Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll  be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). ;-)

Today’s preview is the opening to a short story called “The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire” which originally appeared in The Journal of Mythic Arts, edited by Terri Windling and Midori Snyder. This story is what I think of as a Midwestern fairy tale. I wrote it in 2004, after waking from a dream of being tangled up in a barbed wire fence in the woods on my family’s farm here in Ohio. It was a couple of months later that I’d move to Japan, so this was the last story I wrote prior to that experience.

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The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire

 

There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire.  The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters.  But elsewhere, too, the wire curled out of the boy’s flesh, circling his arms and legs, his tiny torso.  They didn’t cause him pain, these metal spikes that grew out of the round hills of his body, although due to the dangerous nature of his birth, his mother had lost a great amount of blood during labor.  After delivery, the nurse laid the boy in his mother’s arms, careful to show her the safe places to hold him.  And before her last breath left her, she managed to tell her son these words:  “Bumblebees fly anyway, my love.”

They followed him, those words, for the rest of his life, skimming the rim of his ear, buzzing loud as the bees farmed by his father the beekeeper.  He did not remember his mother saying those words, but he often imagined the scene as his father described it.  “Your mother loved you very much,” he told the boy, blinking, pursing his lips.  The beekeeper wanted to pat his son’s head, but was unable to touch him just there–on his crown–where a cowlick of barbs jutted out of the boy’s brown curls.

The beekeeper and his son lived in a cabin in the middle of the woods.  They only came out to go into town for supplies and groceries.  The beekeeper took the boy with him whenever he trekked through the woods to his hives.  He showed the boy how to collect honey, how to not disturb the bees, how to avoid an unnecessary stinging.  Sometimes the beekeeper wore a baggy white suit with a helmet and visor, which the bees clung to, crawling over the surface of his body.  The boy envied the bees that landscape.  He imagined himself a bee in those moments.  As a bee, his sting would never slip through his father’s suit to strike the soft flesh hidden beneath it.  His barbs, though, would find their way through nearly any barrier.

One day the beekeeper gave the boy a small honeycomb and told him to eat it.  The comb dripped a sticky gold, and the boy wrinkled his nose.  “It looks like wax,” he told his father.  But the beekeeper only said, “Eat,” so the boy did.

The honeycomb filled his mouth with a sweetness that tasted of sunlight on water.  Never before had something so beautiful sat on the tip of his tongue.  Swallowing, he closed his eyes and thought of his mother.  The way she held him in her arms before dying, the way she spoke before going away forever.  The memory of his mother tasted like honey too, and he asked the beekeeper, “What did she mean?  Bumblebees fly anyway?”

“Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly,” said the beekeeper, closing the lid on a hive.  Honeybees crawled on the inside of the lid like a living carpet.  “Their bodies are so large and their wings so small, they shouldn’t be able to lift themselves into the air, but somehow they do.  They fly.”

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Map for a Forgotten Valley and 631

Dear Locals (and those traveling nearby) who will be around Youngstown on February 15th.  I am giving a reading from my series of creative nonfiction vignettes called “Map for a Forgotten Valley”, along with a showing of Derek Jones’ short film “631”.  Here is a blurb of what the evening will look like.  Please click on the image to make it larger.

 

Please come, listen, watch, speak.

Also, the image of the feral house on this flyer was taken by Tony Romandetti, photographer extraordinaire. 😉

Another piece of the map

For those of you who may have read the vignettes in Map for a Forgotten Valley that I published last month, another piece of that map has recently been published by Muse, a Cleveland magazine.  You can read the whole issue of Muse by visiting their website and downloading the pdf of the issue.  Along with my story, “The B&O, Crossroads of Time and Space,” the poet Nin Andrews has interviewed me for the issue as well.

Here’s a link to Muse.

And here’s a direct link to Muse 12 JAN11.

Thanks for reading!

Introducing “jenny”

“jenny” is something my students in the Literary Arts Association at YSU have been busily preparing as a new online literary magazine.  This is a radically energetic and creative group of students, and I’m really proud to be working with them as they put together something new and electric like this.  Please take a look at the site preview.  The debut party will be on November 24th at 7PM at Dorian Books in Youngstown, OH.  Details on the front page of the “jenny” magazine site itself.  If you’re around the area, please join us.  And if you’re not, please give the magazine a read when it debuts and consider sending your own work in the meantime!

–Chris

Dear Friends,

Youngstown State University’s Student Literary Arts Association is proud to invite you to submit work to our new online literary magazine: Jenny.

Allow us a moment to explain the title of our venture.

Like many struggling postindustrial cities across the country, Youngstown, Ohio is a place defined by images of ruin and rust, and there are few images more striking than that of the Jeannette Blast Furnace. “Jenny,” as plant workers called her and as Bruce Springsteen referred to her in his 1995 song “Youngstown,” was one of two furnaces located at Youngstown Sheet and Tube. It was a place where things were made, shaped, created.

The blast furnace was shut down in the late 1970s and was demolished in 1996. Steel was one of many industries that left this region built on manufacturing in the last four decades of our history. While the absence of our blast furnaces has been felt in terrible ways throughout our region, our fire has not gone out. In the aftermath of de-industrialization, we are not a people without industry. Youngstown is not done creating, not done making. We are each of us, every day, telling stories. Here in the pages of Jenny, we aim to display some of those artifacts made by wordsmiths and visual artists alike.

Jenny will publish short fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and interviews with artists and writers. We hope to bring together writers and artists both from the local region as well as the wider world, connecting our stories with yours, yours with ours here in America’s heartland and America’s rustbelt. Submissions do not have to be set in Youngstown, or in rustbelt or postindustrial settings at all, though we do encourage writing and art that speaks to that experience.

Jenny will appear twice a year, in late fall and spring. We will be publishing 5-7 pieces of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry per issue. We ask that prose not exceed 7,000 words (preferably 5000 or under), and that poetry submissions not exceed 5 pages (or 5 poems).

Each issue will also include a featured artist. If you are interested in being a featured artist, please contact us with a proposed series of images or photographs.

Along with writing and art, we will also feature interviews with authors and artists, and podcasts of selected stories and poems.

Please direct all submissions and questions to ysujenny@gmail.com. Please submit all work as an attachment in .doc or .rtf format. Deadline for the Fall issue is October 29th. If your submission arrives after that, we will consider it for our Spring issue, the deadline for which is April 2nd.

We look forward to your contributions.

Sincerely,

YSU SLAA (Student Literary Arts Association)

Q&A

I’ve been spending the past week doing Q&A at the Endicott Mythic Reader’s Group on Goodreads, and there have been some really thoughtful questions.  One came in today, to which I just responded.  And I’ve decided to post the question and my response here, too.

Q: Ghosts and eldritch kids in and of themselves aren’t that unusual in dark fantasy/horror. Working class backgrounds like that of Adam and his family aren’t often handled in books within the genre or outside it. Decaying cities are a commonplace but not the economic devestation of the city in your novel. In some ways the family and the city are more unsettling than death and the ghosts. Could you talk about how and why you came to make those as important elements in ONE FOR SORROW as you did? 

A: Thank you for your question. How and why did I come to choose the rural small town and dying steel city important aspects of One for Sorrow? There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is that setting is a very important element of fictional narrative for me in general. I think it’s an especially overlooked element of narrative in the recent past. It seems we have a lot of narratives these days that could take place in Anywhere, America. Suburban communities without a lot of distinguishing characteristics, or else in the very large mega-cities, like NY and LA. Occasionally you come across books set in marginal communities, but in my experience, finding these settings in books has become an infrequent event for me as a reader over the past ten years or so. When I began writing One for Sorrow, which is my first novel, I decided I would set it in my own home region, where I grew up, because I had never encountered a novel or short story which took that place as its setting, and told a story that derived and was specific to that place. 

The dying steel city of Youngstown, Ohio and the small rural communities that surround it are in many ways forgotten places in the American landscape. There are many forgotten places that the rest of America has no context to understand them. If you asked someone who was an adult and paying attention to the news back in the late 70s and early 80s, you might encounter someone who knows these places and without very much need for prompting will be recall the devastating economic disaster that occurred in Youngstown, Ohio at that time. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it for his Ghost of Tom Joad album, which explored these forgotten and ignored aspects of American community. They are forgotten and ignored because communities such as Youngstown are working class, the underclass, and had no one of any articulate ability to speak for them, and to speak loud enough. In recent days, due to it being an electoral year, Youngstown pops up on cue in the political world, presidential candidates come here in those years to take pictures in front of decaying steel mills and factories that have been abandoned for the past thirty or forty years, and pretend as if they’re going to do something to help the people who live in these jobless, poverty-stricken communities. But if we count the years that have passed between the time Youngstown lost its steel economy to the attractive, exploitable third world, we know that they really don’t intend to do anything but use the place as a backdrop of the narrative they’re creating for themselves as politicians. 

Ghost stories are about people who have something left to say, so much so that they remain alive somehow, supernaturally, beyond the grave. So along with the death of Jamie Marks, who has several things left undone in his life–friendships left unforged and unexplored with Adam and Gracie, relationships unresolved with his mother and father–there is also the character of the small town the characters come from, and the dead/dying steel city to which their rural community is a satellite, the nearest thing to urbanity. Settings are characters, too, really. A community itself has character, based off of the people who live in them and the values and beliefs they’ve chosen to live by. Youngstown is a community that, despite having died an incredible death of its former self, after having lost its identity, has clung to life despite all of that. At one time it had a population of around 175,000 people. Today it’s about 75,000 people. That’s an enormous loss. There are whole sections of the city that have fallen into ruin, houses abandoned, workplaces abandoned, blight is a common view. In the 80s it was evaluated as the Murder Capital of America. It no longer has that place, thankfully, but crimes of this sort are a natural occurrence in communities that have lost their basic foundation for survival. People begin to fight for resources; they’ll steal and plot and sometimes kill when they are desperate. The community now is small enough that the crime that occurred after that initial blow in the 70s and 80s has waned and enough people have left, realizing there are not enough resources for living here and that they must leave if they intend to have a better life for their families. And yet the city still lives on, and has in the past four or five years attracted national and international attention with a new plan to shrink itself in order to provide a higher quality of life for its citizens, rather than following the typical American city idea that you must grow, get bigger, take on more and more. So the city has begun demolishing whole neighborhoods, to get rid of blight, and old workplaces which we have finally accepted no work will come back to inhabit. Or at least not the sort of work that once inhabited them. There is a large group of young thirty and twenty somethings, a new generation, that have taken on an amazingly energetic community activist approach, and have tried to create bonds between various communities within the larger community, something that did not occur in the past, to make the place stronger. Revitalization is occurring, step by step, and though it is slow progress, it is the first progress we have seen in four decades, and people are taking some comfort and allowing themselves to perhaps hope a little harder than they once did. 

It’s a place that is no longer the city it once was, but has decided to live somehow, anyway it can, the same way Jamie tries to live beyond his unjust and early death. And if there is a reason why I chose to feature working class characters in an economically devastated rural community and city, it’s because I come from this place and decided a long time ago, when I knew I would write, that I would attempt to become good enough at writing to say something about the lives we live here that a lot of fiction does not ask us to think about, or at least does not ask us to think about as often as I wish it would.

Excuse me, But I’m From Ohio

A really wonderful column in today’s Washington Post about growing up in Ohio, missing Ohio, being annoyed with the rest of the nation’s stereotypes of Ohio (and much of the Midwest in general), being annoyed with oneself for leaving Ohio, and more.

I think the Midwest is a blank spot on the mental maps of many Americans who have no connection to it, blank spots that are filled in with caricatures of people and a lifestyle that is at best quaint and at worst derogatory.  It’s pieces like this that both explain why many Midwesterners have inferiority complexes when placed outside of their places of origins, or why they blather on about how lucky they are to have “gotten out” in order to placate a false idea that others hold that, surely, if there was ever some place in the states to escape from, this is it.

Some favorite paragraphs:

My flashes of insecurity were snuffed out as soon as someone mentioned their parents’ two-hour commutes or used the word “summer” as a verb. What I wonder now, two years out of college, is why so many people in Washington, the adopted home of nobodies from all over the country trying to make names for themselves, are so clueless about the Midwest. Take my boss. He’s a smart guy who has traveled around the world. Yet despite all my jabbering about Ohio, he has asked me more than once about my family back in . . . Iowa.

Of course, I’m not the only Ohioan to have mixed up Brooklyn and the Bronx. But the tendency to write off Midwesterners as a bunch of simpletons strikes me as plain unfair. I recently met a man who drives through Ohio every year on the way from Washington to his summer house in Canada; when he heard where I’m from, he hopped up on his high horse and announced that Ohioans “don’t take risks.” So he hasn’t run into any Evel Knievels there. That’s surprising, I wanted to say, because the Wright Brothers were from Dayton, and it took some gumption — now there’s a word Midwesterners like — to catapult themselves into the sky in their rickety contraptions. Another gutsy Ohioan: John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. And another: Neil Armstrong.

“No, no dreamers in Ohio,” I felt like replying. But my mother would have called that back-talk, so I let good old-fashioned Midwestern manners get the better of me and kept quiet.

Presidential candidates, in their efforts to look like regular folks, are among the chief purveyors of one of the most destructive stereotypes of Midwesterners: the working stiff who can’t work, thanks to the Rust Belt hemorrhaging all those jobs. During a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio, 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry set up shop outside a boarded-up building so that photos and television footage would show the city’s “ugly rump,” as the New York Times wrote, rather than the new office building across the street. No hard feelings, senator. The voters of Youngstown understood: It was easier for you to show that Ohioans needed your help if you pretended that they couldn’t help themselves.

I miss Ohio most when I hear other transplanted Midwesterners belittle their parents for being intimidated by subways that they have no occasion to ride, or mock the suburbs that seemed pretty great when they were running through sprinklers in their big backyards, or dump on cornfields and cows, especially when most of them spent their childhoods not on tractors but in minivans. But of course, I too have sinned by leaving Ohio, and there are days when I feel downright traitorous for having done so.

Read the whole article by clicking here.

Youngstown: Descent into Darkness

My friend Deb over at Youngstown Moxie found this great photography project on rustbelt cities created by freelance photojournalist Sean Posey of San Francisco. His family left Youngstown in the 80s and now he’s putting together a fine art/documentary project that will look at Youngstown and other areas of Michigan and Pennsylvania as it considers the rustbelt and the effects of de-industrialization on these communities. I love the slide show (the images of disintegration, decay, nature reclaiming a once settled and extremely populated region, the abandonment left in the wake of the 80s, are the sort of images I tried to collect through words when my characters Adam and Jamie come into Youngstown toward the end of One for Sorrow–and by the way, for readers of the book, the photo of the church in this slide show is the church that Adam and Jamie squat in when they reach town) and the Bruce Springsteen song is a perfect match for background music. But I’ll just crib from Deb and you can follow the link to the site to see for yourself. Thanks for finding it Deb!

Odd how things work around here. A friend of mine sent me a link to a slide show created by Sean Posey and as I was looking through the photos I recognized a church that another friend of mine, Chris Barzak, had written about in his book One for Sorrow. The church is located by YSU and I’m told that it is was the first church in the area. It is in poor condition and I would love to see the building saved. However, that is a story for another day.

I want to share with you the slide show that depicts our ruins in all of their glory. In the decay there is much beauty. I,for one, believe that by looking and perceiving the ruins through a lens of creativity, new birth will come to Youngstown. Not only has Sean Posey captured the beauty of the place, but he has somehow managed to imbue his photos with the emotional strength and courage of the people who reside here though people are are not his subjects, and are not within the frames of the photographs. Click here to view the show.

Knockemstiff

I just read Donald Ray Pollock’s debut story collection, Knockemstiff, which takes place in rural southern Ohio, in a town of the same name as the book. The stories are dark, deadly, and mythic depictions of something more than what you’d even call small town Ohio, a sort of gothic revision of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Pollock’s voice is a fine-tuned instrument, and his depiction of rural, lower class life in Ohio is frightening and real despite the illusory nature of the prose. I can’t recommend another book at this moment more.

Pollock himself seems to be an interesting person. He worked in a paper mill in southern Ohio from age seventeen for thirty-two years, and then decided he needed to write. He’s in the MFA program at Ohio State University. I hope to meet him some day. He sounds amazing, and you can hear for yourself in this interview he did with Chuck Palahniuk, a writer who he has a bit in common with, in terms of looking at dark, strange behaviors in people, and also with the background of growing up in rural, working class areas of the United States. They have a conversation about this in the interview, and I found myself nodding, knowing exactly what they meant. The interview is one of the most genuine and interesting ones I’ve heard in a long time–they talk about so many different topics–so take a listen.

Here’s the New York Times review of the book, too.

Modern Ruins

One of my favorite sites on the internet these days is Shaun O’Boyle’s Modern Ruins.  Full of photographic essays about places whose industries, way of life, or some other historical aspect, has fallen into ruin, it’s a beautiful way to preserve a particular swath of our cultural memory.  My favorite is the Big Steel collection, which was shot nearby, just outside of Pittsburgh, where you’ll find husks of decaying and abandoned steel mills, part of the landscape I grew up in.   I find them to be coldly beautiful and of another world, like Greek and Roman architecture, which you’ll also find in various spots here and in other parts of the rustbelt, in little cities that once dreamed of being empires.