Midwestern Gothic #9 is out, with my story “Garage Sales”

Midwestern Gothic #9 is NOW OUT, and it includes my story “Garage Sales.” I wrote this story as part of my thesis at Murray State University. At one point, I took a paragraph from the middle of the story, and pulled it to the front, and that’s where this story came from. The FIRST version, was published as “Tinkering With the Moon” in Gargoyle. As for this story, I didn’t realize that everyone writes a garage sale or yard sale story at some point in their life. That whole Raymond Carver “Why Don’t You Dance” moment. My story involved a newly divorced mother and her son, and what happens when they bond over the garage sales that litter their suburban neighborhood. Yes, there is a giant plastic lobster. Yes, they fill their living room with sand. Why not pick up MWG9 and see what else happens!

Dueling Columns 3 – MFA Programs: Yes or No, with Caleb J. Ross

TODAY AS PART OF THE EPIC CALEB J. ROSS STRANGER WILL TOUR, CALEB AND I WILL DEBATE MFA PROGRAMS. HE WILL TAKE THE CON AND I WILL TAKE THE PRO. ENJOY. OH, AND PICK UP HIS BOOK, HE’S SO TALENTED. I’M HONORED TO BE ON THE SAME LABEL AS CALEB.

Dueling Columns – To MFA or not to MFA

This is a guest post by CalebJRoss (also known as Caleb Ross, to people who hate Js) as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. He will be guest-posting beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin and novella, As a Machine and Parts, in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, please contacthim. To be a groupie and follow this tour,subscribe to the CalebJRossblogRSSfeed. Follow him on Twitter: @calebjross.com. Friend him on Facebook: Facebook.com/rosscaleb

AGAINST MFA PROGRAMS – Caleb

In the third installment of Richard Thomas’s Dueling Columns series, he and I stake our positions on the idea of an MFA. At this point in my life, I land in the “not to MFA” group.

First, a bit of context. Richard has an undergrad degree in Advertising and Communications with a minor in Psychology. He is currently pursuing an MFA. I have an undergrad degree in English Lit with a minor in creative writing. I am not currently pursuing an MFA. Why is this important? To show that I am coming at this question of education with a different educational history than Richard. Furthermore, as far as I am aware, Richard’s goal is to teach creative writing at a college level. An MFA is a requirement to do so. I do not want to teach. So I must argue this as though he and I are both looking at the MFA as a way to develop one’s creative writing abilities, not as a way to ensure a career in academia. If you want to be a professor, you can stop reading now; there really is no pro vs con debate.

So, with all of those qualifiers out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the duel.

Cost analysis

At its core, an MFA program is an extension of the traditional 4-year undergrad program, and in being so carries financial and structure burdens similar to that of an undergrad program. What we are looking at then is cost. Basically, the cost of an MFA includes two things: connections and time. You’ll meet many famous writers and you’ll be forced to write. Both of these things are necessary for a serious writer. But, neither of these things is the sole intellectual property of the MFA program. For any serious writer, MFA or no, connections and productivity are things that will come as a result of dedication. Using my experience as an example (a sample size of one, I know, dangerous), within the first two years of post-undergrad life (2005-2007), I completed three novel-length manuscripts (two of which are to be published in 2011), became an editor at Outsider Writers Collective (where I’ve interacted with some of the best independent writers around), contributed book reviews to a variety of online zines, participated in Write Club (which surpassed my undergrad workshops in many ways, but not all ways), and met Richard Thomas (which ultimately led to my book being published by Otherworld Publications). Roxanne Gay, in ablogpostatHTMLGiant about this very topic of MFA, sums up my opinion nicely: “I do believe one should never pay for graduate school but that a graduate education is awesome.”

I feel any higher education in the liberal arts should focus as much on the how tos as the whys. From what I know of MFAs, there is a large why focus, specifically in regards to pedagogy, which is great. A good writer can write. A great writer can think. But again, if you have the passion to be a great writer, you’ll seek out the whys on your own. Does this mean an MFA is essentially a writing desk with a $30,000 gun to your head? Yeah.

Craft analysis

I don’t believe that the MFA program offers anything in terms of learning how to tell a story that an adequate undergrad program can’t offer. Continuing with my personal experience as an example, it may be that my undergrad experience was so great that I gained what I would consider the equivalent of an MFA (in terms of education, not in terms of papered credentials). My professor, Amy Sage Webb, continues to be one of my strongest supporters, and without her I may very well have moved right into an MFA program after undergrad. Though ironically enough Amy pushed me almost daily to pursue graduate school; perhaps in a strange Socratic way. What I learned as an undergrad, when weighing the pros/cons of grad school, is what Lincoln Michel, Master of Fine Arts and co-editor of Gigantic Magazine says in his reaction piece to ElifBatumansantiMFAreviewbookreview: “Studyingandcritiquinganartformisntthesameaspracticingit.” MFA programs train students to study and critique writing. The craft itself can be learned elsewhere. Sure, there’s a thesis/novel to be written during a two-year program, but any writer worth his own cramped knuckles will produce a manuscript in two years.

I have to end by admitting that this opinion isn’t one I intend to keep, unchanged, for the rest of my life. I may want to teach one day. In fact, I’d be surprised if I didn’t attempt to teach someday. At that time, I’ll be in line for my MFA. But professorial aspirations aside, MFA’s just aren’t worth the time and financial investment.

Takeaways:

  • An MFA may guide a student more directly than self-navigation through the vast land of education, but at a great financial cost
  • An MFA is necessary for teaching at a college. I think this is the case all around, but correct me if I am wrong.
  • Given the right undergrad program, one can learn just as much in terms of how tos and whys without pursuing an MFA.
  • If you want to be a great writer you will be a great writer; no MFA necessary
  • The internet makes it almost impossible not to network with established writers; no MFA program necessary.

*********************************

FOR MFA PROGRAMS – Richard

As Caleb mentioned in his column, if you want to teach at the university level, then you must get an MFA. And at many fine universities, you may need a PhD these days as well. In addition to that, most schools want you to have at least one published novel or short story collection (the bigger and better the press, the greater the recognition) as well as many stories published in the best journals and magazines in the country, and some teaching experience as well. But we’re not talking about that today, we’re talking about everything else that comes with your MFA experience and why you should spend the time, money, and effort to get an MFA. Here’s what I think about it all.

Forced Reading and Analysis

I know it seems like a horrible thing to say, but if you have deadlines, and if you’re spending money on something, you will most likely pay attention and work hard at it. If you have to turn in a short story, an annotation (based on a novel or collection that you had to read first, of course) by the end of each month, you are going to do it. I certainly do write stories on my own, and without deadlines, but I can honestly say that having a word count, a book (or two) to read each month, it kept me producing. My low-res MFA program down at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky (where I’m just finishing up my studies) really pushed me—to write, to read and to analyze. I doubt I would have done this on my own. Maybe I would have, but the forced requirements left me no room to play around. And since I did pay for my MFA, no grants, scholarships or other aid, I took it seriously.

Working Outside of Your Comfort Zone

I can honestly say that there are many authors that I definitely would not have read if it wasn’t for my MFA program. While we did have the ability to pick our books to read over the course of each semester (7-11 titles), some of what my professors asked me to read were not up for discussion: the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, The New Yorker, and the Best American Short Stories anthology series. I read a wide range of authors that really helped me to see what the literary landscape is like today, as well as in the past hundred years or so. For our fiction genre lectures as well, we read Poe, Murakami, McCarthy, and many other authors that I either didn’t know very well, had read some of their work, or were totally new to me. Since my undergraduate studies at Bradley University were in Advertising/Communication, I was lacking in my literary studies. Between the work I found on my own (Holly Goddard Jones, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, Ron Rash), the work that was assigned, and the authors that I already loved, and decided to re-read or dig into deeper, the scope of my reading and analysis was much wider than I would have assigned to myself on the outside, in the real world. That’s something to consider.

Mentors, Professors and Peers

I studied under Lynn Pruett my first semester and she really helped me to hone in on the authors I already enjoyed and to write the first half of my second neo-noir novel (Disintegration) which I’m shopping now. But it was studying under Dale Ray Phillips (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) that I really pushed myself. Or maybe I should say—was pushed. DRP got me away from the crutches and tricks that I used in my genre writing, where I often leaned heavily on sex and violence and the occasional twist ending, exploring fantasy, horror, crime, neo-noir, you name it. He wanted straight literary stories where nobody died at the end. What was his big line to me? Leave the slow reveal to the strippers. It was hard—really hard. I had to focus on the story, and the classic structure of a story, find my narrative hook, explore the conflicts in the lives of my characters, and bring it to a satisfying end. Above and beyond these two professors, I talked to many talented authors, teachers, and guest authors, who really enlightened me on so many subjects, as well as a gifted group of fellow fiction writers, poets, and essayists.

Guest Authors

I was talking to some author friends at a recent residency I was awarded (Writers in the Heartland) and I mentioned to the poet that I was constantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the guest poets at MSU. The same goes for a lot of the non-fiction authors. I was always surprised at how talented all of the guests were, from fiction writer Richard Bausch making me cry with his emotional truths, and essayist Heather Sellers making me laugh with her stories of facial blindness, to poets Linda Bierds and Alice Friman showing me the power of poetry, and journalist Nick Reding exploring the haunting world of crystal meth and addiction. The readings blew me away and the craft lectures were always enlightening and educational.

Conclusion

Do you need an MFA to write? No, you do not. You are certainly, if you are driven enough, capable of reading extensively, publishing widely, and studying on your own. But if you want to work with published authors in an environment with your peers, and get that extra push you may need to read, write and publish, then an MFA is a great place to study and create. I really enjoyed my time at MSU, and this program is still a relatively unknown and emerging program. If you can get into a top program, and get some financial aid, and especially if you are still unencumbered by a wife or husband and a household full of children, then I can’t think of a better way to massage your voice and grow as an author.

 

Thanks, Caleb for being a guest today. Pick up ^ this book today, people.

Annotation on Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe Trilogy – KMJ, PD and HHA

This was something I did for my MFA at Murray State. My professor, Lynn Pruitt, really liked it, and in fact, I’m bringing down a copy of KMJ for her, she was so intrigued. I don’t know if any of you die-hard WCB fans will get anything MORE out of this, you’ve probably all come to similar conclusions, BUT…maybe it will be an interesting read anyway, and something to do until we get Godspeed. I hope you all enjoy it, and let me know your thoughts.

Copy the link to get to the .doc:

http://drop.io/m7dlam4#

Peace,
Richard

OR READ IT HERE (pardon the formatting):

“Use of Unreliable Narrator in the Phineas
Poe Trilogy by Will Christopher Baer”
by Richard Thomas

Perhaps one of the strongest voices currently out there in the world of neo-noir, Will Christopher Baer weaves a disorienting, compelling, and layered story through the three books in his Phineas Poe trilogy: Kiss Me, Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre. Poe is an unreliable narrator from the moment we start Kiss Me, Judas. Baer uses many different devices, themes, and techniques to show us the shadow worlds that Poe inhabits, but the main executions involve Poe’s love/hate relationship with Jude, his questionable sanity based on events in his past, the extensive use of drugs and alcohol, the game of tongues in Penny Dreadful, and the use of a script and snuff film in Hell’s Half Acre.

The novel opens with a rich depiction of a blurry scene, a vision, uncertain but vivid nonetheless. We will later realize exactly what has happened here, which only adds to the altered perception and richness:

I must be dead for there is nothing but blue snow and the furious silence of a gunshot. Two birds crash blindly against the glass surface of a lake. I’m cold, religiously cold. The birds burst from the water, their wings like silver. One has a fish twisting in its grip. The other dives in again and now I hold my breath. Now the snow has stopped and the sky is endless and white and I’m so cold I must have left my body.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.1

At this point in the story we don’t know anything. But later, we will realize that we have just witnessed the extraction of one of Poe’s kidneys, by the organ thief, Jude, his soon to be nemesis and lover. The silver birds are the tools she uses to slice him open and extract the kidney, and the cold is a bathtub of ice that he is sitting in, close to death.

Quickly we see how he wavers back and forth between his love and lust for Jude and his hatred for her, his fear of her, this assassin in a lace bra and black boots. Witness this conversation between Rose White and Phineas shortly after he has realized what has happened, and has vowed to track Jude down:

I’m weak. I need to be strong when I see Jude.

Let me help you.

No. I need to do this alone.

What are you going to do?

I’m going to take her to a hotel room.

I don’t want to know. I really don’t.

I’m going to drug her and fuck her senseless.

Phineas. That’s enough.

Then I’m going to kill her.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.40-41

We are introduced early to the questionable morality of Poe, and see how he is both attracted to Jude, and at the same time, focused on erasing her.

One of the most succinct and extensive examples of this complicated relationship comes late in the trilogy, in a section about halfway through Hell’s Half Acre, the third book, where Poe contemplates his feelings for Jude, and the validity of pursuing her:

I used to watch her sometimes, when she was painting her toenails or brushing her teeth or yawning on the floor in her underwear, flicking through a glossy woman’s magazine. I loved her. I didn’t love her. Once, I watched her take the television apart in the middle of the night because she was bored. I watched her reduce the television to a scrap heap of apparently ruined fuses and wires. Then I watched her put the television back together and was not surprised when the reception was improved. I thought I loved her, then. I watched her smash the same television to bits two days later because she didn’t like some snotty actress and in that moment, I thought I loved her. But there was fear between us, truly. There is always fear but when two artists, two liars, or two killers occupy the same house and sleep in the same bed, rage runs rampant and becomes entangled with mistrust and doubt and alcoholic despair. The love between them isn’t safe in the bones, the marrow.

Jude doesn’t belong to me and never did. I don’t belong to her because our love is unsafe in the marrow.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.186

That says it all. This vivid reflection shows us the reader the constant dilemma that Poe is in, and how deeply he is effected by Jude, how much she effects him. We know what lengths he has gone to in the past to protect her. He questions everything about their relationship, and yet, seems unable to get free.

The second example of utilizing this unreliable voice has to do with Poe’s sanity. From the second page of the first novel, Kiss Me, Judas, we are shown that he has a sordid past, and is unstable in many ways. Here we find Poe and Jude in a hotel bar, before she steals his organ, as Poe tries to adjust to his new life:

Are you a tourist? she says

I’m not even sure what city this is.

Denver.

I’m a salesman.

That’s funny. You look like a cop.

I’ve just been released from a mental hospital.

Perfect, she says.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.2

In fact, Poe IS an ex-cop, and he has been recently released from a mental hospital after the questionable death of his wife, Lucy. There has been talk that she killed herself, and talk that Poe did it. Out of anger, or vengeance, or simply to end her misery, end the cancer, or finish the unsuccessful suicide attempt, we never really know.

His wife was dying of cancer, but there was drama towards the end, there was hope for a child, there were young boys involved, and her death in a row boat was questionable, all of which would later contribute to Poe’s mental instability:

We tried different positions that might improve the sperm’s ascent. I fucked her underwater and upside down. We used leather and dogs and vegetables and ice and cellophane and handcuffs to make it interesting. I fucked her fully clothed in the rain. Her face was ever a grim mask. She couldn’t enjoy it, she said. She had to concentrate. I fucked her until I had nothing left, until my penis shrank at the thought of her. None of it mattered because I was sterile and when the doctors told us so, her face became a death mask.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.38-9

I told her I didn’t care about the boys. Lucy borrowed youth and time and strength from them, things she couldn’t get from me. I told her I had problems of my own and I wanted her to be happy. I told her she wasn’t dead; the doctors were wrong and she had years to live. I told her I loved her and I didn’t smile, because I wanted her to believe me.

The boy in the bedroom had asthma and later I would sit in the dark and listen to his terrible wheezing on my headphones.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.71

The guilt for not being able to give her child, a lasting image of herself, after she died, it would weigh heavily on him. The boys, as much as he tried to convince himself it was okay, upset him deeply.

Throughout the trilogy, Poe uses a wide variety of drugs, sometimes of his own free will, but other times, he is not told the truth or the full details about what is in a drink or syringe. While not an exhaustive list, he did at various time ingest beer, vodka, gin, whisky, tequila, champagne, absinthe, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, morphine, and ecstasy. Poe readily admits he has issues with drugs and control. Often he has a festive attitude, simply looking to use drugs in a social environment, like the drinking of the Pale, in Penny Dreadful, an important component in the game of tongues. Other times, for example, when he takes a shot to alleviate the pain after having his kidney cut out, it is to help him cope, to numb the pain, and function:

[With Crumb, an ally, pornography shop owner, as well as amateur doctor.]

What kind of shot was that? I speak slowly. The words pass my lips dense and textured as meat.

A mild speedball. Morphine for the pain. A touch of methamphetamine to give you energy
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.27

[On a bus with Eve/Goo.]
I bounce around in my seat, manic and juiced. My skin doesn’t feel right. It feels rubbery and stretched, as if two people are sharing it. Soon it will come apart. I’m stupidly high, of course. Jude could have slipped me something. Or Pooh might have lied. Perhaps those little blue pills were not muscle relaxers at all…
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.58

[Trying the Pale with Griffin/Major Tom.]
I sipped at the Pale and it shivered down my throat like mercury, cold and thickly sweet.

What is this? I said.

Wormwood and licorice, said Griffin. With a drop of cyanide. Don’t ask.

Absinthe? I said. You are full of shit.

Oh, I stink of it.
— Penny Dreadful, p.72

[Later, with Griffin/Major Tom]
You want to tell me what’s in that Pale beverage, now?

Griffin shrugged. It’s mostly herbs, vitamins: ginseng and ginkgo, various algaes and concentrated wheat grass. And the wormwood, of course. It’s really pretty fucking good for you.

It’s a fucking smart drink? That’s what you’re saying?

I said mostly herbs. There’s also a mild dose of Ecstasy and a touch of synthetic heroin.

That sounds…great…
— Penny Dreadful, p.126-7

Whatever his reason for choosing to partake in the various pharmaceuticals, the outcome is a distorted reality, and a vision of surroundings and events that we the reader can’t take at face value. It also allows us some of the most vivid, surreal, and revealing passages in the trilogy.

The game of tongues is a dominant aspect of Penny Dreadful. This real world role playing game has a caste system filled with Freds, Tremblers, Mariners, Exquisitors, Redeemers, Breathers and the Gloves, the masters of the game. For some of the characters, we only start out knowing their real name – Poe, Detective Moon, Griffin. For others, we only know their name while gaming, such as Mingus, Chrome, and Theseus the Glove. For a select few, to further distort our perception, we know both, as with Eve/Goo. In time, Poe becomes Ray Fine, Griffin is Major Tom , Detective Moon is revealed to be the elusive and destructive Jimmy Sky, and Detective Lot McDaniel, Moon’s partner in the real world, is the master of the game of tongues, Theseus the Glove. These plot twists help to add a depth to the novel, and a blurring between reality and what is seen when in the game:

[Jimmy Sky, the alter ego of Detective Moon is thinking to himself, talking about his life.]
Then he got sucked into this game, this game of tongues. Which was interesting for awhile. A nice, harmless fantasy ripe with vampires and magic spells, with medieval weirdness and good drugs and a fair amount of nudity. The drugs were a concern, though. Moon had got himself hooked on this sweet narcotic potion called the Pale. Or Jimmy did, as Jimmy Sky was his name within the game. Jimmy was a rare self-aware Fred, who was angling to hook himself up as Redeemer.
— Penny Dreadful, p.118

We are constantly unsure of what is real, and what is part of the game. And when Chrome crosses the line and actually starts taking tongues, and killing cops, not pretending with blood packs and illusion, the story takes a dark turn.

The final aspect of deception comes in the form of a snuff film, kidnapping, and script that fills the second half of Hell’s Half Acre, the third book in the trilogy. Jude and Poe have found each other after a several year separation, and things are complicated, to say the least. When they get lured into a snuff film, we the audience don’t know what is for the camera, and what is for real. Is that blood on the kitchen floor or is it syrup? We are as much behind the camera as we are in front of it, and that leads to further confusion, including the format, in the novel, as an actual movie script:

Fade in.

Exterior, house of Miller. Day.

Wide angle of yard. Long shadows stretch across a gravel driveway. Two white men, fat and thin, struggle under the weight of a large, black metal case.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.211

Poe turns his head to the right and looks directly at the camera. Now he glances back at Jeremy.

Poe- If you call me brother again I will eat your fucking heart.
Huck- Oh man, this is gonna be fun.

Poe approaches the camera.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.213

Poe and Molly exchange glances.

Jude- Come on. You can’t tell me that’s not funny.
Molly- I hated that movie.
Jude- Don’t even think of fucking with me.
Molly- Yeah, well. I just kept wishing the English guy would die, already.
Poe- Where is the boy, Jude?
Jude- I can’t tell you.

Jude begins to laugh. Molly chews a thumbnail, worried. As Poe exits the room, Miller opens his eyes and draws a thumb across his throat.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.217

It is extremely effective in recreating the feeling of disorientation, and the paranoia that goes with not knowing what is going on, what is part of the script, and what is the real world, what is going on behind the scenes, and what is for the camera.

In conclusion, we see that Baer runs a thread through all three books, tying Poe and Jude together, while pitting them against each other, to see what will survive. Will they kill each other, or run off into the sunset together? At the end of each book, we have been given a certain amount of information, and that information is twisted, confirmed, destroyed, and altered as each new part of the trilogy resumes, and then finishes. But by the end of the three books there is indeed a clarity, and a sentiment of everything aligning, and ending up at the only conclusion possible. Baer takes us for a wild ride, keeping us constantly on our toes, eager to turn the page and see what happens next. By utilizing such a flawed and unreliable narrator, and by distorting the vision and emotion of Phineas Poe to such a degree, we the audience are allowed to share that imagery, and the gamut of human emotions