
Lockheed Connie lowers from Mobile, her running lights blinking
in the dusk.  Station wagons and Greyhounds and diesel rigs rumble
toward the Gulf Coast, their fabulous tail lights glowing like rubies
in the darkening east.

Let’s face it: it’s the colors that make Percy’s passage pop. The specificity of “green apple” really brings the weird tropic dusk to life.  More importantly, though, his use of “rubies” is wonderfully specific and—with its proximity to ‘fabulous’ and ‘east’—renders the everyday image of highway traffic somehow exotic—like jewels of Araby spangling out of a Sultan’s tent.  In doing this, Percy also shows us just how far removed Binx remains from the world, how other contemporary life seems to him—while at the same time, and without a shred of exposition, re-expressing Binx’s notion that the search for the numinous should occur in one’s usual environs.  That’s a lot of work for one simple image to be doing and it couldn’t do it without the word rubies.  My point? The sanctimony of imaginary critics notwithstanding, I’m going to use cerulean in my next book.

*It occurs to me that given their irritating penchant for a sort of unexplained luminosity, elves might also, conceivably, have emerald or sapphire eyes.  And why do people write books about elves?  Because they want to sell those books to teenage girls.  Imagine, then the huge market for fiction about elves AND cats.  Consider the possibilities!  Mysander cast his noble sapphire inspection on his oldest and wisest friend, Lord Fluffy Claw, who peered up at him with a knowing emerald glance…

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On ‘Moist’

I like the word ‘moist.’  Or, anyway, it doesn’t revolt me.  At its very utterance I’m not sent into spasms of abject revulsion.  This, it turns out, is not a unanimous condition.  Slate recently published this article on the—apparently very common—visceral hatred of the word moist.

To be fair, I know several people with this problem, but until now I thought their condition was merely symptomatic of their idiosyncratic and deep-seated psychological issues, while in fact it’s indicative of a general and garden-variety neurosis.  Of course, this is just my unscientific diagnosis of all the people out there who start to retch whenever someone describes a really excellent piece of cake. The article, sadly, takes a somewhat less judgmental stance and suggests that the aversion to moistness is sonic rather than connotative.  I.E. “Not [a reaction] to the things that they refer to, but to the word itself…The feelings involved seem to be something like disgust.” From a writer’s perspective, this is a hard case to make.  How do we separate a word’s effect from its meaning?  Connotation from sound? I guess you’d have to test it by yelling at non-English speakers.  In the meantime, trundle in the semioticians and cue Robert Hass’s poem “Meditation at Lagunitas.”

Anyway, the recent process of editing my novel, Horse Latitudes, has made me dimly and begrudgingly—in many ways adverbially—aware of the notion of a reader who will, I’m told, demand pleasure from me.  And apparently many of these readers do not find sudden experiences of abjection pleasurable.  (Or so they claim).*  Well, I’ve checked my novel and I’m happy to report that in its 112,00 words, moist and its variants only appear three times—and only once as an adjective. (After a character has crawled through a brothel tunnel, thrown himself into a rank Mexican fountain, and then sort of dried off—which is hard to do considering how humid, how damp, how generally moist the air can be in a Mexican border town). At another point, a character’s shirt does moisten with breast milk and that character is a sort of Virgin Mary/Mayan Suicide Goddess/Parrot hybrid with a feathered crest, coral rosary,  macaw’s beak, and moistened shirt—so if it’s the moist part of that sentence that you’re having trouble with, I think you’re probably a clinical case. On the other hand, if you feel as strongly about the word ‘blue’ as I do—you’re in luck. ‘Blue’ appears roughly 109,000 times.

Admittedly, there aren’t any words I inherently don’t like, but the opposite is definitely true.  Plenty of words give me visceral pleasure for reasons that seem almost entirely sonic.  I think Donald Hall has referred to this as ‘mouth-pleasure’ which might not be the most dulcet phrase, but gets the experience about right.  It’s good to chew on pendant, cerulean, gloam, billow—though hard, at least for the middle two, to actually work them into my writing unless I’m writing about mages, which I’m not.  And imagine stuffing them all into the same sentence?  “In the low gloaming the pendant moon cast the last billowing clouds in a moist cerulean.” What possible sentence could precede or follow that? (And let’s be honest: that sentence is loathsome long before moist slithers in). Those words are, in many cases, so lyrically oversaturated as to be stylistically terminal.  But that’s for another post, I guess.

*Before you start quoting Kristeva at me, I’ll fire her off at you: “If the object, however, through its opposition, settles within me the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.”  I think I might, inadvertently, have some paragraphs like that.

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Welcome to my blog.

A friend of mine, a fastidious and excellent nonfiction writer, warned me not to blog because my blog would be for many people—editors, employers, ‘readers’—their first exposure to my writing and should, therefore, be of publishable quality.  I’m not sure what precisely constitutes “publishable quality”, but I suspect that if you can’t tell the difference between published writing and a blog post from a new novelist killing some time on the internet—and sitting in the airport, at the moment, with a stranger looking over his shoulder—then the disintegration of literary boundaries and aesthetics is really complete and Rome, so to speak, has already burned.  Or to put it another way: This is a blog.  So, much as they might require it, I will not revise the previous sentences for clarity or amend my creative colon usage.

Still, if that’s the case and you’ve never read a word I’ve written before (like, not even an email), stop reading and go buy my book and/or one of the journals where my work has appeared.  In fact, these are things everyone should do anyway. Now that I’ve established what this blog isn’t, here’s what it will be: occasional commentary on books and publishing, a place to trumpet and laud the accomplishments of my modest and talented friends and colleagues, and, of course, the odd discussion of a good literary cocktail—even if I’m not sure what that means.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by and welcome to my blog and fairly nascent website.  I’ll be updating it pretty soon.  Most likely with some new pictures!

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