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Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

The Right Kind of Damage: An Interview with Colin Barrett

March 3, 2015 | by

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Photo courtesy of the author.

There’s a moment in “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” a story by Denis Johnson that first appeared in The Paris Review, in 1989, when a woman learns of the death of her husband and unleashes a terrible scream. The narrator, instead of expressing the expected sympathy, leans out of the page a little to offer this unnerving confession: It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

Reading Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut story collection, can leave one with a similar sense of disturbed gratitude. The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him. In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find “a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle.” In a field, “crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements ”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.”

The vitality of Barrett’s prosethe special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town lifehas already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the U.S. release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to “lethally competent writing,” the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fictionlike the community it describescan develop “its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.”

Were your earliest efforts as a writer very different to the stories collected in Young Skins?

I wrote and drew lots of gory comic books as a young kid and as a teen. Then I discovered and wrote lots of poetry around college age. Awful, sub-Ashbery, sub-Muldoon, sub-Eliot stuff, but at least it was writing. Then I attempted a few novels—multinarrator, genre-splicing Pynchonian or Foster Wallace sprawlers, usually set in alternate futures, though I never got more than a couple dozen pages in. I only started really writing stories at twenty-five. The early stuff was all, obviously, awful—but awful in a vital way. The wonderful thing about being completely inexperienced is the impregnable purity of your ignorance. You are utterly insensible to any conception of your own crippling and patent limitations, and so you try anything and everything. Read More »

What About Bob

February 5, 2015 | by

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Shelley Duvall in the TV adaptation of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” 1976.

Bernice stood on the curb and looked at the sign, Sevier Barber-Shop. It was a guillotine indeed, and the hangman was the first barber, who, attired in a white coat and smoking a cigarette, leaned non-chalantly against the first chair. He must have heard of her; he must have been waiting all week, smoking eternal cigarettes beside that portentous, too-often-mentioned first chair. Would they blind-fold her? No, but they would tie a white cloth round her neck lest any of her blood—nonsense—hair—should get on her clothes.

“All right, Bernice,” said Warren quickly.

With her chin in the air she crossed the sidewalk, pushed open the swinging screen-door, and giving not a glance to the uproarious, riotous row that occupied the waiting bench, went up to the fat barber.

“I want you to bob my hair.”

The first barber’s mouth slid somewhat open. His cigarette dropped to the floor.

“Huh?”

“My hair—bob it!”

Before I had nearly a foot of my hair shorn off, I reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” He based the story, which first ran in the May 1920 Saturday Evening Post, on a series of letters he exchanged with his younger sister. It was, appropriately, the kickoff to his iconic chronicling of the flapper era—when the story begins, the eponymous heroine is a dowdy wallflower, and everyone has long hair. Bernice becomes popular with an audacious “line”: she entices boys with the prospect of daringly bobbing her hair while they watch. But when a rival calls her bluff, Bernice is forced to submit to the shears. And then, the brutal fallout. Read More »

The Golden State’s Golden Age, and Other News

January 27, 2015 | by

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John Van Hamersveld and Victor Moscoso, The Who with Fleetwood Mac Shrine Auditorium poster, 1968. Image via It’s Nice That

  • From the department of own-horn-tooting: Looking for something to read today? Try The Paris Review. But you didn’t hear it from us: “One thing I’d like to have on my blanketed lap today,” Dwight Garner wrote, “is the new issue of The Paris Review. That journal has found its mojo, in a big way … The new one has among other things a warm and wise interview with the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick that’s worth the price of admission alone.”
  • India’s Jaipur Literary Festival is advertised as the largest free literary festival in the world. “This year it attracted an estimated 80,000. And on the fourth day, with 20,000 packed into the disorderly old palace complex where it is held, and the queues for entry still growing, the police abruptly closed the gates. They feared a stampede was coming. But who were these people? And what were they coming for?”
  • A new book looks at midcentury graphic design in California, which had a sensibility and influence all its own: “Fuck New York. Fuck Europe. We’ll figure out what art is.”
  • Whither the ukulele? It began its life as a piece of exotica and then, in the hands of Tiny Tim, descended promptly into kitsch—but some say it’s enjoying a revival. “The ukulele still plays its role as everyman instrument quite convincingly.”
  • Today in people who are wrong: “Today’s minor arts, I think, include theater, ballet, opera, symphonic music, and literary fiction. These still include small audiences whose members are not also creators, audiences who patronize these arts in part out of an inherited feeling that these are superior to movies or genre fiction … The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby.”

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Inventing Situations: An Interview with Thomas Pierce

January 8, 2015 | by

Thomas Pierce author photo (c) Andrew Owen

Photo © Andrew Owen

What’s immediately striking about Thomas Pierce’s debut story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, are its wild, unforgettable conceits. In “Shirley Temple Three,” a long-extinct dwarf mammoth is cloned for a TV show, then dumped off in a small Southern town with Mawmaw, the show host’s mother. In “More Soon,” the body of a man’s brother is shipped all over the world because of worries over a mysterious contagion. In “Videos of People Falling Down,” the lives of a host of characters—a local-news reporter, a right-wing Listserv manager, a cheesy pop singer—converge and intertwine through the shared humiliation of having been filmed while falling. But Pierce’s characters never feel secondary to his plots. They are resoundingly human, with their bundles of worries, joys, dreams, and burdens, their beliefs, theories, and suspicions, their wanderings and wonderings.

Pierce and I first met in 2000, as students in a high school summer program in South Carolina, our shared home state. Even then I was impressed by his charm and intelligence, and his lively, slightly askew sense of humor. In 2013, my magazine, Gigantic, published his story “Time to Get Radical,” a funny and unexpectedly moving catchphrase-driven monologue that in around twelve hundred words manages to capture the highs, lows, and in-betweens in the life of one semi-religious auto-parts salesman someplace down South.

This interview took place over a series of e-mails and a shared Google Doc, along with two in-person meetings—in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he now lives.

You worked for five years at NPR as a blogger, reporter, and producer. How has this experience informed your work?

In radio, you’re always aware that you have to win the listener’s attention. You’re wrestling them away from their breakfast or their drive or kids. So lesson one is to be interesting and engaging. You also learn quickly that the best sentence to read over the air is usually the simplest one—complex ideas don’t necessarily require complex sentences. Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful, confusing sentences, too, but I also value clarity—and radio helped me in that regard.

You may only have ninety seconds to tell a story on the radio. When you write a radio script, there’s software you can use with a little clock in the upper right-hand corner that tells you the piece’s length in terms of time. This helps you to remember that what you’re creating will occupy a portion of a person’s day. One of my short stories might steal forty-two minutes from your life. I want to use your time wisely. Read More »

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The Eyes Have It

December 16, 2014 | by

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Odilon Redon’s The Cyclops (detail), ca. 1914.

Philip K. Dick was born on this day in 1928. His story “The Eyes Have It” originally appeared in Science Fiction Stories 1953, but since the copyright wasn’t renewed, it’s lapsed into the public domain. “A little whimsy, now and then, makes for good balance,” the magazine’s editors wrote then. “Theoretically, you could find this type of humor anywhere. But only a topflight science-fictionist, we thought, could have written this story, in just this way … ”

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything—and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read: Read More »

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The In-Between Space: An Interview with Shelly Oria

November 25, 2014 | by

Photo: T. Kira Madden

The eighteen stories in New York 1 Tel Aviv 0, Shelly Oria’s debut collection, are beguiling, bizarre, and wise. (One of them, “My Wife, in Converse,” appeared in The Paris Review earlier this year.) Her sentences, with their clear-eyed, authoritative calm, underscore and complicate the unlikely circumstances in which her characters find themselves, and the chaos of their inner lives. Here, for example, is the narrator of “This Way I Don’t Have to Be,” on her addiction to sleeping with married men:

I always look them in the eye throughout, and that can be tricky, because they mostly try to avoid the intimacy of eye contact. I wait, and then suddenly it’s there, passing through them like a wave. In that moment, their entire lives turn to air … For one brief moment, they go back in time, they make different choices, they are different men. And my body is the time-travel machine that takes them there.

Born in Los Angeles but raised in Israel, Oria moved to the United States at twenty-five, five years after finishing her compulsory military service. Though she was fluent in English, she thought—and wrote—in Hebrew; hoping to attend the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, she taught herself to write fiction in English, an experience she describes as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Her prose is both energized and measured, and perhaps this is the effect of customary Israeli volubility short-leashed by an inner translator—a tiny version of the author herself who sits at her little desk inside the brain, reading the rough transcripts as they are faxed up from the heart, and forever sending notes back down that read, Yes, but is that really exactly what you meant to say? All authors live with a version of this little demon; it just happens that Oria’s is bilingual and combat trained.

I should mention that Oria is my colleague at the Pratt Institute. She is also a life/creativity coach and hosts a reading series in the East Village. Between all of that and a book tour, she is very busy, for which reason, though we would have much preferred the pleasure of each other’s company, this interview was conducted via e-mail.

I find myself returning to the scene in the title story where Pie—who is in a three-way relationship with a woman and a man—divides herself into “Me No. 1” and “Me No. 2.” No. 1, “the Israeli who was taught that being tough and being strong are the same thing,” is ready to walk out the door on both lovers immediately. No. 2, “a woman who successfully impersonates an American” and “has a lot to prove,” wants to stay. Pie seems to think that No. 1 has the right take on the situation, but it’s No. 2’s position she adopts as her own, and I for one am hardly convinced that she’s wrong. Might you speak, then, to the risks and allures of pulling off a successful impersonation?

The thing is—and maybe this is obvious—both Pies are wrong. By which I, of course, also mean that they’re both right. And to me that’s what the story is trying to do, and what the book is trying to do, and what I’m trying to do, not only as a writer but as a human—challenge this idea of either-or, hang out a bit in the in-between space. Or really, the both space. As far as I’m concerned, that goes for nationality, for sexuality, for identity in general. We’re hardwired toward this dichotomous way of thinking about and constructing identity. It’s almost an addiction—a cultural addiction to categories. Read More »

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