Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Michelle Brafman.
Michelle Brafman is the author of We Named Them All: Stories, and her debut novel Washing the Dead will be published by Prospect Park Books in April of 2015. She has received numerous awards for her fiction, including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize, and first place in the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest. Her stories have appeared in The Minnesota Review, Blackbird, and Fifth Wednesday Journal, among other places. She teaches fiction writing at George Washington University and the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. Michelle is also an award-winning filmmaker and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children. For more information: www.michellebrafman.com
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Christian Detisch.
Christian Detisch is an MFA candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he serves as the lead copy editor of Blackbird. Prior to studying at VCU, he served as the senior managing editor of The Allegheny Review at Allegheny College.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Emilia Phillips.
Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and two chapbooks including Bestiary of Gall (Sundress Publications, 2013). She has held fellowships from U.S. Poets in Mexico and Vermont Studio Center and received the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal and Second Place in Narrative’s 2012 30 Below Contest. Her poetry appears in AGNI, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris-American, and elsewhere. She is an adjunct instructor of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, the associate literary editor of Blackbird, the De Novo Poetry Prize and social media coordinator for C&R Press, and the prose editor for 32 Poems. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature this podcast by Lucinda Roy.
Lucinda Roy’s publications include the poetry collections The Humming Birds (winner of the Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize), and Wailing the Dead to Sleep; the novels Lady Moses and The Hotel Alleluia; and a memoir-critique,No Right to Remain Silent: What We’ve Learned from the Tragedy at Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review,Blackbird, Callaloo,Measure, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner,River Styx, and USA Today. She is an Alumni Distinguished Professor in English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry in the MFA program.
You can read along with her poems in Issue 8 of Superstition Review.
Adam Houle is a doctoral candidate at Texas Tech. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Cave Wall, WillowSprings, Blackbird, the Best New Poets anthology, and elsewhere. He received an honorable mention from The Atlantic Student Writing Contest and was a finalist for the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry. He lives in Lubbock, Texas. You can read along with his poems in Issue 9 of Superstition Review.
Michael Croley grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He holds graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Florida State and the University of Memphis. In 2011, Narrative Magazine named him to its list of “Best New Writers.” He has won awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. His first novel, After the Sun Fell, will be released as part of Narrative’s Library Series in 2012. He teaches at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. www.michaelcroley.com
SR: Your story “Two Lives,” published in Blackbird, contains two distinct stories: a metafictional narrative in which the narrator talks about his writing life (or lack thereof) and the actual text of the story this character wrote. When you began this story, did you set out with the intention of blending two narratives, or did the story evolve into its current form?
Michael Croley: I always remember how this story came to life because it was the first story I ever wrote that made me get out of bed to complete it. I started with the story’s first line, “You don’t know what it’s like to be in the bed as a child and feel the air of fall enter your room and hear the dishes in the cabinets of your home rattle, their doors slammed by some drunk looking for a fresh bottle of liquor.” I wanted the second person to implicate the reader, to say, “Dear Reader, you know nothing.” As I wrote the story and came to the end of the first space break, another voice entered my head with that line, “Years ago, I tried to write this.” Rather than fight the new voice, I went with it and suddenly I realized I was writing two stories inside of one. I’m not really into meta-fiction. I believe that a writer’s allegiance is to the reader, to guiding them through the story, and I don’t find this story to be of the smarty-pants variety, but even I knew this one had a weird structure as I was going through it but I didn’t let myself worry about it too much. I just knew both of these voices were speaking to me (and I hate putting that out there because it makes the writing process sound so new age-ish, but there is some truth to this concept) and I followed them through. As the story went on and I got near the end, I realized that both stories, both threads, had to have equal time on the page in order for the story as a whole to have maximum impact. So as I started revising, I actually cut and pasted all the second-person threads into a new document and made sure that both stories read like fully-formed, complete stories. Then it was just a matter of weaving the threads together at the right moments so that the reader would be doubly haunted by both the second-person story and the first-person narrative and how both of those ended.
I’d never written a story, structurally, like this before—and haven’t since—and one of things that I do pat myself on the back about in regard to this story is that the structure seems really unique to me. But I’m sure I ripped it off from somebody unconsciously because that’s what we do as writers. We steal. This is also the first story I ever had published and that was pretty damn cool.
SR: Your story “Insulation” in Blackbird is one of those rare short stories with a happy ending. The main character, Lynn, seems to get what she wants, and the marriage that seems on the verge of breaking up appears to actually be strengthened at the end. When you began writing the story, is this the ending you envisioned? Do you feel that there is a risk involved in writing so-called happy endings?
MC: Here’s an instance of when you give a story to the world, it is no longer yours to decide what it is to the reader or what it could be. I don’t know that I ever saw this couple on the verge of breaking up. I saw them as struggling, yes, but I never believed Lynn would leave him. In my mind, from the beginning, she was upset and frustrated and wanted her husband to stand up and take care of her but she loved him and wasn’t going to leave him. She loved him too much to do that. She wanted to push him to be more, to reach his potential and she takes that on as her task, as her role in this marriage. I wanted them to come to an understanding, for him to see her strength and resilience and for him to acknowledge that. Once Allen picked Lynn up from her job I knew they would go home and that the change, if we subscribe to the idea that all stories are about change, would have to come from him—and it does because he sees what the reader sees in her—and that’s what I had happen. But this is Lynn’s story, so we had to end with her and I lifted the image of her in the tub from a really bad poem I wrote (I still thought I could write poetry at the time), imagining a woman coming home at the end of a long day.
I don’t know if there is a risk involved with happy endings. I know my students often ask why all the stories I assign to read are sad, but I don’t think of an ending that doesn’t end with everyone getting what they want as sad. Not always. All I want is for a character to have some realization or knowledge he or she didn’t have when the story began. I often tell my students that the writer’s job is to make her characters hit that higher plane of knowledge then pull the ripcord on the story. Get out. You’ve done your work. Lynn realizes that Allen does love her. That he isn’t immune to her struggles and how she works herself like a mule for the both of them. When she sees that she is able to face her life in ways she couldn’t before and that’s more important than Allen’s change in behavior. And when that happened in the story, that’s how I knew it was complete.
As a side note, when I first workshopped this piece, it got really beat up by several women in the class who didn’t understand why Lynn remained with Allen to which the workshop leader (my mentor Richard Bausch) said, “Did you ever think she loves him?” I mention this because we are subject to overthinking this pursuit from time to time, to letting our own personal feelings about the way the world should be rather than it is invade our work and reading. But stories, at their heart, are about “news of the spirit” as the late George Garrett said, and what we do as writers is to imagine ourselves into that spirit without any judgments.
SR: Many of your stories take place in Fordyce, Kentucky. How does a sense of place impact the stories you choose to tell?
MC: Well, for me, it impacts everything. Fordyce is stand-in for my own hometown right down to topography and landmarks, but it has that fictional name so that I can blend different elements into the town from surrounding areas from time to time and because I didn’t want to be too constrained by the “facts” of Corbin, Kentucky, where I was raised. But place is something I’ve always been drawn to. Because my mother is Korean (my father grew up out in the country near Corbin) I think I always felt out of place there. I looked different from all my classmates. Corbin has a history of racism that’s pretty well-known throughout the state and I can only remember going to school with two other people of color growing up. So things weren’t always necessarily easy for my mother or my brother and me. I think that sense of identity that I received from that place has had a large effect on my work, especially in the two novels I’ve written. I never looked at things with strictly an insider’s viewpoint, though I like to think I have that viewpoint as well. I saw lots of good people in Corbin who were hardworking, blue-collar types and I admired their grit and what I saw as even-mindedness. Practical might be a good way to put it. And at the same time, a lot of my friends’ parents were bankers, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists. That’s one of the hidden truths about Appalachia, that not everyone is poor and backward. We’re not all the sons and daughters of miners and laborers.
I think that kind of place is ripe for storytelling because it’s relative smallness allows for the pecking order and machinations of the town to be clearly visible if you’re paying attention. Corbin isn’t so small that you know everyone but it is small enough that you probably know someone who knows the person you don’t. Because of that you’re never out of the reach of a story to be heard about So-and-so and what he’s doing. When I started writing as an undergraduate I was very conscious about honoring this place where I’d grown up and telling the stories that I thought were worth telling that I never saw in Esquire or The New Yorker. There’s a reason in the two stories you’ve mentioned that the characters are college educated. I was tired (and still am) of reading only about backward hillbillies in rural areas. My father was a man who worked his way through a good school and chose to come back to that part of the world. And at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I see how the dual nature of ethnicity has played a large role in how I write my stories. My characters always seem in between worlds, pulled in different directions by different desires. So to answer your question briefly (and to stop going on), I think I’m trying to figure out in a lot of ways of how place shapes us. How does the place where we mature get into our bloodstream? I don’t think we ever escape our childhoods and a lot of what I see myself doing is exploring Fordyce as Corbin and asking the question, What has this place done to this character for good or ill?
SR: You published an “iStory” in Narrative – a new type of micro-fiction created by the magazine to coincide with their new digital App. These stories are all under 150 words. Do you find it more or less difficult to write micro-fiction like your story “One Such as This” than your longer pieces? Did writing with the digital App in mind change anything about the writing process?
MC: Well, first off I just want to say that Narrative has been a great venue to me. Very supportive of my work and I think the world of what Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian are trying to do with literature in this electronic age. I think they’ve been very visionary and the idea of an iStory seemed gimmicky to me at first because I just didn’t think you could tell a story in such a small amount of space. That was/is the challenging part. It’s like “Name that Tune.” How many notes does it take to tell your story? Less notes, to me, is often better. So that’s what I tried to do and that was the challenge of it. A lot of times I have a great image but not a great story to tell. And because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not a very good poet, I wanted to use this image I had of an alley in back of my favorite movie theater in Cleveland where I used to live. I just liked the idea of two people in this very dark alley making out and then moving them through the night and into the morning. So, in one sense, the piece was easier because there was less I had to do, but harder because the word limit magnifies your choice of diction, your details, and your sense of emotion in the piece.
I don’t often write micro-fiction because I’m interested in really playing the characters’ lives out as much as I can. As far as I want to go. For instance, neither character gets a name in that iStory, which gives me more observational distance and less attachment to seeing their lives come together or undone as you might in a longer piece. And the iStory seems to me to be less about narrative arc than a singular moment that lingers in the reader’s mind and imagination after what they’re done being a witness to the story.
SR: What are you working on at the moment?
MC: Well, I have an agreement with Narrative to release my first novel After the Sun Fell as part of their new Library Series. I’m really excited about that because everything they do is so good and I’m flattered that Tom Jenks wanted to first look at the novel then said he wanted to work with me on it. That book is based in small part on my mother’s move to southeastern Kentucky from Masan, South Korea after she married my father. An excerpt of it is up on Narrative as a contained story entitled, “Washed Away.” As long as Tom and I can find some time to work on this soon, I think that book will be released in 2012, but that’ll, ultimately, be up to Tom and I’ve learned to listen to him as much as possible.
And my agent is currently shopping my second novel around. It’s about a family that’s moved out of Fordyce to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 right before the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which indirectly led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book is narrated by Ben Hamlin who was 12 when his father moved the family to Memphis. A grown man now, Ben is looking back on that year when his family—and their hopes—began to unravel as their own personal tragedies get entangled with the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest tragedy.
My next novel is entirely in my head (though I think the opening scene is written) so I don’t want to say too much about it. But it will be, I hope, both an homage to and a retelling of All the King’s Men with the central figure being more of an LBJ type politician. This is mostly because I love All the King’s Men—I don’t think there’s a bad sentence in the book—and because I think LBJ was a fascinating politician and I think we live in a very politically fractious time, almost as fractious as the ’60s but we’re not quite there yet.
Julie Hensley grew up on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley, but now she makes her home in Kentucky with her husband (the writer R. Dean Johnson) and their two children. Julie has won The Southern Women Writers Emerging Voice Award in both fiction (2005) and poetry (2009). Her work regularly appears in a variety of journals, most recently in Redivider, Ruminate, Superstition Review, PoemMemiorStory, The Pinch and Blackbird, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her novel-in-stories, Landfall, won the 2007 Everett Southwest Literature Award. Her chapbook of poems, The Language of Horses, is available from Finishing Line Press.
Superstition Review: What inspired you to write The Language of Horses?
Julie Hensley: My girlhood, like so many, was marked by a period of intense love of horses. When I was very young, my three sisters and I took riding lessons. Saturday mornings, we dawned jodphurs and leather boots, rode around and around a ring of sawdust, and then stopped at Seven Eleven for Slurpees on the way home. When I was nine, after much waiting and saving, my parents bought a farm. Finally, we had our own horses. We could ride them on the overgrown trails that snaked out through the woods behind the barn. We could lounge bareback with a book while the horses grazed.
For my mom, this move marked the fulfillment of her own childhood wishes. Every Christmas, she told us, she had begged her parents for a horse, but had to settle instead for a string of Breyer ponies. Her yearning for horses was a palpable part of my childhood, and as an adolescent, I began to recognize in the fulfillment of that yearning, its metaphoric power. It wasn’t surprising that our move to the farm heralded my mother’s return to college and her development of a career as a teacher. Horses were desire. They were imagination. They were autonomy. They were the things that, I was just then beginning to understand, women ultimately have to fashion for themselves.
SR: The poems have very vivid memories and stories. Are they connected to your own personal memories and what made you want to share these certain moments?
JH: The poems are highly autobiographical. My husband Bob (R. Dean Johnson), who himself writes nonfiction, loves to tease me when I give him a new poem to read. He says, “Huh. Why don’t you take the line breaks out of that and submit it to Brevity.” While there is usually a narrative moment to my poems, and these are no exception, it is not story as much as raw, highly sensory imagery which spawns a poem for me. For instance, while “Monsoon Season” recounts the memory of a hike Bob and I did in the San Francisco Peaks, the poem really began with the immediate smell of vanilla rising from wet pine bark.
Once I realized horses could work as an extended metaphor, I did begin actively siphoning imagery around that theme, which led to specific memories such as my sister teaching me to French braid on a horse’s tail.
SR: In your fiction piece, “Expecting,” your descriptions are still very poetic. Is writing fiction more of a challenge for you compared to poems?
JH: I would have to say that fiction is harder for me. Or perhaps it is more fitting to admit that I simply work harder at fiction. My MFA is actually in fiction. Poetry has always been my secondary genre. Because I teach, I dedicate summers to fiction–for several summers in a row, I have been trying to complete a novel. When I feel hung up on the fiction, rather than sitting and fuming with creative wheels spinning, I will open a new file and begin a poem. During the academic year when I teach four classes at a time, it is difficult to drop fully into the world of my fiction, so during the winter I revise fiction and write new poems. I’m grateful to have my poetry because moving back and forth between the two genres releases pressure.
SR: The Language of Horses brings the reader to many different beautiful settings like Virginia, Kansas, and Phoenix. What does traveling offer to the pieces you write?
JH: It’s funny. My dreams take a while to catch up with my actual life. For instance, I have a nine-month-old daughter, but she has yet to appear in my dream life. I moved to Kentucky three years ago, yet my home here has really only just begun to formulate the backdrop of my dreams. I think my writing life works the same way. When I was a student in Arizona I constantly wrote of Virginia and Kansas. When I moved to Oklahoma, I wrote about the desert. Now that I live in Kentucky, I have begun to write about the plains. For me, being away from a place breeds a yearning that is quite productive to the creative process. I like to cultivate that yearning, to play with the power of dislocation.
I think that’s part of the power of low and brief-residency MFA programs such as the one in which I teach at Eastern Kentucky University—they allow emerging writers to feel the beautiful strangeness of a new place and the warm yearning for home that accompanies it. Two years ago, I traveled with students to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and I actually crafted “Expecting” there, sipping espresso each morning in Café Montenegro. This summer, I’ll accompany students to Edinburgh, Scotland. Maybe that trip will help me make progress on my novel.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
JH: It’s winter, so I’m writing poems. I’m working simultaneously on two cycles. One, with the working title Viable, explores motherhood and fertility. The other, Breaking Ground, channels the voices of a fictional couple—Gracie and Nohl—whose marriage dissolves into physical abuse as they build a farmhouse together.
I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book which absolutely blew my mind. In general, I’m a fan of novels-in-stories. (“Expecting” is actually the capstone piece in Landall, a novel-in-stories which I have just begun to circulate.) Egan’s novel is so imaginative. She inhabits the lives of an array of characters so fully, and she balances decades of branching relationships with such flawless, nuanced control. I just began and am thoroughly enjoying Nancy Jensen’s The Sisters, a sweeping novel that moves, through six different perspectives, from 1920s Kentucky to Vietnam era Indiana. I’m also reading collections of poems in preparation for a poetry workshop I’ll be teaching in the spring—this week it’s Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Lie Awake Lake and Claudia Emerson’s Figure Studies.
Michelle Brafman has received numerous awards for her fiction, including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize, and first place in the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest. Her stories have appeared in The Minnesota Review, Blackbird, and Fifth Wednesday Journal, among other places. She teaches fiction writing at George Washington University and the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. Michelle is also an award-winning filmmaker and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children. For more information: www.michellebrafman.com
Superstition Review: Early on in your story “In Flight,” the protagonist says, “…I’m his crazy big sister. I lost too much oxygen at birth. People always want to label me ‘tard’ or PDD or high-functioning this or that, but I’m just Rosie.” The reader later gets a sense of Rosie’s disability through some of the observations she makes, and we, as the reader, understand that she doesn’t understand her surroundings the way her mother and brother do. What was the effect you were aiming for in including the Rosie’s awareness of how people saw her?
Michelle Brafman: I suppose my initial intention was to provide the reader with a sense of Rosie’s disability, but as she emerged as a character, I grew interested in exploring the tension between her uncanny perceptiveness and her inability to interpret social cues. I’d initially written the story from the point of view of Marcus, the more reliable narrator, but it lacked verity. It is Rosie who implores Marcus to jump, to confront his mother’s mortality and the impending reality of his sister’s care, and it is Rosie who intuits that Marcus will need the trampoline, as Esther did, as a release from the weight of his new responsibilities.
SR: In “January” and “Would you Rather?” both of the protagonists suspect that their spouses might be cheating on them. Please discuss the notion of fidelity as a theme in contemporary writing. What makes it popular and interesting?
MB: I don’t know that I’m equipped to speak for an entire genre, but what makes infidelity interesting to me is the way in which it exacerbates a character’s trouble. Writing about “the how” of an affair grows tedious quickly. I’m more interested in why a character seeks such an all-consuming escape and the ripples that form after hurling such an enormous boulder into his or her psychic pond.
SR: I noticed that the character Annabel from “Ripe” reappears in “January,” although as an absent character. If these two stories were to appear together in a collection, which one would come first, and to what effect?
MB: Actually, “Ripe” and “January” belong to a triptych that starts with “The 42,” the first story I published. I wrote “The 42” in response to a variation of an exercise featured in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve further modified this prompt for my students, but it goes something like this: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. Describe this event using three different points of view.
The story cycle begins when a pregnant Annabel takes “The 42” to her old neighborhood for an acupuncturist appointment. Eager to take a break from her husband Leon’s hovering, she declines his ride offer and spends the bus trip reflecting on a less fettered period in her life. “Ripe” picks up after her ex-boyfriend Phil watches her stumble off the bus, and the final story “January” begins after Leon has tracked down Annabel to deliver her misplaced wallet and spots her and Phil walking down the street, sharing an intimate moment of laughter.
SR: I enjoy how your stories are structured and especially how they end. There is no apparent resolution of conflict at the closing of your stories. What is your opinion on what the end of a story should do for a reader?
MB: I appreciate your observation. When I first began writing fiction, I tied up my stories in pretty little bows, often tagging on what I now call the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink: did you get it?” closing line. Bob Bausch, one of my first writing instructors, once said to me that a good ending should resolve the story but not the conflict. His words resonated with me. I like the idea of leaving a story somewhat open for the reader to impose his or her own ideas on what might happen to the characters.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
MB: I’m working on a new novel. It took me months to find a pathway into this project, but my characters are starting to develop minds of their own and are surprising me in all sorts of fun ways.
I’ve enrolled in a course on the unreliable narrator, and I’ve been engrossed in the assigned texts: True Confections by Katharine Weber, the class instructor, Nabokov’s Lolita and What Was She Thinking? (Notes On A Scandal)by Zoe Heller. My daughter and I have also been reading some wonderful YA fiction for a mother-daughter book club. My favorite pick so far has been Claire Vanderpool’s beautifully crafted Moon over Manifest.
Matthew Scott Healy lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife and daughter. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Scottsdale Community College. His work has appeared in Blackbird and Cutbank. His is the recipient of the Finnely Award for Humorous Short Fiction, and his story “Always the Obvious Places” was nominated for storySouth as the most notable story of 2010.
Superstition Review: I’m drawn to the character Emmett in “Always the Obvious Places.” Can you please describe how you came up with a character that would “throw a cactus” just to get away from the police?
Matthew Healy: I like the idea of characters without shame, who hold nothing back. Here is Emmett, a guy with the thumb of law enforcement upon him, yet he maintains this defiant posture of bluster. So many characters are governed by the consequences of their actions, and I wanted to have a character who is the exact opposite. He’s a guy without any permanence in his life, so his refusal to change is his anchor point. He’s also the character the other characters want most to change, but Emmett is so obdurate that by necessity others must do the changing around him.
SR: How did you imagine the life situation for Emmett and family? Where did it come from?
MH: Emmett’s life is about resiliency in a place where nothing is permanent. His job, his living situation, his girlfriend, what kids are around—all of it fluctuates wildly. I’ve known people like Emmett, and what amazes me is their ability to survive in such flux. In the story, Emmett has a somewhat stable living situation, but I imagine him living somewhere else a month before the story begins and somewhere else a month after the story ends. I worked briefly as a probation officer, and so many defendants exist this way, living as nomads. One of my defendants moved from jail to a halfway house. Within a week, he was living with a new girlfriend and her kids (who were already calling him “Dad”). A week later, he moved in with his parents, and then into some apartment with a different girlfriend and her kids. This wasn’t uncommon. I watched people join a family for only a week or two before joining another. The men and women became temporary fathers and mothers—an entire migrating community of interchangeable family members. I think that’s why Emmett can be so lighthearted about Officer Jay and Sgt. Falco’s visit, because their presence is temporary. Eventually, they will go home to other, better parts of the city, away from this vortex of instability, and Emmett will keep moving inside of it.
SR: The location of “Always the Obvious Places” is very vivid. How does place inform your writing?
MH: I grew up next to families who were not far away from Emmett’s circumstances. Actually, they may have been worse. My two best friends living on either side have spent their lives in and out of prison. I still remember the sights and sounds and smells of their houses: dark hallways, navigating through heaps of clothes and trash, looking for a space to play. Blackish-brown carpet that was harder than tile from all the abandoned spills. As a little kid, I was too young to understand or be bothered by such conditions. It just seemed strange and different. Later, when I became a probation officer, my reaction was much different. One of pity and disgust and anger (especially when I found babies and toddlers living in conditions that were squalid, but not enough to warrant intervention by CPS). I felt very much like a tourist lost in a bad part of a foreign city, standing in the living rooms of people and making recommendations on how they should improve their lives.
In “Obvious Places,” the setting influences how the characters behave and what they value. I wanted Emmett’s home to seem tangible and constrictive, yet ephemeral—a place that could be razed to the ground without anyone paying it much mind.
SR: In almost each line of “Always the Obvious Places,” there is a trace of humor. What are some of the difficulties of writing humor? What are the joys? Who are some of your favorite authors who use humor?
MH: I think one of the dangers of humor is becoming seduced by it and sacrificing the story for a few laughs. I didn’t necessary begin “Obvious Places” intending for it to be funny. Instead, the humor was a necessary counterbalance to the very bleak reality of Emmett’s life, which in so many ways is simply tragic. I just realized that one of the worst things anyone can do is analyze humor, so I’ll resist the temptation to dissect it.
Instead, I’ll answer the last part of your question, and mention a few funny writers I admire. I favor wry and subdued humor that’s attached to something much larger and darker, something that’s lurking after the punch-line to shake things up. Along those lines, Sherman Alexie has a wonderfully deadpan humor, and so does Denis Johnson. One of my favorites, though, is Richard Russo. When writing “Obvious Places,” I was actually thinking about Russo’s very funny novel Straight Man. In a strange twist, Russo’s agent contacted me out of the blue after reading “Obvious Places” to tell me he had enjoyed it. I’m still trying to figure out if that means I unintentionally channeled Russo’s voice too much in the story. As I tell my intro creative writing students, after reading someone you love, wait at least an hour before starting to write. What works for eating and swimming might work for reading and writing.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
MH: I just finished revising two short stories as part of a collection, but I’m also about halfway through writing a novel, which has turned out to be the most difficult undertaking of my life. I’m used to writing short stories, which is primarily what I like to read. Right now I’m reading the sizeable collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and most of the stories so far are pretty engaging.
I’m not reading any novels right now, though not for lack of trying. Unless they’re really good, my attention in most novels tends to sputter out after a hundred pages or so—an awful admission for someone who is trying to write one, but it’s true. When I was in Ohio State’s MFA program, we got to meet Michael Chabon, and we discussed the differences in short and long forms. He believes most writers fall into one category or the other, so perhaps I’m just a short form type of guy. (By the way, he admitted to being a long form guy.) This is fine with me, even though there’s no money in writing short stories, but it’s a shame since short fiction is so pristine and every word is so deliberate. I love the necessary ambiguity of short stories—there simply isn’t time to render every detail, so much of the story that orbits the literal prose must happen in the reader’s imagination. Who knows, maybe the dwindling attention spans means a lucrative future for short story writers.
There has been a surge in the number of literary journals that request, review, and publish works online. Many of these have long existed in print form before moving onto the web, but some are recent organizations that take a modern approach to the representation of literature and artwork. We asked our interns for their favorite literary journals. This is the list we compiled, in no particular order.
Front Porch – “Front Porch just feels classy. I love the layout with the stationary background image with the scrolling text box.”
failbetter.com – “This magazine felt really well-suited to the online medium. Every story has a link to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where you can ‘like’ what you’ve read. They have a mobile site, which I think will be increasingly important, and their forward thinking seems to be a strong point.”
Coal Hill Review – “This site has a very professional, sophisticated feel about it and features contests and contest winners in different genres.”
The Adirondack Review – “[This is] a beautiful online site, which is easy to navigate and chock full of great literature.”
The Cafe Irreal– “What I enjoy the most from this simple website is definitely the content. It has many issues and the simple design sets a good aura to the whole website.”
Exquisite Corpse – “I like that the website is not used as a prop to enhance the work – the work is simply good on its own and often in spite of its unprofessional presentation.”
Restless: An Arts Anthology – “They do incredible work formatting the ‘zine for the internet. They work art into the pages so that it’s not a large wall of text, which makes reading both easier and more interesting.”
Electric Literature – “I like that this site is using different media to get literature across to a wider audience than print alone can. The site is visually stimulating and you can read it on any medium – computer, smartphone, tablet.”
Blackbird – “I enjoy that Blackbird is so academic. There are a great many reviews and academic essays published in every issue that hardly ever fail to be interesting and educational.”