Saturday, November 17, 2012

Marie-Helene Bertino Shares Some Story Love

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Marie-Helene Bertino, author of Safe as Houses (University of Iowa Press), discusses what short stories in general and Symphony Space's Selected Shorts program in particular have meant to her.

I love short stories. I love the stuffy, classic ones that refuse to bow to whimsy. I love the experimental ones, when a writer tosses the form into the air and shoots it through with magic and risk. I love the feeling of coming to the end of an expertly executed story: the upshot of energy like taking a hill too fast in my car. I love short stories even though I don’t always understand how to craft them, even though they baffle me; like a cherished, elusive friend who once in a while bestows on me a stunning visit.

When I moved to New York ten years ago I had an overdeveloped dream to be a writer and an underdeveloped plan as to how. Every season I scrounged enough money together to attend “Selected Shorts” at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side. In that quiet auditorium I listened to William Hurt read Maile Meloy, Hope Davis read Jennifer Egan, Joe Morton read Jim Shepard, and countless other amazing performances. No matter what mood in which I entered Symphony Space, I always left excited to write.

Isaiah Sheffer at the mike*
On Saturdays, “Selected Shorts” was broadcast on NPR. Every week, I listened while recording the show on cassette tapes (yep, cassette tapes). They are prized possessions—I’ve played them thin! I’ve listened to Lou Antonio reading the last paragraph of Tobias Wolff’s “The Night in Question,” fifty times or more. Every single time, the paralyzing windup to the devastating last line, “It’s okay, Franky. I’m here!” pushes tears into my eyes.

This was before my work with One Story, before my MFA, before I received the call from The University of Iowa Press. I hoped if I listened hard enough I would learn how to write a short story.

Isaiah Sheffer, the host of “Selected Shorts,” passed away last week, and the short story lost one of its best friends. I was lucky enough to meet him twice. The first time I was too nervous and couldn’t get my voice to work. The second time I was able to force out how much “Selected Shorts” means to me. He was kind and dear and oh, that voice! It is the voice I hear when I read short stories. It was thrilling to hear it in real life.

* At The Story Prize's first event, a Selected Shorts program at Symphony Space on Jan. 26, 2005.