I’m thrilled to return to podcasting after a brief hiatus this winter. And I’m also a bit giddy because the podcast is now being produced in collaboration with the Grosse Pointe Library in Michigan.
The GPPL has committed to purchasing ten books by these authors to give to their patrons!
If you are a short story writer who has tried to make money in this game then you know what a big deal that is! My hope is that other libraries will follow the GPPL’s lead and be inspired to buy books by these talented short story writers. I will be contacting many libraries this spring to suggest it. Please feel free to do the same, if you feel so inclined!
The upcoming LDAS schedule includes:
Ellen Birkett Morris
Jacob M. Appel
Peter Ho Davies
Toni Ann Johnson
The podcast starts up again on March 1st and will drop once a month on the first of the month. It’s available here and on many other podcasting platforms.
Please sign up for my newsletter if you would like more information about upcoming shows.
This winter while on break, I was thrilled to learn about George Saunders’ Story Club offering on Substack. It’s a master class in craft all for the low low annual price of $50!
George Saunders is one of our greatest living writers, but he also seems like a person who has not lost hope. And that’s saying something. I don’t know about you, but these days I feel a little like my dog, Bruno, who just tore his CCL–still circumventing the yard but not going to win any races. However, every time I read George Saunders’ work, I feel better. Full stop.
Plus, Story Club is a blog devoted to dissecting stories by master writers. What could be better? Check out George Saunders’ Story Club here.
Another newsletter worth checking out is Natalie Serber’s Read.Write.Eat. Just plain fun– chockful of great intel for writers. Take a peek here.
I’ve also been carrying around Matt Bell’s Refuse to Be Done this winter. There isn’t much I haven’t heard in terms of writing advice, but this book is a notch above, and even though it’s “technically” meant for novelists, short story writers will benefit as well.
Here are two gems:
“If I find a fact or detail I want to include, I don’t write it down anywhere unless I can write it directly into the novel, either by finding an existing scene where it can live or by starting a new one centered on the fact or detail. That way, I don’t generate a separate document full of inert, non-novelistic prose, which feels so different from the kind of language I want my novel to contain. This practice has the side benefit of letting my research tell me what to write next: your research questions will guide you as powerfully as any whisperings of plot can, especially if you do your note-taking inside your novel, in the voice of the book.” Page 64
“Set or reset the clock. One reason some early drafts feel baggy is that they’re taking place over too large a span of time, or else the span of time they cover simply isn’t defined yet. Once you’ve got some idea of what your novel’s plot is, can you determine the smallest span of time the book’s present action needs in order to unfold successfully?” Page 55
See you all on March 1st.
Please check out the Q and A with Edward Belfar below!
Q and A with Edward Belfar
Edward and I met at a reading hosted by The Great Indoor Reading Series created by writer Treena Thibodeau in March 2020, as a way to connect and experience artistic community despite the challenges of social distancing during the COVID19 Pandemic.
This February selection with Edward is part of a Q and A series I will be offering occasionally in addition to the “Let’s Deconstruct a Story” podcast and operates under the same general principle, which is that one should read the story before listening to our discussion, so here’s a link to Wanderers by Edward Belfar.
Please read, and then enjoy our discussion below.
Thanks and Happy 2022 everyone!
I am hoping it will be better than the last two years, as I know we all are.
Q and A
Kelly: Please give us a brief two or three-line summary of “Wanderers.” I always like to know how writers see their own work.
Edward: The story concerns a chance encounter between an attorney named Peter Dolan and his one-time law school professor. Peter is sitting in a bar one rainy night, carrying on a half-hearted flirtation with the bartender, when a vaguely familiar-looking, elderly man enters. Before long, Peter recognizes the stranger as Professor Lawrence Whitfield, who had taught him constitutional law. The daunting figure Peter remembers from his law school days is no more. Now frail and confused, Professor Whitfield, having gotten lost and wandered far from home while running some routine errands, has come in to ask for directions. Out of concern for the older man’s safety, Peter decides to drive Professor Whitfield home himself—an act of kindness that evokes mixed feelings in its beneficiary.
Kelly: Do the characters from “Wanderers” appear anywhere else in your collection?
Edward: They do not. “Wanderers” is the title story of the collection in which it appears, which was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2012. The book Wanderers does include two linked stories—“Roman Honeymoon” and its sequel, “Visitations”—which, respectively, portray a marriage in its early stages and again as it nears dissolution. The remaining stories are entirely self-contained but do have thematic ties. As is true of both Peter and the professor, the principal characters tend to be wanderers in one sense or another, never quite at home in the worlds that they inhabit.
Kelly: You have some amazing lines in “Wanderers:” Here are three of my favorites:
“The older I get, the less I understand. Parents become like children. Children disown you.”
Talking about his wife, Peter says: “Mine only threw me out. She kept everything else.”
Professor Whitfield says: “I do envy the young their expectations.”
Please tell us a little bit about how you came up with these lines. Did they come to you in the initial drafting of the story, or later, in revision?
Edward: I will take those in reverse. Professor Whitfield’s line is a comment on the indignities that come with aging and infirmity. When I wrote that, I may have been thinking about the lines from Yeats’s “The Tower”:
What shall I do with this absurdity —
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
The sour quip from Peter about his ex-wife reveals his lingering bitterness over his divorce and his estrangement from his children. The line beginning “parents become like children” further illustrates how confused and adrift he feels in middle age. He is as much a wanderer as Professor Whitfield. He has lost his family, does not place a great value on his professional accomplishments, and sees his best days as having passed long ago. The line also speaks to the experience of many adult children who have had the responsibility of caring for frail, elderly parents and suddenly found that the parent-child relationship has, in a sense, reversed. When the parents can no longer care for themselves, the adult children must take on a quasi-parental role, sometimes leading to resentment on both sides.
Unfortunately, I no longer have access to the earliest drafts of the story. It seems likely, though, that I gave all of those lines some thought and that they took their present forms during the revision process.
Kelly: The story is quite sad overall but there were some redemptive moments. At one point, Peter talks about how he saved a baby from a burning car, and I thought, this is a noble person. How would you describe him as a character?
Edward: Like most people, Peter has his share of noble and ignoble traits. With the dissolution of his family, he has let himself drift, drinking to excess and having short-lived affairs with his receptionists. At bottom, though, he is a kind, caring, generous person who never hesitates to help someone in distress, even at considerable cost to himself and even though the world does not always return his kindness. I do see his decision to come to the aid of his former professor as a redemptive act, in that his innate decency wins out over his inertia.
Kelly: How would you describe Professor Whitfield?
Edward: Once a formidable presence in Peter’s life, a man both admired and feared by his former pupil, Professor Winfield has been much reduced by age and illness. Sometimes, he seems confused and disoriented, but at other times, particularly when he turns his still caustic wit upon Peter, he appears as sharp as ever. Though aware of his physical frailty and even, if to a lesser degree, of his cognitive decline, Professor Winfield remains proud and defiant, chafing at what he perceives as the threats to his autonomy posed by his wife and Peter.
Kelly: What usually comes to you when you start drafting a short story? Character? Plot? Scene? Or is it different every time?
Edward: The origins differ from story to story, but often the kernel is an incident, whether observed or experienced first-hand, heard about, or stumbled upon in the course of my reading. In the case of “Wanderers,” someone had told me about an incident that was similar in its broad contours to what I would eventually set down on the page. The story I heard was not very detailed, and I did not do anything with it right away. For whatever reason, I was thinking about the incident again one day, and I began to reimagine the Good Samaritan in the story as a person who had once known and admired the Professor Whitfield character, rather than as the stranger that she was in real life. At that point, the story “Wanderers” began to take shape.
Kelly: Since people are supposed to read the story before they read this interview, I’d like to ask about the ending. (spoiler alert!)
Peter seems to be escaping a bad scene at Professor Whitfield’s house, but, like the rest of us, I feel like he’s not going to escape for long. At least that’s the way I read it. Is that the way you meant it? Did it take you a while to come up with this ending, or did it come to you naturally?
Edward: The story was shorter in its earliest incarnation. I think it may have ended with Peter on the sidewalk, watching Professor Whitfield drive away. Unfortunately, I cannot be sure because those early drafts, which I composed two or three computers ago, are lost to me. At some point, though, I must have decided that Peter is not the sort of person who would let Professor Whitfield drive off into the rain; rather, his sense of responsibility would impel him to see to it that the professor got home safely. Having performed his good deed, however, Peter knows that he has done all he can, and witnessing the Whitfields’ quarrel, he feels like an intruder. He slips out of the house “quietly as a burglar.” The experience has left him shaken. Whether it will lead him to reevaluate the life he is living and change its direction is anybody’s guess.
Kelly: In general, how do you know you’ve reached the end of a story?
Edward: As suggested by my previous answer, I do not always know immediately. Sometimes, I get it wrong. In general, I look for something—an image, an action, a line of dialogue—that will tie together all the various strands of the story and reveal something about what a character has learned or failed to learn or how he or she has changed or not changed. There is an element of intuition involved. Early in the pandemic, I took up the guitar again after not having played for many years. (Unlike my writing, my guitar playing is something I would not inflict on any audience.) I do not know enough about music theory to explain why, but in many common chord progressions, e.g., C→C diminished→G7, the ear perceives a building of tension. By following the G7 with a return to C, the player resolves that tension. I would liken the ending of a short story to that final C chord, in that it provides a similar sense of resolution. Of course, the analogy is not perfect, because the apparent resolution is not always quite that tidy. The future for Peter after he leaves the Whitfields’ house remains murky.
Kelly: Tell us a little bit about the novel you are shopping.
Edward: A Very Innocent Man is a satirical novel about a physician who seeks to become a celebrity television doctor but whose greed and amorality cause him to get into legal trouble and lose his medical license. Otherwise lacking in redeeming qualities, he is resourceful, and rather than giving up on his dreams of fame, he seeks to realize them by reinventing himself as a motivational speaker and life coach. In 2021, I came close to getting the novel published. One press did make me an offer but not a satisfactory one. A Very Innocent Man was also a finalist in Winter Goose Press’s fiction contest. I plan to continue shopping it around in 2022, and I hope that I will have better luck.
Kelly: I noticed you mentioned Caitlin Horrocks as one of your favorite writers and she will be on the podcast in March. I’d love to hear about a few of your other favorite short story writers. What do you love, in particular, about the short story?
Edward: What I love about the short story is the way it can illuminate character and experience and encompass an entire life in a handful of pages. There is a story of Chekov’s that I first encountered decades ago as an undergraduate and to which I keep returning. Titled “Grief” or “Misery,” depending on the English translation, it tells of one night in the life of a cab driver, a humble, unremarkable man who just lost his son to a sudden illness. Unable to contain his grief, he tries to speak of it to his passengers, but their interest in him extends only to how quickly he can get them where they want to go, and they react with indifference and scorn. In the end, because he has no one else to whom he can unburden himself, he relates the story of his son’s death to the mare that pulls his cab. In that single heartbreaking image, Chekov has somehow found a way to give expression to the most universal and yet ineffable of human experiences—that of grief.
If I absolutely had to name a favorite short story writer, I could not go wrong with Chekov. Economical yet meticulously detailed, his stories are almost always flawlessly constructed. What really sets his work apart, though, is the breadth and scope of his imagination, his uncanny ability to bring characters from all strata of society to vivid life.
Other short story writers whose work I greatly enjoy include, to name just a few, Guy de Maupassant, Isaac Babel, and Katherine Mansfield. Of Caitlin, I would add that she is not only a terrific writer but a very engaging and dynamic reader. I attended a reading of hers at the Writers’ Center in Bethesda, MD, in 2013, the year that This Is not Your City came out. The reading was more than worth the price of admission—which, in that instance, was a signed copy of the book, which I still have.
Edward Belfar is the author of a collection of short stories called Wanderers, which was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2012. “Errors,” one of the stories in the collection, was chosen as the winning entry in the Sports Literature Association’s 2008 fiction competition. His fiction and essays have also appeared in numerous literary journals, including Shenandoah, The Baltimore Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Potpourri, Confrontation, Natural Bridge, and Tampa Review. He lives in Maryland with his wife and works as a writer and editor.