In which I jump on the Substack bandwagon

Hopefully this party isn't already over.

So, yeah, hi. Thanks in advance for reading this, the first issue of Spencer Fleury is Making Shit Up Again. I have to admit, it feels like I haven’t put enough thought into this newsletter thing just yet, but I also know that it’ll never feel like I’m ready. That’s how it is, being a writer. There’s always a quiet nagging voice in the background that’s urging you to do more research, more polishing, more whatever before pushing your words out into the world. Eventually you have to stop listening to it, or you’ll never finish anything.

If you don’t know me, I’m just some writer living in San Francisco, California. I’ve got a novel coming out in September (we’ll talk more about that in a bit), and I have a day job that is also writing, but which I’m not going to discuss in this newsletter because that would bore us both to death.

What will I be writing about, instead of that? Good question. This is only the first issue, so I don’t want to lock anything down quite just yet. But since this is supposed to be an author newsletter, I expect to be writing about things related to that: Books I’m reading, news around my own work, thoughts on the craft of writing as I understand it, short essays on topics that interest me and I hope also interest you.

I’ll be putting out a new one of these every month, on the second Thursday. If you enjoy what you get here, please spread the word:

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What I’ve been reading

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, by Matthew Salesses. I’m not a teacher of creative writing, and I don’t have an MFA (or indeed any writing degree at all) and therefore don’t have a ton of experience with the workshopping process, so I may not be the precise target audience for this one. Nevertheless, I love a good writing craft book, and this book definitely is that. There is very little advice on how to construct sentences or how to build plots or any of the more mechanical aspects of the writing process. Instead, Salesses focuses on upending the conventional wisdom about the elements of fiction, and in the process forces his reader to consider how our own inherited cultural biases have led us to define “good” writing the way we do—short, direct sentences with few modifiers and a three-act structure centered around a conflict, for example—and how an unquestioning adherence to that definition can work to alienate writers who don’t write from a western white male position, or who are writing for different audiences altogether.

The Natural by Bernard Malamud and The Veracruz Blues by Mark Winegardner. The problem with baseball novels is that there are too many of them. Long ago, before I understood and accepted this, I too wanted to write a baseball novel. A great one. The best there ever was. This can be partially explained by my having been a Detroit Tigers fan since I was four, but not entirely. There’s something about the best baseball fiction that resonates with me, something I’d like to capture for my current work-in-progress, which is a sports novel but not a baseball novel. Or maybe it actually is a baseball novel, just disguised as something else. I guess we’ll see when it’s done. Anyway, that’s why I pulled these two off the shelf recently: to see if I could identify that something and put it to work in the service of different subject matter. Neither book was quite what I remembered it to be—I recall being more impressed with Malamud’s prose when I was younger, and I’d completely forgotten the centrality of race and labor issues in Winegardner’s book in the twenty years since I’d last read it.

My top five moments in travel—or, Oh how I’ve missed being crammed into airline seats for hours at a stretch

One of the reasons I was so eager to get the Covid vaccine was because I was just itching to travel again. I love traveling. I usually take a couple of big trips (by which I mean, trips out of state where I have to take a plane and that last for at least a week) each year, with short weekend getaways to nearby destinations when the mood strikes us (and the budget permits). Recently, I got on a plane for the first time since the end of 2019 and flew to Chicago for a family visit. I’ve been there a bunch of times—It’s my second-favorite American city—but until this last trip I’d somehow never caught a ballgame at Wrigley Field, an oversight I finally fixed:

By my count, I've been to 37 U.S. states (38 if you count Washington, DC, which you should) and 15 foreign countries. This simultaneously sounds like a lot and, by the standards of my circle of friends and coworkers here in San Francisco, not very many. Now that travel is finally possible again, I’ve been spending some time thinking about which moments from all those trips stood out as the most memorable for me. Now, when I say "most memorable," I don't necessarily mean most fun, or most idyllic, or most postcard-worthy, or anything like that. I mean the things I will never forget: not just the things I'd never have seen if I hadn't made the trip, but the things I'd have never even known I missed. The experiences that made me more uncomfortable than I would have liked. And yes, sure, a few postcard-worthy moments too.

After much thought, I whittled the list down to five, with a second list of honorable mentions. So here it is, in no particular order:

1. The Ice Cave of Scarisoara, Romania (2006). This cave, located near the town of Scarisoara along the southern edge of the Apuseni Natural Park, is widely considered to be one of Romania's great natural wonders. But most people will never get to fully understand why. The general public is limited to visiting a pair of upper-level rooms that, while beautiful enough in their own right, are instantly forgettable compared to the lower chambers, accessible only by special scientific permit. As luck would have it, I was accompanying a group of scientists and researchers, and we had such a permit. There are no stairs, no elevator: the only ways down are to rappel sixty feet, or to tie a rope around your waist and have someone else lower you. I do not know how to rappel.

There’s no natural source of light at the bottom of the cave, so the researchers brought their own. The way those lights illuminated the rippling, translucent ice formations in a spectrum of shimmering blues and pinks is something that will stay with me forever (which is a good thing, since I seem to have lost the photos I took). I still feel bad for the poor bastards who had to pull me back up.

2. The Roof nightclub, Ocho Rios, Jamaica (1994 or 1995). On a three-day break from our duties patrolling the Caribbean, several of my Coast Guard shipmates and I spent a couple days exploring the city of Ocho Rios. One night we stumbled across a nightclub built into an old water tower. The stairs were rickety and suffering from dry rot; the music was aggressive and abrasive and not at all like any reggae I’d ever heard before. When the four of us made it to the top of the stairs and went inside, we were the only white people in the place. This wasn't a problem for any of us, but it seemed to be an issue for some of the people already there. Sensing the chilly reception, we decided to have a round and then leave, but then one of us (and no, it wasn't me) decided it'd be a great idea to flirt with one of the local women sitting alone at the bar. We did manage to avoid getting tossed out over the railing, but probably not by much. Good times.

3. Random hot springs in the middle of the woods, Romania (2006). I was in Romania for an academic conference. One night, the lot of us piled into as many cars and vans as we could get our hands on and drove deep into the woods, well away from paved roads, until we came to a small clearing where there was a medium-sized hot spring. There were no lights, no parking spaces, nothing but the hole in the ground. We all stripped down to various levels of undress (the more prepared had brought bathing suits) and soaked in the warm sulfur water and drank Romanian beer and plum brandy for hours. This is probably the best memory from all my years as an academic, now that I think about it.

4. The floating villages on the Siem Reap River, Cambodia (2018). The Siem Reap river feeds into Tonle Sap Lake, the largest in Cambodia, and is home to countless houses perched on wooden stilts along the riverbanks; during the high-water season, the river rises to just beneath the floorboards. But when you’re navigating it during low-water season, the houses are twenty or thirty feet above you. People use the space under their houses for storage or garbage disposal; kids and dogs play among the pilings. The river itself is so thick with plastic and other trash that our boatswain had to clear the propeller three separate times on our journey to the lake and back.

5. The London Tube bombing, London (2005). I was hungover that morning but had promised we'd go see the National Portrait Gallery that day. I asked if we could walk at least part of the way instead of taking the Tube (I was certain the fumes and heat and motion would have made me puke all over the other passengers). As it turned out, the Tube was closed before we even left the hotel, though nobody really knew why yet. So we walked the entire way, a good three miles, and we didn't find out what had happened until after lunch. My parents—also on the trip—had gone out to the Tower of London before any of the rest of us had gotten up. We learned later that they were apparently in the train behind one that was bombed, but we had no idea if they were all right until they made it back to the hotel hours later, having walked the six or seven miles from Tower Bridge to Kensington.

And here are the honorable mentions:

  • New Orleans, 1997. I ate a steak stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat in a restaurant with no sign on the door and only four tables inside. It was truly a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, and I would never be able to find it again, no matter how long I looked. The steak was bigger than the plate it was served on.

  • Italy, 2017. One of the greatest meals of my life was at a restaurant in Tuscany called David's. The trip's organizer knew the owner and got him to open for lunch, just for us. The twenty of us spent the next two hours devouring the best Italian food I have ever eaten and polishing off god only knows how many bottles of wine. I love Italy so freaking much.

  • Dublin, 2001. Sitting in the lobby of the Gresham Hotel for afternoon tea or pints of Guinness, watching the assorted Dubliners who'd gathered there drink, smoke, and read the paper. We don't use hotel lobbies as public space in the US like this. That's a shame. There was something very evocative and nostalgic about it.

  • Romania, 2006. Two more moments from that Romania trip:

    1. We found a tiny Eastern Orthodox church in a remote mountain region one Wednesday afternoon, inside of which was a mass in progress. The interior was almost completely dark, except for the dim candlelight and the light from the tiny stained glass windows high above. Four or five elderly women dressed completely in black knelt and rocked back and forth and rubbed what I assumed were rosary beads while the priest stood in front of them and spoke in a rapid-fire monotone, almost like he was chanting.

    2. I rode the train alone from Oradea to Timisoara, where I would catch my flight home the next morning. I had a compartment all to myself. Twice, legless beggars in little wheelie carts yanked open my compartment door and tried to convince me to give them some money. The whole trip, I had a hell of a time figuring out where I even was, and I nearly missed getting off in Timisoara because I was afraid to leave the compartment without my luggage to find out the name of the station.

Did I mention I’ve got a novel coming out?

I’m sure I must have. It’s called How I’m Spending My Afterlife, it’s coming out September 7th from Woodhall Press, and you can learn more about it—and preorder it, should you be so inclined—right here. (Though if you can, I’d really rather you preordered from your local independent bookstore. It’s kind of important.)

So that’s the first issue! I hope you dug it. If you did, you could recommend it to your friends:

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