Short Story Writer James Reed, At Work in the Literary Fields of the Imagination
James Reed of Omaha is one of those superb writers who goes under the radar of the general reading public because he specializes in short fiction that gets published in serious but sparsley read literary journals and anthologies, but he deserves a much wider following. I wrote this piece about James for The Reader (www.thereader.com) some 12 years ago, when he was still teaching at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and editing its literary magazine. I first met James at UNO, where we were students about the same time. I ran the campus film series and he and his then girlfriend and now wife, Omaah Central High School teacher Vicki Deniston Reed, were regulars at our screenings of classic and contemporary American and foreign films. Like most writers, James has always worked a regular job to support his writing habit. Highly respected in the field, James has received the National Endowment for the Arts‘ prestigious Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Writing from Carolina Quarterly and and Individual Fellowship Master Award in Literature from the Nebraska Arts Council. His work has been a finalist in competitions for the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the Southern California Review Fiction Prize. His work was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award.
James is a sweet man with a huge talent, and it’s safe to say that the vast majority of customers he waits on at the copy center he works at don’t have a clue he is one of the best living writers in the world. He’s far too humble to toot his own horn, so let me do it for him.
James Reed, ©Photo by Anna Reed
Short Story Writer James Reed, At Work in the Literary Fields of the Imagination
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“The clocks were faced with gold. Real gold. It dazzled the eyes. Houses might be black and white and as big as barns, with long slate roofs as if to weight them into the earth, but the clock towers shone like sunlight…They could be seen for miles. Towers, steeples, clocks, and inside the cathedrals, the walls seethed with gleaming saints. Angels older than America clawed toward heaven with empty, shimmering eyes.”
-from James Reed’s “The Time in Central Europe”
James Reed hears the music in words.
An award-winning short fiction author and accomplished amateur musician, the 45-year-old Omahan routinely reads aloud his work to better catch the beats, measures, tones resonating in the prose. While hardly an unusual practice among writers, Reed’s highly developed musical sense (he is a clarinet player with the Nebraska Wind Symphony and Black Woods Wind Ensemble) makes him more attuned than most to the lyrical notes of a descriptive passage, an alliterative phrase, a sly metaphor, an active verb. For him, it’s all about maintaining and tweaking, where needed, the voice he’s chosen (or that’s chosen him) to tell a story. Like a composer, he gets the rhythm down until every chord, every inflection, every transition flows seamlessly into a unified whole.
How does Reed, a creative writing instructor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Writers’ Workshop as well as fiction and managing editor of its literary magazine, The Nebraska Review, know when he’s reached the desired pitch?
“It sounds right,” he said in between swigs of coffee during a sit-down chat at the cluttered Review office in the Weber Fine Arts Building on the UNO campus. “I’m very aural…very attentive to sound and rhythm. I’m very voice-driven. I try to have a different voice for every piece and that pretty much is the guiding force. Whatever voice I’m using, whether it’s very formal or highly colloquial or a very flat uninflected voice, I always want it be settled. Is it working the way it should? Is it dead-on consistent? And if it doesn’t need to be consistent, when it moves do you believe the chord changes, the modulations?”
An example of a story where, as Reed puts it, “the voice ran the show” is “The Natural Order,” a morbid tale with a lonely, embittered old widow, Gwendolyn, as its gloomy narrator. Having lost everything dear to her, she sees her own sad end approaching in a neighborhood gone to the dogs:
“In the distance I hear woodchippers, the big industrial kind, and soon they’ll come down this street. Whole trees are being mulched. Most of them have been dead for years, and the neighborhood’s looking blighted. I’m afraid the city will just decide to make it official. Mr. Krendler’s old house already has been condemned…After Mr. Krendler died the place was rented to…maybe a psychotic, I think. He didn’t last long. I wouldn’t doubt he’s locked up or dead, the way he treated Mrs. Vacanti’s dog. I hated it too, the yappy little thing…but that young man twisted its head until he broke its neck…It was a noisy ball of fluff, but most of the dogs here are bigger. There’s one that looks like a horse…I’ve cleaned up uncounted messes from my yard…but the city wouldn’t listen. They just help who they want.”
According to Reed, “One day I wrote that opening sentence about woodchippers, ‘the big industrial kind,’ and from that moment on I had the voice I wanted. The more I wrote her (Gwendolyn), the more that voice made sense to me.”
Being true to the music of language is one thing, but just how Reed’s musicianship feeds his prose is somewhat ethereal. Experience has taught him not to discount it though.
He explains, “After college there was a period when I wasn’t playing (music) and I discovered I also wasn’t writing much. And when I finally picked up the horn I found myself writing again, so there’s obviously some link there. I write and read the way I do I believe largely because of the way I hear music generally, but particularly composers like Stravinsky and Mingus, whose work is dense complex stuff that leaps at a moment’s notice. Very complicated voicing. Enormous range of notes. How I hear fiction is very much a rhythmic mental sense of chord structure and of consonants and vowels colliding. That’s what I’m always trying to do — make it sound right. And some things never sound right to you.”
The discipline of practicing music daily as a youth, when he and his younger brother took horn lessons, steeled him for the rigors of writing every day. “For someone who’s going to be doing a very solitary job like being a writer, being a musician is great training because you spend hours and hours and hours by yourself mastering tasks. Like writing, it’s an extremely focused activity. I’m very good about writing even if I’m not in the mood. I highly recommend that. In class I tell students to think of this as your job. Some days on your job you’re great. Some days you’re just walking through the motions. The important thing is the process of doing it. If you don’t sit down and make yourself do it, it won’t happen. It just won’t.”
He works from a congested second-story office in the well-rummaged old clapboard house he shares with his wife Vicki Deniston Reed, a Central High School teacher, and their two young children, Anna and Jake. The small room, with stacks of books bulging from shelves and littering the floor, overlooks one side of Cascio’s Steak house and contains two desks, one for writing in long-hand,the other for his Mac computer. Within easy reach are his two horns — a B-flat and an alto clarinet.
Reed is a man of contrasts. He navigates the academic-aesthetic world while holding down a blue-collar printing job (something he’s done for years). He wears the utilitarian clothes and unpretentious demeanor of a working stiff, but his sonorous voice and capacious vocabulary clearly belong to the classroom or stage.
Among the discordant strains Reed or any writer must face is the rejection notice. You know the kind: ‘Thank you for the opportunity of reading your manuscript, but unfortunately at this time it does not meet our needs…blah, blah, blah…yadda, yadda, yadda.’ He’s heard them all before. To give aspiring writers a sober dose of reality or perhaps let them thumb their collective nose at the Philistines making publishing decisions, he’s affixed a collage of rejection notes to his UNO office window.
Getting stories published can take years. Some never see the light of day. Several Reed stories have appeared in major literary magazines (West Branch, Whetstone, River Styx, Tennessee Quarterly), but for every acceptance there’s far more turn-downs. So it goes. Undaunted by writing’s vagaries, he pursues a singular vision. His work has garnered attention though. One of his two collections, “The East Coast of Nebraska,” has been a finalist for top American literary prizes — the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. While neither this collection nor his other (“Insulting the Flesh”) has found a publisher yet, he takes the attitude it’s only a matter of time before they do sell.
Meanwhile, he’ll go on trusting his inner voice. It’s served him well thus far. He’s won writing awards from the General Electric Foundation, Creighton University, Carolina Quarterly and the Nebraska Arts Council. Not bad for someone who fell into writing shortly after he and his family moved to Omaha from his birthplace of Minneapolis in 1973. A 1979 cum laude graduate of UNO’s Fine Arts College, Reed then promptly left academia behind. Years passed. Then, in 1990, he returned as fiction editor of the Nebraska Review and at the urging of poetry editor Susan Aizenberg pursued post-graduate studies, earning a master of fine arts degree at Warren Wilson College in N.C. in 1995. In the two-year Warren Wilson program he discovered a passion for teaching and gained a rigorous analytical approach to writing.
“It gave me a way of working with students to break down things into ever smaller component parts and still have it be comprehensible enough to deal with the overall architecture of the piece. Teaching I like because get to watch students light up and figure it out and take themselves to a place where they wouldn’t probably have been before, and that’s enormously rewarding.”
He’s especially grateful to former Warren Wilson instructor Karen Brennan for pushing him to refine his work. “I tend not to be very fond of rewriting. She beat into me, against all of my impulses, the real necessity of being an attentive rewriter and being ever vigilant and ever willing not to settle just because you’re tired. I owe her a lot for that because I think I’m a better writer as a result.”
Additionally, Reed credits UNO Writers’ Workshop founder and director, author Richard Duggin, for his development. “Absolutely. I ran into him early and young. I learned more from him about how to think about writing than probably anybody. I owe him, and many other people owe him, an enormous debt for his being endlessly, tirelessly helpful and instructive.”
In turn, Duggin says he admires Reed’s “particular attention to small details that authenticate the story, his eye to finding the appropriate image and his meticulous attention to character development,” adding, “To me, James’ stuff represents some of the best work being done in Midwest literature.” Noting the musicality of his prose, he also appreciates Reed’s “attention to the rhythms of the language.”
Reed’s sonata-like stories unfold in episodic turns, each taking the measure of characters and incidents in small incremental movements that variously diverge from and merge with the main theme until the whole is great than the sum of its parts. He is fond of constructing lattice-work layers of digression and subtext.
“I love details. I will cram stories full of details. Early on in my fiction I picked up on a military defense theory, of all things, called Dense-Pack. The notion goes that you can have so much stuff densely clustered in different places and have it be so mobile that it’s difficult to destroy. And I think of my own fiction as essentially Dense-Pack stuff. I mean it’s just loaded, as somebody once told me, with lots of bits of dead-end pipe. I’m not as concise a short story writer as I probably should be, but I like the sound of things to be a little busier than that.
“Even though my plots tend to be kind of wandering, I will construct elaborately baroque things. One thing I do is mess with your time sense. My structure tends not to be a straight-line, linear, chronological development. In some ways I think I’m trying to do in short fiction a lot of the things people do in novels.”
While conscious his dead-end wanderings are not always neatly resolved, these very detours help bring Reed’s explorations of human foibles, conflicts and passions to life. He delves into the private often dark thoughts, personality tics, quirky behaviors and strained relations of “average” people in “ordinary” straits, revealing an extraordinary panorama of social-emotional-psychic baggage along the way.
“I like fiction with lots of people in it and I like the people in my fiction to be interesting. But it’s not like I have people fanatically happy or in love in my stories — often they’re ferociously not.”
Brooding characters are abundant in “The Downside,” a story set in a law firm whose soul-killing politics and pressures drive an attorney into a downward spiral. For it, Reed drew on his years working in the printing office of Kutak-Rock. Reed, who views the world of work as a rich but largely ignored vein of material, says it’s surprising “how much real hatred there is among people” at jobs.
Conceding “I can be dark,” Reed adds, “I like my darkness with humor.” His sardonic sense is evident in the “East Coast of Nebraska” collection’s title piece, which portrays the absurd lengths a business associate goes to in hiding the truth behind his seemingly stalwart friend’s scandalous death and illicit sexual history.
Reed speculates the source of his own dark side may be the “startling” experience of touring, at age six, the Dachau death camp while his career Army officer father was stationed in Germany. He drew on that episode for “The Time in Central Europe,” an evocative rumination on the crossroads an American service family finds themselves in in Germany during the Cold War. The protagonist is a small boy who sees the immediate menace of the Berlin Wall crisis and the past horror of Dachau reflected in the oppressive architecture of the region and in the Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale he’s reading. The area’s shining gold-faced clock towers seem beacons of hope but ultimately only reflect the inferno. Together with the anxiety the adults around him exhibit, it is a deeply troubling time for the boy, just as it was for Reed.
Naturally, Reed felt compelled to describe it in fiction, but years passed before he was able to come to terms with it. During a return visit to Germany as an adult, he says, “all this memory poured out and I was able finally to write a version of that story that was close enough to get it out of my system.”
Growing up a military brat, Reed moved from state to state, even overseas. It was an “unrooted” existence, but one affording rich opportunities to see people and places he might not have otherwise. He attended 26 schools, lived in Alaska before it was a state and was in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up. The longest he settled anywhere was seven years in Virginia. A “smart, alienated kid,” he was a “voracious reader” from the time he entered school. His storytelling first blossomed in the form of cartoons and even a daily comic strip he created for his own amusement. Later, he began writing stories for classroom assignments.
Whether his stories reverberate deeply with own life or spring full-born from his fancy, they are rooted in careful observation. Everything is potential material. “Absolutely, everything,” he says. “Cereal boxes, the old lady carrying plastic bags, a guy slamming lug nuts off a tire.” Keen awareness is a writer’s duty or curse. In Reed’s case, also his pleasure. “I’m constantly trying to pay attention to what people say and do. To catch subtleties of nuance and behavior. I’ve always been entertained just watching people. I’m pretty much an eclectic sponge. I’ve got this great store of stuff in my head, so I assume I was always fairly observant, even as a kid.” When something strikes him, he jots down impressions or makes mental notes.
“Transit Info.,” a slice-of-life story about disparate city bus riders, grew out of a conversation Reed overheard on a MAT bus. “People were discussing the nature of heaven, and I sat and thought, ‘Well, who are these people who would all end up in the oddity of this time and place discussing the nature of heaven? How did this happen? How did we get here?’” Imagination filled in the rest. Similarly, “Customer Recognition,” in which a guilt-ridden stick-up man has a life-reviewing catharsis at the garage he’s robbing, came from Reed observing a service station attendant.
A Newsweek article sparked Reed’s interest in Nikola Tesla, a brilliant if eccentric electrical engineer and inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The resulting story, “Mr. Tesla’s Thunder,” explores the effect this wizard-like man has on the residents of a pioneer town upon setting up shop there and conducting awesome experiments to harness lightning and broadcast electricity.
Reed’s diverse interests and fluid style make him hard to categorize. His many literary influences include the late Wright Morris (whom he dedicates a tribute to in the next issue of The Nebraska Review), Robert A. Heinlein, J.R. Tolkien, Alice Munro and Mervyn Peake (“The Gormen Ghast Trilogy”). Filmmaker Robert Altman’s fusion-like story and dialogue riffs are another inspiration for this certified film buff.
Like many artists Reed strives hard to make his craftsmanship invisible. To let his technique work unconsciously on the reader. He doesn’t get carried away with any grand designs, however. “There are writers who want to put the I-beams on the outside of the structure, but I definitely am of the camp that you spend all your time trying to make sure this is not real obvious. That you essentially fool them into believing something that isn’t there. But then again, they’re all just squiggles on paper. Let’s be real.”
Plenty busy these days, Reed is now “slogging away” on a short story and in the early research stages of a first novel. “In the spirit of a don’t-jinx-the-project impulse,” he’ll only say the novel’s historical theme concerns a musician’s exploits in the Old West, including playing in a band under the command of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the time of the Little Big Horn. Yes, that’s right, “Custer’s Last Band.”
“It was a scene picture-perfect, like the cover of a story book, with shadows climbing the vibrant contours of the earth, sliding over forests toward a small village, until he saw across the brilliant hills a clock. He saw on its face the ancient flash of sunlit gold, the red gold fire of twilight.
-from “The Time in Central Europe”
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