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Homages to and experiments with “The Duck of Your Life”

12 Jan

American Short Fiction is part of a larger nonprofit organization, Badgerdog, which runs creative-writing workshops for children and adults. The workshops are amazing places; they combine rigor and the joy of discovery—discovering writing that’s out in the world, as well as discovering one’s own voice on the page. Recently, Education Programs Coordinator Jess Stoner brought the story “The Duck of Your Life” by Katherine Valentine Jaeger—our second-place winner in our shorts contest—into a high school classroom. Jess writes:

High school students are intimately acquainted with writing from the “I.” So I wanted our Badgerdog high schoolers to read and write in response to a story that showed them how to do so many things: to take point-of-view from an oblique angle, to use repetition to lull a reader into a surprise, and most importantly, to see that a story can make you laugh at the same time it makes you feel uncomfortable and sad and silly. Katherine’s story did all of those things and reading it aloud with the students was such a great experience. They were so into it they stood up to read it, and of course, one lucky writer go to say “shit” out loud in class, which was a pretty big highlight for everyone involved (myself included).

You can read the original story here. And stories that emerged from the classroom are below. (It’s wonderful to see the way the students interact and play with Katherine’s story concept and structure. They really get it.)

Two stories from Manor Excel Academy High School in Manor,Texas

“The Zebra of Your Life”

Say you have a male zebra who tells you he is in love with you & wants to give you the world. But he’s broke. So he starts to deal poop. You get tired & sick of all that & him being in the animal jail & you leave him. You want him back a month later—but he’s moved on & has a family.

Say you have a zebra that’s a quarterback and gets drafted into the NFL. He plays good for the first couple of games. But he gets sacked & breaks a leg. He’s out for the rest of the season. He’s afraid & alone so he eats Cookies-n-Cream ice cream all day while watching Real Housewives of Atlanta.

Say you have a zebra who is on America’s Next Top Model and Tyra says she smiles bright through her eyes. In the end she loses.

Say you have a zebra who has a friend who has no white stripes & is all black but acts white on the inside. You try to be like her, but they say you’re too loud & ghetto.

Say you have a zebra who thinks she can sing and decides to go on American Idol. Simon says she sucks & she breaks down. She tries again & gets the same result. So the Zebra gives up & goes toAmerica’s Got Talent & gets great feedback & in the end wins. The zebra goes to Simon & tells him to shove it up because she made it.


“The Bunny of Your Life”

Say you have a bunny and you called her Delilah. You love her very much but you can’t go everywhere with her. Delilah is almost alone all the time. You stop caring for her. Your job and your boss are pushing you to do better. You didn’t have time. You forgot about your bunny. Delilah. Dying, she runs away and never comes back.

Say you have a bunny her fur is pretty pink. Her eyes are sparkly and her ears are long and slender. Everyone loves her except her father bunny. Jumping and hopping happily in her box, her dad says “you’re ugly.” But she goes on doing what she loves. Not listening to him or what anyone says.


Interview with Bess Winter, Winner of Our 2011 American Short(er) Fiction Prize

1 Dec

This month, we’re bringing you a very special edition of our online fiction series. Our December story,  “Signs” by Bess Winter, is the winner of ASF’s 2011 American Short(er) Fiction Prize and is featured in the Fall 2011 issue of ASF.  We’re excited to offer you this special sneak peek inside our print magazine, and even more thrilled to present Bess’s work. Complex, surprising, and provocative, “Signs” is an exemplary piece of flash fiction and a stand-out story of any length. Check it out on the ASF website; we promise you’ve never read anything quite like it. Plus, below, we talk with the author about her prize-winning story, the joys and challenges of writing flash fiction, and the allure of animals wearing clothes (among other important topics).

1. Since “Signs” is the winner of ASF’s Short(er) Fiction Prize, I thought I’d start by asking you a couple of questions about short(er) fiction. What do you enjoy about writing flash fiction? What do you find challenging about the form?

I love its versatility. You can fit the arc of a short story or even a novel into a piece of flash fiction. Or you can focus intensely on a sliver of plot, an object, a turn of phrase. To me, writing flash is very different from writing a short story, because the form of flash, itself, seems to be the question at its heart. That’s also the challenge of it. There are lots of times where you might think a certain topic or idea would make a great short short story, and when you sit down to write it you find out that the form just doesn’t fit the content: that you need a good 20 pages to do this particular idea justice.

2. What makes a very short piece successful, in your opinion? Do you have any advice for other writers?

A successful short piece, to me, is a map to a user experience. The fewer words there are on the page, the more a flash piece asks of a reader—and most successful flash seems to be about the reader in a very direct way. The flash pieces that stick with me, and that I enjoy reading the most, begin with a scenario that’s entirely unique to the story and quickly reach out and go straight to the core of the reader, implicate the reader in some way by touching on a fundamental human truth. I guess my advice for writing flash is to allow that process to happen. Go where your mind wants to go. Also, if you have a really weird idea that embarrasses you and a strong idea that you feel totally confident about, always go for the weird idea.

3. Tell us a little bit about your process for writing “Signs.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through before it reached us at American Short Fiction?

First I wrote a terrible workshop story that had no redeeming qualities besides the fact that one of its characters was named Koko. One night I was wrestling with revisions on this terrible workshop story, and to avoid dealing with this story I became fixated on researching Koko the gorilla. Turns out Koko’s had a fascinating life. She has actually dated online, with little success (smart women have it so hard). She’s very astute, very sensitive. She was also indirectly involved in a sex scandal, which is what gave me the idea for “Signs.” At the same time I was writing “Signs,” I also developed this new personal rule about how the only writing that was worth anything came from the heart. I hadn’t really been speaking from that place for a while in favor of experimenting with ideas and structures and so on. So, the idea for this story was: a) Koko the gorilla, b) workplace sex scandal and c) listen to my heart. It took about three or four days to write. After that, it went through some trusted readers and some small changes. The last change was made at my good friend Jess’s kitchen table. Then we drank some wine, I submitted the story, and we spent the rest of the evening playing Beatles Rock Band.

4. “Signs” stars a gorilla and is concerned with, among other things, the relationship between humans and animals. Weirdly enough, the story that won second place in our contest is also about animals—ducks—though, of course, in a very different way. The contest results got us thinking about animal stories, and why people love them so darn much. Do you have any thoughts on that? What’s the appeal of animal stories? What was fun or different or difficult about writing about Koko?

Maybe people are just fascinated with the idea of animals acting like humans. Or of humans’ true natures being revealed by their being cast as a particular animal. Personally, I love animal stories like The Jungle Book, where the characters are closely linked to animal archetypes, but The Wind in the Willows is even better, because those animals wear clothes. That sounds funny, but it feels like the only thing people love more than stories about animals is animals mimicking humans. We like to be reminded that we’re animals, too, and all indications to the contrary are just illusions. So, a toad in a jalopy and driving gloves.

In terms of writing Koko, she was easy to write about because, as a character, she had no guile. Dr. Thomas and the researcher’s reactions to Koko were harder to get at. But it kind of felt like Koko was the one calling the shots.

5. “Signs” is ASF’s final web exclusive of 2011, so it feels like a good time to ask about your year in reading. What story or book or journal really blew you away in 2011? What’s on your to-read list for 2012?

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, is the best book I read this year. It’s so slim and so beautifully crafted and full of whimsy—the work of a true master. There was a story published in Fence—and featured on their website—that I read many times: “A Film That Will Make the Audience Feel Pure Joy” by Jacob Wren. There’s also a great story in the new issue of the Mid-American Review called “The Evasive Magnolio” that I loved when we read it in our editorial meeting. I’m so glad it made it into the journal.

Hopefully in 2012 I’ll read the new Murakami book, Michael Czyzniejewski’s Chicago Stories, Lydia Davis’s The Cows, and Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time.

6. What’s up next for you, writing-wise? What are you working on now? 

I’m finishing putting together a collection of short fiction, and am in the middle of writing something longer. It appears to be a novel. It’s actually, in an oblique way, an animal story.


Want to read “Signs” and the rest of the amazing stories in the Fall 2011 issue of ASF? Click right here to get your very own copy.

Want to read more fantastic flash fiction online? Check out our web exclusive archive.

Get to Know Issue 52 with Our Short Video

27 Sep

Hey, hey! Our editorial assistant Katherine Johnson put together this fantastic video that explores issue 52, which is out now.

It’s got readings from the issue and loads of tips. Tips on: how to read these stories and why. You may want to get your hands on some Nilla Wafers, a bottle of red wine, and some Joni Mitchell. We’re just saying, they could come in handy.

You done? You may find yourself itching to get your hands on a copy of the new issue. You can do that here.

New Issue and New Issue Launch!

3 Aug

Buried treasure. Tar and feathering. Small yellow oblong stones that emit light and visions. Fiery revivals. The violent face-off of a father and his daughter’s suitor. . .  and all of that in our first story. You could say our Summer 2010 issue is action-packed.

As is American Short Fiction’s Indian Summer Party, coming soon to the Mohawk. Come party with us—your faithful local literary magazine.

Danny Malone, local folk rocker and SXSW favorite, will play a set to kick off the evening. Tomás Morin will dazzle you with his nationally renowned poetic verse (check out his recent interview with KUT here). Austin actors Elizabeth Bigger and Chris Gibson will knock the August lethargy right out of you with readings from the new issue. You’ll have drinks. (Hello, happy hour specials!) You’ll pose for photos. You’ll experience the most creative Thursday night this summer. And you’ll support emerging authors and artists. Why wouldn’t you be there?

American Short Fiction’s Indian Summer Party launches off the ground on the inside stage at the Mohawk at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 12. That’s 912 Red River.

You’re coming, aren’t you? Please let us know you’re in via our Facebook invite.

And you can pre-order your copy here.

Q&A with J. M. Tyree

4 Jan

Following the Christmas day bombing plot (and the new intensified security measures for air travel), our minds have turned back to 9/11. We’ve been thinking about what’s changed and what hasn’t since 2001. . . and how 9/11 has figured in fiction. To pursue some of these questions, we turned to ASF contributor J. M. Tyree, whose poignant, probing novel Futures concerns the aftermath of the attacks. (We published an excerpt of Tyree’s novel in our Fall 2009 issue, which is available for a limited time here.)

ASF: Futures is a 9/11 novel, but it’s quite different from other 9/11 novels out there—Netherland, A Gate at the Stairs, to name two. In many ways, it’s much more direct about the experience about being in the Towers during the attacks. Can you talk about some of the decisions you made when writing this novel? How did you approach 9/11—and what did you feel like needed to be expressed or included?

JMT: What happened to me was this. I started writing an historical novel—it later became a short story—set in World War II about an American bomber crew flying missions from England to Germany in order to devastate cities. But at a certain point, I thought to myself, Why am I writing all this stuff about bombings? And the answer of course was September 11. So I wound up feeling that it would be dishonest not to write something more direct. I wanted to avoid setting any part of my story in the Towers on the day of the attacks, so I chose an unfolding moment of crisis one year later, around the anniversary of the attacks, for my main character and narrator, David Wolder. Believe me, I’ve imagined dozens of ways in which my characters could have been working in another building. . .

I find it fascinating that September 11 has repelled good fiction and actually ruined so many novels. Publishers really hate the subject, I imagine that it’s like handing their marketing departments lumps of toxic waste and saying, Tell folks how they might like to curl up with these! For myself, I wanted to write something unacceptable. Whether it’s any good or not as a work of fiction, this book was something I needed to write.

It seems fake for anyone working on a contemporary novel to write as though September 11 didn’t happen. Perhaps one reason for the increasing interest in historical fiction, futuristic fiction, and genre fiction is that many writers don’t like writing fiction about the world we’re actually living in right now. Add to all this the fact that the events and their aftermath hold such minefields of dishonesty, sentimentality, politics, and cliché. But until I completed my book I really had to avoid reading other works of fiction about September 11. Since then, I’ve read and admired many things about Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Twilight of the Superheroes.” In both DeLillo and O’Neill, the stories work best as their distance from September 11 lengthens, which is also fascinating, I think.

ASF: Two characters, David and Vanessa, connect over a Fitzgerald quote early in the novel: “You ought to have thought of that before you got into this trouble.” What did you draw from Fitzgerald for Futures? And what were other literary influences?

JMT: Fitzgerald’s words in The Great Gatsby—about wishing “the world to be in uniform and at a kind of moral attention forever”—resonated with my own feelings about the atrocity perpetrated against the city I was living in. Gatsby also was my inspiration for a story that involves a narrator who tries to understand another character who is more directly involved in a tragedy—my Gatsby-like figure, the narrator’s boss, Astley, is directly caught up in the attacks and their aftermath, he loses someone he cares deeply for and tries to find evidence of her disappearance when none is available. An observer who wasn’t there, my narrator, David, yearns to understand, while other people around him with direct experience are too damaged to have distance and perspective.

ASF: I am so intrigued by this image of America post-9/11, the nightmare vision of convalescence that comes at the end of the novel. David thinks, “Before, I thought I had been convalescing from a long illness, slowly, but now I began to wonder if the convalescence was the thing keeping me from recovering, if that was possible.” He mentions a polluted sickroom. Could you talk about this image? How did you come upon the language of illness to talk about this moment?

JMT: After the attacks, many people I knew or encountered in New York seemed to wake up with a new-found sense of purpose. There were all these soul-searching articles in business magazines about executives spending more time with their families. There were no ads for awhile in The New York Times, you just had these outpourings of grief. It was eerie to recognize in retrospect that many people were strangely energized, like after a car accident, deluded and traumatized, to all appearances in control of themselves, but saying and doing crazy things. The long slow process of returning to “normal” was like watching the implosion of a great national epiphany that couldn’t last. All the enlightened talk and high-mindedness corroded into old habits. It hurt to feel this happening. That was the moment I wanted most to write about, what happens after the aftermath. It’s easy to ridicule the notion that “everything changed” on that day. But I think for individual people who were deeply affected there was a kind of long slow process of collapse that happened months or even years later. It’s something that rarely gets talked about or written about. Two years ago, the AP estimated that up to 70,000 people still have post-traumatic stress related to September 11. And the body count still continues to rise, if you think about the cleanup crews or the cops and firefighters with lung diseases, cancers, and other diseases related to the site.

J. M. Tyree currently works as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. He is a Writer-at-Large for Film Quarterly. You can listen to him read for KQED’s The Writer’s Block here.

ASF 2009 Highlights Reel: Issue 46

25 Dec

To wrap up our week of looking back, we have a selection from the current issue, Winter 2009. This issue features Michael Noll’s “Bullheads,” a surprising coming-of-age story. Contributor Michael Noll will be one of our featured readers at our January 23 event at Space 12.

ASF 2009 Highlights Reel: Issue 45

24 Dec

Fall 2009 featured several blockbuster stories–including Josh Weil’s incredible “The First Bad Thing.” “The First Bad Thing” is a lot of things. It’s a long story set in the not-too-distant future in which nighttime no longer exists . . . and it’s about yearning and desperation and escape. And . . . well, we’ll just let you read a bit.

ASF 2009 Highlights Reel: Issue 44

23 Dec

Today, we present an excerpt from Summer 2009, or issue 44–Christie Hodgen’s “Elegy for Elwood LePoer.” It’s a tremendous, big-hearted story, funny and wild and full of emotional range. We’ve selected the first section for you.

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ASF 2009 Highlights Reel: Issue 43

22 Dec

Each day this week we’re looking back at stories from the last year. Today we look back at issue 43, or Spring 2009. This issue features Paul Yoon’s lovely “Woodcarver’s Daughter.” We’ve taken two excerpts from the story, which is set on an island off Korea. The story revolves around Haemi, a sensitive young Korean woman who requires a crutch to walk, and Linden, an American AWOL from the Army. After this story appeared in ASF, it was published as part of Yoon’s critically raved collection Once the Shore.

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Web Exclusives We’ve Known and Loved

21 Dec

This week, we’re taking a look back at stories we’ve published and loved in 2009—consider it an ASF highlights reel. Today, we start with a few of our web exclusives. We started this series back in February as a way to publish more writers (and to show off more flash fiction). We’ve been surprised the variety of short fiction that’s come our way.

In this group, we’ve got stories about violent family drama, Cajuns and ghosts, and an abominable, terrifying baby. There’s also a funny love story with word problems. Hope you enjoy!

February: “Paper Planes” by Laura Madeline Wiseman
April: “Mark Twain Comes to Cut Off, Louisiana: A Ghost Story” by Stephanie Soileau
September: “Tied to Us” by John Maradik
November: “Arizona” by Rachel Khong