Read my story, “Warren Zevon Attempts Happiness,” in Shadowgraph Quarterly

I wrote “Warren Zevon Attempts Happiness” many years ago, as part of my undergraduate creative writing thesis. It is based around true events, but is a completely fictionalized account of what might have happened to Warren Zevon (my favorite singer/songwriter) while he was living in Spain with his wife, Crystal.

But something was missing from it. It lacked “oomph” and tension, and I had no idea how to fix it, and neither did any of my undergrad thesis advisors. By the time I began my MFA program, I had mostly given up on that story.

But on a whim, I brought it to my historical fiction workshop with Katherine Ayres, who is a wonderfully insightful writer and excellent teacher. After I read the story aloud to the group, she asked me a single question: “What is the conflict here?”

It hit me like lightning. Suddenly, I knew exactly what I needed to do to make the story tense and meaningful. In retrospect, it seemed obvious. And, it worked.

Shadowgraph Quarterly, an online literary magazine that also publishes chapbooks, picked up the story for their Spring 2016 issue.

Their editors, who have hawk eyes as well, also picked out a few places where I was telling after I’d shown, and helped me trim the story down to its essentials.

Click here to read “Warren Zevon Attempts Happiness.”

I hope you enjoy it, and if you’ve never heard of Warren Zevon, here’s one of my favorite songs:

Masturbatory metafiction in Jack of Fables

ImageOver the summer I learned that consuming too much metafiction, as with chocolate, wine, margaritas, cheese, berries of any kind, coffee, tea, cake, cookies, candy or anything else delicious and edible, can lead to headaches, indigestion and temporary loss of taste for that food.

I’m not saying Jack of Fables is a bad series. In fact, it does something completely brilliant by making the writing/illustrating process a kind of character in the books. I’m just saying that it’s a very bad idea to read eight volumes of it right in a row. This comic by Bill Willingham is a spinoff of one of my all-time favorite comics, ever, Fables. The books follow our favorite fairytale characters in their lives in New York City after they were run out of their homelands by the Adversary. And then other stuff happens. Jack of Fables spins off fairly early in the series, and follows a separate timeline.

The best way for me to describe the metafiction contained within is this:

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Photo by Celeste Hutchins. Used under Creative Commons.

Many jokes are made about the authors creating the characters (and Jack actually turns fat and ugly and then into a dragon for making fun of the authors—see, the writing/illustrating process has agency in this text! Fracking brilliant!). Literary terms, genres and plot devices like science fiction, fantasy, literary, the fourth wall, the other three walls, deus ex machina, etc. become characters. In every issue (so several times a volume), Babe the Blue Ox gets a page or two to look out at the audience and make jokes.

For the first few volumes the story revolves around the Literals, a family of powerful individuals who created all the Fables. One of them tries to write the Fables and all magic out of existence, and so the Fables must prevent this from happening. The Literals are another way Willingham has characterized the writing process, and made it both hero and villain as certain members of the family fight for the Fables, and others against.

All of it is brilliant, and delicious, and if you read it all at once, thoroughly nauseating. Most of the devices and techniques Willingham uses here are fairly obvious, though the effects of those techniques are varied and as I said earlier, brilliant. My first reaction to this was to roll my eyes and say something to the effect of, “Cervantes was never THIS obvious,” but I was missing the point.

Jack is a self-absorbed prick. Under normal circumstances, only other self-absorbed pricks would have any interest in reading an entire comic book series about such a douche bag. So by making the writing process itself a character, I could stomach Jack’s self absorption and laugh about it. It was especially funny to me as a writer, because sometimes your characters turn into assholes when you want them to be nice, and you’ve got to do horrible things like turn them into dragons in order to make them nice again.

Willingham obviously has a lot of fun with this series, and it’s a lot of fun to read.

That being said, don’t read it all at once.

A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.

#FridayReads: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (audio)

Swamplanida by Karen RussellKaren Russell’s second book is tragically strange and lush with beautiful prose.

It follows the Bigtree family, who own an alligator-themed park where all the alligators are named Seth. After the star alligator wrestler (and mother of the narrators) dies of cancer, Swamplandia! declines, eclipsed by a newer, slicker park called World of Darkness.

The story is told by two of the children, Eva and Kiwi, who each get a distinct narrator for the audio version. I’m less fond of Kiwi’s reader than Eva’s, but both are appropriate for the mood and tone of their respective sections.

Russell takes us on a tour through the lives of this alligator-wrestling family by using objects and sensory details. We learn what items of significance the Bigtrees keep in their “museum,” what kinds of souvenirs they stock in the gift shop, and what sorts of items they keep personally.

The way these objects overlap, intersect, and stand in stark contrast to each other reveals a family that doesn’t know the way forward, but is desperately trying to find it.

I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the book and learning what becomes of Swamplandia! and the Bigtree family (and all the Seths).