Ready for another fun, informative Two for Tuesday? This week, check out the choices made by two of the hardest working young guns in the entire indie lit scene, impacting various aspects of new and established writers’ on their paths.
TWO FOR TUESDAY: Michael Seidlinger
The Novel: A Biography- Michael Schmidt
Man, this one’s a tome. Quite literally the biography of how the novel, as a literary long-form, evolved through the various eras, Michael Schmidt also managed to write in a way that invigorates the (maybe) ailing/uninspired novelist into remembering why s/he got into writing novels in the first place: the innovation, the freedom, the exploratory eye of letting free both storytelling and structure. It’s a hell of a book to read and savor. I’ve been reading it in small, ten to fifteen page, doses and intend on keeping this one in rotation for months to come.
Hardcover: 1200 pages, Belknap Press (May 12, 2014)
Dept of Speculation- Jenny Offill
I was a little late to the party with this one but I’m glad I gave it a shot when the paperback version dropped. From a distance, I expected it to be something quite similar, predictable fare from the major New York publishing houses, but upon inspecting the book up close and seeing how it is structured (spare, small snippets of language with plenty of white space), I quickly took to it as a novel that could have easily fit as an indie conquering and finding a home with the majors. Structurally, it’s a lot like an early novel of mine, The Sky Conducting, where the small nuggets of language propel the narrative in a somewhat anomalous yet remarkably poignant and on-point prose. It’s the sort of novel that stays with you for a long time after reading it.
Paperback: 192 pages, Vintage Contemporaries (October 7, 2014)
Michael Seidlinger’s Bio: Michael is the author of a number of novels including The Laughter of Strangers, My Pet Serial Killer and The Sky Conducting. He serves as Electric Literature‘s Book Reviews Editor as well as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in unclassifiable/innovative fiction and poetry. Check him out here: THE FEATURE S P A C E _ | File under: author/designer Michael J Seidlinger.
TWO FOR TUESDAY: Mike Joyce
Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose- Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil
Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose is a nonfiction book. It’s epistolary. Diary entries spanning a three year period written by a young teenage girl who was a drug addict; who was fatherless; who had cystic fibrosis, the killing disease; who spent years in and out of rehab facilities for her condition, suicide attempts, and drug use. Who was going through love and loss all the same as any teen. It’s a true story about a girl who died in the year 1999. The book was compiled/edited by the famed authors Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil (the authors of the definitive Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk).
I heard about it first from a Poetry Editor of the journal I edit, Literary Orphans (thanks, Katie). The press [Sourcebook Fire, out of Naperville, IL] was kind enough to send myself and the Managing Editor press copies. We were skeptical–nonfiction like this isn’t really my bag and to be honest I was mostly just taken with the idea of getting the free book from these two pivotal authors. Man, I didn’t know what I was in for. For about a month as we each read it, it was all we could talk about.
I’m constantly telling anyone who will listen that if you want to be a writer, just write honest and unfiltered. Write when you have something to say, even if you can’t yet see what it is you’re trying to say but still have that lump in your throat. I can appreciate the iambic pentameter and the delicate merger of Faulknerian and Joycean stream-of-consciousness as much as the next guy, but that stuff is just the icing. At best. At worst it’s the boring 20 minute guitar solo in every lame heavy metal album ever made. That stuff shouldn’t be what you set out to write–at least in this Editor’s opinion. It should be more about heart.
My role as Editor and my ridiculously long hours snuggled up with the aluminum railings of the Chicago Transit Authority allows me to read quite a bit. I read a lot of books with heart, but nothing with as big of a heart as this book, not in the past few months, not in the entire year. Mary Rose writes and she doodles and the heart she pounds on the page swells and is filled with tension–even when she writes about boredom. She falls in love and desperately seeks friends and is abused and fills herself with sex and is hit again and again and she finds new love and when it’s all on the brink of the end, when she’s writing on the stationary of the room she’s about to die in, and she looks back at her youth as a little girl, sneaking out in the hospital hallways with the older kids who are there to die at 17–rolling their IVs as they laugh and play–just to feel alive with a tube stuck in ‘em–well that heart swells and it breaks. Yours will to. For me reading this book was a return to what it means to be anybody worth anything, to write fearlessly. To remember where I come from. Don’t let the Lifetime-channel vibes stop you from experiencing this book and remembering what it’s like to be brave.
Paperback: 336 pages: Sourcebooks Fire (April 1, 2014)
Nonconformity- Nelson Algren
My second choice for a book will also remind you how to write, how to write with heart, but in a very deliberate way. It’s also a nonfiction book. What is going on with that? I must be getting old. Nonconformity by Nelson Algren is a short thing. Inside of 100 square pages, with the little pages not even stacking up against a dimestore trade paperback. The book was only recently published (i.e., the 90s), and is essentially the right-hook of the great depression-era Chicago writer that you probably don’t know about. It’s a tad more academic than my other recommendation, if you can ever call Algren academic and not be rightfully crucified for the sin.
Algren writes poetry and awkward lines and he does it better than me, and probably better than you. He is amazing as a writer and has a style immediately identifiable—his book on writing has no shortage of the prose he is known for. The Chicagoan had a love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, and there is a lot of speculation in the annotations of this book that he was trying to raise his fists up at Sartre, take him at his own game, win the girl. The socially conscious writer. The ethical imperative of the artist.
But let us not forget. This book, Nonconformity? It’s Algren. This is all Algren. Confrontational. American. In danger of censorship. He’s a proletarian writer, fighting for the masses, pegged by McCarthy and pursued as a communist. He’s attacked and challenged and while he may complain about it every chance, you know he wouldn’t have it any other way. Nelson reminds you that the only writing worth writing is writing that spends you and leaves you dry. He quotes and pulls in references and destroys and supports and makes this wonderful manifesto for what it means to be a writer.
A breath of fresh air.
Needed now more than ever.
Sometimes I feel like we are in a stagnate cave where the only writers who are serious, who are hard at work , who are in the papers or being interviewed by Crest-Whitestrip news anchors—are out there doing what they do just make a fast buck. I guess Algren felt the same back then. They’ll write a novel about the sexiness of a man who stalks you with GPS beacons and a TV script about the danger of underwear-bombs. They’ll write anything at all to get your cash. It’s like a braincell bank. Insert 10 brain cells here: receive double-d cup entertainment.
So you want to make a million? That’s all fine and good, writer, if that is what you want to do, just don’t lose your heart along the way. Algren has a word of advice for you:
“You don’t write a novel out of sheer pity any more than blow a safe out of a vague longing to be rich. / A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.”
To Algren, and to me, the writer is that constant whetstone–there to grind away ceaselessly against the axe that has become the American mind, to keep it sharp. This book is a plea not to let that role be forgotten. Written during his prime, his leanest, his fighting weight–before the depression won and he ran away from this city, he wrote a book on writing. This is the book. It’s unlike any book on writing you’ll ever read. It’s a lot like any clarion call to arms you will ever read.
Paperback: 142 pages: Seven Stories Press (September 10, 1996)
Mike Joyce’s Bio: Mike Joyce edits Literary Orphans Journal and writes in the underground.
There are books we read purely for enjoyment, books recommended by family or dear friends. Also there are books we read that re-arrange our lives, make our approach to writing, as writers, seem uniquely, markedly different. I nod to both Michael and Mike this week for mentioning books that are craft focused. And so, I also would like to mention two more books, recently read, that altered the way I write, or formerly perceived writing. One is non-fiction (interviews) and the other is poetry (Ellen Bass):