Back when I started taking writing classes in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago, Shawn Shiflett was one of my first teachers. To this day I think of things he taught me, perhaps the most important thing of all: “Just tell it.” Shawn is one of those writers who works incredibly hard at trying to get the prose to look effortless. His eye for the simple yet pertinent detail, the metaphors in the shadows, his ear for the way folks really talk, and his willingness to “just tell it” so that his audience can’t escape the truths behind his fiction all make for a bold and vibrant read. Shawn’s first novel, Hidden Place, (Akashic Books) is funny and heart-twisting. The novel-in-progress, some of which he shares with us today, promises an equally (if not even more so) complexly emotional and satisfying experience. Watch for it.
Shawn: When Patty asked me for a picture of my workspace, my first impulse was to clean up the clutter at the end of my kitchen/dining room table. Then I thought, No, don’t change a thing; just snap the pic. Notice that the half-full coffee mug (balanced precariously on top of my rough draft manuscript pages, and also on the edge of my datebook hidden underneath those same pages) is trying to decide whether it should: 1) spill all over my writing and crash to the floor; 2) spill on my computer keyboard so that I’m forced to go out and buy the Macbook Air that I’ve been dying to purchase, but can’t presently afford; or 3) behave like a good little coffee mug until I can get back to sipping from it and working on my novel-in-progress, Hey Liberal! Note the straw in the mug. People are constantly making fun of me for drinking coffee out of a straw, but in my defense, it’s a glass straw (purchased on www.pristineplanet.com) in the photo and therefore kind of cool among us straw aficionados. But enough about all things coffee and straw related. I write at the end of my kitchen/dining room table—a turn-of-the-century antique that (and I’m proud of this) I refinished myself. I haven’t had a home office for almost thirteen years or, more precisely, since the birth of my son Cole. As with many of us who have kids, I can pretty much write anywhere now, but I’m so grateful that I have this apartment with its tall ceilings and over abundance of sunlight. My fantastically airy workspace aside, what’s most important to me while I’m writing is what I’m seeing in the mind rather than the physical area around me. For example, I wrote some of my favorite chapters in Hidden Place (Akashic Books) in a danker-than-dank basement.
Back to the photo. In front of my printer is a copy of Sarah Hammond’s young adult novel The Night Sky in My Head, and though you can’t see Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage right on the other side of my open computer screen (thankfully, it’s also on the safe side of the tilted coffee mug), trust me when I say that her short story collection is there.
Below are two pages from Hey Liberal!, a semi-autobiographical novel about a white boy going to a predominately African American high school in Chicago soon after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. An extended excerpt from Hey, Liberal! is forthcoming in the next issue of F Magazine.DÉTENTE (an excerpt from Hey, Liberal!)
The desk phone rang in Adam’s Body Politic office.
“I got your boy here at Grant Hospital. He stuck his nose a little too close to a Cobra Stone’s switchblade.”
“What?” Adam tipped forward in his swivel chair. “Who is this?“
“The man who looks out for your punk-ass son, that’s who.”
“Yeah, listen up. He needs a couple of stitches. And by the way, a friend of his committed suicide. Besides that, Simon’s just fine.”
“What are you talking . . . Suicide? Is this some kind of—”
“Do you hear me laughing, Reverend? Kid by the name of Louis Collins. Blew his brains out right in front of Simon. Nice, huh?”
In the speechless moment that followed, Adam felt the blood drain from his face. A hard drizzling rain outside of his Body Politic office windows was falling in a straight sheet, and with the room shrouded in shadows, he’d had to turn on his desk lamp, giving him the look of a man adrift on his cluttered raft. A blue ink stain from a fountain pen on the desk’s blotter pad suddenly caught his attention, as if its small irregular shape, like that of a lake on a map missing all other topography, was in some way puzzling to him.
“You still there, Reverend.”
“. . . I’m here.”
“Principal Jursak didn’t call you already? Wouldn’t take it personally. He’s stretched kinda thin lately — a suicide, race riot, the arrest of your pain-in-the-ass-biology-teacher buddy.”
The bad news just kept getting worse, and Adam thought, John arrested? What the hell? Then, realizing that even if Donald Jursak had tried to reach someone at home, Helen would have most likely been in the basement working on one of her short stories and out of earshot of the phone’s ringer. Adam’s shock would have to wait along with the further details, and he leapt to his feet.
“Be there in five minutes.”
→Shawn Shiflett, thanks for letting us in. Looking forward to seeing more of this novel-in-progress. And as always, thanks for reading. -PMc←