Archive by Author

While Many Bookstores Smolder, New Life!

10 Jun

While the land still smokes from the mighty fire that’s consumed brick-and-mortar bookstores—the B. Daltons and the Waldenbooks, the mom-and-pop shops, so many shut, so many still closing—lo! a cry of new life:

Barnhill’s of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A new brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Books, wines, art, gifts, coffee, chocolate, merch, hooray! The group of authors that put this baby together is looking raise it up as an independent thinker. It needs your help.

  • Specifically, it needs books by independent publishers.
  • More specifically, it wants quality titles to sell on consignment.

Interested? Contact mike [at] onlyatbarnhills.com.

Freedom; or, When Your Computer Gets a Lobotomy

1 Jun

I am hyperorganized when it comes to the techie aspects of editing and story-drafting. All potential ASF blog post topics get filed neatly in the hard drive in the folder labeled “ASF Blog” by date according to week. All my story drafts get filed in, you got it, “Stories” by date and further identified by version “a,” “b,” or “c,” depending on how the drafting goes.

There is one techie thing, however, I am terrible at. That I have to be reminded to do, and if I am not watched like a five year old who has been told to brush her teeth, I will skip the process, assuming I will never be caught. That thing: backing up my hard drive. Like the tooth-brushing, it doesn’t matter how good it is for me, I resist. I skip. I could go months and months without doing it. As long as there’s no pain, I’ll go without…

You know what’s coming next, don’t you?

About a week ago, yes, of course, my hard drive, she done died. Last backup: Christmas. Oh the pain.

All this to say what you already surmise:

(1) Back up your work regularly. And often.

(2) The slew of lovely notes and links and ideas slated to be this ASF post (and many, many others) are gone forever.

But I have a new hard drive, empty of all data. So.

Ironically, the post you won’t see was about technology tricks for writers. It, too, disappeared when I dropped my laptop on its head and gave the thing a total lobotomy. Bah.

Here’s something I stumbled upon that kinda makes up for the loss. It’s short and sweet and so helpful for writers. And it is a reminder that a disabled computer and freedom from technology are good.

The info came to me from Belle Boggs’ blog. She writes:

“I find the Internet really distracting, especially from the work of writing. It’s so tempting to check your email, read the news, or spy on people. Mac users can download a cool program called Freedom that allows you to disable the Internet for a set period of time, but I write on PC, so I generally just try to exert my willpower.”

Many of you may already know Belle Boggs’s beautifully quiet yet ferocious collection of short stories, Mattaponi Queen, which won the 2009 Bakeless Prize for Fiction (and is just out from Graywolf). I recommend this book. And I recommend freedom–the high-tech form you can click to achieve (looks like it’s available for Windows users, too) not the, ahem, low-tech kind you simply have to destroy your machine to get.

*

Got any technology tips specifically for writers? Add your comments below. ASF blog readers, including me, will thank you.

SSM 2010: Recognizing Its Prince–and Its Pricelessness

31 May

Some princes are know for their charm, others for their cunning and duplicity, still others their music making. In mid-May, Prince of Short Story Month, Dan Wickett (of Emerging Writers Network and Dzanc Books), waxed prosaic in Fictionaut Five about his reads, his wants, and his brainchild, SSM. (He even nods our way.)

ASF remains a proud and loyal subject, as you can see from our past month’s activity. If you missed any SSM discussion from the court of Wickett, check out its archives.

Thanks, Dan, and thanks, ASF contributors, for championing the short story in such royal fashion. We’ll keep the dream alive until SSM 2011. . .

SSM: Oh, “Lispeth.” Thinking about Rudyard Kipling…

27 May

by Nina McConigley

Poor Kipling. In post-colonial studies, it is Kipling whose reputation has taken a bit of a beating. I’ve heard him called a jingoist, a racist, and just that Englishman who wrote about India. Sadly, when many people quote him, it is often the imperialistic poem “The White Man’s Burden”:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

But in looking again at Kipling’s stories again for the Indian Short Story class I teach at the University of Wyoming, I began to see something else. Especially with the story “Lispeth.”

It first appeared in the newspaper the Civil and Military Gazette in 1886; it was later published in book form in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888. (You can click through another version of this text on Google Books.)

The tale is set in Kotgarh, close to Simla, the summer capital of the British government. The story begins with Sonoo and Jadeh, who, due to their failed crops, have converted to Christianity. They have a beautiful daughter, Lispeth. After cholera kills her parents, Lispeth goes to live with the Chaplain and his wife as a kind of servant/companion.

All is well until Lispeth happens upon an unconscious Englishman. She carries him home and becomes smitten. The Chaplain and his wife find her lovesick behavior and her intention to marry him reprehensible, and they “lectured her severely on the impropriety of her conduct.”

The Englishman recovers (he’s been hunting butterflies and plants) and, while he is recovering, flirts up a storm with Lispeth. He fails to tell her he is engaged to an Englishwoman at home, in England. The Chaplain’s wife advises him to tell Lispeth he will return to Kotgarh one day. He then leaves for England. He does not return. Lispeth is crushed and, after marrying a local man, lives a sad existence.

While the Indian woman seems easily duped, the story is complicated. Lispeth is honest and good, and the Chaplain and his wife, with their pious Christianity are seen as hypocritical and cruel. What then is Kipling saying about Christians? About those who espouse piety? The story reflects Kipling’s attitudes to different cultures and races, as he understood them, which is perhaps less simple than many believe. Although the story seems straightforward, and almost fairy-tale like—yet one is left wondering who the good and bad guys are, which may go back to the root of colonialism itself, with its complex and problematic history.

Nina McConigley’s “Curating Your Life” appeared in American Short Fiction, Fall 2009 (volume 12, issue 45)

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

SSM: “The Camera Obscura” by Stephanie Soileau

26 May

by Contributing Editor Stacey Swann

In “The Camera Obscura” (first published in Nimrod and anthologized in New Stories from the South 2009), there is a teacher, an unhappy marriage, an ailing husband, and an unlikely crush. But within those confines and 4,000 words, Soileau packs a world of such complexity and heart it makes me a spellbound reader and a very jealous writer. I can’t do it justice by describing it, though. Better to show you why in beautiful, hefty chunks.

The voice:

It’s other things too. It’s even the things you love. That the animal he would be if he were any animal—if he could choose to be any animal—is a duck. You married a duck, you think now. How could you have married a duck? And yet, you can’t bear to imagine forgetting these things. You can’t bear to think that one day, your memory of his face will be foggy and painless, that one day (not soon! not soon!) you will not be there for the final moments, to bicker with nurses, sign forms, sleep in armchairs, and stroke the forehead of your ailing duck.

The humor:

You will pack up your things, move out on the husband, divorce, and marry immediately this brilliant, odd-looking man, and you will have brilliant, odd-looking children, and you will adore them all, and you will make them sometimes change their clothes, and you will defend your miserable brood from contempt, and everyone will wonder how such a delightful woman ended up with such a categorically graceless lump of a man, or better, how such a categorically graceless lump of a man could deserve such a delightful woman.

The language:

You are in a state of vapid waiting. Your skull is a lean-to and you’re camped out under it, waiting for a change in weather. There is no change in weather. You start to blurt cryptic things to the colleagues, to the husband. Things like: My skull is a lean-to and I’m camping out under it. You feel you are speaking in rebus. You have trouble stepping outside the situation enough to determine exactly what is a problem, and exactly how much of a problem the problem is. You begin to suspect the problem is probably you.

The depth:

The fact is, before all this, before the obligating virus, you had been nearing thirty and thinking that you’d better just pick someone to love already and be done with it. Love, you told yourself, after two critical, devastating failures, is a choice and not a visitation, is not the shared transport of a 4 am binge on Borges and a can of sardines, is not transcendence or revelation, has no empirical epistemology. It is like-mindedness on questions of dinner and dishes and laundry. It is, you have learned now, tolerance of peculiar sounds from the bathroom, the daily jamming of needles into thighs. You pick someone, that’s all. You pick someone you like well enough and dig in. Ritual evokes reverence; every injection, every slice of buttered toast conjures affection. Was this cynicism or was it faith?

Like the best fiction, “The Camera Obscura” offers up many questions and few answers. And it offers up a world you want to read, read again, and repeat.

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

SSM: On Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters

25 May

by Marie-Helene Bertino

Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters.

Stuff I like:

1.  Characters created in absentia; Seymour (three cheers!), and Muriel (boooooooo). Salinger’s stories always seem to be about absent characters; brothers mostly. Holden Caulfield’s absent brother is taken by the West Coast. The Glass stories revolve around the absent Seymour. Character being favorably talked about while not being present = longing. Longing is literary!  Longing has narrative! In Raise High, we long for the absent groom.

2. Salinger throws up the lob (the story about Charlotte), early.  Hip hip . . .

3. This story hearts letters. Journal entries, bathroom-mirror-soap poetry—characters speak without being present—more absentia—neat!

4. Salinger is unafraid to present characters who care about each other, who defend each other, who make unpopular choices based on personal moral codes.

5. How deftly Salinger observes women. The Matron of Honor (boooooooo); detestable, mouthy, substance-less. A gal whose boring opinions get louder with the donning of a wedding-related dress. Boo Boo describes the quality as being “a total zero.”* Oh boy oh boy I know these women.

6. The small, joyful fellow with the hat and cigar. A perfect pear on a porcelain dish in the sun.

7. Salinger comes down on the lob with a story-ending overhead smash; the truth about Charlotte’s stitches. . . hooray!

* This comment speaks directly to others in Ms. Bertino’s review of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

Marie-Helene Bertino’s “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph” appeared in American Short Fiction, spring 2010 (volume 13, issue 47).

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

SSM: The Staggering Darknesses of Breece D’J Pancake

24 May

by Jennifer Shapland, ASF editorial assistant

I found Breece D’J Pancake’s collection at the bookstore where I work. I was drawn in by two things: 1) his funny name, and 2) the charming cover (left), a grayscale disembodied fox’s head on off-white. I took the book up to the register and read the first page.  I couldn’t stop. For a few weeks, I read between customers, book under the counter. Don’t tell my managers.

There’s something to be said for writing that can stand that kind of repeated interruption. Hell, my own train of thought rarely can. Pancake is usually known as a regional writer, which could have put me off. His stories center on rural West Virginia, his home, where, “The sky has a film.” “The hillsides are baked here and have heat ghosts.” Heat ghosts. There are turkles and trilobites and the worst a person can do is talk through their beak. The scene is set from the first story, “Trilobites,” my favorite. It soaks into you. I still have no idea what a trilobite is.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake will take you into mineshafts, across hillsides, front porches, and dark interiors. You will know his landscape in smothering heat and feet of snow. It will undermine your geography. Reading this collection, I watch the salt caked on everyone’s skin in “Trilobites” turn into the salt they spread on icy mountain roads in “Time and Again.” Pancake immerses me in the mentality of the place, its habits, its little collective lies. And at the same time he exposes me to an out-of-placeness that resonates deeply in me. I am totally out of my element in these stories and I love every second of it. They remind me of nothing.

There is a great darkness here, an almost geological one. While the landscape is grim and the stories disturbing, Pancake’s characters have small and sort of elegiac dreams for themselves. The narrator of “Trilobites” moves from his adolescent wish, “We will live on mangoes and love,” to a pressing resolution: “I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan—maybe even Germany or China, I don’t know yet.” Pancake’s sentences are simple, straight, unsentimental. He isn’t talking through his beak or anything. Some stories, like “The Honored Dead” or “Fox Hunters,” only allude to that underlying darkness, so shadowy they demand rereading. Read them again and the shadows remain.

Pancake committed suicide at age 26 (in 1979), having written only the stories that were published posthumously in this collection. So it fascinates me in the way I am fascinated by first novels: staggering potential. That said, these twelve stories do not disappoint, even remotely. Nothing is missing.  Their language is transformative; Pancake’s hand is unassuming and sly. You will read this unable to believe you haven’t found it before. And you will return to it, often.

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

SSM: The Spooky Action of Tom Noyes

20 May

by Eugene Cross

In his wonderful second story collection, Spooky Action at a Distance, Tom Noyes continues to explore the mysteries that surround us that we so often take for granted: faith, grace, irresistible urges to do things we know are not good for us.

In the brief but affecting “The Daredevil’s Wife,” the protagonist decides to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It’s a stunt he comes to almost haphazardly, ultimately choosing the barrel over crossing the Falls via tightrope because the former requires no skill. “This is the physics of the barrel: curl into a ball and hope. This is the geometry of Niagara: down.” His wife, anxious and afraid, asks him why. “Asks him over and over. But the daredevil has no answer.” He simply knows he has to, which strikes me as such a perfectly sad and human urge. The desire to do things that may hurt the ones we love and leave us or them alone in the end. But we do the things anyway.

In an interview with Scott Phillips, Dan Chaon (another author whose work I love) claims he himself is “not too interested in the idea of Truth, or even of ‘epiphany’ in fiction,” but rather “things that are unanswerable. . . those moments that are unpackagable.” What could be more unanswerable than the kind of self-sabotage we catch ourselves practicing, the kind that injures those we care about the most, lying or hiding or putting our hearts’ deepest longings before theirs?

As he floats toward the roar of the Falls, the daredevil hears his wife singing and for the first time doubt consumes him, not at the choice he’s made but at what her singing might indicate. It’s a brilliant ending to a beautiful story in a book that’s full of them.

Eugene Cross’s story “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean” appeared in American Short Fiction, Winter 2009 (volume 12, issue 46).

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!

Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

SSM: Innocent and Dirty, the Music of Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry

18 May

by Sarah Wambold, ASF editorial assistant

Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill. It is hard not to read Mary Gaitskill through a neon yellow haze under which the highlighter has marked the terms sex, death and darkness; harder still is it to review her work without focusing on these terms. In her 2009 collection of short stories, Don’t Cry, however, a new subject emerges from the titillating conversation and flood it with song. Music has appeared in Mary Gaitskill’s work throughout her career; in Veronica, the narrator often withdraws into memories of listening to Rigoletto with her father while Veronica herself is comforted by Doris Day.  In 2006, Ms. Gaitskill edited Da Capo’s Best Music Writing Anthology. In that volume she says, “It is a great thing, a luxurious thing, that our music is so fine and fierce, that it is able to go so many places and speak so many things, and that there are people with the nimble intelligence to appreciate it in so many forms.”  So many forms is how it appears throughout Don’t Cry, (the title itself sounding like a twist on a Roy Orbison song), and fine and fierce it is.

In discussion with Matthew Stadler of “the backroom” series, Ms. Gaitskill noted that she “listened to music because it’s moving. . . more liquid.”

In nearly every story in Don’t Cry, Ms. Gaitskill uses music for its liquid element, to move a scene, emotion, or character from one place to another.  In “The Arms and Legs of the Lake,” Bill, who returned from Iraq six months prior, finds himself on a train with another recently returned veteran. Gaitskill submerges Bill in Ghostface Killah to safely return him to his own violent memories and isolate his experience from his fellow soldier: “Ghost’s voice and the music ran parallel but never touched, even though Ghost tried to blend his voice with the old words. Sad to put them together, somehow it made sense.” It is necessary for Gaitskill to name artists and quote lyrics, as she does throughout, for this type of a period piece; such references are difficult to use correctly. Perhaps recognizing this challenge, Gaitskill does it again, quite comically this time, in the working-class tribute “Folk Song.”

The story itself begins to take on the form of a folk song as Ms. Gaitskill explores the origins of three articles that share the same newspaper page. With her signature storytelling style that questions motives, she finds answers that are rooted in our culture’s misgivings. There is an article on a murderer asked to explain himself on a talk show, a woman announcing her intention on having marathon sex with one thousand men, and endangered turtles that have been taken from the Bronx Zoo.  By the end, the three articles have been boiled down to their reveal their shared survival mechanisms culminating with the image of  folk legend John Henry, hammering his way to death in order to keep the pace of a machine. Roberta Flack sings “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” at the beginning of the marathon woman’s sexual endeavors and the theme from Chariots of Fire plays over the woman as she nears the final fuck. These aren’t references for music heads necessarily–though Flack’s song is a cover of a little known 1957 British folk song–they are more like the songs running through the heads of people who would find themselves in these situations, an important distinction and one that keeps the references from coming across as lazy.

Each story in Don’t Cry has its personal relationship with music, be it a character who is a musician as in “Mirror Ball” and “College Town 1980,” or giving explanation for the emotional confusion of a character as in “A Dream of Men”: “She walked and an old song played in her head. It was the kind of old song that sounded innocent and dirty at the same time. The music was simple and shallow except for one deep spot where it was like somebody’s pants were being pulled down.” Ms. Gaitskill doesn’t shy away from writing what is difficult to describe and occasionally off-putting with music. She also clearly appreciates the contradictions of music, its ability to buffer the sadness or shame of a situation, while at the same time illuminating and romanticizing it.

In the title story “Don’t Cry” the narrator awakens to music. She says, “Its sound saturated me with happiness and pain.” And, later, “Even in my sleep I could hear love in it. Even in my sleep I could hear loss.” This time, the expression of darkness and light as simple musical details reaches even the most casual listeners, prompting them to recall their own relationship with music through her writing. The whole of it allows for Ms. Gaitskill to connect to a broader audience, making the stories in Don’t Cry her most accessible work yet.

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!

Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

SSM: On DFW’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”

17 May

by Jennifer Shapland, ASF editorial assistant

Girl With Curious Hair is not exactly David Foster Wallace’s best-known or loved or remembered work, but it is a monumental one. These are ten stories, or nine stories and one deadly novella, in which serious literary and syntactic muscles are flexed. And yet to me, the stories are accessible, even intimate. Wallace is a moralist. His stories bear witness to much more than the verbal trapeze act he’s known for.

The biggest hurdle in this collection—maybe in all of his works—is the final piece, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” It is a cover story, parts of which are “written in the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse.” It’s a story that revisits and takes for granted the existence of a specific other story. Writing it was transformative for Wallace as a writer.  In David Lipsky’s new book of interviews, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says of “Westward,” “I’ve said that three or four times somethin’ came alive to me, and started kind of writing itself, and that was one of them.” (He follows with, “Although it wasn’t a very happy experience”).  “Westward” is long, 140 pages long, and it rambles and digresses and circles around and in on itself relentlessly. I have encountered very few people who actually finished the story. And Wallace realized that. He tells Lipsky, “Not many people like [“Westward”] and what I was told is you cannot really expect the reader to have read something twenty years earlier in order to get your thing.” He knew he had attempted something fairly huge and he knew that he sort of failed.

Here’s the thing: I love this story. I love its ambition. The premise is a trip, a journey deep into rural Illinois (funny that his essay on the Illinois State Fair was written years later). The characters are en route to a reunion of everyone who’s ever been in a McDonald’s commercial, held at this pretty sinister physical interpretation of Barth’s funhouse. Basically, Wallace is trying to write his way out of the trap of metafiction set by writers like Barth by using metafiction, stretching self-referentiality to its limits. In DFW’s rendition, however, the characters, the travelers, are writers. And the thing is, they don’t make it to their destination. The ultimate literary convention, the journey, is arrested and essentially killed by the style itself.

Go back and read Barth’s story if you get the chance. See how many times he references Joyce’s Ulysses. See how he strives to create a journey that goes exactly nowhere. And notice how the only place he can go with a story that is textually self-aware is back into the role of the writer. The last line: “He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.”

People are still talking about Wallace as though he’s one of those secret operators, someone metafictional and obtuse and damn inaccessible. Read him. Read these stories. He is the one trying so hard—trying so hard in 1989—to push American fiction past all that. To actually take into account the aims of metafiction like Barth’s, rather than writing it off as categorically unfun to read, and to seek new ways to access those aims in readable, honest fiction. Girl With Curious Hair shows ten different ways he does just that. And how he does it with humor, grace, and his sort of lilting inward smile. “Westward,” despite its failings, shows us even something else: a new epic. And it suggests a potential for epic to be contained within short fiction, an endeavor that, as far as I know, no one else has undertaken.

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.