Notes on “The Vagabond”

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When I tell people I’m a writer, after all the caveats and disclaimers that go along with such a statement, I often get the question, “What kind of stuff do you write?” I’ve never been able to come up with a better response than “literary fiction,” despite that being a dissatisfying answer to anyone who doesn’t have an English degree. It lacks the clear definition of genre nomenclatures like “romance” or “sci-fi” and carries an inherent snootiness that my bare modicum of success can’t even begin to justify, as if I aspire to high art that will only be appreciated long after I’m dead.

Similarly, I kind of roll my eyes when a lit mag is asked what kind of stories they tend to accept, and only instructs its submitters to read a few issues to get an idea for the kind of stories they publish. I’m all for encouraging people to read more lit mags, but I can’t think of too many I’ve read that go beyond “literary fiction” as an overall aesthetic. That is to say, most lit mags I read seem to publish a wide variety of thematic content, voices, styles and subjects. Moreover, if I read one that doesn’t have a similar kind of story to the stuff I write, I tend to think I would be a good fit for precisely that reason.

Would that I could get everyone who asks me what kind of stuff I write to go read a few of my stories and figure it out. Because (and I suspect that many of those lit mags suffer the same problem) I’m not sure that there is a good answer to that question.

The Vagabond,” however, is one of those stories that is very much like the kind of stuff I write. It started with a premise I found interesting, but one that didn’t necessarily suggest much of a plot–that’s where the hardest work came in. It features a character who can justify all the wrong decisions he’s ever made. He’s a character who is at a point in his life where he must wrestle with the question of what it might amount to in the end. It’s a story where the antagonist(s) also love–or at least sympathize with–the main character.

I think those are the kind of stories I write. I have no idea how to distill that down to a quick label, though.

I hope you do get a chance to read the story in issue 13 of Tahoma Literary Review. They seem to be a true writers’ journal, and they do a lot of cool things that I don’t see other journals doing. For one, they offer feedback on submissions (and had some pretty good advice for the story I submitted before they accepted “The Vagabond”). They also publish their issues in handsome hard copies (seriously, check out that cover) and reasonably-priced .pdf/EPUB/Kindle formats.

Even cooler for the writers out there, if you submit a piece to them, part of the Submittable fee includes a free digital copy of the latest issue. They re-open in January, so take advantage of that if you’re not tempted to rush out and buy a copy right away.

They also host a SoundCloud page where authors can read their work for the audiobook crowd. You can hear me read “The Vagabond” at https://soundcloud.com/tahomaliterary/steve-trumpeter-the-vagabond. I suppose being on SoundCloud means I need to go get a couple of face tattoos now, so let me know if you have any recommendations.

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Notes on “Applications in Mathematics”

My story, “Applications in Mathematics” is out this week in the Spring 2018 issue of Beloit Fiction Journal. I’m so excited to finally see this one in print, and I can’t wait to get a copy in my hands. I was a finalist in their annual contest last year, and one of the perks of submitting to these contests it that you typically get a subscription included in the entry fee. I read that issue and really loved most of the stories in it, so I was pretty excited to take a swing at this year’s contest. Unfortunately, a conflict-of-interest situation prevented me form entering with my ethical standards intact, but I took my chances with the regular submission slush pile, because I was convinced that I had a story that would fit. For reasons that will become clear later, the room must have been a little dusty when I got the acceptance in my inbox. You can order a copy of the issue from Beloit Fiction Journal’s website. It’s only $10, and it’s full of stories from writers with pretty impressive pedigrees–Iowa Short Fiction Awards, Flannery O’Connor finalists, etc.

“Applications in Mathematics” is hard for me to write about. For starters, I think the story speaks for itself. It’s shorter than my typical literary endeavors and surprising, and I don’t want to spoil it (you should read it!). Also, I wrote it almost 5 years ago, and I don’t remember much about what the spark for the story was. I do know that my initial outline for it looks nothing like the story it became. For example, the protagonist’s father, Elmer, is described in my initial outline as:

“Crew cut, fought in the war. Patrick [the protagonist’s son] has no idea which one (it was Korea). Elmer thinks Patrick is a pansy because he is soft and always needs to be entertained and it’s Julia’s fault. Exclaims phrases like ‘cripes’ and ‘balls.’ Lives in Menominee and loves the Packers. Staunch Lutheran, because why not. Really disappointed in his late wife; probably thinks she’s in hell. Always keeps the garage door open. (Things to read up on: Lutheranism).”

In the final version, Elmer is mentioned briefly, but never physically appears or even gets to say “cripes.”

Instead, I started what I thought would be a long, complex, layered story and derailed it almost as soon as it got underway. It was the perfect decision. My wife read the first draft in the first week of April, 2013, and when I pull up that version, it isn’t drastically different from the final one. I tightened the language and pacing a bit, sharpened the characters and whatnot, but as far as structure, narrative arc and all those other elements go, I got it right the first time (this is not at all typical). I think this was one of her favorites–believe it or not, she doesn’t like them all.

When I gave this story to my writing group at the time, most of them said that it was the best thing they’d ever read from me. There wasn’t much to fix. And while I did my best to shrug off such effusive praise, I admit that I kind of agreed (this is also not typical). So imagine my surprise when I started submitting this story and watched the rejections pile up. In my defense, a lot of those were tiered rejections, the kind that say “we really liked this story and hope you’ll try us again soon.” There were even a few highly reputable journals that told me I’d made it to the final round and just missed. But close only counts in certain things that start with an “H,” and after 4 years, I had amassed over 60 rejections.

Now, rejection is a part of the writing life. I’ve mentioned that more than a few times on this blog. But I really thought this story would be easier to place. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trying to put lipstick on a pig, here, that this is some inferior story, because I’m not kidding when I say it’s good. (Order a copy. You’re going to love it). My point is, so much of the writing life is trying to beat the odds. Sometimes it boils down to the idea that, for us “emerging” writers, the story has to land in front of the right reader for the right publication at the right time, and that can be impossible to predict. The last story I had out was rejected 50 times before it wound up in a great journal and scored a Pushcart nomination. Sometimes, those rejections mean a story just isn’t that good. But sometimes, that story is worth believing in. “Applications in Mathematics” took forever, but I’m thrilled where it ended up, and I hope you’ll agree it was worth the wait. I’m so grateful I can finally share it with you.

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Notes on “Puro Yakyū”

Today, a few copies of “American Fiction 16” arrived in the mail, which included my story “Puro Yakyū.” This anthology is part of an annual contest, and my story came in 3rd place. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. You can order your own copy from New Rivers Press. There are 19 other stories in a handsome 300-page paperback, including 2 that were somehow judged to be better than mine. 😉

 

 

Short stories can be a strange beast for a writer. I started writing this story in Jan. 2014 and finished the first draft in Oct. 2015. That’s a season shy of 2 years. I set it aside a couple times and worked on other things, but this story was always on my mind. And for the most part, I understood exactly what I wanted to accomplish. I had plot points, I knew the characters well, and (in a rare occurrence) I was crystal clear on the thematic elements I wanted to convey. But still, I wrestled with this this one.

In my first swing at this story, Henry Fischer, the disgraced baseball superstar, was the protagonist. The story opened with him in the batter’s box facing down a rookie pitcher in the waning days of the Japanese professional baseball season (Puro Yakyū is the Japanese term for professional baseball). If you will forgive my lack of modesty, I will posit that the few pages I came up with were pretty good. but I struggled with where to go from there. I knew I had to introduce the hotel maid, Natsuku, Henry’s paramour during this expat season, but she felt like a prop, a character who only existed to serve another. This is not what I wanted from her. I had envisioned a character that turned the starfucker archetype on its head, but as a character, she had no agency with which I could achieve that goal. She was a baseball fan, but no mere groupie. Knocked up, but not trying to entrap the famous slugger. Someone who was enamored with Henry yet knew better than to ask anything of him.

When I tried opening the story from Natsuku’s POV, the story started to click. In her introduction, contest judge Ann Hood was kind enough to say “Through her point of view, a whole world is cracked open . . .  an ordinary character made extraordinary by the magic of the short story.” That really encapsulates the way I felt upon unlocking Natsuku’s voice in this story. In doing so, the story gained it’s heart, something Henry could never have provided. I loved all the Japanese-centric baseball stuff and how it existed alongside the ideas of legacies and connections, but those were questions that were so much more interesting to explore through Natsuku’s proximity to them.

With a 3rd person limited POV, I was free to go back and forth between the viewpoints, but Henry always felt distant to me. He’s a man who protects himself, and there’s less nuance in his motivations and subsequent actions. Natsuku, keeper of secrets that she is, offered depths to explore. Henry’s sections should serve to complement Natsuku’s, a vast departure from my original plan where she only existed in support of Henry’s quest. So that opening section I was so enamored with got moved to later in the story, about four pages in–our first introduction to Henry in the flesh. Trust me, it works so much better that way.

In February, I’m going to teach a class at StoryStudio called Radical Revisions. This is the sort of thing we’ll be trying to do: approaching our stories from completely different craft angles. Unfamiliar POVs, new settings, characterizations that challenge our norms and voices and styles that take us out of our comfortable ruts. I want to explore the sort of approach to rethinking and revising that finally made “Puro Yakyū” the kind of story that was ready to go out into the world. I’m really excited for this one.

On another topic, I was honored to learn that the editors at Salamander nominated my story “The Floatplane” (from this summer’s issue #44) for a Pushcart Prize this year. They had 2 stories in O’Henry and 1 in Best American Short Stories this fall, so it’s pretty much empirically provable that their taste in fiction is impeccable. Hundreds of stories are nominated for the Pushcart every year, so it’s a long shot, but a shot nonetheless. And many thanks to the editors at Salamander who gave that story a great home.

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Writing Advice

Better a shitty first draft than a nonexistent final one.

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Notes on “The Floatplane”

“Write what you know” is a mantra that writers hear all the time. I hate it. I don’t write autobiography, my characters aren’t paper-thin fictionalizations of people I know and if I set every story in Chicago where I’ve lived for the past 20 years, I’d bore myself to tears. “Write what excites you” is better advice.

In a couple of weeks, my story “The Floatplane” will be published in issue #44 of Salamander, and I’m so proud that it’ll finally find a home. This is a story that had a long journey to print, as I wrote the first draft in a frenzy at the end of 2012 after honeymooning in Tofino, British Columbia. While there, we took a chartered nature cruise in the Clayoquot Sound, chasing whales and sea lions around the rocky inlets and hoping to catch a glimpse of a black bear on the shorelines. It was there that the boat captain motored us past the shores of Opitsaht.

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He talked about his friends who lived in the village and how they depended on the natural resources of the area for their livelihoods. He spoke of how the Canadian government had been distributing payments for the logging rights they had seized in the area and how those payments were about to end. And he said something that stuck with me, about how some of the people on the island were stocking up on guns. While I don’t think he was talking about assault rifles, there was definitely an implication of survivalism to his words.

When I got home, I set out to write a story about the competing notions of freedom to choose one’s own destiny versus obligations to one’s heritage. In researching the story, I learned of the logging protests in the 80s and 90s: nonviolent resistance to the clearcutting of forests in the First Nations’ land that lasted for entire summers, where people blocked the roads in and out of the logging sites and succeeded in protecting their land. Now, similar action was happening at Catface Mountain, this time in the form of a proposal to do mountaintop removal mining which would inevitably poison the ecosystem around the mountain.

Having seen the area with my own eyes, it was easy to understand the consequences at stake. This wasn’t environmentalism for the sake of protecting a bunch of trees or some endangered species of muskrat. This wasn’t some theoretical “within the next century” kind of threat. It was right now, a direct threat to a way of life.

“The Floatplane” is clearly a work of fiction, and the setting, the characters and the subject matter are far removed from my own experience and culture. But the beauty and fragility of the Clayoquot Sound captured my imagination and stirred my interest. I wrote not what I knew, but what excited me, and I’m grateful to the editors at Salamander for putting it out in the world. If you want to read it, please head over to their subscription page to order your copy so you can get it when it ships in mid-June.

The threats to the ecosystem in Clayoquot Sound are still very real, but fortunately there are organizations like Clayoquot Action and Friends of Clayoquot Sound who are fighting (nonviolently) to keep the area pristine for generations to come. I encourage you to visit their sites if you’re interested in learning more about their conservation efforts or donating to the cause.

And if you ever get the chance, visit Tofino and see for yourself.

 


 

One more note: I’ll be teaching a 4-week class called Scene Workshop at StoryStudio on Tuesdays beginning July 11. We’ll be delving into what it takes to create compelling scenes in an intense craft-oriented workshop environment. I’m told it’s filling up, so sign up if you’re interested and join me this summer.

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The Director

For months now, the literary community has been eagerly anticipating the publication of a new work from a beloved short story author. This week, it was finally released to near universal acclaim. That’s right, my short-short story “The Director” is online at Chelsea Voulgares’ dope new flash fiction lit mag, Lost Balloon. Check it out.

What, you thought I was talking about George Saunders?

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Acts of Sedition

I wrote a new story that I read at the Fictlicious Protest show last Sunday that’s a bit snarky and (hopefully) funny, but also one of the scariest things I’ve ever written. And in researching it, I had to spend way too much time reading Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, so please appreciate the sacrifices I make for you, gentle reader. If you’d like to read it, the full text is below.

Big thanks to Natalia Nebel, Anne Calcagno, Ian Belknap and Amanda Goldblatt for reading and Stephanie Rogers, Rikki McRae and Wesley John Cichosz for the music, as well as all of you who came out to see it.

 

Acts of Sedition

The ground is frozen solid, and no matter how hard I jab the post-holer into the ground, all I have to show for my troubles are stinging hands and an insidious idea. My daughter, Emma, suppresses a giggle when I accidentally let a swear word slip out. I’ve tasked her with picking up the splinters and kindling that is left of the last mailbox, and she dutifully collects the pieces into a shopping bag. It’ll be my third mailbox in as many days, and the police have shrugged it off, saying someone’s just having fun with me like it’s a harmless joke. But I’ll be goddamned if these bat-swinging assholes think I’m going to plant a fourth.

I’ve spent the morning trying to figure out how to turn this whole ordeal into a teachable moment for Emma, but I’m not sure where to start. If I had a dollar for every time my mother warned me that my smart mouth was going to get me in trouble, I’d be able to afford the lawyers I’m going to need before this is all over, so maybe that’s the lesson. Or maybe it’s the obvious one: never engage in a Twitter pissing match with the leader of the free world. There was a time where that would have been an absurd piece of advice, but welcome to 2017.

I start towards the garage to find a regular shovel, but stop myself and call for Emma to come with me. She whines that she’s almost finished with her chore, but I put that “dad reigns supreme” inflection into my voice, and she drops her bag and races to my side. There was also a time when I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting her play alone in the yard.

Truth be told, I don’t even care for Twitter, but it’s a necessary evil to anyone in the comedy business. My style caters more to the NPR set: winding anecdotes and thoughtful chuckles rather than bon mots and belly laughs, so it’s hard for me to distill my wit into a handful of words. That fact is born out by the meager amount of friends and acquaintances who follow my @HarrisHaHaHa feed and occasionally click the little heart button under my daily tweets. No, I’m no comedian; I’m a humorist—and only in the evening hours when I’m not working my real job. But no one these days breaks out lacking a dedicated Twitter following, so I approach those 140-character witticisms like my own chore, assuming that if by some miracle my name ever does get out there, I’ll have an impressive history for people to look back on.

When I hit the enter key the evening before the inauguration that kicked the world right in the squishy parts, I didn’t even think about it. Just another mildly amusing shout into the echo chamber, another entry in a long line of disposable digital refuse that only served to make it look like I had a brand that was worth building. The tweet was one of dozens of easy shots I’d taken at the Mar-a-Lago menace: “How do you suppose the wingnuts who considered Obama’s golf schedule an impeachable offense will excuse the new guy?” But somehow it caught the sunken, spray-tan-protected eyes of the new leader of the free world.

He must have been too geeked up to sleep before his coronation, because the first retweeted response came in the middle of the night: “There will be plenty of time for golf once I #MakeAmericaGreatAgain!” That was followed up at 4:00 in the morning with “@HarrisHaHaHa is a failed comedian. No one’s laughing. Sad!” And finally, 20 minutes later, “Liberal elite comedians out of touch. Very unfair to me! Starting at noon, Real America will have the last laugh!”

By the time I left for work that morning, I had 2,400 new Twitter notifications, an unplugged land line and a shattered mailbox in my front yard.

Emma wants to go inside to play, but I’m going to need her help putting up the new mailbox once I get the base dug out, so I ask her to be patient. She chooses to argue the point. Lately, she has developed what is apparently a very presidential characteristic: the need to have the last word. She’s 8 years old, though, and has no command over B-2 stealth bombers or Minuteman III ICBMs, so it’s forgivable in her.

I let her hold the shovel and ride in the wheelbarrow atop the bags of concrete mix. She squeals and hangs on for dear life as I swerve our way to the curb. With a real shovel, I’m able to break ground easily enough, and it only takes me a few minutes to dig out a base. And while I’m doing it, I keep a mental tally of the cars that drive by. It’s a quiet neighborhood and the traffic is light, but I have to keep track. Call it profiling, but I’m not worried about the Priuses and the Odyssey minivans. It’s the pickup trucks rolling coal and the dinged-up SUVs with rebel flag front plates that have my attention. If I see any of them pass by again, I’m calling the cops.

That first morning, my initial instinct had been to strike back. “Better a failed comedian than a failed building developer, steak salesman, bottled water impresario, casino magnate, vodka peddler, magazine publisher, airline entrepreneur, board game creator, mortgage broker, university chancellor and, as I’m sure we’ll soon discover, president.” His response was to teach me what gaslighting was: “Nice try. All incredible successes. Made millions!” And then my Twitter feed started filling up with poorly-spelled rebukes and pictures of beady-eyed cartoon frogs. It didn’t take long for the media to catch on to the story behind Trump’s latest Twitter tantrum, and for a few minutes, I entertained thoughts of escalation. But there were death threats, too, and I remembered that in the story of David vs. Goliath, David’s outcome wasn’t the safe bet, but rather the exception that proved the rule. The line between petty pissing match and Acts of Sedition gets blurrier each time I see a black Suburban with tinted windows and government plates parked outside my office, and that’s not a fight I’m equipped to win.

So far, I’ve been able to keep Emma insulated from all this. She thinks the first mailbox was an accident and the second the result of my shoddy workmanship. But she won’t be going to school tomorrow, and I haven’t decided what to tell her when she asks why. Maybe that will be the teachable moment. A lesson about the first amendment that explains that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences for the stupid shit that comes out of our mouths. Not for most of us, anyway.

Once the mailbox is stood up and the concrete base has set, I thank Emma for her help and release her from her obligations. This one is aluminum with our surname Harris stenciled to the side in white paint, but it’s attached to a black steel post that’s planted deep enough to stop a yacht. When she gets inside, I turn my attention back to the wheelbarrow, open another bag of concrete mix and begin stirring in water.

I pour this batch into a cast I’ve made, and feed a short length of rope into the middle for a makeshift handle. Once it’s hardened, I take it out of the cast and try to remember to lift with my legs.

As much as it pains me, I’ve taken the advice of the legions of foaming-at-the-mouth Twitter eggs out there and deleted my account. Really, it’s no big loss. 140-character homilies aren’t going to change anything in this world. I’m not interested in playing that game any more because that’s not where the real battles get won. That doesn’t mean I’m going to roll over, though.

All this is an absurdity that won’t be laughed away. Let the Jon Olivers and Saturday Night Lives have their fun with Trump and his alt-right ilk. The difference between being righteous and self-righteous is being right, but that’s cold comfort. It won’t change anything, because the bubbles we live in aren’t really breakable. But hands are. And wrists and arm bones.

After a struggle to get it positioned, the 120-pound concrete block I’ve made slides into my new mailbox almost perfectly, with only a slight sag under the weight. There won’t be any room for mail, but that’s ok, because I’ve canceled my delivery for the next few days. Swing, batter batter, swing. We’ll see who has the last laugh.

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