From Fact to Fiction
An interview with novelist Jennie Shortridge
By Sandra Sarr
On a sunny morning in a Seattle café, novelist Jennie Shortridge talked with Sandra Sarr about the writing life and her fourth novel, When She Flew (NAL/Penguin, 2009). It’s a fictional story inspired by a real-life event involving a war veteran raising his thirteen-year-old daughter in the wild for several years. The policewoman who tracks them down breaks all the rules when ordered to separate the father and daughter. Shortridge lived in Portland, Oregon, near the forest where they were found, and followed the story as it unfolded in the media. Captivated by how the story conveyed the serious challenges of returning Iraq war veterans—brain injury, post-traumatic stress, and resuming civilian life—she tells a story about the cost of war, the meaning of family, and the strength of the human spirit.
Shortridge is a founding member of Seattle7Writers, a group of Pacific Northwest authors who create connections between writers, readers, librarians, and booksellers to foster and support a passion for the written word. She is at work on her fifth novel. A passionate supporter of the literary arts and lover of good food, she has contributed one of her recipes to the King County Library’s Literary Feast: The Famous Authors’ Cookbook, and makes a personal appearance in the 2010 Oregon Writers Colony Calendar of Authors.
Sarr met Shortridge at a book signing for her Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe, in 2008 on San Juan Island, Washington, where they discovered they shared the same Colorado high school writing teacher, Ms. Carol Abrams, in the late 1970s. Shortridge and Sarr are both still babes who want to do their raven-haired, hip-hugger-wearing Ms. Abrams proud.
S: What was it about the When She Flew-inspiring story that captivated your imagination?
J: Several aspects captivated me: the magical nature of people living in the forest and doing something so unusual, a father doing a good job parenting with very little resources, and a girl who was healthy, smart, and schooled despite extreme circumstances. What really grabbed me was the way the police officer in charge, the sergeant in charge, reacted – not following protocol, taking the father and daughter to a shelter, and then finding them a home on a farm. The officer was in big trouble, right up until everyone started cheering them on. I found out later, through interviewing the police officer, that he’d been getting cell phone calls all night from his colleagues saying, “Where are they? You better get them back here (to the police station).”
S: Did you set out to tell the story of Jess, the police officer who believed in something so strongly that she would override the rules she lived by and risk her career?
J: Yes, she did the right thing instead of the usual thing. That, to me, was the most powerful part. That was what I set out to write. It was even more about the police officer than about the father and daughter. Yet, I really wanted to keep the daughter’s voice in the story. I had originally imagined them as being equal narrators, weighted the same way. My editor would have liked to have more of the voice of Jess, the cop, because of the marketing demographic. She didn’t want me to start the book with the girl, Lindy, as I did originally. So I made the first chapter be the policewoman. I snuck in a prologue. So it’s really Lindy, the veteran’s daughter, who starts the book.
S: Do you hope your readers will consider what they’d stand up for when faced with a dilemma in their own lives?
J: Absolutely. It’s hard for me not to have a social agenda when I write. I always do. I like to show how people react under pressure. Even though they’re so wounded, or have their own issues or faults, I show how they ultimately do what they believe is right.
S: Why was Jess, the police officer, overly protective of her own daughter?
J: Jess’ family was torn apart rather early by a dad who was killed on the police force and a mother who was incompetent at raising the kids. Jess, being the only girl in the family, took on that role, even though she was too young to take it on, even though she had older brothers. She had absent parents, which is definitely a theme from my life, as well. She marries an absent husband, a father who’s absent through drinking and self-centeredness. Of course, you want to create a character who is on the edge of the bell curve for your narrator/protagonist. So, I found reasons for her to be very interested in safety and to project that onto her daughter in the extreme. I made her a police officer, which compounds all of those things.
S: How did you get to know your characters?
J: With the cops, I hung out with Travis, my cop neighbor. And I interviewed Michael, the sergeant on the case. He snuck me into a roll call meeting, just like the one I wrote about. I sat in a corner listening to their banter. They didn’t know who I was and ignored me. So, as my character, Jess, talked with her fellow cops, that teasing banter I’d heard came alive in dialogue.
S: As your book’s title indicates, flight is a significant motif.
J: An astute reader pointed out to me that at every point where Lindy makes a transition, there’s a bird. I didn’t set out to do that – I didn’t say, “I’m going to put a bird at every transition point in her life.” It’s fascinating to me–these are the things that creep in as you’re writing that show you’re working at a different level.
S: That you’re not even consciously aware of…
S: Your book opens with a Brian Andreas quote that you noticed on an old postcard in your office: “For a long time, she flew only when she thought no one else was watching.”
When did you make the connection that it would eventually inform your title?
J: This postcard has been in my workspace for 10 or 15 years. I picked it up when I lived in Denver years ago. I decided that I really liked the “When” concept in that quote. I didn’t even have a slight idea of the title. The whole flight concept was not even there for this book. I think it just occurred to me very suddenly looking at it. And I said, “Ahh!” and emailed my editor. That’s how titles generally come to me. You can try on, 30, 40, 20, whatever it is, but if you don’t think, “Of course,” then you know it’s not the right title, and you keep trying. I did contact the man who wrote that quote and he was so lovely. Right away he said, “Sure,” and I said, “How much?” Usually you pay for these things. He said, “God, no. Just use it.”
S: How does the swastika come to be Lindy’s good luck charm?
J: That’s in the true story. I went back and forth about the swastika – should I use it or not? It was in the news but not prominently. I didn’t even see it in any of news articles until really late in my research. When I asked the actual sergeant about it he said, “I was wondering when you were going to ask me about that.” It’s intriguing and makes such a good case for the cops going into the forest with submachine guns and dogs and airplanes. The father taught his daughter about all kinds of cultures and different symbols. That one to them meant good luck and good fortune and all the things they needed in their life. The cops believed them after questioning them seperately. They said they had never seen two stories align so perfectly. So they believed everything they said about their past, who they were, and what they believed.
S: Your chapters alternate between Jess’ point of view and Lindy’s. Why did you chose to present Jess in third person and Lindy in first?
J: Lindy just had to be first person. As soon as I started using first person, she woke up, came alive, and starting talking to me. Lindy started talking about birds. I hadn’t been thinking about or planning birds. I was just doing that kid-thing of lying on my back, looking up into the trees–which is where she would be. And she started talking about her birds. So, that felt like it had to be that way. And I thought that we needed the grounding of Jess in third person. It’s a very closely-held third person; we’re very much inside her head. But I thought we needed the adult to be grounded. That’s what felt right when I tried it different ways. When I would get to what felt like the sweet spot to end the chapter, it was fun to then continue the story from another viewpoint.
S: It’s a weaving.
J: Yes, you have to back up a little and then get back into it and pick it up or explain the missing piece. Just as you’d work in back story, even if it’s the same narrator the whole time. If a question has been raised and then you have white space and a new chapter–start with the back story. Fill that little piece in, and then move back into the front story.
S: At the end, Lindy is making an observation about her new place.
J: Right. That is the moment at which she has matured. She’s become an adult. Her story arc is very much about going from child to adult in the relationship. She’s changed enough to see her father’s weaknesses and to understand that she has a place in the world. But she also has a duty. The story is so much about family and family duty, and what we do to take care of each other.
S: How do you know when a story is done?
J: I always love that part. Construction-wise, you know the story is done when you’ve answered the metaphysical question, the question that you ask at the beginning of the story. Writing-wise, I never have to change where the story ends. All of a sudden I realize that the “camera” is pulling back, the picture is fading, and I’m pulling away from the characters. They’re fine. You know that you’ve gotten them to the point where you don’t have to explain more, you just have to let them do more in your readers’ imagination. You know you’ve gotten them to the point where they can fulfill their destiny. That’s enough; you don’t want to keep going. I don’t know why, but I always feel it happening, and I’m always surprised. I’m thinking I’m going to write another chapter or two and I suddenly realize, “That’s it.” I just feel it.
S: Your story moves quickly over a short period of time. Why?
J: About three-fourths of the book happens over 24 hours. And the whole book happens over three or four days. I wanted it to feel urgent. The real story unfolded over several weeks.
S: What the most difficult challenge in writing this book?
J: It took me a long time to get comfortable with how much to fictionalize and how much of the truth to tell. I was very concerned about the people involved, the father and daughter eventually reading it and feeling exploited for someone else’s gain. I tried setting it in different places. I was going to set it in Boulder, but then I realized I wanted to be able to describe where they actually did live. I went to see it with the police sergeant; but I didn’t want other people to know where that was. So I decided to make it a mythical Oregon urban center. But kept the girl about the same age, and I kept the fact that he was a war veteran. I knew nothing else about them, except what they looked like. Of course, I made them look different in the story.
S: That was the challenge–how much to stick with the facts?
J: Right. I wanted the veracity of having been in the forest with the police officers–I wanted that to be very real. I’m always very aware that there are going to be readers who have been in situations like that, and they’ll call you on it if it’s not accurate. I’m a stickler for wanting it to be very real. I used a lot of what really happened in the forest. I made the motivations really different. I made how they got there really different, and I made the characters’ personalities and where they went different. I developed a container for the story: This is what will be true, and this is what will be fictionalized. I set ground rules for the story. Some of them come into play as I write, but I tried to set up the majority in advance. You have to set up the conventions of the story—point of view, archetypes, and what’s real and what’s fictional.
S: When did you first know that you wanted to write novels?
J: I always loved fiction, and I tried to write fiction starting at age 5.
I think I had an innate ability for it, but I never developed it. I left a corporate job with huge burnout and became a magazine freelancer. Then I gave myself permission: “In the morning, I’ll work on fiction. Just for fun, I’ll write short stories again.” I thought short stories would be easier than a novel. (Laughs) I found out that they’re harder. There was a point at which someone at a small press suggested I write a novel. I started in 1995 and got word that my first book would be published in 2002. I thought, “This is my new life.” I wanted to devote every moment to it.
S: You’ve said that your books are about revealing truth and beauty. Why is that important to you?
J: I think it all stems from growing up in a really dysfunctional family, like many writers. It comes from having a lot of secrets in my family and wanting not to have secrets. I wanted to show people getting past secrets; people having the strength to survive things that were bad in their lives. There’s a John Keats quote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” that’s always resonated with me because we find the emotional truth and the symbols of truth and the most real truth in the simple, beautiful things in life; like children and nature. The correlation seems very natural. There’s something about revealing emotional truth about people that seems like the ultimate most beautiful thing. It’s hard to express. I think it’s because so much in our culture is ugly. So much is presented as the ugly side, the dark side. And I want to go against that. I think we need hope, we need beauty, and we need to understand that beauty is as much a part of our world as the dark and the ugly and the evil.
S: Through your characters you can reveal on a human scale what that looks like.
S: What’s one of the most important qualities in a successful novelist?
J: For a novelist, it’s part innate ability and discipline—for long hours, for however many hours it takes, on a regular basis. A lot of people would be beautiful writers, but they’re never going to sit there for as long as it takes to do it.
S: You’re also a singer/song-writer…
J: I was a working musician from age 16 until sometime in my 30s. That was my first creative outlet, and it let me use writing. I have a lot of teenage-angsty poems. They usually had a melody. My boyfriend had a band. I started singing and working in Colorado. They had 3.2 bars at the time. My mother made me a fake I.D. I worked in bars until I met my husband, Matt, when I was 29. I’d quit the last band I had been in. We’d been working so steadily, and my voice had just shredded. All he owned were acoustic guitars, and I had nothing. So we started playing as an acoustic duo. That’s when I changed out of rock and roll.
S: Do you think that your music and writing feed one another?
J: I wish they did. I think that they actually steal from each other. I’ve not been able to write a song since I started writing fiction. I’d rather the energy go into a book. Now Matt and I creative-cover other songs, and that’s fun. We have a home studio. I’m working on my own little project where I take 80 songs and reinvent them in different musical genres. Eventually I’ll have a CD.
S: Any words of encouragement for the yet-to-be-published novelist?
J: A third thing that perhaps I didn’t mention about what makes a person a successful novelist – I had said one was innate ability and the second was the ability to stick your butt in the chair. The third thing a successful novelist needs is perseverance and trust. These go together–the sense that some of us have that if we just keep at this long enough, it’s going to work. Trust yourself, and trust that yes, it will happen. I think that when you don’t give up, you get published. People who give up clearly don’t get published. I see it over and over. It really does take a certain kind of person to succeed. If you’re the kind of person who goes to writers’ workshops and conferences and you hear, “Only one person I know ever got published,” you should think: “Well, I’m that one person.”
S: Why not me?
J: Exactly. Trust that.
Sandra Sarr left her day job, most recently as PR and Marketing Manager at the University of Washington Tacoma, to pursue an MFA in creative writing from the Whidbey Writers Workshop and to write her first novel. She has served as Director of Communications for the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and for Whittier College in Southern California, and served on the communications staffs of three other colleges. Sandy was Director of Publishing for Science of Mind Publishing, Los Angeles home office, serving as editor of the monthly magazine, Science of Mind, and publisher of 60 book titles. She has won national and regional awards for articles, magazines, and campaigns.
The Shipping News and The Echo Maker: Car wrecks and World Crises
by Claire Gebben
At a workshop called “Selling Your Novel in the First Three Pages” (a session held at the 2008 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle), attendees were invited to submit the first three pages of their manuscripts to a panel of literary agents for critique. As the submissions were read aloud, common clichés emerged, book openings where the protagonist gazed out a window, stared into a mirror, or received the diagnosis of a terminal illness. The hands-down cliché, however, was the car crash. In forty-five minutes, I heard more car crash scenes than I’d imagined reading in a lifetime.
The Echo Maker (2006), by Richard Powers, and The Shipping News: A Novel (1993), by Annie Proulx, are two National Book Award winners that hinge on the car accident beginning. In The Shipping News, Quoyle loses his wife Petal (admittedly in chapter three, not page three) in a fatal car crash: “Quoyle had gasped, the phone to his ear, loss flooding in like the sea gushing into a broken hull. They say the Geo had veered off the expressway and rolled down a bank sown with native wildflowers, caught on fire” (24). On the second page of The Echo Maker, a pick-up truck driven by Mark Schluter plows into a flock of migrating sandhill cranes near the Platte River: “A squeal of brakes, the crunch of metal on asphalt, one broken scream and then another rouse the flock. The truck arcs through the air, corkscrewing into the field. A plume shoots through the birds. They lurch off the ground, wings beating.” Mark survives the crash, barely. Mark’s sister, Karin, must rush back to her home town of Kearney, Nebraska to nurse her brother back to life.
In both The Shipping News and The Echo Maker, car accidents catapult the survivors into life-altering identity crises. Published on either side of the cataclysmic 9/11 divide, both novels address a topic that preoccupies modern human consciousness—the evident twilight of humankind. Between Proulx’s 1993 novel and Powers’s 2006 novel, a progression occurs, a further dissolution of the idea that human beings somehow hold dominion over their world.
For such high caliber authors as Proulx and Powers, why the cliché car wreck openings? British-Indian writer Rana Dasgupta, author of Tokyo Cancelled and Solo, claims the car accident taps deep-seated modern anxieties:
The car accident is such a cliché that you would have thought that novelists would be desperate to avoid it. But what kind of death would they turn to? They face, on one level, the simple issue of plausibility: car accidents are a form of chaotic intervention that can still be imagined in societies that have worked so hard to eliminate chaos.
The car wreck permeates our everyday lives, via traffic reports, news reports, and eye witness scenes on the shoulders of roads. It is a human invention, of human design and machinery. In car wrecks, tragedy strikes out of nowhere. Take the April 9, 2009 car crash of Angels rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart, 22 years old, who died when another 22-year-old man ran a red light at 70 mph and collided with him and his two friends (who were also killed). The allegedly drunk driver lived, while Nick Adenhart and his friends died, life trajectories randomly colliding. Car accidents are born of human error. Not just the materials, but the cause can be traced to us, whether it’s irresponsibility, recklessness or just plain ignorance. Car accidents resonate as a symbol of human failure in the technological age.
In The Shipping News, when Quoyle learns of his wife’s death in a car wreck, he’s also recently lost his job and his parents. Even worse, previous to her death, Petal had sold their two children to a child molester. Quoyle does manage to rescue his daughters Bunny and Sunshine unscathed. “… the children rushed at Quoyle, gripped him as a falling man clutches the window ledge, as a stream of electric particles arcs a gap and completes a circuit. … Quoyle, in the teeth of trouble, saw a stouthearted older woman. His only female relative. ‘Stay with us,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to do.’” (26-27). Quoyle’s journalist friend Partridge, when he hears of Quoyle’s disaster, is reminded of a “huge roll of newsprint from the pulp mill. Blank and speckled with imperfections” (31). Quoyle’s aunt, Agnis Hamm, pushes him to move to the place of his ancestors, in Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. “’It makes sense,’ [Agnis] said, ‘for you to start a new life in a fresh place. … You know it takes a year, a full turn of the calendar, to get over losing somebody. … And it helps if you’re in a different place. And what place would be more natural than where your family came from?’” (29). Partridge even manages to find Quoyle a job at The Gammy Bird, a local rag near Killick-Claw. In this 1993 novel, the protagonist Quoyle has his wits about him. Though grieving and confused, he’s nonetheless able to rebuild his life, to look after his children and hold a job.
In The Echo Maker, after Mark Schluter’s near-fatal accident, and before his brain swells to bring on Capgras Syndrome, Mark writes a note that begins: “I am No One.” From the moment of the car accident, he is erased and must start from the beginning. “[Mark] was back to how [Karin had] first seen him, when she was four, staring down from the second-story landing on a lump of meat wrapped in a blue baby blanket her parents had just dragged home” (21). Literary critic Daniel Murtaugh writes:
[Mark's] entire world changes, and yet everything remains in place, like the table setting after the magician has yanked the tablecloth. It is the table underneath that seems completely different–the young man’s consciousness is nothing like what it was before.
To Mark, with his re-dawn of awareness, his world has radically changed. Due to a rare condition called Capgras Syndrome, Mark does not recognize his own sister, and, as his recovery progresses, he believes his house and street are a fake designed to trick him. “’I'm telling you what this thing’s about’” Mark says to Karin as they visit the scene of the crash, “’People appearing and disappearing, like that!’ He snapped his finger, a vicious crack. ‘First they’re right there, then they’re not. In the truck, out on the road, gone. … Anybody can disappear on you, at any point’” (252). Such words eerily echo sentiments of New Yorkers following the collapse of the World Trade Towers. Not just consciousness, but the world around them, have become unrecognizable, forever altered.
Mark isn’t the only one to lose his grip on his identity and his sense of what’s real. Because of Mark’s accident and the need to care for him, Karin loses her job and condo. As her brother constantly questions Karin’s identity, she floats adrift in uncertainties of her own. In one instance, as Karin reflects on “flailing democracy” at work in the municipal hearing between the developers and the Refuge, she thinks, “No one had a clue what our brains were after, or how they meant to get it. If we could detach for a moment, break free of all doubling, look upon water itself and not some brain-made mirror . . . For an instant, as the hearing turned into instinctive ritual, it hit her: the whole race suffered from Capgras” (346).
In Proulx’s pre-9/11 world of The Shipping News, Quoyle’s sister Agnis Hamm must also start her life from scratch—the furniture from her former residence does not arrive, and she must transfer her yacht upholstery business to Newfoundland, a casualty of Quoyle’s car wrecked life. Agnis faces down her past and in the end is able to reconstruct her life. And Quoyle, who once would only admit to his girls their mother was sleeping, finally is able to tell them the truth that she is dead. In Proulx’s The Shipping News, the world still holds a semblance of continuity.
In Power’s post-9/11 world of The Echo Maker, being able to face one’s demons does not trigger a return a world that makes sense, it is the entry point to further confusion and disarray that cuts an ever-wider swath. Dr. Weber, a celebrity cognitive neurologist, visits Mark with the goal of capitalizing on his rare Capgras condition via a new book. Instead, Dr. Weber himself undergoes a severe, life-crumbling experience. Near the end of the book, Dr. Weber reflects as he sits with Barbara watching the cranes:
Everything will be panic, from now on. Strange as birth. He would write it up—first case ever of contagious Capgras—if he could still write. He seems to be nearing, and she is taking him. Thoughts flow through him like a brook over pebbles, none of them his. There comes the emptiness of arrival. Then there is just holding, and bracing for endless vertigo (430).
In an interview with Jill Owens of Powells Books, Richard Powers explains his view that the novel is designed to explore key questions of identity:
So the idea that the self is this ad hoc, continuous improvisation had been in my mind for a long time, and in a strange way, the theme really grew out of Time of Our Singing. Because that book is so concerned with identity as an improvisation, as a work in progress that’s perpetually changing over the course of time, it drove me back to the more foundational scientific ways of asking that same question [in The Echo Maker]: Who are we? Who do we recognize? Who do we fail to recognize? How do we construct a self that seems solid and continuous and whole to us, even when it’s not?
The Echo Maker is referred to as a post-9/11 novel precisely because it reflects disorientation and distrust, of the self, and of the power of the human race to survive our technology.
Similarities between The Shipping News and The Echo Maker are surprisingly plentiful. The remote locations of the settings (Newfoundland and Nebraska), the hotly contested natural resources (e.g., the demise of the fishing industry and increased oil drilling, the Platte River’s dwindling waters), and the main plot line of one family in crisis against a subplot of the insidious greed of multinational corporations. In the end, both books look to the importance of water and our re-connection with the natural world as essential to our survival as a species and a planet. Where The Shipping News concludes with a suggestion of human adaptability, The Echo Maker is less optimistic, emphasizing the pure folly of clinging to our trust in human resourcefulness, that same blind trust that keeps us continually driving around in cars that could one day maim or kill us.
Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, New York
Review by Kelly Davio
Pygmy marks Portland novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s successful return to a traditionally-structured narrative after his previous works, Haunted, which read more like a tenuously-connected short story collection, and Rant, which had all the hallmarks of a documentary. This new, gritty tale of terrorism and subversion is structured as a series of dispatches from an operative identified only as “agent 67,” referred to by his American acquaintances as “Pygmy.” This agent recounts his mission, his bemusement at American oddity and his personal history in a largely straightforward, first-person account.
Yet Palahniuk does not disappoint with conventionality; with a plot as wildly imaginative as those of his previous achievements in Survivor and Fight Club, Pygmy‘s narrator infiltrates the United States in order to create chaos in the nation he has been trained to view as his ideological enemy. A Columbine-style school shootout, a dirty bomb, and vicious child-against-child violence in a Wal-Mart bathroom deliver all the shock and mayhem readers have come to expect from a Palahniuk literary gore-fest.
But whereas previous works from Palahniuk have opened up subsets of the world in fascinating detail (recall the page-turning specifics of cult life in Survivor, small-town conspiracy and aggression in Diary, and transsexuality in Invisible Monsters), Pygmy collapses the whole of contemporary American culture into a bolus of outright consumerism and hypocritical attitudes. Instead of a specific city, the townspeople live in the novel’s undisclosed, presumably Midwestern setting, where they spend much of their free time at those cheap-shot icons of Wal-Mart or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The local ideology, far from being a specified point of view, is an apparent confluence of Catholic formality, Southern Baptist fundamentalism and old-fashioned ethnocentrism. The result is a cringe-worthy fresco of American life that, though perhaps overblown, gets across Palahniuk’s point that the way America sees itself is not the way in which the world sees it.
In perhaps an even greater stylistic gamble on Palahniuk’s part, the narrator of this story writes in a less-than-fluent English and with a sense of cultural detachment that is entertaining if unconvincing. Consider his description of his host family’s entrance into the church sanctuary, appareled in Sunday best:
Here worship shrine, all male neck must bind around with knotted banner, silk banner knotted at windpipe so dangle two long strands down chest to waistband trouser. All female must shelter head inside hat cover…make small parade until seated long bench.
This narrator’s bald observation of the somewhat strange customs of western worshipers is charming, if a somewhat thinly-veiled manifestation of Palahniuk’s sardonic sensibilities. But the narrator has an unlikely, skilled control of appropriate English prepositions, which most English learners can attest is among the hardest skills to master. In short, while the vernacular is engaging, it lacks some believability as a concession to readability.
But perhaps the most compelling deviation from a typical Palahniuk style in Pygmy is its final plot twist. For years, Palahniuk has been known to refer to his writing style as “romantic,” and the ending of Pygmy might finally live up to such a definition in his readers’ eyes; the self-destruction and wholesale degradation we’ve come to expect from Palahniuk’s characters are held in surprising abeyance. But with an ending approaching overkill on sentiment, it remains to be seen whether Palahniuk’s readers will appreciate his portrayal of reconnection with humanity or will wish for a return to the nihilistic free-for-all we’ve come to expect from, and relish in, his unique authorial perspective.
The Mysterious Life of the Heart: Writing from The Sun about Passion, Longing, and Love
Forthcoming, May 2009
Safransky, McKee and Snee
Review by Kaye Linden
“We all want to be chased and gobbled up by a larger thing:
fame, danger, evil, wealth, art, romance, or God. Anything to keep from going home
and seeing the five o’clock news.”
(Poe Ballantine. Excerpt from “The Empty House of My Brokenhearted Father”)
Light the log fire, grab a blanket, a mug of hot chocolate and snuggle down. The Mysterious Life of the Heart is an invitation to shut out the world and play. Here are fifty personal essays, short stories and poems, originally published by The Sun magazine and written by writers such as Tess Gallagher, Steve Almond and Bruce Holland Rogers. Skip inside this room filled with memories and the unfathomable depths of love— its consequences, tears, hopes, dreams, tragedies and victories. The Sun’s editor, Sy Safransky, offers sentiments in the introduction that explain the magic of the anthology. To read this book is to lay bare “emotions without embellishment or embarrassment,” to give us something “of great value” and show us “the power of being vulnerable,” therefore helping us “feel less alone.” Even so, despite the “warm and fuzzy” aspects of this anthology, we are voyeurs to the wild and racy visions of love as well. Because of this all-encompassing view, to read these stories is to drive in a convertible “eighty miles an hour down a two-lane highway without a scarf… wearing lipstick, playing the radio full blast.” (Clement)
The major themes in this anthology are love in all its guises. The stories push our perceptions of love to the limits. How do we define love? Where does loss of love warp into self- pity? When do the emotions associated with love flip from euphoria to pain? Every aspect of this most bewildering of human emotions is examined within this anthology. The arrangement of writing moves from themes of young love and innocence, infatuation to marriage, betrayal, separation, emotional devastation and loss. In the final pages of the anthology, we learn how to recover from the journey.
In Rita Townsend’s “The Year in Geese,” the narrator laments the “lover who… is gone and will not even answer my letter.” The heartbreaking cry of the pet goose echoes the lament. “A deep sigh rises and falls…It wasn’t silence that I wanted…It wasn’t silence I was looking for.” This theme of silence and loneliness echoes the vulnerability of human love. It is an example of how we struggle alone as individuals, alone with loss of love and its shroud of silence. This is a recurring theme throughout the anthology and a natural consequence to our entering into relationships.
In Jasmine Skye’s “Finding A Good Man,” we meet a woman who moves in and out of dissatisfying relationships, repeating behaviors and expecting different results. Perhaps just once, we might have acted irrationally under the “intoxicating drug of lovesickness. I barely eat or sleep, and something inside me explodes with creativity.” This is the natural high of infatuation. Therefore, is it not surprising that we keep looking for love in all its shapes and that “Being alone …spending too many nights in a row sharing doughnuts with my dog” is not a preferred option! Skye writes, “It is difficult to find “a man I could stand to spend as much time with as I did with my dog… I’ll …meet his (the dog’s) gaze across the room; still, dark, and contemplative, as if I’m the most soul-saving thing he’s ever seen in his broken-down life.” This theme might explain America’s love affair with the dog!
In Krista Bremer’s pushcart prize -winner, “My Accidental Jihad,” we peer into the private room of marriage suffering the spiritual constraints of Ramadan. We gain insight into the philosophies of one of the world’s great religions. By default of being the spouse, the wife of the man who fasts, becomes spiritually aware. “During Ramadan, when he turns inward and has less to offer me…I want to speak to whoever is in charge…I wonder: is love an endless feast, or is it what people manage to serve each other when their cupboards are bare?” Such a theme speaks to the endless struggles within mixed marriages, where cultural and religious barriers collide. The relationship can only survive if these barriers are respected. Bremer writes with an easy tongue in cheek humor about an intense and difficult topic.
In the last story of the book, Bruce Holland Rogers entices us with his “Hello, Gorgeous!” With a style unique to Holland Rogers, this story moves fast, journeying from youth to old age and then widowhood with its inherent emotions. After losing his wife to cancer, “he”, the universal male, loses interest in life and women. This is the tale of how this man returned to the joy of life with the help of his son. Once more, we have an example of a theme that occurs repeatedly in human lives. “He worked hard…bought a bigger house. The cars in the driveway were always new. …By the time he was fifty-five, he had put two sons and a daughter through college. That same year, cancer took his wife. It was that sudden.” Holland Rogers takes on a difficult topic and carries it with humor and expertise.
The characters in the stories, essays and poems come alive on the page. It is easy to relate to the nostalgia of “remembering things as they were, another time” (“Ecstasy”). In “Suzy Joins the Sex Club,” raw passion howls through the pages, “like a wolf on the hillside with its head back.” Poignancy heralds stories such as “The Empty House of my Brokenhearted Father” by Poe Ballantine. Here we find a man abandoned by his wife. Yet when subject matter becomes too heavy, the poems speak out. The poem, “Greed,” immediately follows the “Brokenhearted Father” and breaks the intensity with “at dawn a complaining cow awakens me.”
The themes outlined within this anthology consistently meet the objective of the book and that is to approach love from every possible angle. Every aspect of love and relationship is covered in this well constructed anthology. Whether the characters are crying in the flower garden, dying of cancer, fat and beautiful, skinny and questionable, or bleeding from rejection, they cross over any time line. These characters we know, hate, love and relate to whether we like it or not. Perhaps the only aspect of love that was not covered was that of retribution. I was relieved that the anthology was a relatively peaceful and playful, although at times heartrending, read.
Our humanity lies within the stories of this book. Stephen T. Butterfield’s “Bleeding Dharma” rips out the heart of the reader. It is the rant of a jilted lover and is superb. Tess Gallagher’s “Sixteenth Anniversary,” touches on the romance of relationships — “wordless. Like what the fog says when it swallows up an ocean.” In “The Kitchen Table: An Honest Orgy,” by Denise Gess, we feel a familiar sadness in the mother “polishing the wooden arms of the chair my grandmother had often sat in…” and companionship in the memories set around the kitchen table. All of the characters in this anthology spring from ordinary people — the “reckless, breakneck, bad-girl part,” the “moody, bookish teenager living in a small town on the coast …whispering of mystery, a promise unfulfilled, a gift forever withheld.”
In “An Hour After Breakfast,” by Matthew Deshe Cashion, we meet a demented old man “with bits of egg on his face” who “insists (his wife) is trying to murder him. To prove her love, she has started taking Polaroids.” In “The Woman with Hair,” Robert McGee captures the purity of new love through the changing color of a woman’s eyes:
“They’re not supposed to do that,” she said.
“They only turn green when I’m sad or in love.”
“Are you sad?”
“Not at the moment,” she said.”
The danger of writing such stories is the author’s possible overindulgence in emotion or sentimentality. I was concerned, with a collection of fifty pieces themed around love, that this might be the case. However, I was delighted that only one or two leaned this way. Even with these stories, the talented writing forestalled a free fall into sentimentality. For example, Colin Chisholm writes in “Green,”— “She died the last week in April, one day before his thirty-sixth birthday…On his birthday, he took the spade from the garage …Rain fell…He smelled the dirt on his hands. The smell was hers. He cried in the shower because it washed her away.” Consider the following from “Marital Status.” “The family’s minister came to the apartment…I spoke of the love that had kept Wanda and me …connected…the minister read from the Song of Solomon (“Love is strong as death”) …I wondered whether Wanda heard…Wanda’s mother opened her arms to me and we held one another tight, both of us weeping.”
Reading this anthology was like entering a sanctuary filled with exotic flowers. Each story exudes its individual perfume and color. “The Mysterious Life of the Heart” is a heady rain shower of nostalgia. Perhaps Kirk Nesset’s “Still Life with Candles and Spanish Guitar,” sums up the experience of reading this anthology:
“This is how it feels to be young and in love…how we’re made love to; this is how love comes at us, deliciously headlong. This is how we flower and live in it, because it’s all that matters, ever. I know this well…I refuse to forget it, or lose it. And I know you’ll remember it too.”
Mad To Live, Flume Press
Interview with Randall Brown by Stefanie Freele
Randall Brown teaches at Saint Joseph’s University, holds an MFA from Vermont College, and is the Lead Editor at Smokelong Quarterly. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, Hunger Mountain, Connecticut Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Evansville Review, LaurelReview, Dalhousie Review, Upstreet, and other magazines. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press, 2008) and will have an essay on (very) short fiction in the forthcoming anthology The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field (Rose Metal Press, 2009).
SF: You won the 2008 Flume Press Fiction Chapbook Competition, congratulations! What was it like, receiving that news? How many houses away could neighbors hear your exclamations?
RB: My wife first got the call and took a message. She told me it was someone from a literary magazine. I called back without a clue I was calling Flume Press. It’s kind of a blur after that. I remember my wife screaming on the bed, my shaking a lot, and then it was over way too quickly. Wait, maybe that’s our wedding night I’m remembering….
SF: You organized the chapbook in four sections: “What is, What for, What not, What if.” What does that all mean?
RB: We, Flume Press and I, went through a bunch of different section headings. Originally, when I submitted the collection, I worried that a collection of so many pieces might feel fragmented, hence (I love that word) these four sections as an attempt to add some thematic structure. The “what is” looks at the post-lapsarian world (with Adam to blame); the “what for,” at that existential search for purpose in this fallen world; the “what not,” at (perhaps) failed attempts to find the “what” that makes it all worthwhile; and the “what if,” at the possibility of recovering Eden. At the end, the final section (again perhaps) discovers an answer: “I write; ergo, I exist.” (Ergo and hence in the same paragraph; all that’s missing is a whereas.) Frost asked in a poem what to make of a diminished thing in a world in which “the highway dust is over all.” A poem, I think, was his answer, so it’s from Frost that I got this idea—that writing/art is the something to assert against meaninglessness.
SF: Whereas we can assume though that when you refer to meaninglessness, the wedding night doesn’t fall into that category. In the first story of the collection, “Little Magpie,” we meet a pregnant character who craves bugs. Where did you get that idea? And, what inspires you? And perhaps most important, did you ingest crickets during your research?
RB: First, I’d like to make it clear that no crickets were harmed in the writing of the collection. The story began with my reading a piece on CNN.com about a man with a disease—pica (from the Latin for magpie, a bird that will eat anything)—causing him to eat coins. Pregnant women, the article said, often experience such a desire. I think of “Little Magpie” as the story that taught me how to write (very) short fiction. My first instincts were to hide their history of miscarriage until the end, emphasize the conflict between the husband and wife, end on “bleeding,” things like that. With this story, I began to use flash as a way to figure things out, things that felt meaningful and deep to me. Here, I wanted the husband to want to do anything he could for his wife and the baby who wanted bugs. I wanted him to figure out what he could and couldn’t do. For him (and me), the world didn’t end on “bleeding,” but with a wish set against Fate, the two of them together rather than apart, uncertain of what they’d done to incur this curse, but still moving and acting, like those heroes and heroines of tragedy. This story led to other stories similarly structured, characters deciding to act, uncertain if each step would bring doom, redemption or something else that is neither.
SF: There is a recurring character named Seth, and several stories are of son and father. You have a remarkable way of conveying the taut and emotional relationship of father/son without being sentimental or aloof. Could we assume there is some Randall Brown in Randall Brown’s work?
RB: That’s very nice, Stefanie, that use of “remarkable.” You could assume there’s some Randall Brown in the collection. Any time you sense a deep-felt doubt about a story’s worthiness, that would be him. I think the son is really me, both now and at his age, and the father, I don’t know, is more of a symbol for the state of the world, or not quite that, but something other than me as a father. Maybe the father is both the superhero kids wish for and the impossibility of that wish being fulfilled.
SF: And what about “Good Kid?” “Good Kid” might be your most haunting story.
RB: I love genre fiction, especially western films, noir films/fiction, and Stephen King kind of horror novels. So, this is my “Western” flash. I love the moral code of the Western, its division of the world into good guys and bad guys. And the good guys always win. Or at least they did, before all that postmodern genre redefinition. But they should always ride off into the sunset. If not, what’s the point?
SF: Has winning this collection changed your writing, your role as a writer, editor, teacher? Are you getting a big head?
RB: There’s so many dark, nasty things that get in the way of my getting better as a writer. Jealousies about other writers’ successes. Questions about my own talent and worth as a writer. A sometimes overwhelming snarkiness about feedback and reviews. Maybe the collection helped quiet those voices a bit.
SF: What are your writing practices? Where do you write, how often, how long, etc.? Do you have any strict disciplines?
RB: No strict disciplines, but I try to have short-term, daily goals and a few longer term ones. Deadlines—from publishers, online writing groups, journal submissions, story contests—definitely help instill some discipline, the kind that most writers have when they are in the classroom. Wanting to write something for a specific market or journal—such as a 500-word piece for Quick Fiction—might be a short-term goal. More long-term goals have to do with finishing a collection for a particular submission date or revising a picture book that received some editor love. The overall goal, of course, is to push one’s self to get better, but that’s kind of abstract, so maybe I use submissions to (and hopefully acceptances in) more competitive markets as a concrete sign of my “betterness.” Like thinking “before, I could’ve never gotten a story in this or that journal.” Of course, acceptances and rejections don’t quite mean such a thing, but it’s motivating for me to think they do, so why not think it.
SF: Do you have another collection on its way? What will you dazzle the world with next?
RB: I’m at work putting together a second collection, tentatively titled “A Thing So Small.” I’ve recently been writing smaller pieces, so it’s a bit of a challenge figuring out what to include and the order in which the “chosen” pieces should appear. Having done it once doesn’t seem to change the anxieties about doing it again. Unfortunately.
SF: As the lead editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, you read hundreds of submissions. How has being an editor influenced your writing?
RB: A lot of great (very) short fiction is being written. Being an editor has made me more aware of the realities of a story’s journey to a journal, the need for it to stand out in some way, the nature of the stakes when a story enters the dreaded slush pile. At SLQ, bios and previous submissions mean very little to a story’s progress from slush to acceptance. I rarely, if ever, look at who wrote it and the bio attached to it. So much of what happens to a story has to do with the story itself. I find that to be a good thing, though maybe not every market works that way. Every week, something new catches my attention about a story’s trajectory once it stops becoming a “process” and is now a “product.” Lately, I’ve been noticing how titles seem to set the tone for a piece and create an expectation of the story’s “literariness.” A really bad title is, more often than not, attached to a not-so-wonderful story.
SF: The books just arrived. The cover is quite handsome – a collection of photographs. How much influence did you have over the cover?
RB: Flume Press sent me several covers from which to choose. I grew to love this final cover (which struck me as possibly overcrowded at first) because there’s that sense of chaos/madness, of each picture asserting itself for attention, a sense of a “(w)hole” emerging from the collection of tiny things. All the credit for that goes to Flume Press and the cover’s designer, Brigid Jeffers. I did ask them to darken the image behind RANDALL BROWN so my name could be seen more easily. Because that’s the most important thing.
SF: The moment you opened up the package and saw your first book. Let’s hear it.
RB: Woo-hoo! Yes, yes, yes, oh baby, yes. Who’s the man? Who’s the man? I’m the man. (Pause for dancing involving handsprings and tumbling somersaults.) I rock. I rock. Oh yeah, I rock. The big beat blastah. I keeps getting bettah, coz I know I hasta.
History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe by Rodney Bolt
Bloomsbury Publishing, New York & London. Hardback: $24.95
Review by Ann Beman
I confess. I found History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe by Rodney Bolt on a checkout stand magazine’s summer booklist. In the article, bestselling historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory gushed:
“this takes you to the fictional heart of Shakespeare’s England, suggests a wonderfully imaginative explanation of the genius of the bard’s plays, makes your head spin with possibilities––and makes you wonder who did write all those wonderful plays.”
I was immediately hooked.
And eventually confused. Why did three different branches of my local library shelve this book in their nonfiction sections? Had Philippa Gregory been yanking my chain while I stood in that checkout line determined to finish the summer books article before I had to actually pay for the magazine? Was History Play fiction, or was it nonfiction? As it turns out, having these questions in mind as I read Bolt’s brilliantly written “biography” of Christopher Marlowe made the book’s premise that much more salient.
On the surface, the book’s title refers to Shakespeare’s historical dramas. Of course, the title also winks at the author’s playing with history in this narrative, which assumes that playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, rather than dying at 29 in a tavern brawl, staged his own death, fled to Europe, and went on to write the work attributed to Shakespeare. Footnoting his invented sources, in addition to extensive historical ones, the author effectively stages this alternative life of Kit Marlowe, raising the curtain on the life of the Bard as well.
Chapter by chapter, the narrative unfolds, seamlessly blending speculative scenes of Elizabethan espionage and intrigue with real historical episodes. Woven into this tapestry of supposition are wildly inventive yet plausible explanations for the Bard’s literary inspirations. For example, Bolt places Marlowe in Antwerp immediately after fleeing his staged death in England. Bolt explains that, if Marlowe had been living as a Fleming, possibly as an itinerant entertainer, “A jester’s motley would not have settled easily on proud Kit, and … it perhaps explains the acid streak that runs through many of his stage fools. Touchstone, Feste, the Fool in King Lear and Lavatch in All’s Well That Ends Well, all have the bitterness of the scholar reduced to earning his bread by clowning.”
History Play opens with an adapted foreword by Mark Twain, which outlines what few facts exist about Shakespeare’s life. Birth, marriage, death, taxes, debts owed, and property accumulated. That’s all that any Shakespeare historian has had to work with. Bolt merely fills in the ledger between Shakespeare’s birth and death with Kit Marlowe-colored ink. And he does so with full disclosure. I’m sure Philippa Gregory would agree with me that any prose writer, whether entrenched in the fiction genre, or hop-scotching along the nonfiction track, can learn from Bolt’s approach, effectively blending extensive nonfiction research with an elaborate fictional character sketch.
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
Random House, New York, Hardcover: $26.00
Review by Joe Ponepinto
Perhaps no one blends history and imagination into captivating fiction better than Salman Rushdie. In his past works he has set stories in relatively recent settings such as the partition of India and political turmoil in Pakistan, and he has often attempted to illustrate the underlying ties between eastern and western cultures. In The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie goes back further in history, to the turn of the 16th century, to present a tale that binds those two worlds into a single narrative and reveals just how connected those civilizations were—perhaps something of a surprise for many in the 21st century.
Historical characters abound. From Asia, we have the emperor Akbar the Great of India, Shah Ismail of Persia, and connections to the line emanating from Genghis Kahn. Italy provides the story with Niccolo Machiavelli, Ago Vespucci (cousin of the more famous Amerigo), and allusions to everyone from Boticelli to Savonarola to Vlad the Impaler. He creates a life for each of these people, and many others, within a fantastical framework of events and intrigues, yet the novel has an overriding sense of realism that urges one to think, yes, it could have all happened that way.
Such is Rushdie. He is well known to have an encyclopedic knowledge of history (in fact, there is a five-page bibliography following the story that reports only part of his research for the book). With all he has learned, Rushdie then connects the dots of history, turning what may seem to be unrelated occurrences thousands of miles apart into a single universe in which forces and outcomes are thoroughly interrelated. This allows him to represent the past with such clarity that even the most mystical events seem perfectly logical. Without Rushdie’s knowledge, however, it is impossible to know what’s really real and what isn’t. In an interview with National Public Radio, Rushdie admitted that much of what readers might assume is fabricated magic realism is actual history, and some of what might seem real he imagined.
Ultimately, whatever parts of The Enchantress of Florence are historical or not, it’s the writing that makes this book sing. Rushdie’s prose is still inventive, challenging, inspiring, and often humorous. An early passage describes emperor Akbar, whose name seems to be a redundancy. “The emperor Abdul-Fath Jaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning ‘the great,’ and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory . . .”
The story itself is, at times, also challenging. It alternates between the cities of Sikri and Florence, with stops throughout the vastness separating them, as well as the New World, and investigates the lives of royals, nobles, advisers, servants and prostitutes, some of whom lived, some who were merely imagined by those who lived, and, in the case of the enchantress herself, who managed to do both. Rushdie keeps every aspect in its proper place and masterfully weaves the many storylines, tying them together with the thin and silky thread of the princess Qara Köz, whose matchless beauty enthralls the men and women of every culture she visits, but subordinating it all to considerations of the roles of individuals and religions, represented through Akbar’s deep struggles with his own life and values. The novel culminates in an ending that is nearly irresistible—defying readers to stop during the last fifty pages or so.
For those who crave a commanding, challenging text that transports the reader to not only other places and times, but also to alternate philosophies, The Enchantress of Florence is an awesome and delightful excursion. Rushdie, readers will be happy to discover, is still at his best.
The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland
The Dial Press, a division of Random House, 2007
Review by Joe Ponepinto
Cracking the barrier of the first novel – having that first book published – is perhaps a more difficult goal than ever for writers. Because publishing has become more business-oriented and less willing to take risks on new writers, agents and publishers tend to look for manuscripts that exhibit certain characteristics that appeal to readers. Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story is an excellent example of those writing traits, and it’s a darn good read too.
The story centers on Pavel Vasilievich, a former teacher of literature, living in Moscow in 1939, just prior to the start of World War II. He’s lost his position at the university and is now working at the Lubyanka, a secret arm of the Communist government. His position, ironically, is to archive and catalog manuscripts that have been confiscated from poets, novelists and other writers for being deemed critical of the administration, before they are ultimately destroyed.
Pavel sees the writer Isaac Babel incarcerated, and watches as torture and intimidation take their toll on the once proud man. He stands by helplessly as friends are hounded and arrested by government goons. He battles against a wall of red tape in his effort to discover the truth about his wife’s death. Finally, Pavel decides to fight back – in perhaps the only way he can. He takes a story of Babel’s from the archives and hides it under his clothes before he leaves the building one night. Later he takes another. If he can keep from being discovered, these stories may survive the purge and be delivered into more understanding hands in the future.
Holland has written a book that was a perfect piece for a first-time novelist, according to his agent, Amy Williams. The story contains fewer than 100,000 words and is divided into thirty-seven brief chapters, enticing readers to keep moving forward. The language is accessible. Details and description are beautifully done. It’s clear Holland did a tremendous job of research for this book, which makes this historical fiction quite believable.
The author provides the reader with three interwoven sub-plots, each of which is developed quickly and which moves rapidly to its climax: the first, of course, is Pavel’s dilemma over the Babel stories; second is his attempt to find out the truth about his wife’s death aboard a train that was mysteriously derailed in an isolated part of the country; third is the deterioration of his mother, who has contracted Alzheimer’s Disease and can no longer be left alone. These all come together seamlessly at the novel’s climax, yielding an ending that is ultimately satisfying.
Holland is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Creative Writing MFA program who has received Hopwood Awards for the novel and for short fiction. His short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Five Points and The Quarterly .
In the Woods by Tana French
Penguin, New York. ISBN: 978-0-670-03860-2.
It is the summer of 1984. Three children living in the small Dublin suburb of Knocknaree disappear into the woods. Two days later, only one is found, clinging to a tree, unable to remember what transpired, dried blood pooled in the bottom of his shoes. Twenty years later, the sole survivor, Adam Ryan, is working as a detective in the Murder squad and is assigned the case of a murdered twelve year old girl, found in the woods in the rural suburb of Knocknaree. Could the two cases be linked? Will the investigation spur the repressed memories of that terrible day years earlier? Who could possibly perpetrate such a heinous act and why?
Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, is a goosebump-raising thriller that will keep the reader turning pages and sneaking reading time while waiting in line at the grocery store. Her characters, Adam Ryan, the boy who survived, and Cassie Maddox, his partner and best friend, are complex, flawed and realistic. The story is told by Adam Ryan via a retrospective, sometimes chronologically stepping through police procedures, some flashbacks to his own experience with personal commentary interspersed. This foreshadowing heightened the tension in parts but became intrusive toward the last third of the book. How many times are you going to say that you should have picked up on the clues earlier? If you did that, the book would be done already.
The actual murderer and motive provides a shocker of an ending, one that gave me that wonderful ‘Aha!’ moment that mystery fans so enjoy. I found the book a fast and enjoyable read. Ms. French writes beautifully and I would gladly shell out cold hard cash to purchase her next novel. One of the blurbs on the back cover of the book compares her storytelling to that of DuMaurier and Hitchcock, and I agree wholeheartedly. If you enjoy a creepy thriller with vivid characters and lots of suspense, this book will not disappoint.
44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor Books, Random House Paperback, $13.95
Review by Jo Meador
A master observer of the human comedy, Alexander McCall Smith delivers a jaunty stroll among the denizens of Edinburgh in 44 Scotland Street — to be exact, the Bohemian edge of Edinburgh “where lawyers and accountants were outnumbered — just — by others”. It is the “others” who interest us here. The author’s sharp eye and keen wit cut deeply into the quirks and bumps of several lives — the flat dwellers of the title’s address — to reveal a tender and optimistic slice of Edinburgh life.
Written as a daily serial for an Edinburgh newspaper, 44 Scotland Street introduces a memorable cast of characters. There is the rational and questioning Pat who sublets a flat from the narcissistic Bruce, to whom she is reluctantly attracted. The neighbor across the hall, Domenica — a middle-aged woman with some means — takes Pat under her wing to guide her interests away from the womanizing Bruce. Then there’s Bertie, a precocious five-year-old who plays the tenor sax like a pro, speaks fluent Italian, and yearns for the train sets and soccer so abhorrent to his mother Irene.
Pat selects Bruce’s flat to rent because of its proximity to her new job at the Something Special Gallery, a shop filled with obscure paintings by unknown or anonymous artists. Mathew, a wealthy dilettante, owns the shop. As Pat is attracted to Bruce, so Mathew develops an interest in Pat, although he spends most of his time at Big Lou’s coffee bar across the street trying to mingle with the regulars. Pat’s story leads into a mystery of sorts where she must recover a valuable gallery painting which has been stolen from her flat. Domenica introduces her to a portraitist, takes them on a journey through the Edinburgh underworld before they the mystery is solved.
Bruce’s life centers on his career — moving up or out of surveying — and finding female companions, which leads him to an uncomfortable dance with the boss’s daughter in full dress kilt. When Pat learns Bruce will go after any willing game, she also discovers that he is key to tracking down the lost painting.
Nearly a fourth of the episodes in the collection feature the adventures of the rebellious Bertie and his mother’s efforts to have the world recognize his genius. Irene’s ideas on child rearing come from her loose interpretation of the work of Melanie Klein, a noted British psychologist. When Bertie is suspended from school for writing graffiti in Italian on the bathroom wall, Irene seeks a sympathetic therapist who agrees with her opinions on Klein, all the while using Klein’s real theory to coerce her into allowing Bertie to be a five-year-old.
In spite of the disjointed subplot, this episodic novel moves. The characters engage even though they are lacking in the darker tones of human nature. Wacky and all too human, they never fail to surprise and entertain, which kept this reader turning pages far into the night.
Two elements of craft delighted the writer in me: first, the lucid and coherent style of a trained journalist with a sharp eye and keen wit. There was truth beneath every quirk and a lesson in every foible. The incidental reporting kept the story fresh and with the rhythm of an early morning trot on the racecourse.
The second admirable element of craft was the writer’s deft hand at shifting point of view. The reader flits from character to character like the journalist’s fly, only this creature sits on the character’s forehead instead of the wall. A shift in character can occur at the spur of the moment during a single action or dialogue. The shifts are not only easy to follow; they provide some of the upbeat pacing noted above. Thus even as one character might villainize another, there is the second character popping up with his own view, hero of his own story.
In his preface the author likens his work to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which he deliberately mimicked. The tone and pacing are as light as Oscar Wilde and as penetrating to human nature. And like Wilde, this author entertains and instructs in a single stroke of the pen.
Understanding the Short Form
An interview with Bruce Holland Rogers
WS: You are teaching a class devoted entirely to the short form this semester. What is about these very short pieces that you find engaging?
WS: You also publish frequently in this form. What are the special challenges in writing the shortshortshort?
BHR: In a shorter work, every word choice is more salient. Because the piece may consist of only 200 words, each word has a lot to accomplish. Each word had better be the right word. Also, longer works tend to be forgiving—or what I should really say is that the reader is more forgiving of flaws in a longer work. In very short prose, readers reasonably expect the writer to strive for perfection, and any shortcomings mar the experience in a way that one boring or sloppy chapter won’t necessarily ruin a novel.
WS: In class we are reading works that fit the word count and yet may be fiction, nonfiction, or prose poetry. The line between the genres seems even more blurred when there are so few words. Do you think that assessment is accurate? If so, why do you think it is the case?
BHR: My friend Robert Hill Long asserts that these very short prose pieces are subversive by definition, that writing a very short prose piece is a small rebellion against the broader literary tradition. If he’s right, then one aspect of this subversion could be a deliberate muddling of genre distinctions. I don’t agree with Robert entirely—I think that there are many motivations for writing such short works. Not every writer of short prose works is rebelling against genre distinctions or prescriptive notions of what a story or poem or memoir is supposed to be. However, very short pieces do lend themselves to rebellions and protest and anarchy. If a writer wants to violate the reader’s expectation about what a “story” is allowed to do, then writing short is a good strategy. The writer delivers the story fast, before the reader has a chance to object. “Wait a minute! This isn’t what’s supposed to happen in a story!” Too late! You’ve already read and enjoyed it on its own mysterious terms!
WS: Last year in workshop we started asking ourselves and each other, “Is this a story?” We came up with a number of “rules” about what constitutes story. In these pieces, even if you exclude prose poetry, there is a blatant flaunting of the rules. And yet, most of them seem satisfying. Do different criteria apply to shorter works or is there something else at play here?
BHR: I think that what students are experiencing is an example of creative destruction as it applies to education. In one year, the faculty helps you to establish the “rules” for how narrative seems to work. The next year, we show you texts that clearly work—that is, we read them with pleasure —but that violate those rules. Are the rules wrong? It’s really up to the writer to resolve this for herself, but I do think that a lot of artists do themselves harm when they find or invent rules and resolve to stick to them.
If a story is broken, if you know it isn’t working and don’t know how to make it work, rules can be a handy aid for revision. Is there a character with a problem at the outset of the story? Is the problem one that can be stated as a yes-or-no question? Those questions reflect the rules of a certain kind of storytelling.
However, rules can also become a crutch. Work can be written so prescriptively, so slavishly to rule, that it becomes boring to the writer and to the reader. I think that whether they do it consciously or not, a lot of artists work to alternately identify and undermine the rules of their own art.
WS: One of the students recently asked, “How do I know if what I’ve written is a prose poem, essay, or fiction?” Well, how do I?
BHR: This may sound like a flip answer, but it’s true. I sometimes don’t know whether what I’ve written is a poem or a story, a horror story or a literary one, until I see where it’s published. One of the lasting controversies in science fiction has always been, “What is science fiction?” Damon Knight had his tongue in his cheek when he offered the following definition, but there was a serious point behind his joke: “Science fiction is that literature to which I am pointing when I say ‘science fiction.’”
We can discuss the differences. A prose poem is probably at least as concerned with the manner of the telling as what is told. In poetry, there is a focus on the language itself. A story has to narrate events. A non-fiction piece must be true. But a poem can also be narrative and true, so that a short narrative autobiographical incident that the writer has rendered in poetically compressed language might be called a prose poem, a flash fiction, or a brief memoir.
Years ago, I was talking to a member of the editorial board at Prism International. When I said that I wrote very short prose pieces, he suggested that I send them to the poetry editor. Why? Because Prism pays twice as much per published page for poetry as for fiction. I thought that “Border Crossings” was a story when I wrote it, but it was published in Prism as a poem. So the difference between a poem and a story is sixty dollars (Canadian).
WS: It has been interesting in class to see that different interpretations about the “true” meaning of these pieces. Do you think author intent is more oblique in shorter works?
BHR: I’m leery of talking about the author’s intent when all that we have to go by is the marks that the author left on the page. It’s much easier to speak of achieved effects. I do think that short forms often leave the reader with mysteries of significance to resolve, and that the writer of a short form may perhaps rely on readers to go back and read the piece more than once.
WS: Who, besides yourself, do you think is especially noteworthy for the quality of their short shorts?
BHR: Am I especially noteworthy for the quality of my short-shorts? I’m certainly noteworthy for persisting in thrusting them under the noses of readers!
Five writers whose short-shorts I especially like, for different reasons, are Richard Brautigan, Yasunari Kawabata, Jessica Treat, Joyce Carol Oates, and Barry Yourgrau.
WS: There are currently a lot of names floating around for short forms—flash, micro, etc. Is there any standard agreement about the difference between the different categories?
BHR: You can look at the first use of various terms. A “short-short story” was originally a story that would fit on one normally typeset page of Collier’s Magazine. A “sudden fiction” was, I think, no longer than 2,000 words, and usually no more than about 1,500. A “flash fiction” was a story that would face on no more than two facing pages of the typical literary magazine, or 750 words. A “micro-fiction” was no more than 250 words.
However, the terms are now used by different editors to indicate a wide variety of different lengths. There is no real agreement.
WS: What does your crystal ball tell you about the future of this form in English-language publishing?
If I had a reliable crystal ball, I’d be at Ladbroke’s right now putting a thousand pounds on the outcome of this weekend’s Premier League football matches. I do think, though, that short-short forms are well suited to reading on a computer screen or listening on a podcast. Time is short. I think these small bites of fiction will continue to find an audience. But I also think that most readers prefer their fiction to be a totally immersive experience. Novels will continue to dominate publishing.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf
Review by Joseph Ponepinto
One of the more ironic aspects of love is that the more one experiences it, the more difficult it can be to understand. We see that perfect person across the room and suddenly find ourselves unable to function. But sometimes we find the courage, and then we date, we marry, we share lives, we just begin to relax – and then it falls apart, who knows why, and we are left to examine the evidence of its undoing, alter our strategy, work on our appearance, and try again. Or not. Somewhere in all that activity, in that constant anxiety, are the answers, we are sure. But every time we think we’ve got one pinned down it’s revealed to be nonsense, because the answer for me isn’t the answer for you, at least not today.
Where does one begin to parse love? For Richard Russo it’s back to upstate New York, this time to the small, failing town of Thomaston, just three quarters of an hour down the thruway from Mohawk, the setting for his first novel some twenty years ago. His writing has stayed largely in the New York-New England area. In an essay he wrote a few years ago, Russo explained that to him, the setting of a book was very much like a character, and when portrayed properly added to the development of the human characters. His first novel, Mohawk, was originally placed in Arizona, and under another title. It simply didn’t work there, he said, because the descriptions and feel of the place were too much those of a tourist, rather than a native. It’s interesting that in Bridge of Sighs several chapters take place in Venice, Italy, but except for dropping the names of a few restaurants, one might not know it. Of course the character who lives there is something of a tourist, having been transplanted from upstate.
Somehow we never tire of Russo’s places, the characters’ lives so intertwined with the fortunes of their hometown that they can never be separated, and he builds on these relationships to create spectacular depth. In Thomaston young Lou C. Lynch (Lucy, thanks to a teacher who said it too fast when taking attendance), is a child seeking to avoid the local bullies. He’s kidnapped by them and dumped into a trunk at an abandoned mill. Lucy is too scared and too slow to realize he could have walked away at any time. Too scared also, to admit that one of the bullies is the boy he idolizes as his best friend, Bobby Marconi. The bullies try to scare him by pretending to saw the trunk in half, but it works too well – after that he’s never quite right again. Lucy is plagued by spells, reliving the incident at he most inconvenient times.
Much of the book is written first-person, from Lucy’s view. Russo, who can make anything work, paints Lucy in an as unfavorable light as an author dare make a central character. He is big and dopey, sentimental and all-too trusting, all aspects of character his mother, Tessa, tries throughout his adolescence to talk him out of. But her real-world logic didn’t work on his father either, and the two of them remain loveable doofuses for many years.
Big Lou (Lucy’s dad) is the cushy rock that holds the Lynch clan together, despite the fact he’s oblivious to the snubs of neighbor Marconi (Bobby’s dad), and the tension between Tessa and his brother, Dec, with whom Tessa had a torrid affair before she decided to get serious about life and marry Big Lou instead. And now they all work together in the family convenience store, struggling to make ends meet, rubbing elbows, rubbing each other the wrong way, but working it out like a 1960s version of the Waltons. It’s a tough go at first, but eventually the store holds its own against the corporate-owned A&P, and provides a warmth that pulls in customers, as well as teens looking for a refuge from the cold of their broken home lives.
Lucy, stumbling his way through high school, still lacks friends. Bobby returns from military school and Lou (the grown-up Lucy) reattaches himself to his boyhood idol. Bobby thinks the big kid is a bit of an embarrassment to hang out with, but he’s not as bad as he used to be. After all, Lou has somehow managed to get himself a girlfriend. She’s just a shy, sweet artist, and from the day they got together they both realized it would be a lifelong affair. But although she’s not really Bobby’s type (he’s dating Nan, the Barbie doll cutie whom all the boys want), there’s something about Sarah he can’t shake out of his system. She feels the same way about him. Their private talks have a depth that neither shares with their significant others. So here’s where Russo gives us the showdown: which kind of love will win out? The long, slow, comfortable love of two people who have made their commitment and maintain it like a pot of soup over a low flame, or the passionate, full burn of a love that is just waiting for something to provide the spark? Is she too good of a girl to abandon Lou? For Bobby, does he love Sarah only because she’s Lou’s? With the constraints placed upon them, Sarah and Bobby may never know from where their love is born, and that’s exactly why it will never go away, even after Sarah and Lou are married, with child, and take over the store from Big Lou and Tessa.
The questions never stop coming for us, and for Bobby, who leaves Thomaston after an explosive scene. He changes his name from dad’s Marconi to mom’s Noonan and directs his passions towards art. Following in Sarah’s example he becomes a painter. Not just a painter like her, but a world-renowned artist. He leaves the states and wanders Europe, settling for the last decade in Venice, home of the infamous bridge (which both of them wind up painting at various points in their careers). He paints bestsellers, while Lou and Sarah mind the store. Love’s not done with any of them, though. Even at sixty, Sarah and Bobby harbor unresolved feelings for each other, and the couple’s planned trip to Italy encourages Sarah to put her thoughts in a letter to Bobby, which Lou discovers. For once, Lou angers. He hasn’t had a spell for years, but now he zones out and the trip is cancelled. Sarah questions her life with him and leaves – for how long even she doesn’t know. She heads to New York. Bobby’s on his way to the city to show his latest work. Perhaps, if they meet, they could still be friends, or maybe more. But then there’s Lou – big, sweet Lou – who loves them both, standing there like the big galoot he is, in between them. How could they do it to him?
It takes an author like the Pulitzer Prize winning Russo (who earned the prize for Empire Falls) to artfully track the lives of these characters and about half a dozen more over a period of more than fifty years. It’s a seamless web of fiction that, like the best literary works, is more real than real life. There may be no other author today who so fully captures the feelings and motivations of people, and who does it without gimmick or melodrama, in easy, accessible language that mirrors the way his characters live. That his subjects think and react the way his readers do is Russo’s genius – like many works of genius it seems so simple when it is presented on the page, but in analysis the scope and effort become awesome.
Does Bridge of Sighs hold any answers for us? Think about your loves – the love you have for your spouse, for your children and parents, for your friends when you were growing up, the friends you have now, for the people you dated before you made that big commitment and became who you are. In all that lovin’ have you ever come up with any of the answers? Have you ever figured out why it happens like this? Or is it just as fulfilling to keep playing the game, to keep trying and winning, trying and losing, and to hold on to the memories? That, after all, may be all we can take out of it. For Russo, it is enough.
by Bruce Holland Rogers
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Wheatland Press (November 30, 2005)
Anyone who’s run across Bruce Holland Rogers in the pages of The Sun or Good Housekeeping already knows this book is bound to be a See’s Candy box full of chocolates; some of the stories are sweet, some a little nutty or chewy, but all are delicious and just the right size for a quick treat. Even when Rogers’ sentiments turn dark, there is a hopeful, fairy-tale quality to his work. These short-short stories cover the gamut from parable to stories anchored in the everyday world around us, but always with a slant or twist that makes us see that world from a slightly skewed angle.
Perhaps more than most short fiction, the form of the short-short forces readers to become participants in the story world, supplying one’s own experience to fill in the blanks necessary with such a brief word count. And—in the words of author Kate Wilhelm, stories “offer a glimpse through a keyhole, where even a brief description can be overwhelming, any digression the imposition of an intruder.”
Though stories-in-miniature, each selection in Keyhole Opera leaves the reader with a feeling of story satisfaction, eliciting a sigh of appreciation or delight at the last word. Keep this book handy, and when you feel you deserve a little reward, dip into it instead of that candy box. Your heart, brain, and backside will thank you.