An occupation can lead to a good story

6 Jan

There are some writers who can point to the guy across the street – any guy, any street – and say “that guy has a story.” Well, yes, this person does have a story; everyone has a story. But some writers will turn out that story and make it interesting, fun and compelling. Face it – it’s a gift some people have. For most of us, though, the process is a bit more daunting. That’s why we turn to online destinations like the American Short Fiction blog to get information and inspiration on writing good short fiction. American Short Fiction reminds of the things that make good fiction and how the people who write well go about their business.

Interesting lines of work

So everyone does have a story. But some people have interests or even occupations that are a bit more evocative than others. A salesman is just a salesman until you consider his drive, frustration or all of the interactions he has with hundreds of people. But there are some occupations that just ooze storytelling. Anyone who deals with emergencies, such as ER doctors or cops, has plenty of stories. That’s why there are so many doctor and cop storylines out there. But there are other types of emergencies, tricky, funny and interesting, that require interesting lines of work. For instance, have you ever been locked out of your car or home … without a key … and no good way to get a key? Most of us have at one time or the other, and that’s as story. It also leads to characters. A locksmith has all sorts of story potential. And think about the themes a locked-out story evokes: security, denial, heroism, dependence, fate. We’ve had to call on this locksmith person to help us out of our frustrating and embarrassing situation. Some people lack good judgment in this type of emergency and just call the first number that pops up on the search engine of their smartphone. They don’t call friends and family for advice, don’t consult their roadside assistance plan, don’t even ask for an estimate over the phone. And of course AAAAAA Locksmiths send out a guy with a drill and tattoos from the neck down. Yeah, who is this person? Is he someone who really likes helping folks out of a jam, someone who likes the challenges of gaining access or just someone who likes fiddling with implements?

Simple solution, boring story

Doing the work of a locksmith requires a number of talents and qualities. That’s because a place like 24/7 Locksmith Service does a lot of things. Yes, they handle emergencies, like people being locked out of their homes and cars. But they also change locks for situations like just having been burglarized. And they help people with planning their home or office security. That may include anything from the lock on a garage door to one on a file cabinet. They also offer discounts for new customers. The folks at 24/7 Locksmith Service can make your story downright boring, because they are upfront enough to even give you tips on how to solve your issue without a locksmith. For example, a jammed ignition may be a simple matter of jiggling the steering wheel to free it.

Nevertheless, the story of being locked out can offer some good stuff in terms of characters and storylines, particularly for characters who aren’t wise enough to seek out a reliable solution like 24/7 Locksmith Service. For them the adventure continues.

August web exclusive is up! Read our interview with author Randall Brown

1 Aug

Y’all know what time it is? That’s right—it’s time to introduce the latest story in ASF‘s web exclusive series! This month, we’re pleased as punch to present to you Randall Brown’s “Like An Original Response.” It’s a compact yet evocative story that’s as smart as it is fun to read. It’s an exemplary piece of flash fiction, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do. You can read the story on the ASF website.

Below, Randall shares his thoughts on writing (both flash and longer fiction), teaching, and what he’s looking forward to reading next.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Like An Original Response.” Where did the idea for the story come from? What kind of evolution did it go through from the first draft (part of which can be read alongside the final, published version) to the version you submitted to ASF?

During a student’s presentation in my graduate flash fiction workshop, the student mentioned the idea that a writer could give a character an odd or interesting job. She asked the class for some ideas, and someone answered, “A pirate.” Another student responded, “Or a pirate’s parrot.” The class laughed, and when I went back up front, I said, “I really like the idea of someone’s job being a parrot.” The class looked at me, as they often did, as if I were out of my mind.

So I wrote that story and showed it to them. They kind of hated it, but liked certain aspects. I took their advice, revised it over a break, and showed them the new version. I think the extensive rewriting surprised them the most; the revised story looked only a little like the first version. Instead of the sense of my telling Hedy’s story, the new version had that feeling, I hope, of Hedy’s story originating in her consciousness. Having Hedy tell her story led to her exploring more of her own interior landscape, and I think gave the story an entirely different sense and direction.

Then it went through more revision as I worked with ASF, especially in developing the idea of the cage and its place in the story throughout. That process—getting a clearer sense and vision of Hedy in her cage—gave the story the specificity of detail that might allow a reader to believe in her surreal situation.

In short, at each crucial point, someone arrived to help me take the piece to that next stage of development. Yay, someone!

2. In the case of this story, your students lent a hand in a very direct way. In what other ways do students and teaching help you with your writing?

To me, teaching is so humbling, and I so rarely get things right with each student in a class. It’s like that desire, in flash fiction, to control things, always to have the perfect word for the perfect slot, to have the one thing that happens be the only action possible for that story. I want that to happen for each student—for he/she to receive the exact teaching needed to realize his/her professional and artistic desires.

Students continually challenge my own views of what works. Rather than allowing me to cling to rules—such as main characters cannot be passive—they force me to go deeper, to see what is behind the rule; e.g., passive characters might not be interesting, and readers might feel that such characters don’t earn their endings. In the above example, students have led me realize that the challenge might be to make a passive character interesting to a reader, to make whatever ending that character gets feel like one that works. Therefore, instead of avoiding the passive-character story, they might push me toward it, to take on that challenge and try to rise to it, the way I ask them to do in their own writing.

3. I’m sure you read a lot of flash fiction—but I imagine you have favorite longer works as well. What do you think a writer of flash fiction can learn from studying longer forms? What do you think flash has to offer those who typically write or read longer stories?

Having, the dozens of times before that I tried to write a novel, only gotten to seven pages before stopping, I am proud to say that I’ve reached seventy-five pages on my ongoing, recent effort. So, I’m beginning to have something to say, a bit, about the experience with longer forms.

As soon as it begins, flash desires its ending; the novel, on the other hand, desires to be drawn out, to continue. While in flash (defined by word count) every word counts, gets remembered, lessens the opportunity for other words to appear in the story, in the novel words seem to exist to be un-remembered, and each word opens up opportunities for other words to arise to remind readers of what they’ve just read. At least, that’s how it feels to me. I’ve learned from this process to pay more attention to readers, to how they might be experiencing the text when they encounter it for the first (and likely only) time.

The drawn-out “act and fail” of the short story might be but one way to engage readers and find meaning in a piece, so I think flash offers writers the chance either to compress that process or find an alternative to it, to find stories that would not or could not be told without a compressed form to contain them.

4. One of the things I love about this story is that it walks the line between playful—a woman pretending to be a parrot—and more serious: it asks some pretty complex questions about the nature of love and relationships. How do you navigate that boundary, especially when you don’t have a lot of space in which to do it?

You had me at “I love.” Douglas Glover has an incredible essay about short story structure in his newest offering of essays Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing. Every time I try to paraphrase such essays, I get it wrong, but here’s something I learned, or think I learned, from Glover’s about story structure. I see three challenges for the writer: to meet the demands of the form, to meet the demands of the reader, and to meet the demands of the craft. The form demands a story that returns again and again to the same idea, obsessively and supernaturally, each time trying to go deeper, becoming more complex. But the reader demands to be engaged with freshness, newness. If indeed that’s the challenge (I’ve chosen to believe that it is) of writing short fiction, then I’ve found that I meet that challenge of engaging readers by turning to the kind of odd, surreal, almost absurd, rarely seen situation or setting. And I turn to the challenge of compressed narrative with that obsessive focus on the ONE, the one word, image, space of time that defines the all of it, whatever it might end up being.

Recently, a student in my flash fiction workshop had an interesting theme about attraction at work in a story, but he set the story in a bar, and so the story, to me, felt too familiar. I suggested he revise by creating a setting that he’d never before seen in a story. In his revised version, he set the story in a woodworking studio but pretty much kept the conversation intact. To me, the revised story felt brand new.

5. As a veteran writer of flash fiction and editor of Matter Press’s Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, you must get asked a lot of questions about the nature of very short fiction. What’s one question you wish you were asked more often?

I don’t see why you have to prattle on for 300 words. Why don’t you write shorter fiction?

6. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

Oh, the same old, same old. But I look forward to seeing the published version of Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns from Rose Metal Press. I read it as a contest judge, and I loved, loved, loved it. Matter Press also has work forthcoming from Carol Guess, Karen Dietrich, and Tara Laskowski. And there might be something in the works for Matter Press in conjunction with the fabulous flash journal SmokeLong Quarterly.

Summer Film Club: Steven Millhauser

20 Jul

In this biweekly series, Editorial Assistant Alyssa reviews popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa (who has no formal training in film) would like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

A neat poster for THE ILLUSIONISTHoo boy. What can I say? The best thing about The Illusionist is that it’s not too long. Well, it is “too long” in the sense that I checked my watch toward the end. It’s not too long, in the sense that it’s under two hours.

It’s an OK movie. My opinion (that it’s a waste of time) falls in the minority; most critics reviewed it favorably, and some lauded it as a parable for film itself. (I prefer to think of it as a parable of the dangers of tone-deaf adaptation.) This was my second time seeing it, which I don’t recommend. See it once if you’re really into magic or Edward Norton. (What do you see in him? I just think you could do better, is all.) You might want to skip it altogether if you’re into Steven Millhauser.

I have limited patience for didactic, Borgesian magical realism, but I do enjoy Millhauser. This story works for me because of its frank prose and its reluctance to state facts. The narrator tells us the story of Eisenheim, a turn-of-the-century Viennese magician who confounds his audiences by apparently raising the dead. (To those who cringe at period pieces, I say, “Necromancy never goes out of style.”)

“Eisenheim, the Illusionist” has an almost academic tone to it, as its narrator refers to old eyewitness accounts of Eisenheim and his performances (from critics, audience members, neighbors, et al.). The narrator’s acknowledgment of his uncertainty lets us trust him more: aren’t we more inclined to believe a person who appears to present us with the facts, rather than a clod declaiming his own interpretations as fact? But Millhauser’s direct language also lends credence to the most farfetched ideas:

“Some said that Eisenheim had created an illusory Eisenheim from the first day of the new century; others said that the Master had gradually grown illusory from trafficking with illusions.”

Now, we know (or do we?) that Eisenheim’s phantoms are just illusions (right?), because ghosts and the afterlife and the devil don’t exist ([nervous laughter]). But in the end, thanks to the narrator’s unbiased presentation of facts, we can’t say whether Eisenheim was living or dead, an illusionist or a magician. Mystery and subtlety are the crux of the story.

But all mystery and subtlety fly out the window in The Illusionist. I have a lot of issues with the film, so let’s begin at the beginning (unlike writer/director Neil Burger, whose screenplay starts in media res, during an attempt to arrest Eisenheim on stage).

THE ILLUSIONIST

THE ILLUSIONIST (2006), dir. Neil Burger. Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel.

The film stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, your titular illusionist; my beloved Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl, Eisenheim’s reluctant rival; Jessica Biel as a two-by-four Eisenheim’s star-crossed lover, Sophie; and Rufus Sewell as Sophie’s buzzkill of a fiancé, the Crown Prince Leopold. Sophie and Leopold don’t exist in Millhauser’s story; Uhl’s part, meanwhile, is expanded in the film. (Note to Hollywood: Not every story needs a romance, especially a romance as shallow and predictable as this one. You can’t force love, H-wood.) And it takes place almost entirely within what must have been the most exhausting and dramatic briefing of Inspector Uhl’s career, directly after his aforementioned attempt to arrest Eisenheim (start around 5:52 and watch until you get the idea/bored):

If someone referred to a childhood romance and the time I met a writer as “almost everything about my life,” I’d be annoyed, at least. And Uhl elides about fifteen years with the line, “What happens next remains a mystery.” (He should have added, “The only mystery in the entire film,” but more on that later.)

I’m in danger of nitpicking here, so I would like to say that I support suspension of disbelief. Whenever my scientifically-inclined boyfriend criticizes a film or TV show’s dubious grasp of science, we have to pause it so that I can pick up my eyeballs, which by the end of his sentence have rolled out of my head and across the floor. (One exception: I delight in Law and Order: SVU’s, um, imaginative depictions of technology.)

But one thing I will not abide, sir, is sloppy exposition. Look, The Illusionist, just show me the story. I don’t care who’s telling it. I’m not going to watch Edward Norton Eisenheim make people materialize out of thin air and think, “That’s all good and well, but who am I to assume is narrating this to me?” Uhl’s frame story is a cheap gimmick that tells me the rest of the story probably can’t hold my attention on its own, that its blandness or predictability necessitates a veil of suspense.

And speaking of gimmicks—the ending. It’s like writer/director Neil Burger read “Eisenheim, the Illusionist” and said, “This story is pretty good, but I think it would be better if we left nothing up to the imagination.”

And imagination is a key word here: I am mainly criticizing the film for its straightforwardness, for its refusal to let a mystery be. But do we go to films looking for mystery? A story takes place in our imagination; that is, we see it in our mind and fill in the blank spaces between words ourselves. But a film is placed in front of us, and what we see is what there is, presumably. Films don’t have blank spaces for us to fill in. But maybe, sometimes, they should.

Next time: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro and Away From Her (2006). As always, please leave suggestions in the comments below!

Summer Film Club: Annie Proulx

6 Jul

"Brokeback Mountain"

“Brokeback Mountain,” by Annie Proulx

How to Make a Great Film Adaptation:

      1. Find a brilliant but terse short story, preferably one with unconventional subject matter.

2. Convince a collaborator to help adapt it into a short, word-for-word screenplay. (Bonus points if your collaborator is the most acclaimed writer in the story’s genre.)

3. Send your first draft to the story’s author for a critique. Use her suggestions about developing aspects further to expand the screenplay to feature length. (Throw some nudity in there too. It is a movie, after all.)

4. Recruit a decorated director and some talented and beloved actors.

5. Win lots of awards.

Listen, Baz Luhrmann, Imma let you finish, but Brokeback Mountain may be the best film adaptation of all time.

I was a little nervous about this one. We’ve seen short story masterpieces marred by poor execution or hokey gimmicks before, and Annie Proulx’s writing is so region-specific that, in the wrong hands (or mouths), it has a lot of potential for a clumsy transition. Plus I felt that usual nostalgia trepidation, where you watch something that you loved years before, and you realize that it’s not very good and you were probably pretty immature back then. But I shouldn’t have worried.

“Brokeback Mountain” first appeared in the October 13, 1997, issue of the New Yorker and became an instant classic. Larry McMurtry (who adapted the story for the screen with his writing partner, Diana Ossana) called it “the best short story he’d ever read in the New Yorker.” Proulx, who had recently won all the literary accolades for The Shipping News, began receiving letters from men who saw themselves or their loved ones in the characters of Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist.

It’s not hard to see why. Proulx tells the heartbreaking tale of two lovelorn ranch hands in rural Wyoming in quiet, unintrusive prose that allows the reader to watch the story as much as read it. The omniscient narrator offers a window to Ennis and Jack’s lives, a view unrefracted by judgment or foreshadowing. Coupled with lengthy, vivid descriptions of the Wyoming landscape (which I will admit I tired of about halfway through, because I suffer the big-city pretension of finding nature boring), Proulx delivers a story cinematic in scope.

Ennis and Jack, the dogs, horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind.

Mmm. Beautiful. Can’t you just see that in a long, wide shot?

sheep river

Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) herd sheep in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

It’s a visual story, told in a straightforward, linear manner, without much subtext or symbolism that would translate awkwardly to film. Ossana believed it was “a near perfect story, in technique as well as emotion,” and “an excellent blueprint for a screenplay.” And indeed it is: although the story spans 20 years, it’s a collection of scenes; it doesn’t contain loads of exposition incommunicable in film outside of clumsy conversations or speeches. Ossana and McMurtry finished a draft in three months, using much of the story’s language.

Though Ossana and McMurtry worked quickly, they had eight years to go before Brokeback Mountain would see the light of day. Eventually it would star Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, with Ang Lee directing, and it would become one of the most awarded films of all time. But at first nobody wanted to make the “gay cowboy movie,” which is how it was pigeonholed before and even after its release. Five years ago, two men having sex and being in love on screen was such a big deal. Ultra-religious theater owners refused to show it; red-blooded ignoramuses fretted about its potential impact on their masculinity. Lots of conservative pundits said stupid things about it. And it famously lost Best Picture at the Academy Awards to Crash, a heavy-handed movie condemning a strain of ignorance and hatred that is more mainstream-acceptable to condemn than homophobia.

And then there were the critics who loudly proclaimed it a “love story,” as if applying that phase to gay men were a revelation in and of itself. And Brokeback Mountain certainly is a love story. The film’s marketers knew that, too:

Brokeback Mountain/Titanic

Rose and Jack; Jack and Ennis.

 

But “Brokeback Mountain,” a love story? Not so much. Don’t take my word for it. Take Proulx’s:

Although they were not really cowboys. . . the urban critics dubbed it a tale of two gay cowboys. No. It is a story of destructive rural homophobia.

“Destructive rural homophobia” isn’t the main theme I took away from the movie, and I doubt Lee, Ossana, and McMurtry wanted to feature it as prominently as Proulx did. My evidence lies in a small difference in the endings.

Take a look at this shot from the film’s last scene:

 

Ennis (Heath Ledger) gazes at the mementos of his relationship with Jack.

 

That image appears near the end of the story, after Ennis acquires a postcard with an image of Brokeback Mountain:

Below [the postcard] he drove a nail and on the nail he hung the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. He stepped back and looked at the ensemble through a few stinging tears.

“Jack, I swear—” he said, though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind.

The end. Or is it? No, it’s not. The story actually ends with a couple of paragraphs on Jack’s haunting appearances in Ennis’s dreams:

. . . but the can of beans with the spoon handle jotting out was there as well, in a cartoon shape and lurid colors that gave the dreams a flavor of comic obscenity. The spoon handle was the kind that could be used as a tire iron. And he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets.

There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.

There, again, we have that tire iron: the one that killed the gay rancher in Ennis’s youth, the one that Ennis believes may have killed Jack, the one that prevents Ennis from living a good life. There is your destructive rural homophobia. And I don’t mean to minimize the film’s depiction of it; it’s there, most prominently in scenes with supporting characters. But the image we leave with, the most resonant image, isn’t the tire iron: it’s those empty, entwined shirts.

Brokeback Mountain may always be the gay cowboy Titanic to some, but it is also a great film, a near-perfect adaptation, and an extraordinary coming together of all the right minds—not to mention some superb source material.

Next week: Steven Milhauser’s “Eisenheim, the Illusionist” and The Illusionist

Interview with Randi Ewing, Our July Web Exclusive Author

3 Jul

With summer’s heat now fully upon us, it’s fitting that our July web-exclusive story, by Randi Ewing, is titled “The Swimmers.” But this is not your typical summertime tale of sunbathing and beaches. No, “The Swimmers” tackles something more magical even than that. Rendered in language that’s both intimate and vivid, “The Swimmers” is a story about our relationship with the landscapes around us, the secrets they hold within, and the larger-than-life wonders of the natural world. More than anything, “The Swimmers” is a mystery, one that reveals itself in a way that’s every bit as pleasing as a dip in the icy blue ocean.

Enjoy the story on the ASF website, and read our interview with Randi, below.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “The Swimmers.” Where did the idea for the story come from?

A writer friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of a hand sculpture in the Chilean desert. (Don’t all things come from Facebook these days?) I sent her a picture of the Uruguayan hand. There are actually several of these hand sculptures in South America. I’m not sure why, but the Uruguayan one has always been my favorite. It is right on the beach, and with the sea behind it, it gives the eerie impression that the hand is going down, not coming up. My friend sent back a message saying that I should write a story about that hand, and another friend and I agreed to each write a giant hand story by a certain date. This is mine. I suppose because of the original image of the hand being on the beach, I always associated it with water, but it actually took several starts to realize that the bodies were swimming.

2. In a sense this is a story about the human reaction to a strange geologic event. At the same time, by the end of the story, I found myself quite drawn to the Swimmers themselves, who (though perhaps once living) are inanimate. It’s an interesting dynamic you’ve created, in which humans and the natural world both demand our attention and compassion. Can you talk a little bit about how you accomplished this and/or what you were trying to achieve?

From the beginning, I was interested in the tension between the size of the Swimmers and the size of everyone else, particularly in how the Swimmers’ enormity changed the way people felt about themselves. I recently found an early draft of the story that deals much more with the general human reaction to that event—media coverage, religious fanatics, society-wide behavior changes. It’s more comic, but also much more sarcastic and less personal. By the end of that draft, a narrator had emerged with her own questions, and the story became her story and her responses to the Swimmers over time. The Swimmers are enormous, but what surfaces of them are single, individual body parts. I tried to describe the bodies as intimately as I could, because I wanted them to be more than just their unassembled parts. Even though they lack individual personalities, I wanted them to suggest certain ordinary movements like grabbing something or stretching or breathing. It was important to me to have the narrator see something of herself in the Swimmers and, ultimately, understand something about them, and herself, that she didn’t before. I was very interested in the idea that the natural world in the form of the Swimmers would give the narrator the sense of awe that comes with realizing that there are things bigger than us, even if those things are simply the events of our lives.

3. Creating landscapes that are as compelling as any human characters, as you’ve done in “The Swimmers,” is one of the hallmarks of great travel or place-focused writing, it seems to me. Who are some of your favorite authors who write about place? What fictional landscapes have you found inspiring as a writer?

I’m in Argentina right now and in addition to reading Borges, I’ve been reading a couple Argentine fiction writers who have been able to capture two versions of Buenos Aires—the actual city and one where unusual, fantastic things happen. To do this as a writer, I think you have to not only inhabit a place, but let a place inhabit you. Then the place becomes as subjective as any person and just as pliable. For me, place can mean a city or a house or a kitchen table. It’s not just the place itself I’m interested in, but the possibilities of that place, what mystery or secret lies at its heart. I love stories that mine places not just for physical beauty or location, but also for their hidden potential to show the reader something marvelous or fantastic. I like writers who don’t see a place or the history of that place as static. I’m thinking of people like Lewis Nordan, who used the history of the South to find new ways to write about the South, especially in Wolf Whistle. And Rick Bass, whose descriptions of the natural world allow for such strange and interesting turns.

4. “The Swimmers” has us traveling all over the world—Uruguay, Russia, Kentucky, Australia. Have you visited any of the places named in the story? How is it different to write about places you’ve been versus those you’ve never seen?

When I’m not traveling or visiting family, I live in Kentucky. The scene in the story with the woodworker is based on a friend’s home in western Kentucky, and his house is the closest I’ve been to any of the places in the story. I have been to Uruguay on a day trip from Buenos Aires, but I’ve never seen the hand sculpture in Punta del Este. For me, though, this whole story takes place in the narrator’s kitchen on the day that she finally sees the Russian Swimmer. So in that sense, it was easy to describe these places I’ve never been to, because I was thinking of them as images on TV, as places that are known and unknown at the same time. I felt comfortable writing about them in that way, because the place from which the character was viewing them was very familiar to me. It also didn’t hurt that most of the landscapes in this story are of the human body. But in general, I think the most important aspect for me is to understand not just the layout or boundaries of a place, but to know the feel of it, even if that knowledge is individual and would likely vary from person to person. It’s that feeling a place gives me that guides my descriptions.

5. This is that wonderful sort of story that holds out on the reader, that cracks open only at the very end. Can you talk a little bit about the pleasures and/or challenges of writing a piece with this particular structure?

This is my favorite type of story. I like a story that builds toward something and reveals something. I like what it does to me as a reader and as a writer, because I’m forced to adapt along with the story and recognize that what I thought was going on maybe wasn’t. The challenge of writing a story where something is withheld is making sure you hold the right thing back and for the right reasons. It’s tempting to want to keep too much from the reader, to hide some piece of information for hiding’s sake, not in the service of the story.

6. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

I am just finishing up a year in South America, most recently Argentina, and I’m headed back to Kentucky this month. This is my fifth visit to Argentina and it has provided plenty of fodder, both for stories and, it seems, a novel. I’ll be tackling those as well as the job market as soon as I get home.

ASF Summer Film Club 2: Return of the Club

27 Jun

Hey, guys. It’s officially summer. In Austin, that means a few things: 107-degree days, seeking refuge in Barton Springs, and the return of ASF’s Summer Film Club!

Each week, I’ll read a short story, watch its film adaptation, and discuss here what works and what doesn’t in each medium. Once again I’ll point out that I have no formal training in film, and that, although I still follow Roger Ebert on Twitter, I don’t even subscribe to Netflix anymore. So we’re in uncharted waters. Or at least I am.

I’ll be back next Friday (July 6) with the first entry in the series, on “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx and its film adaptation, Short Circuit. Just kidding. I’ll be watching Brokeback Mountain, because I thought I’d like to spend the next week crying at my desk.

Last year we covered Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Jonathan Nolan, Andre Dubus, Joyce Carol Oates, Julio Cortázar, and Raymond Carver. This year I just have a few picked out—authors include Alice Munro, James Joyce, and Steven Millhauser—so please leave suggestions in the comments.

See you soon!

Local Folk: Reading with Owen Egerton

20 Jun

Owen Egerton, longtime friend of American Short Fiction, is on a crazy book tour. (Crazy awesome!) How so? He’s touring via train with his whole family. He’s in San Francisco tonight (June 20), presenting his Best of God show at the Balboa Theater. Go show him some love, Bay Area. He will make you laugh. More details on his tour on his website.

We conducted this interview right before the conductor shouted “all aboard!” Or whatever it is that they shout these days.

* * *

ASF: Let’s talk about The Book of Harold, just out in paperback from the wonderful Soft Skull Press. You first published this novel two years ago—how do you feel about it now? Are you feeling reinvigorated as you prepare for the second go-round of press? Excited about the book tour?

Owen: Thrilled! I’ve loved jumping back into the chapters for readings, once again engaging the issues and themes of the novel. It’s interesting returning to a book some years after writing it. It’s a window I opened then but can look through now. If I were so inclined to rewrite Harold now, it would be a different book. I’m a different writer, different person. It would not necessarily be a better book.

I take a while to write a novel, over six years on the short end. So every novel ends up being a collaboration between the man who started the work and the man who finishes it. Both me, but years apart.

The tour should be a blast. My wife, Jodi, and I are taking our two kids and taking the train from city to city up the West Coast. I get to take my family from bookstore to bookstore traveling by train? How could I not be excited? And Soft Skull is such a fun press. They’re putting the novel in front of so many new readers.

ASF:  In the book, Harold and his followers are making a holy pilgrimage to Austin. Why did you choose Austin in particular, and what role does this city play in the novel? What was it like writing about the place you live in and know so well?

Owen: When I was younger, I did my best to avoid writing about Austin. I thought it would be more creative to describe a world other than my own. But again and again, Austin crept into my books and stories, or my characters crept into Austin. I don’t subscribe to the old adage “write what you know.” But I do believe you should write about what you love. And I love Austin. Love its waterholes, coffee shops, live oaks. Love the hippies, hipsters, and hicks all waiting in the same line for barbecue. Love the front yard art and backyard concerts. Love how we keep making films, plays, songs, books. . . even if we’re hardly making a dime. I love that you can still afford to do that here. Love the lifestyle tinkerers, the food mystics, the grow-your-owns. Love the not-yet-blended-but-getting-there combination of cultures. I love what we’ve been, who we are and all is to come.I really dig this town.

ASF:  Tell us about a favorite book or short story, or something great you read recently. What impressed you or stuck with you about the work or author?

Owen: I’m reading Run with the Hunted, a Charles Bukowski Reader. The editor has arranged his stories and poems in the chronological order of his life so that the book reads as a kind of autobiography. He takes you close to some nasty scenes and grabs some true gut beauty. He describes the horrific with such simple elegance, such unassuming sentences, that the work has an electric honesty. An honestly of emotion. And his wit is hard to beat.

ASF:  What do you look for when you read a piece of fiction? What makes something resonate with you, or inspire your own writing?

Owen: The fiction that attracts me most is the product of a writer reaching past her knowledge, striving to touch something beyond herself. There are plenty of clever craftsmen writing today, and I respect them. But often those books read like well stacked piles of wood. I like the ones set ablaze. A book that burns is harder to keep in the lines, harder to summarize. I don’t need a book that has a “message” I can take away in my pocket. Save that for inspirational and political Twitters. I want a book discovering itself. A book that’s a little out of control.

ASF: Where is your favorite spot in Austin to delve into a great work of fiction?

Owen: Is there a bad spot? So many! The south shores of Barton Springs, the counter at Bouldin Creek Coffee House, the stacks at the Twin Pine Library. . . but here’s my current favorite spot both for writing and reading. The far south-east corner of the Once Over coffee shop’s back patio. I’ve spent many an hour under a sprawling oak with Bouldin Creek to my side, a near perfect coffee before me and a used paperback in my hand.

That’s the ingredients for a good day.

ASF: What are you up to around Austin these days? Tell me about what you do at the Drafthouse—Master Pancake, your “Best Of” compilations—etc. How long have you been performing stand-up?

Owen: I saw that Soft Skull described me as a stand-up. I don’t really do too much actual stand-up. But I do stand in front of people and occasionally they snicker. I’ve been doing comedy since college. Comedy has been very kind to me. it paid the bills before writing could. While working on first novel, I was living in a VW van and performing random comedy gigs to buys groceries and gas.

The “Best Of” series has been a blast. I’ll actually be doing a number of those shows in the same cities I’ll be visiting for my book tour. We take a theme–sex ed, drugs, God– and put together a slew of outrageous clips from 1930s onward. Then we invite Austin notables, experts, and celebrities to discuss the theme. Plus a local musician like Southpaw Jones to write a song for the night. It’s kind of the bastard love child of comedy, music, interviews, encyclopedic explorations, and frenetic channel surfing. I’ll be on book tour for June and July, but we’ll be doing more “Best Of”‘s starting in August.

Master Pancake is always a blast. I’ve been mocking movies with John Erler for twelve years now. I’m sure I’ll be joining him again come fall.

Spreading the Charm of Short Stories

6 Jun

Short stories and fictions have been in vogue since ages. Even the caves of Early Man had symbols and signs that speak stories. Whether it is an animal story or a fairy tale kids have always been fascinated by the characters in the story and the way it is narrated. In spite of the technological developments things doesn’t seem to have changed much. It is just the means that has changed; stories right from the mouths of mothers and grandmas have now been replaced by computers, Kindle and E- readers. Whatever the mode is the charm of the story telling and fact associated with it will always remain in our memories. 

Read about how to build a story, the components that interest the readers, good stuff/ strategies that promote the story and so on. Such planned strategies are not just restricted to a single website or a single business. Every business has its own strategy to promote business. For example casinos, the ultimate destination of gamblers run on unique strategies.

Gamblers usually apply one or more strategies to make a fruitful winning. However, the fact is that casino gaming does not have any strong strategy to succeed. If the player is winning with red in a roulette game, black would turn sooner or later. The biggest misleading notion that “today is my lucky day” hits any player badly and compels him to plummet to doom. So even if you have won the jackpot, make sure that you surrender on proper time after accumulating the targeted amount.

Some of the popular strategies applied by casinos players are Martingale Strategy, Reverse Martingale Strategy, The D’ Alembert Strategy and The Leonardo Pisano Bigollo or Fibonacci Strategy. The Martingale strategy is based on 50-50 chance of winning the game. Reverse Martingale is based on increasing the bets on losing and decreasing the bets on winning. The D’ Alembert strategy follows increasing and decreasing the arithmetic aspects by replacing geometric ratio. And finally in The D’ Alembert strategy the sequence goes with number generation by adding last two numbers or last two bets together. However, the important point here is to stop you on right time.

Money making strategy in an organized and well planned manner is the most significant aspect of jackpot winning in casino. The biggest base of casino betting strategy is walking away when the player has won and cutting the losses, once the player has lost frequently.To know more about such strategies, visit casino europa.

 

Casey Hannan, June Web Exclusive Author, Talks Bourbon and Flash

1 Jun

If our June web exclusive were a cocktail, the recipe for it might look something like this: Start with one good sentence. Add bourbon, water, ghosts. Measure carefully, with control. Pour over ice and enjoy, savoring each word. This month’s feature, “Ghost Water“ by Casey Hannan, is definitely a story to be savored. Sharp yet sweet, rich with complexity and heart, and brimming with precise, graceful language—it’s one you won’t want to miss.

We asked Casey a few questions about “Ghost Water,” writing flash fiction, and his favorite bourbon. Read more in our interview below. You’ll find his story on the ASF website.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Ghost Water.” Where did the idea for this story come from?

I’ve been telling the same story for the last two years about men meeting and connecting. They haven’t been love stories for the most part. The men get to be themselves and there’s sex, of course. The men are part of the world and outside it. That’s my life now and the life I was waiting for when I was a teenager. There weren’t any stories like that for me growing up. I mean, they existed, but I didn’t find them. I found MTV.

“Ghost Water” has love, though, and the characters have known each other forever. I started with their shared love of bourbon and as I wrote, I realized these men share everything.

2. I recently listened to a Late Night Library interview with Roxane Gay in which she mentioned you as an emerging writer to watch and called you a “master of flash fiction.” That’s a great compliment, and one that I definitely second. So, let’s talk a bit about flash fiction. Why write short? What does very short fiction offer you—as a writer or as a reader—that perhaps longer fiction can’t?

First, a little about Roxane Gay. She’s one of my good friends. She sent me boots in the mail. When she said those things about me on Late Night Library, I got scared. I can never live up to all that, but I’ll try. I’ll probably die trying.

Short fiction offers control. I believe language is one of the few things we have any actual control over. We get to choose our own words. I can’t imagine wasting the opportunity and saying too much. The longer a story gets, the more I lose control.

3. Roxane praised your stories for being intricate, surprising, and elegant—all adjectives that certainly apply to “Ghost Water.” People often ask what ASF is looking for in submissions to the magazine, and I’d say that the qualities Roxane names are a pretty good place to start. What do you want from the stories you write? What do you want from the stories you read?

I just want to read stories and not cringe. I want that from the stories I read and the stories I write.

4. One of the things that’s important to me as a reader is really beautiful sentences. And “Ghost Water” definitely delivers on that front. Amy Hempel has talked in interviews about assembling stories sentence by sentence rather than focusing on the overarching plot. Is that a process you relate to? 

Sentences are the story to me, especially in short fiction. I can tolerate reading a novel with bland sentences if the plot pays off in an exciting way. I can’t tolerate the same thing in short fiction. In short fiction, I don’t care what’s told, I care how it’s told.

I get working on a story if I have one good sentence. The sentence that got “Ghost Water” going was the sentence after Lee puts ice in the glasses of bourbon to mellow the taste. “As if you can shoot the wood out of a tree.” The rest of the story spidered out from there.

5. Speaking of bourbon. . . I’m guessing, from its appearance in a couple of your stories, that you like bourbon. What is your favorite kind and what’s the best way to drink it?

Oh yes. Bourbon. I do like bourbon. My favorite right now is 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. I was in Kentucky last year, and my friend took me to this bourbon bar. She picked out six or seven bourbons she thought I’d like, and we sat there and tried them all. I’d only ever had cheap bourbon with ginger ale, which I still like, but now I like my bourbon with just one cube of ice.

Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting. I’ve been taking bottles of bourbon and infusing them for a few days with cardamom, cumin, and cloves. Then I take a good ginger beer and mix it up in a big jar with the infused bourbon. I can drink that and write the early parts of a story and not be too bad about what I’ve written the next morning. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten a good sentence out of being drunk, but I have gotten good emotions.

6. Place is important in this story. The town, the river, the heat—they’re completely inextricable from the characters’ relationship. Can you talk a little bit about the role of place in your writing? How do the places you’ve lived find their way into your writing?

I am from Kentucky. I came to Kansas City for school and fell in love with a man. I’m still in love with that man, and that’s why I haven’t left Kansas City.

Place is important. It’s important because it’s where the writer and the reader come together. I’m an adult who’s writing, and my audience is adults who are reading. I’ve been places and they’ve been places. I don’t have to get too detailed about a bar. The reader is going to picture whatever bar they want to picture, and that initial image is going to stick with them no matter what else I say.

That said, place is more than just physical place. It’s what certain places do to people. Because I’ve lived in Kentucky and Kansas City, my characters have too. Part of the work is accepting that and part of the work is hiding it. All my characters are part of me, but I don’t want them to be all of me. That separation is difficult.

7. Can you tell us about the image you sent to accompany this story?

Yes. It’s a photograph of me as a boy. Every summer for over 20 years, my family has gotten together at Lake Gaston in North Carolina for a reunion. I’ve never been far from the water. My hometown is on a river. Kansas City is on a river, too. Large bodies of water calm me down with how big and deep and scary they are. They’ve always made me think of ghosts. When I was a kid, I used to fall into this trap of thinking about the water I drank. I would think about how the water was part of someone else before me and how it would be part of someone else after me.

8. What are you working on now? What’s up next for you?

I have a collection of short fiction forthcoming from Tiny Hardcore Press in early 2013. I’m working on the last few stories for that. But when I’m finished, I don’t know. I just want to keep writing and see what happens.

 

Local Folk: Reading with Elizabeth Crane

24 May

One of our favorite local writers, Elizabeth Crane, is about to break new ground. With her distinctive experimental style and quirky, charming voice, Crane has authored three remarkable collections of short stories—When the Messenger is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Now, she’s excited to publish her first novel We Only Know So Much (Harper Perennial) and kick off her national book tour next month. We can’t wait to see what Crane does in long form, but she says the transition wasn’t intentional. “At first I didn’t know I was writing a novel,” she told us. “It started as a short story that just sort of grew.” We Only Know So Much follows the dysfunctional Copeland family and is replete with eccentric characters and Crane’s off-beat humor. Unfortunately, we all have to wait until June to get our hands on it, so we asked Crane to recommend a good book to tide us over in the meantime.

ASF: Tell us about a favorite book or short story.

Elizabeth: I’m a big fan of Steven Millhauser. Dangerous Laughter knocked my socks off. Or maybe I should say Dangerous Laughter knocked me out and then my dog pulled my socks off. He likes to do that.

The first story “Cat ‘n’ Mouse” is definitely a favorite. It’s written as a narrative version of a cat and mouse cartoon—but what amazes me about this story is not its humor or mere cleverness in the way he captures every last detail of that type of cartoon, but in the way it ultimately transcends that genre and becomes a really beautiful, kind of haunted story about, well, an existential sort of loneliness. “The Dome” was another standout for me, and if you can find it online (I couldn’t), Alec Baldwin read it on Selected Shorts, which I highly recommend giving a listen to.

ASF: What do you look for when you read a piece of fiction? What makes something resonate and stick with you?

Elizabeth:  Hm, good question. I really like work that takes risks, whatever that might mean. Sometimes it’s a stylistic risk, or other times it’s maybe emotionally risky. And of course, if a piece of well-written, smart fiction is also funny and heartbreaking, then I’m always going to be excited. And I think I always want to read something that feels really true, even if it’s surreal in some way. Those are the things that inspire me most as a writer, the books that make me feel like they’ve captured some truth about who people are and put it there in a way that makes it feel fresh.

ASF: Where is your favorite spot in Austin to delve into a great work of fiction?

Elizabeth:  You know, my favorite reading spot is the same anywhere I live—my bed!  But I can occasionally be found reading in the hammock in the backyard too.

ASF: We heard a rumor you might be leaving us and moving to New York.

Elizabeth:  This rumor is true. I am very sad to be leaving the good friends I’ve made here. Austin has been very kind to me; as you know, the literary community is very supportive here. I’ll miss BookPeople for sure. And I’ll miss a few favorite restaurants: Counter Cafe and Eastside Cafe, and I was going to miss the Alamo Drafthouse but apparently they’re opening one in NY! My dog will miss Redbud and his neighbor dog friends.