A Note on Notes, an Update on Updates, a Work in Progress

—When I feel not totally certain of what the point of having my own website is, I remind myself that it seems kind of useful to have your own bibliography and your own bio in one place (for the odd person out there who might be asking the Google “I loved this story in Fence but what else has Tom Hopkins written? I must know”), and which is worth a few bucks a year to maintain, I think.

—My tag line (up there in the upper left hand corner) is currently “sporadic news and occasional updates,” but it’s really pretty damn sporadic and occasional these days. In part, I guess, because I don’t send out stories all that much anymore—I only have a couple pieces out at the moment—so it’s been a while since I had one of those lovely phone calls or emails from an editor letting me know they want to publish something I wrote.

—On very rare occasions, I tweet; slightly more frequently, I post photos to Instagram.

—The best and most exciting news we’ve got these days is that The Book of Esther is out in paperback as of 8/22. (I posted a square-cropped version of the following to Instagram on 8/1.)

a box of The Book of Esther by Emily Barton

—Did you see that the novel was in last Sunday’s Paperback Row? (Quoting: “For her novel, Barton imagines a thriving Khazar kingdom in the throes of World War II — crafting a world and a story that are, as our reviewer, Dara Horn, said, ‘as addicting as a Jewish “Game of Thrones.”’”) (I posted a square-cropped version of the following to Instagram on 8/27.)

—Did you see the “5 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Inspired by Jewish History and Culture” post in Unbound Worlds last Thursday? Or the Begin in Wonder review?

—In other news (and this is also a contributing factor to why I have absolutely no short-story news), I’m writing a novel. The way I described it to Emily was “an autofiction wrapped in a writing dare wrapped in a false document”; in an email to a writer friend and mentor, I wrote this: “one shorthand way to describe it would be Knausgard meets Nabokov, although I should hasten to add 1) I haven’t read Knausgard and 2) that sounds more highfallutin than I think this thing actually is.”

I’m realizing now, though, that it’d be slightly more accurate than Knausgard-meets-Nabokov to call it John Cheever meets Anne Lamott meets Sarah Manguso meets Jenny Offill.

I’m going to try, if I can, to write progress reports on how the novel is going in this space on a regular basis, but I may completely fail to do so. The novel may fail; the reports about the novel may fail. (Again: what’s the point of having your own website? Whatever you want the point to be. The age of blogging may be long gone, but I’m trying to keep the fierce digital individualism of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget as my lodestar here.) We’ll see.

—In other writing news, I also wrote a sequel to The Year of Living Autobiographically, but it may be just too damn dark to share. I think it might be called The Year of Living Ignominiously. It’s definitely on the back burner for now.

—I don’t have anything smart to say about this, but like most people I know, I’m thinking about mortality a lot these days; in my case, one of the specific ways I’ve been thinking about mortality is the fact that one of my childhood friends died suddenly this past January. I knew he wrote, but I discovered at his memorial service that Brian Shea wrote a lot, and published his own work. I am full of awe at the same time that I am full of grief.

Here’s a picture of me, age forty-seven, and Toby, age nine. I was nine when I met Brian. This is Toby and me at Brian’s memorial in June.

Toby and me in Maine

Brian also was a frequent contributor to The Good Men Project. I really want his essays there to become a book. I don’t quite know what I can do to make that happen, but for now, I’m leaving this link here, to create one more thread in the universe to his words, and I’m remembering what Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark, that we don’t know what the outcome of our actions will be, but we sure as hell know what the outcome of our lack of actions will be. (Timothy Snyder makes much the same point at the end of On Tyranny.)

More soon, I hope. Onward.

LEGOs: an Essay, by Tobias Hopkins, Age Eight

LEGOs are fun. If I got a brand new box of LEGOs, I’d open the box, then I’d open the bags that are inside of it. Then I’d pour out the LEGOs, but I wouldn’t sort them. It’s a little more fun to just look for the LEGOs, to dig through them. If you sort them, then everything would be with other pieces that are the same color, and it would be harder to find them, because they’d blend in.

Then I’d open up the instructions and I’d start building with what it says. It can be kind of hard, because the instructions don’t have any words, they just show you pictures. Sometimes the pictures are more like diagrams. I look at the picture of the LEGO piece I need, and I try to find it. Then I look at the picture of what that step should look like after I put the LEGOs together. Then I put them on the actual structure to do that step.

Sometimes it doesn’t go exactly right and I have to redo it. Sometimes I haven’t done exactly what the directions showed because it’s hard to tell what the directions are showing. I redo it if it’s not correct. It can be frustrating if you get a step wrong, but then it’s really fun once you get it right.

When I do it the right way, that feels good. If you get the directions correct, then you just move on to the next step. It keeps on going like that.

As you keep working on the kit, it gets bigger and bigger. At first it looks like a couple tiny pieces, and then it starts to look like what it’s supposed to look like. It looks better as it grows. When I built a treehouse, I started to be able to put more parts on it that moved in interesting ways. But not all LEGOs can move, and that’s okay.

Each step that you take when you’re building a LEGO set gets more exciting, because each step gets you closer to being able to play with it. And when I finish it, I feel really great about it. I feel proud that I followed the directions and made something that looks good.

A LEGO dragon that I built, after I finished, I took it apart so I could build the same thing again. I left some of the pieces together, like the head, and some pieces I had to put together from scratch, and I put all the parts back together. Some LEGO kits, after you build them, you just play with them.

If there’s anything that moves in a finished LEGO set, you can move that around. If there are humans involved, you can play with the humans by moving them around and having them do different things.

We also have a box of LEGOs that are all different kinds of pieces that can let you build a lot of different kinds of things. It used to have directions for how to build a fire truck, a house with a dog inside of it, and a few other things, but I ripped up those directions one time when I was really frustrated. So now when you use that box of LEGOs, you do things that you want to do, and you can’t use instructions, which also turns out to be kind of fun. I’ve ended up making things like a giant box thing on wheels, a swimming pool, and a couple different kinds of cars.

I like doing both kinds of LEGOs, but I prefer the ones with instructions. Then you get to play with things that have a lot of cool stuff and that actually look like real things.

I hope you enjoyed my story about LEGOs. (If you’d like to learn more about LEGOs, go to Wikipedia. On the LEGO website, you can see many different kits that they make and you can do games and stuff.)

—Tobias Ezekiel Hopkins
Kingston, NY
26 March 2017

A note from the publisher—that is to say, me, Tom, his dad: Toby wrote this essay for a publication class he’s been taking before and after the school day. This story will be included in an anthology that his teachers will be publishing at the end of the school year with CreateSpace; the book will serve as a fundraiser for the school. Once the anthology is published, I’ll add a link to the book’s buy page here.

While Toby did not type the essay, his mother, Emily, served as his transcriptionist, or stenographer. As a writer and writing teacher herself, she made no attempt to “improve” the work during its composition. A few times, she encouraged the author, in Socratic fashion, to prefer the specific to the general. The ultimate choices of words, sentences, and paragraphs are very much the author’s own.

Closer to Hired: Lyrics & Links

1) First, a link to the YouTube video we made today for “Closer to Hired.” (Since I have a link at the end of the video that goes back here, it seems silly to build an embed.)

Closer to Fine YouTube screen grab
A screenshot from the video. We used our trusty old Flip on a tripod, so the quality isn’t quite as good as an iPhone would be.

2) Cutting and pasting the video description, since that’s important contextual information:

A response to the following prompt for a job application: “Please add a link to a 3-8 minute YouTube or Vimeo video of you answering the following question: What blogs and social media accounts do you most enjoy and why?” Here’s my answer!

With harmony vocals and Dylanesque cue cards by Emily Barton.

I should maybe add that I know this isn’t perfect—I’m pretty flat in the chorus, for example. (I tried to sing an octave higher on our first take, and I blew out my voice!) But since this is an application for a content gig, not an audition for America’s Got Talent, I’m hoping that won’t be a strike against me. 🙂

Also note that this is a parody, not a cover. Protected by the First Amendment, y’all!

3) The lyrics (with links):

I’m gonna tell you ’bout some blogs and tweets
Tell you what about them I think’s really neat
Conan O’Brien’s a major fave for me
His writing style is pure hilarity
A master of the joke-tweet, y’all

Next up’s a writing blog by my friend Erika
Her publication schedule only stops for Hannukah
She shares helpful ideas, and jobs involving writing
She isn’t currently selling, but if she ever does, I’m buying
I think Seth Godin would approve

I read Brian Morton, I love his gallows humor
For cycling it’s Treehugger, for butt jokes Amy Schumer
We want to hear a voice that entertains us,
Wins us over, makes us feel inspired
And if you think my thinking is definitive
The closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired

My friend Richard likes to disrupt stodgy industries
He sees the way that books are changed by new technologies
I watched Tommy Caldwell on Insta climb the Dawn Wall
What he did with his friend Kevin was an inspiration to us all
I spent all eight Bush years getting my news from Talking Points Memo,
Got Obama, now I’m free

350.org lets me know the Earth’s in trouble
Boing Boing brings the weirdness, and NASA brings the Hubble
Good brands are built by telling stories like we did
While roasting mammoths ’round a fire
And if you think my thinking is definitive
The closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired

4) There’s an Easter egg—or rather, a series of Easter eggs running throughout the video. Can you spot it/them? Let me know.

5) I’ll let you know if I get the job!

The Rubber Band

Emily and Toby and I wrote a poem. No day is ever perfect, and yesterday had its problems. But: we wrote a poem! (Which is perhaps especially awesome because of this: Emily and I were in the same section of David Layzer’s Space, Time, and Motion class in the fall of 1989, and our section leaders allowed us to cowrite an epic poem for our final paper. Emily and I both lived in Adams House. She would come over to my dorm room in E-11, where we typed it all out on my Macintosh SE. We wrote it in botched heroic couplets. It was about Aristotle, Kant, Alice in Wonderland, Hume, Plato, Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Reimanian geometry, Milton, Henri Poincaré, Einstein, and Virgil, among other things. It was terrible; it was glorious.)

If you put a word by itself on a line, Toby said, then you draw special attention to that word, and the reader pays special attention to it.

I love the poetry unit! I want to live in the poetry unit always.

The Rubber Band
by Toby, Mommy, and Daddy

streche    streche
Don’t let your brother eat that!
slingg—shot
Stretched wide in an O
FouR  EDGES
An infinite beige   rectangle
HLDS together tie-die   shirts
FIGUR    ATE
Cat’s cradle, a bundle of mail, preserver of bread
a    zero
a mouse bicycle inner tube
a   ginee   pig    guiTAR
The hairband of last resort
A    TITE    BRASLIT
Get enough of them, make a ball
thay    geT    OLD
THAY     get rough
little spaghetti
Ever-changing shape
BRAIDED
Tiny digeridoo
ants use them to power their
PROPELLER PLANES
and     it     SPRINGS     A N D     SPRINGS
A N  D    S    P     R      I        N         G           S

The Rubber Band

Good News: Ten Things About “The Mohel Mulligan”

2014.08.17 Mohel Mulligan copies

Ten things about “The Mohel Mulligan,” published last week in the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal fiction insert (hooray!):

1) The story, in its very first draft, was titled “It Takes Balls to Be a Dick.” This was something I said to a bunch of fellow musicians after a show at CB’s 313 Gallery. (When was this show? Maybe the Marc Rosenthal / Gloria Deluxe / Holly Ramos show on Saturday, 18 March 2000? (“[A]fterparty at Parkside Lounge,” says my calendar. I have vague memories of this being an amazing night.)

The line was the punchline to a story I don’t remember. I wrote it on an index card and put it in my mother’s old recipe box, where, pre-Evernote, I stored loose phrases and quotes and ideas. Starting grad school, I thought I should use it as a title for a short story. I’m glad I didn’t.

2) I workshopped the story twice at NYU. In workshop, it was titled “Blind Date.” Like me, the story is a lot more Jewish than it was ten years ago.

3) The draft I submitted to the Printers Row Journal was the thirteenth. It was the twenty-ninth time I’d sent out the story. (I’m grateful to Dan and Nicole and Jamie for encouraging me to keep sending it out.)

4) The story is an homage to / riff on Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s the same basic setup: four people drinking and telling stories. The narrator is named Nick; the husband of the other couple is named Mel. Terri and Laura become Abby and Molly.

5) Riffing/signaling-of-riffing in the opening two sentences:

Carver:

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

Me:

My new friend Molly had been praising the baby. She wanted to be a pediatrician, so I thought that gave her the right.

6) This is a completely fictional story. But it’s based on something that actually happened to me—a weekend-long blind date, at my date’s friends’ beautiful vacation house—which occurred on a weekend on which the sixth of July fell on a Sunday in 2003.

The real-life conversation that inspired the conversation of the story occurred on that Sunday.

The publication date for the story is the sixth of July, which fell on a Sunday in 2014.

7) The insert says $2 on it, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how you’re supposed to buy a copy. They may only be available in analog form, in Chicago, purchased with physical dollars. (Kicking it old school, Trib! This could potentially explain why the story does not yet exist at all on the Internet, according to Google. I don’t mean at all for this to sound disrespectful, but it does inspire a contemporary version of the if-a-tree-falls question: If a story is published in print, and no mention of it occurs on the Web, was it ever actually published?)

8) Emily will give some copies away on her Facebook author page. Which is an awesome reason to “Like” Emily Barton, if you haven’t clicked that button already.

9) The story-within-a-story is about a circumcision gone horribly wrong. I’ve been tempted, for a decade, thinking about that and thinking about Carver, to retitle the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Cock.” I’m glad I didn’t.

10) Film rights are available.

Fifteen Thoughts on AWP

1) Emily’s joke: For AWP, we stayed at The Lenox, which is a member of the Saunders Hotel Group. At first, the hotel seemed like a near-future dystopia, with a lot of scary TradeMarked MidCaps (TM). Also, everyone there, like, uptalked? But halfway through our stay this totally surreal thing happened, which, by the time we checked out, via that surreal thing, totally redeemed our faith in humanity.

2) The view out our hotel window.

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3) I thought that Facebook and AWP would be an interesting combination. I had the idea that everyone would use the former as a tool for managing the latter. As in, if you were at the Bloof table, you would write “I’m at the Bloof table,” and then your friend who happened to be over at the Small Demons table would see that, and then wander from Small Demons over to Bloof, and then say hi, which is what’s so great about AWP, saying hi to all these wonderful folks.

But it didn’t seem like anyone was doing that. It seemed like everyone I knew on Facebook who was also at AWP wasn’t writing much of anything on Facebook. Presumably because they were too busy saying hi to other wonderful folks?

Or maybe the appropriate digital tool for what I’m talking about is Twitter?

4) I’m sure some people had all kinds of judgemental thoughts about us wheeling around a boy who’s four and eleven tweflths in a stroller meant for a much younger child. Perhaps they thought we were spoiling him; maybe they thought we fit some preconceived idea of modern parenting that they’ve decided they hate.

But I tell you what, the Micralite Toro is an amazing machine. You can push it with one hand. You can put all your coats on it, instead of checking them for three dollars per coat at the coat check that doesn’t allow you to combine coats. At the convention that doesn’t have child care. Or a play area. Or any comfortable chairs. Did you see everyone lining the long hallways, sitting down, napping on each other, checking their phones, reading, resting in the only place there was to rest? It looked like an airport in a snowstorm. A conference and book fair together mean walking many miles over the course of the day. Which is tiring for people of every age.

I highly recommend the Toro. They should make a grownup version.

Maybe they already do; it’s called the Segway.

And the Husqvarna ear muffs. Next year, we’re starting a fake literary journal and selling branded Husqvarna ear muffs as swag.

5) I miss tabling. I think I’m good at it. I love standing behind a table and talking to people all day. Maybe not every day, but certainly a couple of times a year. I love teaching, but I also hope my work someday means tabling conferences. I hope it doesn’t sound pathetic for someone in his early forties to say such a thing.

6) The woman who was running the TriQuarterly table on Saturday morning was not a nice person.

7) Bloof!

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8) Perhaps I just think I’m good at tabling because at AWP, there are so many people who are incompetent at it. Why go at all, why spend money on a table, if you, the editor, are not going to go yourself? Why send your socially challenged editorial intern? And if you’re the socially challenged editorial intern, why are you hiding? Why not say hi to someone and possible learn something about the world?

9) Sven Birkerts is awesome. First thing in the morning, he’s sitting behind the AGNI table. He’s a major public intellectual and he’s also trying to sell you a damn lit journal. That’s how you do it, man.

10) I’m sad I didn’t get to meet Michael or Jamie in person. I’m glad I got to finally meet Stephen. I’m glad to’ve seen Jed, Bruce, Hannah, Rach, Richard, Jess, Dan, Shanna, Sam, Brendan, John, Rick, Laurel, Laurel.

11) I’m sad we didn’t run into Maud or Alix. Whenever we go on a trip, we set up a few timers on the lights in our house. Our first floor timer, when we’re not traveling, lives tucked into the top shelf of the right-most fiction bookshelf in our living room, next to Babylon and Other Stories and The Missing Person. So when we go on trips, we think about Alix.

12) Fucking Facebook! It’s a flood of so much in medias res. If all we get are updates, which is the same as “and then this next thing happened to Joe,” but we never get the first part, the beginning of the story, the introduction of the plot, the “once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe,” then how are we supposed to follow?

13) Is it a conversational medium, or a broadcast medium? Is it supposed to be the former, but then becomes the latter? It feels like we’re all in a room, all of us talking, none of us listening.

To put it another way: if you and I are “Friends,” and we both write status updates, and I’ve hidden you from appearing in my “News Feed,” and you’re hidden me from appearing in your “News Feed,” then what the fuck are we doing?

Oddly, blogging, which seems like it starts out more as a broadcast medium, has more potential to be a conversational medium. (For old people.)

So right now, I’m writing this; I think there are about two or three people who will read it; I’m curious what those two or three people will have to say, the next time I see them.

14) Once again, I’m so ready to bail on the whole thing. Facebook, I mean, not AWP. I love AWP. I love seeing people. In person. It’s so good.

15) Friendly’s, on the way home.

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Emily Barton in the NYRB

(New year catch-up post, five of five.)

About three years ago, a completely amazing review of Brookland was published in the New York Review of Books. It was more than just a review, really; it was a 3,500-word consideration of both Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron. The article was originally password-protected on the NYRB site, but as of this past April, it’s freely available: “The View from the Bridge,” by Christopher Benfey (NYRB Vol. 53, # 13).

Benfey closes with the following paragraph (I’ve taken the liberty of adding a direct link to footnote number five here—which might look a little funny if you were to print this page, like an endnote to an endnote):

In her first two novels, Emily Barton has taken on for herself Crane’s self-appointed task to “absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles, and all other human associations of the past.” But something else is at work in Barton’s finely tuned vision, it seems to me, though I raise it with some hesitation since it is nowhere explicit in Brookland. I mean the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, coinciding with the period during which Barton, living in Brooklyn, wrote Brookland. The Brooklyn Bridge itself was rumored to be on the list of potential al-Qaeda targets, with Osama bin Laden reportedly threatening to bring down “the bridge in the Godzilla movie.”[5] Barton appears to be alluding obliquely to the attacks of September 11 in her references to the “twin towers” of Prudence Winship’s bridge, in her attention to the “retaining wall” of her father’s distillery, which is also the site of his death, and in her notion of the bridge as a monument to the dead. Whatever we make of these apparent allusions, Emily Barton has written a moving testimonial to the dead on both sides of the river.

Benfey teaches at Mt. Holyoke, and, wonderfully, came to Emily’s reading at Amherst this past spring. I was hanging out with Toby back at the hotel, but I’m pretty sure this idea—that the novel is, allusively, about the beautiful and terrible view from Emily’s old apartment in Brooklyn Heights—didn’t come up at all at the reading; but as to the question of whether or not Benfey’s idea is right on the money, I can safely say: Yes.

I’m still working on my argument that both Brookland and Testament are crypto-steampunk—but that thesis might take a while to work its way into print.

Dialogues Big and Little

1) From the A.P.: “Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete,” Malin Rising and Hillel Italie, 30 September 2008: archived, as of this writing, here and here.

(A side note: it’s a little frightening how easy it is to find commentary on this article, but how difficult it is to find a simple, complete, comment-less, free-of-ancillary-garbage archive of it.)

2) Two of the many, many responses: Ron Hogan’s “We’ll Make Our Own Luck, You Dumb Swede!” post, 1 October; Adam Kirsch, “Nobel Gas,” Slate, 3 October.

3) Scott McLemee’s questions in Inside Higher Ed: “How valid are Engdahl’s criticisms? Are there tendencies in U.S. culture that negate his perspective, or particularly grievous ones that confirm it? What American author seems an obvious candidate for the Nobel?” (“Ig-Nobel Thoughts,” 8 October 2008.)

McLemee got eleven e-mailed responses, from “a range of writers, critics, translators, and scholars.” And Charlotte Mandell’s comments are (understandably) rather Bard-centric (Ashbery et al.), since she’s a part of the Bard College literary community; but even so, it’s really lovely to read the following:

That said, it’s not true that the literary scene in America is insular. […] Young American novelists like Paul LaFarge, Edie Meidav, and Emily Barton are deeply involved with cultures outside of America. It would be wonderful if the publishing world in America were as interested in other languages and cultures as the American poets and novelists living and writing today.

4) Which also reminds me of this (Katherine Weber: “The [2006 NBCC Award] fiction list omits Emily Barton’s Brookland, it omits Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, and it omits Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes“).

What do you call this kind of praise? The praise of Hey, this great thing is being neglected, these great people are not being mentioned in this wider conversation about official recognition of merit?

5) A novelist friend told me on the phone the other day, “I think she’s a genius.” I told him I agreed with him wholeheartedly, but that my claim might not be taken as seriously as his, as my praise is part of my job. (It’s in the ketubah, as we say.) But, I told him, I truly believe I’d agree with him even if it weren’t part of my job.