Authors: Elise Blackwell
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright ©2006 Elise Blackwell
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by AmazonEncore
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
This contemporary retelling of George Gissing’s
New Grub Street
is dedicated to every
writer with an unpublished novel
t had been casual, the remark that changed Jackson Miller’s understanding of what his life would be. The caterer had just rolled out his three-decker birthday cake: a replica of the historic luxury liner docked in Charleston Bay. Peculiar calliope music trickled from the wall-mounted patio speakers as Jackson breathed in the smell of spun sugar.
Some other kid’s mother had whispered
as the cake was presented. “My son’s
may be rich,” his father drawled in response, “but that says nothing about Jackson. I plan to spend our money before he inherits a penny of it.” His father’s laugh had pierced the tinny music as Jackson waited in line with his guests, squinting against the sun, to see if the frosting tasted like it smelled.
That’s all it had taken to alter his course. That’s all it had taken, because he already loathed the man who never let him take a chess piece without retribution, who lined up his sailing trophies across the breakfast table every time his son failed to touch home plate, who told his son that reading too many books would divide him from useful society.
Had Jackson’s decision to triumph alone in the world come later than his ninth birthday, he might have chosen a more sensible career. He’d been good at things from the day he learned to walk, and he might have succeeded at any number of them. So he’d been told by his mother and then by the teachers whose thresholds he’d crossed. If Jackson had postponed his decision to rise on his own merits until the age of thirteen or fourteen, he might have made money in law and followed with a political career. He might have battened down and accomplished something in science or medicine. If he’d waited out high school—those were the years that brightened his complexion and delivered his height—he might have had a real shot at the stage or screen.
Timing is decisive, though. On his ninth birthday, Jackson had just read
My Side of the Mountain
, the first book he’d truly loved. And so as he watched the yacht-cake sag in the summer heat, he decided to succeed as a writer. In the years that followed, he wrote very little. But he read every novel he could grab and studied the biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and later Henry Miller. He practiced his lines on college girlfriends, told his father to go to hell and stay there, and spent a precarious year in France, where he wrote a story a month. Admitted to a good graduate school, he revised those same dozen stories until they were really pretty good. Now, fifteen years after that decisive birthday, his stories had landed Jackson on the patio of the Outlook Bar on the last night of the Blue Ridge Writers’ Conference. Grasping the rail installed to keep inebriated patrons from slipping down the mountain, he surveyed the view. The sun had just set, and the mountains curved against the pink, darkening sky. Jackson photographed the image with a blink and considered metaphors to capture its essence. He tried to picture whales swimming, but the color of the sky didn’t suggest the ocean. He considered elephants, planets in orbit, giant shadows. The only satisfying idea he had was that of ink on paper. That’s not bad, he thought: the writer seeing the world as script.
Still, he was certain he would think of something much better when he was not drinking his third gin. He believed what Norman Mailer claimed: the only difference between an experienced writer and an inexperienced one is the ability to work on a bad day. From the father who had cut him off, Jackson inherited confidence as well as the height that had made him sixth man on the only team his college ever sent to the
tournament. He had talent, enough of it, and the impoverished-gentry charm supplied by what remained of his Charleston accent. He would provide the rest himself; he planned to start a writing regimen as soon as he was back in New York. No one was going to write his first book for him.
Exhilarated by altitude, expansive vista, and intended new rigor, he determined that he would return to the Blue Ridge Writers’ Conference—as paid guest rather than paying participant. He told himself he would arrive as the author of largest reputation and bank account. Five years, he gave himself. He gave himself until the end of his twenties.
He had reason for optimism. The week had gone well. The members of his workshop group had admired his short story about the ambitious young gentile dating the daughter of a rabbi. Leading his workshop was Andrew Yarborough, who had noted Jackson’s subtle wit and praised several turns of phrase. “The woman’s terrific, too,” the venerable editor said. “You do good women.”
Jackson had also captured Yarborough’s attention while discussing the other story up for analysis that day: a beginner’s piece in which a man on death row wakes to find that his situation was a bad dream. Jackson had been the one to explain that the ending was a gimmick, and a clichéd one at that. Worse, the writer had missed the only intriguing idea in her story. “Imagine,” Jackson had said, “imagine the glory of the condemned man when he realizes that he has brought society to its last resort. What a thrill that must be. At any rate, there’s no other reason to write this story, and no reason to read it as it is now.”
As Jackson finished his speech, he saw the writer’s chin tremble and realized he’d gone too far. “But the descriptions are first rate, quite original, particularly of the chaplain,” he added, wondering if he was turning into as big a prick as his father.
“Most of the physical description is pretty good,” Yarborough had agreed. “But have you ever noticed that almost no one has gray eyes in real life?”
As they made their way out of the building and into the summer’s full humidity, Jackson watched the young woman who’d written the story stride quickly across the parking lot, her arms folding the marked-up copies of her manuscript tight to her chest.
Yarborough clapped him on the back and whispered, “They’re dumb as shoes, aren’t they?”
Jackson had known that his fantasies of being approached by an agent keen on selling his stories wouldn’t materialize, so this seemed like a real gift: a nod from a man who had launched many a literary career. He felt bad about the other writer, but he believed that blunt criticism was the greater kindness in the long run. She would avoid her mistakes next time and improve her writing, or else she’d move on to something she had more talent for and be the happier for it. He decided to count the week a general success, as the beginning of something bigger.
Giving up on the mountains, he turned back to the conversation heating between his friend Eddie Renfros and two other one-book writers: a young woman named Jennifer Reiner, who’d published a novel detailing the bed-hopping antics of twenty-somethings considerably less pudgy than she was, and Henry Baffler. Jackson and Eddie had met Henry at the conference, adopting him as a sidekick and reminding him when meals were served. Henry was the author of
The Quotidian World
and champion, in the form of passionate essays published in obscure periodicals, of something he called The New Realism.
“No, no, no,” Eddie said in a bourbon-assisted staccato. “You shouldn’t even have a notion of plot until at least your third draft.” He ran his free hand through the reddish hair that always looked overdue for a cut and shook his head, clearly exasperated with the idea that anyone might write using an outline.
, Eddie’s first novel, had been published four years earlier to real acclaim. The critic who had named it to the Book Critics’ Circle of
had praised it for its intensity of language, gemlike images, and refusal to sacrifice character to plot. It was precisely this hailed unobstrusiveness of plot, Jackson was convinced, that accounted for the book’s paltry sales and the rejection of Eddie’s second novel,
, by every major publishing house in New York. This serial rejection was, in turn, the cause of the writer’s block that Eddie referenced at the slightest inquiry into the status of novel number three, as yet untitled.
“He spends more time writing desperate query letters to tiny presses that publish only two books a year than he does on his new work,” Eddie’s wife had confided to Jackson.
Jackson knew that his friend was about to tell one of his most well-worn stories. Eddie was about to explain that it was while he was working on the third draft of
that the idea of the young woman came to him—
emerged from the images themselves
, he would certainly say,
from the language
—leading him to what plot the book did contain and resulting in the change of title from
Eddie had been his best friend since the first day of their first Iowa workshop, but Jackson was convinced he couldn’t hear the story repeated again without hurling himself over the protective gate and off the mountain top. He scoured the crowd on the patio for a less dramatic means of escape. He could excuse himself to the bar to purchase the next round of drinks, but a mental count of the contents of his billfold ruled out that option. He had just enough for two more of his own drinks, provided he had sufficient authorization left on one of his credit cards to cover the tank of gas back to New York.
“Look,” he said. “Look casually,” he emphasized. “Over your left shoulder, Eddie, just glance. That’s Andrew Yarborough.”
“Everyone says the Lannan Foundation and the Isherwood Foundation both call him for names. He got that experimental novelist who claims to write inside-out—whatever the hell that means—a grant for ten grand,” said Jennifer.
“Inside out?” Henry’s scrawniness made his head seem large, and when he tilted it Jackson almost expected it to fall off his neck. “I wonder if he means his process is inside out—how he goes about writing—or if he means the book itself. Interesting idea.”
“The guy thought it was a joke when they called,” Jennifer continued. “Thought one of his friends was playing a prank. They told him they had their ear to the ground and found out about his work. But it was Andrew Yarborough who passed along his name.”
“Ten grand,” Jackson repeated, thinking that was just the amount he needed to even his debts. “Based on what that guy writes and where he publishes, I assume that was considerably larger than his last advance. Now he probably thinks he has some sort of proletariat credibility, while it was really Andrew Yarborough.”
“I heard he introduced Nancy Sloan to his agent, and she got Nancy a six-figure advance for a collection. A collection set in Kansas, for godsakes.” Gesturing with her hands as though she wasn’t holding a mug, Jennifer sloshed beer on her pointed shoes.
Jackson handed her his napkin and smiled. “For the damsel in distress.”
“As I was saying,” Eddie commandeered the conversation. “It was while writing the third draft of my book, while reworking a description of morning fog over the ocean, that I realized that I was using, using without intending to, decidedly feminine language.”
using without intending to
slowly, with practiced emphasis, again raking his hair.
Jackson grabbed his escape. “There’s nothing I’d rather hear again than the story of the miss from the sea’s mist, but I’m just liquored up enough to seize the day. I’m going to throw my up-and-coming self in the path of Herr Yarborough. I hear he’s starting a new journal now that
has passed over to Chuck Fadge, so he may be in need of an assistant editor who shares his tastes in literature.” He set his empty glass on one of the knotty pine picnic benches. “Whatever those may be.”
Feeling his adrenalin rise, Jackson composed his pitch in the twenty steps it took to navigate the patio. He grasped Yarborough’s fleshy hand in greeting and then spoke quickly, tasting the fumes of his last gin. “I may be just the man you’re looking for, but I’m going to say straight out and right up front that I do not see any room for poetry in your new journal. None at all. Not now and not later. We—and I use the plural pronoun only speculatively, only as an act of optimism—we want to build a new kind a readership, a new circulation. Cultured but not old. Select but not small. Well-read but not poor.” And then, to make sure that Yarborough considered him in the right context and with proper affection, he added: “Wearing good shoes, not as dumb as shoes.”
The middle-aged woman who had been talking to Yarborough was not unattractive, but she flashed all the accessories of a neglected resort-town wife: crystal pendant, wide silver rings and bangles, and a fringed summer sweater dyed the precise blue of her eyes.
She moved her wine glass to her left hand and accepted Jackson’s handshake. “It’s such a pleasure to meet so many writers.” She squinted in an imitation of merriment. “I mean, this is what it’s all about, isn’t it? The camaraderie of a community of writers. The support, the feedback. How fabulous to feel as though one is normal, as though expressing oneself in words is a worthy thing to do. Noble even, or at least no worse than any other occupation.”
Jackson tasted the word
in his mouth, then repeated it aloud. Impressing Yarborough was the most important move he could make in his career, he calculated, at least until he had actually written a book of his own. He looked steadily at the woman, feeling the old basketball-court thrill. “Let me guess. This is your first writers’ conference. You use journal as a verb. You call what you write creative nonfiction, but it’s really more a case of uncreative non-writing.” He pictured his smile as it looked in the mirror and produced it, his voice gaining volume. “I dare you to tell me I’m wrong.”
The crinkles that fanned from the corners of her eyes held for several seconds, but her mouth fell out of its smile immediately.
Jackson turned to Yarborough. “I guess they let in anyone who pays, but it really is time to outlaw people who have led uninteresting lives from writing memoirs.”