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“When It’s Miller Time” ~ Dennis McFadden on Short Story Endings May 25, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
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As we come to the last questions of the series “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers,” we dig into the ideas and possibilities set forth by endings. Seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Dennis McFadden begins the end here with his answers to Gerard Woodward’s questions set forth a few days ago.

Gerard: What’s the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? What does it mean to be open-ended? How do you avoid a reader feeling cheated or frustrated by what might feel like an inconclusive ending? How does it square with achieving a sense of completeness, of closure? Does it ever work to have a more conclusive ending to a story, or is that just old fashioned, and only suitable for genres like horror and romance? Perhaps most importantly, what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?

Dennis: On a recent visit with our excellent friends in Massachusetts, we hadn’t been settled over tea and cookies for half an hour when Ronnie said, “Dennis, Jack and I really enjoyed your story,”—they’d read “Blue Side Up” in the fall issue of Crazyhorse—“but we have some questions.

“There were two fires,” she said, “—now, did he start both of them?”

“That’s what I said in my email,” Jack said. “There were some things I couldn’t figure out.”

A couple more questions followed, but they quickly petered out. I’m afraid I wasn’t much help. Unlike all of you academicians, teachers and full-time writers, I don’t feel particularly comfortable talking about my work, and I’m not particularly good at it. Looking back now, though, I suppose I could have offered a more illuminating response.

I could have told them that, yes, yes indeed, the protagonist— Aviation Cadet Robert L. Tinley 882624, Sir!—did start both fires, albeit accidentally, killing his girlfriend in the first, dispatching the lady from Russellville in the second, then, unhinged by the accumulating evil, murdered Steven McShea, his friend and fellow cadet. Or I could have told them he was a young, innocent victim of life’s circumstances who, traumatized by those two accidental fires, and suffering delusions of seeing his girlfriend in the clouds, committed suicide on a training run in his Stearman. Or I could have told them he was in fact a psychopath who set both fires intentionally, then went on to set several more, killing his base commander and an innocent duck in the process. Or for that matter, I could have pulled a James Dean Sanderson and told them the same thing he told me some fifty years ago when I asked about the ending to his novel, Boy With a Gun: Why don’t you write an ending that suits yourself? Maybe your English teacher will give you credit for it.

I personally have always liked the type of ending that leaves me pleasantly dissatisfied. So that’s the type I try to write. I don’t want to tell my readers everything that happened. I do want to tell them enough, however, so that they can figure out for themselves the part I didn’t tell them.

And if the part they figure out isn’t exactly what I had in mind? No harm, no foul. Because, you see, I know what really happened. We writers find the lure of omniscience nearly impossible to resist. It’s good to be God sometimes.

And God never lets you know everything that’s happening, now does He?

Life is pretty much a mystery. We can never really know everything that’s happening in our lives, or anything that will happen after them. And doesn’t realist, literary fiction attempt to be an honest reflection of life?

Whoa. Is that heavy or what?

As a writer of realist, literary fiction, I’ve used all types of endings. The first story I had accepted for publication, “Something in the Cellar,” depicts a marriage crumbling amid mounting animosity. Late in the story the couple goes to a dance where the man asks an acquaintance who happens to be a doctor about a mole on his back. The doctor warns him to have it looked at soon, or, judging by his description, it could quickly metastasize into something very fatal. The man assures the doctor he will, then, in the last paragraph, he’s tickling his wife’s back—their last, remote point of contact—where lives the mole that’s spreading there undetected. An ending with a twist.

Hayden’s Ferry Review published my story, “Reinventing Francie,” about a fugitive IRA man on the run in theU.S., reluctantly pressed back into action when a notorious informer is found to be living nearby. In the end, he confronts his intended victim with execution on his mind, but the informer turns out to be armed and dangerous. The final scene shows the former IRA man lying wounded on a wooded mountainside, possibly dying—an open ending. (Apparently not open enough for HFR, however; they insisted on ending the story at the beginning of the confrontation, an ending I thought would leave the reader unpleasantly dissatisfied.)

A story called “Helga’s Last Days,” to appear next spring in the minnesota review, might have been open-ended enough for HFR: A woman worries that her husband might have committed a murder for which his nephew has been convicted and sentenced to die. In the climax, the woman attacks her husband in the kitchen, and a bloody brawl ensues. The last sentence: “I figured if I could take him then there was no way he could have done that to Lucy Wilson, and I reached up and the frying pan found my hand, and I cracked him good, but the outcome was still in some doubt.”

In “Bye Baby Bunting,” the final story in my collection, Hart’s Grove, the protagonist, a rough roofer named Dave, goes searching for and finds, against all odds, a little boy lost in the woods, a miracle that begins to heal the rupture in his marriage caused by the loss of his own child a few years before. In the final scene he and his wife are going home together to make love for the first time in a long time. A closed, happy ending.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t make that ending an open one. The story would be cheated. Nor could I have the ex-IRA man shoot the informer, blow the smoke from the tip of his six-gun and ride off into the sunset, neat, complete, explicit and closed. Nor would “Something in the Cellar” allow for anything but that particular twist.

So what’s your point, McFadden?

The point is, I’ve written all different types of endings not just to see how many different types of endings I could write, but because the story being written dictated the ending that was right for it. The ending grows naturally out of the narrative that went before. After all, Ronnie and Jack weren’t really asking about just the ending, now were they? They were asking about the whole damn thing. That first fire—it was described midway through the story and took place years before the current storyline. Can an ending really be surgically removed, examined under the microscope, discarded and the story then fitted with a prosthetic replacement? Open endings, closed endings? Does the writer really have a choice? Not if he or she is listening closely to his or her story.

It seems to me there are only two types of endings to short stories: good endings and bad endings.

Gerard also asked about our favorite stories, in terms of endings (favourite actually, but who’s quibbling?), so I gave it some thought. You know what I came up with? Saunders’ “The Falls,” Hall’s “The Ledge,” etc.—stories I’d already mentioned as being my favorites, as well as my favourites, suggesting to me that if a story is good, the ending is too. You can’t have a good story without a good ending.

A well written story will tell you, the writer, when it’s Miller time. In fact, a good, well written story will not only tell you when it’s over, it will tell you how it’s over. The ending grows out of the story. It’s organic. I would say it’s preordained, but then I’d be getting into that God thing again.

The best way to end a short story? Quit writing when the story’s over.

*

Speaking of endings… I’d like to thank Patty for inviting and allowing me into the august company of this conversation. It’s been a pleasant diversion from the lovely drudgery of hammering on my fiction, and it’s also given me plenty to ponder as I go about trying, in my small, pitiful way, to turn words into something close to literary. It’s been fun, and it’s been a pleasure meeting and talking to—in a manner of speaking—Gina, Vanessa and Gerard. Thanks.

I should also mention, Patty, how impressed I am by your organizational skills, your timely postings, apt commentary, communications and coordination, in short, the exemplary way in which you’ve managed this entire project. In fact, if you’re ever considering a career change, have your people get in touch with my people. Maybe we can do lunch.

Aw, shucks, Dennis. Thanks for the kind words. And thanks, too, for finding the time to be part of this conversation among writers. And to those of you reading these posts, we know you must have a soft spot for the short story. Remember that it is still National Short Story Month, so go out there and support the story and its writer. Read one, share one, pick up a collection. Might I recommend Hart’s Grove by Dennis McFadden? And we’ll be hearing from our other writers on the subject of endings in the next days. Thanks for stopping by. Y’all come back now, hear? -PMc←

Dennis McFadden’s Working Man’s Quarters ~ Another View From the Keyboard April 28, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, View From the Keyboard.
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As promised, here is the writing space of Dennis McFadden, author of the very fine short story collection Hart’s Grove, and participant in this blog’s “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers. You’ll find here, too, an excerpt from another of his wonderful stories.

Dennis: This is where I do most of my writing and watch the sun come up. It’s located upstairs over the kitchen in our old (1857) farmhouse in what was at one time the “working man’s quarters.” Appropriately enough. My muse, disguised here as a cat, is getting old too, and needs her heat lamp now. She lets me know if I neglect to turn it on for her. From the window she watches the birds and rabbits, and fondly recalls the good old days.

Excerpt from “The Three-Sided Penny” (The Missouri Review, vol. 30, no. 4):

In the end they blamed the travellers and closed the book. Old Foley gave in to despair. Friendless before, he was now all but shunned, seen as possessing enough bad luck to rub off on anyone misfortunate enough to give him the time of day. Only Lafferty stood him a pint or two when he could afford it, the Murphy’s not the Guinness. One night Foley shows up dressed to the nines, in his tweed jacket, threadbare but clean, and a fine woolen tie. His best trousers held up by his rope. When asked the occasion he smiled and stood a round. Says he, “I’m after closing a deal,” and he’d say no more on it, despite all the prompting and cajoling, the speculating rampant that he’d found his three-sided penny, in a different pocket from where he’d thought he’d stashed it, the old fool, or hidden elsewhere where he’d forgot in his state that night, or that indeed he’d discovered another. But wasn’t he found next day in his shanty, beside his own donkey Isadora, Cromwell the killer bull suspiciously frisky in the field beyond. He was hanging from the rafter by his rope, Foley was, his trousers dangling loose about his feet.

Dennis, thanks again! And a reminder to our writer-readers, we are eager to see your space, too, and to read your writing. Guidelines for submissions are at the right. -PMc←


Since we’ve started this conversation… March 29, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff.
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Our short story conversationalists have had a few rather lovely things happen in their writing lives since we started chatting about writing. Dennis McFadden, up next with his response to the question “Is the short story a training ground for the novel?” has had “Diamond Alley,” one of his stories from Hart’s Grove, chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011; Gerard Woodward’s short story, “The Family Whistle,” has moved from the long list to the short list for the very lucrative Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2011 (site has a cool little video with judges comments on what makes a short story great); Gina Frangellos collection Slut Lullabies has been named a finalist in ForeWords Book of the Year Awards; Vanessa Gebbie’s collection Words from a Glass Bubble was selected by Booktrust as one of “Ten Collections to Celebrate the Strength of British Short Story Writers;” and me? Well, no big prizes or short lists (if I say “yet” here will that screw with my karma?) but the first offering of The Temple of Air, the Story Week Limited Release, sold out before the end of the festival and I have been signing books for friends and new readers alike–a very humbling and exciting experience.

So these writers who are giving so generously of their time to fill the pages of this blog with their thoughts on the short story are the real deal, folks. I hope you enjoy what they have to say on the subject. And do feel free to join in on the conversation. Maybe their magic will rub off on you just a little. Or maybe yours will rub off on them (us.)

Oh, and you probably figured this out, but the lovely image above is by Pablo Picasso. The man whom we named our cat after. We call him Pabs, usually. He has a brother named Enrique (Reeks.)

Reading, by the way, exhausts him.

Why The Short Story? “Goosebumps,” says Dennis McFadden February 28, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
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Photo Credit: Heidi Brown

Dennis McFadden lives and writes in an old farmhouse called Mountjoy on Bliss Road, just up Peaceable Street from Harmony Corners in upstate New York.  “Diamond Alley,” from his collection of linked stories, Hart’s Grove (Colgate University Press, June, 2010), was recently selected for inclusion in Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.  His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Missouri Review, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, CutBank and The South Carolina Review.

Dennis and I met years ago at Stonecoast Writers’ Conference in Maine (we were housed on the Bowdoin Campus where we walked the same paths that Lawrence Sargent Hall did.) We were both trying to fine the balance between our “real” lives and our writing lives. Dennis was better at that than I, and his truly fine debut collection shows just what hard work and tenacity can get you. His insightful answer to “Why the short story?” is below, as is his follow-up question, “How the short story?”

Dennis: I was flattered when my friend Patty asked me to join this conversation about writerly things with some of her writerly pals, flattered and perhaps (that is, “per” “haps”) a bit flummoxed. My credentials can’t compete. Unlike Patty and Gina and Vanessa, I’m neither a teacher, nor an editor, nor a full-time writer. I’ve had one book published. I’m a state worker, a project manager for the New York State Department of Health who tries to write an hour or two in the morning before work. My apprehension was validated when Patty kicked off the conversation with “Why the short story?” and all I could come up with was, well, why not the short story? Because it’s short, that’s why. Then, when I saw the eloquent and elaborate offerings of my co-conversationalists, I knew I was in trouble.

But one of my mother’s favorite stories came to mind, and I was granted a modicum of hope. Good old mom. According to her, I was no more than two or three when I looked out the bus window at a busy Washington, D.C. sidewalk and said, “Look at all the pedestrians.” Was that not eloquent? And, anytime you use a word with more syllables than your years, elaborate?

Still, there weren’t many books around my place when I was a kid. Nobody’d gone to college. Dad told a few bad jokes when he was drunk, but no bedtime stories. I remember getting my hands on some Hardy Boys books, and enjoying them, and when I was 15, I picked up a paperback called Boy With a Gun. It was, coincidentally, about a 15-year-old boy. It takes place during the Hungarian uprising, and the kid’s father and brother are killed, and he ends up fighting in the revolution, and he and this 15-year-old chick are crazy about each other, but the end left me hanging. The kid was still fighting. The war wasn’t over. He and the chick still weren’t together. What happened? What the hell happened? I had to know. So I wrote to the author, James Dean Sanderson, and asked him, and he actually wrote back! I tore open the envelope, about to have all my questions answered, all the mysteries revealed. But he didn’t tell me a damn thing. He was flattered, he said, that the book had affected me that way. He suggested I write an ending. I should write the damn ending! I should talk to my English teacher—I might even be able to earn credit for it.

The bastard.

Maybe that planted a seed, I don’t know, but I never entertained writing, not seriously, until my senior year, when my English teacher spotted my “talent,” and singled me out for high and frequent praise. His name was MacBeth. That’s right. MacBeth.

How could I then not go on to college and major in English? I became known as a writer, a couple of stories published in the old “lit mag.” I was on my way. Then a funny thing happened. I took off 10 or 12 years after college to drink and party. And when I finally did get back to writing, it was to the novel, not the short story. My third book was pretty good, good enough to get me an honest-to-God New York City literary agent. But alas. All she succeeded in doing was getting me a higher class of rejection slips, and she dumped me after a year. In my state of despair, Irish activism caught me on the rebound, and I spent the next fifteen years getting England out of Ireland (no hard feelings, Philip, Vanessa). All I wrote during that period was propaganda, but I wrote it well and I wrote it plenty. And you know what? It wasn’t bad practice. Some of those satirical pieces are very much like short stories.

They had to be short. The old attention span blues that Gina referenced.

So maybe we’re on to something here. Short satire evolved into short stories as Irish activism fell by the wayside when peace broke out (thanks in large part to me, I like to think).

So why didn’t I go back to writing novels? Oh…just thinking out loud here…maybe because I hadn’t had one published? Just a thought. Maybe because I was getting older now, the green banana syndrome, hesitant to begin any two year projects? Maybe because I loved the high of finishing a story and craved it more often? I became addicted, jonesing for finishes.

It’s not that I really prefer one to the other, the novel and the short story. I read both, write both. I can become equally immersed—reading or writing—in both. The aforementioned Boy With a Gun, Plunkett’s Strumpet City, Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Nichols’s The Sterile Cuckoo—these are novels that have stayed with me all my life. On the other hand, I (like my new found friend, Vanessa) will never forget “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall, nor Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children,” George Saunders’s “The Falls,” and any number of other stories, particularly those with an Alice Munro byline.

In the end, it probably comes down to goosebumps.

A few years ago I was sitting around a table at Stonecoast listening to Patty read a George Saunders story called “The End of FIRPO in the World.” Toward the end, I felt a wave of goosebumps breaking out on my arms, on my neck and back. Not for the first time, nor the last. Same thing happened toward the end of “The Ledge,” and many other stories I’ve heard or read—including, I’ll shamelessly admit, my own story, “Painting Pigs.” Same thing almost every time I write what is, at the time at least, the last sentence of a new story.

On the other hand, much as I enjoy novels, I don’t recall a single goosebump ever caused by one (though, admittedly, a single goosebump might be difficult to detect).

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you.

The goosebumps have it. For me at any rate, that’s why the short story.

Now I’m curious as to how the short story. (We can defer what the short story, who, where and when the short story for later.)

How the short story? We’re talking conception here. Do you decide to write a story, or does a story decide to be written? One moment there’s nothing there, blotto, oblivion, nothingness, and the next there’s a seed that leads, a week, a month or years later to a fully formed, complex and meaningful story. Do you will it into existence, or is it a matter of spontaneous combustion?

How does it happen? A theme? An event? A character? Something else altogether? Is there any discernable method or pattern, or is inspiration random and chaotic? Thinking through my collection, one story originated from a buried childhood memory of snow floating down through the glow of a streetlight and covering a park bench. The scene itself never made it into the story. Another was inspired when I imagined how a gaudy Christmas light display might piss off the guy’s neighbor, another was sparked by a news article about a deathbed confession, and yet another by an actual experience (finding a kid lost in the woods) of my nephew.

What do you use and how do you use it? And, just as importantly, are you really using it, or is it using you?

Why The Short Story? Lawrence Sargent Hall Reads “The Ledge” February 24, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations.
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I’ve been surveying my friends (Facebook and otherwise) to find out what short stories they have found important, influential, inspiring, or just plain entertaining. The list is long and varied and still grows even as I write this; I’m excited to have a whole slew of new stories to read. Soon, I will compile the stats for us all to see what the favorites are, and what our fellow writers, readers, and friends are reading these days.

An early front runner is “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall. Want to see how to use point-of-view? Few better examples than this story. Suspense? Here it is. Pathos? Uh-huh. In 2009, on the fiftieth anniversary of this story’s publication (the story was born the same year as I was!), Bowdoin College celebrated this work by one of their own. Here then is the link to the webpage that commemorates that celebration, complete with a lovely audio file of Mr. Hall himself reading from the story. So cool.

http://www.bowdoin.edu/magazine/features/2009/the-ledge.shtml

And the conversation keeps on going. I am thrilled to tell you that Gerard Woodward (Caravan Thieves, Nourishment, and others) will join in on the discussion soon. Dennis McFadden, author of the very new Hart’s Grove, has some really interesting things to say about writing and raising funds for the IRA. So come back again. And feel free to add your own two cents.

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