Guest Post, Elizabeth Sheets: The Illusion of Ascending

dad readsI’ve always been a reader. I don’t know if this is my parents’ fault or not. Recently I found a crayon drawing and questionnaire book I made when I was in elementary school. On one of the pages it asks what my parents do during the day while I’m at school. My answers were: My Dad builds Rockets. My Mom sits on the couch all day and reads love stories. I don’t think that was entirely true, I mean, my Dad read books too. In any case, I do remember that prior to puberty, trips to the mall were exciting for two reasons: first, because I could climb up and sit in the conversion vans in the car dealership that was actually in our mall; and second, we got to go to Walden Books. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t buy a lot of new books there, but it was a thrill just to be there and look around. I knew that eventually the books on those shelves would find their way to our city library.

As a kid, I was fairly well read. Once I got beyond Dr. Seuss, I enjoyed Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scott O’Dell, Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and of course, Judy Blume. There are a few in that list some might consider literary, but many fall into the category of good old genre fiction. I still have many of them because I saved them for my children. And now I’m saving them for my grandchildren, because I don’t think I was as successful as my parents were at passing down the love of literature.

As I got older, I dove harder into genre writing. Once I could get books from the library that didn’t have the purple dot on them, my literary world was blown wide open. I devoured everything from Jean Auel, Piers Anthony, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Some of these authors I still read today. Because they’re good, and because I can get lost in the worlds they bring to my mind’s eye.

Once I started my degree program, my literary world was blown open again. Even with all of the reading in my youth, there was much that I missed. Memoirs? Whatever were those? Well, all of those English Lit classes filled me in, and filled me up to the brim with writing on every social topic I could imagine, and a few more besides.

Writing classes and workshops introduced me to the short story, and the idea that writers who don’t get paid are somehow of more value than those who do. I’m not much for martyrs, but I bought in. In my few years in school, my professors helped nurture in me a love of the short story, and an appreciation for the craft of drawing them out of myself and others. And so now, my private library grows full of chapbooks and short story collections. To my list of favorite authors I’m adding Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Matt Bell, Dan Chaon, Tara Ison, Margaret Atwood, and so many more.

But for all my education, and my editorship with a literary magazine, and my degree in English and Creative Writing… I still read Anne Rice. In fact, she might just be my very favorite person ever (not that I know her personally, but I do follow her on Facebook, so I feel like that counts… anyway).

I’m reminded of this funny thing that happened recently.

modest houseMy husband and I raised our children in a suburban neighborhood of the sprawling Phoenix Metropolitan Area. We had a modest income, and a modest house. We drove practical cars, and our kids went to public schools. There was a house of worship a half mile in any direction from our house. Our neighbors were diverse. To the east was a family of folks who spoke little English, had obnoxious barking dogs, and always had parties in the front yard instead of the back. To the south were the drug dealers. The husband rode a very noisy Harley and cut his entire lawn holding a Weedwacker in one hand and a beer in the other. His wife had no teeth and only wore a bra on Sundays. (I guess they weren’t very good drug dealers.)

We lived in that house 15 years, and our kids came up just fine.

And just a couple of months ago, we moved. Since our income has doubled, so has our mortgage and the square footage of our new house. Our new block is glorious. The neighbors all cut their grass on Wednesdays, and everyone drives a new car. There are bunnies and quail everywhere, and no one parks in their lawn.

School just started a couple weeks ago, and as I was driving past the elementary school on my way back from my morning Starbucks run, I noted that the crossing guard drives a Jaguar. A Jaguar.

This is it, I thought, we have definitely arrived. All of that hard work, education, ladder climbing, etc., has all paid off. Finally. Now we can live among the educated folk. People like us. Cultured people. People who read. If the people across the street are drug dealers, well they’re damn good ones because their kids drive BMWs.

And then I turned down our street. It was a Thursday. Blue barrel pick up day. About three houses in, out came a neighbor down his drive way, pushing his barrel out to the curb. He was wearing a pair of very snug fitting, bright red boxer briefs. His hairy belly was spilling over the waistband, and his tangled bedhead hair pointed in all directions from his unshaven face. He looked up as I drove past. Smiled.

I about choked on my chai.

But it’s okay. I’m glad I saw him. It’s a great reminder: there’s room on the block for everyone.  He cuts his grass, he parks in the garage. Maybe his wife builds rockets.

#SRIssue16: An Interview with Karen Bender

benderKaren Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, published by Counterpoint Press in 2015; it is a Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, and is on the shortlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize; it was also a Los Angeles Times bestseller. She is also the author of Like Normal People, (Houghton Mifflin) which was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and A Town of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint Press). 

Her short fiction has appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Story, Narrative, The Harvard Review, Guernica, and The Iowa Review. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, and New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best and have won two Pushcart prizes. Two of her stories have been read in the Selected Shorts program on NPR.

On December 1st you can read our interview with Karen Bender in the Launch of our 16th Issue.

 

The London Magazine

The London MagazineThe London Magazine is the UK’s oldest cultural and literary journal featuring the best original poetry, short stories, cultural reviews and literary essays since 1732.
For 280 years, The London Magazine has been an indispensable feature on the British cultural landscape. Responsible for publishing some of the most significant literature in British history from Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats to T. S. Eliot, today it remains at the forefront with the best contemporary writing.

Our most recent contributors and features include Edward Lucie-SmithAvant-Garde – what Avant-Garde?Peter Abbs Eating from the Tree of Paradise: The Apprenticeship of Carl Jung, Eamonn Gearon On Arabs and Ignorance, Michael Horovitz, Postcard from Ireland as well as poetry from the Costa Prize Winner Christopher Reid and Orange Prize Winner,Helen Dunmore.

Don’t miss out on this essential addition to your reading featuring new and established writers. Simply visit: www.thelondonmagazine.org to subscribe today. Published bi-monthly, we are currently offering an introductory 6 month, 3 issue offer for just £25 (includes postage to US). Alternatively you can purchase an ebook version of our current and past issues from amazon direct.

Interviews with BatCat Press and Kevin Haworth

During AWP 2013, Superstition Review had the pleasure of meeting a small press called BatCat Press. They publish soft cover, but mostly hardcover works of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and mixed media. However, they welcome all genres and encourage authors of all ages to submit work. What’s unique about BatCat is that they hand-bind all of their publications. You can view their process here. They have published a wide variety of authors some of whom are graphic artists, teachers, and award-winning authors including Kevin Haworth who I had the opportunity to interview about his experience with BatCat Press and his essay collection they published, Far Out All My Life.

Mai-Quyen Nguyen: What drove you to submit Far Out All My Life to BatCat Press?

Kevin Haworth: This is kind of embarrassing, but when I was three years old I had a gray striped kitten that I named Batcat. I had a photo of him that was taped inside my metal lunchbox and I looked at it while I ate lunch each day at preschool. (I was kind of a lonely child.) He grew up to be a very loyal, if not terribly clever, cat and lived a wonderful life until a truck backed over him in our driveway. Really! So when I saw the name BatCat Press it grabbed my attention, and the more I learned about the press the more intrigued I was. I loved the idea of a small press operating out of a charter performing arts school. I have a colleague who grew up in Midland, where the school is located, and all his stories about the town paint it as pretty grim. When I ultimately visited the BatCat students, once my collection of essays had been accepted, I found the town to be as low-rent as advertised, and the school all the more amazing for it. It’s a remarkable place, full of life and creativity.

MQN: Can you describe the publication process with BatCat Press? How did you decide on the cover of your essay collection?

KH: First of all, Deanna Mulye and the students designed the cover. They designed everything about the physical look of the book, and it’s quite an accomplishment. The whole book is assembled by hand, so no two covers are exactly alike. I met the student whose hand served as the handprint for the cover (she held up her hand for a high-five) and I saw photos of the assembly process. It looked like the world’s most fantastic sweatshop—all these students in a row, putting the parts together.

The publication process was a joy. I worked with a student named Maria Capelli, who was the lead editor on my book. She’s in college now. We tossed some ideas back and forth about the order of the essays, and there were a couple of minor adjustments that we made to the text to be sensitive to the fact that the book is published by a high school. But there’s a lot of stuff in it that others might consider controversial in that setting—a whole essay, in fairly graphic terms, about a newborn’s circumcision, for example—and they welcomed all of that. They’re a very mature and sophisticated group of students.

MQN: I rather enjoy that they bind all of their publications by hand, and I understand now that they designed everything physically. My question is, then, did you give any input on the cover through the process? How involved were you in what the cover looked like? I’ve read that major publishing companies can sometimes disregard the author’s comments on their covers.

KH: Regarding your question about the cover: While publishers often consult their authors about the covers, in this case, I knew that BatCat Press brought a sense of innovation and beauty to their cover designs and that the cover was an integral part of the book’s overall design. So I left it in their hands, and they did a wonderful job.

MQN: What drew you to the form of innovative, experimental nonfiction for this collection of essays?

KH: I had been reading a lot of innovative nonfiction over the years, books like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing. I was really drawn to the way that these authors mixed different kinds of material—sometimes personal, sometimes scholarly, sometimes historical—and the way they put them next to each other, without apology. Writing about a Jewish life, as many of these essays do, is a deep process. Jewish history looms large, as does the many forms of Jewish observance. I wanted a style of writing that reached beyond just my own life and recognized all these different forces that work upon us everyday, layers of history, geography, identity. So this is my attempt to bring all those elements into the essays all at once.

MQN: How long did it take you to write this collection?

KH: About three years. I started submitting the individual essays to literary journals and there was a lot of enthusiasm for them—they’ve appeared in journals such as Witness, Fourth Genre, Harpur Palate, Copper Nickel—really wonderful journals to be in. Once I realized that I had a critical mass of essays with enough links between them, about four or five, I started writing with a little more intention toward making a book. I received a ten-week residency to Headlands Center for the Arts, near San Francisco, and I did a lot of work there to write some of the longer essays and to knit the book together.

MQN: What do you like best about BatCat Press?

KH: There’s a lot to like about BatCat. They have creative, dedicated teachers, led by Deanna. They have a bright-eyed enthusiasm. They believe in art. I want my children to grow up to be just like little BatCats.

Staffed and operated by Deanna Mulye and the students of Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, PA, BatCat Press seek to publish two new titles every year, accepting submissions of complete manuscripts, which include collections of short pieces, novels, novellas, poems, and stories. In addition to Kevin, I had the chance to interview Deanna about BatCat.

Mai-Quyen Nguyen: When, why, and by whom was BatCat Press established?

Deanna Mulye: BatCat was founded in 2009, and it began as a class at Lincoln Park Peforming Arts Charter High School, where I was teaching bookbinding classes as an elective option for students in the literary arts program. There was a great deal of interest in these classes, so much so that we (program director Dan LeRoy and myself) decided that we wanted to find a way for students to parlay both their creative writing and bookbinding skills on a larger scale. Establishing a small press for the students to run seemed like the natural direction, and so we pitched the idea to the students and off it went. In the beginning it was a huge experiment, as none of us had any experience with small presses or behind-the-scenes of publishing, but we found our footing very quickly. There is a lot more to the story, of course, but I think I’ll stop it here.

BatCat meets as a class three times a week during the school year (and very frequently after school during certain times of the year). The staff changes yearly as students graduate, and I am the “teacher” or “managing editor,” depending on the context. All students who are on staff are required to have taken classes in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, critical reading, and bookbinding (they are usually upperclassmen, but occasionally sophomores qualify).

MQN: What inspired you to hand-bind all of your publications?

DM: I guess this was kind of addressed in my last answer – it’s not so much an inspiration to do so as it is an impulse and a shared interest among the staff members. We love the freedom that making books by hand gives us in terms of design. We want to produce books that aren’t just for reading, but for experiencing, and hand-binding has allowed us to do some pretty unique things with the physical structure that would be hard to achieve otherwise.

MQN: Can you briefly describe the bookbinding process?

DM: When we select a manuscript for publication and head into the process of book design, we ask the question, “What is the best way this work could possibly be presented? What is its ideal physical form?” and go from there. Size and binding style is usually our starting point, and from there we move on to structure, layout, and then cover design. We usually make a number of mock-ups, trying out different design ideas and to test materials, which we keep doing till we have what we want.

Once we know what the final design is and what materials we are using, we make the books assembly line style. The actual process for making each book can vary wildly from title to title, but it always involves a lot of cutting, folding, sewing, and gluing. Last year we also spent a lot of time painting, as the covers for both Far Out All My Life and Snowmen Losing Weight are all individually colored/specked. We’ll be doing something similar for this year’s projects as well.

MQN: Do you collaborate with the author on his/her book cover?

DM: Not usually, only when an author expresses interest in doing so, and even then we reserve final design approval.

MQN: What is the origin of the name BatCat Press?

DM: When the idea for a small press was being floated, our department was located in the basement of a (very old) library that had a door that led directly outside. It was a unique space, but also led to some weird interactions. That spring we were making handmade paper for the school’s literary journal and the door was left ajar – and we had visitors. One day we discovered a bat (he was hanging out next to a blender full of paper pulp) and a few days later, two kittens wandered over and spent the day with us (and that was one of the best days EVER, of course).

A week or so later we were brainstorming for press names and we got to that point in the process where everyone was just pointing at things and tacking “Press” onto the end. Someone suggested BatCat, and it just seemed right, so we went with it.

MQN: Aside from your handmade covers and books, what sets you apart from other magazines?

DM: We’re not afraid of work that doesn’t fall into a conventional category, and we’re not hyper-focused on any single style or genre. The staff changes every year and so do their preferences, so we leave our submissions guidelines wide open and read everything, looking for what feels right. This might not be particularly helpful for those looking for cues on what to submit to us, but I think the advantage for our authors is that we are extremely invested in the material and will go to great lengths to “do it right.”

Additionally, we look for work that we think will be of interest to a broad audience, not just other writers, which is how I sometimes feel about other journals/presses. Since we’re housed in a high school, we want our books to not only be of a very high literary quality, but also accessible to our most immediate audience: students studying other disciplines, their friends, and their families (and, of course, our alumni, many of whom have gone on to study writing at the college level).

MQN: I can see that a great deal of time and effort goes into publishing two original titles. What are some of your brief and long-term goals as a small press?

DM: Our perpetual goal is to give the students a great experience. It’s a lot of hard work and being on staff can be extremely demanding, but ultimately the press was created to give students the chance to do what they want to do and what they think is right, which is something I try to keep in the back of my mind at all times.

One of our brief goals is to publish some fiction! So far we just haven’t found the right piece or collection, but every year it’s come up as something we’d like to see happen. Maybe next year. For the long term, as long as there is student interest in the press, we will continue to exist – hopefully for a long time. Every year we’ve received more submissions and made more sales, and hopefully this trend continues.

MQN: You have a section called Collaborations on your Publications page—with whom have you collaborated?

DM: The website really needs some revision… this section was created years ago when we thought we’d be doing more outside collaboration, but it has not yet come to pass, although it’s still not out of the question!

Follow BatCat Press on Facebook and Twitter, and peruse their website at www.batcatpress.com. You may find yourself wanting one of their handmade journals or sketchbooks.

You can also purchase Kevin Haworth’s collection of essays, and other works BatCat has published, at their online store.

Guest Blog Post, William J. Cobb: On the Road, Writing in My Head

So I’m currently on a mini-book tour of Texas, although I don’t know if “mini” ever applies to much in Texas, since this wee ramble over the interstate prairie includes 3,000-plus miles of driving in 12 days. That’s a lot of hours of sitting behind the steering wheel, staring at the road, driving on mental autopilot, working on my next novel—in my head. As a young writer, just starting out, I used to write every day religiously, believing that constant work is the key to success, which it is. But now I value more the thinking-time: If I know what I want to say, I can usually find the time to sit down and say it. The “constant work” is complex, and involves more than writing that next scene of, say, a 35-year-old woman holding a teenage boy hostage, whom she caught tom-peeping her, and whom she shot. But now she has to dress his wounds, feed and care for him, and decide how to return him to his father, who scares her, who she thinks is abusing the boy. To add to that complexity, I’m currently promoting my novel The Bird Saviors, just out this summer, and have a deadline of November 1 for the final draft of a new book of short stories, which already has a publisher. All that is fine and dandy, but what I really want to do is write the new one, tentatively titled The Lost Person. (That may change. The title, I mean. I tend to come up with a dozen/20 titles before throwing up my hands in despair and choosing Contestant Number One, or whatever sounds good that day. My first title was The Donkey Woman. Then I thought: Hmmm. That may give the wrong impression. And the first words you see on a book shouldn’t give a wrong impression, right?)

When I don’t have the time to sit down and write, it seems I’m often driving. I drive and think, What should happen next? This woman is nicknamed The Tooth Fairy by the boy, because she looks like what he imagines the Tooth Fairy would, if the TF were real. She works at a bar/restaurant, and she hates drinkers and eaters. She constantly sees the big bellies and pink faces of Good Time Charlies, and she’s developed a decidedly sour view of mankind. Should the boy’s father be one of her customers? (Probably.) Should he make a pass at her? (Hmmm. Probably not. But maybe.) What about the boy’s mother? What happens if the father thinks someone else has abducted his son, and is certain he knows the identity of his abductor, but he’s wrong? What would he do? (I suspect this part will end very, very badly.)

What I see on the road often ends up in my fiction: In an early scene of The Bird Saviors, an ornithologist picks up a dead hawk’s body on the roadside (did that). On a recent trip I snapped this photo of what appears to be a unicorn, but what I guess to be a rather unusual white donkey. I’m betting that beast makes a cameo appearance in The Lost Person, or whatever it ends up being called—The Donkey Princess, maybe. Because wherever there’s a unicorn, a princess has to be waiting in the wings.

Guest Post, Colleen Stinchcombe: Are Short Stories the Future of Publishing?

Enter a commercial bookstore – say, Barnes and Noble – and take a look at the display sections. Likely what you will find are different novel-length books, be it fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, or young adult. Enter the shelves and, if you search a little, you will be able to find collections of short stories by some particularly well-known authors, or maybe an entire section devoted to short-story form. For many amateur writers there is a sense that one starts writing short stories only to better understand the structure of a story, but “real writing,” successful writing, involves novels. Short stories are a way of getting one’s name known to better sell a novel later, or a way of generating ideas and themes that will eventually show up in a later novel.

This is not to say that short stories are not an often-used form, but rather that they are not marketed or praised with as much enthusiasm as novels. Book clubs, college essays, even library shelves are more likely to be promoting novels than short fiction.

Is that still true? There are thousands of literary magazines with focus on short stories across the country, and MFA Creative Writing programs are bursting at the seams with hopeful writers – most who are learning to write short stories as their primary craft. Almost three weeks ago, Junot Diaz, an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel released not another novel but a book of short stories. It is currently fifth on the New York Times Bestseller list for hardcovers. A book of short stories selling well to the general public.

Other writers are taking this risk as well. Emma Donaghue was a finalist for the Man Booker prize for her best-selling novel Room, and recently she released a collection of short stories named Astray. No longer are short stories something authors do until they can get a book deal – now the short stories are book deals in themselves.

Olive Kitteridge is a best-selling “novel in stories” by Elizabeth Strout – a marketing tool that has been popular lately. Is it a collection of short stories with a central character, or is it a novel separated into different stories? Likely, in the interest of a more mainstream readership, the publisher decided to market it as a novel.

For many readers, short stories are a form used only for convenience in classroom settings or slipped into magazines they were already reading, but this is beginning to change. The market is finding more and more value in short stories and the public is beginning to recognize and buy these collections. Is their smaller form easier to finish in our busy-bee lifestyles? Are they better suited to our oft-thought shrinking attention spans? Is it a result of a plethora of talented short story artists coming out of MFA programs? Or perhaps the many different places to find short stories – literary magazines, collections of prize-winners, e-books, online?

The makeup and background of literature is changing, from MFA programs to e-books. It will be interesting to see if novels soon become less ubiquitous and short stories more popular and accessible. In a few more years, will bookstores be selling out of popular short story collections more often than popular novels?

Intern Highlight: Winona Manrique

Content Coordinator Winona Manrique is a senior at Arizona State University. She will graduate Spring 2012 with a BA in English Literature. Her short story “Back to the Hearth” won the 2011 Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Award for 2nd place in Fiction. Originally from Connecticut, she plans to move to New York City to pursue a career in publishing and one day become a published author. This is her first semester at Superstition Review.

Click here to hear Winona read one of her short stories.

Interview with Matthew Healy

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.