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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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!
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!
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.
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.
Nothing 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a special thrill to seeing your name in print that electrons will never be able to replace. Books and newspapers are physical objects. They are permanent. And they exist in the real world, not the virtual one.
Which is why I was delighted to get this awesome package in the mail. It’s my short story, The Wallace Line, which was printed as a standalone booklet in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row. My tale of a trip to Komodo that goes horribly wrong was a finalist for the 2013 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction.
And my name above the fold in Printers Row! That was a wonderful surprise that I will cherish for years to come.
My short story “The Wallace Line,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2013 Nelson Algren Awards sponsored by The Chicago Tribune.
I was one of four finalists selected out of more than 1,000 writers. I get $1000 – more than I’ve ever made in a lifetime of literary work – and “The Wallace Line” will be published in a special supplement later this summer by the Tribune. As someone who grew up reading the Trib in the suburbs of Chicago, this is a huge honor.
“The Wallace Line” is about a Nature Conservancy manager who takes a wealthy donor to the island of Komodo – and then things go horribly wrong. Here’s a sample:
Harold marveled at how quickly it had all gone to shit.
The approach to the beach had been perfect, as Anak expertly guided the longboat over the swell. Behind them, the sun climbed above the tranquil waters of the Flores Sea. Ahead, the pink sands of Komodo were radiant in the morning light. A warm breeze blew across the boat. January in Indonesia, when it was hot but not too hot, and while the East Coast of America was locked in ice.
A moment you could not forget, and would be forever grateful to receive. As had been planned. These expeditions were carefully organized for maximum effect. The trip had been in the works for nearly a year. Countless emails had been exchanged; permits obtained; supplies purchased; forms filled out on onionskin paper wilting in the heat of Jakarta; signatures obtained by Directors, Department Heads, Deputies and other interested parties (with the occasional bit of friendly bribery to grease the way – nothing major – an iPhone, a bottle of bourbon, the promise to write a letter of recommendation for a nephew.)
The climax, the finale, was this grand arrival onto the mysterious island of Komodo, a lost world, a paradise that remained undiscovered by white men until 1910. One of 17,000 islands in Indonesia, this particular speck of land was the most unique of all for it was home to dragons.
Komodo dragons. A billionaire had flown halfway around the world to see them and Harold was there to provide him a show he would not forget.
I was a web editor at The Nature Conservancy for three years. While I never went to Komodo, I worked a lot with TNC’s Asia-Pacific program and have long been fascinated by Indonesia. I wrote articles, email newsletters and designed web features – all to protect places like Komodo. Conservation marketing is really interesting – it’s a mix of art (pretty pictures of animals) and science (preserving ecosystems) – which is background to my story.
“The Wallace Line” is the first chapter of an unfinished new novel. The theme is that the borders between ideas and people are disappearing in this interconnected world.
The Great Gatsby is a slim 180 pages. That’s all it takes for Fitzgerald to recreate the Roaring 20s and give us the quintessential American striver.
Ernest Hemingway is a master of economy, using just 251 pages to tell the tragedy of The Sun Also Rises.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh is another brilliant little book from the interwar period. It traces the fall of the British aristocracy in just 264 pages.
And my own novels are short ones, clocking in at under 300 pages.
Yet, most contemporary books sprawl unfettered, as if editors have just given up on their duties. Authors ramble, they discourse, narratives go off into tangents and down weird little cul-de-sacs.
For example, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. It clocks in at a wearying 416 pages.
The novel starts off incredibly strong, giving us the colorful portrait of the Bigtree family, famed alligator wrestlers of the Everglades. Being from Florida myself, I’ve felt that the comic potential of the state has been underutilized. From exiles plotting revolution to greedy condo flippers, if any state could produce The Great American Novel, it’s this one.
The collapse of the Bigtree family mirrors what’s going on in “mainland” society. Their struggles are shared by many in more prosaic circumstances – they lose it all and the family falls apart.
The section of the novel where the Bigtrees adapt to normal life is fascinating. I loved Russell’s depiction of The World of Darkness, a hell-themed amusement park on the mainland. It’s like a Disney World created by sadists.
But then the book rambles, in an endless journey through the swamp as 12-year-old Ava Bigtree goes in search of her older sister. Lush descriptions of flora and fauna are piled one upon another, creating a mangrove thicket of prose that nearly stops the reader cold.
It’s one of those books where you find yourself peeking ahead a few pages. When is the story getting back to the World of Darkness?
The odyssey in the Everglades takes so long that the ending feels rushed, unresolved, leaving dramatic threads hanging.
Despite growing up reading books, even I turn away from novels that resemble doorstops. Reamde is a book that I desperately want to read. Yet, at more than a thousand pages, I don’t even want to start it. The novel represents too much of a time commitment in our distracted age.
It’s ironic. The Internet and our ever-present electronic devices have collapsed attention spans. Yet, our books keep getting longer and longer.
Our lives are crowded with information. In order to break through the electronic din, a novel has to be concise and powerful, a book that looks more like The Great Gatsby than Swamplandia!