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Brooks Rexroat

Dispatches From Siberia #47: Keeping Up With The Joneses

A few weeks back, I tabled for the first time at a book festival. Upon getting out of my car, I stopped and rested my elbow on the trunk, watching as one of my fellow tablers pulled a train of seven children’s wagons, strapped together at the handle and each laden with boxes of promotional items, life-sized displays of book characters, action figures, and assorted other swag.

I was in over my head. And not just a little bit

Dispatches From Siberia #46: Good Publishing News

Super Lamb Banana in Liverpool—which features in the forthcoming book The Busker.

Super Lamb Banana in Liverpool—which features in the forthcoming book The Busker.

A few weeks back, a colleague looked a me with the sort of look I’m sure I offered a thousand times during my time as a journalist: that look when you’ve just seen something awful and you’re trying act as though everything is normal while asking a compassionate question or two. The compassionate question was this: when was the last time you slept? The question, I had to admit, wasn’t easily answerable. I was in the middle of a grading spree across four very disparate courses, trying to tie up some gangly loose ends connected with a campus series of visiting writers, and I’d taken on the seemingly monumental task of chopping off almost five thousand words from a story that’s been stuck for a few years between a novella and a full-blown novel.

When the Ohio Writers’ Association, populated with some tremendous writers and editors—several of whom I’ve worked with (and had fantastic experiences in doing so) in connection with the Best of Ohio Short Stories series—put out a call for a Great Novella Contest, I wedged some trimming (in order to meet the competition word limit) into an already rail-thin mid-semester schedule.

The book is, among other things, a love letter to Liverpool, which I came to adore across a series of visits in 2010.

The book is, among other things, a love letter to Liverpool, which I came to adore across a series of visits in 2010.

This time, the trimming paid off. I was deeply pleased to learn late last week that my novella The Busker won the competition and its prize—an offer of publication with the group’s independent literary imprint, Ragged Crow Press. I’m deeply looking forward to working with the team at OWA and Ragged Crow to polish this story further. It’s one I’ve been in love with for quite some time: this short book is a love letter to lots of folks: to the musicians I’ve known, played alongside, and watched struggle in the face of public indifference to their craft. To traveling. To the city of Liverpool where the story is set, and where I’ve made dear friends. To the ideas of determination and (yes, I’m going to say it) getting by with a little help from your friends. And thus, it’s an ode to the sort of community folks like Emily Hitchcock and Brad Pauquette have fostered through OWA up in my home state.

The Busker follows Aiden Carlisle, a struggling street musician, in his quest to find a proper stage and an audience that maybe cares more broadly and the song or a coin at a time. He’s got nemeses out on the street, but he’s got some allies, too—if unlikely ones. I’m thrilled for this book to find a proper home it what I think is its best form, a short, quick moving novella that follows its protagonist through one primary quest. Thanks to OWA and Ragged Crow for supporting the novella, and for the readers and editors who gave this book a nod amongst what was, by all accounts, a stacked field of submissions.

Dispatches From Siberia #41: Homes

“What place do you call home?”

I heard this question a few days ago. It wasn’t addressed to me, but it’s been bouncing around my mind since then, and it’s a deceptively hard question.

Changes

Last month, as I took the last of my few things stored a my childhood home, I looked back to find the most appropriate view: the house swallowed up in trees we'd planted.

Last month, as I took the last of my few things stored a my childhood home, I looked back to find the most appropriate view: the house swallowed up in trees we'd planted.

The first time I ever bought a cup of coffee was about three days after I got my driver’s license, and the drink had nothing to do with wanting to feel grown up, or wanting to emulate Dad’s morning cup or anything like that. In fact, that first coffee had nothing to do with coffee. Exploring the new freedom of life with a vehicle, I’d gone to the logical first place: the bookstore. I would get to stay as long as I wanted this time, not rushing for a waiting parent who had someplace more important to get, or the next stop to move toward on a chain-shopping trip. I explored the place top to bottom, section after section, but at a certain point, even a 16-year-old begins to feel self-aware about wandering endlessly through a shop with no potential purchases in hand. Eventually, I wandered over to the café and bought a small coffee, then played copycat on the adults that populated the tables: I grabbed something from the periodical rack—I’m pretty sure one of them was a copy of the Prague Post, which was at that time sold in a number of U.S. book shops—and plopped down with my coffee and a free read. I bought a paperback or two before leaving, which was a big deal for a kid whose income was paid yardwork for the folks, at least until hay and straw bailing season would begin a few weeks later. Then, I’d make some solid money, but for the moment, two books and a coffee was a pretty full day of expenditure.

This morning, I’m again in the café of a bookstore, again in love with the smell of 10,000 books around me, colliding with puffs of steam from the espresso machine behind me. There are other places to loiter while I work, of course—home and my campus office and cafes both corporately and locally owned. But it’s always been here, surrounded by the written ideas of others. And it seems like the right place to cap a week that’s been filled with news ranging from openly joyful to bittersweet at best. The home I drove back to after that first coffee was sold today. Earlier this year, my parents downsized their home, and while I’m happy for them in that regard, that was the home I always came home to: from college and work, from grad school and at holidays, on long weekends when I just needed to be someplace familiar around someone familiar. It’s tough, knowing I’ll never again drive home to that grey house behind the pond.

Like the sale of that old home, the rest of this week’s news has been a long time in process.

My first book has been published—in Russia. Last year, Russian linguist Olesya Valger and I co-wrote and co-edited a textbook called Stories From the American Rust Belt With Case Studies in English Grammar. The text, published by Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University Press, includes several of my stories, along with exercises and practical details to help second-language students of English interact with contemporary American literature. As I understand it, some printed copies are in the early stages of transit, and I’m looking forward to holding a copy soon.

But that was just the start of good book news.

On Tuesday morning, Seattle-based Orson’s Publishing released my debut story collection for pre-order. Print copies will ship in April, and ebook copies will be available at that time, as well. When the book was announced this week, some of the first questions I received were connected to my time in Russia—namely, whether this was the book of stories I wrote while overseas. It’s not—though I continue to work on those. However, this set did get some substantial editing and revision work during my Fulbright grant, and I submitted it to the press from my flat above Vybornaya Street.  

The collection runs the gamut of my writing life: the oldest story got its start during my first month in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the newest one was completed last Autumn in Siberia—it made the trip with me as a half-finished stub, and I finally did enough surgery to it to make it feel like a story that belonged in a set.

For much of the last year, Publisher Garrett Dennert and I have pushed and pressed each other and wrestled this thing into a book I’m extremely proud of, one that traces the lives of workers and workers’ kids and retirees in the post-industrial Midwest—the Rust Belt. It felt right working on the collection in Siberia, which in many ways knows a similar history: regions of single-industry towns left to rise and fall at the mercy of economy and other, connected single-industry towns, places trying to reclaim names rife with disparaging stereotypes, regions full of youthful, vibrant generation set against the remnants of past decay. The collection has busted-up factories, yes, but more importantly (and I think more interestingly) it focuses on what the people do after they walk out those doors for the last time—something I can connect with this morning.

A final piece of exciting news: Peasantry Press, the publisher of my forthcoming novel Pine Gap, sent final edits this week, and work has started on cover design. Review copies should be heading out soon, and by the end of the year, it’ll be a trio of books with my name on the spine so that someday, some kid with newfound freedom and a set of keys might just buy a drink as an excuse to linger, and when they do, maybe, just maybe they’ll pull one of those books or its neighbors from the shelf. And if they get to travel the same path I’ve gotten, one full of words and daydreams, a trail of ideas and travelling friends that stretches from Illinois to Irkutsk—well, they’ll be immensely lucky.

 

The finished product: the cover art for my U.S. debut in book-length fiction: Thrift Store Coats.

The finished product: the cover art for my U.S. debut in book-length fiction: Thrift Store Coats.

Dispatches From Siberia #35.2: St. Petersburg Travel Log, Day One

Dispatches From Siberia #35.2: St. Petersburg Travel Log, Day One

I checked in on top-rated coffee shops and encountered a problem that would hound me all week—and one that led me to want to write a full-blown St. Petersburg Travel Log. Namely: most people who visit St. Petersburg seem to do and write about the same dozen things and eat and review the same dozen restaurants. And I wasn't having it.

Dispatches From Siberia #35.1: Greetings From St. Petersburg

Dispatches From Siberia #35.1: Greetings From St. Petersburg

I'm on the road this week, visiting the incredible, vast, and sometimes confusing city of St. Petersburg. This place is and has a little bit of everything, and I'm busy exploring it, squeezing every milliliter I can from each of my five days in town. Because of that, this week's blog is short, but have no fear: there'll be a mid-week sequel once I get back to Novosibirsk.

Dispatches From Siberia #34: Working Writers

Dispatches From Siberia #34: Working Writers

This week's Dispatch From Siberia examines the important impact of small changes on the creative process, and considers the global ramifications of an American media company's disturbing process of downsizing.

Dispatches From Siberia #33: Collecting Experiences

Dispatches From Siberia #33: Collecting Experiences

This has been a week of contrast. Half of my mind is on tying the loose ends and enjoying the last few weeks of my time overseas. The other half is planning for what promises to be an exciting and busy summer back in the U.S. Half of the week was sunny and warm. Half the week was rainy backed with a brutal, chilly wind. I went for a run on Wednesday, the first chance I’d had to do so in ages. It was nearly seventy degrees. Half the university’s track was clear and bone dry, the other was still caked in a meter of built-up ice. Opposites and dualities all over the place, but in the end it’s just more opportunity and adventure.

Dispatches From Siberia #32: Winter is Receding

Dispatches From Siberia #32: Winter is Receding

Winter is receding from Siberia, which is a great duality. At eye level, it’s heavenly. The air is warming, the coats are turning to jackets, and sometimes just sweaters or even shirts. It feels blissful. It looks blissful. The sun is out, and the days are longer, the breezes gentler, and the people are bright and animated. At ground level, though, it’s a different story.

Dispatches From Siberia #27: Current Currency

Dispatches From Siberia #27: Current Currency

Money can be as tough to translate as language, if not more so: with currency exchanges, cultural norms, and value discrepancies, cash fluency is a moving target.

Dispatches From Siberia #26: Playing Tour Guide

Dispatches From Siberia #26: Playing Tour Guide

Showing your city to others is a great way to learn about how you interact with it. Last week, a pair of fellow Fulbrighters based a few hours north accompanied a group of students to Novosibirsk. In between the group’s scheduled tour of the zoo and attendance at the opera, we met up and I got a chance to show some colleagues around my adopted city.

The time constraints led us to stay in the city center, where we checked out the famous teal constructivist-style train station, took a stroll down the city’s primary pedestrian street, and had a late lunch. If this sounds more relaxed than exciting, that’s sort of the point.

Remember last week when I said spring had arrived? Well, technically it has, but don't tell the clouds and this car that.

Remember last week when I said spring had arrived? Well, technically it has, but don't tell the clouds and this car that.

The quick tour, just a couple hours including food, made me appreciative that I’ve gotten to know Novosibirsk as an inhabitant and not as a tourist. As a tourist, I would have been underwhelmed. Frankly, there’s not a ton to do in the walkable center. There is certainly good food, and the aforementioned zoo and theatre undoubtedly make up a hefty percentage of the trip for many foreign visitors, because these are the most accessible interesting places. But to really appreciate the city, it takes a deeper dive—and most of the more interesting places are far-flung enough that a short-span tourist would likely never find them—or would spend the whole trip traveling back and forth between a very limited number of actual sites. The Monument of Glory, for example, takes less than an hour to see and appreciate, but the trip there—between public transit and the walks between bus or metro stops—would eat up half a day and perhaps more if the traveller was just getting her or his bearings in the town. Akademgorodok, which is listed in nearly every tourist guide as one of the most interesting spots in Novosibirsk, can take well over ahour to reach from the city center, depending on traffic and bus connections. A visit to the City of Academics would take nearly a full day from a traveler’s Novosibirsk itinerary.

Other cities I’ve visited, such as Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, and Ekaterinburg, have more centralized, walkable zones filled with the key touristic sites. There was plenty to do during a couple of days, and the sites were clustered close enough together to be easily reachable. Did I miss some things in those cities? Absolutely. But these smaller and more compact cities are friendlier for those just stopping through. I feel like I got to enjoy the very best of those interesting places in a way I might not have been able to do on a quick breeze

It’s harder to do that in Novosibirsk, and so I’m glad I’ve gotten to dive deep into this place.

So, which genuine, authentic Siberian restaurant did I take the visiting scholars to? Well, the Mexican restaurant, obviously. Listen: both colleagues live and work in Tomsk, which is about four hours away and a third the size of Novosibirsk. With plenty of authentic regional food available in Tomsk, we opted for a different flavor: something familiar.

Georgian food is incredible, and prevalent in Novosibirsk. But when guests come to the city, we skip the local and find a taste of home.

Georgian food is incredible, and prevalent in Novosibirsk. But when guests come to the city, we skip the local and find a taste of home.

The steak fajitas were a hit, and the burrito appeared to be solid. I can also vouch for the queso (which is spicy, rich, and full of mildly cooked red peppers) even though no one partook during this particular lunch. The cheesecake, I hear, was take-or-leaveable, but sometimes when you haven’t had cheesecake in months, you see it on the menu and you have to try.

When travelling for a brief time, it’s worthwhile to spend as many meals as possible enjoying local cuisine, but when you live in a foreign land for an extended time, it’s okay to go for a little flavor of home now and then. Sometimes—don’t judge me—that even means a trip to KFC.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned some of the lessons I’ve learned in Siberia. One of those included avoiding hot beverages when the temperature plummets, and a couple of readers have asked for clarification. So, without further ado, here is my vastly oversimplified version of the science: basically, when you drink hot liquid such as coffee or tea, the tissue in your mouth and throat expand, in much the same way ones pores open during a warm shower. The next cold breath, then, injects brutally cold air deep into your throat tissue. Not a pleasant thought, right? Here’s another example: think about how asphalt expands and contracts in changing weather. Add some moisture to the mix, and by the time all the havoc’s done, you get a street full of potholes. This is why no one walks around Siberia with a cup of fresh coffee when the temperature hits negative thirty: they’ve got no interest in a throat full of potholes.

Siberian coffee: best enjoyed inside (and with waffles).

Siberian coffee: best enjoyed inside (and with waffles).

On that cheery note, we’ll wrap up for the week. Next time, I’ll have some stories about spring classes, currency exchanges, and whatever other blissful mayhem I run across in the meantime.

Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

 

Dispatches From Siberia #21: Being the Stranger in Need

Dispatches From Siberia #21: Being the Stranger in Need

This week, while my vulnerability was great, an Asian immigrant in an Islamic city deep in the heart of Russia stood by the side of a sick, suffering tourist from Middle America until he was certain everything was okay. That’s the kind of moment that permanently disables a person’s ability to hate, and it’s a sort of moment more people should encounter.