New Books Roundup #1

Alternately bizarre, poignant, and unsettlingly funny, William Walsh’s Ampersand, Mass.—the titular town situated somewhere between Winesburg, Ohio and Yoknapatawpha County—brings Donald Barthelme’s darkly comedic compressions to mind. These fragmentary, non sequitur-filled stories, peopled by ne’er-do-wells, nincompoops, and priapic not-quite-post-adolescents, circumvent expectations, the seemingly desultory images and events actually carefully sutured together to evoke the sadness, anomie, rebellion, boredom, apathy, and, yes, even heart and kindness that you might find within a small-town in these altered and dissociated states of America. Marked by concision and precision, a commanding use of narrative ellipsis, and humor and utter strangeness, these stories, moving between strange and funny and sad, sometimes in the same story, sometimes in the same paragraph, might just cut you up, in both senses of the phrase.

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How I Wrote Certain of My Books

[In which I elaborate on an earlier post, “Slow Writing?“]

In thinking about my earlier contention that writing ought to be slow, I decided to examine my own process. Specifically, I wondered if I, a man with two books coming out this year, was living up to my own lofty standards. I thus constructed a mental timeline for one of those books, Critique of Pure Reason, out this fall from Noemi Press.

Critique is a collection of essays and fictions, and so already has the patchwork frame of an occasional book built into it. But I had the concept of it in mind at least since 2009, when I gave my Master’s thesis that title after thinking (at absurd length) about what to call the heterogeneity that was to be contained therein. (It should be noted that, of the seven stories in that thesis, only three will appear in the book, and one of them has been completely overhauled. The rest, it transpires, were not meant for posterity of a more public kind.)

The oldest story in the book, “The Behavior of Pidgeons,” was begun in 2006. I won’t bore you with “VH1 Storytellers”-type information here, just the (boring) facts. It took me another year to get it into shape. I began another story, “Play,” around the same time, but it was put aside while I was in grad school, and didn’t get finished until two years later, a sort of book-end for that experience. While I was in grad school, I began two other stories from the book, but neither were “finished” at the time of my graduation. 2009 was a relatively productive year for me — I finished “Play” and one of the stories I had started in school, I pushed forward with a third, and I started and finished a fourth. In 2010, I wrote four of the remaining stories in the collection, start to finish, and started another two. But last year was the worldbeater. I finished those last two, finally finished overhauling the one from school that had been languishing, and wrote four more, start to finish. But I had an advantage I hadn’t had before: a project. I was thinking about this loose shape or constellation of creative work as a book, and seeing for the first time its bounds and its gaps. With a proper map, I could explore the remainder of the territory, free from worries of unprofitably covering the same ground or taking the long way from point to point.

But: to the numbers! Continue reading