- Genre Convention: Phong Nguyen on the Literary Spin-Off
- Open Blinds, Closed Blinds: The Violence of Detail
- 2006 Editor’s Prize Winner in Nonfiction: Erica Cavanagh
- Dollars and Dignity: Editors’ Prize Winner Spotlight on Emma Törzs
- Permission and Possibility: Editors’ Prize Winner Spotlight on Phillip B. Williams
Our Generous Supporter
Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
The literary spin-off is a venerable genre. To browse listicles online at Flavorwire and Reader’s Digest, one would think that it all began in the 1960s with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, grew into maturity with John Gardner’s Grendel, and reached its apotheosis a couple years ago with Sena Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife. But as Zachary Mason points out in his Preface to The Lost Books of the Odyssey (a literary spin-off), “Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” containing far more apocryphal than canonical texts; and the Greek tradition of epic poetry constituted an ongoing, multi-generational collaboration in which certain characters were elaborated upon and began to figure larger in the story as the subsequent storytellers got hold of the narrative. In fact, you might say that Homer’s The Odyssey is itself a spin-off of a relatively minor character from The Iliad.
My recently released first novel, The Adventures of Joe Harper, is a spin-off from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which Joe Harper plays the part of Tom Sawyer’s best friend and first mate. It was inspired by this quote from Tom Sawyer: “As the two boys walked sorrowing along, they made a new compact to stand by each other and be brothers and never separate till death relieved them of their troubles. Then they began to lay their plans. Joe was for being a hermit, and living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief; but after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate.” The Adventures of Joe Harper imagines that Joe Harper has returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Missouri, after a failed life of piracy, and, finding it full of strangers, decides to fulfill his lifelong dream to become a hermit and find a cave to die in. Instead, he meets a cast of characters on the hobo road who give him reasons to live: Lee, a Chinese-American railroad worker; Ruth, an Amish woman fleeing a forced marriage; and eventually Tom Sawyer himself.
When I first read the above quote, which forms the epigraph of my book, the character of Joe Harper—his potential for story-worthiness—seized me so powerfully that I could not put away the character for three years. I imagine this is how most literary spin-offs are written—in frenzied response to another’s genius, as though this offshoot of the book were what the author had intended all along. It was important to me in the writing of The Adventures of Joe Harper that the result felt inevitable, because that is how the process felt—as though it were more a matter of channeling than authoring. This is perhaps the most critical difference between a conventional novel and a literary spin-off: in the latter case, one knows precisely where his or her inspiration is coming from. It is a full-on embrace of what Jonathan Lethem called “The Ecstasy of Influence.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is itself a spin-off from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and has inspired more spin-offs than perhaps any other American novel (Finn by Jon Clinch, The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Greg Matthews, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians by Lee Nelson, and My Jim by Nancy Rawles, to name only a few). The fact that, as Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” suggests that the literary spin-off has been a central part of the culture from the earliest articulation of a distinct American culture. It is not, therefore, a literary fad that started in the 1960s.
My own contribution to the tradition of literary spin-offs from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to revisit Twain’s antebellum characters in postbellum America. The Adventures of Joe Harper takes place 22 years after the events described in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, shortly after the end of the Civil War, and after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, during the early days of hobo culture. It concerns Tom Sawyer’s best friend Joe Harper, of course, but like Huckleberry Finn, it also concerns Tom Sawyer himself, and the trouble he makes at the expense of the weak and the marginalized, all in the name of a good adventure. The heaviest burden I carried in the writing of this book was the pressure I put on myself to live up to one of the greatest, most controversial endings in literary history. Yet that is one of the hazards of the literary spin-off: that you become so daunted by the greatness of the original that you are paralyzed. It was important not to get carried away with this line of thinking. So, to ward off this impulse, I devised an antidote, which was that I would dedicate the book thusly:
“To Mark Twain, who, though I stand knee-high to his genius, would not, I believe, try to shake me off his leg.”
Phong Nguyen is the author of The Adventures of Joe Harper (Outpost19, 2016), Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014), and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011). He teaches fiction writing at the University of Central Missouri, where he serves as editor of Pleiades.
Today, the Missouri Review presents another installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Silas Dent Zobal, whose fiction has appeared twice in TMR.
For months, I’ve been keeping a Log of Misapprehension. I’m cataloging instances in which I seriously misjudge the substantive physical world. I don’t keep track of all the little things (like misheard phrases or the misperception of color). Why am I doing this? I think it’s because I’m interested in the ways I/we apprehend our world. And also because I’m interested in the way that writers lead their readers to apprehend worlds that don’t exist. I’d like to share two of my log entries with you. The first I’ll call “The Burning Bush,” the second “A Pillar of Earth.”
The Burning Bush
Driving on the highway at dusk in Pennsylvania, I see a fire on the side of the road. There is this billowing smoke. It’s a grand thing, both gorgeous and threatening. But as I get closer, one apprehension gives way to another. The fire becomes a yellow-flowered shrub in the golden hour. The billowing smoke becomes an oddly-shaped cloud. As I move forward, the fire and the smoke separate and go their own ways.
I’ve been suspicious of the material world ever since I was a kid. Do you share my suspicion? Sometimes I’ve thought: the physical world is a brilliant work of fiction told (partly in an act of collective storytelling, and partly as an individual act) with significant variation by each of us. Do you think that’s right? Or do you think it’s wrong? (At this moment, you are likely telling one of those two stories to yourself.) What I’m about to say might seem hyperbolic, but every narrative decision—right or wrong, girl or boy, rich or poor, etcetera—is an act of unavoidable violence. It makes me imagine splitting a log with an axe.
Or let’s imagine, instead, a family story reduced to a single line. Here it is. My great great grandfather, an ill-tempered Norwegian, hit my great grandfather with an axe. It’s a true story. In its telling, I’ve never been given a reason for this violence. Over time, I’ve come to think that the story’s moral is: there isn’t any reason. Or, there can be no reason to hit a child with an axe, but that people hit children with axes anyway. What effect did this event have on my grandmother? And then, too, on my mom? I don’t know. But I do know that thinking about my family’s violence makes me uncomfortably aware that everything I say has been shaped by a past that I have no real chance of communicating to you.
But I’d like to take a stab at it. So: As a kid, my life was sometimes hard. Or my life was hard for a kid who had, unbeknownst to himself, a lot of built-in privileges. (These privileges, the context that provides them, and their ramifications are subjects for another time.) Right now I’d like to give a few snapshots of my early hardships.
On Our Early Poverty
My family was poor. We didn’t have enough money for food, but we had food stamps and visited food banks. What I’d like to tell you about is my self-consciousness. I remember the shame of having old clothes, often donated or cast-offs picked up from churches. My brother and I were dirty and ragged, our pants and shirts a mess of holes. Does that seem trivial? It is, I think, but its triviality didn’t lessen the sting. When I see what few photos remain of those days, there we are still: desperate, dirty kids with lopsided bowl cuts, twice patched pants with fresh holes at the knees, grass-stained elbows, and coats out of 1970s dumpsters. Isn’t it funny how the trivial stings? What kind of misapprehension is this? (Is it, as it seems, the avoidance of other, thornier issues?)
Here’s a question: How many examples of my life’s difficulties do I need to show you to give a sense of how hardship shapes the world? When I was small I understood, given the parameters of my life, that opportunity was rare, deprivation constant, and violence commonplace—each family perpetually on the edge of its next catastrophe. (And this, it must be said, is true. I can still see how it must be. But does it make sense to you when I say that, given the generosity of my present, I also see now how it is not true at all?)
On Our Violence
My parents often fought. I mean fought physically. I remember my mom being pushed/falling down the stairs. I remember bruises and scabs on my dad’s face. Their fistfights carried, sometimes, into the yard and out onto the street. The police came and things usually calmed quickly. If they didn’t, one of the two of them was taken away.
If we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t we more interesting when we fail than when we succeed?
A Pillar of Earth
At my home in ridge-and-valley Pennsylvania, I walk the same country loop every day. I take my dogs with me. We walk by farms and fields and cows—swallows in the evening and bats at night. Last spring on this walk, just past the farm where I buy beef and milk, I looked through a scrim of brush toward the field on a rising hill. I saw a towering mound of dirt. So huge it was impossible really. It took me longer than it should have to sort out that there wasn’t a mound of dirt. There was a newly plowed stripe of dirt running up the hill. (In my part of Pennsylvania, we’re partial to strip farming.) The tilled earth of this strip stood out, darker than the dirt around it. Imagine it. Just a dark stripe running up a hill. My eyes should have seen this in the way we interpret railroad track, or roads, running into the distance until the tracks converge into the vanishing point. But instead of reading distance in a strip of earth becoming smaller, my mind read it as rising.
My Log of Misapprehension has had one distinct effect. It’s made me tenderly aware of how often, and how quickly, my view of the world changes. What I’ve seen, or thought I’ve seen, has often been an illusion. And of course the writer, too, is interested in the creation of illusion. Narrative and description are a single kind of magic trick—a sleight of mind, so to speak—in which we deliver a few details—an ash-handled ax, a burning bush, a bloodied lip—designed to elicit a reader to summon person and place and narrative possibility where none exist.
On Our Insobriety
It’s too complicated to explain, in this short space (or in any space), my parents’ substance abuse. But I’ll try, with a few details, to inadequately sum the unsummable. (Is that maybe part of what fiction does, too?) So before my mom stopped drinking, she went through a phase in which she slept every afternoon. Before she’d go to sleep, she’d ask me to wake her at some appointed time. Later, when I went to wake her, she’d hit me. I don’t think she knew it was me. What did she see from her vantage point in those moments? What did she see when she looked at me? Whatever it was, I learned to duck. To run if she came after me. To lock myself in my room. And I thought it was scary, sure, but I thought it was funny, too. Still do.
In his poem “The Descent,” William Carlos Williams writes, “Memory is a kind / of accomplishment, / a sort of renewal / even / an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places.”
What makes the memory of mom hitting me less funny, at least on the back end, is that it carries with it the memory of my mom having a series of strokes, staying in the hospital for fifty-four days, and dying. I was twenty-four. Mom was in, as the neurologist said, a “semi-vegetative state.” She moved in and out of consciousness. She could think but she couldn’t move. Or she could sometimes move her left big toe. And she could control her blinking, at least a little. So when we “talked,” one blink meant yes, and two blinks meant no. It was a little like this: Can you hear me, mom? Yes. Your lips are dry. Yes. Are you in any pain? No. Are you glad I’m here? Yes. Do you understand what’s happened? Yes. That you had five strokes? Yes. I love you, mom. Yes. Do you need anything? Yes. Oh, okay. You want some ChapStick? No. A friend? You want to see a friend? No. One of the nurses? No. Should I stay here with you again tonight? Yes. You want to go to sleep? No. Do you want a blanket? No. Should I close the blinds? No. No.
Years ago I copied down lines from the mathematical physicist Henry Stapp. He wrote: “If the attitude of quantum mechanics is correct, in the strong sense that a description of the substructure underlying experience more complete than the one it provides is not possible, then there is no substantive physical, in the usual sense of this term. The conclusion here is not the weak conclusion that there may not be a substantive physical world but rather that there definitely is not a substantive physical world.”
Do I believe this? God, what I wouldn’t give for the simplicity of right or wrong, yes or no, dead or alive. (Here’s an answer: my head knows that it’s true. But my heart knows that it isn’t.) What stuns me is the flexibility of interpretation. That is, the details of the world are only suggestive, and, always always multiply suggestive. And the details are misleading! The candlestick in the library points straight to Professor Plum. But poor Professor Plum didn’t do shit! (He couldn’t have, right? Because he doesn’t exist.)
So let’s say we accept that there is not a substantive physical world (and, as I’ve said, part of me does). What becomes of our injuries and traumas? Do they dissolve away because they never really happened? Do our pasts melt like wayward dreams? Can we let the worst of ourselves go?
Nothing happens at all really. In my memories, replayed and replayed (renewed and renewed!), mom still goes through a period in which she hits me every time I try to wake her. And this remains, each time I say it, unpleasant to say aloud. I still go to foster care. I still have a half dozen scars on my right hand from when my brother and I fought and he locked himself inside the house and I punched through the windows. I still have a brother and a dad, alive thank god. And a mom who—granted!—died years ago but who is with me, now, as I write and remember and renew. I still have my spouse. And my kids, too. I have it all—no matter the course of my mind. It’s both a promise and a pestilence—the way we are bound by what we think we’ve always been. Which means (unfortunately?) that in the ways that matters most, in our heart of hearts, the past cannot be left behind. But it also means that all we love can never leave us either.
Silas Dent Zobal has stories in the Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, New Orleans Review, North American Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. He has been awarded a NEA fellowship in fiction, won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and been a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His collection of stories, The Inconvenience of the Wings, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. His debut novel, The People of the Broken Neck, is available as of October 11, 2016. You can find him here.
This week on The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast we are thrilled to feature a former Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize winner, Erica Cavanagh (née Bleeg). Erica’s essay, “Obedience,” won the award in the nonfiction category in 2006. Erica discusses her experience winning the Editor’s Prize, her writing process and memoir project, her time at the Millay Colony, and her interests in the blurred boundaries between poetry and creative nonfiction. You can find Erica’s photography and writing on her website.
Erica Cavanagh grew up in Rochester, New York, and after college volunteered full time through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Washington State and the Peace Corps in Benin, where she worked with women and children on health and access to education and economic resources. She is writing a memoir about her experiences in Benin, pieces of which have appeared in The Missouri Review, North American Review, Gastronomica, Bellevue Literary Review, and others. Her writing has won the Ruth Murray Prize from the University of Chicago and the Editors’ Prize fromThe Missouri Review. She is a graduate of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, where she was awarded an Iowa Arts Fellowship. In June of 2016 she was an artist in residence at the Millay Colony for the Arts, a residency made possible by a grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. She teaches nonfiction writing, African American literature, and food studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Interview conducted by Traci Cox.
Did you know that you can now download The Missouri Review to your smartphone or tablet? Search for The Missouri Review in your app store. If you are already a digital subscriber, just sign in to the app with the e-mail address associated with your account.
The countdown to the October 1 deadline for the 26th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize is on! There are just a few days left to enter for your chance at our three $5,000 prizes.
Emma says, “Winning the Editors’ Prize made me rich in both dollars and dignity. I had never ‘been flown’ anywhere before, much less attended a literary party in my honor, and in a solitary writer’s life full of invisible striving (and visible waitressing), such trappings of legitimacy really do help me keep the faith in myself and my work. I am very grateful to the other winners and to the staff of the Missouri Review for showing me a good time, and for encouraging me to spend a small portion of my winnings not on rent but on a pair of truly unnecessary red suede platform shoes.”
Watch Emma Törzs read her prize-winning story, “The Wall”:
Emma Törzs is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her fiction has been honored with a 2015 O. Henry Prize and a 2015 Minnesota Emerging Writers’ grant and has been published in journals such as Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Narrative, Cincinnati Review, and Salt Hill. She received her MFA in fiction in 2012 from the University of Montana
During the next few weeks, we’re featuring the three winners of last year’s Editors’ Prize, Genese Grill (creative nonfiction), Phillip B. Williams (poetry), and Emma Törzs (fiction). Today we’d like you to meet Phillip B. Williams.
Our 26th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize deadline is just days away. Enter today for your chance at our three $5,000 prizes.
Phillip says, “Winning the Editors’ Prize means to me time to write and not worry about what’s next. I am preparing for a major transition that requires me moving across several states yet again and the money from this prize will help me to sustain myself during that strange intermediate period where housing and work are simply not present. When I received the email saying that not only had I been chosen but that the decision was final, my mouth dropped and I cursed aloud something that I cannot share here. It was a very joyful time and a huge relief as I looked over student loans and credit card bills demanding payment. The Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize gave me a second wind. It gave me permission and possibility.”
Listen to Phillip read his prize-winning poems at our Editors’ Prize Reception:
Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, IL, native and author of the poetry collection Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books). He is currently visiting professor in English at Bennington College.
In the next few weeks, we’ll feature the three winners of last year’s Editors’ Prize, Genese Grill (creative nonfiction), Phillip B. Williams (poetry), and Emma Törzs (fiction).
Our 26th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize deadline is just three weeks away. Enter today for your chance at our three $5,000 prizes.
Genese Grill says, “Winning the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for non-fiction gave me the self-confidence and oomph necessary to finish writing my book. I still remember the gala and the visit so fondly!”
Watch Genese read from and discuss her prize-winning essay at last year’s Editors’ Prize reception:
Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012), and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. She has an essay forthcoming in the Georgia Review and is the editor of a new local monthly print magazine called 05401PLUS. 05401 is the zip code in Burlington, and the PLUS refers to the surrounding Lake Champlain bio region. Her award-winning essay “Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries, and Colonialism” can be found in our Spring 2016 issue.