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Posts Tagged ‘short fiction’

Desperate Measures: An Interview with David Gordon

October 27, 2014 | by

David Gordon_Credit Michael Sharkey

Photo: Michael Sharkey

David Gordon’s fiction doesn’t fall comfortably into one category. Depending on what you’re reading and who you’re talking to, he might be a mystery writer, a postmodernist, a satirist, or a hybrid. His new collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, runs an impressive gamut. Its cast is large and varied—there are gunmen, grad students, investigators, vampires, struggling writers, Internet sex trolls, and men named David Gordon. (One of these stories, “Man-Boob Summer,” first appeared in The Paris Review’s Fall 2012 issue.) Gordon’s sentences are crisp and often jarring. His plots unspool in strange, sometimes disturbing ways. There’s little to be gained in trying to situate yourself according to generic conventions; better just to enjoy the disorientation and to trust that you’re in the hands of an earnest storyteller.

I met with Gordon, who has also published two novels, on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. School was letting out next door, but Gordon’s booming voice carried over the two-thirty hysteria. We spoke over the course of the afternoon about repurposing genres, literary stardom in Japan (the Japanese translation of his first novel, The Serialist, was a major success), the risks of first-person storytelling, and the publishing-industry controversy swirling around him.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain is your first story collection. Did you approach the stories differently than you would a novel?

In conceptual terms, I do think there’s a difference, at least for me. A story usually comes into my mind like a three-dimensional object—something I can see and feel and rotate. I’m often completely wrong about what the object is, but it’s still there. Whereas a novel is more like a set of directions for a road trip to California, with a planned stop in, say, Colorado and a visit to the Grand Canyon. The truth is I have no idea what’s going to happen along the way or whether I’ll even get there, but I have this general sense of direction and an end I hope to reach.

Now that the stories are completed and assembled, are you surprised at any of the themes or images that crop up?

I wrote these stories over a period of years, so some of the thematic echoes that people point out seem fairly straightforward for somebody who’s been writing for a long time—you deal with certain recurring ideas and problems. But then there are very specific echoes that I wasn’t aware of, and those are really interesting to me. My protagonists eat a lot of Chinese food and go to a lot of cafés. People tend to have cats in my stories, and the women have long fingers. I have no idea where this stuff comes from. I have no lost love with long fingers. I guess these things just leak out of my subconscious. Read More »

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A Gadget for Lonely Hearts, and Other News

May 21, 2014 | by

lonely hearts

From “Slot Machine Sweethearts,“ in the May 1, 1955 issue of American Weekly; image via Gizmodo

  • Yesterday Dracula’s castle was for sale; today it’s Ray Bradbury’s house in Los Angeles, which is on the market for a comparatively reasonable $1.5 million. “His three-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot house, built in 1937, is painted a cheery yellow. It has three bathrooms, hardwood floors, and sits on a generously sized 9,500-square-foot lot.” This concludes today’s edition of Literary Real Estate.
  • The history of Red Lobster, which was recently sold to a capital equity group by its parent company, tells a hopeful but ultimately tragic tale of casual dining in postwar America.
  • The short story is “having a moment,” even in the UK: “In Britain we don’t have a culture of literary magazines that routinely publish short fiction. There are dozens in the US and this has helped the form to flourish.”
  • Curious new archeological discoveries in the British Virgin Islands: a witch’s bottle and some iron ammunition “magically used to stop violence.” Whether or not it succeeded is another story.
  • The 1955 equivalent of online dating: “Women would approach a machine that looked a bit like an old-school automat. The machine had photos of different men, each with a short description. She would put her coins in a slot and out would pop a more detailed note, describing just what kind of guy her potential suitor was. The woman would then take her letter to a love-agent who was able to make an introduction.”

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How Much Could Be Left Unsaid: An Interview with Jenny Offill

March 31, 2014 | by

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Issue 207 of The Paris Review included Jenny Offill’s story “Magic and Dread,” an excerpt from her new novel, Dept. of Speculation, published earlier this year. James Wood called it “a novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors.” Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, and the coeditor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of essays. She has also written several children’s books, including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed, and Sparky! She teaches writing at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.

For the narrator of your novel, the wife, there’s a lot of conjecture going on—guessing how to write a book, how to be in a marriage, how to raise a child, how to bear the time of writing a book. Do you consider writing to be a fundamentally speculative act?

One of the odd things about being a writer is that you never reach a point of certainty, a point of mastery where you can say, Right. Now I understand how this is done. That is why so many talented people stop writing. It’s hard to tolerate this not-knowing. It’s hard to tolerate feeling like an idiot or an imposter, and it gets harder as the years tick by. 

But I would argue that this feeling of uncertainty is actually the best practice you could have for the other important things you will do in your life. No one ever masters falling in love or being a parent or losing someone close to him. And who would want to master such things, really? Wandering through the woods, looking for a sudden sunlit clearing, that’s the most interesting part of it. Read More »

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Getting Slapped Around: An Interview with Dorthe Nors

March 18, 2014 | by

Nors, Dorthe (Simon Klein Knudsen) JACKET

Photo: Simon Klein Knudsen

This month marks the release of Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop, the Danish author’s first work to be translated into English and her only collection of short stories. Karate Chop is a small, dark collection. It consists of fifteen stories, most only a few pages long. Nors’s work often sounds like a parable relayed by one of the wryer, more fatalistic disciples, the one who doesn’t particularly care about our moral edification. But beneath the droll delivery, there tends to be a quiet heartbreak. In Karate Chop, parents disappoint, animals suffer, and certain boyfriends or husbands simply need killing. That heartbreak seems to belong as much to Nors as to her characters. We’re left with the impression that she would spare her creations all the sordid hurt and discord if the world were somehow different or she were a little less clear-eyed. Things as they are, she can only encourage them to laugh off what they can, to bear the rest, and to remember that certain dark corners of the world are “vast and beautiful and desolate.”

I spoke with Nors on her final day in the U.S. following the book’s launch. She is warm and confiding and possessed of a Northern European glamour that favors dark sweaters and disdains what most New Yorkers would consider a major and ongoing snowstorm. Throughout the hour we spent together, she drank trucker-strength coffee and held her chin in her hand. She told me about bucking tradition with new forms, the finer points of Danish comedy, and how life finds a way of slashing us all.

After four novels, it’s a short story collection—your first—giving you a breakthrough into the U.S. market. Why do you think that form did it?

Without me realizing it, I found that the short story—this compact, intensive way of writing—suited my voice. The short story isn’t really part of our tradition in Denmark. This is the country of Hans Christian Anderson and Karen Blixen, but for some reason there’s this sense that we don’t want to dirty our hands with the short story. That’s why it’s such a blessing that this is happening for me in America, where there’s such a strong tradition for the form. I feel like I’m presenting my work to a nation without having to explain what I’m doing.

How did you first step outside that tradition and decide to give the short story a try?

I always thought that writing short stories would be too difficult, but I knew this teacher who worked with at-risk teenagers and he asked me to come write a story about his class. So I spent some time with these kids and cooked something up. Afterward, the teacher assembled the entire school to hear me read this story, and when I was done, the kids were actually cheering. They could see themselves in it and they loved it. That experience boosted my confidence. Read More »

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Transcending the Archetypes of War: An Interview with Phil Klay

March 4, 2014 | by

Phil Klay

Photo: Hannah Dunphy

In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.

Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.

First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?

It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.

It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.

“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?

A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.Read More »

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Jumping Off a Cliff: An Interview with Kevin Barry

November 12, 2013 | by

Photo Credit:  Murdo Macleod

Photo credit: Murdo Macleod.

It is common, when assessing the achievements of a fiction writer, to consider how “well-rounded” his or her characters are. But one of the many pleasures of Kevin Barry’s work, and in particular of his most recent collection, Dark Lies The Island, is that it reminds us how—in fiction as in life—the most interesting people are often lopsided.

In a Barry story, people fuck up and then, after taking a breather, they fuck up some more. A guy walks out of a juvenile detention center and—fresh start!—concludes it’s a grand idea to start selling crystal meth. A boy on a rooftop thinks about kissing a girl, and keeps on thinking about it, and thinking about it, until hesitancy has nuked opportunity. In one of the collection’s most gnawingly memorable stories, “Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.

Although he’s not averse to the occasional earnest moment of romance, Barry’s usual mode is laughter in the dark. Writers producing work in this vein are not, these days, a publisher’s dream. There is therefore something comforting in the way he’s finding an admiring, expanding audience both in his native Ireland and here in the U.S. After years of producing work he was unhappy with (“I wrote these great sententious sentences, clause after clause after clause under a black belly of fucking cloud”) his first major breakthrough came in 2007, when he won the Rooney Prize for Literature for There Are Little Kingdoms. That story collection had been released by a tiny Dublin literary press called The Stinging Fly. His first novel, City of Bohane, appeared in the UK in 2011 and went on to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. When Graywolf Press gave the book an American release it graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was hailed by the reviewer as a novel “full of marvels … marvels of language, invention, surprise.”

Ale is one of Barry’s enthusiasms. The interview which follows took place over pints at Flatbush Farm, a bar in Brooklyn. He’s a keen, wide-eyed talker who’s always pushing at the limits of what a curse word can do. He injects bright life into a conversation and occasionally ad-libs the kinds of observations you underline in his books. In Dark Lies The Island, breakfast involves “scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast.” The summer staff at an old hotel include “a pack of energetic young Belarusians, fucking each other at all angles of the clock.” The sky at night “shucked the last of its evening grey” and “the buck in the kiosk at the clampers had a face on him like a dose of cancer.” Barry’s language drags you into a strange, darkly lyrical world, enacting his own definition of literature as a mode of transport. “It lifts you up out of whatever situation you’re in and it puts you down somewhere else,” he says below. “It fucking escapes you. That’s what literature is.” Read More »

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