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.

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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.

American Short Films Worth Our Attention

17 Nov

Hey there! Today we decided to bring some exciting American short films to your attention – we have already watched them and we enjoyed what we’ve seen, so we thought we should recommend a few titles. These are not exactly brand new releases in the sort film industry, but in case you missed out on them, now you will have the chance to get back on the track.

 

James Mather & Stephen St Leger’s Prey Alone

This sort film is 15 minutes and it was released in 2004 by James Mather and Stephen St Leger.  A single first glance at it is going to make you feel you are about to watch a huge blockbuster, so get ready for a genuine screen delight. These guys have really gone out of their way for this short film and they most definitely invested quite a few money, time, and energy to get the final cuts. These guys are also worth our appreciation because they knew they hadn’t created a movie that was ready for the features category, so they opted for a short film instead.

 

Jamin Winans’s Spin Short Film

Spin is a 2005 production, it is 8 minutes in length and it is a fascinating drama that revolves around Jamin Winans’ appreciation for music. He is responsible for the music that he composed for the short film. The film revolves around a DJ who is sort of angel-like, sent to settle problems and conflicts before they end up tragically. He film features no dialogue and you might consider its humoristic side to be kind of sly – which seem to be the ideal components for a wide series of short films these days. So if you are looking for some extra inspiration, for you next short film idea, you can definitely get a few pointers at the end of the eight minutes.   

 

Po Chan’s “The Last 3 Minutes” Short Film

Produced in 2010 by Po Chan in the U.S. and having 5 minutes in length, the short film sets foot into the life of a dying man, showing us dramatic flashbacks of his existence. Expect to see some amazing sceneries to and landscapes and be amazed by the capabilities of a video DSLR camera.    

 

Scenes From A Marriage – NPR And Chris Ware Collaboration

Scenes From A Marriage is a short film that is part of the This Ameircan Life series which also includes the Cameraman release. Chris Ware animated the audio recording of someone who tells the story – namely, a couple telling the Jackie O story. If you love short, funny films, this one is definitely worth your attention.

If you are just a fan of sort American films and you find out site interesting, we invite you to browse through our collection of short fiction films and indulge yourself in a pleasant journey throughout this fascinating universe. And in case you need a little break from time to time, you can play casino for real money. Just enter the ReviewsCasino site and make your pick – read the detailed, updated reviews, select the biggest bonuses and your preferred type of casino games and try to come up with a budget for your own short film idea.

 

Read All About It: Interview with Web Exclusive Author Tien-Yi Lee

3 Nov

Welcome to November, friends, and to the latest installment of our web exclusive series. It’s so nice to see you here. This month, we present Tien-Yi Lee’s “Penetration”—and we couldn’t be more thrilled. It’s a challenging piece, about damage irrevocable and endured, but rewarding, too, and very, very beautiful. It’s one of those stories that stills the world for a moment, and leaves you, we hope, in the hush of something complicated and new.

You’ll find “Penetration” on the ASF website, and you can read more from Tien-Yi in our interview, below.

 

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Penetration.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through to get to us?

This story was stitched together from a number of different pieces:

  1.  I was taking a flash fiction class and the prompt was, “Write about sex. . .” That’s where the initial image of Sulie and Jack originated.
  2. I have one of those over-the-door hooks on my bedroom closet, and whenever I hang my jeans there to dry, it creeps me out, especially if I wake up in the middle of the night. I always thought a roomful of drying jeans would be a great image to use in a story. For “Penetration,” it seemed like the perfect symbol of disembodiment.
  3. I had a friend in high school who loved asking questions like, “What would you do if you only had 24 hours to live?” (Yes, sex was her answer.)
  4. I had written down a bunch of notes for another piece, where an engaged couple is swapping stories about their former lovers. I was trying to think of absolute secrets—things that a person would never tell someone else, no matter how close. Sinjin Seymour seemed like one of those secrets.
  5. Who hasn’t thought about digging out the hair dryer?
  6. I liked the title “Penetration” and wanted the story to earn it. In order to do this, I needed the events in Sulie’s childhood to affect her throughout her life. I wanted her to be a successful adult—smart, thoughtful—because she was clearly those things as a child. But in spite of her resilience, there are still certain elements from her past she can’t escape. The story formed around this premise.

2. This is a challenging story. It’s beautiful and so skillfully crafted, but difficult, too, because of the subject matter it deals with. You take readers into some pretty dark territory. Did this feel risky to you?

Absolutely. Writing this story made me feel really uncomfortable, particularly when I added in that last section. I’ve found that readers (especially the ones who know you personally) tend to assume that you write from your own life, so that made it feel more risky, too.

3. What writers or stories do you admire for the risks they take?

I admired Miranda July’s story collection (No One Belongs Here More Than You) for the quirkiness of her characters and their situations. A great imagination is hard to come by. Chris Adrian writes a lot about sick kids, and I admire how he is often able to veer into the fantastic without losing the heart and humanness of the story.

I admired Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her story “Safari” uses an omniscient POV, often switching between multiple characters’ POVs in a very tight space, and also ventures into somewhat outlandish plot premises. But it’s so skillfully crafted. I thought it was brilliant. She also wrote a story in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, which some may say it’s gimmicky. . . but it was a risk, and I found the story unexpectedly moving.

That being said, I tend to read a lot of stories and novels about the mundane, and my favorite short story writer is probably still Raymond Carver. I love simple, beautiful writing.

4.  One thing I love about this piece is its precise sense of chronology. The reader has a sense of history and the passage of time—which is notable in a very short piece like this.  Can you talk a little bit about how you constructed this story’s timeline and why you felt it was important?

I think this comes back to the title again. I thought it was important to see the impact of the events in Sulie’s childhood throughout her life.

5. What are you working on now? Where else can we find your work?

I’m working on a short story collection. I’m hoping it will be linked, but we’ll see. In the past couple of years, my work has been published in the Southern Review, the Gettysburg Review, and the Missouri Review.

Are you there, spring interns?

26 Oct

It’s us, ASF.

We’ve been very busy this fall, but we’re finally on top of things and we’d like to officially open up applications for our spring 2012 internship slots. Hooray! We’ll be taking applications over the next few weeks; the deadline is November 23, and we’re going to be strict about it.

If you’ve already sent along your cover letter and résumé, no worries—we have it under consideration! If you’re interested in our internships and haven’t sent in an application yet, read on.

Our editorial interns do things like evaluate submissions, correspond with authors, copyedit and proofread stories, help plan our launch events, and research for future issues and various ASF projects. Our internships are unpaid, but we’ll give you as much real-world lit mag experience as you can handle. We recommend that applicants have a strong background in English or American literature, or a related field. Interns usually work 10 or 15 hours a week for a period of three months–for the spring 2012 position, that’ll run from February to early May. The internship is in-office, so you’ll have to be in Austin for those months.

Here’s what you need to do to apply: send a résumé and cover letter to me, callie.collins [at] americanshortfiction.org. Please put “spring internship” in the subject line. Any questions can also be directed my way.

And here’s something important: In your cover letter, let us know why it’s important that we hire you and not somebody else. Demonstrate your undying passion for fiction. Tell us about your experience with contemporary short fiction. And talk about a story, an author, or a journal you can’t get enough of, and why. Our internships are pretty competitive, so make sure you pick an author or a story that has meant something to you and talk about it well.

We’re excited to hear from you.

Join Us for Lit Crawl Tomorrow!

21 Oct

Y’all. It’s finally here. The Austin Lit Crawl. Everything kicks off tomorrow, Saturday, October 22, at 8 pm.

The Austin Lit Crawl is a new collaboration among literary magazine American Short Fiction, the Texas Book Festival, and the Austin’s East Side. Inspired by the San Francisco literary festival Litquake’s long-running Lit Crawl (and produced with Litquake’s participation), our Lit Crawl will feature some of America’s most groundbreaking and beloved writers (along with equally beloved local literati) onstage and in conversation. The Crawl will host 11 events over the course of the evening.

Catch Susan Orlean screening clips of canine hero Rin Tin Tin. Brace yourself for a heady cocktail at Cheer Up Charlie’s–and take in performances from Erin Morgenstern, Hillary Jordan, and Mat Johnson. Match wits with Lev Grossman and Chad Harbach at Shangri-La. Converge with twenty YA authors in a cemetery.* Watch Ernie Cline bust some stereotypes wide open–probably while geeking out. There’s a lot more–including Chuck KlostermanChuck PalahniukSharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Meg Wolitzer. Perhaps you’d like to look at our comprehensive schedule** or our very pretty map and start plotting your Crawl strategy?

Put on your Crawling shoes.

*You’ll need to BYOF. Bring your own flashlight.

** We’ve had to move Adam Mansbach’s Lit Crawl event from the Scoot Inn to Public School (1021 E. 7th St.). It’ll take place from 9 to 9:45 pm. His event, like other Lit Crawl events, is free. Donald Ray Pollock will still be opening for Chuck Palahniuk the Scoot Inn (1308 E. 4th St.)–but they’re now appearing from 9 to 9:45 pm instead of 8 to 8:45 pm.

A character needs a practice

12 Oct

Character development can be tough, at least for some writers. Yes, there are writers who have the knack for having just the right quotes, visages and actions in place to fashion a character just the way he or she wants. But other writers struggle with point of view questions such as how much to reveal about a character through that character’s thoughts. Of course the action of the story itself has its place in the makeup of a character. After all, do you want the character to be the hero, the goat, or the muse? It is an ongoing issue for writers when they ask the question, “Who is this person I am creating.” But character development plays in almost all styles and forms of writing.

 

Pastimes reveal traits

Sometimes a good place to start is by giving the character something do; an occupation or even a recreation. What a person chooses to do, is forced to do or simply likes to do, says a lot about his character. And how the character approaches the craft you give him can be revealing. Athletes and businessmen may approach things much the same way in terms of competition and gaining the edge. But a truck driver or a member of a motorcycle gang may have a totally different outlook on things. But giving a character an occupation or pastime says a lot. Let’s take a gambler, for instance. Some gamblers like to play by the numbers, strictly calculating the odds of any particular card or roll of the dice. Others are more free-wheeling, figuring that chance taking is the nature of any game. Still others, such as poker players and sports gamblers, are judges of human nature, assessing whether an opponent is bluffing, or a particular team will be up or down because of a previous performance. But all gamblers at some point rely on the ethereal nature of a thing called luck.

An approach to the game

Let’s say you’ve made your character a gambler and his game is the lottery. Don’t laugh. There are lots of every-day, high-volume lottery players out there these days, and largely because of the internet. The online lottery has given these players access to hundreds of games and dozens of choices on how to play. So these big-time online lottery players have devised any number of game-play and money-management strategies to help them parlay wins and taper losses. But you wouldn’t even have to place your character in a modern setting, because the lottery has been around as long as there has been gambling. Lotteries helped finance anything from the Great Wall of China to the first colony at Jamestown. And playing the numbers took on an edgy aspect when it was legally out of favor and in the domain of organized crime. Anyway, here is a character who depends on something as variable as random numbers in hopes of placing just a few that will pay the bills. And this character is obviously a dreamer, who may plan his future on the near-impossible odds that he will score a “life-changer.” What your character would do with all of that money reveals a lot. Why your character even plays the game tells a story.

The direction your story can take based on what your characters do for fun or recreation has a lot to offer. That’s why making a character anything from an online lottery player to a sport fisherman has a lot to say about his makeup. So give your character something to do and give him a way to approach it. That may help the tale fall into place.

October Web Exclusive Author Aubrey Hirsch, Interviewed

3 Oct

Ever play that game Two Truths and a Lie? Well, this month’s web exclusive is a little like that. Blurring the line between fact and fiction, Aubrey Hirsch’s “Albert Arnold Gore” will keep you guessing. Rendered in clear, keen prose, this set of three linked shorts offers portraits that are inventive and intriguing—and ultimately poignant and revealing. Read “Albert Arnold Gore” on the ASF website, and check out our Q&A with the author, below.

           

1. This piece is part of a series of what you’ve called “counterfactual biographies,” fictional stories about historical figures. Can you tell us a little bit about where you came up with the idea for these stories and what interests you about blurring the line between fact and fiction?

The series started with a stand-alone piece about Amelia Earhart. I was fascinated by her story and wanted to tell another side of it, ascribing thoughts and motivations to her that we couldn’t actually know. I had so much fun writing it that I decided to try writing a series of these little flashes, each one about a different famous person.

The line between “fact” and “fiction” is something I think a lot about. They’re both fickle terms and there’s a lot of gray area between them. This is especially true when you’re talking about celebrities. At a certain point, their story becomes legend and it’s difficult to extricate the real from the invented. In my own work, I’m more interested in the fiction that lies around and in between the recorded facts: little details, inner thoughts, hidden motivations and so on.

2. OK, so why Al Gore? And how much did you know about Al Gore (or I should say the Als Gore) before you started writing?

When I’m sitting down to write one of these stories, I generally start by casting a wide net. I research lots of different people and ideas and allow myself to click random links or to indulge whatever curiosity arises until something strikes me as especially interesting. I can’t say exactly what led me to Al Gore, but as soon as I started reading about his life and his family, I knew there was a story there. I had also been thinking that it would be fun to try one of these pieces as a set of linked flashes that told one complete story. The three generations of Als, all with the same name, provided a perfect opportunity to do that.

I was still in high school when Al Gore was in office, so going in I only knew the basics: Vice President, failed presidential candidate, beard, An Inconvenient Truth. But now I feel confident in saying that I am an expert on all things Als Gore!

3. What do you find interesting about writing linked or prompt-based stories? I know I enjoy reading them—it feels almost like watching the gears of an author’s imagination turn as they trace an idea or theme through different worlds.

For me, it’s a kind of stretching. Having a “prompt” or “project” forces me to write stories I otherwise wouldn’t have written. It’s also nice to come to the blank page with some direction. I primarily work on these stories when I need a break from my novel, which is pretty intellectually draining. So when it’s time to write something else, it’s great to have a bit of guidance to get my creative energy flowing again.

4. My favorite line in the story comes when you’re describing Al Gore III: “His tongue slides around the gaps in his teeth like a worm on a hook.” This is such a small, but beautifully rendered detail. I’m wondering if you found it challenging, in this piece and the others in the series, to home in these kinds of details when the characters you’re writing about are all these historically significant figures, who are larger than life in a way.

The small details are actually the easiest part for me (and the most interesting). When I’m thinking about a scene, it generally comes to me in microcosm first. The harder part is contending with established facts, juggling the timeline and working with or against preexisting impressions of a famous person. I often find so much interesting material about my subject that I can only allude to a tiny fraction of it in the story. I guess I have to hope these little stories inspire people to do some more digging on their own.

5. What’s up next for you? Where else can we find your writing?

As I mentioned, I’m hard at work on my first novel. I’m also finishing up the counterfactual biographies series and hoping to send it off to chapbook publishers soon. You can find some of my recent work in PANK, The Emprise Review, and Daily Science Fiction, and I have stories coming out this fall in Whiskey Island Magazine, Fiction Southeast, and Confrontation.

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.

Goodbye, Hello—ASF launches its summer issue

14 Sep

Oh, hey there.

Don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re having a little party here in Austin tomorrow night. We’re celebrating the new issue of ASF (our twentieth!); we’re celebrating poetry; we’re celebrating memoir; we couldn’t be more inclusive!

Seriously, this one’s going to be a really great time. We’ll be at the Highball this Thursday night, September 15, with Wild Child, poet Roger Reeves, memoirist Andrew Tilin, and fiction writer Mary Helen Specht. 7 to 9 pm, but get there early for Happy Hour and to say hi to us.

More details and RSVP on Facebook.

We’d love to see you there.

Summer Film Club: Raymond Carver

14 Sep

In this weekly series, Intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review 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 has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

EVERYTHING MUST GO

Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) lounges on the lawn in Dan Rush's EVERYTHING MUST GO (2011).

 

Well, here we are. The end. Before I started this series, ASF editor Jill Meyers and I talked about what adaptations I would want to review. We both agreed that Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” and Dan Rush’s Everything Must Go fit right in. In fact, Everything Must Go is really the film that got me thinking about adaptations, as I mentioned in the footnote of my first entry, so I feel it’s fitting that it’s the focus of my last entry.

In that first entry, I may have alluded to the fact that I don’t really like Denis Johnson, whom Tobias Wolff compared to Raymond Carver. Well, here are some more controversial confessions: I don’t really like Raymond Carver. And I don’t really like Will Ferrell. (I also don’t like kittens, chocolate, or Paul Rudd. Just kidding! I love all those things, just like everyone else in the world.) But for some reason, I thought that the pairing of Carver and Ferrell might really work for me. And, in the end, it didn’t really work for me—but it sort of did.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE

"Why Don't You Dance?" from WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE. Raymond Carver. Knopf, 1981.

In one of my English classes as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, my professor assigned us several stories from Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral. The assignment included both “The Bath” (from WWTA) and “A Small, Good Thing” (from Cathedral), which is essentially a longer, less heavily edited version of the former. My professor pointed out a major difference in the stories: “The Bath” ends ambiguously; “A Small, Good Thing” ends more optimistically. He attributed this change to Carver’s eventually victorious battle with alcoholism, and applied it to the writer’s career in general. Where once Carver’s stories ended in bleak loneliness, in misunderstanding, they later ended in profound connection, in moments of transcendence. Or, as I called it in that class, “schmaltz.”

I don’t think it’s as easy as this: “He wrote depressing stories when he drank, and then he stopped doing both.” But I do think that on this simplified spectrum, “Why Don’t You Dance?” would fall on the bleak loneliness end, and Everything Must Go on the schmaltzy transcendent one.

Dan Rush said that the idea for Everything Must Go came when he reread Carver as an adult, and he couldn’t rid his mind of the image of a man’s bedroom on the front lawn. It is indeed an intriguing and cinematic image, but it’s also one that comes in the first sentence of a very short story—“Why Don’t You Dance?” clocks in at only 1,620 words. Obviously Rush, who adapted the screenplay himself, had to fill in some gaps, or he’d walk away with a twenty-minute film. (As it is, Everything Must Go has a pretty short running time—hardly over an hour and a half.) So where in “Why Don’t You Dance?” we see a despondent, drunk man with his belongings on the porch and later wonder, as the woman he encounters that evening wonders, why, in Everything Must Go, we know.

Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) loses his job and his wife on the same day, and due to the same problem: an unspecified (for most of the film) incident that occurred on a business trip during which he relapsed into alcoholism. His estranged wife throws all his stuff on their front lawn and changes the locks, and over the course of the film’s five days, Nick comes to terms with his new life’s circumstances with the help of a neighborhood kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace), Nick’s AA sponsor (Michael Pena), and a new (and pregnant) neighbor (Rebecca Hall).

It’s a pleasant and heartwarming—though not saccharine—journey, with several uncomfortable and touching moments along the way. I enjoyed watching it. But if I didn’t have to write this piece, I probably would have never thought about it again. Why would I need to? It leaves nothing unsaid.

“Why Don’t You Dance?,” on the other hand, leaves most things unsaid. We don’t know why the main character has arranged his bedroom on his front lawn. We don’t know where his wife is, and we don’t know if she’s coming back. We don’t know much about the young couple who stumble upon his house and assume he’s holding a yard sale. We don’t know, though we may assume we do, what the young woman is thinking when she dances with the man in his driveway and says, “You must be desperate or something.” We don’t know much of anything by the end of it, and the last two paragraphs have stuck with me since the first time I read it, about five years ago:

Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy give it to us. and all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

Haven’t we all had an ineffable experience that we’ve tried in vain to explain? Don’t we all know the unquiet desperation of trying and failing to make ourselves understood—not just to others, but to ourselves?

Well, the characters in Everything Must Go haven’t. They wade through their sea of problems and emerge dry-legged, triumphant, and holding hands. It’s a nice movie full of nice people who make mistakes and then correct them. They’re all believable, thanks in no small part to the actors who portray them. Will Ferrell, especially, is great. As an alcoholic who (spoiler alert) may or may not have assaulted a woman, he walks a fine line between honesty and likeability, and somehow he remains both honest and likable. His face is heartbreaking and familiar. And Laura Dern, queen of the adaptations, is just lovely in a very small role as an old high school acquaintance. But as a whole, the movie was (like Dern’s scene in particular), a little too neat. A little too “talked out.”

And, in the end, so am I.

Stray observations:

  • Is there a name for those precocious but innocent child characters who enlighten cynical and narrow-minded adult protagonists? Like Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but in child form. What should we call it? Seymour Glass Syndrome? (Why do I like it so much when Salinger does it and so little when anyone else does?)
  • Will Ferrell should make more dramas.
  • The story about Carver’s change in tone and style is really more interesting and complicated than I made it sound up there. For starters, check out Frank Kovarik’s piece on The Millions about Carver’s posthumously released manuscript Beginners.
  • Most importantly, I want to thank everyone for reading these blog posts. I had a great time writing them. Extra special thanks to Jill, for giving me the opportunity to do so. Now, unfortunately, summer’s over. Get back to work!
  • But if you need some cinematic distractions after work, check out these other famous films and their literary counterparts: 2001: A Space Odyssey (“The Sentinel,” Arthur C. Clark); The Swimmer (“The Swimmer,” John Cheever); Freaks (“Spurs,” Tod Robbins); Rear Window (“It Had to Be Murder,” Cornell Woolrich); The Killers (“The Killers,” Ernest Hemingway); The Last Time I Saw Paris (“Babylon Revisited,” F. Scott Fitzgerald).