Small Press Pick: The Snow Whale

The blurb on the back cover touts The Snow Whale as a modern retelling of Moby Dick, but to limit John Minichillo’s debut novel to this description would be somewhat of a disservice. While a white whale is, indeed, at the heart of much action throughout the narrative, Minichillo also draws on the ethos of other classic works of American literature. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” spring immediately to mind, for the novel is as much about survival — both physical and spiritual –as it is about whaling.

The novel centers on John Jacobs, a middle-class salesman whose world-weary sense of malaise begins to fall away when a DNA test suggests that he’s part Inuit. Inspired to get in touch with his ancestral roots, he stocks up on camping gear and heads to Alaska for a whale hunt, leaving behind his wife and their safe suburban home. Although John’s initial goal to “escape the plastic and plenty” of life in the lower 48 comes across as highly romanticized, the novel eventually and thrillingly shifts into high gear as relentless pursuit of his quarry leads the protagonist to experience a “dread only overpowered by the will to live and the fear of death.”

Nearness to death not only makes John feel fully alive, but also gives him a true understanding of the difference between wants and needs, thus underscoring one of the novel’s biggest themes: so inured are we in the trappings of contemporary existence that we’ve forgotten what it means means to live, to laugh, to love, to care. That John initally makes a living selling “desk doodles,” useless paperweights imprinted with inspirational quotations whose lack of context renders them completely meaningless, points up the vapid nature of the life he’s left behind, as does the eerily goofy tone Minichillo employs to describe this life. Yet as the threat of death draws near, the author gradually and expertly leaves the goofiness behind, and the novel evolves into something entirely different: a genuine page turner.

Juxtaposing goofiness and grit, The Snow Whale gets at the heart of all that’s amiss in our hyper-plastic consumer culture even as it proves that, beneath it all, we can still find signs of life.

–Review by Marc Schuster


What My Leaf Blower Taught Me About Writing

I moved into my current home about three summers ago. When Fall came, I tried to use my leaf blower, but it didn’t work. I plugged it into the electrical outlet in my garage, but when I switched it on, nothing happened. Assuming my leaf blower was broken (but being too cheap, lazy, and weirdly sentimental about the machines I own to throw it in the trash), I put it away and left it my garage for the past three years.

Earlier this year, however, I decided that I’d try to fix my leaf blower on the off chance that the problem was just a loose wire or a switch or something I could repair given my limited skill set as a handyman. My first step, of course, was to plug it in and flip the switch. And this time around, it screamed to life.

That’s when I remembered an important detail: Subsequent to the last time I’d used the leaf blower, I hired an electrician to rewire the garage. But I never put two and two together. I never made the connection between the bad wiring in the garage and the fact that the leaf blower didn’t work. As a result, I spent the next three years raking leaves like some kind of caveman when I could have been blowing leaves like some kind of jerk with a really loud leaf blower.

The point of this parable is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, but I think it works.

It’s the end of November. If you made it through National Novel Writing Month with a draft, you’re probably painfully aware of how much work it needs. And if you came away from the month with only a portion of a draft, then you might feel like you have a lot further to go. Either way, you probably have a massive collection of pages that you feel, due to your proximity to the project, is somehow “broken.”

Maybe you hate the characters.

Maybe you feel the dialogue is flat.

Maybe the plot doesn’t make any sense.

But a lot of these negative feelings you have toward your novel might have a lot more to do with outside issues than with your novel. Your disdain for the project might have more to do with the fact that you’ve been living so closely with it for the past month than the fact that there’s anything wrong with it. In other words, your manuscript isn’t broken. You’re just too burnt out to appreciate it right now.

If you suspect that this is the case, your best bet is to put the manuscript aside for a while — probably not three years, but long enough to come back to it with fresh eyes. More to the point, don’t give up on the project, and don’t trash it just because you think it isn’t working. Instead, give yourself some time. Let your synapses rewire themselves. Allow yourself to recover from the arduous process of banging out that draft.

A month.

Two months.

Maybe longer.

And when you think you’re ready, turn to page one of the manuscript, flip the proverbial on-switch, and give your work a chance to scream back to life.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012).

Small Press Pick: This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey distills in its purest form author Steve Almond’s literary aesthetic by collecting a series of micro-essays on the ins and outs of writing and then exemplifying those ins and out with a brief selection of flash fiction. The result is what may be the most concise and helpful book on how to write fiction ever published — a pocket-sized catechism for writers at every stage of the game.

Early on, Almond offers a definition of writing that calls to mind the advice Grady Tripp offers his students in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. According to Almond, “Writing is decision making. Nothing more and nothing less. Where to place the comma? How to shape the paragraph? Which characters to undress and in what manner? It’s relentless.” From here he goes on to discuss the various decisions that writers need to make with respect to plot, style, point of view and a host of other issues.

In the shortest of his “essays,” Almond offers a one-sentence definition of plot: “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” In the event that this definition needs further elucidation, he goes on to offer a supplemental essay on the subject titled “A Quick Survey of Where Your Plot Went Wrong.” (Hint: it probably has something to do with your characters and how you treat them.)

Elsewhere, Almond proffers such invaluable pieces of advice as “Metaphors Almost Always Suck,” “Excessive Emotional Involvement Is the Whole Point,” and “Slow Down Where It Hurts.” He also asks a pointed question: “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll?” As these titles suggest, the author pulls no punches when describing the difference between good writing and bad, yet he’s also quick to admit in a piece titled “This Is Just My Bullshit” that the dicta he has on offer are purely subjective.

As with all books on writing, the best the author can do is provide guidelines for writing the kind of fiction he likes to read. Fortunately, Almond’s tastes run a fairly wide gamut, and his talent as a fiction writer — as evidenced not only by the flash fiction included in this brief volume but also by his excellent short story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil BB Chow — renders his an opinion worth considering.

If you’re a writer, buy this book. If you’re a reader, buy this book. If you have either writers or readers in your life, buy all of them this book.

– Review by Marc Schuster

Wherefore NaNoWriMo?

As a lot of writers know, November is National Novel Writing Month (or, as the hip kids call it, NaNoWriMo). As its name suggests, the basic idea behind NaNoWriMo is for aspiring writers to produce a novel (or at least a 50,000-word portion of a novel) in the space of 30 days. While I do see some value in this endeavor, I wanted to take a moment to come out in support of writers who, like me, won’t be participating in this month-long endeavor. My message: Don’t worry about it. Size doesn’t matter. While some of your writer friends may be amassing huge word-counts over the next few weeks, slow and steady wins the race for the rest of us.

To put NaNoWriMo into perspective, it might help to examine the endeavor in light of a distinction that Kurt Vonnegut makes in his novel Timequake. According to Vonnegut, writers can be divided into two categories: swoopers and bashers. Swoopers are writers who fly through a first draft in no time at all (relatively speaking) and spend a lot of time revising. Bashers, by way of contrast, are writers who obsess over every keystroke and throw out ninety percent of what they write as they’re writing it. When a basher finishes manuscript, Vonnegut said, it’s pretty much done. Needless to say, NaNoWriMo is great for the swoopers among us, but the bashers might want to sit this one out.

Personally, I’m a basher. I’ll stare at a screen of hours on end, wondering whether or not to use a comma in the middle of a given sentence. Sure, this strategy may seem counterproductive, especially when all of my swooper friends are telling me about about how many words they’ve written since we last spoke, how many pages of text they’ve generated since embarking on their latest projects. But here’s the thing: what I enjoy about writing isn’t watching the words pile up on the page. I actually enjoy crafting well-wrought sentences in much the same way that some hobbyists enjoy raising ships in bottles. In many ways, my love for making sentences is what got me into writing in the first place.

I’d be lying, of course, if I said that I was above the temptation to participate in something like NaNoWriMo. Yes, a part of me (sometimes a very big part of me) gets jealous when I hear my friends talking about how big their manuscripts have grown after just a few weeks of stroking their keyboards. And I also have to admit that, unlike Vonnegut’s ideal bashers, I also have to engage in quite a bit of revision when I’m done a draft, so it’s not like I’m saving time on the back end of the process by making sure everything’s “perfect” the first time around. At the same time, though, I’ve hit upon a process that works for me. I work at a pace that I’m comfortable with and, more importantly, a pace that allows me to enjoy the process of writing.

So far, working at this pace has paid off. I’ve published two book-length works of nonfiction, a novel, and a good number of stories, essays, and book reviews, and I also have a second novel on the way. On one hand, it’s conceivable that I’d have even more publications under my belt if I’d adopted the swooper stance and tried to crank out as many words as I could each day. On the other hand, I might have hated every minute of it — or at the very least, gotten discouraged when the fruits of my swooping didn’t mature into fully-developed and finely-crafted prose fit for public consumption.

Embracing my identity as a basher, I’ve found a niche in the writing world that suits my temperament perfectly. I work slowly (and sometimes surely), one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time toward the goal of a completed work, and when I’m finished, I go back and start working on it again. It takes time and patience, and some days I just want to give up. But I’ve learned to savor the process, learned to enjoy stringing words together and making the best of my time in front of my computer screen. At the end of the day (or even the month), I might not have the highest word count among all of my friends, but I can rest assured in the knowledge that I’ve been doing what I love. And for me, there’s no other reason to write.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012).

Small Press Pick: Love in the City of Grudges

I know better to conflate the poet and the poem, the writer and his creations, but I want to believe that the “I” of the poetry collected in Will Nixon’s Love in the City of Grudges is, indeed, the poet, for his “I” is honest and forthright about a time in his life that was, in retrospect, magical but which appeared, in the heat of the long summer moment, to be the deadest of ends. I could be friends with that “I,” in that time and place.

The collection is about being young and poor and in love and wanting to be a writer and not knowing what to say because you don’t yet realize that all that lies before you is plenty to say. It’s about promise. It’s about potential. It’s about living in Hoboken and naming your cats Sid and Nancy because you wish you were more of a punk. It’s about dreams. It’s about fitting in. It’s about cockroaches and survival. And, towards the end, it’s about zombies.

Throughout the volume, Nixon dazzles with his attention to detail, bringing the worlds of his squandered youth to life with images as precise as they are telling: the hapless brother who “unscrews Oreos for the cream,” the unfinished copy of Gravity’s Rainbow (“All summer, I couldn’t get past his octopus/with Pavlovian training”), the rubber masks of Nixon and Reagan, the Hefty bag of laundry, the chocolate syrup masquerading as blood in Night of the Living Dead.

All told, it’s a strong and moving collection that bespeaks the myriad ways in which the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead, are always closer to each other than we might care to admit.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Point of Telling

A while back, I saw Junot Diaz speak at a writing conference, and one of the things he talked about was what he called “the point of telling.” He started his explanation by discussing his experience reading unpublished fiction and realizing that although the pieces in question had a lot going for them, something was just — off. This something, he said, is frequently hard to identify, but frequently the problem lies in the point of telling.

The point of telling is a little bit like point of view or the perspective from which an author tells the story. The difference is that point of telling has less to do with who is telling the story (e.g., a first-person narrator or a “close third-person” narrator) than where the narrator stands in relation to the story.

Diaz discussed the point of telling in relation to time. For a story to do its job effectively, the narrator needs to be at a fairly consistent distance from the events in question throughout the narrative. For example, if the narrator begins telling a story five years after the events described therein, the whole story needs to be told from a distance of five years.

Needless to say, the narrator doesn’t have to say, “All of this happened five years ago.” The point of telling is a lot more subtle than that.

Imagine you’re in a car accident. Not a bad one — just a minor fender-bender — but enough of an accident to leave you somewhat jarred. In the moment, you’ll be feeling a lot of emotions and your senses will be highly attuned to everything. The experience will be immediate and raw, highly visceral.

After a few days, however, you’ll get some perspective. You’ll be able to think about the accident in a somewhat more abstract way. It won’t be a matter of What’s happening right here, right now? Instead, the information will be filtered through all of the parts of your brain that try to make sense of the world. How did the accident happen? you’ll start to ask yourself. And your brain, being the amazing aggregator of information that it is, will reconstruct events to the best of its ability.

As more time passes, your attitude toward the accident will change. What once seemed so traumatic and pressing (How will I get to work now? Is the other driver insured? What the hell was he thinking? Were there any witnesses? Should we call the police? Where will I take my car to get it fixed? And all of the other myriad questions running through your mind…) starts to fade into the background of your life and become a minor blip on the radar.

Or it might actually start to look funny. As one of my writer friends always reminds me, comedy equals tragedy plus time. Most likely, the opposite might be true as well: comedy plus time might actually turn to tragedy. The important thing, though, is to try to remain at a more or less uniform distance from the events you’re describing. Doing so will allow your readers to settle comfortably into your story without constantly wondering how close (or far) they are from the action at hand.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012).

Small Press Pick: All Her Father’s Guns

In fewer than 200 pages — 190, to be exact — novelist James Warner manages to explore the full range of the American sociopolitical spectrum with verve and wit. The novel centers on the unlikely relationship between Cal Lyte, a right-leaning, gun-toting venture capitalist, and Reid Seyton, Cal’s left-leaning, bookish not-quite son-in-law. Faced with academia’s version of corporate downsizing, Reid agrees to do some snooping in order to dig up “something fresh” on Cal’s ex-wife, Tabytha. That Tabytha’s political aspirations and inclinations make her a dead-ringer for Sarah Palin while Cal’s ongoing tryst with a Lacanian psychoanalyst wreaks havoc with his own moral compass only adds to the fun.

Throughout the novel, Warner’s gift for creating strong characters is clear. Among the strongest is Cal, who comes across as a slightly eccentric amalgam of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe’s Charles “Cap’m” Croker of A Man in Full.

Additionally, Warner does a wonderful job of sending up ivory tower academia. Reid’s dissertation adviser, for example, is described as “a Kansan who’d spent half his career analyzing the continuity errors in Casablanca.” Narrating this portion of the novel, Reid goes on to explain, “E.g., when Bogart reads a note from Bergman at a train station, his coat is wet, but when he gets on the train, his coat is suddenly dry again. In Troy’s reading, the super-absorptiveness of Bogart’s coat parallels Bogart’s own rapid intake of Bergman’s message, while also reflecting how quickly popular culture soaks up postmodernism.”

In many ways, one is tempted to read the continuity errors of Her Father’s Guns — few though they are — in a similar light. E.g., when Reid has lunch with Cal, he orders fish and chips because at $19.99, he reports, it’s the cheapest entree on the menu, but on the following page Cal’s daughter orders an entree that’s $17.50. Here, Reid’s mistaken belief that his $19.99 meal is “the cheapest” when a cheaper alternative clearly exists parallels the tendency of his own ethics become skewed under Cal’s influence, while also reflecting how quickly popular culture forgets its “values” when money comes into play.

Though this reading may be a slight stretch, it actually lines up with a lot of the novel’s themes. Indeed, the real dynamism behind this novel is Warner’s uncanny ability to allow his characters to evolve over time — to allow their values and perspectives to change as the world around them offers its various motivational incentives, greed and lust being high on the list.

All told, All Her Father’s Guns is a satire par excellence that combines the zaniness of a Terry Southern novel with the critical astuteness of White Noise-era Don DeLillo.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012).

Advice from Junot Diaz

A while back, I had the opportunity to see Junot Diaz speak at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Towards the end of his discussion, he offered some advice for writers that I personally found very helpful. Here are a few things he had to say:

  • Leave room for your reader. Don’t spell everything out for your reader. Give your reader the opportunity to interpret the events that you describe. Allow for multiple interpretations. Ambiguity is good.
  • Characters are best understood in relation to each other. Diaz used the “character” of Wilson in Castaway as an example of this concept. Wilson, who is a a volleyball, gives the hero of that film (played by Tom Hanks) someone to talk to. It’s through the hero’s interaction with Wilson that we learn the most about the hero.
  • The world should resist your characters. Don’t place your characters in an idealized world. Instead, allow your characters to live in a world where the daily tribulations that complicate all of our lives rear their ugly heads and complicate your characters’ lives.
  • Don’t worry about publishing. Worry about writing. If you want to be an artist, work on your art.
  • Live your life. People who’ve spent their lives learning how to write might end up having little if anything to write about. People who have lived — who have gone and done things and met people and made mistakes and experienced the world — have something to write about. Diaz also suggested that if you want to be a writer, you should get your heart broken on three continents.
  • Read. Diaz remarked that writers are the only artists he knows who don’t do the thing they want their audience to do. Musicians listen to music. Painters admire the work of other painters. But half the time he goes out to see writers at readings, they say they’re “too busy writing” to do any reading. Diaz made a point of saying that this attitude is insane.

Great advice from a great author! If you have the chance, definitely attend one of his readings.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012).

Small Press Pick: The Twoweeks

On the surface, The Twoweeks by Larry Duberstein is a masterful story about extramarital relations and the complications inherent therein. Read a little closer, and it’s about the eternal tension between time and memory.

The plot of the novel revolves a pair of more-or-less happily married young lovers who don’t happen to be happily married to each other. To do away with any potential sexual attraction they might have for each other, the pair decide to embark on a two-week fling — hence the title of the novel. Yet what starts off as a simple fling (as if such a thing could ever exist) turns out to be anything but simple.

While Duberstein’s treatment of the emotional peril inherent in the novel’s basic conceit is both nuanced and intensely human, his framing of the tale lends texture to the narrative. As readers, we learn about the events thirty years on as the key players argue over seemingly petty details and reminisce almost antagonistically over the time they shared. The effect of this layering is to raise many issues about the tangled relationships between time, memory, and identity. And, like all good art, The Twoweeks poses more questions than it answers.

Throughout the novel, Duberstein’s talents as a prose stylist are in full bloom, and the author emerges throughout as not just a master of well-wrought phrases and descriptions, but as a true student of the human condition. Consider, for example, his take on what he terms “the eternal spousal question”: To the eternal spousal question (“What’s wrong?”) the eternal answer (“Nothing”) can never be rendered convincingly… If the question must be asked, then “Nothing” is simply not among the plausible answers.

Truer words have never been spoken!

All told, The Twoweeks is the work of a master wordsmith whose intimate knowledge of the human heart is rivaled only by his perspicacity, a writer who is comfortable dealing with uncertainties and who understands that a good question can sometimes be worth a thousand answers.

Review by Marc Schuster

Dealing with Writer’s Block: What’s Lurking

At one point or another, pretty much every writer hits a wall. For whatever reason, you can be moving along at full tilt when, all of a sudden, you realize that you’ve either painted yourself into a corner or, worse, that you’re fresh out of paint. The technical term for this, I believe, is writer’s block.

The important thing to remember when you’re hit with writer’s block is not to panic. Instead, look back over what you’ve written and try to figure out what’s “lurking.” In other words, what remains unsaid? Where’s the potential for your story to grow? For example, is there a character you’ve mentioned in passing but have yet to develop? Is there a “gun over the fireplace” that you haven’t fired yet? Have any of your characters missed opportunities to meet? Is a character holding back on expressing her true feelings or revealing an important detail?

I recently saw the author Robin Black read from her wonderful collection of short stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. One of the things she said she does when she’s stuck is to go back and look for places where her characters don’t speak their minds because they’re trying to be polite. She’ll then remind herself that her characters don’t need to be as polite as she is, and she’ll allow her characters to say what she might never say in real life. From there, the story is forced to take a new turn.

By allowing something that’s lurking to creep out into the open, you give your work the opportunity to do something unexpected. When that happens, your work takes on new life. To go back to my initial analogy, it’s a little bit like giving yourself the power to paint a doorway into the corner you thought you’d painted yourself into—and then to step through that doorway and into the rest of your story.

Marc Schuster is the author of The Grievers (Permanent Press 2012).