What I thought all of Iowa looked like back then.

[In the previous installment, I detailed my undoubtedly flawed if also successful plan to apply to MFA programs. This week, how I made my decision to go, and some lessons learned.]

The assistant director’s point, that I would just have to get a job once I got out of the program, made me think, but I had instantly understood she was being responsible to me, even as she offered me what I thought of as the chance of a lifetime. And once I got to Iowa and saw how many people there had, like myself, packed up their lives and left, and the various problems–financial, marital, etc., that can occur as a result–did I understand why she offered this caveat. Connie Brothers was the fixer. This was her trouble-shooting in advance.

I had the kind of job I would try to get once I got out, in other words. Did I want to give it up?

To be clear, I was not just surprised to get in, I was shocked. I had applied with a chip on my shoulder, sending a story about a clairvoyant adopted Korean high school student in a coven. He worked with the police to find lost children. The story was filled with explicit gay sex, witchcraft and psychic powers and there was even a scene where he was possessed by a ghost. It was a mash-up homage to many of the books I’d read as a kid, and to my strange high school friends. I expected to be told, No thanks. I had even said to people, “I just want them to know what kind of freak I really am”, and we’d all laugh nervously and I would think, There is no way this freak is going to get in there.

And to that freak, they said, not only yes, but, Yes, and here’s some money. Come if you can.

Why did I do this, or think like this? Well, I didn’t believe people like me got into that program and I was acting out my resentment to the standards I imagined for them–a fairly youthful thing to do, though, this practice of making up answers for other people and then having vituperative reactions to them is an increasingly American mode, no matter your age or profession. And there wasn’t one Korean American openly gay writer I could think of–my Wesleyan professor Kit Reed even said, “If you move quickly, you’ll be the first.” And I now I am.

I was and am making it up as I went along. I don’t have a role model, per se. I am living this life off-menu.

But of course, you have to go because it is right for you, and not for any other reason. I liked my life back then and didn’t want to leave it: I had friends, a serious boyfriend, a shared apartment in Fort Greene I could easily afford, living with a painter and his beautiful pitbull mix dog, who sat at my feet while I typed on my typewriter and was too gentle even to chase the mouse that would sometimes appear near the stove. But the days of sitting and typing with the dog had become pretty few and far between under the weight of a 70hr-a-week job at OUT.

When I listened to my fears about going, they told me I feared vanishing if I went to Iowa. That I would go and my friends would forget me, my boyfriend break up with me (he had not gotten into Iowa), my nascent magazine career blowing in the prairie wind.

But I was tired already of writing to house style–it felt like ventriloquism, not writing. And I had other fears talking to me: I didn’t want to be another gay man in New York with a job he sort of liked in an apartment he sort of liked, waiting for the chance to trade up–living like that seemed like no life at all, but I knew a lot of people like this. Yes, I was doing work I loved and felt strongly about politically, with some excellent people, and startups can feel like an adventure, when they don’t feel like working for too little money and no health insurance. But I wasn’t getting any writing done. And worse, after I got off the phone with Connie, to my surprise, my boss told me I was in line to be promoted, made, perhaps, managing editor in a few months.

A job I would have been terrible at, because back then the last job I wanted was one that involved going around to make sure everyone’s work was done. And yet of course, it would mean prestige, and so it was tempting. Most of the best mistakes are.

I ran into an author friend as I tried out the idea of going. “Iowa?” she said. “Everyone is so competitive there, though.”

Jess Walter (The Zero, Citizen Vince) is an expansive writer. He has more voice in his little finger than most novelists will ever possess. He can digress, delineate, rant, rave, ponder, speculate, ruminate, fulminate, and bring the story to a screeching halt if it suits his whimsy, and readers will still follow along breathlessly.

TFLotP is the story of everyman Matt Prior, father, husband, unemployed newspaper man, upside down homeowner, and poster boy for the current financial crisis. His start-up Poetfolio.com was a miserable failure, his wife may be having an affair, and he’s got less than a week before lenders foreclose on his house. When Matt hatches some questionable strategies to combat his dire situation, the real unraveling begins. What follows is funny, compelling, compulsively readable stuff.

Here’s how much I like Walter’s voice: Though The Financial Lives of the Poets has a slow fuse, much of the coming-of-middle-age turf is well-worn, a few of the plot points feel like warmed over television fare, the poetry is irritating at times, and the resolution feels a little forced, Walter’s voice is flat out unstoppable—the guy could write about pneumatic tools and I’d be on the edge of my seat.

This may be the second funniest book I’ve read this year, after Steve Hely’s, How I Became a Famous Novelist.


Written by Guest Columnist: James Kaelan

When Opium 8 came out earlier this year, I was both excited and jealous. With a very simple technology-graduating layers of black ink, printed over white text, that degrades when exposed to UV radiation-the cover of the Infinity Issue promises to reveal a story over the course of 1,000 years, with one new word appearing every century. Opium got a lot of press out of that, and rightfully. The concept was very advanced, but the execution was simple. The cover might seem like a gimmick, but that’s a delimiting perspective. Books need to get people excited.

Flatmancrooked Publishing, which I co-own with Elijah Jenkins and Deena Drewis, and which is releasing my debut book, We’re Getting On, has a project in the works that aims to redefine how books get promoted in the 21st Century. For most publishers, an author tour is a loss leader. The cost to send a writer from city to city (airfare, hotels, handlers, rental cars) outweighs the monetary gains accrued from book sales during the tour.

Accordingly, most publishers have dispensed with tours-or they make the author foot the bill. But Flatmancrooked believes engaging directly with an audience is a major key to the success of a title. Therefore, the more people we can reach, the better. How, though, can a small company afford to send an author on a trip across the country? It’s simple: Make the tour as exciting as the book itself.

For the Zero Emission Book Project, Flatmancrooked has partnered with Goldest Egg, a PR firm in Brooklyn, to help attract sponsors who will fund a transnational book tour-by bicycle. This isn’t the normal way one tours a book, but neither is this an ordinary book. We’re Getting On offsets all of its production emissions. How, you ask? Firstly, it’s printed on 100% post-consumer material. But the really exciting feature is its cover. Porridge Papers in Lincoln, Nebraska has created a special paper containing spruce seeds. If you plant the book in the ground, it will turn into a tree.

In keeping with this zero emission theme, the Zero Emission Book tour won’t add any carbon to the atmosphere. As I ride my bike across the country, I’ll be supported by an electric vehicle carrying supplies. Any extraneous emissions created we’ll nullify by purchasing carbon offset credits from CarbonFund.org.

We’re building energy around the Zero Emission Book Project with a multi-lateral promotional operation. For the new authors reading this article who might be interested in how we developed the concept, I want to give a breakdown of the campaign’s infrastructure.

1. The design of the first edition of a book should correspond to the book’s theme. We’re Getting On follows a group of twenty-somethings who leave the city and move into the desert-where they intend to abandon technology completely. Last spring we thought, how cool would it be if the book itself could offset its carbon emissions? After a bunch of research we commissioned Porridge Papers to develop a paper for us containing tree seeds so that the book-which came from a tree-if planted, would turn back into a tree. We’re biased, of course, but that seems like a pretty cool metaphor.

2. The book tour must correspond thematically with both the book’s content and its design. We’re Getting On, the Zero Emission Book, will be toured by bicycle. To maintain the integrity of creating no net production carbon footprint, we can’t very well fly from city to city to give readings and parties. We have to go overland. The bicycle is the greenest transport vehicle, save for an electric car recharged with renewable energy. So I’ll be riding my bike, and an electric support car will follow me, carrying my food and clothes. As an added bonus, in each of the ten cities on the tour I’ll plant a book at a school or library.

3. Document the book tour. Because a bike ride across the country is an inherently exciting narrative, we will have a documentary crew chronicling the lead up to the tour, and then the tour itself. The final product will be a feature film that we’ll show at film festivals around the globe.

4. Let your audience help facilitate the success of the book. Because we’re going to need a lot of help to make this tour a success, we’re inviting people to join the tour in a number of ways. People can ride a leg of the tour, provide couches for our crew to sleep on (and maybe some eggs to eat), or simply show up to readings and events along the route.

5. Maintain a broad web presence. Every author knows now that she needs to be on Facebook and Twitter, but if possible, she should run an autonomous site for her books. For the Zero Emission Book Project, we’ve developed www.zeroemissionbook.com, where fans can read updates, and then throughout the tour, a daily tour blog I’ll be writing from the road. From the site you can follow the project on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, and see trailers for the forthcoming documentary (like the official trailer you can see on YouTube HERE).

For too long book promotion has been a semi-passive activity. A lot of publishers (though by no means all) have expected their good work to sell, just because it’s good. In the 1950s perhaps that was a viable business model, but new authors and houses have to be extremely proactive. It’s good to have a lot of Facebook friends, but unless you can get them excited about what you’re working on, it won’t do much good. If the Zero Emission Book Project sounds exciting to you and you want to be a part of it, send me an email, or find me on Facebook.

James Kaelan is the Managing Editor of Flatmancrooked Publishing and a lecturer at Pepperdine University. He writes criticism for TheMillions.com, and his fiction is appearing this fall in Monkeybicycle and Avery, as well as at Opium Magazine. His first book, We’re Getting On, comes out next September from Flatmancrooked.

Psst! Flatmancrooked doesn’t only devise brilliant book marketing campaigns, they also hold some righteous writing contests. Check out the Flatmancrooked Poetry Prize, judged by the brilliant Mary Karr and featuring over $1,000 in prize money. Submit your poems by January 31st, 2010 to join the Flatmancrooked revolution! Click HERE for more details and keep on WordHustlin!


The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience is back in New York City this Friday night!

Brave the cold and let the writers of The Nervous Breakdown warm your cockles with stories written expressly for you and read aloud to you (and only you) around the theme: HOLIDAZE.



I’ve always been obsessed with sharks. I think the obsession began around the same time I decided dinosaurs were the coolest thing, and when that dinosaur obsession devolved into a mere interest, and then into a closet interest after the realization that I didn’t possess the requisite science or math abilities to be a paleontologist, my love of sharks stayed strong.

To this day I never miss Shark Week. I never pass up the opportunity to look at pictures of sharks on the internet or in magazines. I read about shark attacks like others read about sports. I always see the newest shitty shark movie on TV and always hate it a little less than anyone else.