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

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?

Bath Spa and Tessa Hadley

In the fall term of 2008, I had the remarkable opportunity to be a visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University in their very impressive Creative Writing program. This was part of our on-going exchange between Columbia College Chicago, where I direct the undergraduate programs in Fiction Writing, and Bath Spa University. It is a good match, CCC and BSU, two schools who each find the teaching of creative writing an important thing to do, not just to educate artists and writers, but to teach these same students how to use these skills in the working world. Creative problem solving, effective communication, analytical thinking, a willingness to listen: these are just a few of the things that Columbia and Bath help their students learn and practice before turning them loose on the world.

There were many things that were exciting about my time at Bath. A morning run on the River Avon where a pair of swans swooped and settled in the water nearby. Living in a Georgian-period building made into a modern apartment block, on a road that Jane Austen herself walked (unhappily.) My desk in a re-purposed centuries-old stable on the castle grounds where BSU’s main campus is situated. Students who were being given their first real chance to have their writing taken seriously (far fewer creative writing programs at the high school level than here.) Talented and interesting colleagues, among them Tim Middleton and Steve May, administrators who are teachers, researchers and writers themselves; Mimi Thebo; Carrie Etter; Lucy English; Annie McGann; Julia Greene; Nic Jeune; Michael Johnson, poets, novelists, young adult writers, and filmmakers. The list goes on and on and includes Gerard Woodward, who is currently writer-in-residence here in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia and whose ideas on the short story you’ll find on another page of this blog, and Tessa Hadley, who was just featured in the Guardian in this fine profile.

You can see that Tessa takes her work very seriously, even as she writes with delightful humo(u)r. You can see, too, if you follow a link or two here, that Bath Spa University is a fine place to study and to teach creative writing, and that we at Columbia College Chicago are lucky to be partners with such a place.

“Respect the Storyness.” Gerard Woodward answers “Why The Short Story?”

Gerard Woodward was recently long-listed for The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award with a prize of £30,000 (nearly $50,000 in today’s currency market—holy sheepskin!) for his single short story, “The Family Whistle.” (Who says there’s no value in the short story?) Gerard is also author of an acclaimed trilogy comprising August (shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award), I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize), and A Curious Earth. His most recent short story collection is Caravan Thieves. He was born in London in 1961, and published several prize-winning collections of poetry before turning to fiction. His latest collection of poetry, We Were Pedestrians, was shortlisted for the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize. His most recent novel, Nourishment, was released in the fall of 2010. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and writer-in-residence this year in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago.

This man of many prizes and many lists has graciously joined in on our conversation “Why The Short Story?” and provided us with his take below:

Gerard: Why The Short Story?

Well, I suppose the answer has to be – because it can do something that no other literary form can. If it didn’t, then there would be no need for it. But what is that special thing it can do? That’s a bit harder to define. It can help by comparing the short story to other forms, like the novel and the poem.

I struggled with short stories for many years without much success. I had novels and books of poetry published long before I managed to write a publishable short story, even though I’d been trying since about the age of ten. One reason for this, I think, is that I didn’t properly appreciate the form. I didn’t take on board precisely what it is that a short story does so well – that is, deliver a powerfully engaging narrative in a restricted amount of space. Too often I was treating the short story as a kind of overblown poem in prose (but not a prose poem, which is something quite different), or else they were fragments of novels masquerading as complete, self-contained pieces. I began to see that one couldn’t approach the short story with the same imaginative gear of a poet or novelist, you had to have the unique, special, short story head. Without this apparatus you were unable to see either the potential for short stories in the world around you, or to write them.

At the same time, the short story incorporates elements of both the poem and the novel. In a short story every sentence matters, every word matters, to a far higher degree than in a novel. Every word needs to justify its place, as in a poem. In such a small space there is nowhere to hide your sloppy writing or your sloppy characters. You are exposed. Every metaphor and observation needs to work, because they are making up for the extra three hundred pages you get in a novel. The short story also needs to tell a story. Sounds obvious, but short stories that don’t do this, that try to have the same narrative absence that is possible in a poem, say, usually fail as pieces of writing. So you have to appreciate and respect the form – respect the shortness, respect the storyness. Get a short story head.

You acquire this ‘short story head’ in the same way that you acquire a novel or poetry head, by reading lots of good short stories. For me, Raymond Carver was a revelation. In fact, an exposure to American writing generally has been fundamental to me both in short story and novel writing. Carver’s use of the telling detail, of dialogue that is so perfect it almost sounds artificial but isn’t, and his ability to wring gallons of drama from the driest and most mundane of materials, is a very enabling thing to witness. He is a great permission-giver.

It has been particularly interesting for me since I’ve been in the States and re-immersing myself, as much as I can, in the writing over here, to see how much more prominently the short story figures in the literary culture, compared to back home. In Britain, the short story has never really taken off as a form, it has never held the kind of central position it seems to in North America, where the short story, and in particular the linked collection of short stories (Anderson, Cheever, Steinbeck et al,) seems so defining. Strange, really, that given such a big landscape, such a diversity of peoples and histories, it should find expression through such a compressed and condensed form. But maybe that is the key. The vastness of American culture is perhaps best addressed through the small lens. I know people over here write big novels as well, but as has been so well articulated in the critical narrative of the last few decades, it seems scarcely possible to write a novel that will do the whole American thing.

I know, from reading these debates on line and elsewhere, that commercial publishing in America is as wary of the form as it is in Britain, and that there seems to be an odd reluctance on the part of readers to engage with the short narrative, preferring the immersive experience of the novel instead. But in America the short story does seem to be taken more seriously.

But then there are good signs on the horizon. As I said in a comment to an earlier post, there does seem to be the beginnings of a revival in Britain, with two high profile competitions which are getting lots of national media coverage. My own publisher, Picador, has just brought out a collection by an unknown writer (Stuart Evers – 10 Stories about Smoking). Perhaps this will at last transform into a genuine popularisation of the form. In a world of short attention spans it would seem ideal – but then who are we to presume attention spans are shortening? Perhaps the next generation will actually have better concentration skills. You never know.

→Next up: results from our favorite short story survey. And then Dennis McFadden, the IRA, and good practice.←

And the Winner Is…pt 1

The votes are still being tallied for Favorite Short Story, and this being Chicago, many of the voters are following our city motto: “Vote Early and Often.”

So far, though, more than 60 separate short story titles have been named favorites by more than 50 readers. And this is just a small sampling of the reading public – my friends and Facebook followers. Take that, book publishers. Not only are short stories being read, they are being adored, re-read, recommended, and shared. If you print it, we will read.

Many people have taken the time to comment on their choices, and I offer a small sampling of these responses to you now:

‘I have a three-way tie for my favorite short story so in no particular order, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall, and “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. Each time I read Baldwin’s I discover something new on the page, something compelling. Hall’s piece is just so menacing that I still feel a chill just thinking about it. And Hemingway’s subtle ending and vague conversation has me changing my mind about the third to last paragraph again and again.’  – Patrick J Salem, editor of Chicago Pulp Stories

‘My favorite short story, without a close rival for me, is, “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”, by Oscar Wilde. A theory described by his character, Erskine, of the mystery of Shakespeare’s dedication of his book of sonnets in 1609, to a, Mr. W.H.
The story is part fable, part criticism, part legacy and treatise, and the chararcters are warmly absorbing. Plus Wilde’s theory is in part; conceptually conceivable. Written with eloquence as I find all of Wilde’s stories; this ends in a subtle, somber fashion, unlike many of his other short stories which present, in physical form; flowers, gems, money, and gold and various magical manifestions, despite the sorrow, death and suicide often at the center of the story. Truly a good read, and I would suggest this for a cozy, quiet afternoon.’ – Dale Stroker, Florida

‘Shirley Jackson. “The Lottery.” Scared the crap out of me when I was 13. Still does.’ – Jo Cates, Dean of the Library, Columbia College Chicago

‘Too many to name! I agree about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and would add the obscure John Steinbeck story, “Johnny Bear.” Aimee Bender’s “Quiet Please” for a more recent work.’ – Carrie Etter, poet, UK

And the following was pulled from a much longer comment posted by Philip Hartigan to Gina Frangello’s answer to “Why the Short Story?” You can read the rest of this on the comments section of that page.

‘Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ (which may be considered a novella, but never mind). Why? Because it’s like a miniature version of ‘Anna Karenina’, showing how love can be so dangerous that it can lead to the utmost extreme of human experience (suicide for Anna, wife-icide in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’).

John McNally’s ‘The Vomitorium’. There’s something about certain writers who are in complete command of their art: when you start reading them, it’s like the difference between turning the ignition in a mini, and starting the engine in a Rolls-Royce (I’ve done both, by the way). John McNally’s prose purrs like an RR engine. And it’s so moving, too — the final gesture of this story is funny, kind of silly, and yet extremely moving.

And most recently, I read ‘Rape’, by Gerard Woodward, from his collection ‘Caravan Thieves’. Patty put me onto his work, as he was her colleague when she spent a semester at Bath Spa University. The eponymous word refers to a field rather than an act — though the act that occurs in the story is strange, surreal, and surprising.

In case this sounds like a series of short reviews, let me say that I picked these stories after asking myself: which short stories come to mind right now? That these three came to the fore is not just a testament to the emotional depth and artistry of the authors, but the unique ability of the short story form to present condensed (yet in the case of Tolstoy, not exactly short) meditations on the world.’

I’ll be closing the polls this weekend and updating you with the final results and more comments passed along by readers, writers, and friends.

In the meantime, long live the short story!

Oh, and by the way (shameless self-promotion here) I’ll be reading tomorrow night with Criminal Class Press. Full details on the upcoming events page.

Why The Short Story? Lawrence Sargent Hall Reads “The Ledge”

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.

“Why The Short Story?” Gina Frangello says…

Gina Frangello is the author of two critically acclaimed books of fiction, Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). The longtime editor of the literary magazine, Other Voices, she co-founded its book press, Other Voices Books, in 2005, where she is the current Executive Editor. She is also the Editor of the Fiction Section at the popular online literary collective, The Nervous Breakdown (www.thenervousbreakdown.com), and teaches in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. Her recent short fiction can be found in Fence, F Magazine, MAKE, Fifth Wednesday, and ACM. Gina can be found online at www.ginafrangello.com.

Here’s what Gina had to say when asked “Why the short story?”

Gina: I was recently talking with my friend Rob Roberge, whose stellar short story collection, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life, came out a few months ago, about the difference between stories and novels. Rob was talking about the way stories tend to begin at one specific, individual point, and as they develop they open up more and more onto the world, the best ones often ending at a point that, rather than offering neat resolution, offer numerous possibilities and directions. Novels, by contrast, often begin with many disparate stories or realities that—as the novel progresses, all converge down into one overlap or resolution. In other words, the short story is shaped like a funnel, starting on top with the narrowest point, and then broadening as it progresses. The novel would be a funnel turned upside-down, so that the broadest part is its beginning, and it narrows down as it goes along.

There are always numerous exceptions to any rule, but this image really struck me. I write both short stories and novels, just as I read both, and I don’t favor one form over the other. I don’t believe that one is inherently “better” or offers more—I think those things are more internally dictated by what speaks to a specific reader, that mysterious alchemy of connection that happens between the reader and the writer, even though usually they never meet in person. But I do think that stories are harder to craft than novels, and I do think that, to do a story well, the funnel-shape is practically mandatory. While not all novels are upside-down funnels, a good story almost always needs to start with a very specific character or incident that feels highly intimate and immediate, something that “hooks” the reader immediately since the short story doesn’t have fifty pages in which to “flirt” with a reader, but has to sink its claws in fast. But the kiss of death for a short story is the “punch line” ending, the ending that can only be read one way, the ending that reveals all and with only one possible interpretation. The best short stories should be able to be read over and over again, each time yielding something new. If you get to the end of a story and feel that everything has been so completely addressed by the ending that the earlier elements of the story no longer hold any intrigue, mystery or appeal to you—if all that matters is the story’s end—then the story may be entertaining but it’s never going to make the emotional impact or haunt the reader the way the great stories do.

The trend now is towards very short shorts, where it seems as though anything longer than 3,000 words is a “long” story. Anyone who can write a brilliant story in a couple thousand words is truly talented and has my admiration. My own preference, though, is for a meaty, longer story. When I edited Other Voices magazine, most stories we published were more in the 6,000 word range, and my own stories tend to span anywhere between 6,000 to 10,000 words. Two of my favorite short stories ever are Mary Gaitskill’s “Heaven,” the finale story of her debut collection, Bad Behavior, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent,” the finale piece in The Interpreter of Maladies. Both of these stories offer the richness of a good novel—they are long in terms of the “typical” contemporary story, but their complexity and depth is almost unbelievable considering their shortness compared with the novel form. I like a story that’s a little messy. I teach “Hills Like White Elephants” a lot, but I usually teach it next to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which is sort of a companion piece to it in some ways, though I’m not sure either Hemingway or Carver would have seen it that way. I see those two pieces as related in the same way that I see Morrison’s Beloved as continuing a dialogue with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I don’t think “What We Talk About” is a better story, per se, but I love the way it’s able to offer so much intense characterization and the illusion of a “rambling” piece, yet in the end the story is just as much about subtext as “Hills” is—its real meat lies in what isn’t said. The dialogue is masterful. Dialogue can be hard in short fiction, because there’s less space to really reflect the indirect way people actually talk to one another, but when a short story nails it, the dialogue, in a sense, is the story. That’s incredibly hard to do. Short fiction can be like drama in that sense, like writing a play. The short story is an incredibly diverse form. It combines the best of various other literary art forms.

The dominant corporate publishing industry seems to have decided, for the most part, that the short story is an unmarketable form. Fewer short story collections come out with the big, corporate houses, and fewer print magazines, especially glossies, publish much short fiction these days. Collections (and even more so, anthologies) are very hard to get reviewed by the mainstream book media. The reason for this is pretty simple: corporate publishing is run by marketing departments these days, and the marketing departments answer to corporate shareholders, and it’s all about an economic bottom line. Collections are hard to “market” because they’re very difficult to reduce to a one-sentence tag line or description. There may be 10 or 12 stories in the book and they’re all about different things and different people. Marketing departments don’t like that—they like things that are very easy to describe, that have one, unified target demographic. The one thing that collections do offer over novels—that kind of range and diversity, where a writer can really showcase a variety of talents, interests, obsessions—is exactly what New York doesn’t like about collections. But this is stupid on a variety of fronts. For starters, we live in a short attention span world. For the generations who are coming of age with YouTube and handheld video games, who crave instant gratification, the short story is an ideal literary medium. Even a long story can be read in one sitting if it really grabs you. People are busy—we work longer hours and have more competition for our free time now, given the internet—and being able to have a wholly satisfying experience by reading one short story before bed . . . this is a marketing angle I’m always shocked to find the big publishers seem to be blind to. The youth demographic is really untapped by big publishing in terms of the short fiction market. Only the indie publishers seem to realize how appealing it is to be able to download an individual story onto your iPhone and read it on the subway. I mean, I personally will happily read a fat ass book like Middlesexor Freedom, but there are people who aren’t necessarily immersed in lit culture who see a novel that big and immediately won’t buy it. Not that Eugenides—or especially Franzen—are hurting for sales! But what I mean is, what about the fact that short fiction offers short attention span literature for people on the run, not by “dumbing down” literature ala certain genres that aim to be “quick reads,” but by actually being—organically—quick reads yet still possessing incredible complexity? What if a demographic that is being spoon fed chick-lit to read on the beach or on the train to work in the morning could actually be reading short story collections or anthologies?

Some of the best short story writers working today are publishing with indie presses, who have become gatekeepers of short fiction. And almost all serious writers of short fiction—even the superstars of the genre like Dan Chaon and Aimee Bender—have rich histories with the literary magazines. It’s ironic that writers like Fitzgerald used to write short stories to pay the bills while hammering out a novel, whereas now most literary agents or big house editors will tell writers to “come back when you have a novel,” relegating their short stories to the mostly-unpaid (and always underpaid) world of nonprofit independent publishing. As an indie press editor myself (of Other Voices Books), I certainly feel that big publishing’s loss has been small publishing’s gain . . . but as a writer, I’m saddened to see how utterly impossible it’s become for a writer of short fiction to earn any money unless they are one of the chosen few who regularly place work with the New Yorker.

The American reading public has a wealth of material to choose from in terms of short fiction writers. Tod Goldberg, Laura van den Berg, Allison Amend, Aimee Parkinson, Alan Heathcock, Pinckney Benedict, Cris Mazza, and of course Patty’s new collection . . . I could go on and on. Yet amazingly, this market is still so under-tapped in the publishing industry. One of my great hopes for the transitions in the industry right now is that short story writers will find wider opportunities for getting their work out there into the hands of readers where it belongs.


Vanessa Gebbie on “Why The Short Story?”

Vanessa Gebbie has won numerous awards for her short fiction, including Bridport and Fish prizes. She is the author of two collections of stories:Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning, and contributing editor of  Short Circuit – a Guide to the Art of the Short Story (all Salt Publishing). Her debut novel, The Coward’s Tale,  is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the UK and the USA. Vanessa also teaches writing. She is Welsh and lives in Sussex, England.

As part of this on-going conversation among writers, Vanessa Gebbie considers the very open-ended question, “Why the short story?” Her response is below.

Vanessa: Thank you for this exciting opportunity!

What a great idea. And how do you marry a wasp?! I shall just have to read and find out.

OK – Why the short story?

But that’s like saying why the dream?

Or why the root in the ground?

Because that’s what they all do – they act (if we let them) as portals. They grow into something far greater than the wordcount – they are the wardrobe in ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ or the rabbit hole in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

Who needs mind-altering substances when you have stories?  Do novels do that quite so well? Mostly, no. because the author is doing the filling of the world for you, to a large extent. They are making you live the dream they had themselves. Whereas with a good, well-written story – it plants seeds. They grow inside you. Its world remains alive after the pages are done. There is less closure, even if the story, that story, has finished. Is that a function of length, of our need to live longer than that? Is it a legacy from our ancestors, telling stories round cave fires, stories that span off each other until the night was filled with worlds?

Like you Patty, I read voraciously as a child – I don’t remember what speed I read at, I just know I read a lot. I learned on ‘Janet and John’ books at nursery school (age 3-4 – don’t know what US grades those would convert into…) and they were so boring, my gaaad I learned quick just to move on out. My mother was a librarian, so it was never a problem getting fresh books. I devoured Noddy by Enid Blyton, was weaned on the Milly Molly Mandy stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley and The Wishing Chair and other Blyton horrors, (as they are now regarded) by 5ish.  I was reading – who cares about the quality of the prose – the STORIES mattered! I was entering into another world each time I started a new one. I was a lonely child, desperate for friends, yet ill at ease with other children. Fiction was the perfect friend; add my own imagination and we were happy playing for hours…

I became a famous journalist at age 6. I wrote a newspaper, one issue only, in blue crayon, lead story a scoop about a man riding a bike in shorts with his knees projecting too far into the road. I’d seen him from the back seat of the car on our frequent journeys from the south of England where we lived, back ‘home’ – for my parents – to Wales. Sadly, my newspaper tycoon era was short, but I remember not long afterwards, on another journey, and it was dark, noticing a train running along in the distance, left to right – and saying it was like someone pulling a gold thread through a cloth made of night.

‘You’ve got the eye of a writer’ my mother said, unwrapping a barley-sugar. She was usually right.

I think what that means is (but what do I know, I just put down the words) that I notice things. I translate them. I find significance. Characters appear who ‘own’ them. They become metaphors whether I will or no. Some alchemy happens and they become stories. Sometimes, the stories cluster and become bigger things, big stories as opposed to short stories… we called them novels, didn’t we, a while back, although that is a misnomer. ‘Nouvelles’ should be factual if we are true to their roots, as in ‘here is the news’. So the type of ‘novel’ I like is actually cluster of stories that take flight, a kaleidoscope, ever-shifting. A community thing, a collective world within which is a series of individual worlds. Not that far removed from the warmth of a fire, in a cave, a kid falling asleep to the rise and fall of voices, watching sparks and stars working together overhead.

My ‘text book’ when learning to write, was The Best American Shorts of the Century, edited by John Updike. How do you not want to try to achieve the same effect ( by that I mean reader-involvement, caring, the depth of engagement) as Cynthia Ozyck in ‘The Shawl’. How, when you’ve read what I think is most perfect of short stories,  ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargent Hall – do you not despair?  But you can’t not try, can you?

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