Bristol and Bath Bound ~ In Pursuit of Story in the UK

So very looking forward to a few days of exciting events in the UK. It all starts on Saturday, 14 July, with ShortStoryVille, a celebration of the short story sponsored by the organizers of the Bristol Short Story Prize. (For more on these events, check out this interview with the event’s coordinator and short story champion Joe Melia.) I am honored to be moderating a panel on the short story in the digital age, and will be sharing the stage with Ra Page of Comma Press, Bea Moyes of Ether Books, and Dan Franklin from Random House.

Monday, 16 July through Wednesday, 18 July, Bath Spa University is hosting the first MIX: A Conference Exploring Transmedia Writing & Digital Creativity. Philip Hartigan and I will be giving a workshop on pursuing the narrative in a digital age, and Philip will also be presenting from his multi-media art exhibit The Lucerne Project.

And although it is raining, raining, raining and raining in the UK (and chilly) we are so looking forward to something other than extra hot days spent in the false coolness of air-conditioned rooms.

More on all of this after the fact. And if we see Mitt Romney over there and his multi-million dollar Olympic dressage horse (for which he is allowed more in tax breaks than the average American family makes in a year) we will be sure to say hi to him for you. Or something. We will say something.

→As always, thanks for reading! -PMc←

In Praise of the Short Story ~ A Conversation with Joe Melia

The Bristol Short Story Prize out of the United Kingdom is one of the few international awards that specifically celebrates the short story form. With generous guidelines that allow writers from anywhere in the world to submit more than one story–so long as the writer is over 16 years old–and prizes that include publication and cash (or gift certificate,) the Bristol Short Story Prize does more than its share to support short story writers in their endeavors.

At the heart of this operation is Joe Melia. A man who has spent a good part of his life surrounded by books and people who read (he worked for years in bookshops around Bristol,) Joe continues to make a difference in writers’ and readers’ lives by coordinating the Bristol Short Story Prize and the brand new ShortStoryVillejamboree.

Recently, Joe was kind enough to spend some time in conversation with me about reading and writing short stories, and about the prize and the jamboree. Here’s what I found out:

PMc: The Bristol Short Story Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for short story writers, has been around since 2007, yes? Have you been part of it since the beginning? 

JM: Thanks for calling it ‘prestigious’, Patty, really appreciate it! Yes, we’ve just completed our fourth competition and published our fourth anthology. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved from the start. I was working in a Bristol bookshop and had a meeting with three Bristol publishers who mentioned the idea along with lots of other stuff. As a short story fan it was a wonderful thing to hear.

PMc: Why did you choose to become so deeply involved in the honouring of the short story form? What are some of your favorite short stories? Why these?

JM: For the last decade or so I’ve read short stories more than anything else. I love the intense, all-consuming reading experience short stories provide. You have to surrender completely to a short story when you read it and that’s fairly unique, I think. There’s no cruising or drifting like there can be with a longer work. And that’s what makes short stories stand out for me. As a reader you are completely involved from the first word and that doesn’t change on second, third, or fourth readings. Reading a short story is a massive commitment, and also a joyful one.

As for favourite stories, there are thousands. Far, far too many to mention.  Other than the ones we’ve published, a few favourites that spring to mind are: ‘Bezhin Lea’ by Ivan Turgenev, ‘Barking’ by Emily Perkins, ‘The Chain’ by Tobias Wolff, Judy Budnitz’s  ‘Preparedness’, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ by Eudora Welty, ‘Go Away’ by Tania Hershman, ‘My Oedipus Complex’ by Frank O’Connor, The Distances’  Julio Cortazar, ‘Sweet Memory Will Die’ by A.L.Kennedy, ‘The Brown Pint of Courage’ by James Meek, ‘Misery’ by Anton Chekhov, ‘The Other Mr Panossian’ by Nik Perring, ‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver, ‘Brownies’ by Z.Z. Packer, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia Woolf, ‘A Real Durwan’ by Jhumpa Lahiri, ‘The Lunch-Box’ by Italo Calvino, ‘One Hundred Rupees’ by Ivan Bunin, ‘Harriet Elliot’ by Robin Black and ‘King’ by Alan Beard. There are many, many, many more. Have, also, read loads of great stories recently by Seth Fried, Kirsty Logan, Danielle Evans, Stuart Evers, Amelia Gray, Tom Vowler, Patricia Engel, Laura van den Berg and plenty of other writers – it’s such an exciting time to be a short story reader right now.

PMc: An impressive list. Can you tell us some about ShortStoryVille and how it came to be? What is your role in that—its inception and its execution?

JM: We wanted to find different ways to share our enthusiasm for short stories and ShortStoryVille is the result. We, also, wanted to get local schools reading more short stories and thinking about them. Inviting students to work with writers we have published—to produce work in different genres based on stories we’ve published—seemed like a great way of getting lots of different people together and also introducing school students to really exciting stories. And then putting them on the same bill as really established writers and publishers was the obvious way to go. There has been an explosion in short story activity in the last few years and we want to be right in the thick of it all.

I helped to shape the idea, I suppose. Two big influences were seeing Dave Eggers at the Hay Festival a few years ago, there was a great atmosphere and not a furrowed brow in sight as there can be at festivals form time to time. He was introduced by Zadie Smith and it felt like a really special, unique occasion. Dave Eggers was humble, hilarious, witty, irresistible. He chatted for a bit then read a story narrated by a pizza-eating dog called Stephen. The place was filled with an amazing exuberance. If we can eventually get within touching distance of capturing a tiny molecule of that spirit with ShortStoryVille then that would be brilliant.

And reading John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? had a big effect. It’s an absolutely amazing, stimulating, provocative book – immensely quotable and wise, and inspired the idea of getting schools involved.

PMc: How do you make time to stay current with your reading with all of the work you must have to do to coordinate these events? Do you carry a book in your bag at all times? Can you tell us a little about your reading habits (where, when, how you choose your books, etc.)?

JM: I nearly always have several books on the go at the same time. Short stories are great for that—overlapping and mixing up. Tend to read at home and in the evenings more than during the day. Choosing what to read happens in a variety of ways. There’s nothing better than a browse in a bookshop, discovering new writers and taking a punt on something. The internet is such a fascinating place with so many enthusiasts sharing recommendations and that’s probably where I tend to get the majority of triggers for reading choices. Sites like the brilliant and Scott Pack’s meandmyshortstories blog are great for making readers aware of just how much great stuff is out there. Twitter is also a great source; I’ve discovered loads of great writers from Twitter recommendations.

PMc: Do you consider reading to be an important part of a society, of a culture? Why or why not?

JM: Reading helps in loads of different ways. It encourages and inspires understanding, empathy, creativity, knowledge gathering and so much more. So the answer is yes.

PMc: What other reading do you make time to do besides the short story? Dirty pleasures?

JM: I read the occasional novel and some non-fiction every now and again and try to read a few pages of John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? most weeks (yes, it is that brilliant). I love reading reviews too – not just in newspapers and magazines but online blogs too. You often get the most sincere and committed comment from the latter. As for ‘Dirty Pleasures’ I’m not sure what would qualify. I’m a big cricket fan and there’s an ex-player who writes about the sport for the Guardian newspaper, Mike Selvey, and he’s a champ of a writer…wish he’d have a go at some short stories, actually. Does that qualify?

PMc: Sure. So Joe, what is the hardest part of the work you do for the prize and for the festival?

JM: I wouldn’t call any of it hard, really, it’s a such a pleasure. Perhaps having to let some stories go when we’re putting the longlist together can be tough in a sense but I wouldn’t call any of it hard.

PMc: And are you writing short stories, too?

JM:  Did a bit of dabbling many years ago, but that’s long gone. Much, much happier reading, promoting and championing.

PMc: Thank you Joe Melia, for your support of the short story. Always good to have a champion in the corner. Thanks, too, for taking the time to talk with us. Good luck with next year’s prize and jamboree.


Shake Things Out and Dance ~ On Endings

There’s a magnolia tree in our back yard that just doesn’t seem to want to bloom this year. I’ve talked with my neighbors about it; the reactions are different.

“I think it’s dead,” one of them says.

“Give it time,” another says.

“Are those buds?” another asks.

“It’s dead,” the first one says.

Each day I go out on my back porch and stare at it, its limbs big and gray and, for the most part, empty. I’m afraid it might be dead, but I just don’t know. It has bloomed ferociously in years past, a canopy of white and pink blooms that stretched over the power wire, over the fences that separate four urban yards.

Now know that our spring in Chicago was something other than spring. It was cold and wet, with the occasional burst of a bright hot day. Perhaps the tree got confused. “Is this really spring?” it asked its internal tree blooming clock, “then why is it so fucking cold? Magnolias don’t like cold.” And now it is summer in Chicago, hot and sticky, sunshine overhead like something sharp and dangerous. The tree is still gray-limbed.

All the other magnolia trees on the block burst open with their flowers weeks ago.

“Are those buds?”

And this makes me think about endings. Really. Sometime last year Philip and I had a conversation with my nephew and his wife about the movie “The Wrestler.” You know it, right? The Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle? Yes? Anyway, my nephew, Dan, a very good guy and superb father (albeit not much of a reader) was more than frustrated with the ending of that movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, and might, I won’t entirely spoil it for you here, I promise. The ending is ambiguous. You don’t know for certain what will happen next, but depending on your take of the rest of the film, you might assume that things are not going to go on happily ever after. But you must make this assumption. It is not spelled out for you. And there are other loose ends as well about relationships, choices, etc.

“Pick a lane,” Dan says. Insists, more like it. “Why do I have to do the work for you?”

Interesting. Contemporary literary fiction (and independent film for that matter) often does not pick a lane when it comes to endings. It is not unusual when a story leaves things open-ended. And frankly, I like this. I like this a lot. Because for me, good fiction is often a reflection—an interpretation—of life, and let’s face it, life is an open-ended thing. We rarely know with absolute certainty what will happen next.

“Are those buds?”

So getting around to Gerard Woodward’s questions from an earlier post: What is the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? I’ve already said that I am a fan of the open-ended ending, but that does not mean that I think this is the best way to end each story. Dennis McFadden does a great job of going through a number of his stories and comparing their endings and the effectiveness of each. And among those things he says, Dennis reminds us that a story’s ending is not really about the ending at all, but about the whole rest of the story.

And while I’m a reader partial to the open-ended qualities of some endings of short stories (James Alan McPherson’s “The Story of a Scar” comes to mind here) I also understand the frustration some of my reading colleagues have with a certain level of ambiguity. Sometimes I agree. I am not a fan of the riddle or the “choose your own exit” type of ending. In my piece “Deer Story,” a short-short from The Temple of Air, close to the end is the parenthetical statement “(there just isn’t any other end to this story).” And that is really it, isn’t it? The simple answer to all of Gerard’s questions about endings—the end of any story must feel as though there isn’t any other end.

Easy, huh? Yeah, right.

Skipping ahead to Gerard’s last question “…what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?” I’ll share with you some endings I admire quite a lot and why I do. SPOILER ALERT: if you read these examples, you will know how the stories end…

One of my favorite contemporary stories is “The End of FIRPO in the World,” by George Saunders. It is a rather short, short story, that follows a young boy, Cody, very closely (read: in his internal point of view even as the story is told in third person) while he rides a bicycle around his neighborhood making plans for revenge on those who have embarrassed or slighted him. The story starts out funny in its childish imagination and hyperbole, but as it unfolds, we learn more about this kid and his sad, sad existence that leads him to feeling particularly lousy and without value most of the time. We really start to side with him just as he is hit by a car. And in his own end, Cody begins to go back over his own worthlessness and what he thinks of as his complicity in the worthlessness, even as a man (“stickman,” Cody calls him) with hairy nipples and coffee-smelling breath leans over him to give him comfort:

“The announcers in the booth above the willow began weeping as he sat on Mom’s lap and said he was very sorry for having been such a FIRPO son and Mom said, Oh thank you, thank you, Cody, for finally admitting it, that makes it nice, and her smile was so sweet he closed his eyes and felt a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance. You are beautiful, beautiful, the stickman kept saying, long after the boy had stopped thrashing, God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight.”

My comments: First, just listen to these sentences. Hear that rhythm? The breathless sweep of the first sentence that stops and hits the beats on “Oh thank you, thank you…” and then sweeps away again until we hit “and oh Christ dance.” And all the repetition in the very last sentence adds a few more beats as well. The ending word “sight” drops a bit, closing things up.

What is tricky about this ending is that sometimes readers don’t get that the boy has died (I warned you I was going to spoil it!) I am not certain why they wouldn’t; maybe because Saunders doesn’t come out and say plainly that the boy died. But think how much less beautiful, how much less effective this would be if it were spelled out for us. Because, frankly, telling it so plainly would make the story about the kid dying, and it isn’t that. It is about transcendence, this ending, about grace. Cody, who feels ugly and worthless has become beautiful—and we as readers likely understand that he has always been beautiful, he just wasn’t allowed to know that before this ending.

A time-honored tradition, by the way, is killing a character to end a story. And this works best, in my opinion, when the tragedy of the story is earned by more than just the death.

In Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor, the entire story is tragic, really. A mother and son whose relationship is deeply flawed, a world that is changing in ways that neither one of these characters is fully equipped to deal with. Missteps and intentional slights and hurt feelings. And then, yes, a death.

The mother, who has been punched by a black woman for insulting her, lies on a deserted city street, dying. Her son cries for help:

“Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

Is that beautiful or what? How different would the ending be if it flat out said: “she died, thus entering him into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

So maybe that’s it. Maybe why I am attracted to open endings (or at least those whose endings are not spelled out completely) is because closed ones, spelled out endings, can call so much attention to themselves. Sometimes more than a story wants them to. An example of what I mean here is the much anthologized “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin.

Another short-short story, this one covers the hour a woman, Mrs. Mallard, faces immediately after she learns her husband has died in an accident. The story is told in the late 1800s, and for obvious reasons it is celebrated a story with a feminist point-of-view. The woman, who has loved her husband, still recognizes the possibility of her freedom without him:

“Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.”

This is what is at the heart of the story—a woman who feels grief and relief at the prospect that she will no longer be a wife, that she will be her own person. This might have been a rather daring concept more than a century ago, bold of Kate Chopin to put into words. But the complexity of this short story is tied not to the politics or the social agenda, it is tied directly to this complexity of emotion of a bereaved woman.

In the very end, Mr. Mallard shows up unharmed, and the Mrs., being afflicted with a bad heart, dies:

“When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.”

A sort of punchline, if you will. The first time that I read this story and thought back over it some days later, I had totally forgotten that last line. To me the story was more remarkable without the death, without the punishment for Mrs. Mallard feeling the possibilities of being a woman alone. That last line makes the story very sure-footed; it makes the author’s intentions clear. But the life Chopin had created on the page prior to the last line was more interesting to me without this ending. However, the story is not mine. Chopin has the right to her own ending. (Perhaps a piece on stories we love with endings we don’t would be interesting. Your thoughts?)

Back to my magnolia tree. It is July now, and many weeks have passed since I first started my tree bloom vigil. The tree, alas, is still without flower, without the least bit of green. We have decided—those of us who care in this city apartment building—that it is indeed dead. We might have known this all along, and yet:

“Are those buds?”

In Vanessa Gebbie’s book Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, there is a piece by Elaine Chiew called “Endings.” It starts with a brief bit about the impending end to her mother-in-law’s life, and the family’s desire for a different ending:

“Yet, the more she faded, the more we hoped.”

Chiew goes on to talk about how we suspect certain endings even as we long for others, and how that can be a good thing:

“This sense of narrative expectation and engagement, retaining a degree of mystery or openness where the reader may hope or wonder or accept a different ending, tells me the ending is well-earned…”

Is that it, then? An ending is best when it can perhaps go in a different direction, but for this story, in this very moment, there is no possible alternative? Inevitable—perhaps even predictable sometimes—but definitely, definitely inevitable.

“A&P” by John Updike. Sammy makes the heroic stand by quitting his job at the grocery store because his boss has embarrassed some girls he’s been admiring. The Hollywood ending would be that he dumps his stuff and runs out the door and into the arms of the princess, that she would be waiting for him, ready to bless his heroics with her body. The real ending? The perfect one? Updike wrote it:

“I look around for my girls, but they’re gone of course….Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’s just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

Now that’s how things really, go, yes? And on a technical note, see how that paragraph started with present tense and then moved into past? All hope and optimism in the beginning (present tense)—how things might be—and then how they really were in the end (past.)

I am going on too long here. One more thing, though. In a recent post by Tania Hershman on her blog TaniaWrites about ShortStoryville, the half-day recent festival held in Bristol in connection with the Bristol Short Story Prize and celebrating the short story, she talks about “doing a little short story dance after reading an excellent story.” And maybe that is the best indicator of all as to when a story is finished just right: when you reach the end you feel (pardon me, George Saunders, for the borrowing) “a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance.”


And yes, speaking of endings, this is the last post in the series “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.” Thanks again to my fellow contributing short story writers: Gina Frangello, Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis McFadden, and Gerard Woodward. It has been great sharing ideas with you all. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, willingness, and industriousness. We got a lot of work done.

For more conversations with writers and about writing, please visit the Conversations category of this site. To read this conversation—”Why The Short Story?” —in its entirety, follow this link.  -PMc←