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The World of Publishing: 1991 vs. 2014

The Diamond Lane, published in May 1991, was my second novel, and what is most striking about the difference between the publishing process 23 years ago and now is not that the book was written on a Kaypro, Xeroxed at Kinko's, and sent overnight in a FedEx box to G. P. Putnam's Sons, but that after the manuscript was accepted and given a pub date, I asked my esteemed editor, "What should I do now?" and she said, "Just write the next one."

Before I get too far down the road extolling the good old days, let me say that I'm not particularly nostalgic by nature, that Xeroxing manuscripts and sending them FedEx was a pain in the ass, as was hanging around the house waiting for your editor to call, which felt exactly like waiting for a boy to call in 8th grade; that I love my Kindle, enjoy a lively love/hate relationship with social media, admire the pioneering souls that have forged the way for quality self-publishing, and have no desire to hop in the way-back machine.

That said, in 1991, the main job of a ...

A Brief History of Video Games Played by Mayors, Presidents, and Emperors

Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost control of, he relishes the little bit of control that can be got by sticking oneself behind the cockpit of a WWII airplane or facing off against a small band of Nazis. His fellow council members know this about him. He shows up disoriented and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep at council meetings. Some have embraced this (for what else can they do?), and purchased civilization-building games for him they suppose might give him a leg up on his duties, such as SimCity 2000! But Mayor Bartlett only plays first-person shooters. He desires that raw, unhinged control of an avatar with a machine gun.

Based on this character, I began to wonder what video games other leading politicos might get addicted to. Below I've detailed my research.

The Rude Burl of Our Masks

One day when I was 12 years old and setting off on my newspaper route after school my mom said will you stop at the doctor's and pick up something for me and I grimaced and said something almost rude but not all the way rude and off I went on my bicycle. In autumn where we lived the afternoon didn't slide gently or melt easily into dusk but just snarled and surrendered and suddenly everything went brown. My mom had lost interior parts one after another over the years but I knew nothing and cared nothing of which parts and why and how they had been lost. I had 60 papers to deliver and I could deliver them in exactly 70 minutes if all went well but now I would have to go easily five whole minutes out of my way all the way over by the woods by the highway and I would not get home until long after five o'clock which meant I would miss most of the one television show we were allowed to watch per day why my mom would be so thoughtless ...

Knowing vs. Knowing

On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from beneath the hood, and the temperature gauge spiked into the red zone. I pulled onto the shoulder and shut off the engine. Except for my car's gasps and sputters, all was quiet. To the west, nothing but corn beneath the falling sun. To the east, an oat field nearing harvest. It was Sunday, traffic nonexistent, the cell phone era still more than a decade off. With the few tools I kept in my trunk, I tore off the frayed end of the radiator hose and reclamped what remained — it was enough — to the radiator, which of course was now dry. Half a mile away, across the oat field, I could make out a farmstead partly hidden in a clutch of trees, and I set out for it briskly, aware of time passing and thinking of my wife at home in Minnesota, expecting me back.

As I entered the yard of the little farm, a man watched from ...

Has My Husband Read It?

My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in different magazines and anthologies as short stories. Those three chapters are highly representative of the book — meaning there's a lot of sex, drugs, and unhappiness.

Marie, the book's narrator, is a young single mother who works at an upscale steakhouse in Dallas. She takes the restaurant's whole fast, dark culture into herself in a feat of almost Sisyphean promiscuity. One night Marie waits on a group of middle-aged, overweight white businessmen — the restaurant's typical wealthy clientele. Near the end of their deal-making dinner, one of the men grabs Marie around the waist, "a liberty taken with me fairly often," she says. "You sign up for a certain kind of life and shell out the dough for it, you expect the waitresses to permit you."

The sex is rarely about pleasure for Marie. She uses it to exorcise her self-hatred and the men use her to use her. She has sex in dirty places and in luxury hotels, with men she ...

Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel

There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him.

He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well.

It's about Juliet and... her wet nurse.

At least, that's what the data junkies at claim. As does Jim Carter, aka Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey.

What is up with the nurse? In the first scene of the play in which Juliet appears, the nurse first appears as well. And in that scene, when Juliet's mother makes a passing reference to Juliet's age, the nurse exclaims, "Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour." She then takes three speeches totaling over 40 lines to do it, somehow managing to work all sorts of details about her own life story in. You know that friend who always tries to make everything about her? That's the nurse.

The Two Bodies of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

My new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is the story of two bodies. The first body was the new kind of slavery that emerged in the young United States right after it achieved its independence from the British Empire. Although at the end of the American Revolution, slavery looked — to some observers — as if it would disappear along with the new states' colonial institutions, it did not. Instead enslavers like Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton of South Carolina transformed the institution. Once those innovators learned how to produce cotton with slave labor, cotton fiber became the most important commodity of the Industrial Revolution. As world demand for cotton grew after 1790, enslavers began to move enslaved African Americans south and west by the thousands. The victims of these forced migrations were people like Charles Ball, a young Maryland man sold to a slave trader in 1805. The trader, who Ball eventually learned was named M'Giffin, chained Ball to 51 other people and then marched them all 400 miles to South Carolina.

That's where M'Giffin sold Charles ...

For the Love of Lists

One guy that I dated a while back had a whole brigade of work to-do lists for various projects written in Sharpie on blank white paper. The moment I saw them all lined up on clipboards on his kitchen counter, he had my heart. Another fine fellow in my life left a to-do list out on his desk one morning. In handwriting as close to his as possible, I added "Be wild and free" to the bottom of it. He found it later that day and loved it. I won't tell you if he successfully crossed that one off the list or not.

I'm pretty wild, but I don't have any real fetishes to disclose unless you count being turned on by list-makers, which I don't count because I don't wear heels and step on list-makers' faces. I am, however, attracted to doers and have a hard time with people who make a habit of talking about things that they want to do/need to do but never, in fact, do. If I put something on my to-do list, I do it — and usually in good time. ...

Deep Roots, Rich Dirt

There is a passage in Jean Toomer's marvelous hybrid novel Cane that describes a woman, sitting in a theater in a northern city, whose roots, likely unbeknownst to her, sink deep through the floor and travel south. The image is fraught, of course, because the woman being described is African American and Toomer, who was also African American, was writing in a context of deep social injustice during Jim Crow when the wounds of slavery were still fresh. Still, there is beauty, too, in the evocation (as indeed there is throughout all of Toomer's work) — the pungent, sticky, nostalgia-laced beauty of heat-hazed vistas, blood-red moons, and cane fields blowing sweet and sharp-edged in the wind. Toomer's root-trailing woman is a suitably complex reminder, then, of how what we think lies behind us remains ever present and ever impactful, whether we know it or not, want it or not. Put otherwise, and to borrow from Toomer's contemporary William Faulkner, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

I was raised in significant part on a central Indiana farm out of whose fields in the early years ...

Why Literature Can Save Us

Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is literature and what constitutes salvation?

So I'll begin with a brief surface definition of the terms, since we probably all have our own and various ideas about what is contained in the phrase. We know the word literature comes from the Latin plural litterae, which means "letters." And we know that the meaning of salvation is almost as various as the kinds of people we may encounter. I believe the sense I intend will become evident as we proceed; but I should say at the beginning that I am not talking about salvation from near or present dangers, or threats to our safety. At least not directly. Emily Dickinson says we should "tell it slant," and so this is what I will attempt to do.

There is a form of imaginative genius present in every act of mercy. I believe that if the person who has the power to destroy another life can be given the ability, the gift, of seeing ...

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