A year of big changes, many of them good, has meant stretching in unexpected ways. Experiencing an emptier, quieter household after sending a kid off to college. Becoming busier as an educational consultant. Listening to a body that seemed drawn to injury for the better part of three seasons. Learning about what it means to be a good bee “mama” over winter when we lost both hives (and were left with 60+ pounds of surprising, delicious honey).
There’s more that’s not worth reporting here, and there was enough of it that my fiction life is one I threw under the bus. Often, I write in spite of frustration and anger, but not this year.
Still, I’m always writing in my head, and I’m hoping now that I’ve sat down again to make words, those stories I’ve been percolating about will present themselves. I’m hoping they’ll turn up, ready to show me what they’ve been up to after being kept from the page. Not unlike all those jars of honey we’ve processed which was meant to feed bees through the winter and instead feeds us.
While I dive in to crafting new stories, I’m grateful and delighted about an old story new to world at Sundog Lit.
Much gratitude to JuxtaProse for including “Shelter in Place” in a recent issue. They were amazing to work with, and I’m thrilled to be invited to the party of authors they assembled. You can read that piece here.
If you’re not sick of me after that, you can check the most recent book review of Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Water Knifehere.
Thanks, always, for checking in to this space. I aim to end the year writing, the same as I began it, and to make a dent in the pile of books I can’t wait to get lost in. Here’s to stories of all kinds and the way they shore us up in hard times, plant the seeds of change, and inspire us to be better humans.
Deepest gratitude to the editors at saltfront for including me in Issue 3. It’s hot off the presses and gorgeous.
Out of Salt Lake, ecological storytelling is this journal’s jam. I’m thrilled they said yes to my story “The Leaving Half.” About a Japanese-American girl working at a gas station mini-mart across the street from a pulp mill, the story’s also about loss and love, destruction and preservation.
Sorry online readers, to read Issue 3 means buying these pages and treating yourself to some really lovely poetry, art, and fiction. I promise supporting this small band of literary soldiers will be worth it.
Here’s a teaser:
More than this, there was his art sprung from the skins of what he purchased at the Timber Mart. The plastic triangular casings from pre-made refrigerated sandwiches. Little Debbies or gum or hamburger wrappers. Unsettling at first, the found objects that boomeranged back to her, origamied as fish or birds, others cut and collaged into tiny landscapes. Most she carried to her apartment and staged on the bookshelf opposite her futon couch, where she could sit and examine his puzzling presence. On tender days when she felt most alone, she’d rearrange the tableau of his art. Tug gently on the folded wings of the birds, willing them to fledge and soar above her, their flight a glorious transformation, weightless.
A story of two friends, Beth and “Henry,” the sort of women I want to be when I’m much older – gritty, outdoorsy, fierce – “Humdinger” is also about love and loss, the complicated tangle of the human heart’s desires, human restraint and recklessness. And ice fishing, which is fantastic.
Here’s hoping this story will go on to reach a wider audience and win other prizes.
As she often does, in her latest story “The Resurrections” published at Terrain, Heather E. Goodman writes about complicated relationships that are real, gritty, honest. Her characters muck around in each other’s hearts and on the land, aiming for grace, yearning to be understood, seeking forgiveness and sometimes getting it. There’s palpable tenderness rising up out of this hardscrabble life etched by a series of deaths.
The narrator grieves the death of his wife Elna, of his father, of the business he and his father built together, of his youth and the loss of a young man’s full life. “The Resurrections” isn’t a long story, but it’s stitching is both intricate and simple, giving the impression that Goodman knows exactly what it’s like to be a grieving widower, an older man on a threshold between a past he can’t do anything about and the awakening knowledge that he’s got enough life left in him to hope for the future.
Goodman’s prose is spare, always, and prismed here with the flinty winter landscape and a friendship that resolves to thaw itself nonetheless. Even the animals have agency and longing, evident in the hound dog Beagle who can’t seem to help digging up his dead friend Smokey, a cat.
Delicious fiction. Read it. It’s the sort of story you’ll carry with you.
This spring has been full of firsts. Spotting meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds. Watching a pair of screech owls raise their clutch. Rescuing a kitten from the engine of my car (a story on its way in another post) that rode around smashed on top of the manifold for at least 75 miles and lived to tell about it.
Of course, the explosion of life in the natural world is largely about work done behind the scenes beforehand, which is the case with so many other things, and also with fiction.
Blue Earth Review has been kind enough to say yes to publishing “The Lemon Queen” in their latest Spring Issue, Volume 12. As always, I’m deeply grateful and tickled that another creation is out in the world.
Deep and sincere thanks to Matthew Limpede and the staff at Carve Magazine, who said yes to including the story “Depth Perception” in their Spring 2014 Premium Edition. I’m in great company in these pages and ever grateful for the chance to be there.
Recently I picked up a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I somehow missed in my literature studies, though a long time ago his story “Barn Burning,” maybe one of the best short stories ever written, inspired me to become a teacher and a writer. Also, I wanted to see if I remembered correctly that Faulkner’s work might not translate that well to the big screen. James Franco is either a genius or out of his mind. When the film comes to town, I’ll be curious to see which, or if it’s some of both.
What strikes me about Faulkner’s “experimental” novel is two things: the deception in its structure, which is to say a first impression that its short chapters and multiple voices would make for a quick read; and also that the engine in the novel – the problem of how to get Addie Bundren’s body to her native Jefferson, Mississippi to be buried (her dying wish) despite a flood, and then injury, and then fire — is overshadowed by what motivates her husband Anse and her children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman to engage in this journey. The fifteen voices that tell the story, including one chapter from Addie herself, reveal what undergirds every action in the novel: The inscrutable world is a dark and hard place full of relentless futility. The best we can hope for is to survive the world or leave it on our own terms, as Addie herself seems to have done. Faulkner once said his writing was “hammering at…that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.” (An interview from 1956 is here). His characters’ insistence on survival, however misguided or self-interested, is the relentless drumbeat of As I Lay Dying.
Faulkner called this novel a “tour de force,” and I suppose it is in the way it was different, an experiment that flouted conventional storytelling. I spent more time than I’d like to admit keeping track of the book in the plot way. Time loops around, for one, and I found myself rereading chapters more than a few times to make sure I was getting it. Addie shows up for just one chapter to speak her mind long after she’s already a dead and rotting corpse on her way to Jefferson, for example. Anse and the five kids all help to tell the story, and in each of their pages their mundane, repetitive conversations are interrupted by language in italics that seems to represent the lyrical, internal language each character is unable to give voice to on the surface. I’m not sure this technique really works.
But to be sure Faulkner’s intentions were grand. The title, a line from The Odyssey, is the first hint that Faulkner’s plan is epic in scale. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for teaching me that As I Lay Dying is also the name of a metalcore band, whose “lyrics and music take no direct inspiration from the novel.” Dear Faulkner, are you spinning brodies in your grave? ) But it’s a short epic, chock full of unfortunate events not unlike Odysseus’ journey. There are broken bones, a rotting corpse, a burned down barn, a bad love affair, a hoped for abortion, sexual abuse, siblings sending their brother to a mental institution, and finally, a marriage. By the time we arrive to Jefferson to bury Addie, digging the hole and putting her in it only takes a few sentences, because by this time, the story is about anything but burying Addie. What has propelled the family to this place has been eclipsed by the fractured agenda of each character, with Anse, who takes something from each of his children in order to serve himself, at the center of it all.
I had the best success as a reader when I focused on giving myself over to each character’s way of revealing the story instead of tallying up my frustrations. They’re a heartbreaking lot, some of them despicable like Anse, others tragic like Cash, the one character aside from Vardaman whose volition is not about his own needs.
Still, between the work required to be a thoughtful reader of Faulkner’s book, and what I think is the failed technique of those italics to represent what his characters wanted to say, if only they could, I’m not sure this book would be published now. Unless I’m reading it wrong, I’m not sure most people are willing to work that hard for an ending so dark, what with our penchant for endings in which all loose ends are neatly wrapped and characters leave the scene with no hard feelings.
But maybe James Franco’s split-screen delivery will work to unspool for audiences the existential question inherent in the gap between a heart that sings lyrically against the grim wilds of a hardscrabble life. I gotta hand it to Franco for trying anyway. When the film comes my way, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.
Check out Fiction365, whose mission to publish a story a day is both ambitious and validating for short story lovers. They chose “The Water Men” for today’s story. Many thanks, Fiction365, for the honor of being among your storytellers.
Many writers compelled to craft short fiction do so against the big question about whether the short story is dying. As a writer and a reader, I don’t feel this is true at all. But then, I’m a fan of the form, even on days when I want to light my work on fire. Short stories are the perfect length for the hectic life. They’re much easier to inhabit, to fully drop into and then emerge out of, than novels. You can get the satisfaction of a full narrative arc in the time it takes to commute to work, cook something at the stove, or wait at a doctor’s office. I’ve even read flash fiction while brushing my teeth (a few times I’ve stood at the sink with suds in my mouth, the toothbrush forgotten).
I’m not saying reading short fiction should only be shoe-horned between other activities; I’m only pointing out it can be done that way, very satisfyingly. Also, I’m guessing the reading life looks like this for many of us — more catch-as-catch-can and less feet-up-on-the-couch than we’d like it to be.
I’d argue the short story isn’t as “pallid” or “ill from neglect” as Mary Gaitskill once suggested. Nor are short stories just “written for editors and teachers rather than for readers,” as Stephen King once lamented was the by-product of a shrinking readership. There are many fine journals out there doing the good, hard work of keeping the short form alive, and a heap of talented emerging writers showing up in those pages. And there are readers. Plenty of them, and not all of them writers.
Readers are smart, after all, and know when they’re in good hands. This is one of the first tenets you learn in any writing program.
Speaking of being in good hands, each year the Chicago Tribune invites writers to submit short fiction for its Nelson Algren Award. Named after the writer Nelson Algren, the contest is free. You can submit two stories. If you win, there’s a generous prize, your piece is published in the paper, and you get to be in the company of fellow Nelson Algren winners like Louise Erdrich, Julia Glass, Melissa Bank and E.J Levy, to name just a few.
Beginning in February of this year, the Tribune added a book geek’s membership society called Printers Row. Taking a page out of One Story‘s mission to send singleton stories to subscribers every three weeks, Printers Row sends out a weekly short story. It’s also free to submit work for this project, and you can track your submission on Submishmash.
Heather E. Goodman‘s kick-ass story His Dog won the 2008 Nelson Algren Award and is now out as a Printers Row piece. Goodman’s characters are a hardscrabble lot, eking out a life on the land and with each other. The story is tender, gritty, unrelenting and carries you toward an inevitability that is the perfect final act, though you don’t see it coming. But don’t believe me. Read it for yourself online or pony up for a Printers Row subscription. You’ll get to hold this gem in your hands and be reminded each week that the short story is alive and well.