Friday, July 20, 2018

Vanessa Blakeslee's Eight Most Anticipated 2018 Story Collections

In the fifth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Vanessa Blakeslee, author of Perfect Conditions (Curbside Splendor Publishing), discusses 2018 short story collections she's looking forward to.

I have my eye on more than a few collections this year, and those that made my list include both debut authors and well-established voices. My literary tastes tend to reflect my nonfiction reading of late, which this year has included quantum gravity, the nature of time, and ecology; no surprise a few of these picks are influenced by the scientific realm. Others are shaped from place, a preoccupation with the fraught times we’re living in, or envision where we might find ourselves in a near future.

Unnatural Habitats by Angela Mitchell (WTAW Press, October)
I’ve been a fan of Angela Mitchell’s short fiction since I read her story, “Pyramid Schemes,” a few years ago in New South and have been looking forward to her debut collection for a long time. Mitchell is very much a contemporary Chekhov of the Ozarks, who writes the kind of gritty realism that I love—about ordinary people stumbling along as best they can, enduring the outcomes of their mistakes. And yet she’s not a regional writer; these stories, while rooted in setting, very much transcend their locale to illuminate the human condition.

The Amazing Mr. Morality by Jacob M. Appel (Vandalia Press, February)
Appel is one of our most lauded American short story writers, and this is his seventh collection. What compels me about Appel’s fiction is that he’s not afraid to step into the shoes of a wide array of characters, nor tackle a culture which is fond of both lying to itself and avoiding messy ethical questions. He’s a writer of imagination and courage, which we sorely need more of. Often disturbing, sometimes dystopian, Appel’s stories are provocative and surprising.

A Perfect Universe by Scott O’Connor (Gallery/Scout Press, February)
I’m drawn to story collections that center upon a particular place, and O’Connor’s is set around Los Angeles, his characters and their situations either in the midst of collapse or upon the precipice. While this collection isn’t described as dystopian in a futuristic sense, its themes and mood strike me as capturing the dystopia of the present day—that unnerving current running underneath our skins, warning us that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment. A bike thief, a movie star, a struggling mother and son—a rich variety of characters and social classes beckons in O’Connor’s world.

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh (Small Beer Press, February)
Singh is a physicist, and her collection is peppered with philosopher-scientist characters in speculative situations. How we navigate the space-time continuum, totalitarian governments, and our own relationships, and how we might explore other ways of living, have earned Singh comparisons to Ursula K. Le Guin. I wonder how much Singh’s questioning of what it means to be human and the uncertainty of our journey within the quantum realm may have in common with Philip K. Dick, albeit in a style more poetic.

Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff (Norton, May)
Another debut, this one revolves around place—an isolated corner of Idaho, Montana, and Oregon known in this near-future dystopia as the “Redoubt”— where desperate characters love and clash. In part an imaginative exploration of the real-life armed standoff at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, Come West and See emerged from Loskutoff’s haunting preoccupations with the rural-urban divide in the U.S. How does a rigidly libertarian survivalist movement play out in the American West? I’m eagerly looking forward to this linked collection, not only for its gripping and timely premise but also for Loskutoff’s elegant and gripping prose.

The Affliction by C. Dale Young (Four Way, March)
This debut novel-in-stories delves into the theme of invisibility and the paranormal, and how the bestowing of extraordinary powers may be at once a burden and bafflingly haphazard. How people disbelieve and shun what they can’t understand, and in other instances, come to worship and rely too heavily upon such “gifts,” characterize The Affliction.

Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart by Kimberly Lowjewski (Burrow Press, September)
Dark tales of misfits and fugitives inhabit the swamps of Lowjewski’s lush and mystical world. I’ve been anticipating this debut collection for awhile, and how Lowjewski, based in Florida, draws upon the beauty and harshness of this unique wilderness to weave her fiction. For those who are drawn to otherwise ordinary situations that are twisted with magical realism and folklore, this collection should prove a treat.

Florida by Lauren Groff (Riverhead, June)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Groff’s Florida—we live and write from within the same state, after all—and I’m looking forward to how she’s set about depicting the nuances and idiosyncrasies of our much-misunderstood peninsula. The tension between the ferociousness of nature—the hurricanes and thunderstorms, snakes and oppressive heat—and the built environment of Florida’s human inhabitants is a pervasive aspect of living here, and I expect Groff, a skilled writer, to capture that well.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Kem Joy Ukwu: Beyond the Ending

In the fourth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Kem Joy Ukwu, author of Locked Gray/Linked Blue (Kindred Books), discusses ways in which even finished stories sometimes remain open-ended for the writer.

Is the ending of a short story ever its actual end?

The answer is … sometimes. That depends on the writer, the reader, and the story. When the writer and reader happen to be the same person, when a story’s writer eventually becomes its own reader (as some writers read and re-read their work for revision purposes), the short story can be changed, enriched, and continued. Sometimes when reading one’s own work, questions can arise about the characters, plot, and ending that can be answered by more revision or even by writing more stories.

When I first started writing short stories on a consistent basis, it seemed like the end of my short stories were when I would submit them into journals and contests. After a few of my stories were published in journals, I realized that publication was not necessarily the end of all my stories (though some of my short stories did end with final revisions and publication).

One of my short stories from my collection Locked Gray/Linked Blue was first published in the wonderful Carve Magazine. The short story, “Demetrius,” is about two sisters who will soon part ways, told from the first-person narrated perspective of the younger sister. The story went through revisions after the first draft. After the story was accepted and published, it seemed like I was done with it. The end seemed like the endthere was no more story to tell, no more things to know.

That was only true until my own questions arose about the older sister. What were the events of “Demetrius” like from her perspective? What was parting ways with her younger sister like for her? I wrote a new short story in response to my questions and included it in my collection. I wrote a short story spin-off of sorts, perhaps not a continuation of “Demetrius” but an expansion of it.

Short stories can be expected to be … short. How can a writer know when a short story is over when writing its initial drafts? Outlining short stories can help to determine an end of a story but how can a writer know if that end is final?

For quantity-related productivity, it may be great for writers to have short stories done for good. It can also be good for a short story to be done for now. It is reasonable to edit and revise knowing that after publication the short story might continue.

This prolongation could include even more revision and addition, changing the short story’s length, potentially reshaping it into a new story altogether. It might continue in an anthology, story collection, novella, or novel. It might resume through adaptation into film and television. A short story could move forward in the minds of its readers and in the imaginings of its writer.

Finishing a short story can be amazing because its finality can be freeing. Even when the door of a short story is closed shut and locked, its writer could perhaps unlock and open that door, potentially opening new ways to edit, enhance, and eventually enrich that short story, possibly turning an ending into an entrance.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Scott Nadelson and the Quest for the Right Voice

In the third in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Scott Nadelson, author of The Fourth Corner of the World (Engine Books), talks about his struggles to write a story he'd been pursuing for a long time and what ended them.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced:

I first read the article in 1999. It came across my desk at the small community newspaper where I edited the calendar of events and wrote occasional arts features. Three pages in an academic journal, describing a radical Jewish utopian colony in the southern Oregon wilderness in the 1880s. It was short on details, but what was there I found fascinating.

The colonists, members of a pre-Zionist emigration organization in Ukraine, promoted an early back-to-the-land movement for young secular Jews, as a way to escape anti-Semitism and pogroms. They named the colony New Odessa. Those who lived there were all in their late teens and early twenties. Lifelong city dwellers, they knew nothing about farming and would have starved the first winter if generous neighbors hadn’t donated food. Afterward they survived by cutting timber, which they sold to the rail company building tracks in the valley below. Among other ways they were ahead of their time, they championed equality between the sexes and free love. The only problem was, there were twice as many single men as women, and love triangles quickly led to strife. The colony dispersed after five years.

What hooked me, above all else, were the many gaps in the historical record. There were only a handful of first-person accounts, most fragmented, and little archival material. The story was wide open, in other words, and it spoke to me personally, as a Jew in my twenties who’d abandoned his ancestral home (suburban New Jersey) for the wilds of Oregon (late-’90s Portland). It was a story of exile, the self-imposed kind, that comes with equal measures of hope and doubt.
New Odessa colonists

But for years I couldn’t write the story. I did all the research, I spent many hours imagining the lives of these young men and women from Odessa, but every time I tried to set words on paper, the narrative evaporated. I could conjure characters, setting, even plot—always my weakest point—but what escaped me was the language to contain it all. I kept trying to negate the voice of the person writing in twenty-first century Oregon, to find inflections that would convince me I was really inhabiting the consciousness of someone who’d lived a hundred years before I was born. Failing, I tried to abandon the material more times than I care to admit.

Then, about sixteen years after first discovering New Odessa, I happened to re-read the opening chapter of David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. It’s an astonishing novel from start to finish, and its first sentence is a knockout: “One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary.” The opening phrases establish a crucial stance: This is someone speaking in the present, with knowledge and perspective about how things have changed. Malouf makes no attempt to convince you he is writing from the nineteenth century, not yet. He gives us scope, tells us exactly when and where we are, provides a stripped-down image of children playing, but no details. Those will come, he seems to tell us, but for now, just picture these children, a pasture, a place where settlement has just reached. And then he hits us with mystery and promise: “something extraordinary.” The sentence does everything necessary to point us forward. It tells us where we’re viewing from, where we’ll go, and what to look for. It combines the simplicity of folktale with the authority of historical reconstruction.

After reading it a dozen times, I returned to my utopian colony. I mimicked Malouf’s syntax, and almost immediately a path opened in front of me. It was the rhythm that allowed me to enter this story I knew so well, the sound of the language that helped me discover all I had yet to understand. Embodying the characters no longer felt forced because I was doing so as myself, a twenty-first-century writer imagining what it might have felt like to be a young Ukrainian Jew encountering the mysteries of sex and love and death in a wilderness thousands of miles from home. Some sixteen years and three weeks later, I had a draft of what would become the title story of my collection, The Fourth Corner of the World.

According to the great Texas writer William Goyen, story is “the music of what was,” not a record of what happened but a song that makes us feel it. What Malouf’s sentence reminded me is that I can bring the past alive only when I learn how to sing about it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Nancy Gerber on Naming Characters

In the second in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Nancy Gerber, author of A Way Out of Nowhere (Big Table Publishing), names names.

When I first started writing stories, I was well aware of the symbolism of names in literature and in life. In The Book of Genesis, Adam names the birds and all the beasts of the field, giving him the power of a god. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Gogol Ganguli changes the name he received by accident to Nikhil, the “good” name that was lost, though the awkward, accidental name Gogol follows him always. Cassius Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali as a rejection of the legacy of slavery and as a way to claim authorship of his life.

The first story I ever wrote was called “The Angry O,” a reference to the shape of a crying baby’s pursed mouth. In the first sentence, were two characters that needed names: a young husband and a young wife. I knew these two would have Jewish names. I had never written fiction before and the characters needed to be familiar because the writing process was so unfamiliar. I needed names that would anchor me on the treacherous journey into the unknown. I named them Hannah and Reuben, two beautiful, Old Testament names I hadn’t even known I liked until I set them on paper. Hannah, as it turns out, is the biblical name from which my own name, Nancy, is derived. 

After writing Reuben and Hannah into fictional existence, I felt freer about choosing characters’ names, less bound by anxiety and the need to acknowledge my heritage. Yet many of the female characters in the book share Old Testament names: Rachel, Leah, Sarah, Judith. In fact, when I was given the proofs to read before publication, I was surprised to see that, in a collection of nine stories, I had used the name Rachel in three different tales. I hadn’t even known I liked the name Rachel! I have no friends or relatives with that name. If you asked me right now, I’d say I prefer Rebecca, even though Rachel is perfectly lovely. I think there was something about the two syllables, and the long vowel followed by a short one, that was pleasing to my ear. After reading the proofs, I took out two of the Rachels and gave them different names.

Another surprise came when I discovered I’d used the name Jake in more than one story. I pride myself on being creative, someone with a good imagination. Why had I named so many male characters Jake? Again, I think it had something to do with sound. That long vowel next to the hard consonant – I felt the name sounded somewhat sinister. And none of the characters named Jake are such great guys.

Naming fictional characters, like naming a baby, tells us something about expectations and identity. The meaning of the Hebrew name for Reuben is “behold, the son,” or “ a son of vision.” In my book, Reuben is a son who carries the burden of his parents’ unhappiness. The second meaning of the Hebrew name is ironic in the context of the story; Reuben cannot see what is happening to his wife after the birth of their infant, a son. Sometimes we choose a name because it has a history, or a particular sound and heft. Sometimes the unconscious guides us in the right direction.

Names in art and in life have lasting significance. We remember the names of fictional characters that become as important to us as family members—Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. And while Reuben and Hannah and Rachel and Jake will not share such luminary status, they are my fictional offspring, dear to me, and, I hope, complex and compelling to the readers who find them.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Jacob M. Appel's Misguided Advice

In the first in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jacob M. Appel, author of The Amazing Mr. Morality (Vandalia Press), offers his worst possible guidance for writers.

One of the perks of publishing literary short story collections—alongside the secure income and ticker tape parade up Broadway—is the prerogative to offer aspiring authors unsolicited writing advice. Having been the beneficiary of such guidance in my youth, it seems only fitting that I now avail myself of the opportunity to share my own wisdom with others, whether or not they are interested in hearing it. In that spirit, here are eight highly misguided ideas guaranteed to derail your career in the book business.

1. Write about what you don’t know. The less you know the better, especially if your readers are highly familiar with the subject. Depict places you have never visited, cultures regarding which you have minimal understanding. For instance, a writer named Franz Kafka once wrote a novel (or part of a novel) called Amerika, about a continent he had never stepped foot upon, in which the Statue of Liberty carries a sword, rather than a torch, and a bridge connects New York to Boston. Who has ever heard of Franz Kafka?

2. Ignore basic rules of grammar and punctuation. These are tools of the oppressor, designed to impede communication and render the already challenging task of putting pen to paper all the more difficult. Admittedly, Molly Bloom’s dream sequence in the final fifty pages of Joyce’s best-selling Ulysses lacks a comma and a period here and there, but few readers make it that far anyway.

3. Never glorify untoward behavior. Or, at a minimum, exert discretion. Nobody minds the sixteen-year-olds marrying in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, just don’t go all Nabokov on the reader and overdo it. Similarly, a subtle stalking novel in the spirit of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is likely to appeal to our best selves.

4. Avoid talking animals, inanimate narrators, and above all, extended discussions of nineteenth-century whaling. The western canon has precisely room for three of the first (Orwell’s Animal Farm, Adams’s Watership Down, What’s-his-name’s The Metamorphosis), two of the second (Pamuk’s My Name Is RedShearman’s Tiny Deaths) and one of the third (Naslund’s Ahab's Wife). Don’t see your novel on the list? Well, it won’t be, because life is unfair—and publishing is like life, except owned by Germans.

5. Include a gun that does not go off. 
This is roughly Chekhov’s idea, although much easier for him because Tsarist Russia didn’t require handgun licenses. Dostoevsky does this brilliantly in The Idiot where, as readers may recall from the Wikipedia summary, Ippolit Terentyev, forgets to put the cap in his pistol before shooting himself.

6. Write in your second or third language. Doing so impresses agents and editors; if you don’t already speak a second or third language, it’s never too late to learn—the more obscure the better. Rosetta Stone Frisian only costs $199.99. For instance, as a native English speaker, Joseph Conrad would be hardly memorable—but knowing that he only spoke Polish into his twenties makes Lord Jim a rather entertaining party trick. (If that approach fails, take a page out of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon: Have your girlfriend translate the manuscript and then misplace the original.)

7. Torment your darlings, but don’t kill them. J. M. Barrie tormented an entire family of Darling children in Peter Pan to great acclaim. The initial draft, in which Wendy, John and Michael Darling were massacred by pirates, fared poorly with focus groups.

8. Favor quirky antics and implausible coincidences. There lies a crucial difference between verisimilitude and reality. For instance, take the moment in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy when the title character urinates out a window is accidentally circumcised by the falling sash. I suspect most readers—or at least half of them—find themselves crossing their legs and reflecting, “Ah yes, that’s the human condition!”

Since this is all deeply misguided advice, I have ignored it—and look at the great fame and fortune that have been my reward. I was a household name in my grandparents’ house, before they died, which is more than Philip Roth or Toni Morrison could ever claim.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Video of The Story Prize Event: Daniel Alarcón, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Strout (the Winner)

What the Judges Had to Say About Elizabeth Strout's Anything Is Possible

photo © Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Susan Minot, Walton Muyumba, and Stephanie Sendaula. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.
“Elizabeth Strout is a bewitching writer. What does she do that is so stunning? Her stories are quiet and straightforward and then they thwack you on the back of your head. The intelligent prose is seemingly humble but elegant in its subtlety and enchanting in its overall effect. Her wit has such a sharp blade you barely feel it until after the slice. She is a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted. It is a sublime pleasure to read her, whether she draws you into a relatively undramatic scenario or a situation in which the stakes are high. Elizabeth Strout weaves her tales gracefully and you don’t know how deep she is going until you are suddenly overcome. She makes you feel. And then she makes you think, about nothing less than who we are and how we live our lives.”

“Anything is Possible is one of those books that stays with you long after you've finished reading. Strout has a gift with words, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the lives of her rural Illinois characters. Each of them leaves a haunting and lasting impression, from the Barton siblings to the Nicely sisters. A worthwhile collection on love, loss, family, and the concept of home.”