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Peeping Devin

December 23, 2014

Turk's Head Review logoAt the risk of breaking my record for number of posts in a season and thereby alienating all those who count on me for blissful silence, I have to plug my latest publication, which appeared (to my belated surprise) a day after I got the acceptance email.

Called “The Upper Mahoney at Dawn,” the story is a sympathetic account of a man who becomes a Peeping Tom, more or less. His name is Devin, so let’s call him, avoiding stereotypes, the Peeping Devin. Does he really deserve sympathy? That’s for readers to say. Use the comment feature on this blog to let me know what you think.

The story can be found here at Turk’s Head Review, a cool publication that bills itself as “Blog meets literary magazine.” Many thanks to the editors for choosing the story.

 

 

New Stories

December 13, 2014

Two of my recent stories have come out this month, and a third is evidently on the way:

Rathalla Review Cover“Commitment,” a tale of tornadoes, family relationships, and a young woman’s struggles to find peace with herself, appears in the fall issue of Rathalla Review. Thanks to fiction editor Joe Magee and the rest of the staff for choosing the piece and interspersing some great photos by Enrico Pagliarulo.

Tethered by Letters CoverI’ve also been indulging in some flash fiction, and one of those pieces, “A Little Girl’s Mouth,” is in the fall issue of Tethered by Letters. The contributions in this issue aren’t yet accessible online, but the print version can be purchased at the magazine’s store. This story took shape in my mind after I read the phrase “a little girl’s mouth” in Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s wonderful novel Tumbling. The story has no other relationship to the novel, but that phrase stuck with me. Thanks to DMW for writing so well that even my sluggish brain gets energized!

flashfiction magazineFinally, I’ve just heard that another flashy bit, “An Early Call,” a semimystical piece of less than 200 words, will go online December 31 at Flash Fiction Magazine. I guess it’ll be an early call to 2015, and if anyone can figure out the import of that fact—or what the story itself means exactly—please tell me.

Dear Author

November 4, 2014

One advantage of publishing in the distinguished Valparaiso Fiction Review, as I did earlier this year, is that Valparaiso University’s system sends you periodic updates about the readership. Here’s the latest message:

ValpoReportHey, that’s more people than I know, so it must mean that an actual Public out there is reading my work. Yay!

Just a minute, though. A “download” isn’t necessarily a reading. I sometimes download stuff myself, glance at it, say “What the hell do I want this for?” and discard it. How many people are trashing my work in that way? How dare they!

And 181 total downloads, that’s not much, is it? Hardly a bestseller.

Possibly this is a sad indication of the limited readership of literary magazines.

However, it’s also possible that other stories in the same issue are being downloaded much more often. That would be heartening. Wait, no it wouldn’t–who’s getting downloaded more than me, and why? Are some authors in the 200s, even 300s? Whatta they got that I don’t?

Maybe the counter isn’t right. Do I trust this technology? No way!

Now I’m all anxious.

Well, look, being listed in Valpo “Scholar,” that’s an honor, right? In there with all them university perfessers. For someone who hasn’t been a scholar in many years, that’s pretty, like, awesome.

OK, I’m at peace now.

But hurry up, number 182–put down the stupid comics and read my story!

I’m hastening to do a new post to bump down the appalling “catterel” of my last one. It wouldn’t do for newcomers to this site to peg me as a terrible poet. Okay, that happens to be true, but I commit poetry so seldom that I would hate to think it defines me. (I suppose murderers could say the same thing.)

Inquirer Review ClipLuckily, I have something to say today: an excellent review of my friend Mark Lyons’s Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The reviewer is Kevin Grauke, himself an accomplished writer of short stories, and he goes into more detail than I did in my post of October 16. As Grauke says, “While the image of the descanso may tie the stories together thematically, what truly unifies the collection is Lyons’ impressive ability to capture the voices of a wide range of characters. He’s so good that readers may find themselves wishing all 12 stories, rather than nine of 12, had been written in first person.”

I do hope this book gets the attention it deserves. Click the image to go to the review; click here to see the page on Amazon; and click here for a video clip of Mark reading from the book and talking about its background.

Depression Made Easy

October 27, 2014

Red Savina Review Header

A story of mine appears in the fall issue of Red Savina Review:

http://www.redsavinareview.org/sam-gridley/

Many thanks to the editors for publishing the piece despite the fact that it’s guaranteed to depress all readers. In fact, I’d like to nominate it for Most Depressing Story of the Year Not Involving Ebola or Terrorists, but I don’t know who gives such an award.

For more fiction in the same issue—not nearly so depressing—go here to the list of authors and then click on a particular author’s name.

 

Valparaiso Fiction ReviewThanks to the excellent Valparaiso Fiction Review for publishing my very long short story, or short novella, or whatever it is, called “Portrait of a Marriage.”

My writer friends sometimes speak of stories that work in “real time,” meaning that the reading takes about as long as the action would in real life. This piece covers 34+ years in the history of a peculiar marriage, and it is not QUITE in real time. An average reader should be able to finish it in 10 or 12 years at most. I promise that, just as in an actual marriage, there are some funny parts to lighten the tedium.

Click on the cover image to go to the table of contents for the issue. Great photo, no?

Yesterday I was doing some research into the theory of “flash fiction” or “microfiction” for an upcoming event at Musehouse. I spent at least half an hour at it—the most research I’ve done in decades, and it was exhausting. My principal discovery was that theory about microfiction renders me as drowsy as other literary theory. Beyond that, however, meticulous googling did turn up a couple of interesting tidbits from a journal called Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. Both items are from the 2011 inaugural issue, which is offered for free online. (There’s no need to waste croissant money on research.)

One notable idea comes from Ailsa Cox in the journal’s introductory editorial:

“Short story theory is unique in that it emanates almost entirely from its practitioners.”

I’m not sure I believe that—there’s still a large element of “those who can’t do, theorize” in academic literature departments—but if it’s true, it’s a nice trend. Yet if writers are indeed developing “a more sophisticated awareness of the methodologies available to practice-led research,”* as Cox believes, I hope they’ll use livelier language to explain their discoveries.

The other item of note comes from an essay by Ursula Hurley that focuses on Joyce’s Dubliners. She argues, citing Joyce Carol Oates, that short fiction differs from longer work in that it requires the “active participation of the reader.”

“What I am getting at here is that the genre itself, the very nature of the short story, means that the three-dimensional wrap-around fictional dream of the realist narrative is much less likely to occur. Short fiction gives us glimpses and fragments of fictional realities, where the reader uses their own resources** to reconstitute a richly detailed world from the concentrated stock that the narrative provides.”

Beasts & MenIf Hurley’s observation is true of short stories in general, it must be ultra-true of flash fiction, which, to achieve its brevity, may leave out information usually considered essential—place, time, ages of the characters, even the characters’ names. But does the reader necessarily “reconstitute a richly detailed world” from the condensed version, or does the reader accept the author’s floating, unanchored world for what it is? In reading Curtis Smith’s recent microfiction in the fine collection Beasts & Men, I found that I wasn’t filling in missing details; rather, in the best of the stories, the characters became archetypes of the human condition who existed in a fairy-tale-like place of their own—a parallel dimension, you might call it. Instead of making up particulars for their lives, I was content to meet them in that dreamspace where specifics are less important than the overall atmosphere. And maybe that matches a deep sense of the unknowable world embedded in our psyches. My psyche, anyway, because I’m often aware of how little I understand of what’s happening around me.

Roughly, then, my notion of flash fiction is that, like all other fiction, it can be anything the author and reader want it to be. Such is my exhaustively researched antitheory. However, for those who want to pursue these ideas further, two good starting points are the sites maintained by Randall Brown of Rosemont College: Matter Press and FlashFiction.net.

Snarky, impolite footnotes:

*“practice-led research”: As always, we should thank educators and social scientists for sharing their jargon with us literary types. But, to be official, this concept needs an acronym, PLR, and a peer-reviewed journal known by those initials.

**“the reader … their”: OK, I’m old-fashioned, but this still grates on my ears. A pronoun ought to agree with her antecedent. I’ll pass over the loose use of “where” in a context where there’s no clear where there.

Viewing, by Sand Pilarski

Viewing, by Sand Pilarski

Many thanks to The Piker Press, and editor Sand Pilarski, for running my long story “End of the Ride” in four installments, beginning today. Linc, the story’s protagonist, attends the funeral of his scapegrace cousin, Wayne Shit-for-Brains, and tries to behave properly though he feels not a smidgen of sorrow at Wayne’s demise. Throughout the day—and this is the crux of the story—he tries to suppress his memory of a shameful escapade with Wayne when they were teenagers.

Sand herself created the accompanying illustration, and I think it expresses Linc’s conflictedness. Though he’s trying to appear nonchalant, you can see the stiffness and resistance in his posture.

Compared to print outlets, web magazines have an obvious cost advantage in publishing long stories, but most still prefer short pieces. Kudos to the few, like The Piker Press, that will give space to the long form. Serialization is one answer to the public’s supposed unwillingness to read long pieces online. Next Monday, after the latest episode of Downton Abbey on PBS, come back for more on The Piker Press.

Flash! It’s Fiction

May 5, 2011

Recently I finished Randall Brown’s Mad to Live, a collection of flash fiction—a total of 22 stories in a well-spaced 69 pages. The book has been described as “edgy” and “postmodern,” and both of those terms are understatements. The book opens, for instance, with a pregnant woman eating ants, a craving that doesn’t faze her husband, who runs to the pet store to buy her a bag of crickets:

At home, in the garage, I hold up the bag. A cricket stares back; all eyes, bugs are. Crunchy. Gooey in the middle. Like pretzel snacks with cheese in the center.

Late in the book, a man gets the sudden feeling that people are pointing at him, accusing him of something. Searching the Internet, he finds no clues but determines to fight back:

I get the sense it’s more ridiculous than horrible, what I’ve done, the bad kind of fame, but the kind that goes away, like colds. I’ll wait it out.… When I find it, I’ll post a picture on lampposts and store windows and telephone poles and I’ll write in black permanent strokes “I’m not him,” and then they’ll know. Everyone will know.

This is highly skilled writing, but for my tastes too surreal, so I can’t pretend to review the stories as such. It’s an occasion, though, to think about the nature of the very short story that we now call flash fiction or microfiction. The editor of the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and FlashFiction.net, Brown has pondered the essence of the form, blogged about it extensively, and predicted its “imminent rise to power.”

Though definitions of the form differ, all the ones I’ve seen are based on length. Perhaps 50 words is the typical limit for “micro,” a few hundred words for “flash.” In Mad to Live, the shortest story falls just short of 200 words. The genre perfectly suits our short-attention-span, click-through, multitasking world, though it’s ironic that the Web, where this kind of fiction thrives, is also suited for long work that might be too expensive to print.

Many readers may assume, as I’ve always done, that a story so minimal in length must be more like a still shot than a video: zeroing in on one scene, one moment, with little scope for development or change. My own recent, semi-accidental foray into the short-short form falls roughly into that category:

TWO DEPARTURES

Each weekday morning when Dermot’s father left for work, he’d reach down to where the boy’s head drooped over a cereal bowl, ruffle his hair and mumble a slang farewell: “Later, kiddo,” or “Seeya, champ.” One day it was different. The boy finished breakfast and wandered into the living room to watch his mother and father loosely hugging at the front door. Setting out on a business trip, the man hefted his suitcase and called across the room, “Goodbye, Dermot.” The phrase, uttered through a tight grin, had such an oddly formal ring that Dermot cocked his head in surprise. When his father failed to return, joining instead a new family on the opposite coast, the words hardened in his memory like a thin layer of cement.

Skip ahead 27 years to a morning when Dermot’s live-in girlfriend Celeste stands at their apartment door with a carry-on slung over her shoulder. She is interviewing for a prestigious residency in a hospital 853 miles away (exact distance courtesy of Internet maps), and they have quarreled not about this subject, but around this subject, for the past two weeks, with the dispute so entangled in other matters that for much of the time he has lost track of the issues. As her glance angles up at him from under finely tilted brows—an expression that suggests a bemused take on her own irony—he briefly sees what she does: an unshaven, unshowered, slightly overweight academic holding a lukewarm mug of coffee that has slopped onto the sleeve of his tartan pajamas. An impulse moves him to beat her to the punch: “Goodbye, Celeste,” he says, with what he supposes is polite, forgiving affection. She nods, loses the ironic tilt, starts to speak and checks herself, and slips out the door.

Dermot returns to the kitchen. Above the sink a small window overlooks a courtyard where forsythia branches curl under a thin layer of ice. He has a sudden image, or fantasy, of his mother looking out a window like this. A flick of movement catches his eye, but when he tries to make out the bird or squirrel, nothing appears. With a jerk of the wrist Dermot pitches his coffee down the drain. “So long, kiddo,” he mutters, and heads to the bathroom.

[published in the July 2009 issue of decomP]

If we count generously, that story has three scenes, one in each paragraph, and the reader understands (I hope) that the first scene governed the last two, but there’s no character development except what is implied in the child’s progression to the man, nor is there significant plot.

Some practitioners of flash fiction don’t seem to accept such restrictions. They claim to be creating a story with conventional elements, just extremely compressed. Detailing how he critiques a flash story, Richard Grohowski writes: “Have the events in the story changed anyone? Is there a logical, or at least reasonable, progression from beginning to end?” (For more such theorizing about the way flash works, see the Flash Craft section of FlashFiction.net.)

Taking Brown’s stories as an example, some plot, or concentrated action at least—progression from beginning to end—does seem achievable. His story “Early Man” starts with a boy and his father finding a big wad of cash on the ground, and then proceeds to detail what they do with it, ending on the fourth page when the money is gone. Another story, “Good Kid,” is all action, its four pages describing an attempted robbery at a store and the fight that ensues as a boy and his grandfather resist the bad guys.

As for character change, there can be hints of that. “Good Kid” ends with a projection into the kid’s future, telling us that when bad dreams come, the boy will fight them off with memories of the moment of triumph with his grandfather.

Still, I don’t believe that real character development—important changes in essential traits or understandings—can be achieved in a couple of hundred words. Nor do I think that ultra-compressed plots can have the same kind of arc as a longer story or novel in which the characters’ motivation is integral to the buildup, the complications, the climax, and the dénouement.

If anyone can find a strong example contradicting these views, please share.

After Marcy Casterline O’Rourke posted a rave review of my novel The Shame of What We Are on Amazon, I wondered who she was and why she liked the book so much. Exploring her own blog entries, I realized that we’ve both been pondering the past lately, and maybe that’s what first attracted her to Shame, which is set in the 1950s and 1960s. (Though this doesn’t explain her lofty rating of the novel; for that, we’d need to know what she was smoking.)

One of Marcy’s blogs focuses on her late husband, the actor Tom O’Rourke, and she talks about reading a diary he left behind, using it to fill in details of his life before she met him and puzzle out facets of his character that, after decades of marriage, she still didn’t understand. “The Great Mystery of Tom,” she titles one post. Her musings are both pointed and poignant.

Oddly (or perhaps not) I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story about a man who rediscovers his own adolescent diary. This proved difficult to write, because for me nostalgia is often painful. Beyond the poignancy and bittersweet pang, it leads to a deep sense of embarrassment about my younger self, and that happens in this new story, in which the character becomes ashamed of the young man he unearths.

Joanie & Bobby in 1963

Here’s another—not fictional but all-too-real—case in point: Last night I reconnected with a major icon from my youth. Our niece Anna, for no reason that we can fathom, has become a fan of folk music, and her greatest star, higher in the pantheon even than Pete Seeger, is Joan Baez. Hence we went with Anna and her family to Joanie’s concert last night in Philadelphia. Anna wore a handmade T-shirt with a 1960s image of our favorite folk diva; it must have taken her hours to draw with permanent markers.

So, there was the bittersweet sensation of remembering when Joanie (who looked a bit stiff and sore) was a young barefoot maid, and we too were young, and the music meant that the times they were a-changin’, that the deep achy yearning that swelled in our souls could find its place in the world and we would somehow connect not only with the zeitgeist but with the oversoul, the mystery at the heart of things.

It’s bad enough remembering inchoate hopes like that. But here’s where it gets really rough for me. The first time I saw Joan Baez in concert, she was indeed in her barefoot-maid stage, and a heckler yelled at her from the audience, “Why don’t you wear shoes?” She shot back, “That would spoil my image.” Today that seems a perfectly apt, funny reply. To my idealistic younger self, however, it was like a slap in the face. I wanted to believe, I guess, that she chose to go barefoot in the simple, honest, pure way in which I might grab a jacket out of the closet: “Hmm, it’s over 65 degrees and I’ll be on stage most of the night, so I won’t need shoes.” To realize that she might consider something as crass and commercial as her “image,” even with an ironic twist, shocked my entire belief system.

It’s painful to remember being that naive, that stupid. And to make matters worse, Joan sang the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne.” Not only was that once my favorite song, but I considered it truly poetic, profound, inspirational. A woman who dresses in rags and feathers and leads you to a mysterious river/harbor where you meditate upon Jesus walking on the water—heavy stuff, man! But today when I hear lines like “you know that you can trust her / For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” I feel the opposite of trust. Sloppy, simple-minded, juvenile, semi-fake spiritualism, I call it now.

So, picture me at the concert in a balcony cheap seat, uncomfortable with memories of idealizing Joanie, growing more restive as Cohen’s pseudo-poetry wafts in ethereal waves over the rapt audience. … My wife reaches over and lays her hand on mind. I squeeze back in reluctant acknowledgment. Then she leans in and whispers, “Remember when you used to sing ‘Suzanne’ to me? Will you sing it to me tonight?”

I want to hide under my chair.

Luckily, though, we’re old enough that, after the long concert, a bus ride to our neighborhood, a short hike to our door in the brisk fall air, we fall harmlessly asleep.