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December 17, 2007
Don Waters Recalls "A Distant Episode"
When Robin Romm emailed me her essay for Beatrice about her favorite Grimm fairy tale, she mentioned that her partner, Don Waters, was also a short story writer—in fact, he'd just won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection, Desert Gothic. Would I be interested in an essay from him as well, she asked? I wrote her back almost immediately with my assent, and the following essay came soon after that. It will almost certainly send you off to a bookstore or a public library to track down not just the Bowles story Waters has chosen to write about for us, but his own collection, to see just how the influences have played out in his prize-winning stories.
Language is at the center of "A Distant Episode," Paul Bowles's magnificently brutal tale that guides its reader, along with its protagonist, from the "high, flat" country down into a hot desert hell complete with a "flaming sky," "sharp mountains," and odors that reek of "sun-baked excrement." It has come as no surprise, years after reading "A Distant Episode," and now returning to it, that I've carried this story inside me. It is a story to learn from and be frightened by. Such is the strength of Bowles's story worlds.
My tastes in character types run similar to Bowles's. He digs into fevered human psyches. He writes of solitary figures. (No frilly lace or restrained Victorian intrigue for him.) He likes to spin myths that unfold a half a world away, in lands with words like 'qaouaji' and 'mehara' in them. Like Bowles, I write about the desert. I enjoy the gothic quality of pushing characters off onto strange journeys. And now and then, a touch of cruelty enters my stories. The cruelty is not meant to elicit a stock response. Cruelty happens, as Bowles might agree, because sometimes it is in our nature.
Nature is not a commercial, as many Americans are trained to believe. Nature is a brute force, and as nature's brainy, opposable-thumbed spawn, human beings long to contain it in order to make sense of it. We make do with what we have: neurological chemicals, brain circuitry—a mish-mash of evolutionary confluences that somehow produced in us language. Language is our miracle. But as creatures of the natural world, we also have the capacity to exact the most deliciously creative horrors upon each other, which brings us to "A Distant Episode."
Bowles wastes no time setting up his protagonist, a linguist known only as "Professor," a traveler in a remote, sun-stroked land—supposedly Morocco, where Bowles was writing at the time. The Professor has come to this desert outpost to visit a long-lost friend, a "café-keeper," whom the Professor quickly discovers has died.
The Professor is a stranger in this place. He's unfamiliar with the language, the customs, the small signals that would otherwise keep him safe back home. As the Professor ponders his dead friend's fate, the moon replaces the sun in the sky. He strikes up a conversation with an unlikable waiter, and our Professor grows interested in buying camel-udder boxes. He wants to own a collection of them. A nomadic tribe known as the Reguibat makes these camel-udder boxes, and the waiter says that he will show the Professor where to find them. And so our journey, and the Professor's, begins.
Continue reading Don Waters Recalls "A Distant Episode"
December 16, 2007
Dave Housely Finds Inspiration in "Bad Decline"
In Dave Housley's fictional universe, the one that builds up in the stories comprising his first collection, Ryan Seacrest Is Famous, Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix never died; one's abandoned his artistic ambitions to become an informercial guru, while the other struggles against an indifferent industry to make a comeback after years of recovery. A young Nepali woman fakes a royal background to bluff her way onto a reality show; the veteran announcer of a pro wrestling program gets roped into one last ridiculous story arc before his retirement, with unintended consequences; clowns and victims of identity theft dwell on their failed relationships with equal frustration. Then, of course, there's that title story, where one of the American Idol host's former college classmates wonders how the hell this is what fate dealt out for them. So, when I read the essay he sent in about one of his favorite short stories, his selection made perfect sense to me (as it has to other writers before, and probably many more to come).
George Saunders' "Civilwarland in Bad Decline" is the story, and the book, really, that had the most personal and literary influence on me. I remember finding the book in some used bookstore and thinking, bad decline, that’s a really interesting phrase. I think I bought it on the title alone. At the time, I had finished a novel, a Daniel Woodrell-inspired/ripped-off rural noir thing called Fresh Fruit and Ammo, which is still sitting in my closet somewhere, and I had just started writing stories. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way most people do it, which is to write stories and then, once you kind of know what you’re doing, start working on a novel. The stories I was writing were all these very straightforward, realistic takes on folks I’d grown up with and around in Central Pennsylvania. They were no good, these stories, and I kind of knew it, but I also really didn’t know what else to write.
And then I read "Civilwarland" and it was like this whole thing, the idea of the short story and what it could be, just opened up. Wow, these things can be surreal and funny and they can exist in these alternate universes, and all the while they can still say way more about the actual world that we live in, and specifically that world of real, working, striving, good hearted but not necessarily brilliant people who I was trying to write about in the first place.
Continue reading Dave Housely Finds Inspiration in "Bad Decline"
December 06, 2007
Quinn Dalton's Dream Anthology of Short Stories
The last time Quinn Dalton appeared as a guest author here at Beatrice, she talked about the benefits of hiring an independent publicist. This time around, as her new short story collection, Stories from the Afterlife, was coming out, I thought I'd get her to talk about one of her favorite stories. Turns out she has enough to fill an entire book!
You can't help what you love. So in advance I'd like to make no apologies for the stories I've picked for my dream anthology. I claim no exhaustive review or attempts at even-handedness in my choices, if such claims are even worth making. I didn't consider who wrote these stories—in about half the cases I couldn't remember who wrote them, or I couldn't remember the title, or both.
But I did remember a moment, an image, an ache. I closed my eyes and these things came to me and then I wrote down, "That one I think it's called bird about this crazy pilot" and "the girl whose father is in prison and one of his former cronies gets her out of town and there's something about a fire."
Even if I couldn't remember the story's title or author, I was pretty sure I could find it, because I'd probably first read it in an anthology like New Stories from the South or O. Henry Prize Stories or Best American Short Stories. In a few cases I'd found favorites in an author's story collection. In all cases, tripping across a story I loved led me to seek out more of the author's work.
While I drew from contemporary sources, only four out of the eleven stories I chose were published after 2000. The most recent was originally published in 2004, and the earliest one appeared first in 1989, the year I graduated from high school. I guess I needed at least a couple of years to realize that a story had stayed with me.
So here is my love letter to these eleven stories, which I listed in alphabetical order by the author's last name (though it's nice to see the list arbitrarily sandwiched by pieces first published more than a decade apart in The Greensboro Review, where I was an assistant editor for a year while working on my MFA). I won't try to write with any authority about their literary quality or what I think the writer was trying to do or whatever. I'm just going to talk about what they did to me.
Continue reading Quinn Dalton's Dream Anthology of Short Stories
November 03, 2007
Nalini Jones's Short Story Mix Tape
Although most "Selling Shorts" guest writers zero in on a single story that has moved or inspired them over the years, sometimes it's hard to narrow the field down to just one. Nalini Jones, the author of
What You Call Winter, has her own dream anthology, and today she's given us a peek into her selection process. I have a feeling that some short story writer about twenty or thirty years into the future might be adding some of Nalini's stories from this debut collection to his or her own wish list...
In college, in a fit of archival spirit, I tried to gather my favorite songs on a single mix tape. One became two, two became three, and a week later I'd created a series of over a dozen, which I eventually gave to my uncle. I imagine they might still be in my grandmother's house, the cases scratched and dusty, the tapes themselves relics of a particular moment in my history.
My mix of stories changes all the time—with a few anchors, of course. I cannot do without Eudora Welty's "June Recital." Loch's plight, shut up in a room to nap while a whole glorious world awaits exploration, is so nuanced, so minutely imagined, that we are immediately rooted both in a southern town and in a small boy's sensibility. By the time we look through his telescope, our eyes have adjusted to Morgana; every line is saturated with a sense of place. And I love Miss Eckhart, whose passion for music is so great that even trifles—the sashes for recital day—are swept up in its tide.
Chekhov's section has grown to include "Gusev," for the sense, as it ends, that nothing is quite final. The quiet matter of Gusev's death, the way we slip with his sailcothed body into the water, the sudden encounters with pilot fish and the shark, and the final view of the ocean, indifferent and lovely, all take us beyond what seem to be the original parameters of the story—the life of Gusev. There is a sense of our opening into a new world even as his life closes. In the dark pitiless waters, we're shown life swimming in and around his death, and then, as we leave Gusev and return to the surface, Chekhov gives us a glimpse of the beautiful light that transforms the ocean into something "tender" but nameless "in the language of men." That gesture toward mercy, toward hope, never fails to move me. It strikes me as intensely generous.
Continue reading Nalini Jones's Short Story Mix Tape
October 24, 2007
Roy Kesey Lingers in "The New Automaton Theater"
Roy Kesey's All Over is technically the second book from new independent publisher Dzanc Books; the first was a reprint of Kesey's novella Nothing in the World just a few months ago. Tonight he's in New York, reading at the Happy Ending series with Ben Percy and Min Jin Lee, but before that, he wants to share with you his enthusiasm for Steven Millhauser...
Impossible thing, this thing about a favorite! Can other people do this? Who are these people, these favorite-havers, and with which sort of knife do they cut the list down to one?
But, okay. So. Speaking of knives: Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower, "The New Automaton Theater." Because, how does he do that?
By which I mean: the story is a house of cards, but not the usual kind: it is a reverse pyramid balanced on a single card.
By which I also mean: this story walks blindfolded to the end of the gangplank, and we hold our breaths. The swords unsheathed just in case, the eye-patches and parrots and peg-legs, et cetera: the story wipes the sweat from its inky brow, and steps forward for the last time on earth. Except it doesn't fall. Instead, it takes another step. And still doesn't fall. Another step. Another. Still not falling, and now it starts to jog.
By which I really mean: this story, this new automaton theater, it expands and expands beyond its already ingenious premise until we almost (but never quite) want it to stop expanding so that we can get our heads around what just happened in that paragraph right back there. The narrator starts off talking about real historical objects that exist at the far edge of our capacity for understanding and wonderment--the mechanical songbirds of Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria, the mechanical duck (four hundred separate pieces per wing! Fully functional intestines!) of Jacques de Vaucanson—and then says that in his (the narrator's) town, such things are small beer. Now, that is not a hard thing to think or write. But Millhauser actually imagines and describes these farther machines, and then farther, and then farther.
Continue reading Roy Kesey Lingers in "The New Automaton Theater"
October 20, 2007
Robin Romm's Grimm-ly Realistic Inspiration
The current issue of the literary magazine Tin House is dedicated to "Fantastic Women," writers who are blurring the lines between fantasy and literary fiction, and Robin Romm would fit right into that crowd. based on the short stories in her debut collection, The Mother Garden. Here, she reminds us that the early experts on fairy tales knew the power of realism, too.
When I was young, my grandparents sent me a book of fairy tales. My grandfather, a bit of a scholar, treated books at least as well as he treated members of his family and so the book arrived swaddled in cellophane, wrapped twice in butcher paper, in a padded envelope. The pages were thick and the illustrations, if my memory can be trusted, depicted realistic children in lederhosen amidst flowers and rocks. No ordinary book, this. It was the real Grimm's. Cinderella's stepsister hacked off her toes when her foot failed to fit the glass slipper Bluebeard's closet nearly erupted with the ghosts of his decapitated wives. But the story I most vividly recall—the story that stayed with me through my entire childhood, informing my stories into adulthood—is a story entitled "Babes in the Woods." The story runs parallel to the story of Hansel and Gretel. A stepmother urges a brother and sister to go searching for berries, or some such delight, in the autumn woods. They scatter crumbs behind them to mark their path, but when they reach the end of the day, the birds have feasted on the crumbs. No witch house appears on the horizon. Not much, if my memory serves me, actually happens in this tale. The children are lost. No one finds them. The night grows cold and they die.
I loved this story. My mother, crouching by the bookshelf obliged my longing to hear it a couple of times, but soon she refused.
"It's morbid," she said.
Continue reading Robin Romm's Grimm-ly Realistic Inspiration
August 18, 2007
Katherine Shonk's Vision of "The Incredible Appearing Man"
I believe Katherine Shonk may be the first guest in our "Selling Shorts" series to select a short story by an author who hasn't had his or her work collected—though, if I'm wrong about that, I'd welcome the correction! Instead, she recalls a story she read once, a decade ago, that has lingered in her memory ever since. Shonk's own debut, The Red Passport, was first published in hardcover back in 2003; the trade paperback came out earlier this year.
I have a terrible memory, so I don't remember exactly where or when I read Deborah Galyan's short story "The Incredible Appearing Man." But since it was published in Best American Short Stories 1996, it's likely that I read it in 1997, after buying the book that fall or getting it for Christmas. I remembered Galyan's story fondly (if fuzzily) for the next ten years, and can only assume that it gave me an hour or two of pleasure in the midst of what I remember as a terrible year.
In 1997, I was back in Chicago after a year in Moscow. I had followed someone there, and now we were breaking up long distance, in tortured, unnecessary phone calls that were scheduled in advance (if I recall correctly), like dates. I went back to my old secretarial job and rented a studio apartment, where mushrooms grew in a corner of the bathtub. I took in Emily, the family cat—21 years old, deaf, and either incontinent or passive aggressive. I began pining obsessively for the kitten I had left behind in Moscow with my ex. My hometown was boring, everyone seemed spoiled. At a loss, I applied to grad school. By the end of summer, under circumstances I'd rather not get into, Emily was dead, Mishka the kitten had journeyed across the ocean, and she and I were moving to Austin.
None of this has anything to do with "The Incredible Appearing Man," but in a round-about, not-very-literal way it might explain why the story has stayed with me. The story, I think, is about the stupidity and obstinacy of youth, of the chaos we invite upon ourselves, of the difficulty some of us have growing up. It is a story that would have comforted a young Midwestern woman who was feeling like a loser after her adventure abroad. And, ten years later, it reassures me that I am not the only person to feel like a late bloomer to adulthood.
Continue reading Katherine Shonk's Vision of "The Incredible Appearing Man"
August 15, 2007
Rebecca Curtis Delves Into "Sea Oak"
In the first of three "Selling Shorts" essays we'll be running this week, Rebecca Curtis takes a look at one of the best American short stories of the last decade, probably the last half-century really: George Saunders' "Sea Oak." As she reveals in the essay, Curtis has a special connection with this story, as Saunders was one of her teachers at Syrcause. Her debut short story collection, Twenty Grand, has just been published by HarperPerennial; she'll be reading from it at the season opener of New York's Happy Ending Reading Series in mid-September.
Last week on the subway, I overheard the man next to me tell the man next to him about a story he'd read. Both men wore well-cut suits of fine material. Both had short dark hair, were in their thirties, and held briefcases between their calves. "I don't remember what it was called," the man said. "It was published about six years ago… in The New Yorker, I think. It had a male stripper in it, and the guy was a waiter in some kind of restaurant, and there was a zombie in the story… and things got really bad for the waiter, and the zombie made him start showing his cock."
The man's conversation partner appeared nonplussed.
"Seems like a weird story," he said.
"It was weird," the first man said, "but it was hilarious."
The second man checked his watch. The train whined in the dark tunnel, then yanked us round some curve, and all the passengers leaned. We were under the water, the long stretch between the Clark Street and Wall Street stations, headed into the city on an August morning.
The first man bent his head and rubbed the leather wallet on his lap. "I wish I could remember what the story was called," he said. "It's going to kill me."
Continue reading Rebecca Curtis Delves Into "Sea Oak"
July 30, 2007
Jennifer S. Davis Embraces Her Southern Literary Roots
This week's edition of FiveChapters.com features "Witnessing," one of my favorite stories from the Jennifer S. Davis collection Our Former Lives in Art. It's an excellent introduction to her work which I encourage you to read—but, really, every story of hers I've experienced has been fantastic, so once you've read this one online, I hope you'll consider buying them all. In this essay, the Alabama native fondly recalls one of her favorite stories, set in an equally compelling South of the imagination.
I always panic when asked to state my favorite anything. First of all, I'm fickle. No matter what the subject—favorite ice cream flavor, favorite city, favorite color—I will take far too long to decide on a winner, and then change my mind repeatedly within minutes. I can never choose an entrée off a menu in a timely manner, either. Seriously: Eating out gives me severe anxiety, especially if people are watching me order. Inevitably, I suffer food envy. That is the bad thing about choice. I'm almost always sure to make the wrong one.
Picking a favorite writer or novel or story is even more dangerous. It seems that people use such information to make sweeping judgments about who you are, a tidy way to safely categorize or dismiss you. Why else would we scour potential lovers' and friends' bookshelves and CD racks if we didn't want information pertinent to making our decision about the quality of the person in question? I still remember my great heartbreak in college when, desperate to make friends 2000 miles from home, I hit it off with my blonde, bubbly neighbor. Then the Debbie Gibson CD fell out of her car as she unloaded her things. And that was that.
So it is a great testament to Rick Bass' awesome talent that when asked to choose and discuss my favorite story, I thought of "The History of Rodney" in seconds and had no qualms swearing allegiance to my choice. First of all, it walks the margins of reality but still manages to hit harder and with less guile than most in-your-face realistic stories, and that accomplishment thrills me as a reader. Secondly, it takes place in Mississippi, and I've quit pretending that I don't prefer Southern fiction, more often than not, to all other fiction. And this isn't your ordinary Mississippi (not that, from my experience, there is anything ordinary about Mississippi), but rather a place almost excused from time, where threatening swine rumored to be descendants of Union soldiers rule a tiny enclave of twelve. A place where indistinguishable days are spent sweating on sun porches while fantasizing about the beauty of the Mississippi River, which up and changed course years before, abandoning the town of Rodney and moving seven miles over. These seven miles might as well be a continent, and the narrator and his wife speak of the river as a mythical thing.
Continue reading Jennifer S. Davis Embraces Her Southern Literary Roots
July 05, 2007
A Few of Jean Thompson's Favorite Things
Jean Thompson's last short story collection, Who Do You Love, was nominated for the National Book Award, so readers are understandably excited at the news of a new collection with a dozen of her latest stories, the trade paperback original Throw Like a Girl. I asked Thompson to talk about her own favorite short story, but she didn't want to pin it down to just one!
There are some story writers to whom I've granted Hall of Fame status, that is, their place in my list of favorites is so automatic and assured, I exempt them from any further competition. So Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver aren't listed below. But you should go read them. All of them.
Here's a handful of stories that I love, in no particular order. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them address the art of writing itself.
1. Alice Munro, "Meneseteung": This is another author who might well be placed in my Hall of Fame, but I can't resist including this great story, which explores the act of imagining, as well as the dark side of writing. When Munro's 19th-century poetess seeks to contain all of creation in a single poem, the result is madness. And although we are reminded at every turn that this is a story, an invention, the effect is heartbreaking.
2. Peter Taylor, "The Old Forest": Taylor's detailed evocation of 1937 Memphis might seem quaint to us, until we realize that our own time and place can be analyzed in just such a way, with an eye towards its mores and its written and unwritten codes. Somehow, a single moment in this long, carefully wrought story manages to put all of civilization at risk. Either life will continue as it always has for the narrator and his world, or else the looming chaos (and freedom) of the old forest will prevail.
Continue reading A Few of Jean Thompson's Favorite Things
July 03, 2007
Alix Ohlin Amplifies The Roaring Girl
When I invited Alix Ohlin to talk about one of her favorite short story writers as her own first collection, Babylon and Other Stories, is just coming out in paperback, she sent me an essay that gets at the heart of Beatrice's "Selling Shorts" series, introducing readers to an author they probably haven't encountered before—and in this case, it sounds like it might take a little work to track her literary hero down. But it also sounds like it'll be worth the effort; I know I'm checking the shelves the next time I visit the Strand...
Though otherwise a defiantly rational person, I maintain a hokey, quasi-mystical belief that the books you're meant to read pop magically into your life at the time you need them most. I know it sounds crazy. But how else to explain the way I once, as a bored teenager, pulled Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women off a neighbor's shelf during a tedious grownup dinner party, or the copy of Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel I found at a stoop sale the year I moved to New York, or—most magically of all—the appearance in my life of Greg Hollingshead's 1995 story collection The Roaring Girl, which I literally picked up at random, in uncorrected proof form, from a $1.00 sale bin in Austin, Texas, in 1999?
It was my first year of graduate school in gruelingly hot (though otherwise lovely) Austin, and my confused body kept waiting for the respite of winter, thinking it had to come eventually. (It never did.) Having spent the past few years moving around the U.S., I had somehow missed Hollingshead's book, which was a big hit in my native Canada and won the country's most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General's Award.
In the sweltering bookstore, I picked up The Roaring Girl, read the first page of the first story, "The Side of the Elements," and laughed out loud. I felt like I was home—maybe I mean Canada, or maybe I mean some other country, a country of sensibility rather than geography. In this story, a couple goes away for a year and must sublet their house to strangers. ("Hopeless people. If your dog went with them for a walk he would get run over.") The year passes; things go wrong—hilariously, sorrowfully wrong. That's about it. What's remarkable is not the events that ensue or the suburban setting for them, but the way Hollingshead writes about the ordinary in an extravagant, lyrical register that's neither baroque nor self-mocking. The story begins in the realm of the ordinary (questions of property, ownership, damage deposits) and moves effortlessly to the existential (the seduction of suicide, violence, chaos). The narrator, that stoic homeowner, finds himself driving drunk and courting danger, looking for "disappointment, so useful to sustain proper amazement that order should ever prevail."
Continue reading Alix Ohlin Amplifies The Roaring Girl
April 15, 2007
Lesley Dormen's Favorite Linked Stories
When I first obtained a copy of Lesley Dormen's collection of linked short stories, The Best Place to Be, I realized that although I've been inviting short story writers to pay tribute to their own favorite authors for a while now, I'd never addressed this particular branch of the genre. Well, I thought, here's a great place to start—and Lesley had plenty of ideas on how to do it!
I'd been reading and loving "linked story" collections long before I wrote one myself—in fact, long before the thing itself (novel? story collection?) had even been named. Like other readers of a certain age, I discovered John Updike's sophisticated, neurotic, ambivalent Everycouple, Joan and Richard Maple, in the early 1970s, in The New Yorker. Updike had been writing stories about the Maples since 1956; eventually, all thirteen were collected in Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories. These exquisite explorations of young marriage ("Snowing in Greenwich Village"), middle marriage ("Giving Blood"), broken marriage ("Twin Beds in Rome") and divorce ("Separating") were thrilling to come upon one at a time. Collected in one volume, the Maples stories are collected glimpses of 1960s marriage, allowing a reader to drop in and out of one couple's intimate life through their experiences of parenthood, infidelity, and divorce, while preserving a unique time and place, all refracted through that Updikean narrative dazzle.
The extraordinary first sentence of "Twin Beds in Rome" is carved into my brain, probably forever: "The Maples had talked and thought about separation so long it seemed it would never come." I see myself in my tiny apartment on West Eleventh Street (one block away from where the Maples themselves once lived!), puffing at a cigarette and pecking away at my Smith-Corona, trying to replicate the amazing confidence, rhythm, psychological complexity and surprise of that one sentence. These were the first stories that captured my heart as a young female reader new to New York City, to Greenwich Village, to her own life. They were the first stories that taught me to read as a writer.
Continue reading Lesley Dormen's Favorite Linked Stories
September 12, 2006
Andrew Heidel Welcomes a Special "Guest"
R. Andrew Heidel's Desperate Moon, from England's PS Publishing, brings together three previous collections' worth of short stories that have earned him praise from the likes of Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. And, he reports, "the American rights are still available if you want to publish my sweet short stories here."
My first introduction to H.P. Lovecraft was not through his literature but the loosely based but wonderfully executed B-movie based on his short story "Reanimator." I remember watching it in Liz Furst's basement, whose father became a millionaire with Vestron Videos and the release of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video and "The Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller." (On a side note, this is also the company that released "Dirty Dancing" for which I got to read the original script, and released on video "Chopping Mall" whose director Jim Wynorski would later disembowel my satiric script about reality television originally entitled "Survive This" and turn it into a bad soft porn called "Treasure Hunt" produced by Roger Corman… but that's another story.)
But I digress. This was 1986, I was 17, and I was in the throes of my horror reading phase. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub and Edgar Allen Poe. Each weekend we'd gather in Liz's basement and watch the latest B-Movie horror provided courtesy of Vestron and relish in the horror and gore. Each week I'd stay up late and devour another book. I soon sought out Lovecraft's works and the more I read, the more I loved, and the more I wanted to know. While reading a biography on Lovecraft, I discovered that his few fantasy works like "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" were inspired by the Terry Gilliam-esque Lord Dunsany, a little known but famous for his day writer and playwright.
I read Dunsany's The Book of Wonder and was hooked when I read his story "The Guest." When I first started writing, I had trouble writing a story longer than 3 or 4 pages and wondered what was wrong with me. Writers were supposed to be prolific and write grandiose tales of a superior length: weren't they? Lord Dunsany wrote what I consider the best short story ever in a mere two pages. "The Guest" is told from the point of view of a waiter who attends to a regular patron that arrives and dines alone. Not only does he dine alone, but also holds a one sided conversation with an imaginary person across the table from him. During the evening the diner discuses the fascinating people his non-apparent guest has met during his life: kings, paupers, popes and peddlers. The confused waiter, being proper and British, merely observes this talk and thinks he must be a bit off his rocker. He notes that at the end of the meal, the customer orders tea, adds a tablet, drinks, falls dead and that only then his "Guest" is revealed. My brain flipped, doing one of those paradigm shifts that happen every once in a while—like when you get out of a subway and are convinced that a certain direction is north, until you receive a clue and the internal map in your head reverses and aligns with the reality around you. I immediately reread the story with the end in mind and upon rereading discovered whom the guest was all along.
To me, the mark of a great short story is one that makes you savor the language, the economy of words where every word counts, and its ability to make you want to read it again to glean something new. In our short attention span world, I don't understand why short stories aren't more popular. They are perfect bite sized servings with little commitment but incredible rewards.
Anthony Varallo's "Reunion" With Cheever
Anthony Varallo won the Iowa Short Fiction prize last year for his short story collection, This Day in History, and was also a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Fiction Prize. He is an assistant professor of English at the College of Charleston, and serves as fiction editor for the school's literary journal, Crazyhorse.
My favorite short stories have several things in common: They all stand just to the left or right of a more anthologized one (my favorite Carver is "Why Don't You Dance?" not "Cathedral," my favorite Updike is "The Happiest I've Been" not "A&P," and so on); they are stories I've read so many times the collections they inhabit open naturally to their first page (my Complete Short Stories of Bernard Malamud will open to "The Silver Crown" if you hold its spine in your open palm and allow the pages to part); and they are all stories I'd wished I'd written myself—desperately wished, even reading them aloud to my living room, imagining this was so.
John Cheever's "Reunion" is one of them. The story, one of his shortest, appears in The Stories of John Cheever, a book so important to me that I sometimes scan people's shelves looking for it, its presence in a strange house making me feel immediately at home. Do you know "Reunion"? I want to ask, but never do. The one about the kid meeting his father for the first time in years, the father taking him on a drunken, whirlwind tour of New York, insulting waiters, newspaper vendors along the way, the narrator gamely going along, wishing to know his unknowable father before he departs for his train?
The story is a minor miracle, clocking in at less than 1,500 words or so. In the opening paragraph, Charlie, the narrator, meets his father at Grand Central Station, feeling that their "reunion" might offer a glimpse of his own future. He hugs his father, wishing someone would photograph them together. His father, drunk, we soon discover—and this is one the main pleasures of the story, how quickly Charlie's illusions fall, yet the story speeds ahead anyway—takes Charlie to a series of nightclubs, harassing the waiters, until asked to leave. His father speaks poor Italian in an Italian restaurant, affects a British accent in a club where the waiters "wore pink jackets like hunting coats" and insists on leaving when a waiter asks to see Charlie's ID. Charlie observes all of this, without comment, occasionally consoling his father by calling him "Daddy." The word sticks out on the page: Charlie is a teenager. We feel Charlie's embarrassment, but something else, too: his unwillingness to condemn his father's behavior. Instead, Charlie watches, wondering, we feel, whether his father will be his "future and doom," as Charlie wondered in the opening paragraph. Daddy, he wishes to call him, restoring a parent-child order that we know never existed and yet we, like Charlie, yearn for it nonetheless.
The story ends with Charlie telling his father he has to go; he has a train to catch. Charlie's father tells him he'll buy him a newspaper to read on the train—then begins hurling insults at the newspaper vendor. "Goodbye, Daddy," Charlie says, boarding the train, leaving the reader with one of the greatest, impossible, you'd-ruin-it-if-you-tried-it yourself endings in all of American short fiction; a story that ends with the same seven words that opened it. And that was the last time I saw my father.
July 01, 2006
Why Ben Percy Loves "The Hunter's Wife"
Benjamin Percy was raised in the high desert of Central Oregon. A graduate of Brown and Southern Illinois University, he currently works as a visiting assistant professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. His debut collection of short stories, The Language of Elk, has just been published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He's dropped in to tell us about one of his favorite short stories, from Anthony Doerr's The Shell Collector.
"Fuck you, Doerr," is what I say every time I read "The Hunter's Wife." My mouth presses into a frown. I shake my head back and forth until it feels loose on its hinges. I sweat. My breathing gets rapid and shallow. One time I threw his book across the room, where it slammed against the wall and fluttered to the floor like a broken-backed bird. Fuck him, I said. That lousy fuck.
And from me, that's the highest kind of compliment.
These days, more often than not, I pick up a book and the running commentary in my head goes something like this: Quit starting your sentences with absolute phrases. Quit using exclamation marks as a crutch. Quit attaching adverbs to your dialogue tags (he said angrily). Quit mentioning what street you're walking along in New York. Must you self-importantly capitalize words that shouldn't be capitalized? Well, that metaphor went over like a lead tomato. Does anything happen in this story or is your character just going to contemplate his navel for the next twenty pages? Whatever happened to the fine art of the comma? Why are you wearing that ridiculous hat in your author photo? Will you stop using the word "float"?
Or—worst of all—why am I reading this?
It isn't often that I crack open a story and feel profoundly jealous. There are a few exceptions. Anything by Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Richard Yates. Most of what Rick Bass puts on the page. Some Denis Johnson. Those guys, I hate them even as I love them. I read and reread their sentences in a trance of wonder and know that no matter how good I get, I'll never get quite that good, damn it.
That's what happens when I read "The Hunter's Wife."
Continue reading Why Ben Percy Loves "The Hunter's Wife"
June 30, 2006
Alicia Conroy Revisits
"Mrs da Silva's Carnival"
Alicia L. Conroy writes and teaches in Minneapolis. She's just published her first short story collection, Lives of Mapmakers, with Carnegie Mellon University Press. Later this summer, Minneapolis readers can hear her read with Patti Frazee at The Loft Literary Center (July 26), and with Melissa Fraterrigo at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City (July 28).
How to choose between so many old friends? My life as reader and writer would be so much poorer without "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, "The Cask of Amontillado" by Poe, "Wingless" by Jamaica Kincaid, or "In the American Society" by Gish Jen, to name very different tales. Since those writers have had their due, I'm going with "Mrs da Silva's Carnival" by Pauline Melville. I've been a big fan of Melville since 1999, when I read her second story collection, The Migration of Ghosts. Perhaps because she writes in Britain, Melville, who draws on her British and Guyanese heritage in her work, isn't well known in the U.S.
One of the things I love about Melville's stories is the deft and moving way she handles the clash of cultures; her characters are part of a broad and complex canvas. Melville is a precise jeweler of concise but evocative language. Most of the stories in The Migration of Ghosts range from serious to somber, but "Mrs da Silva's Carnival" engulfs me in its world and makes me laugh out loud. I want to keep reading sentences to anyone around me.
The story sets things in motion with the first sentence: "The shop isn't built that would sell a leotard Mrs da Silva's size." The occasion requiring such garb is London's Carnival parades, in which competing teams, made up mostly of West Indian immigrants, vie for costume and dance prizes. The story starts on Carnival day with amply-sized widow Mrs da Silva, longtime matriarch of the Rebel War Band, on her way "to be garbed in a giant shimmering copper tent." There's a very economical backstory about Mrs da Silva's recent romantic disappointment, which the Carnival season, "the beginning and end of the year for her," begins to ease. Armed with this context, we're off to a topsy-turvy day at the parades.
Continue reading Alicia Conroy Revisits
"Mrs da Silva's Carnival"
June 03, 2006
Diane Goodman Loves
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
Diane Goodman lives in Miami Beach where she owns her own catering company and teaches fiction writing part-time at the University of Miami. She's just published her second collection of short stories, The Plated Heart. Here, she shares some of the many reasons she loves the title story of Flannery O'Connor's debut collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find.
I love how the trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled, how the children's mother has a face that was as broad and innocent as a cabbage, how the grandmother—believing in her own empty propriety—wears white gloves, dispenses meaningless commentary and advice, eats a peanut butter sandwich and a single olive in the family car on a trip she does not want to take, on a trip no one in the family wants her to take. I love how the tension of the trip is imprisoned in the car, how it is the backdrop for the tragedy.
I love the perfect names—John Wesley & June Star, Red Sammy Butts, Pitty Sing, Bobby Lee and Hiram and the Misfit.
I love the way the grandmother's self-righteousness and stubborn need to asset her importance in a family that treats her as little more than a nuisance jolts out of a demi-sleep, certain that she recognizes the landscape as a place from her past and I love the lie she weaves from that mistake: 'There was a secret panel in this house', she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing she were. I love what but wishing she were does: recreate the pinpoint pain of the grandmother's lost chances, create the inevitable pinpoint doom of the now excited children discovering their grandmother has lied, imply what might have happened had she been telling the truth.
I love the miracle of the three sentences when she realizes that the place she's convinced her son to stop is actually in another state and how her fear is so supreme that it sparks a physical reaction—her feet jump up—upsetting the valise where she has hidden her cat, who springs up and wraps itself around Bailey's neck causing the car and all its unlikable passengers to roll into a ditch.
I love that the whole tragedy is the Grandmother's fault. And how it's not.
Continue reading Diane Goodman Loves
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
May 16, 2006
Valerie Martin on Chekhov's "The Duel"
Valerie Martin is in New York tonight to read from her latest short story collection, The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories, at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble (6th Ave @ 22nd St). As a prelude to her visit, she was happy to talk about one of her favorite short stories by one of the masters of the form.
Anton Chekhov's story "The Duel" concerns a number of characters, all residents of a hot seaside town in the Caucuses, who pass their time in light "official" duties and in conversation with and about one another. Ivan Andreich Laevsky, a young man who works for the finance ministry, lives unhappily with his mistress, Nadezhda Fyodorovna, a married woman who has run away with him, forsaking her husband and causing a rift between Laevsky and his mother who "couldn't forgive me this liaison." The couple is hard up for money and their passion for each other has turned to dust in the hot sun.
Laevsky is a typical Chekhov character, filled with self-loathing and angst, constantly imagining that he will be happy if he can only make some change in his circumstances. In Petersburg he thought he would be fulfilled by running away to the Caucuses with Nadezhda where they would settle, make new friends and buy a piece of land, "labor in the sweat of our brow, start a vineyard, fields, and so on." Now, faced with the tedium of small town life and a horror of the fields full of "venomous centipedes, scorpions and snakes under every bush and stone," all he wants is to leave his mistress and return to St. Petersburg. "If I were offered two things, to be a chimney sweep in Petersburg or a prince here, I'd take the post of chimney sweep." He confides this to his friend, Dr. Samoilenko, a soft-hearted, peaceable man, "infinitely kind, good-natured, and responsible," who advises Laevsky to take pity on his beautiful, intelligent mistress and offer her respect and indulgence. "Marry her, dear heart!" he concludes. But Laevsky cannot endure the notion that he has any duty to Nadezhda, and goes away with one thought in mind—to escape—though he isn't sure how to do it. "In my indecision I am reminiscent of Hamlet," Laevsky thinks as he goes out for a game of vint. "How rightly Shakespeare observed it! Ah, how rightly!"
Continue reading Valerie Martin on Chekhov's "The Duel"
May 01, 2006
Cristina Henriquez Reaches for "The Sun, The Moon, The Stars"
Cristina Henriquez is the author of Come Together, Fall Apart, a collection of eight short stories and an eponymous novella. West Coast readers will get a chance to see her in Seattle tonight (at Elliott Bay) and Los Angeles tomorrow (at Dutton's), and in a joint appearance with Daniel Alarcon at Corte Madera's Book Passage later this week.
If the task of choosing my favorite short story were akin to choosing some sort of international literary prize, my shortlist would look something like this: "The School" by Donald Barthelme, "Pastoralia" by George Saunders, "Marie" by Edward P. Jones, "Good Country People" by Flannery O’Connor, "Goodbye, My Brother" by John Cheever, and "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" by Junot Diaz. Then again, if I were on the panel for a prize whose shortlist looked like this, there would probably be murmurs among the other jurors suggesting that I be disqualified as a judge, my bias obvious.
I would try to convince them that I really did love all these stories equally, that they had each influenced me or knocked my socks off at some time. But, like a parent who claims to love all his children the same but whose adoration for one is plain, there’s no denying it: Junot Diaz' "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" is my favorite short story. To read my writing, it’s not a surprising choice. Which is why I was loath to pick it when I first started writing this. I wanted to be less predictable. But oh, admit it, I finally thought, "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" is The One for me.
Continue reading Cristina Henriquez Reaches for "The Sun, The Moon, The Stars"
February 10, 2006
Jessica Anthony's Best Story Ever
I first discovered Jessica Anthony when I heard her reading from "The Rust Preventer" at an event for Best New American Voices 2006 (which is also how I met Amber Dermont), by the way). Jessica's work has also appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, McSweeney's, New American Writing, Mid-American Review, and many other fine publications. Her first novel is dangerously close to completion, and when asked to tell Beatrice readers about her favorite short story, she took a clever tack (along with her unique author picture).
The best thing about writing an essay like this ("Name a Short Story Or Novel That Has Influenced You And Why") is that the assignment carries with it a whiff of elementary school's classic biftek: "What I Did Last Summer."
The problem was that I never really did anything over the summer. I grew up in a small agricultural community. I had a dog and a backyard. I climbed trees. Do children even climb trees anymore? I ran around in shorts with my shirt off. I played a lot of badminton. Mostly, I read. But "I read" is not a very exciting answer for "What I Did Over the Summer," so I often made a few important embellishments to my essay which included things like rescuing puppies from high places, throwing rocks through the window of a limousine, and accidentally setting the carpet on fire.
But that's not why I'm here today. I?m here to talk about a short story or novel that has influenced my writing, and you have been very patient to wait so long, and so without further ado, I present to you the title of the aforementioned, extremely influential story. Here it is:
Continue reading Jessica Anthony's Best Story Ever
February 07, 2006
Amber Dermont Gets "The Point"
Amber Dermont's short story "Lyndon" was included in Best New American Voices 2006. She's a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has had stories published in Zoetrope, Open City, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other publications. She's currently a fiction writer in residence at Rice University. Today, she's talking about the title story in Charles D'Ambrosio's first collection, The Point
I'm a fiction writer so all of my favorite memories are false. Most are located in the lives of other people's stories. I too have spent afternoons on the Lucinda River swimming the Australian Crawl. I too have taken off my false leg for a false bible salesman and been abandoned in a barn loft. With outstretched arms, I have stood on the roof of a synagogue and converted my mother, my rabbi, my friends. I have killed the Swede. I know Sonny and his Blues. I have visited the cemetery where Al Jolson is buried. These stories have transported me across state lines, down a vast rabbit hole, beyond the constraints of history, gender, and race.
My memory, though false, is rarely faulty and I've recently found myself in the throes of nostalgia, dwelling on one short story in particular: Charles D'Ambrosio's "The Point." The highly evocative title of this narrative conjures up multiple memories by referring simultaneously to a sharp end, a peninsula, a specific moment in time, an objective worth reaching, a unit of scoring, the attentive stance taken by a hunting dog, a jeweler's measure of weight, a place where lovers retreat, and a mark formed by a sharp end. The story's lush language, its unflinching examination of grief, its sorrowful sense of humor, and its unwavering devotion to family are worth reminiscing over, especially when the writer takes so many risks and breaks so many rules.
Never begin a story with a dream unless that dream is a nightmare. Preferably a nightmare involving a dead father, a helium balloon, and a stringbean. Better still, make sure our first-person narrator has been pushed out of his slumber by this nightmare, by the beach sand collecting in his sheets, and by the party his alcoholic mother is throwing in their home. Make sure when said mother enters the room that our narrator doesn't recognize her: "A woman crossed over and sat on the edge of my bed, bending over me. It was mother." Everything we need to know about the distance, the gulf that exists between this son and the woman who gave him life is located in the juxtaposition of those two sentences. Everything we need to know about the story to follow is located in this first paragraph and established through the kind of unusual sensory detail—the party's silver smoke, the female guests who smell like rotting fruit, the hysterical clinking of ice cubes, the bitter twist of a vodka-soaked lemon peel—that locates the reader in a de-familiarized familiar world. The final sentence of the first paragraph sends the story off on a trajectory no reader can recover from. "When father was alive, (Mom) rarely drank, but after he shot himself you could say she really let herself go." With this line, the bullet of the story leaves the comfort of its chamber and the hunt to see where it will ricochet and where it will strike is on.
Continue reading Amber Dermont Gets "The Point"
February 06, 2006
Kyle Minor Studies "A Field Guide..."
Kyle Minor won honorable mention for both fiction and poetry in the 2005 Atlantic Monthly competition, and second place for nonfiction in the 2004 contest. He's currently working on a memoir, a novel, and a book-length poem, excerpts of all which have turned up in journals such as Quarterly West, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, and the McSweeney's website. All this before he's even completed the M.F.A. program at Ohio State... In this contribution to our ongoing series of essays by short story writers, Kyle takes a close look at one of his favorites: Wallace Stegner's ""A Field Guide to the Western Birds," which can be found in Stegner's Collected Stories.
I love bombast. Fireworks. Language that walks the tightrope while cannon fire fills the air all around. Barry Hannah, Jonathan Lethem, Cormac McCarthy. That sort of thing. Dazzle. Energy. Power.
But there are other kinds of power. I've lately been reading again through Andre Dubus, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Wallace Stegner. Our contemplatives. I could throw out some words, capital-A Abstractions like Dignity, Gravity, Transcendence. Words we use when we try to approximate the readerly sensation that begins faintly at the tips of our toes or in the burnings of the soft cartilage of our ears, and moves slowly toward the center of our bodies, building in intensity, building to the crescendo of the newly aching heart, the loosened tear ducts, the head bowed under the weight of the terrible knowledge that what is complicated is also true.
I'm most taken with Wallace Stegner's long story "A Field Guide to the Western Birds," the story that introduces us to retired literary agent Joe Allston, narrator of many of Stegner's finer novels, including The Spectator Bird.
"The memoirs are what made a birdwatcher out of Joseph Allston," our narrator writes about himself. But make no mistake. This is no story about birds, nor is it about writing memoirs. It's about, instead, an aspiring concert pianist and his would-be patron, and the frauds they inflict upon one another (and, in the process, upon all those, like Joe Allston, who have been summoned to attend their little psychodrama of a tryout concert party). Allston is both participant and observer, but it is the latter role that really suits him.
He's a little cranky about it, though. No one can know the mind of the other. Allston spends his days trying to figure out the mysteries of the birds and his evenings trying to figure out the deeper mysteries of the people around him. Their "beagle-running, rabbit-chasing, patio-building, barbecueing . . ."
He contemplates the lies he has seen the concert pianist perpetrate this very evening: "Why would he? What made him? Was he lying at first, lying later, or lying all the time? And what is more important to me just then, where in God's name does he belong?"
Continue reading Kyle Minor Studies "A Field Guide..."
January 24, 2006
Patrick O'Keeffe Gets "Carried Away"
I'm launching a new essay feature on Beatrice this week, in which short story writers will be invited to comment upon their favorite short stories or short story writers. It's called "Selling Shorts," which is an admittedly egregious pun, and probably a bit mercenary for a bookblog, but I hope it'll come to grow on you—and the authors will be swell, at any rate.
To launch the feature, I've invited Patrick O'Keeffe, whose The Hill Road is [UPDATED: the winner] of the second annual Story Prize. He graciously agreed to contribute an essay about Alice Munro's "Carried Away," which can be found in the collection Open Secrets.
"Take what you have gathered from coincidence"—Bob Dylan
Alice Munro, in Open Secrets, resembles Tolstoy, in that she convincingly gives you the entire social structure of a place, in her case the town of Carstairs, from top to bottom, each character from the inside out. "Carried Away," Louisa's story, is constructed around a set of bizarre, though plausible, coincidences. Louisa is initially a commercial traveler; she later becomes the public librarian, and receives letters from Jack Agnew, a soldier in the First World War. She sends him a photograph, falls deliriously in love with him, but when he returns from the war, he marries the dull, conventional Grace. Louisa, unlike Grace, possesses "some consciousness of herself as a heroine of love's tragedy." Jack, however, was engaged to Grace before he went off to the war. He sneaks books out of the library, but never approaches Louisa, whose love for a man she has never seen persists. There is an indication of mythology, of legend, to all this.
Once an outsider and a stranger in the town, Louisa, as time passes, ends up doing well for herself, because she marries Arthur Doud. The Doud family owns the piano factory, which is the town's chief employer. One afternoon, Arthur visits the library to return Jack Agnew's books, given to him by Jack's wife, Grace, after Jack is beheaded in an accident with a mechanical saw in Arthur's factory. Louisa doesn't tell Arthur about Jack, and a new episode in both of their lives begins.
Continue reading Patrick O'Keeffe Gets "Carried Away"