It is the story of Rachel Clayborne, who in the first chapter loads herself and her baby in the car and drives all night to her grandmother’s farm—without mentioning it to her husband.
It is also the story of a dam—a dam that, when built, submerged an entire town and that generations later is under pressure and in danger of failing. This dam is a symbol of and a parallel to the novel’s protagonist, whose current life as a wife and mother has submerged a previous life, and who is under similar pressure and in similar danger.
Amy Hassinger is a friend and one of my former teachers. I worked with her during my final semester in the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s low residency MFA program. She was an instrumental hand in the late stages of what would become my first novel.
Amy is an attentive teacher and, as After the Dam demonstrates, an attentive writer. The novel’s structure makes it near-impossible to put down. In somewhat-Morrison-style, Hassinger employs shifts in time and perspective (at all the right moments) to apply tension yet delay its release. Also in Morrison-style, the novel is built of memories—the memories of several characters—memories held up like a dam against the oncoming flood.
My good friend Natalia Trevino, author of the poetry collection Lavanda La Dirty Laundry, was nice enough to invite me to participate in the following blog tour, in which I answer the following four questions, which I’ve answered in pairs. Thanks, Natalia.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS–THE WRITING PROCESS–BLOG TOUR OF WRITERS, 2014
Question Number One: What are you working on? and Question Number Four: How does your writing process work?
Just yesterday I finished the first draft of a short story. It’s called The Anti-Story, and it’s kind of a long short story (46 pages; 11,500 words). I just googled How long is a novella? and apparently a novella is like 20,000 to 50,000 words, so this is just a long short story. Maybe too long. It’s about a guy named JW who discovers that another writer has written and had published the anti-story to his own story. It begins like this:
When JW opened his just-arrived copy of the review, inside which were published the winners and runners-up of the contest to which JW had submitted his own story and thus, as a condition of his entry fee, had received a copy, JW found that the winning story was not his own story, but rather the anti-story of his story.
If you’re wondering what an anti-story is, here’s JW trying to answer that very question in a conversation with a friend:
“The winner wrote the anti-story to my story. To the story I submitted.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know. It’s like…it’s the anti-story. To my story.”
“But what does that mean?”
“It’s like…it’s like this guy’s story…it’s everything that mine isn’t.”
“Like so much better?”
“No. It’s not that it’s so much better. Maybe it is. It’s just…not mine. In every way.”
“Oh my God.”
After submitting the final manuscript of my novel, Parnucklian for Chocolate, to Red Hen in the spring of 2012, I didn’t write much at all for quite a while, maybe a year. There was just so much to do. I work full time, teaching high school English, and in September of 2012 our first child was born, a little maniac named Thomas. Plus book promotion and all that, so no writing.
But several months ago I managed to get back into a routine, and in doing so, I have been able to complete a draft of a play and the story mentioned above. I get up at 5AM, put on the coffee, shower and dress, then sit down and write. I do this Monday through Friday, usually only writing for 15 to 20 minutes (sometimes just 5 to 10 minutes) before I need to feed the cats and start on lunches and so forth. Then the rat race takes off and twenty-four hours later I do it again.
Even though this isn’t much time, I’m usually able to get out at least a page of fiction (5-6 pages of dialogue, when working on the play), which by the end of the week adds up nicely.
I do all of this writing by hand, in those little 70 sheet one-subject notebooks that come in assorted colors and that you can get at Target during Back to School for seventeen cents apiece, and on Saturdays I type it all up. I’m a terribly slow typist, but this is my first edit. On Sunday mornings, I try to submit stuff. Lately I’ve been sending out flash pieces that I’ve written the past couple of years, one of those, titled “A Choice,” having recently been accepted by The Los Angeles Review for their fall issue.
So that’s my routine. Once I have a typed draft of something, my first reader is my lovely and brilliant wife, Liz, who gives me lots of notes and lots to think about.
The play I mentioned is titled Before We Were What We Are Now. It’s not all that great, but I’d never written a play before, or tried to write a play, but I read a lot of plays and I love dialogue and it was a lot of fun.
Question Number Two: How does your work differ from others in its genre? and Question Number Three: Why do you write what you do?
I guess my genre is literary fiction. So one way my work differs from others in that genre is that other works are a lot better than my works.
Beyond that, I’d say that my writing leans toward the postmodern, which doesn’t really make it different but maybe helps to categorize it. Though I wouldn’t necessarily say this about my novel. I was told by my editor that my novel is naturalist, which sounds alright.
I’d say what makes my novel unique but not entirely unique is the style, which has been compared, in reviews, to Vonnegut (which I was actually maybe kind of going for and which makes me blush) and to Gertrude Stein. I write often quite long, perhaps challenging to read, sentences in what Stanley Fish would call the subordinating style, though challenging to read is not what I’m going for. Fun to read is what I’m going for; the sentences are fun to write. Here’s an example, from Parnucklian for Chocolate:
The miniature golf game began with Johnson Davis announcing that they would be playing “Boys against Girls!” and then demanding that both Josiah and Bree, as the representatives of their teams and in order to determine which team would go first, engage in a match, best two out of three, of Rock-Paper-Scissors, which Josiah had never actually played before, though he had seen other boys, such as Joey Simms and Eli Koslowski at the group home, play Rock-Paper-Scissors, usually at the start of a game of kickball or basketball, all of which Johnson Davis learned upon asking Josiah before the match with Bree began if he had ever played Rock-Paper-Scissors, leading Johnson Davis to provide Josiah with a short tutorial which included a basic outline of the rules and a brief history of the game’s genesis and a slightly less brief discussion of the irony of the fact that though Rock-Paper-Scissors is itself a game it is often used, as the current situation shows by example, in the facilitation of other games, and a practical demonstration of the proper hand movements and positions required, at the end of which Johnson Davis took Josiah aside, placing a hand upon his shoulder, and whispered into his ear that a strategy that had served him well over the years was choosing the same object—either rock, paper, or scissors, it doesn’t matter, any of the three would do—in all three turns, turning traditional strategy on its head and thereby often confusing the opponent, a strategy that proved unsuccessful in Josiah’s match against Bree, Josiah choosing scissors in each turn, given that Bree, as a member of the family of Johnson Davis, had had extensive practice in the playing of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Rock-Paper-Scissors having been used throughout Bree’s childhood not only to determine order of competition but as a mediator in nearly all decisions, thus Bree had equally extensive exposure to the favored strategy of Johnson Davis and easily defeated Josiah with a volley of rocks.
This can be tiring to a reader, so I try to counteract this prose style with my dialogue. I tend to write short, minimalist maybe, Hemingway-y or Carver-y dialogue. I guess those are the two chief features of my style: convoluted, subordinating prose and minimalist dialogue. That plus just not being good enough.
What I meant earlier in saying that my work leans toward the postmodern is that I seem to naturally gravitate toward metafiction. Parnucklian for Chocolate contains no metafiction, but the story I’ve been working on, The Anti-Story, includes a lot of it, and when I started writing short stories, as an undergrad taking creative writing courses, they were all metafictive. Borges says that “every writer creates his own precursors”. I certainly don’t think that I created my own precursors, but I find it interesting that I discovered my influences after already being influenced, which is sort of what Borges is talking about there. Writing bad metafiction as an undergrad without knowing what metafiction was led to comments from professors like bla bla postmodernism bla bla John Barth Metafiction which led me of course to John Barth, who I went mad for, and Vonnegut, who, you know, is awesome and all.
So there. Thanks for reading this.
Fellow writer and University of Nebraska MFA alum David Atkinson kindly invited me to participate in the Next Big Thing interview, which has been getting around the internet and in which I answer the following questions. Here goes:
1) What is the working title of your next book?
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
A sentence just sort of popped into my head, “Josiah eats chocolate,” then another, “Nothing but chocolate,” and it just took off from there.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction. It’s kind of a bildungsroman.
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I think, if a movie were made, Justin Bieber should play all the parts, like Eddie Murphy in one of those movies where he played all the parts.
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Parnucklian for Chocolate is a dark comedy about what it is to grow up an alien in your family and your own life.
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book will be published by Red Hen Press.
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Right around three years.
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Slaughterhouse Five, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. Those are good books, right?
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I wrote much of the first draft while sitting through inanely tedious teacher-credentialing classes. So boredom, at first.
After that, I was inspired and encouraged by my lovely wife, Liz, and my MFA faculty mentors, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Jim Peterson, Kate Gale, and Amy Hassinger, all of whom made this book possible.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Reading it may prevent premature balding.
And here are four other fabulous writers who may or may not be participating, and whom you should check out regardless:
Or anyone who wishes to join in can just answer the same questions on their blog and leave their link in a comment.