Filed under stories

“Saint Jude’s Medallion”: The Story Behind the Story

The earliest version of “Saint Jude’s Medallion” came from an assignment for a class I took as an undergrad,Image of Saint Jude Medallion Latinos and the Politics of Religion. We were supposed to interview an older Latino/a (the term Latinx had not yet been invented or at least had not achieved currency in the Pomona Valley of the late 80s) about some aspect of folk theology. The rest of the class were Latinx themselves and had only to call up abuelita and record a conversation with her to complete the assignment. I should have made arrangements to find someone to speak with, but I procrastinated and had to come up with something quick with no resources. So I created a work of fiction purporting to be truth (a friend majoring in political science told me later that what I considered to be a relatively venal sin was, in fact, a grave ethical violation. These sorts of issues were not usually matters of concern in the English department).

The original version of the story ended with the conversion of the narrator’s boyfriend, but when I revisited this story on my return to writing, I found that conclusion to be saccharine and unsatisfying. I came up with the conclusion that I did when in the course of researching contemporaneous terminology for the rail line that the narrator used to travel to the South Side neighborhood of Chicago I read about the train crash that takes place near the end of the story which seemed purpose-made for my needs.

An early version of this story was workshopped in the writing group I was in with Georgene Smith Goodin, and was rejected many many times before I brought into a writing class I took with Lee Strickland at StoryStudio Chicago where it was met with violent disapprobation by my classmates. I took Lee’s comment about the narrator’s English being too good to heart and I rewrote all of her dialogue in Spanish, did a literal translation of the Spanish into English and then cleaned up the resulting broken English to make it read better. I put it back into submissions and got still more rejections, all of them form rejections. My first hint that it wasn’t something I should trunk was a personalized rejection from Barcelona Review praising the writing. A couple weeks later, Switchback responded offering publication.

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“Kiddush”: The Story Behind the Story

Kiddush” is the opening NewImagechapter of my novel in progress, We, the Rescued. The novel, in an Oulipo-esque fashion, takes its structure from the Passover Haggadah and in a sort of an ontogeny-recapitulates-philogeny fashion, the chapter takes its structure from the first prayer of the Passover Seder, the Kiddush, or blessing over wine. I took the nesting structure one step further in some of the earliest drafts of the story and recapitulated the creation story of Genesis 1 in the opening section of the story (I’ve taken the excised bit and have been shopping that around as a bit of flash with no success as of this writing). This is the only chapter of the planned novel that interacts directly with the text of the Haggadah, using the words of the Kiddush to give form and in many cases to allow the text to make ironic commentary on the prayer.

The structure of the story with the primary narrative in present tense and shifts into past tense for flashbacks is inspired by reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Fiesta del Chivo, which does similar things with time. I found the way that it caused the past and present to be intermingled to be a great inspiration towards what I could do with the form.

I’ve received early feedback on this story from writer friends including Jonathan Eig, Katherine Sanger, Justin Sikes, Steve Nelson and Maria Feldman.

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“A Pilgrimage”: The Story Behind the Story

A Pilgrimage” is one of those NewImagestories that originated by reading off the page. In this instance it was a Mexican short story that I was reading in Spanish. I don’t remember the story details very well, other than being somewhat lost in the Spanish. As a consequence I began imagining the story that became “A Pilgrimage.”

I spent a lot of time on Google Maps working out the route that the characters would take to walk from St Louis to Chicago. Some, but not all, of the landmarks along the way are real. The shrine to St Peregrine in Chicago is also real. I meant to go there to be able to right the scenes set there with greater accuracy but was never able to get away from the family to make the pilgrimage, so to speak.

I received invaluable early feedback from writer friends Katherine Sanger and Kyle Roesler.

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“MeTube”: The Story Behind the Story

The genesis of “MeTube” was an actual YouTube video, “Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out” which initially presented itself as an actual pre-wedding video but was later revealed to be a promotional video for hair care products. Regardless of its veracity, the question that struck me about the video was, What happened after the camera turned off? Did the bride go through with the wedding? If not, how did everyone around her react to that development. This question of what happens after the story ends is one that often intrigues me and in this case I found it to be fertile ground.

The story has been kicking around for a while, having been workshopped first in a writers’ group I participated in around 2007–8 with Georgene Smith Goodin among others, and then resurrected when I took a class at Story Studio Chicago with Lee Strickland. It took a few bouts of submissions before it was finally accepted by Popshot for their Truth issue.

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“Q & A”: The Story Behind the Story

The genesis of “Q & ANewImage was a passing mention in Dava Sobel’s book Galileo’s Daughter, where, when she was discussing the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, she mentions the surreal effect of the transcript in which all the questions are written in the third person but the answers given are in the first person. I found this intriguing and wanted to employ it in a story.

Since the original question and answer format came out of the inquisition, I imagined a sort of contemporary inquisition and decided that some betrayal in love would be the target of said inquisition. As for just who is asking the questions, I leave that to the imagination of the reader.

The first version of this story was workshopped in a class at UCLA Extension under the leadership of Adam Cushman. I took a revised version of it to my MFA program where it got further attention from TIbor Fischer, Kat Grilli, Steven Paul Lansky, Kossiwa Logan and Ryan McConkey

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“An Outsider”: The Story Behind the Story

This is another story which has been kicking around for a while before it finally was published, Back in the ‘90s, I submitted this to Story, received a hand-written rejection letter and didn’t realize that was a sign I was onto something and didn’t do anything more with the piece for years.

This story has gone through more rounds of revision than anything else I’ve written (other than my ill-fated and now-trunked  novel). For a while it began with a dodgeball game, the count of players in which I was never able to get right despite my best efforts. Then one workshop participant pointed out that the story really began a bit later and that “I don’t know how the story about the witch began” would make for an awesome opening line.

I was on the verge of putting this story aside one more time when the call for Dear America came in my e-mail and I decided I’d toss this one out to see if maybe with such a specialized call it might find an audience and it finally did.

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“Bartholomew L. Bartholomew”: The Story Behind the Story

“IImage result for headphones once held the position of Technical Lead…” this part of the story is autobiography. The rest, modulo the occasional detail that I borrowed from my years’ experience in tech, is fiction. The obvious inspiration is Melville (the short title I used for filenames and the like for the story was “Bart LB” and I had this short title before much of anything else).

So many of my employers let process and bureaucracy drive things while I found myself repeatedly having to affirm that things like “story points” have no objective meaning and exist to serve us rather than the other way around until, it would seem, that the only reasonable reaction would be to declare, “I prefer not.”

The first version of this story was workshopped at my third MFA residency with Terese Svoboda, Christina Del Rio, Tiffany Knowles, Chelsea Wait and David Weissblatt. At AWP2016, I won a manuscript critique from Slush Pile Magazine, so I gave them this and got a handful of ideas I liked and a handful I didn’t.

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“Girls”: The Story behind the Story

I think “Girls” will win the prize for the longest gestation period of any story I’ve ever written. The opening sentence is exactly as I wrote it in 1984 as part of my autobiography for Mr Caravello’s sophomore English class. Mr NewImageCaravello liked that so much he had me read it out loud to the class.

I’ve toyed with ideas of what to do with that sentence since then. I tried submitting it on its own as a bit of microfiction and it achieved my first tiered rejection from Fence. I tried turning this voice into a young adult novel, but wasn’t able to make it through the first chapter. 

So I decided to return to the original autobiography. In that piece, the first “chapter” was an absurdist bit about a tractor accident in the farm in my family’s backyard and then I decided that as a dateless sophomore, I would recount my most humiliating rejections. I took as much of that as I could remember and rewrote it and began interpolating some additional nerdy stuff (the π section came to me one morning in the shower as I was thinking about the piece). Not all of the piece is autobiography, but enough is to make it recognizable to a few people. In one instance, I sent the story to a writer friend to get her feedback forgetting that she was one of the girls in the story. Oops.

The piece has a long history of close-but-not-quite responses from various publications, the most notable of which was from The Atlantic (perhaps my most treasured rejection). It was actually accepted by another publication earlier this year, but they wanted edits that I couldn’t agree with including moving the opening sentence away from the opening and rearranging things so that the π section was no longer section 3 which misses half the joke.

Useful feedback along the way came from Josip Novakovich, Resa Alboher, Kerri Allen, Travis Kiger, Kevin McFadden and Benjamin Tier.

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“Our Lady of the Freeway”: The Story Behind the Story

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You can purchase a copy of Headland Journal No. 6 here to read “Our Lady of the Freeway.”

This is a story I’ve been trying to write for almost thirty years. Preparing to write this post, I spent a bunch of time digging through my notebook covering 1988–1991 but didn’t find any trace of this, although I can remember working on an early version of the story set in Germany with a lot of details copped from the Hotel Grillparzer sections of The World According to Garp. I’m sure if I dug through my notebooks and scraps of hard drive from days gone by, I might turn up some of those early attempts. Later, I read John Biguenet’s “The Vile Soul” in Granta and found myself despairing because Biguenet succeeded in doing what I wanted to do with my story and much better than I was capable of doing that.

During my MFA, I needed to generate some new material for workshop during my second residency and I decided to resurrect this idea and see where it led me. I chose to re-set the story in Los Angeles as it’s a city that I know well (all the locations in the story are real). I had a rough idea of the story having attempted to write it before, but this time, I had a second character appear besides the narrator and with his appearance, the story developed new life beyond the question of the apparitions at the center of the story.

I tend to choose character names with some indirect significance if only to help me keep them straight in my mind In this instance, the two main characters, Henry and Arthur derive their names from the unused first names of the English Catholic novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, respectively, The characters take their attitude toward Catholicism loosely on the personalities of those two writers as well.

Before its eventual acceptance, this story received 26 rejections including nine “encouraging” rejections. On the final round of submissions, one journal accepted it on the day it was sent. I’m not sure how they ended up in my submission list, but I think it was a case of the journal doing a follow-unfollow on Twitter in hopes of dredging up followers. I decided to decline the acceptance, figuring that I’d rather have it go some place with high enough standards to spend more than a day to accept a piece and that if the story was so good that it’d merit a one-day acceptance, it would be accepted elsewhere as well. It was.

The workshop group who gave me input on the earlier draft of this story was composed of Tibor Fischer, Kat Grilli, Steven Paul Lanski, Kossiwa Logan and Ryan McConkey,

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“Le Pont des Arts”: The Story Behind the Story

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I wrote the first draft of this story while staying in the same apartment building in Paris where Katherine Mansfield wrote “Feuille d’Album.” The apartment was located on Ile de la Cité a short distance from Pont de l’Archevêché which has become a popular spot for tourists to attach locks declaring their eternal love as described in this story. Le Pont des Arts, a bit further downstream is the original “lock bridge” of the story, which I didn’t actually visit during the course of this trip to Paris.

I made a quick run over to Pont de l’Archevêché while working on this story to get good non-stereotypical-yet-still-French names for my characters. While looking over the locks I found that the vast majority were placed there by foreign tourists. Perhaps more amusing were the large number of apparent same-sex couples represented and a few locks which had three names on them (although my wife pointed out that these were likely parents and child and not, as I had assumed, the locks of a ménage-à-trois).

This piece was read by Terese Svoboda in an early draft and later by Jennifer Vanderbes, Carolyn Eichorn, Connor Holmes, Kate Sanger and Chelsea Wait.

Photo via wikimedia commons.

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