The Next Big Thing ~ Tag, I’m It


The very wonderful Michael Downs (have you read his collection The Greatest Show? You must.) tagged me in the crazy literary game called The Next Big Thing. So it’s this thing that a bunch of us are doing to talk about our work-in-progress, and to join in a world-wide conversation about writing and the writing process. I know many of you have heard of this, and nearly as many have been tagged. In fact, trying to find writing folks with blogs who haven’t yet been tagged has been a bit of a challenge. For instance, I wanted to tag Samantha Hoffman, whose new book is What More Could You Wish For. She, however, had already been tagged by Randy Richardson, whose new book is Cheeseland. (And by the way, Samantha tagged me, too, in a bending of the official rules…but that is another story. I love her rebellious ways.)

I have been contacting a number of writers whose work I admire to see if they are willing to play. I should also say that there are a multitude of writers I would love to tag, but who don’t keep regular blogs, and so don’t quite fit the game’s profile (I’m talking about you, Dennis McFadden; and you, Eugene Cross; and you, Stacy Bierlein; and you, Anne-Marie Oomen; and you, Aaron Stander—just to name a few.) I tried to tag a few people who graciously declined because they are too busy right now: (Katey Schultz, Ben Tanzer.) I also tagged a couple of folks I haven’t heard back from yet, and so perhaps they will join in on the game when they get a chance to consider the invitation: Vanessa Gebbie, Carrie Etter (no pressure, folks. Join in if you like.)

The four writers who have agreed to let me tag them and to follow up with their own posts and invitations are Mark Beyer, Fleda Brown, Tony Romano, and Ken Rodgers. Mark Beyer (past contributor to View From the Keyboard) is a writer now living a glorious ex-pat life in Prague, lucky devil, and his last book is called What Beauty. Fleda Brown (I quoted her work in a Beautiful Sentence post) is a fabulous poet and nonfiction writer who lives in Michigan and whose latest poetry collection is Loon Cry and whose latest nonfiction is Driving With Dvořák. Tony Romano, real Chicago son, writes very fine novels about Chicago and Italian American families (check out When the World Was Young and If You Eat, You Never Die……) Some of you may have seen Tony’s short fiction–“Because the Sky is Blue” recently published by the Chicago Tribune for their Printers Row original fiction series. Ken Rodgers, an Idaho writer and past contributor to VFtK, is a fine poetry (Passenger Pigeons) and prose writer, as well as a filmmaker. You really should visit his Bravo! The Project page; it chronicles his collaborative documentary project about the Bravo Company, First Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment in the Vietnam War.

So, there you go. Tag, you guys are it(s). And in fulfillment of my obligation to the game, my answers to the required questions.

What is the working title of your novel?

Climbing the House of God Hill. It is a bit cumbersome, and also a little close to the title of the wonderful book by Jaimee Wriston Colbert: Climbing the God Tree. Still, I keep feeling myself drawn to this name. The House of God Hill is a topographical place in the novel, set in the town of New Hope (perhaps some of you remember this town from my collection The Temple of Air,) and it is here where one of the defining actions takes place in the book.

Where did the idea come from for the novel?

There are a couple of characters in my story collection with whom I would like to spend some more time; and also the place, New Hope, is one that won’t quite let go of me. So these are two things I bring to the novel. The rest of it, the actual events, come from a scandal that happened in a small town I know rather well in Northwestern Illinois. Something happened between a teenaged girl and a man, and in the “true” story, that man happens to be an immigrant—one of a very few in this primarily white town. (This is the kind of place where folks claim their identity by the number of their family generations buried in the local cemetery.) In the “true” story, a confession and arrest were made. In my story, nothing is quite that clear cut. I intend for it to not be entirely evident who is guilty in what happens, and who is complicit. There are issues of faith and mortality (I keep coming back to these things!) and family and community. The point of view is a community one for the most part, with the emphasis on the voices of a few main characters, among them the teenaged girl, Allison.

What genre does your manuscript fall under?

Mainstream/literary fiction. (Can it be mainstream and literary??? I hope so.)

Which actor would you choose to play your character in a movie rendition?

In trying to answer this question, I have spent far too much time on the internet looking up young women (teenage) actors (who might be an Allison), as well as actors from Latin America (who might be a Guillermo.) Here’s what I came up with: Allison—Odeya Rush. Guillermo—Wilmer Valderrama. But let’s face it, if this book were to be made into a movie it would happen in at least a decade, probably, and Odeya would be too old to play fifteen. Wilmer, however, will be just about old enough to play Guillermo, the accused neighbor.Wilmer


What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In this story of allegation and guilt, scandal and appearance, faith and intolerance, the town of New Hope is stunned when Guillermo Perez is arrested for the statutory rape of Allison Nelson, the home-schooled daughter of his coworker and neighbor; how can our children be protected and what must they be protected from? (Ahhh, the semicolon. A cheater’s way to write one sentence.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Good question. How long will it take? I am about 140 pages into it, and that has taken a couple of years. My work starts slow, and then eventually finds its real momentum. I am hoping that I am entering the momentum stage.

What other books would you compare your story to within this genre?

I keep thinking of Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as I hear the voices in this story. The first person plural, the community trying to figure out the truth of what has occurred. Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle also comes to mind. And just recently I discovered the work of Scott Blackwood (we were on a panel together at the Devil’s Kitchen Lit Fest at Southern Illinois University) and what he can do with a story (situation, language, structure) is something I aspire to.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I sorta talked about this in an earlier question, but what drove me to it was spending time in this particular small Midwestern town while the real story—the one I very loosely am basing my novel on—was unfolding. I found myself asking the same questions that the rest of the community did: What really happened? Who was to blame? What isn’t being said or told? And as a writer, I got to ask the other questions, too: What if this was what happened? How would the story go then?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

How about a bit from the chapter “At the Pool”?

“Five months before Guillermo was arrested, Allison stepped out of the locker room at the public pool.  And under the high, hot sun of June, we could see what she didn’t yet know.  We could see it in the shift of the faces of the teenage boys who leaned against the snack counter with towels held at their waists and who watched the older girls in bikinis and young mothers in two-piece suits climb the aluminum ladder out of the pool, water streaming from their bodies and hair.  We could see it in the way girls Allison’s age tilted their heads together and whispered to one another furiously when they spotted her.  We could see it in the way fathers with their own daughters—little ones still in water wings or on their daddies’ backs near the pool’s drop off—averted their eyes from Allison, held the wrists of these daughters and gently floated them away from the deep end.”

→I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: thanks for reading! -PMc←


The Greatest Show ~ A National Short Story Month Recommendation

Did you know that May is National Short Story Month? Did you? Well, it is. And despite what publishers say about these things, there are many, many readers of the short story out there, and many, many fine writers and collections of short stories. Lately, a number of short story collections have gotten the recognition they deserve by making the short list and winning some pretty important awards. Olive Kitteridge, for example–Pulitzer Prize winner (when they actually awarded fiction writers with Pulitzers. Remember?) American Salvage short-listed for the National Book Award. My own collection, The Temple of Air, just won a finalist award from the Society of Midland Authors (more on this soon.)

Like I said, there are some damn fine collections out there.

In honor of this month, every few days I am going to give you a title of a recent short story collection that you really must read. And for those of you who don’t think you like short stories (come on, that’s like saying you don’t like ice cream; who doesn’t like ice cream?) I will ease you into this practice of reading story collections by suggesting some collections that are linked (recurring characters, places, themes) and some that are considered–ahem–♥a novel-in-stories♥…that category created by publishers, probably, in order to trick folks into buying story collections.

Today’s title? THE GREATEST SHOW by Michael Downs. You may remember Michael from his recent contribution for this site’s View From the Keyboard, where he actually allowed us a small glimpse into his writing space and his brand new book. Well, I have the book now, and I cannot tell you how wonderful it is. Downs has turned a broken and burned world into something beautiful, a place full of longing and love, of grief and grace.

Two boys take a pair of motorcycles out for a joyride in “Son of Captain America.” Tearing through the streets of late-night Hartford, they run from what they can see, and toward what they cannot. Read this: “Then they ran easy through the city, the night air cold, the engines hot, and Franco imagined the envy of people stuck in clumsy cars or forced to walk–so slow–while the lights of storefronts and crosswalks flashed in his peripheral vision, fleeting constellations, and Franco riding the rocket.”


Please read this book.

And as always, thanks for reading. -PMc

A Clown and The Greatest Show ~ View From the Keyboard of Michael Downs

A number of years ago–I refuse to fully consider how many–I met Michael Downs at a workshop we both attended in Montana. I remember reading his manuscript one evening, an intriguing piece from something that had a Saul Bellowian title, and thinking, holy sh–, this guy is great. And you know what? I was right. Not just a really, really fine writer, but Downs is one of those people who pretty much everyone likes when they get to know him. He is a generous colleague, a caring teacher, a fun friend, and just a heck of a nice guy. And talented. But don’t just take my word for it; check out the creds: A River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for his book HOUSE OF GOOD HOPE (University of Nebraska Press,) a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose (these are mighty hard to get in these times), and another fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. His forthcoming collection of linked stories, THE GREATEST SHOW, is due out in Spring 2012 from Louisiana State University Press, Spring 2012.

And this is where it happens-

DOWNS: Here is my desk, moments after I sopped up a puddle of beer, which I’d spilled while talking on the phone with a clown.

My desk is in Baltimore. The clown was in Vermont. As we talked, a hurricane was bearing down on her. The same hurricane had already passed over the house that holds my desk. The clown had called because she plans to perform in a promotional video trailer for my next book. She wanted to better understand the book and her role in the video. THE GREATEST SHOW has as its catalyst the true story of the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which killed one-hundred-sixty-nine people and injured hundreds more. Thus, the clown.

In the video, she will say: “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”

I don’t drink spirits when I’m writing. But when the clown telephoned on our landline I’d been outside raking up debris left by the hurricane. And I do, sometimes, drink beer as I rake. So I hurried upstairs to talk to the clown (bringing the beer), and as we were talking, I couldn’t find a pen on my desk (it’s cluttered), and I knocked over the bottle. Suds
puddled on the desktop, which is hard and heavy oak, and soaked into the bound draft of a novel I’m working on. You can see that draft in the foreground of the picture. You can’t, however, tell that it smells like Yuengling.

This, then, is my desk: Where I talk to a clown about one book while spilling beer on another; where a jumble of papers coax me toward blog posts, and a water bottle waits for me to take it along when I play basketball; and a friend’s book reminds me to write a blurb; and my niece and nephew grin earnestly out of school photos; and coffee cups get lost
for days; and imagined people fall in love, and betray each other, and forgive, and die; where I read the news of the world and watch other writers’ book trailers on YouTube.

The oak desk bears all this burden. Once, it belonged in the office of a women’s basketball coach at the University of Montana. When I moved it here to Baltimore, to my second floor office, it took four strong men to get it up the stairs. It is not a desk that wants to be moved. Though it is polished and handsome beneath the clutter of spilled beer and hurricane-lives, constancy is this desk’s great virtue.


An excerpt from the story, “The Greatest Show,” from the book of the same name

Wartime. July’s worst heat. Hundreds of women and children panting and sticky in folding chairs in the bleachers. Then the tent catches fire. No one knows why. A lot of people die. Some sixty years later, we still try for a better performance in Hartford. We don’t take the blame for history. We’re not Ringling. We’re a chicken-dinner outfit from Branson hired for county fairs and Shriner shows. We feel no responsibility for a gas-soaked rag of a tent that collapsed on a crowd decades before most of us were born. But we’re not heartless. So Hartford always gets a little extra.

“But not today, right?” said Chico, his tongue flicking through the gap in his teeth. “My people ain’t done setting up. Give history a rain check.”

“No rain checks,” said Fritz. “I’ve been on the phone. Home office wants us to cancel the whole Hartford run. Pick up again in Rutland, maybe. It’s today or not at all.”

Renato, the father in our family of aerialists, said no, absolutely not, but Schmautz the Clown wanted to. Chico insisted his crew get its regular take for a full house. “This is charity,” said Schmautz. Chico said, “Charity is when they bring the crippled kids. This is nuts.” And Ursula suggested that if we did charity, we should do it where people were suffering right now.

That got everyone quiet. Then someone said, “People suffer everywhere all the time. It’s all pain, right? How does a little clowning make anything worse?”


See, told you he could write, didn’t I? Michael Downs is a graduate of the University of Arkansas’ Programs in Creative Writing; he lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson Univerity. Contact Michael at “mdowns at” His blog on the forthcoming book, etc: And thanks again for reading! -PMc←