Today we are featuring Lynn Mundell for our Authors Talk. Lynn speaks about how she came up with the idea for her short story, “Again.”
Lynn got the idea for the story from a photograph. The picture was black and white and had a young man with a golf club in one hand and a baby in the other hand. Lynn saw the baby and wanted to run with the idea of an old soul. Lynn talks much further about her creative process, and the literary magazine she helped to found,100 Word Stories.
“Again” can be read here in Issue 17 of Superstition Review.
Congratulations to past contributor Lynn Mundell, who’s story “Again” has earned its way onto the Wigleaf “Top 50 Very Short Fiction” longlist for 2017. “Again” was published in Issue 17 of Superstition Review. Click here to read Lynn’s story. Click here to check out the Wigleaf’s prestigious list of great short fiction.
Today we are pleased to feature author Abby Horowitz as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Abby discusses the development of her piece, “I Want Her to Burn Me Forever,” published in Issue 18. She explains how it began as a very different (and much longer) story before she decided to shift the focus from the bride to her partner. With this shift in focus, she began to explore the question, “What does it mean to enter into this long-term relationship with someone who is complicated?”
Abby also discusses the value of writing shorter short stories, as well as the importance of detaching yourself from your piece in order to “get messy and play around and throw things away and cut…and just have fun.”
Co-presented by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Changing Hands Bookstore brings author of The Sympathizer 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen to Phoenix. Nguyen will talk about his new short story collection The Refugees at Changing Hands Bookstore’s Phoenix location (300 W. Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013) on Thursday, April 20th, 2017 at 7 p.m.
The Refugees is a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. It is a collection of stories written over a period of twenty years, exploring questions of immigration, identity, love, and family.
Today we are pleased to feature author Sherril Jaffe as our Authors Talk series contributor. Sherril discusses her opinions on art and its relationship to character. In particular, she explains the multifaceted purpose of art and how it is interested in the truth, which is currently under assault.
She also discusses the nature of the short story as an art form, referring to her piece in Issue 18, “During the Republican Convention.” She reveals that short stories are powerful because they can break all the rules, and she emphasizes that “a short story should crack something open in us.”
Today we are pleased to feature author Mathew Michael Hodges as our Authors Talk series contributor. Interestingly, Mathew begins his podcast by discussing how he used to feel claustrophobic in the confines of the short story form, though he has now become “more comfortable in the cozy space of the short story.”
Mathew goes on to describe the variety of ways that his ideas come to him. Specifically, he discusses the process of building “A Sound Man,” which was featured in Issue 18 of Superstition Review. For Mathew, the story started with Rory’s job as a sound designer before the other layers of the story fell into place. Mathew also offers insights regarding the creative process and revision. He describes his “write-and-stash method,” which has helped him be more objective when revising.
A writer friend was visiting from North Carolina. She is a country girl, lived—at the time—in an Airstream in the woods. She posts online pictures of her view sometimes (not too far from civilization to have access to WiFi) and it couldn’t be more different from mine. Trees, dense and green, mountains and untended ground cover. Me, I have trees out my window, too, the third floor of a six-flat in Andersonville on Chicago’s Northside. One tree grows so close to the building that squirrels jump from its branches to a ledge outside our window, dash across to where they can vault to the flat roof of the duplex next door. It drives our cat Pablo insane, this run of squirrels on the other side of the glass, close enough to make eye contact. The wild he can see and too, the wild it sparks in him. Philip (my husband) and I have come to call this Squirrel Highway, and we watch the show of it from our seats in the sunroom.
We—Philip, Pablo and I—live on a Chicago side street, a place of multi-family buildings and the occasional single-family house, small strips of grass that are not quite yards. Mostly sidewalk and street out front. Cars parked bumper to bumper, except when it snows, and then, between the cars covered in heaps of white powder, shoveled-clean spots with kitchen chairs and garbage bins and yellow police-type tape (we can buy it at the Ace Hardware down the block) stretched between broom handles sticking up in the snow. “Dibs”, we Chicagoans call this practice. As in: “I was up in the early morning dark and subzero Chicago winter weather to shovel this small patch of territory out, buddy. I call dibs.”
But this time when my friend visits, it is autumn, early autumn, and the trees are still leafy and the air is only slightly chilled and we have gone out for a walk to my favorite bookstore three blocks away. Women & Children First, an independent that despite the odds (Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon) has been in operation since 1979.
We are strolling, in no real hurry, book-talking and catching up. The city bustle is behind us back on Clark Street where it never seems to stop: buses, a taxi garage open 24 hours, bars and restaurants (fine and casual), firetrucks with lights and sirens going, a small (wonderful) bodega that sells both PBR and craft beer, fresh produce and canned vegetables, expensive organic and gluten free stuff, toilet paper and brightly colored hard candies in plastic packaging labeled with Spanish words or Asian lettering.
On my street, a small branch of Chicago’s famous grid system, there isn’t much going on. Middle of the day in the middle of the week. Ahead of us, a half-block away maybe, is an animal walking off-leash on the sidewalk.
Dog, I think, and maybe say. A little irritated because it is without a human, and I have once been bitten badly in this city by an off-leash, un-humanned, “friendly” dog.
“I don’t think that’s a dog,” my friend says. The animal, large, gray, slows ahead of us, sniffs things. It looks a little ragged. We cross to the other side of the road, watching.
“Coyote.” She says. Or I do.
This neighborhood used to be called Uptown, but in Chicago the borders of these places are movable, depending on realtor input. Uptown was a little scary when I was growing up, gangs, poverty and territorial divisions that made some people angry, made some dangerous. Now though, after years of encroaching gentrification little by little, we call it Andersonville, like they call the more desirable blocks with big houses and pretty graystone two-flats a quarter mile away on the north side of Foster Avenue, long ago home to working families of Swedish descent. It is a satisfyingly diverse neighborhood these days, a little grubby and a little grand, and I’ve lived here close to ten years.
I pass my neighbors as I walk along my street on the way to the El in the mornings. There is the paid dog walker with dreadlocks and a red hoodie and five pooches of various sizes pulling in different directions on their leashes. “Morning,” I say. “Yup,” he says. There are the two Asian women who tend their gardens in front of the apartment building three doors down from mine, squatting low and pulling weeds, pushing their wide-brimmed hats back from their foreheads to answer when I say hello. And there is the Cambodian Buddhist monk walking toward me, his saffron robes flapping at his legs. “Good morning,” I say, and make eye contact. The first time I did this, he looked slightly startled, although not displeased. “Mmm mmm,” he said in response, not sure of his English yet, or maybe not sure of me. He looked quickly away. That was a few months ago. Now, after almost daily passings, he holds my gaze, says clearly and with a smile, “Good morning.” Sometimes even before I do. There is the man who lives down the street in the two-flat where a Princess Leia (rest in peace) poster facing outward used to hang in the front, first floor window; he wears bottle-thick glasses and sits on his front stoop with a mug of coffee in his hands and nods when I say hi, smiles like we might really (after ten years) know one another. We don’t, despite how close we live to one another; I don’t know any of my neighbors, but I have watched them and imagined (and occasionally written) their stories for years.
My writer friend who lives in the country is a traveler. She has driven all over the United States, lived in different parts of it for weeks at a time, writing, writing, writing. She is one of those writers who does not believe the old adage “write what you know,” but instead is inclined to “write what you want to know, write what you can learn, write what you discover.” It is her curiosity that informs her writing, that makes it strongest. It is as if the writer in her is not fully satisfied with only what she sees out her window every morning.
I thought, when I started this piece, that it was going to be about writing, about craft. That coyote, I thought, unexpected and slightly exotic on the city sidewalk, was going to be a metaphor for the wild possibilities in even the most pedestrian (sidewalk, get it?) of stories. The extraordinary in the ordinary. And maybe it is that. But as happens with all of my writing, I don’t really know what it is about until I have written it. So let me see.
My writer friend and I stand still near the grass on our side of the street and the coyote swivels his big head toward us. He is a handsome boy (or girl) with a sharp snout that looks almost more feline than dog-like; he reminds me of our skinny Pablo: pointy face, ribs like framework showing under his coat, impressively long tail. We don’t move nor does he, a game of chicken on opposite sides of the road, only despite this wild sighting, my friend and I aren’t afraid. We know somehow, there is no danger here. Wild is not always dangerous. Then a battered-up car with a rubber-band engine passes between us and him, and when we look again, the animal is gone.
I have written this moment over and over again in my journal. Looked at it from all angles. A couple on a first date in a short story see the coyote at night, his wildness sends them into an alley where they press against one another against the wall of a building, breathing heavily and biting one another’s shoulders. A mother, already overly protective, in another short story sees the coyote and keeps her kindergartener out of school for the day. And then for the week. And then for the month. She lies to her husband when he goes to work in the morning. Sometimes, I write it simply like this: I saw a coyote today. On the sidewalk. I saw a coyote. A coyote.
I think I want it to be a sign, this sighting. Something that tells me something else I do not yet know. I haven’t yet figured out what that is, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting. From wondering.
And so maybe this is not a piece just about writing, but about the yearning toward wonder. (Or are those the same things?) About how living in this crowded place in the city, where noise and bustle is just a block away, makes me wonder daily—like a writer should. Who are you? I wonder when I stand on the Argyle El stop platform on an early Saturday morning and a woman in a midnight-colored, shimmering sari and a yellow down jacket stands shivering under the heat lamps; when, at noon, two tuxedoed men holding hands (obviously in love) climb aboard the 22 bus heading toward downtown. When I hear the sounds of what might be prayer from the Cambodian Buddhist Temple down the block. What are you saying? When a coyote walks casually down my city street. Where are you going? How did you get here? What is your story?
It is winter now, and the snow has begun to fall in the city. I hear outside my window the sound of shoveling, of making a “dibs” spot. I hear those sounds I will hear over and over again after the long Chicago’s winter, car wheels spinning and spinning and spinning, engines gunning. That stuck sound. People trying to get out. And when that happens, I understand that, too. Escape. Escape. Like my writer friend in the woods did so often. Like the coyote did when we had our heads turned. Escape. Escape this place where after months of cold and snow I sometimes fear my wonder will freeze over.
But just a couple of days ago it was autumn, at least that’s what it felt like, chilly but not cold, the earth warm enough to still be green. Where my friend lives in North Carolina, there is a drought, there are wildfires. The view from where she lives now, I imagine, is still pretty, but there is smoke at its edges and the ground cover is brown, dead. Her view, like mine, like all good views, must keep changing. A couple of days ago, it was windy here in the city, bits of paper were strewn in the grass and the gutters, advertisements for cleaning ladies, menus for delivery, homework on loose leaf blown from the clutches of children, other scraps blown from where they had been slipped under windshield wipers, or into mail slots or in the diamonds of metal fences. Now the snow has covered the scattered debris. It is white outside, the snow making everything new again, clean: streets and sidewalks and front stoops, and all the places in between.
If I stand up from behind my writing desk and look out the window, I might see the Asian women and the man in thick glasses shoveling their sidewalks. I might see the Cambodian Buddhist monk walking briskly down the street toward the bodega, his saffron robes flying out from under his parka, his rubber boots covering his bare legs almost to his knees. There will be small, wild footprints out there, too, in the strips of yards, in the middle of the street. The dog-walker has been through, probably. The squirrels.
Today, we here at the Superstition Review are emptying out the valves and shining the brass so that we can properly trumpet the release of Michelle Ross’ debut collection of stories There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You. This collection has already garnered a list of accolades and praise that you can really march to, most importantly the honor of the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Michelle Ross was featured in our 17th issue wherein she provided us with “Stories People Tell.” That story and many more are all contained in her There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, which has been hailed by critics and readers alike as “fearless,” “exceptional,” and “the kind [of stories] I want tattooed on my skin.”
To pre-order this fantastic collection of stories, click here.
To learn more about Michelle Ross and her work, visit here website here.
Hiding in Plain Sight: How Ambient Noise and Clutter Feed a Story
We’ve spent an hour and a half with them at this point, with repeated eruptions—Martha savaging her husband, George setting off timed explosions from his store of resentments. Then suddenly: the voices go silent, no sign of George and Martha, of Nick and Honey, the bested guests. Moonlight through tree branches, a yard we see from above, as if from a bedroom window. In the background, stringed instruments, serene. Then Martha’s voice calling for the others and, before Elizabeth Taylor appears onscreen, the sound of ice cubes in her drink, something we’ve been hearing since the opening scene: director Mike Nichols’ brilliant use of ambient noise.
The dialogue dazzles, of course, thanks to Edward Albee, in this case so perfectly delivered that sometimes as I watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—at least a dozen times I’ve indulged the pleasure of this viewing—I take the words, the execution, for granted and marvel at what the director is doing to riff on what the words are getting at. In the scene referenced above, I am not surprised to hear ice cubes clinking before the camera reaches Martha, meandering drunkenly across the yard to her car. The camera has not followed the station wagon here from the foursome’s drunken dancing excursion, but it feels as if we’ve seen the inebriate braking—front tires up over the curb at an angle so that the vehicle lists slightly, passenger-side turn signal winking, winking, winking, rear passenger door flopped open. Nichols doesn’t waste the turn signal. Martha staggers around the car, opens the driver’s door, reaches in, and the turn signals wink back and forth between each other before they blink out. Martha wanders the yard, then, calling out intermittently, her drink glass clinking the while. Finally, the screenplay gives a nod to what the director is doing: Martha says, “Clink. Clink.”
I recommend “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to fiction writers. Consider it a tutorial in the uses of your characters’ environment, the details of their surroundings—indoor clutter, appliances, items of food and drink, features of the outdoor landscape, sounds so common (clinking ice cubes, anyone?) a writer might overlook them, and so forth. Always in this film there are things for George and Martha and Nick and Honey to do while they speak the language of wreckage.
In what is for me the funniest moment, Elizabeth Taylor leans into a cluttered refrigerator, opened by Richard Burton, grabs a drumstick from a platter of chicken sitting inside uncovered, grabs a salt shaker from the messy table Burton is clearing, salts and devours her piece of chicken, her mouth open as she chews, talking around mouthfuls. Then the perfect capstone: Taylor returns to the refrigerator, still open, tosses the chicken bone onto the same platter, and shuts the door, all without pausing in her run-on monologue about a movie Martha can’t remember the title of. We see a woman, her husband, their relationship, their way of life here. If you didn’t know a word of English, the details would tell you all you need to know.
A decade ago, I took a weekend fiction workshop with Daniel Mueller, author of the stunning short story collection How Animals Mate. Our focus was landscape, Mueller’s mantra:
Let the landscape of your story tell your story.
If a story stalls, look around. Something in your story’s landscape, its environment, will get it moving again.
As an exercise, Mueller asked participants to picture an odd item, oddly out of place in its setting. We went around the workshop table then, each participant volunteering such an item, all of us recording the items on our own list. Our assignment was to select an out-of-place item from the list and write a scene for it.
I chose a wristwatch buckled to the branch of a tree. I already had fragments for a story about a boy named Berndt whose father has committed suicide. For Daniel’s assignment, I imagined that Berndt’s father had taken off his watch on the morning of his suicide and buckled it to a mesquite tree branch before slashing his wrists. The scene I wrote was set several weeks later. Berndt is on his way to feed pigs on the family farm, when morning sun flashes off the crystal of his deceased father’s missing watch. Berndt unfastens the watch and beats it against the mesquite trunk until the crystal smashes, crying and cursing his father. This scene became the closing scene in a story about a mysterious watch and the riddle of a father who owned it. My challenge was to make the watch real and then to build a story around it, leading to the father’s suicide and his son’s subsequent discovery of the watch buckled to a tree.
What might have been peripheral, unimportant, became the story’s vehicle. The story of a watch becomes the story of a difficult father. A son puzzling over the watch itself provides a way of expressing an inner life that is not accessible to or expressible by the son himself. I loved writing this story, loved unfurling the watch’s story, letting the watch carry the bigger story of son and father. Unanswered questions about the watch stand in for unanswered questions about the father. The discovery of the watch, in the closing scene, provides a believable stimulus, without sentimentality, for the protagonist’s anger, his grief. When I was done, the watch even provided a title, “Center Wheel, Balance Wheel, Escape Wheel” (available at Prime Number).
This approach carries one of my first published stories, “In the Garden,” online right here at Superstition Review. A husband and wife converse over breakfast in their backyard. By increments, without intending to, they say things that can’t be taken back, irreparably damaging their marriage. Talking heads cannot carry a short story, at least not one I am capable of writing, so early on, a mockingbird sings out from a live oak near the breakfast table. Then the household tomcat slinks in from the creek. Turns out his name is Tyger, which opens a window onto the protagonist and his wife. The yard has room for a tomato garden, the wife’s—and a pesky squirrel hanging out among the cages. A newspaper at center table has a photo of Ronald Reagan above the fold, spurring an exchange that gives away the year—1982—when the husband says, “Look on the bright side. Two more years and we’ll vote him out.” The husband has a bit of a thing for his best friend; the wife suspects as much. This is a breakfast just for two, though—no reason for the best friend to drop by. Except then a repairman arrives to address hail damage on the roof. Wife notices that husband has noticed the repairman. Both turn at the sound of the repairman’s hammer. Then this: “A patch of sweat, like the map of a harbor Blake wanted to explore, darkened the blue of the man’s shirt in the space between his shoulder blades.” And so it goes. The conflict reaches a peak vicariously, when the mockingbird dive-bombs the squirrel and the cat leaps at the bird’s sudden accessibility.
Ambient noise is my personal catchall for the material stuff, auditory and non-, that surrounds us, often without our notice, the material stuff upon which we can launch credible and engaging stories. This “noise” includes any and all sensory details, any and all physical aspects of the landscape, any and all items at hand in your characters’ environs. A caveat, though. Ambient noise is not a fiction writer’s sole tool. A story can overwhelm itself and its readers with this kind of detail. Nothing impedes narrative momentum like a margin-to-margin thicket of details. Nothing is more tedious.
Watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Let yourself revel in the many ways by which the characters interact with facets of their environment—ice cubes, drink glasses, liquor bottles, cigarettes, a platter of fried chicken, a child’s swing hanging in the tree outside, door chimes, a chain lock on the front door. . . .
Read good stories. Here I’ll mention only two—and very short. In “Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff, a husband and wife wash dishes and prepare for bed. That’s it. But the meandering path of talk over dishes leads this couple into a hypothetical question about mixed-race dating, with an answer that changes everything. A younger couple, five years married, figures at the center of “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw. As they walk New York City on a lovely day, the wife catches the husband more than once distracted by the girls of the title passing by on the street. Questions lead to defensive answers, and as in “Say Yes,” things are said that cannot be taken back, that change everything between man and wife.
Immerse yourself in the quiet noise of Wolff’s story, in the vibrant noises of Irwin’s city walk. Then settle into the noises that will tell your next story.
Editor’s Note: David served as co-editor of Wingbeats and Wingbeats II, collections of poetry writing exercises from Dos Gatos Press.
Katie M. Flynn is Fiction Editor at the Indianola Review. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Carve, Flyway, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice and holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. Recently, she completed her first novel about love, revenge, and uploaded consciousness. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching herself classical guitar, nerding out over chess, or chasing her two kids through the wilds of San Francisco.