New York—I mean St. Louis—state of mind

Over at WNYC Radio’s Brian Lehrer Show, he recently had a segment on books about where to live, specifically, New York City—do you stay, or do you go? His guests were Sari Botton, who edited two anthologies of essays called Good Bye to All That and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, and writer Alexander Chee, who has an essay in the second book and is originally from Maine. They talked about their personal experiences with the city as well as books that changed their thinking about New York. Go listen to it; it’s really interesting.

Naturally, it got me thinking about St. Louis.

Arch againIt’s no secret that I’m of two minds about this city, which is not surprising since I think it’s in two minds about itself. Amid the boosterism and constant sports fanaticism, there’s also a chronic undercurrent of self-loathing and inferiority complex to the place’s mindset. It can’t escape the feeling that it could have been great at some point, but that honor went to Chicago, and now it doesn’t know what to be (except the poster child for the country’s race problems). Before he wrote The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen  wrote a novel titled The Twenty-Seventh City, set in St. Louis. At one point, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States. Since Franzen wrote that book, it’s slid even further, down to 53rd place.

The largest city in Missouri? Kansas City.

I don’t think a city has to be big to be great. Vancouver is big, but its metropolitan area is in fact smaller than St. Louis’s. Seattle stands taller than Portland, but given the choice, I’d rather live in Oregon.

There are things about St. Louis that I appreciate—the parks, the restaurants, the free museums, the microbreweries—but it’s hard to say that I love it. I can’t deny that St. Louis has been pretty good to me in some respects; it’s given me a backdrop for a lot of my writing, after all, and I’ve met many wonderful people who live here and have become my friends. But a lot of those people have moved away too, and sometimes I wonder if they know better than me. After all, I went away for grad school, and then I came back. How smart am I?

Maybe it’s partly because of my upbringing. As a military brat, I got used to moving around a lot, and even after I went away to college and was on my own, that persisted. I lived in about half a dozen apartments in St. Louis before I ended up buying a house. Wanderlust might be a defining trait of my character.

There’s also the lack of ocean. I was born in Hawaii, my family’s from Maine, and both my parents and my brother live near the coasts. (Although I don’t really believe in astrology, Scorpio’s a water sign.)

For better or worse, though, I’m here for the time being. And what I would love is to read a book about St. Louis that would change my opinion about living here. Or a book that you read about St. Louis that did that for you.

Does such a book exist? Let me know in the comments.

From 604 to 314

Right before I finished graduate school, I was in Seattle for AWP and had dinner with my friends James and Justin. (You know, it’s hard sometimes for me to believe that I’ve known James for more than 10 years now, and that we met through blogging. In spite of being in different cities, there we were typing words on screens and making these connections. Which is to say that as much as I’m occasionally a curmudgeonly luddite, I love some of the things that technology has done for me. Glass half full, glass half full!)

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. So, back in March we were talking about my impending graduation and the excitement and trepidation that revolved around all of that (the excitement is gone; the trepidation? Not so much) and he said, “I hope you’re writing everything down because that is going to be one rough transition. It’s bound to make for an interesting essay.”

Boy oh boy, he was not wrong.

I know I’m not the only person who’s gone through this, and that my situation is probably not even that novel. People put their lives on hold and go to grad school, then emerge on the other side and find that they’ve changed, and so has their world, and that the pieces don’t quite line up the way they did before. In my case, returning to the non-academic world meant I was also leaving behind the land of low crime, universal health care, and poutine, not to mention an extensive network of writers and a national culture that placed more value on literature than ours does. (Yes, that’s a generalization, but when the Giller Prize longlist announcement is broadcast live on national media, I think that says something.)

One thing that I did realize recently, though, was that I haven’t completely left the Great White North behind.

If I’ve called or sent you a text in the last five months, you’ll have noticed that I’m calling from a 604 area code, not 314. I still have a Canadian cell phone. I don’t know what you’d call that decision. Part of it’s economic; even with paying extra for U.S. roaming and unlimited data, I’m only paying $54 a month for my cell phone. A bargain! And since I’m freelancing/still (F)unemployed!®, that’s a consideration.

Also, I’m still open to the possibility of working in Canada—I have a postgraduate work permit, after all, and Canada has poutine! So, win-win. It just has to be someplace my partner would want to visit, so the tar sands region of Alberta is out, as are most of the territories, although I did apply for a temporary position in Nunavut, so you never know.

My point (and I do have one!): The phone I got with my Canadian plan is old and is probably on its last legs. So now I’m torn: Try and find a new phone that will be compatible with a Wind Mobile sim card, or finally get a U.S. phone again?

And I still need to work on that essay James was talking about. So many things to do.

How my psyche works. It’s not pretty.

One of the questions I get asked a lot (and which I love) is “where do you get your ideas?” My usual answer is something like “Costco. They sell in bulk,” which of course is flip, but the real answer is, I get them from just about anywhere. Sometimes I don’t know where they come from, but they are undoubtedly an accumulation of things that I’ve heard or seen that are percolating in my subconscious until they pop to the surface.

So, how does that subconscious work? Well, I thought I’d share a stream of thought that occurred today. (It’s been edited slightly for clarity and effect, naturally.)

Me: Hmm, given how infrequent Bigfoot sightings are, it must be tough for any given Sasquatch to find love in the wild.
*ding*
Voice: Hi, Jeff!
Me: Good heavens! ’80s pop star Samantha Fox! What are you doing in my subconscious mind?
Samantha Fox: It’s time for your daily earworm, of course!
Me: No, wait—
Samantha Fox: You know who else needs love besides Bigfoot?
Me: Please, Ms. Fox, I beg you, no.
Samantha Fox: Naughty girls!

Samantha Fox: You know you love it.
Me: Dear lord, what have I done to deserve this?
Neil Tennant: We’ll be with you later.

And that’s how the magic happens.

Something to be thankful for

Here in the United States it’s Thanksgiving. It’s the day we remember how we arrived here as illegal immigrants over three hundred years ago and would have died without the assistance of the indigenous peoples. In thanks, we later began a process of systematic genocide against those original inhabitants that continues in overt and insidious ways to this day.

What? Not accurate?

Anyway, I suppose I should consider the things that I’m thankful for—besides chocolate, Kylie, and the wisdom of Julia Sugarbaker. I’m a writer. So I’m grateful that there are people out there who actually read the things I put down in words.

I was reminded of this last week, when N.S. Beranek posted a review of my story “Blackout” from the anthology Night Shadows: Queer Horror. This is a bit of a golden oldie, as it came out in 2012, but the story is also special to me because it’s something I originally wrote in 1990 for a campus ‘zine, put away, revised the hell out of, and then finally got published. There’s basically nothing left from the original draft in the final that was printed, except for a blizzard and an unfriendly ghost. I’m glad I didn’t throw it away.

Anyway, Beranek drew an interesting connection between this story, the story “Tea” that was included in Foolish Hearts, the mom in Detours, and some concepts in The Unwanted and came up with a comparison to something Ken Burns said. None of those connections would have occurred to me, and heck, I wrote the darn things. It’s not the first time that’s happened, either. I’ve gotten the occasional e-mail from readers mentioning things they liked about a story or book and what they thought it meant, and they’ve had insights that weren’t even on my radar.

That’s the thing about writing: The circuit isn’t completed until someone reads it, and every time that happens, it’s a different experience, and that kind of makes it a different story each time.

So, thanks to everyone who’s ever spent the time completing that circuit. And go check out Beranek’s blog and her own writing.

For now, though, go eat pie and think about white privilege.

Meanwhile, over at Dear Teen Me… hey, that’s me!

Scan0001Have you heard of Dear Teen Me? It’s a website where authors write letters giving their younger selves the advice they wished they’d had at the time. It even became a book that has letters from more than 70 writers.

If you could talk to your younger self, would you? I’m not sure; the person I’ve become is an accumulation of all the things that I did and didn’t do in the last

This week, they’ve got a post by me up wherein I try to give my 13-year-old self some advice. Yeah, as if I’d listen to anyone when I was 13. Okay, so not much has changed; and your point is?

Anyway, go check it out, if for no other reason than you can see a photo of me when I was 17 in my high school cap and gown—you can see the small version off to the side here, but you’ll have to click through to Dear Teen Me to see the full horror—lordy, do I look ridiculous. (Again, not much has changed.) But! While you’re there you should also take a look at the other letters, which include one by my editor, Greg Herren. I think we’ve both gotten better with age.

Gateway to where, exactly

I know this is a blog about writing and my books and stories, and if you’ve read anything at all about blogging you’ve certainly encountered the admonition to stay on message. But you know, at this point it seems kind of frivolous to be talking about fantasy stories about mythical gods and goddesses and Amazons and gay teens and that sort of thing.

Don’t worry, I’ll get back to those later.

As some of you might know, I currently stay in St. Louis. If this were social media and I had to explain my relationship status with this city, I’d have to choose “it’s complicated.” Continue reading

Nanowaitaminute, how many words?

So, the goal of Nanowrimo is to write 50,000 words (the equivalent of a short novel) during the month of November. At the moment, though, I couldn’t tell you how many words I’ve written.

That’s because I’m writing this novel longhand, for the most part. I have a vast stockpile of notebooks, notepads, journals, and super-fancy-looking books that have been accumulating for, well, for years. I’m really eager to use some of them, especially this blue one with the brocade fabric cover and the cord closure which was a gift from my mother (whose birthday was last Tuesday—hi, Mom). I have a shelf in the spare bedroom (one of these days I’ll actually have a home office, but I’m not holding my breath) that contains all of the journals and notebooks that I’ve scribbled thoughts and minutiae in over the past twenty-odd years—I don’t think there’s anything from high school in there, but some from my first undergrad experience are in the pile.

The one I’m using right now is similar to the old-school composition books that I used to use in high school. It was given to me by Mimi, a paper vendor I used to work with in my old job BGS (Before Grad School). When I told her what I was going to be doing, she loaded me down with notepads, papers samples, and notebooks so that I wouldn’t have to buy any. Her excitement about my return to higher education rivaled my own; if you’re lucky, you encounter such people in your life.

Anyway, I have a feeling that I’m going to fall short of the 50,000-word threshold for “winning” Nanowrimo, but I’m okay with that. I’m a slow writer. I’m writing anywhere from 3 to 5 pages a day in the notebook, and that’s more than I might have had if I didn’t have this to kick-start me.