Letter from Washington: Stranger than Fiction

crowd at Queen + Adam Levine

How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?

Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.

They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.

It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.

The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.

“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.

But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend?  We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.

I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.

After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.

The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.

I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.

It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.

So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.

I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.

I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.

Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.

 

The Way We Live Now: Incompetent Dystopia

Washington Monument, before the storm

“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present.”

― The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

Dystopia deserves its own category in the bestseller charts. From financial collapse to the close of the millennial party, every novelist in America is working to end the world – on paper, at least.

As Lionel Trilling illustrates in The Mandibles, her account a family experiencing economic ruin, these dystopian fantasies tells us more about the present than the future. Seeing the world awash in debt, Trilling wrote a book about what happens when the facade of fiat money is exposed. More terrifying than the scariest of horror movies, The Mandibles is about the day our currency is revealed as mere paper.

Super Sad True Love Story is another novel of American decline, in which New York hipsters barrel toward a cliff which the reader can see but they can’t. Shteyngart presents Americans as willfully stupid, in love with selfies and sex, unable to admit that the world around them has changed. When it all comes crashing down, the Chinese – it’s always the Chinese – swoop in to buy Manhattan for pennies on the dollar, a reverse of the old Dutch barter, the impoverished survivors lucky to work as ditch-diggers for their Mandarin masters.

Previous generations did dystopia differently. The state in George Orwell’s 1984 is omniscient and omnipotent, able to spy on your very thoughts. No escape is possible, the boot stamping on a human face forever. Authors of the period, caught between titanic blocs, assumed that a modern administrative state forged by war would be used to comprehensively subjugate the people.

But what if the super-state wasn’t so super? What if the people in charge were more hapless bunglers than evil geniuses? What if our age is less 1984 and more Catch-22? Joseph Heller’s book, published in the 1960s and set during WWII, is a portrayal of the American government that rings true even today.

Heller’s story is one that we can all recognize – the story of a lone man fighting bureaucracy. Instead of battling for Obamacare subsidies or fighting a traffic ticket, Yossarian takes on the Army as it buries its enemies in bombs and its soldiers in red tape.

Like Yossarian, we think someone is in charge. There must be some sensible authority figure, who can undo what makes no sense. But bureaucracy is something that entangles all its participants, as anyone who has worked in government knows.

Now, however, Americans are discovering a new kind of dystopia, one of our novelists didn’t prepare us for – the incompetent dystopia. At its head is an erratic TV star, leading an administration that can’t even write a lawful executive order. Or a tweet that doesn’t enrage an ally. Or a press release without a typo.

Orwell would be disappointed. Big Brother is someone you rely on, to monitor and oppress, capable of shaping the future and erasing the past. But this government can’t even cope with the present.

Dystopian fiction is more than just entertainment, it serves a function. Novels like The Mandibles and Super Sad True Love Story are warnings, our most creative minds looking at contemporary events and extrapolating outwards. Shteyngart sees us undone by our vanity, while for Trilling the end comes from excess borrowing.

Fortunately, novelists are poor predictors of the future. Their dystopias never arrive, for they’re writing about the present, not the future. Of that we can be thankful.

The Terranauts: Adam and Eve Under Glass

good read: The Terranauts

T.C. Boyle has been writing the same story his entire career. But it’s the oldest story of them all – the story of man’s fall.

From his early short stories to his sprawling novels, Boyle explores the tragic nature of existence, in wildly comic fashion, as he reveals all of us to be creatures of our own desires, with no nobility, just advanced primates with super-fueled egos and ambitions.

Never has that been better expressed than in The Terranauts, his account of scientists living under a dome in the Arizona desert for two years. Vaguely cult-like, the objective is to create a better earth, in case we destroy this one, and to pioneer methods for transporting man to the stars.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel is based upon Biosphere II, one of those 90s experiments that best lay forgotten. Like the Biosphere II team, the Terranauts descend into chaos as they slowly starve (and nearly suffocate), under a glass dome without enough nature to support them.

The book is written as an oral history of the project, with different Terranauts and crew telling their side of the story – and casting blame for their project’s infamous failure, the conceit being that the story is well-known to everyone.

One of the most compelling voices is Linda Ryu. Passed over to be an original Terranaut, she lingers on as support staff and is slowly driven mad by jealousy and rage, at one point wondering if the whole project was a kind of practical joke at her expense.

I’ve been a fan of T.C. Boyle’s work ever since reading Greasy Lake and Other Stories, a collection of fiction of that roared into my consciousness like a Bruce Springsteen anthem. I had never read anything anything so hilarious and contemporary before, a riff from a wild literary genius.

Since then, I’ve read most of his books, following along as Boyle explores how our desires take us out of the Garden of Eden. It’s fitting that, in The Terranauts, the action is set in a literal garden under a dome. But, like the original habitants of the original garden, the Terranauts give way to their desires, turning heaven into hell. In this petri dish in the desert, Boyle tells the oldest story of all, and has never done so more powerfully.

Good Read Alert: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

Fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. Novels aren’t true but they have to feel that way, whether they’re about Hobbits from the Shire or jaded exiles in 1920s Paris.

I started Moonglow by Michael Chabon and put it down halfway through. The book strides the line between memoir and novel and succeeds at neither. There’s a scene where Chabon’s grandfather and another man attach explosives to the Key Bridge during WWII to tweak local authorities. Maybe because I live in Washington, and have crossed the bridge numerous times, but this scene did not ring true with me. The tale seemed impossible, as did Moonglow, which read like a shaggy dog story, despite the good reviews.

I did not have that problem with The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which captured me instantly, from the very first line:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The book is a confession, written to his jailer, as a nameless secret agent recounts his sins during the Vietnam War. We get his story, and the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, as well as a wry account of refugees in America in this tour-de-force of a novel.

It’s a little too long. A hundred pages could be excised from its length but there’s hardly been a novel published in the past ten years that I haven’t felt the same about. Still, there’s not a false word in this work of fiction. Nothing breaks the spell of disbelief.

The Sympathizer deserves the Pulitzer Prize for that reason. It’s a powerful story that feels true. And that’s the test of great fiction.

Victory Party: The Story of a Story

Victory Party in City Paper
Victory Party in the City Paper

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?

Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.

Idea

The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.

I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.

Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:

voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.

But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?

Conducting research with The Emperor's Clothes at McClellan's Retreat
Conducting research with The Emperor’s Clothes at McClellan’s Retreat

Setting

There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.

DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.

I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.

My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.

Characters

I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.

In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.

It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.

I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.

Plot

Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.

The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.

Writing & Editing

When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.

After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell. 

I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.

After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.

The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.

I also changed the title, from Her to the ironic Victory Party.

What’s Next

To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.

If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.

I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂

Victory Party: Reading at Kramerbooks

Joe Floods reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.
Joe Floods reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.

That’s me reading at Kramerbooks! The bookstore hosted a celebration for the City Paper’s Fiction Issue on Sunday, January 8th. I read my short story Victory Party, which won First Place in this annual competition.

It was a freezing Sunday night – and it was packed! Kramerbooks cleared out space in the middle of the store for the reading. Chairs were set up and drinks were served. The night was hosted by local author Mary Kay Zuravleff, who entertained the crowd with DC trivia between readings. I read first, then the finalists read and then we all mingled over beer and wine amid the stacks.

Kramerbooks is my local bookstore. One of the first places I ever visited in DC, this Dupont Circle bookstore/bar/cafe represents everything that’s great about living in a city. Giving a reading at Kramerbooks – it’s a dream come true!

 

Victory Party Wins City Paper Fiction Contest

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper’s Fiction Issue.

The annual Fiction Issue sought stellar, unpublished short fiction from local writers. Submissions were judged (anonymously) by Mary Kay Zuravleff, whose latest novel Man Alive! was a 2013 Washington Post Notable Book. Stories had to be less than 1000 words long. 

Set in a U Street speakeasy on election night, Victory Party is about the moment that the liberal bubble pops.

The City Paper said:

Good fiction vividly and accurately describes the world we know; great fiction upends that world. And so this story not only exposes the privileged ignorance so many had about the election but also introduces believable supporters for the opposition.

I’m a writer and photographer who has lived in DC for more than twenty years. My fiction is primarily about Washington “beyond the monuments” – the real city and its neighborhoods and people. I think my fiction has a verisimilitude that you won’t find in more commercial works that treat Washington merely as a backdrop. Instead, I write about the city that I wander and photograph on a daily basis.

If you enjoyed Victory Party, then check out my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the city’s art world. It contains the same jaded look at a gentrified city wildly out of touch with the rest of the country.

And come see me read Victory Party at Kramerbooks on Sunday, January 8 at 6:30 PM! It will be a celebration of the City Paper’s Fiction Issue!

 

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

I’m a writer. I’ve read a lot of biographies of Ernest Hemingway – it’s practically a requirement of the profession.

The first biography of Hemingway I read was the one that Papa wrote himself – A Moveable Feast. It’s a slim and sentimental ode to Hemingway’s early years, romanticizing poverty and Paris. And not exactly true. Hemingway uses the book to settle old scores and falsely claim that Pauline, his second wife, stole him from his first.

Michael Reynolds has written a series of books chronicling Hemingway’s life, such as Hemingway: The 1930s. They’re the best source for a comprehensive account of the author and his works.

The book that stands out for me is Hemingway’s Boat: Everything That He Loved and Lost. It’s a different kind of biography, more of a profile of the people around Hemingway rather than the man himself. And it’s fascinating, showing him as a bully and a braggart – but also hugely devoted to his friends and family.

I was reluctant to read another Hemingway bio but then I saw Ernest Hemingway: A New Life. With the 1922 portrait by Henry Strater on the cover, it’s a beautiful book.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life is a different kind of biography, one that focuses on the themes in Hemingway’s life:

Trauma – If Hemingway was alive today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. He suffered the trauma of war, nearly losing his life during WWI. Afterward, he suffered guilt, believing that the brave died while he lived. He also felt like a fraud, being an ambulance driver rather than a proper soldier. His trauma went unrecognized and untreated – as it did for millions of others.

Women – A man married four times has a complicated relationship with women. His mother was famously domineering and Hemingway didn’t even attend her funeral, blaming her for his father’s suicide. He needed a wife, afraid of being alone, yet he cheated on all of them. Interestingly, his best novels, such as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, all came into fruition when he was leaving one wife for another.

Sex – An academic industry exists to parse the sexual subtexts of Hemingway’s life and work. Zelda Fitzgerald called him “a pansy with hair on his chest.” His public image as a man of action was largely true – but it was also true that he was bookish and sensitive. He was the type of man who seduced women and then bragged about it. Psychologists can speculate if these hypermasculine displays concealed a more conflicted nature.

Reputation – Hugely competitive, Hemingway not only wanted to bed the best women, he wanted to write the best books. From the beginning, he looked for his place in the literary canon, placing himself up there with authors like Mark Twain. The decisions he made, such as his marriages, were made to further his art. He had a habit of marrying wealthy women so that he could write.

Madness – The Hemingway family is littered with suicides and mental illness. Hemingway, his father, his brother and his sister all killed themselves. Hemingway’s son, Gregory, died in a women’s prison, after being arrested by the police. He was going by the name Gloria at the time. Hemingway said that his son had the “biggest dark side” of anyone in the family, “except me.” Hemingway died after succumbing to the depression that had plagued him his entire life.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life emphasizes with its tragic subject, elevating the author to hero, not for his public image, but for his creative accomplishments in the face of so much pain and struggle.

Five Novels for the Age of Trump

trump jalopy at the CapitolNothing makes sense anymore. You wake up one morning and your country has changed. It seems absurd. Laughable. Yes, America really did elect Donald Trump.

How do you survive this new vulgar age? By reading fiction. According to a recent Time magazine article, books will not only make you smarter, they can provide comfort during a traumatic time. The immersive experience that good books provide is cheap therapy for the disaffected.

Here are five books to help you cope with recent events. Five novels that provide a comic perspective to understanding the Age of Trump.

Super Sad True Love Story

No one is better at identifying a failing and corrupt state than a Soviet emigre. In Super Sad Love Story, Gary Shteyngart draws a portrait of a dystopian New York in the near future. No one works anymore, everyone seeks social media fame and the Chinese are threatening to foreclose on the country. It’s a comic ruin of a book, one that will break your heart while it keeps you laughing. And one that will make you determined that this dystopia never comes to America.

The Nix

Our poisonous politics began during the culture wars of the 1960s, according to the The Nix by Nathan Hill. Hippie vs square, young vs old, liberal vs conservative – it’s a battle that was never resolved and continues to today. In the book, a failed writer puts down the gaming console to discover the mystery of the mother who abandoned him for radical politics.

The Sellout

Racism. That’s the explanation for Clinton’s loss, according to her supporters. It’s America’s original sin. Okay. But what do you next? If you’re the narrator of The Sellout, you decide to reinstitute segregation in your LA neighborhood as an attempt to bring people up. And you keep a slave, one that has forced himself into your service. That the nation is outraged by these efforts is not surprising, as “The Sellout” is brought before the Supreme Court in a tour de force of comic writing. It’s a searing novel that deserves the mother of all trigger warnings but one that contains the tiniest threads of hope for the American project.

Catch-22

What do you do if caught in a world that doesn’t make sense? Thousands of bureaucrats in DC are about to find out, being whiplashed from the soft socialism of Obama to the incoherent populism of Trump. In this WWII novel, Yossiarian finds himself in a system that doesn’t make sense. He’s a bombardier and has to fly dangerous missions. If you’re crazy, you don’t have to fly missions. But being crazy is a rational response to flying missions. Therefore, you’re not crazy and have to keep flying. Catch-22 is a hell of a catch. This novel by Joseph Heller illustrates an absurd system, one instantly recognizable to any federal government employee.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

American politics are tumultuous. But not as tumultuous as Macondo, the fictional world created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. The doomed Buendia family suffers war, revolution, murder, magic, dueling, insanity, incest, massacre and a hurricane in this sprawling human comedy. It’s seven generations of suffering, as history repeats itself, going from hope to tragedy. A simple election doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. At least, you’re not being lined up in front of a firing squad, dreaming of ice. Lose yourself in this thick book.

Reading can provide consolation to those suffering trauma. Or at least distraction. Forget the news. Put down the iPhone. Pick up a novel instead. These five books will help you survive the Age of Trump.

Murder on U Street – Book Cover Preview

Cover for Murder on U Street by Joe Flood

Book cover preview! Here’s the cover for my upcoming novel MURDER ON U STREET. Someone is murdering artists and hipsters in Washington, DC. It’s up to a jaded detective to solve the case in a city obsessed with money and social media. From parties full of bright young things to forgotten housing projects, MURDER ON U STREET depicts life beyond the monuments for ordinary people in DC.

Books about DC all seem to have the same cover – white columns and American flags. MURDER ON U STREET takes place in the city “beyond the monuments” and I wanted a cover that reflected that. Rachel Torda designed a perfect cover for it, one filled with drama that communicates that this isn’t your typical Washington murder-mystery.

MURDER ON U STREET is a sequel to my earlier book, MURDER IN OCEAN HALL. If you like books about DC, check it out. Both books are part of my “Beyond the Monuments” series which is set in neighborhoods most tourists never get to see.

Look for MURDER ON U STREET later this month! It will be available on Amazon and Kindle.