Last Call for the (Really) Short Story

 

In a final adieu to May, Short Story Month, I am reprinting here (with permission) five Twisters (140 character short stories) tweeted by the writer Arjun Basu from his Twitter account.

 

 

  1. Then the barbecue came out and the men started grunting and the women swooned, and then he woke up and his dog licked his toes and he cried.
  2. A bomb exploded and he ran outside and studied the crater in a state of complete bewilderment. I won’t have to mow the lawn, he thought.
  3. Sunshine and a warm sensuous breeze. I’m taking my top off, she announces. At this point he’s pretty sure he’s getting lucky. Then it snows.
  4. He comes home and says, Who will love me? and his kids ignore him and his wife says, I have yoga, and he sighs and slips on something awful.
  5. The meal ends. And she gets wistful, a sadness from some place deep inside, and he asks what’s wrong and she thinks, I’ll miss your cooking.

What shall we celebrate next month?

 

Thanks, Arjun, for sharing these. -PMc←

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Remembering

This is a day of remembrance, and I find myself remembering not just the heroes who are no longer with us, but also those “ordinary” people I have known and loved and lost:

Robyn Eastman, dear friend, died suddenly on May 16, 2011, in Maui. I will always remember when Robyn showed up in my office at Columbia College Chicago, a nontraditional student eager to finish her BA. We spoke at length about her plans (“getting the stupid degree already!”) and passions (writing, art, family, Hawaii.) Since that day in 2006, Robyn and I became friends and colleagues. She frequently commented on this blog, and was a huge supporter of her friends’ work and endeavors. Robyn was kind, generous, adventurous, and loving. She is missed by many.

Miller Wachs, my mother’s brother, my dear uncle, lived a full and meaningful life well into his nineties before he passed in January of this year. Miller was the sort of man who had faith of the very best kind, one that allowed him tolerance and love and compassion for everyone. I remember his stories and his bright smile, and the goodness he gave to his family and all who knew him. He is at peace, I am certain.

Roger McNair, my wonderful brother who died in August of last year, is still with me everyday. I see him on the streets of Chicago, behind the wheel of one of the many taxi cabs he drove, a fleeting apparition that gives me comfort. I cannot even begin to say the many things I remember about Roger, but I will list just a few here: his love of very bad puns; his slightly off-key rendition of the Happy Birthday song he would leave on my answering machine every birthday; the way he used to start my car for me on cold, snowy mornings when we lived in Iowa; his love of all women. He was my protector.

I remember you each with love.

 

 

On Electronic Publication ~ Achy Obejas and Linda Bubon

image from blogtrepreneur.com

When I tell my friends and family (and anyone else willing to listen) that my short story collection will be released in September, without fail at least two out of five folks say: “Cool. Can I get it on Kindle?”

Frankly, I don’t know. My publisher and I have talked about our electronic strategy, but right now, nothing is etched in stone. So this fine and informative exchange between the writer Achy Obejas and independent bookstore co-owner Linda Bubon, has given me plenty to think about: WCF, E-readers.

Linda Bubon is one of the co-founders of the very wonderful Women and Children First in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. And lucky me, I get to launch my book there on September 9, 2011. More information about this coming soon.

More Bull on the Short Story

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On NPR’s Weekend Edition last Saturday, May 21, 2011, while talking with Roddy Doyle about his new story collection, Bullfighting, the usually savvy Scott Simon asked: “Do you write short stories just to warm up these days?”

“No, not at all,” Doyle answered (thank God.) He went on to say more, including how short stories often encapsulate for him “little moments in a life that seemed to be quite revelatory.”

C’mon, Scott! You, yourself are a writer. You should know that we short story writers have a hard enough time getting folks to respect the form. A little help, here, please.

The rest of this interview can be found at the NPR website.

Gerard Woodward, one of our conversationalists on the short story, reviewed Bullfighting for The Guardian recently, and said this about Doyle’s work with the short form: “Scenes are conjured from a few dabs, narratives held together with invisible thread. It is a technique he has been honing since his earliest books, and one that is particularly suited to the short story.”

Sounds like more than just a warm-up act to me, Scott Simon.

Oh, and one more thing–the UK cover of Bullfighting looks like this: 

 Why does the American version have Doyle’s name the most prominent image on the book, do you suppose? Does it have something to do with our celebrity fascination? Are we more willing to buy the guy than his stories? Hmmm…

 

 

John Counts’ Utility Room ~ Another View From the Keyboard

I remember hearing John Counts read at a graduate student event some years ago at Sheffield’s, a long-standing Chicago establishment with a history of supporting literary events. Now you know how it can be listening to readings in bars–not everyone is there for the words. Still, when John stepped up to the mike, he took control. People shut up. People listened. People sipped their beers quietly, intent on not missing a word. John’s stories have heart and they have balls (I tried to think of another word that might not offend some, but sorry, this is the very best word to fit here) and you will want to read more.

These days John Counts lives in gorgeous Northern Michigan, where he writes not just fiction, but also for the Manistee News Advocate. His fiction has been published in the 2010 Chicago Reader Pure Fiction issue, as well as in the online journals Monkey Bicycle and Knee Jerk. His blog: Oh Pines! The Notes of a North Country Newsman comments on things literary, political, and everyday ordinary, as well as his often strange work as a police reporter. Below, he describes his writing space for View From the Keyboard.

John: My writing utility room in Northern Michigan. There is a sink in the room. The desk is nothing more than an old door on sawhorses. There are five sinks in the entire second story of the old house in Manistee, which my wife, Meredith, and I rent dirt cheap. There are sinks in bedrooms and in our dining room/library. Apparently, the 100-or-so-year-old house used to belong to Jehovah Witnesses who used to host overnight visitors here. I hope their spiritual determination rubs off in my work in some way, but not exactly in a literal way.

So that’s what you can’t see. What you can see is the corner of the “utility room” I call my office. The utility room. That’s what our landlord referred to it as when we toured the place. As evidenced by the white smears on the white and blue wall, it’s not a finished room. The ceiling is green with white swoops of patch and prime paint. It’s eternally under construction. But down where the writing work happens is the desk itself. There is an ancient laptop with a dead screen, thus the monitor that I’ve plugged in to keep things going. There are guitars, which occupy me when I’m stuck.

There is a lot of visual stimulation on the bulletin board. Pictures of hero-writers like Jim Harrison from Detroit Free Press profiles where he’s standing outside his own Northern Michigan abode with a dog and an empty box of whisky. Or, in another, in overalls with a horse. And then there’s Saul Bellow standing in a pork pie hat with bustling Chicago behind him. I try and try to make sure I’m not disappointing these fellows. I usually fail. Sometimes, like Beckett, I hope I fail better.

There are pictures of bird dogs, a ticket stub from the last game played at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and backstage passes from St. Andrews Hall in Detroit and the Metro in Chicago from back when I played in rock and roll bands. Keepsakes to remind me that writing is about life, experience, memory. Next to the bulletin board is a picture of my old man typing away in the newsroom of the Bay City Times in the 1970s, a trade I’ve followed him in here at the Manistee newspaper. I’m usually in my utility room writing before the “real” workday begins covering all the sordid crimes that happen in this sparsely-populated county.

There are also peanuts in a Mr. Peanut jar and a brown paper bag of dead batteries. A lamp. Pens. A stray hiking boot. Maps. What-nots.

It’s a utility room, which always reminds me that writing is a craft. That it’s something to be worked at, worked at and worked at. I like to think that I build stories over the sawhorses like I’m creating something tangible like a cuckoo clock. Just like the room, my work is always “under construction.” And there’s always a nearby sink when I get thirsty.

From “The Anarchy of Blood” (an excerpt):

Maybe criminals and artists are hatched from the same desperate egg thought the failed poet Pete Binnquist. Thirty years old used to mean something: a career, a home, a family. Instead, the night it all started, Binnquist was half-numbed from whisky driving the streets of Detroit with a coked-up Indian fumbling with a nine millimeter in the passenger seat.

“You’re driving too slow, Binnquist,” Bobby “The Moose” Cobmoosa said. “Speed up, pussy.”

Binnquist wasn’t so much afraid as he was terrified. The materials that signified Detroit in the night: a light-post leaning and threatening to fall into the street emitting no glow, a helicopter clacking away overhead, the summer heat jelling in the air, draping itself blackly over the tired old buildings of this tired old city.

They zoomed through downtown streets in the sputtering Sonata, Pete at the wheel, two guys from the rural North Country trying to navigate the confusing downtown streets that seemed to run them in circles.

Binnquist was terrified not so much of the city, but because Moose was dangerous, a real criminal. Binnquist had no idea where they were going and what they would do when they got there. Cobmoosa was a half-breed who grew up in the tough-ass tribal housing on Indian land near the casino in their hometown. He came downstate from Bear County on Michigan’s northwestern coast for unexplained reasons a week ago and had been using Binnquist’s Ferndale apartment as a crash pad for sinister purposes.

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Thanks, John, for the visit to your utility room. Perhaps every writer should have a sink nearby while they write–a place to perform the necessary ablutions. -PMc←

“When It’s Miller Time” ~ Dennis McFadden on Short Story Endings

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.

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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←