Scribbler’s Flash Fiction Contest

I’m going to keep this brief. Because brevity is soul of wit, and … well, you know. Scribbler is inviting you to enter its first-ever Flash Fiction Contest. What is flash fiction? It is the prose writer’s chance to tell a story in as few words as possible. There are plenty of places you can find flash fiction online, and multiple anthologies you can check out from your St. Louis Public Library. You can also explore writers like Lydia Davis or Amy Hempel. Hell, there’s a Frenchman called Felix Feneon who wrote Novels in Three Lines, containing gems like these (Feneon’s tart and bleak anecdotes are a perfect fit for Twitter):

There is no longer a God even for drunkards. Kersilie, of Saint-Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, is dead.

—–

Flash fictions challenge prose writers to approach the precision and compression of poetry. They push us to dive into the story without any preliminary throat-clearing. They force us to get to the point. Flash fiction makes it sound fast, but it’s the kind of writing that makes us read slowly, because it is dense and rich, because every word has been tested and considered.

What makes it work is the limitation. Sometimes it’s 1000 words, sometimes 500. For this contest the limit is going to be 750 words. That is three pages double-spaced. This is a hard limit and all stories that exceed 750 words will be disqualified.

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So what do you say? The STL Scribblers group will be reading flash fictions at our meeting on March 2, 2015. There will be a popular vote, and the story with the most votes will be published on this blog. Any current or former members of the STL Scribblers, readers of this blog, or patrons of St. Louis Public Library are eligible to participate.

Full Guidelines:

1. Submit a story of no more than 750 words by March 2, 2015–you can bring them in person to our meeting at Central Library or submit by email to elundgren@slpl.org by 5:00 pm.

2. Give your story a title, but do not include your name on the manuscript, as they will be read anonymously.

3. Winning entry will be published on Scribbler in March 2015. Winner will be determined by popular vote at March STL Scribblers meeting at Central Library. They will also receive a small prize (**update: a $25 gift card from Left Bank Books). The winning writer will retain all rights to their work.

Good luck! We look forward to reading your work!

This post comes in at 419 words, FYI.

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Henry Miller at the Wednesday Club

One of the many reasons I love working in a public library is that it provides so much odd experience. In my second life as a fiction writer, people often ask me if I get a lot of material from public library work, and my general response is, not really, it’s too weird to be believed as fiction, but I have tried to embrace and appreciate the weird stuff when it comes.

So when a representative from the Wednesday Club of St. Louis, a historic women’s cultural group, approached the library to see if we had someone on staff who might want to talk about Henry Miller and the obscenity trial of Tropic of Cancer, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I had fond memories of reading Miller’s notorious novels as a teenager, and some impish part of myself relished the chance to scandalize the plush suburb of Ladue, where the Wednesday Club HQ now stands (for most of the twentieth century, the Club met in a building at the corner of Westminster and Taylor). The organizer’s email noted that “over 100 highly educated women will be in attendance.”

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Indeed, looking into it, you realize what a force the Wednesday Club has been in St. Louis history. Founded initially as a poetry club devoted to the reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley–but running into resistance because of Shelley’s atheism–the group took on the name the Wednesday Club in 1890. The club was founded by Charlotte Stearns Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s mother, and Kate Chopin was a member (although she resigned after two years, and satirized Wednesday Club members in her short fiction). Devoted to the serious discussion of science, history, and cultural matters among women, the Club has had a notable impact on public policy–most notably leading the movement that led to St. Louis’s first smoke-reduction ordinances in the early 20th century.

As the date approached, I began to have anxious visions. I’m the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of the night sweating, and my brain produced images of over one hundred pearl-clad ladies looking on in horror as I recited an especially filthy passage of Miller. Doing the actual research calmed these nervous visions somewhat. Miller was neither as incendiary, nor as interesting, as I remembered him to be: instead of a work of revolutionary obscenity, I found Tropic of Cancer to be a boring, self-absorbed, thoroughly misogynistic, and plotless ramble … not exactly promising for my speech.

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That said, the story of how Tropic of Cancer got published was fascinating, and I ended up focusing on this, the human moments–Anais Nin borrowing funds from her psychiatrist Otto Rank to fund the publication of Tropic in France; Judge Woolsey reading Ulysses in his luxurious wood-paneled library, before he ruled on it; Barney Rosset of Grove Press stumbling upon the illegal “Medusa” edition at Gotham Book Mart in New York. Publishers, pornographers, prudes, and postmasters made for great side characters in the story of 20th century U.S. censorship.

And there had been no cause to worry: I couldn’t have found a more appreciative audience than the women of the Wednesday Club. There were a few gasps when I talked about the multiple love triangles Miller found himself in during the ’20s and ’30s, but there was also a lot of warm, appreciative laughter. Afterwards, I talked with several club members about obscenity and free expression, the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and the ways that boundaries affect artists, both positive and negative. Our gracious host, described as the “baby” of the group, published erotic verse under several pseudonyms. Other women at the table spoke about their world travels and the great lost bookstores of St. Louis. We heard from a woman who was in a rock band and had just started violin lessons. “I’m terrible,” she said. “But I keep practicing.”

In short, I have nothing but admiration for the bold and curious women of the Wednesday Club, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. In the stacks here at Central Library, we have several volumes of Wednesday Club verse–anthologies of winning poems from their annual contest. A guy you may have heard of, Tennessee Williams, won this prize in 1936. Williams won $25 for his poem, but if you enter this year, you will have the opportunity to win one of three prizes ($500, $300, and $150). The deadline is February 1; complete guidelines can be found here.

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Tim Rakel’s Subterranean Library

Anyone who’s heard Tim Rakel’s music knows that he is a highly literate songwriter. The versatile folk-rock musician and host of KDHX’s Mystery Train program, Rakel works a rich vein of labor history, modernist literature, and urban lore into his songs. (And like Dylan before him, he’s unafraid to pinch a few lines if they sound right to him.) An ex-library staffer himself, Rakel kindly offered up and reflected upon some reading recommendations in advance of The Union Electric’s upcoming gig for the Library’s Not So Quiet! concert series.

The Union Electric will perform on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00 pm in Central Library’s auditorium — a space that used to be occupied by the coal cellar, which in this case couldn’t be more appropriate.

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Henry Boernstein, Mysteries of St Louis 

Henry Boernstein’s writings and the title of this novel are the inspiration for two of The Union Electric’s songs “Mysteries of Saint Louis, Part One” and “…Part Two”. The first part was released as a single last year and it explores the state of the city and compares the view Boernstein had of it as an Austrian immigrant before the Civil War. Boernstein was a radical journalist who took part in the Union army’s victory at the arsenal. This novel contains a lot of description of a bygone Saint Louis.

Samuel Beckett, Watt

Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels such as Watt and another called Mercier and Camier are the inspiration behind an EP by The Union Electric called From Bad to Worstward. In Watt a manservant haplessly wanders between his tasks and thoughts. Waiting For Godot might be an easier introduction to the work of Beckett but this is actually a very funny and poignant work and worth the occasional tedium of some passages.

Lincoln Steffens, Shame of the Cities

An early song by The Union Electric called “You Have Been Served” was written because of this book which details the Saint Louis street car scandal of 1900. Joseph Folk was elected circuit attorney on a campaign promise to weed out corruption in city government. He ruined his political career but carried out his promise by exposing the people that had supported his nomination. Steffens’ book goes into the history of other cities as well but the Saint Louis portion is certainly worth looking into.

Vachel Lindsay, Selected Poems

Vachel Lindsay was a contemporary of Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters and is often considered an example of an early performance poet, traveling frequently through the country and reciting his verse for small audiences. A good deal of his verse is often musical when read aloud. He wrote about Illinois figures such as Lincoln and Altgeld as well as poems about religion, politics and nature. The song “Saint Francis Of Illinois” is a tribute by The Union Electric to this Springfield poet.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Novelist Victor Serge wrote this account of his life while in exile after many years of imprisonment in both Russia and France for his participation in various political movements. He was, at various times, jailed for being an anarchist, a communist, and an anti-communist. A fascinating figure of early twentieth century European history and an eloquent writer as well. The Union Electric’s song “Out In The Street” is derived from the first chapter of this memoir.

William T. Vollmann, Imperial

This imposing volume documents a region of the California border. The Union Electric’s song “Tunnels” was inspired from the chapter about the Chinese immigrants who lived underground as a result of persecution and economic necessity. On this subject, Vollmann’s investigative journalism takes him into restaurants and basements searching for traces of this subterranean culture.

These titles and other selections by Tim Rakel will be on display in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library throughout November.

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The Empire Rolls on November 4th

A few years ago I had a gig screening manuscripts for a novel competition. My task was to review between 100 and 150 of these manuscripts and winnow them down to one or two finalists that I could then pass on to the final judge. It was a pleasure to be asked–I felt sure I would pull an unrecognized gem out of the slush. But I hadn’t really known what I was in for. Fifty-pound UPS boxes began landing on my porch. I cracked the boxes open, pulled out three or four manuscripts at a time. Many of them were just flat-out boring. Some were shot through with gaps of character and plot logic even in their first chapters. Others were not-in-a-good-way strange: one was called Whimsy Ocean, and the pale towers of stacked manuscripts began to resemble just that (an ocean I wasn’t too eager to wade into). There were qualities I admired about many of them but at the same time, none had spoken with the resonance and and sense of inevitability that I’d been looking for.

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I picked another manuscript off the pile, reading eyes strained, ring of lukewarm coffee at the bottom of the mug. And read these words:

I still patrol Karst Park, days, a gun on my belt and a diet soda in my cup holder. But on Saturday nights I work the rink calling roller derby, trying to match my crackling new radio voice to the beat of the bout. I do a creditable job of it, too, for the sake of these hometown girls who may never reach stardom in any wider arena, if not for the benefit of my mom, who shows up regularly with her cane and earpiece to watch her favorites get knocked into the wall. I do it for my sister Sharee who died in the seventies and who cruised this same track backwards under the disco ball, insisting on taking the male role in the couples skate, her narrow hips swerving like a rudder under some boy’s sweaty class ring. When I think of her now, the long red hair parted in the back with her own motion and streaming forward into her face, I wonder if it was courage or fear that made Sharee proceed this way, backward into her destiny. I wonder if I am taking the same route, childless and divorced, veering into the midpoint of my forties, still rushing backward, raising my own wind. I look down at the rink and nod at the girls in their camouflage team shirts, their bright hard helmets, and their skimpy skirts. The youngest is eighteen, the oldest thirty-seven, and they shimmer with sex and suppressed aggression. They are students and mothers, nurses and teachers, war vets and veterinarian’s assistants, policewomen, waitresses, insurance claims adjusters, and clerks. They have spent the week cleaning up blood, submitting data, and disposing of shit, all to the music of canned motivation and various forms of bad news. I take a long sip of clear soda and prepare for the onslaught.

Though I didn’t know it at the time–the submissions were anonymous–this was the first paragraph of a novel by Trudy Lewis, a professor at the University of Missouri. All I knew was that I was instantly compelled by the voice–the intelligence and poise and wryness of it, the notes of sorrow underneath. That image of Sharee skating “backwards into her destiny” brought that Nabokovian chill at the base of the spine, and I felt the hair on my arms standing up. Here was something. I was sitting up in my chair, suddenly compelled by the sorcery of the right words in the right place on the page. I read The Empire Rolls straight through, with a deep sympathy for its protagonist, Sally LaChance, as she negotiates her way through midlife in a Midwestern town. It was a book that felt local and specific but never small, asking the big questions about ethics and community, our role in the world, the continuing encroachment of private interest onto the commons–while anchored in Sally’s laid-back but cutting, quietly moving voice.

A few years later, it’s a huge pleasure to see Trudy’s book being published by Moon City Press in their Missouri Authors series, and we’re thrilled to be able to host her here at Central Library for an election-night celebration of all that’s good in America, Roller Derby Night. We’ll have Girl Fawkes, Cruella Belle-Ville, Danisaurus Rex, and Party Foul of the Arch Rival Roller Girls on hand to show video clips of their team in action and talk about the culture of roller derby. Trudy will read from and sign copies of her novel, courtesy of Left Bank Books. Please join us to celebrate the publication of this remarkable work of fiction on November 4th–it’s going to be a lot of fun and you’ll get to meet one of the best (and coolest) writers in the state.

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Dostoevsky’s NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is only a few short weeks away, and as thousands of writers prepare for thirty days of literary insanity, it’s fascinating to learn — via this post from Tom Nissley at The Millions – that my favorite Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky faced his own NaNoWriMo challenge in the autumn of 1866. More detail on this can be found in volume three of Joseph Frank’s epic five-volume Dostoevsky biography, The Miraculous Years: 1865-1871.

A compulsive gambler whose finances were always somewhat precarious, Dostoevsky found himself deeply in debt, and in order to pay off his creditors, signed an extortive contract with the shady publisher Feodor Timofeevic Stellovsky. The contract stipulated that if Dostoevsky failed to deliver a novel to Stellovsky by November 1, the publisher would receive rights to all of Dostoevsky’s future work and would not have to pay any royalties for nine years. Consumed at the same time with the writing of Crime and Punishment, which he’d been working on at the summer resort of Lublino near Moscow, Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in October having made little progress on the project he owed, The Gambler. In a letter to his friend Milyukov, Dostoevsky wrote: “Stellovsky upsets me to the point of torture, and I even see him in my dreams.”

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When his friend came to visit him, Dostoevsky was pacing in terrible agitation. Frank describes the scene:

Just a month was left to satisfy his part of the bargain and nothing had yet been written; even if he managed to write a first draft, it would be almost physically impossible to transcribe and correct it in time to meet the deadline. Milyukov, horrified at what might occur, suggested that a group of Dostoevsky’s friends take the plan already prepared and each write a section; this collective effort could then be submitted and published under Dostoevsky’s signature. “No!” Dostoevsky answered firmly. “I will never sign my name to other people’s work.” Milyukov then advised him to find a stenographer and dictate the novel; this would speed up the process of composition considerably and, in particular, shorten the amount of time necessary for the physical preparation of the manuscript. Never having dictated any of his work before, Dostoevsky was quite reluctant and doubted whether he could create in this fashion; but he finally agreed to make the attempt as perhaps the one possible solution to his dilemma.

His friend then appealed to a professor of stenography–courses in this subject were being offered to Russian women for the first time. The professor sent one of his best students for the job: Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Though Dostoevsky was at first very uncomfortable with the new arrangement, compulsively offering Anna cigarettes that she declined, the two warmed to each other and began to have intimate conversations after their dictation sessions. Anna was twenty-five years his junior, but she had great respect for his work and wrote that “I would miss him when I was at home and lived only in expectation of the next day’s meeting with him.” Writers of historical romance, take note! You may have a subject for your novel this year.

Thanks to Anna’s help, the manuscript was on track to be completed before the November 1 deadline. However, the dastardly publisher Stellovsky was not yet ready to concede those future royalties. Frank’s account continues:

Stellovsky would stop at nothing to prevent Dostoevsky from meeting the terms of the contract, and Dostoevsky “began to be afraid that Stellovsky would contrive some kind of trick … would find a pretext for refusing to accept the manuscript.” The resourceful Anna consulted a lawyer about the matter, who advised registering the manuscript with a notary or with the police officer of the district in which Stellovsky lived.

Indeed, when Dostoevsky tried to deliver the corrected manuscript on November 1, the publisher was nowhere to be found, having “gone out of town,” and his assistant claimed not to have the authority to accept the submission. (Publishers! They never change, am I right? Just kidding, publishers.) With two hours to spare, the writer brought the manuscript to the police officer of the district where Stellovsky lived and obtained a receipt, thus narrowly avoiding the awful consequences the contract had set up for him.

The novella The Gambler drew on themes that Dostoevsky knew well, not only from his hours at the roulette table. One could argue that we also gamble at the writing desk. In the work that speaks to us, the stakes are high, something is risked. The process can develop and release its own compulsive energies. That is what NaNoWriMo is about to me: throwing it all down on a creative bet that might, just might, pay off. A century and a half later, The Gambler is being adapted into a feature film — not bad longevity for a month’s work.

On the verge of financial and creative disaster in 1866, Dostoevsky found not only an escape from the trap his publisher had set for him — he found a connection with a bright young stenographer who would soon become his wife, who would inspire and support* him through the rest of his days. So if you aren’t sure if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo this year … you’ll never know what might happen to you, unless you play.

November’s NaNoWriMo events at Central Library will include guest speakers, writing prizes, and a late-night writing marathon on November 15. Check out the full PDF here:

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* – this also included pawning her jewelry and fur coat to pay his gambling debts. Dostoevsky notoriously pawned his own wedding ring and coat to pay off roulette losses — he quit gambling in 1871.

Quotes from Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Princeton University Press, 1995.

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Ann Leckie at Central Library

In case you’ve been hiding out in a corner of the galaxy with really bad wireless, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has had an incredible run in 2014. Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards–the first SF novel in history to do this–the novel is a compelling work of world-building and emotional restraint, following the artificial intelligence of a starship (reduced to a single shoddy human body) as she tends to some long-unfinished business with the leader of the Radch empire. Gripping on the level of sheer storytelling, the novel also probes questions of gender, identity, and power–a master class of philosophical complexity and narrative technique.

The second installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword, will be published in October, so this is the perfect time to get started.

In short, we feel very proud of our fellow St. Louisan Ann Leckie for her remarkable achievements, and very fortunate to have her at Central Library in the near future.

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(Nota bene: When you come to this event on Monday, Sept 15 — because you’re coming, right? — you can also purchase a copy of Leckie’s book from Left Bank Books, a store that would actually like to sell you a copy of Leckie’s book, unlike a Certain Nameless Internet Giant, which is in a fight with Hachette, the company that owns Leckie’s publisher Orbit. Going to that Nameless website today, I see that Ancillary Justice is available for a whopping discount of 6% and that the Giant will begrudgingly ship it out to you in 1-3 weeks. Come on, Nameless Internet Giant! Yeah, Scribbler advises you to go with Left Bank on this one.)

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The Public Library, by Isaac Babel (1916)

At times, working in a glorious old building like this, one can feel haunted by it. There are time warps in the library, and a trip to the stacks can stir up the presence of ghosts. Isaac Babel’s 1916 story “The Public Library” reminds us that, however much the library changes, the strange old spirits live on, their quirks present in the Central Library employees and regular patrons almost a century later. Photographs courtesy of the Digital St. Louis project, Special Collections, St. Louis Public Library.

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One feels right away that this is the kingdom of books. People working at the library commune with books, with the life reflected in them, and so become almost reflections of real-life human beings.

Even the cloakroom attendants–not brown-haired, not blond, but something in between–are mysteriously quiet, filled with contemplative composure.

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In the reading room are the more elevated staff members, the librarians. Some, the “conspicuous ones,” possess some starkly pronounced physical defect. One has twisted fingers, another has a head that lolled to the side and stayed there. They are badly dressed, and emaciated in the extreme. They look as if they are fanatically possessed by an idea unknown to the world.

Gogol would have described them well!

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The “inconspicuous” librarians show the beginnings of bald patches, wear clean gray suits, have a certain candor in their eyes, and a painful slowness in their movements. They are forever chewing something, moving their jaws, even though they have nothing in their mouths. They talk in a practiced whisper. In short, they have been ruined by books, by being forbidden from enjoying a throaty yawn.

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Now that our country is at war, the public has changed. There are fewer students. There are very few students. Once in a blue moon you might see a student painlessly perishing in a corner. He’s a “white-ticketer,” exempt from the service. He wears a pince-nez and has a delicate limp. But then there is also the student on state scholarship. This student is pudgy, with a drooping mustache, tired of life, a man prone to contemplation: he reads a bit, thinks about something a bit, studies the patterns on the lampshades, and nods off over a book. He has to finish his studies, join the army, but–why hurry? Everything in good time.

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Near the librarians’ desk sits a large, broad-chested woman in a gray blouse reading with rapturous interest. She is one of those people who suddenly speaks with unexpected loudness in the library, candidly and ecstatically overwhelmed by a passage in a book, and who, filled with delight, begins discussing it with her neighbors. She is reading because she is trying to find out how to make soap at home. She is about forty-five years old. Is she sane? Quite a few people have asked themselves that.

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There is one more typical library habitue': the thin little colonel in a loose jacket, wide pants, and extremely well-polished boots. He has tiny feet. His whiskers are the color of cigar ash. He smears them with a wax that gives them a whole spectrum of dark gray shades. In his day he was so devoid of talent that he didn’t manage to work his way up to the rank of colonel so that he could retire a major general. Since his retirement he ceaselessly pesters the gardener, the maid, and his grandson. At the age of seventy-three he has taken it into his head to write a history of his regiment.

He writes. He is surrounded by piles of books. He is the librarians’ favorite. He greets them with exquisite civility. He no longer gets on his family’s nerves. The maid gladly polishes his boots to a maximal shine.

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Many more people of every kind come to the public library. More than one could describe. There is also the tattered reader who does nothing but write a luxuriant monograph on ballet. His face: a tragic edition of Hauptmann’s. His body: insignificant.

There are, of course, also bureaucrats riffling through piles of The Russian Invalid and the Government Herald. There are the young provincials, ablaze as they read.

It is evening. The reading room grows dark. The immobile figures sitting at the tables are a mix of fatigue, thirst for knowledge, ambition.

Outside the wide windows soft snow is drifting. Nearby, on the Nevsky Prospekt, life is blossoming. Far away, in the Carpathian Mountains, blood is flowing.

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C’est la vie.

from The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, translated by Peter Constantine. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

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