Essay Authors Note

Nor does the fictional Wisconsin Congressman Quince Leatherberry, who runs into a bit of trouble in the pages that follow, represent Representative James Sensenbrenner in any way. Sensenbrenner has been involved in anything unethical. If I hate your ideas, I turn you into a purely fictional literary character and then I beat you up. C., I finished a draft of this novel in a borrowed space, a windowless basement underneath an old townhouse from the 1840s.This was in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where I had recently moved with my family and where I lived for four years.At that point in our nation’s history, Sensenbrenner was zealously pursuing an immigration reform bill as punitive and xenophobic as any piece of legislation recently considered in the halls of American government (now playing in Arizona). Sensenbrenner greeted me and my colleague, a librarian from Waukesha, with real warmth. “But have a seat and I will tell you why.” I simply smiled and did as he said. At that time, I happened to be a freshly-minted NEA Literature Fellow, and as much as I wanted to defend these two worthy federal endeavors, I simply nodded, and took notes, and tried my best to politely inform the congressman that a number of NEH and NEA funded initiatives actually took place in his rather wealthy fifth district.

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I also have a fan, a young fan who recently graduated from Livonia Stevenson High School, my alma mater, and she is very excited to read my second book judging from the number of exclamation points in her recent e-mail. I was then working as the executive director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the NEH.

This was in 2006, in a political environment that made me feel like lobbying for federal humanities funding was about as fruitful as lobbying to make Libya the fifty-first state.

The problematic character was a minor one, a creation named Mack Fences, who is based on my dear friend, Mark Gates.

Those of you in the world of publishing may recognize the name, as Mark was, for many years, a well-respected, talented, and diligent sales representative for the prestigious publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The next weekend I went over with my laptop and a desk lamp and tried to write. Something about the claustrophobia of a dank, antique basement seemed well suited to the sort of novel I was trying to write, and I wrote faster than I have ever written before.

I was in that cautious phase of a new project, when a writer worries that he or she will wreck the flow of words. Within four months, I had finished a 450-page draft of a novel called .The house, at least the upper floors of the house, served as a lodging facility for an arts center—Shake Rag Alley—and two of the board members of that center, upon hearing that I, a young father, was having trouble finding a quiet place to write, offered me this place.One weekend, I went over and vacuumed and dusted and cleaned; I found an old desk and some bookshelves and set them up facing a cinder block wall where a fireplace had once been.Sensenbrenner remained cordial throughout, but he struck me as a sort of slob, unkempt and boorish. I returned to my room and ordered two scotches and a steak from room service, purchased a pay-per-view movie (, with the effervescent Kate Winslet), and, after finishing said movie and composing a half-hearted but lusty poem about Kate Winslet (which inspired a Google Image Search for Kate Winslet), I began to work on this novel: .I have heard it said that he has never held a job outside of Capitol Hill, and if he had not been born rich I doubt he would have had much of a station in this society. I wish now that I had called him an over-privileged jackass. I wrote twenty-six pages that night and I suppose I owe this unprecedented bit of productivity to Congressman Sensenbrenner.It was an ambitious novel, an attempt to merge Turgenev’s into a seamless tale of generational strife and mysticism set in southwestern Wisconsin. A great deal of the material came from my own personal life, and thus the novel was easy to write, particularly because the main character, Zeke, was sort of an amalgamation of all of my worst tendencies and tactics.Zeke is so weird and intellectually obscure and lonely that he has increasing trouble functioning in contemporary society.I remember one scene in particular that I thought stood out: Mack, confronted by a rabid and renegade Homeland Security Agent, quickly buckles under the weight of federal inquiry and begins naming the names of his friends involved in “un-American activities that were cynicizing [sic] the nation.” I was quite pleased with his role in the novel, and I do admit that I secretly imagined Mark, and many of his good friends in the industry, chuckling aloud at a few of the inside jokes that peppered the manuscript.Somewhere around the time I turned in the second draft of this novel to the woman who was once my editor and whom I thought would be my editor for a long time—this was in December of 2007—Mark Gates was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, which had spread to the brain.My first attempt at a second novel was already finished, languishing in a small, green metal IKEA cabinet that looked as if it was made to house dead manuscripts, a manu-crypt, if you will. All five hundred pages of it, put down in one of those acts of artistic euthanasia that feel more like murder than mercy.That novel failed for all the reasons second novels tend to fail, including an overwhelming desire to please the critics who liked my first novel as well as a delusional belief in the majesty of my talent. , however, was and still is a more playful novel, a dark comedy with numerous references to popular culture and American politics.


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