Hi Everyone,

Today, just sadness. We are grieving young lives here in Michigan. Please keep everyone in the MSU community (including my son) #spartanstrong in your thoughts and prayers.

Below please find my scheduled post with Michigan short story writer, Kevin Fitton. I was happy to welcome him to the blog.


Hi Everyone,

I have started alternating the podcast with Q and A’s on occasion. Not to worry though–we are still deconstructing stories in these blog posts!

Please read Michigan short storywriter, Kevin Fitton’s, award-winning story, “A Sentimental Person” from The Saturday Evening Post (before) delving into our Q and A. You can read it on the site here or transcribed below.



A Sentimental Person

Years after his wife’s death, a Michigan pastor learns how to play the blues and how to let go.

Kevin Fitton

Man playing a guitar

It had been three years since I touched that guitar. Before Lauren died, I played nearly every day — at least picked it up, smelled the earthy aroma of the instrument like mud laced with cinnamon. It surprised me the day I finally took it back out of its case to discover the scent was still there.

There were a few packages of strings in there, too, a capo, and a half-dozen picks, including the green one I caught when Chris Thile threw it into the crowd at the end of a Nickel Creek concert — one of the few good memories from my former life that didn’t have Lauren wrapped all around it. And there were two pieces of paper, folded into squares, with song ideas scratched out in blue ink from a writing session I can barely remember. I used to squirrel away an hour or two for writing whenever I could — a challenge with my responsibilities as a pastor, father, and husband. The ideas were half-formed and uninspired, so I threw the papers into the recycling. Forced myself to put them in recycling, I should say. I have a hard time throwing things out. I can admit that.

I have always been a sentimental person. I’m the guy who buys the concert T-shirt and shows up hours early for a baseball game, leaning over the railing and asking for autographs all through batting practice. Some of that memorabilia are in frames or cases, lined up on bookshelves, or adorning the walls of my office at the church and our basement rec room. I was never a pack rat, though. It was after Lauren died, when I started clinging to our possessions.

For example, there was a package of napkins that was about half full when it happened, and with everyone over at the house (my sister, Emily, and Will and Cindy from church), in a couple of days the napkins were nearly used up. When I realized they were almost gone, I panicked. I stuffed the package, with the remaining napkins in the back of the pantry. And then there’s Lauren’s coffee mug, which I won’t let anyone wash. It sits on the windowsill behind the sink with a sticky note: “Do not touch.” The problem is the finality of it. You put something in the trash, and it’s gone forever.

But I was talking about my guitar, a Martin Triple-O Fifteen, built from solid mahogany, front, back, and sides — a guitar which smells to this day like the tree from which it was made. And I don’t know what made me finally take it back out, but the moment I held it, I realized how much I missed it — missed the feel of the strings, the rattle of a finger-slap blues riff, the shimmering sound of a D-chord like a chorus of birds.

When I finally removed it from its case (it was more than a thousand days, can you imagine?), the instrument needed a neck adjustment. So I took it to the shop. I didn’t have any meetings that afternoon, and my girlfriend, who had been in the picture for several months at this point, was picking the kids up from school.

The relationship was my first in the world of post: post-marriage, post-death, post-everything changing. I had gone on a few dates before I met Helen, but only because Emily kept setting me up. When I met Helen, I was strolling through the Saturday farmer’s market. I was kid-free for the weekend, and it was one of the rare days when I actually felt light. In fact, more than once that morning, I double-checked my pockets, because I kept thinking that I must have forgotten something. But my keys were there, my wallet, my phone, and my kids were accounted for (an overnight with Will and Cindy, whose kids are the same age as mine).

The sun was out, and the leaves on the trees were that spring-green color, the color that’s so fresh-looking it makes you think how the tree is a living thing, so full of liquid, when it’s punctured, the sap spills out like clear blood. I approached a produce stand that looked especially attractive. Tin buckets held bunches of greens — rainbow chard with bright, neon-colored veins, parsley and spinach, red- and green-leaf lettuce.

Helen was inspecting some salad greens.

“This is damn beautiful stuff,” I said.

“I think veggies are pretty,” she said

She was pretty. Not in a bowl-you-over sort of way. But pleasing — pleasant to look at, pleasant to be around. She smiles a lot, has good teeth, rich brown hair with a natural curl, which, if I’m honest, reminds me of Lauren. I had wanted to date women who looked nothing like her — women who would never be confused as a sort of substitute for my dead wife. But you meet whom you meet, and when you’re single in middle-age, the pickings are pretty slim.

I turned my attention to a display of radishes, laid out in a row with the stems still attached, purple and pungent.

“Veggies is a funny word,” I said. “Just listen to it: veggies.”

She laughed. I could tell right away she was interested, because she looked at my hand. The ring check. I figured she was younger than me, but still in the range.

“Yup. Single,” I said. I had stopped wearing my wedding ring, and instead kept it in a case on my dresser.

“I didn’t mean …”

“Yeah, you did.” I was surprised at my own self-confidence, but like I said, there was that feeling of lightness.

“Okay, you got me.” She smiled that smile again. “God, this is so embarrassing.”

I shrugged. “Why? I think you’re attractive, and I’m not embarrassed about it.”

She turned her head and looked at me sideways.

“You want to blow this vegetable stand and get something to eat?” I said.

“I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s James,” I said. I told her to meet me at the fountain in half an hour, and I showed up with a bag full of vegetarian samosas and two cups of coffee, and we sat together on a park bench, and I told all. Two kids, dead wife, pastor. She didn’t flinch.

Before Lauren died, I worked a lot. I was obsessive about it really, a trap that’s easy for a pastor to fall into. I did care about my church, I will say that. But the thing that drove me was the desire to succeed. Everyone around me — my friends and my peers — could see my work. They could see if the church was growing (or not). They knew if people liked me (or not). I was on display, and that was something I never really came to terms with.

After Lauren, though, I lost my obsession. In the beginning, grieving consumed all of my energy. But as time passed, if I’m honest, I started relying on Lauren’s death as an excuse. It would have been impossible for the church to demand more of me, and I knew it. And I wouldn’t say that I lost my faith, but I lost my certainty. Part of me wanted to keep running just as hard as before, but how does a person run full steam ahead when he isn’t sure where he’s going?

While I waited for the repair tech to finish the tune-up, I saw an advertisement for a blues guitar class, and I signed up right then and there. People were always encouraging me to do things: go on trips, start dating, take a class. They were worried that I was like a car, and if I sat still too long, I would stop running. It’s shit, really, the way people try to cut your grief short. That’s my biggest piece of advice if someone in your life goes through this kind of loss. Sit with them and let them grieve. They’re going to hurt — that’s not something you can change — and it’s going to take longer than you think it should. Grief isn’t water-soluble; it doesn’t wash away.

But I was talking about my blues guitar class. Our teacher, Pinkerton Shaw, white and Midwestern like me, played the Delta Blues with the soul of a sharecropper. Five of us sat together in the living room of his house in an artsy neighborhood along the Grand River, and Pinky (the perfect bluesman’s name, right?) taught us theory, the blues box, the pentatonic scale, and a handful of different grooves. There’s no point in false modesty, so I’ll just go ahead and say that I was the best player in the group — except for Pinky, of course.

I started hanging around after class, sharing a beer, and listening to his stories from Berklee (where he crossed paths with John Mayer and Diana Krall — how’s that for a brush with fame?) and from life on the road.

I didn’t tell him about Lauren right off. He knew I had two kids and that I was dating. Pinky was married, and they had a newborn, which is why he’d given up the touring life, bought a house back in his hometown, and filled it with second-hand furniture.

I told him that I loved bottleneck blues, and he offered to teach me how to play slide, and I started staying later and later after class.

“Man, you could really be a player,” he said one night. It was summer in Michigan, and the sun was taking forever to set. At 10 o’clock, the last gasps of gray light still refused to falter. Night crept up on us, and we didn’t turn the lights on, even when it was almost dark.

I leaned my guitar against the wall and settled into my chair.

“Did you ever think about pursuing your music?” he asked.

“Not really. I married young, started down another path.”

He was wearing a dark gray button-up with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and even in the near dark, I could see the blue vein running down the center of his underarm.

“Can I ask what happened?” he asked.

“You just did.”

He smiled and played a riff.

“My wife died three years ago. It was a stroke. One day she was there, and then she was gone.”

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”

“It was terrible, but it’s getting better. It’s starting to get better.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he said.

I shrugged. “What is there?”

I’ll say this for Pinky. I know he was uncomfortable. I could tell. But he didn’t look away or bring up some story of loss he’d experienced. He said, “I’m really sorry,” and he looked me in the eyes.

I mentioned before that I was feeling uncertain about my relationship with Helen. There were plenty of things I liked about her. I was attracted to her. She was stubbornly idealistic, a quality I admired. And she had won over my kids, Danny and Ruth — my two preteens — which is no small feat.

But then there were things that bothered me. Like, for example, she would offer to watch the kids, and then she was annoyed when I didn’t come home right after class. She didn’t really care that I was late (she was a night owl and never went to bed early). It was jealousy. She was jealous of Pinky, and she was threatened by my history with Lauren. She never said so, but I could tell. I could tell by the way she turned quiet when the kids talked about their mom. I could tell by the way she stole glances at Lauren’s coffee mug on the windowsill while she did the dishes.

And then there were the petty things — her laugh, for example. She had a laugh like a two-stroke engine: hick, hick — hick, hick. And I know this is going to sound terribly superficial, but she had trouble with her skin. Near-constant breakouts on her chin and forehead, which she smothered with make-up, theorizing that it was caused by chocolate (while she ate chocolate) or by drinking alcohol (while holding a glass of wine).

What bothered me is that she didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t go to the dermatologist, or change her diet. She didn’t even wash her face before bed, which is me admitting that she sometimes stayed over.

One day that summer, Helen and I took a trip to Lake Michigan. We walked the Saugatuck Dunes, a hilly forest of beach grass, oaks, and white pines, ending in a strip of white sand at the water’s edge. Then we headed into town, built on the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, a perfect harbor for boaters. We held hands as we walked, watching the sunlight reflecting on the water and the rows of aluminum masts, rocking in the gentle waves.

“Let’s play a game,” she said. “We walk two blocks this way, turn right, and then left, and then we eat dinner at the first restaurant we see.”

“I know a good place,” I said.

“No, that’s too easy.” She turned to face me.

“But it’s so arbitrary,” I said.

She kept pushing, though, and I decided to go along with it. And, of course, she was right. Dinner was great.

The first song Pinky and I performed together was at church. Pinky and his wife, Jayna, started coming on Sunday mornings with their baby. They were the type that grew up in church, drifted away during college, but when they had a child, started talking about coming back. And then I came along.

We worked up a version of the old song, “Nothing but the Blood,” a hymn with the heart of a spiritual with its call and response. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” You get the idea. There’s nothing complicated about it, and that’s the point.

I sang lead, and Pinky added background vocals and some killer fills on guitar. The song leaves some breathing room between lines, and we stretched out the space between chorus and verse so Pinky could play the way he does, his fingers flying across the neck of his guitar, both frenetic and effortless.

We made it into a sort of theme and variation, adding layers of complexity with each verse, and even playing with the melody. The best way to handle the repetition is to treat the whole thing like a suggestion. Start here, start here, the music says. But it doesn’t tell you were to go. It’s up to you to give it soul, build it up until it soars. And it did. It took off, mostly because Pinky is so damn good. Once we got going, it sounded like there were four of us up there playing, and I can assure you, I was only carrying one part. We repeated the last chorus three times and then finally ended the song. Pinky hit one last chord and let it ring, and then, after a moment’s hesitation, the church let go with applause.

The amazing thing about music is that it can become a sort of bridge between the performer and the audience, a shared experience. Of course, not everyone feels it. Maybe 10 percent, 15 percent, I’d guess. And Helen wasn’t one of them. I could tell. “You have a great voice.” The only compliment Helen could manage, when she wasn’t criticizing Pinky’s outfit (he wore all black), or his voice (he sings on key, but his voice is nasal and pinched). I tried to explain the theme-and-variations thing but didn’t get anywhere.

I seriously considered breaking up with her, at this point. Sometimes, it was like we were speaking in translation, and there was something fundamental about me that she didn’t understand. But I was afraid of letting go (see napkins, see coffee mug); she cut the loneliness in my life like cream to coffee. And then there was the kids.

I mentioned before that she won over my kids. This didn’t just happen. Danny, in particular, resisted her. And one day — it must have been around six weeks into our relationship — Helen was talking with Danny, and he was agitated. It was typical stuff. We planned to hike to a little lake nearby, and Danny didn’t want to go. Helen got down on her knees to talk with him, and Danny reared back and hit her with both hands square in her shoulders.

I didn’t see it happen, but I saw the immediate aftermath — the look of anger on Danny’s face and shock on Helen’s. But she didn’t yell at him or even turn away; no, she stayed right down there with him, looking him the eyes. She said, “I bet sometimes you just want to hit someone, don’t you? It isn’t fair, is it?”

Danny didn’t say anything. But later, when we were walking back from our swim, he took her hand. It was a turning point for all of us. There were still moments of resistance, but she just kept bearing with them. Even more than her natural optimism, it was her most admirable quality.

Pinky’s blues class ended, but we kept meeting on Wednesday nights. I started bringing song lyrics (usually in bits and pieces), and Pinky came up with the music. When he worked on a song, he seemed to draw from a bottomless store of chord progressions, melodies, and countermelodies, as if he had tapped into flowing water deep underground. And we ended up with some great sounding stuff, though I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. My lyrics were stiff. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was like a man poking at my feelings with a stick. I wrote a song about a homeless man, a troubled marriage, and one about a whale hunt. The song about whales was probably the best, or at least that’s what Jayna said. Pinky didn’t come out and say it, but I could tell he wasn’t satisfied. He was waiting.

School was now underway again, and Helen spent most evenings at our house, heading straight from work to pick up Danny from soccer or Ruth from lacrosse. Despite all of my complaints about Helen, she was a savior for our family. I cooked dinner while she supervised homework, scrubbed pots and pans, or packed lunches. We were a solid team. And this, I started to remind myself, was life. Life was raising children, going to meetings, and making the best we can out of the moments in between, the little shafts of light.

It was October by the time we managed a real date night, our first since the trip to Saugatuck. She got ready at her own place, and I picked her up, wearing a new shirt and a dash of cologne.

“What do they call this?” I asked.

“A date.”

“Romance,” I said. “That’s the word.”

I could give you the whole blow-by-blow, the way the evening unfolded, or I could simply say that I was a man divided, a split personality — infatuated with this beautiful woman, unspeakably grateful that she was helping put my family back together, and, at the same time, guilty as hell that I was moving on from Lauren. So I did what any reasonable person would do in my situation: I drank. A lot.

We went to a new brewery, which gave me a decent excuse for trying a number of beers. I started with a few samples and then ordered my first pint, and then another. Helen offered to drive.

Soon I could think of only one thing: sex. I’ve already admitted that we slept together, but I should clarify that, as a pastor, this was against the rules. And I know that it’s an excuse, but when your wife has died and you’ve gone years without sex, the hunger is insatiable.

We were seated at a high top, and each time I went to the bathroom, the step down to the floor seemed to grow. I passed Helen on my way, kissed her neck, and stared at the stone tiled wall in the bathroom while I peed. Then I sauntered back to the table.

“Want to blow this vegetable stand,” I said, finally.


“Your place.”

But then, on the drive, she turned quiet. As soon as we entered her house, she held up her hand — literally held up her hand like a traffic cop — and said, “James, what do you want from me?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

She was crying, standing straight as a pin.

“You tell me you care about me, but then you turn around and act like a jerk. You’re fine with me tutoring your kids, having sex with me.” She stopped. The word sex hung in the air, the long whispering s’s. I was in no condition to talk about it, though, or to drive myself home. She made me a coffee and said she would take me home when I sobered up. I turned on the television, so we didn’t have to talk. And, honestly, we never really circled back to this conversation. I told her I was sorry and that was it.

Pinky and I decided to play an open mic at a coffee shop in the warehouse district. All we needed was one song, so I kept writing. I once heard Wynton Marsalis describe how he would write for hours and sometimes keep nothing more than a line or a phrase. And so I kept working, until I finally had something.

Not long before Lauren died, the PTA brought a magician to our kids’ school for a fundraiser. The show was in the auditorium with a reception in the cafeteria, where they served appetizers and punch in plastic stemware.

On the way to the event, Lauren and I were arguing about something. We were running late and stressed, and I’m sure we were both aggravated, but the kicker is that I remember thinking during the magic show, “I wish this guy would make my wife disappear.” I didn’t really mean it, but the thought ran through my head, and then, in a matter of weeks, she was gone. Really gone.

Anyway, this is what the song is about: magic tricks and making things disappear and then wishing they would come back. About regret and death and how it is completely and utterly relentless. It wasn’t the greatest song in the world, but it was a big improvement from my other stuff, and at least it was honest. It was that or the whale song.

Helen came to the open mic. We hadn’t exactly returned to normal, but it seemed like we were moving in that direction. Pinky and I were pretty early in the schedule, and there weren’t many people in the room when we played our song, which was disappointing after all the work we put into it. The host called us to the front, and we waded through tables and chairs heading toward the makeshift stage, framed by the two speakers, mounted on those flimsy plastic floor stands. There was seating for about two dozen people at eight or nine tables, and the place was half full. We plugged in, played the song, and then it was over. A few people seemed really into it, nodding their heads and tapping on the table to keep time. But mostly the experience was pretty anticlimactic. We played our song and people clapped. Then we sat down.

Helen bent over and whispered in my ear. “That was really good.” She locked eyes with me, and I knew she meant it.

What I never expected was that, after two more acts (another singer-songwriter and a poet), the host called the next performer to the stage, and it was someone I never expected. It was Helen.

Before saying anything else, I should also mention that the place was now packed. Late arrivers filled the open tables, and some were even standing around the edges, leaning against the brick walls. If she was intimidated, she didn’t show it. When her name was called, Helen took a deep breath and marched to the stage, Pinky in tow. (They’d spent two weeks working on it; he filled me in later.)

They covered the U2 song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and it says something right there that she knew enough to pick a classic and a song that worked well with her voice. She sang on key (even when the melody jumped to a different range), but what was most striking was the way she rounded her phrases, instead of simply sitting on the notes. She didn’t have a big voice, but it was cool, with a little bit of grit, a little bit of texture. And, of course, Pinky knocked it out of the park.

It was the performance of the night, and as far as I was concerned it came out of nowhere. After nine months of dating, I should have known. But here I was, completely shocked at what had just taken place.

There’s a lot more that I could say about how things ended between us, but I’m trying to stick to the parts that really matter. And I think it’s enough to say that she was really gracious, and that I learned something about how self-absorbed I was. I should also add that she still regularly visits with the kids, and not only because she understands how difficult it would be for them to lose another mother figure. She really cares about them and makes time for them, even though it’s been a year since she broke it off.

If I sound nostalgic, I might not be getting my point across. I don’t miss dating Helen; we weren’t a good match. And it’s not right to say that I have regrets. That’s not it, either. Not exactly anyway. I wish I had treated her better, and I’m sorry for that, but I don’t wish that things had happened any differently. I’ve apologized, and she doesn’t need anything else from me. She’s a lot stronger than I realized.

I’ve said before that this kind of grieving doesn’t ever end. Lauren’s death changed me in ways that are permanent. But today, finally, I put that coffee mug in the dishwasher and ran it through. And then I put it back into the cabinet with the others.

As for Pinky and me, we’re still getting together. Still working, still playing. And my writing is getting better, little by little. Though I’m still trying to write the song that answers the question I don’t know how to ask.


Q AND A with Kevin Fitton

1. How did the idea for the story, “A Sentimental Person” first come to you?

I think initially, the story idea came from my own desire to write and perform music. I wanted to give that impulse to my character, and the first time I tried writing the story, it was the death of the main character’s sister. At that point, though, the story wasn’t working, and I ended up putting it away for several years.

When I came back to the story, I was in Sewanee, Tennessee at the summer writing program, and I remember very vividly sitting on the front porch of my cabin and writing those opening lines about the smell of the guitar. I was working in a notebook, and it was one of those rare occasions when the story came spilling out– I couldn’t write fast enough.

At that point, I was actually confronting death and loss– not in the way the main character does but in a way that was really new and profound for me– and maybe that’s why I turned back to the story at that point. I’m not totally sure. There’s always a bit of intuition at work, directing us toward certain stories and ideas, and that’s not something we can always unravel. I started writing, and it seemed to work much better the second time around.

2. I’d love to hear a little bit about your narrative choices in this piece: This first person narrator often addresses the reader–see examples below. Can you tell me a little bit about how you decided to employ this technique and who you believe he is addressing?

But I was talking about my guitar…

I mentioned before that I was feeling…

If I sound nostalgic, I may not be…

I am very drawn toward direct address. Most if not all of my 1st person stories include direct address in early drafts. Sometimes that ends up being removed in the revision process. In this case, it stayed.

What I like about direct address is that I like to recognize the audience’s presence in the story. The audience is a key part of the storytelling experience, and I like to remind myself that they’re there, listening. And by audience I mean a general audience. Readers. Friends. People in my life who might pick up a story or book I’ve written, when they normally wouldn’t be reading at all. Too often, I think we find ourselves writing for agents and editors, and that tendency tends to push writers in one direction. Often, I sense that we’re writing to impress one another rather than simply trying to tell a good and meaningful story. We complain that people don’t read, but are we writing books that people writ large want to read? 

I kept the direct address in this story, in particular, because the narrator was attempting to explain himself. He was sharing his experience with his audience in order to make meaning out of his experience of loss, along with his attempts at continuing to live his life after that loss. I don’t know if I ever thought about it this way, but I suppose the story is a sermon.

3. I found the moment when he meets Helen disconcerting because he sees her glance at his ring finger and he calls her out on it by saying: “Yup, single,” and then when she says, “I didn’t mean…” he insists, “Yeah you did.” 

I’m curious what you, as the writer, thought that particular scene would reveal about his character?

After years of people tiptoeing around him, James is tired of hiding. He wants to have a relationship where he can be himself without pretense. So he approaches Helen in a very direct way. He lays it all out. I like you, you like me. He tells the main features of his backstory right away in order to get it all out in the open. The irony, of course, is that he is unable to build this type of relationship, because he’s not yet willing to really uncover the pain and his related feelings of guilt and fear.

I think in this particular instance, it’s secondary, but it’s also important to note that, as a pastor, he’s used to telling people what to think. I write a fair amount about pastors, teachers, and coaches, because I find them very interesting. These are all helping professions (at least in theory), and yet part of the attraction is that they’re positions of power. Within the confines of these little worlds, the pastor/coach/teacher is the person in charge, and often they operate like mini-dictators. To be fair, lots of people in these positions (perhaps most) don’t exercise power in that way, but the potential is always there.

4. He admits that he worked hard as a pastor before his wife died, but what drove him, in reality, was the desire to succeed. Do you think that changes for him by the end of the story?

I think this changes as soon his wife dies. It launches him into a deep depression, and depressed people struggle with motivation. On top of that, the existential experience changes the way we think about ourselves. We very naturally become less concerned with what other people think. It chips away at their power other people’s opinions hold over us.

5. What does the open mike night when he hears Helen sing reveal to him about himself exactly? I think he realized he was self-absorbed, but was there anything else that you thought came up for him then?

Yes, he definitely sees how self-absorbed he is when she takes the stage. I think there’s also an important connection that happens. James had talked earlier in the story about how performer and audience can have this transcendent experience and moment of connection, and he’s upset that she doesn’t seem to share that when he and Pinky perform at church. But now he sees her. And I think what he really understands after this performance is that he just isn’t ready for this relationship. He’s still depressed. He’s still afraid of his own emotions. And it’s this moment at the open mic that brings this home for him.

I don’t think I realized how little he actually says about this experience in the text itself. It’s always very interesting to go back to our writing, given some time and space, and observe the choices we’ve made with fresh eyes.

6. I know you are a musician as well as a writer. Can you tell us a little bit about the musical choices in this story? For instance: Nothing but the Blood and the song Helen sings: Where the Streets Have No Name? (feel free to talk about others if you feel like it!) 

Nothing But the Blood just seemed like the right choice for James and Pinky. It’s a 19th-century hymn that has primarily been sung as plodding and robust, and yet it has the character of a gospel song with its repetition and simplicity. It lends itself to expansion and creativity. It seems like it’s what they would have picked.

As far as the U2 song, it’s Bono at his best, right?  Plus, the chorus seems perfectly appropriate: “We’re still building and burning down love/ burning down love/ And when I go there I go there with you/ It’s all I can do.”

I can’t say I wrestled too much with choosing songs for this story. When I first tried to write this story, I thought that I needed to write the songs that my character wrote, but they didn’t end up being any good, and I don’t think it was necessary. It was necessary to have the experience of writing songs, because that’s something I needed to really know. But the songs James writes aren’t really important in and of themselves.

7. How does the story “A Sentimental Person” fit in with the rest of your short story collection, Auras?

The collection is about broken relationships. I know, fun. More specifically, though, it’s about whether a person can come back from this experience of brokenness and find reconciliation, or forgiveness, or absolution, or peace. This story, A Sentimental Person, is about whether this man, James, can recover from an experience of loss that truly breaks him and can figure out how to move forward with his life.

Bio: Kevin Fitton is a writer, musician, and educator. He is the author of the story collection, Auras, from Fomite Press. He published the children’s book, Higher Ground, with Caldecott-winning artist, Mary Azarian, along with over a dozen short stories in nationally recognized magazines, like Jabberwock, Limestone, and The Saturday Evening Post. He holds an MFA from Bennington College and is a PhD candidate in creative writing at Western Michigan University. He lives in Grand Ledge, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.

Purchase Kevin Fitton’s new collection, Auras, here on Bookshop or here on Amazon.

Kelly’s Big List of Writing/Reading Resources: 2022

Hi Everyone,

Happy New Year!

I have some goodies for you:

I just completed Annette Gendler’s Writer’s Workbook for 2023 and highly recommend it.

Here’s a link to the workbook and to sign up for her newsletter.

Although I find the workbook extremely helpful, I am always unnerved as well. The time slips by and I never accomplish as much as I want to in any given year. I’ve been struggling with a novel for a long time, and my large stack of year-end assessments highlights how long I’ve been wrestling with the monster….

I’m also reassessing my relationship with Submittable in 2023. As I was listing my submissions on Gendler’s worksheet, I realized that although I didn’t submit as much this year, I still have 21 “in progress.” Two have been in limbo for over a year! I’d be curious to hear about other experiences. Are people noticing submissions taking longer these days?

Below you’ll find a list of everything that inspired me in 2022. I took a lot of classes–many of them for free–or very close to it!

  1. Story Club with George Saunders. For $50 a year, you get to study with George Saunders. Need I say more?
  2. A great resource during the pandemic was the Off Campus Writer’s Workshop based in Winnetka, Illinois, and my big fear post-pandemic was that they would return to in-person programming. Instead, they’ve gone hybrid! You can join for a minimal yearly fee and all of the classes are $10 apiece. I’ve taken excellent in-depth classes with Rebecca Makkai, Peter Orner, Taylor Byas, Rachel Swearingen, Charles Baxter, and more.
  3. Zine Lunch presented by Sarabande Books. So fun! And FREE.
  4. I’m so reluctant to share this next one, but I will resist the urge to go Gollum on you:

The Poetry Foundation offers monthly poetry book clubs and if you sign up, they send you the book for free.

5. Another Substack for those writing through illness: Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals includes tons of fun interviews with writers and artists and a monthly online meetup.

6. Look out for any upcoming classes with Emily Sernaker, of Your Favorite Poet’s Favorite Poet. She’s amazing. Also, check out her upcoming anthology of the same name.

7. Another person who got me through the pandemic is Michigan poet, Emily Stoddard. She’s starting a new substack in 2023: If you are a poet, it will definitely be worth your time.

8. My good friend (and amazing writer) Desiree Cooper is working with Katey Schultz on monthly mentorships. FYI for your longer projects.

9. I spent two weeks at VCCA in December where I finally finished that novel. I highly recommend it. Here are some of the artists/writers I was inspired by while I was there. If I forgot anyone, mea culpa. I have a mind like a sieve:












@raymondgphotos @raymondgrubbphoto


10. Austin Kleon’s substack never disappoints.

I think that’s it for now except for these last thoughts:

I Have the Answer, the audiobook will be out in February 2023. I am producing it independently as WSUP doesn’t put out audiobooks and I love them. You can pre-order here.

I run a podcast called Let’s Deconstruct a Story and the whole archive is available on my website. I have a few more guests lined up for 2023, but we are on hiatus until March. Do you have any thoughts/suggestions for me? Guest ideas? I’d love to hear them! Here’s a link to my interview with George Saunders as a starting point.

Here are some Bookshop suggestions for you. This list is NOT up to date but there are some good books on here, and all purchases indirectly benefit Pages Bookshop in Detroit, which I suggest visiting if you are in town.

Independent bookstores need us.

Please let me know what rocked your artistic/writing world in 2022. I’d love to hear!

Happy New Year again!



Hi Everyone!

I’m really looking forward to sharing this discussion with Toni Ann Johnson. I loved this collection! We will be talking about the story “Time Travel” winner of the 2021 Miller Audio Prize. Please listen to the story at the link below before you tune in to our podcast discussion.

This is the last post of 2022. Thanks so much to the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan and Pages Bookshop in Detroit for supporting us throughout the year. We will be on hiatus until February 2023. Please message me if there are any particular writers you would like to hear on the show.

Happy New Year!


Bio: Toni Ann Johnson is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her short story collection Light Skin Gone to Waste was published by the University of Georgia Press in the fall of 2022. She is also an accomplished novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Having grown up in Monroe, New York, in one of the first Black families to live there, many of Johnson’s short stories reflect her experience as a person of color. Johnson’s essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Emerson Review, Xavier Review, and many other publications. Her first novel, Remedy for a Broken Angel, was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award. Her novella Homecoming won Accents Publishing’s novella contest and was published in May 2021. Johnson has won the Humanitas Prize and the Christopher Award for her screenplay of the ABC film Ruby Bridges, as well as a second Humanitas Prize for Crown Heights, which aired on Showtime Television. She also co-wrote the popular dance movie Step Up 2: The Streets. Johnson has been a Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab Fellow, A Callaloo Writer’s Workshop Fellow (2016), and she’s received support for her writing from The Hurston/Wright Foundation, The Prague Summer Program for Writers, and the One Story Summer Conference.

Flannery O’Connor series editor Roxane Gay says of the collection, “Toni Ann Johnson’s Light Skin Gone to Waste is one of the most engrossing short story collections I’ve read in recent memory. These interconnected stories about a black family living in a predominantly white suburb of New York City are impeccably written, incisive, often infuriating, and unforgettable. At the center of many of these stories is Philip Arrington, a psychologist who tries to reshape the world to his liking as he moves through it, regardless of the ways his actions affect the people in his intimate orbit. With a deft eye for detail, crisp writing, and an uncanny understanding of human frailties, Toni Ann Johnson has created an endlessly interesting American family portrait.”

**Content Warning: During our podcast discussion, a racial epithet is used by the author to describe a racist incident that happened to her. Adult content/profanity as well.

Please listen to our discussion on:


Toni ann Johnson on “Let’s Deconstruct a Story”


Apple Music


or wherever you get your podcasts!

Toni Ann Johnson’s book, Light Skin Gone to Waste is available at Bookshop here or Amazon here.


George Saunders

Hi Everyone,

Well, I’m not going to lie. It was one of the top ten thrills of my life speaking with George Saunders. I was so excited, I thought I might spontaneously combust partway through the interview. But he could not have been more unpretentious, kind, and engaging. I learned so much from him, and hope you do too! Every story he writes reminds me that we are all multifaceted and precious, despite our flaws–what a gift to focus on our shared humanity, especially these days.

Thanks are in order:

I am so grateful to George Saunders. He agreed to this podcast as a benefit for Pages Bookshop in Detroit.

The Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan bought ten copies of Liberation Day for their patrons from Pages Bookshop, so this was a great community collaboration.

In addition, my gratitude to fellow writers Jenn Goddu, Linda Downing Miller, Ellen Birkett Morris, Suma Rosen, Julie Ann Stewart, Laura Hulthen Thomas, and Gloria Whelan for their incisive questions, and for participating in the class!

Please read “Mother’s Day” before listening to our discussion. It’s available in his new book, Liberation Day, or in The New Yorker, or for free as a New Yorker Fiction Audio Selection.

And feel free to enjoy the episode on




Amazon Music

or wherever you get your podcasts.

Check out this wonderful article (one of many!) about this new collection: The sweet humanity

Next month I’ll be talking to Toni Ann Johnson author of Light Skin Gone to Waste about a story from her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection.

Thanks for tuning in, everyone.


PS: We had some technical difficulties. At one point you might hear some garbage trucks in the background, at another point we got cut off mid-sentence (talking about the hot hands) and had to continue that conversation near the end of the recording, but I managed to edit out most of it, and then I handed it over to podcast engineer, Andrew Mason, at Upwork who managed to clean up the rest. Thanks, Andrew!

PSS: If you would like a transcript of this conversation, please contact me.

Bio: George Saunders is the author of nine books, including the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize, and the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

His book is available from Pages Bookshop in Detroit, Bookshop, or Amazon.


Jacob M. Appel

Hi Everyone,

I could not be more thrilled…today I am welcoming one of my all-time favorite writers to the podcast! Jacob M. Appel is so prolific it’s truly mind-boggling. I thought I’d read most of his books and it turns out I have read less than half!

I really loved “The Frying Finn” and hope you will too, but I also encourage you to check out Jacob’s website where he has many other stories available for free.

Before you listen to our discussion, please read Jacob’s story, “The Frying Finn” available at Agni online right here.

Also, I read a terrific article about how important it is for writers to study the work of writers they admire, which is what we are trying to do here on “Let’s Deconstruct a Story,” so here you go!

After you’ve read the story, please listen to our discussion here on Anchor, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, or any of the sites where you normally get your podcasts.

Jacob M. Appel on “Let’s Deconstruct a Story” on Spotify.
Jacob M. Appel on “Let’s Deconstruct a Story” on Anchor.

On October 1st, I’ll be talking to Peter Ho Davies

November 1st: Peter Orner

December 1st: Toni Ann Johnson.

Happy fall, everyone!


PS: If you enjoy this podcast, please consider a contribution. I’m saving up for better editing equipment. I love hosting this podcast but, let’s face it, the sound quality could be better 🙂

Thanks to the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan for committing to the purchase of ten books by each author I interview–and they are purchasing the books from our local bookstore, Pages Bookshop in Detroit. Wouldn’t it be amazing if more libraries followed suit? I’m working on it, and if you feel so inclined, you might ask your local library as well. I’d love to see short story writers earn a living wage.

The Liar’s Asylum by Jacob M. Appel


Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award in 2012. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence in November 2013. He is the author of seven other collections of short stories: The Magic Laundry, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, Einstein’s Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, Amazing Things Are Happening Here, The Amazing Mr. Morality, The Liars’ Asylum and Winter Honeymoon; an essay collection, Phoning Home; a poetry collection, The Cynic in Extremis; four other novels novel: The Biology of Luck, The Mask of Sanity, Surrendering Appomattox, and Millard Salter’s Last Day; and a collection of ethical dilemmas, Who Says You’re Dead?
Jacob has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. He has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer’s Digest “grand prize” twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also won annual contests sponsored by Boston Review, Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Briar Cliff Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Writers’ Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square. His work has been short-listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received “special mention” for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013.
Jacob holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, an M.F.A. in playwriting from Queens College, an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was honored with the Undergraduate Council of Students Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He also publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, the Hastings Center Report, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times, The Providence Journal and many regional newspapers.
Jacob has been admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.

Check out all of Jacob M. Appel’s books here on or here on Amazon.


Selena Anderson

Hi Everyone,

Sorry this post is arriving a little late in the day, but I came home on Thursday to rain in the dining room and kitchen courtesy of a broken pipe in the upstairs bathroom–it’s been quite a weekend.

I loved talking to Selena Anderson about her Best American Short Stories (2020), “Godmother Tea!”

Please read the story below and then enjoy the podcast. I cannot wait to read her first collection sometime in the near future.

All best,

Please read here:

Godmother Tea, Oxford American

Godmother Tea PDF

Please listen here on Anchor or here on Spotify.

Please contact me if you would like a transcript.

Bio: Selena Anderson is a writer from Texas. Her stories have appeared in Fence, BOMB, Conjunctions, The Baffler, Oxford American, and The Best American Short Stories 2020. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, The Henfield/TransAtlantic Prize, and The Texas Emerging Star Award. She is working on a novel.


Hi Everyone,

This is a special edition of “Let’s Deconstruct a Story” recorded live on June 24, 2022, at Pages Bookshop in Detroit featuring Lydia Conklin in conversation with the novelist, Lillian Li, about her short story collection Rainbow Rainbow and specifically about the story “Sunny Talks” which first appeared in “One Story” in January of 2022.

You will love this conversation! Lillian Li (author of “Number One Chinese Restaurant”) was such an amazing interviewer! It made me think I should have guest interviewers on the podcast more often. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Because this is a live recording, the sound quality is a little bit wonky and if you would like the recording transcribed just reach out to me and I will be happy to send one to you!

This episode is part of a series of podcasts offered in collaboration with the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan. The GPPL has committed to purchasing ten books by each author this season 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 their support is to us! 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 year to suggest this programming. Please feel free to do the same if you enjoy this podcast.

This podcast is also supported by Pages Bookshop in Detroit, and we would be extremely grateful if you purchased the book online through Pages. Local bookstores won’t survive without help from customers like you!

Thanks, everyone! See you on August 15th with Selena Anderson and “Godmother Tea.


Please listen here on Anchor:

or here on Spotify. (You can also find this podcast on four other platforms)


Lydia Conklin is an Assistant Professor of Fiction at Vanderbilt University. Previously they were the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Fiction at the University of Michigan. They’ve received a Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, three Pushcart Prizes, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Creative & Performing Arts Fulbright to Poland, work-study and tuition scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Djerassi, Hedgebrook, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, VCCA, Millay, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Brush Creek, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Caldera, the Sitka Center, and Harvard University, among others. They were the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in fiction at Emory University. Their fiction has appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming from The Paris Review. They have drawn graphic fiction for Lenny Letter, Drunken Boat, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and cartoons for The New Yorker and Narrative Magazine. Their story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, will be published in June 2022 by Catapult in the US and Scribner in the UK.

Lillian Li is the author of the novel Number One Chinese Restaurant, which was an NPR Best Book of 2018, and longlisted for the Women’s Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Granta, One Story, Bon Appetit, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, and Jezebel. Originally from the D.C. metro area, she lives in Ann Arbor.

Please purchase a copy of Rainbow Rainbow here from Pages or here from Bookshop.


Maurine Ogbaa

Maurine Ogbaa

Hi Everyone,

“Let’s Deconstruct a Story” is a podcast where we read and discuss one short story with the author. For this episode, please read “Goodbye” by Maurine Ogbaa, first published in Agni

**Please note we will be talking about suicide on this episode.**

This summer I am posting two episodes with writers who have not yet published their first short story collections. This podcast is dedicated to the work of Maurine Ogbaa and on August 15th I will be posting a conversation with Selena Anderson about her short story “Godmother Tea,” which was chosen for the Best American Short Stories anthology in 2020. I’m thrilled to highlight the work of these two new voices!

“Let’s Deconstruct a Story” is offered in collaboration with the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan. The GPPL has committed to purchasing ten books by each author this season 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 their support is for us! 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 year to suggest this programming. Please feel free to do the same if you enjoy this podcast.

Next up in the published authors series is Lydia Conklin on August 1st.

This podcast is also supported by Pages Bookshop in Detroit, and we would be extremely grateful if you purchased any of the books featured here through Pages. Local bookstores won’t survive without help from customers like you!

“Let’s Deconstruct a Story” is available on six platforms. Please listen to the podcast on your preferred platform or on Anchor or Spotify below.

I hope you enjoy this episode!

Please listen here on Anchor.

Or here on Spotify.



Maurine Ogbaa is a writer-scholar. Her current project is a short fiction collection which broadly examines intimacy, reconciliation, maturation, and intraracial diversity through stories about Nigerian Americans in Houston, Texas. Stories from this collection have been published in Callaloo, AGNI, and Prairie Schooner, which awarded her the 2020 Glenna Luschei Award. An alumna of the Tin House Summer Workshops, Rivendell Writer’s Colony, and the Pan-African Literary Forum (Ghana), she will be a writer-in-residence at Jentel Arts Residency in summer 2022.

Previously, Maurine earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Houston. Currently, she teaches graduate and undergraduate prose workshops and literature seminars at The University of Texas at Dallas.

And One Last Note:

Julia Glass visiting Pages Bookshop this past week. Her new book, Vigil Harbor, is terrific! I highly recommend it. 

She also had some summer reading recommendations for us, so I thought I would pass them on to you. Enjoy! 

The Golden Season

Homeland Elegies

Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau

Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Five Tuesdays in Winter (Also you can listen to the podcast episode of my interview with Lily King.)


Hi Everyone,

I’m thrilled to welcome Ellen Birkett Morris to the show today.

Please read her story “Inheritance” before listening to our discussion.

(Content warning: sexual assault and suicide)

During our talk, Ellen also mentioned a book by Ron Carlson called “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” which is out of print unfortunately but you might find a used copy here.

Next month, Rion Amilcar Scott will record his episode with me on June 28th from 6-7pm. Pages Bookshop in Detroit is sponsoring this virtual event; if you would like to sign up for it, you may register here:

Register in advance for this meeting:

** Please read (or listen to) Rion Amilcar Scott’s New Yorker story, Shape-ups at Delilah’s,” beforehand.

Many thanks to the Grosse Pointe Public Library and Pages Bookshop in Detroit for their support of this podcast. Please let your local schools, libraries, and bookstores know about “Let’s Deconstruct a Story,” if you find the material valuable. LDAS is a labor of love, but every donation helps, and we are deeply grateful for them.

My conversation with Ellen Birkett Morris is available on Anchor and Spotify below but also at several other places including Apple Podcasts.






Bio: A native of Louisville, Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of LOST GIRLS, a short story collection, and SURRENDER, a poetry chapbook. LOST GIRLS is a finalist for the 2021 Clara Johnson Award for Literature and winner of the Pencraft Award for short stories. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Queens University – Charlotte. Her short stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Shenandoah, South Carolina Review, Upstreet, and elsewhere.

Purchase “Lost Girls” from Bookshop or Amazon. Thanks!


Hi Everyone,

I’m excited to share my interview with Sara Majka about the title short story, “Cities I’ve Never Lived In.” Here’s a brief description of the collection from the publisher Graywolf Press:

“Fearlessly riding the line between imagination and experience, fact and fiction, the linked stories in Sara Majka’s debut collection offer intimate glimpses of a young New England woman whose life must begin afresh after a divorce. Traveling the roads of Maine and the train tracks of Grand Central Station, moving from vast shorelines to the unmade beds of strangers, these fourteen stories circle the dreams of a narrator who finds herself turning to storytelling as a means of working through the world and of understanding herself. A book that upends our ideas of love and belonging, and which asks how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, Cities I’ve Never Lived In exposes, with great sadness and great humor, the ways in which we are most of all citizens of the places where we cannot stay.”

Before you listen to our discussion, first please read “Cities I’ve Never Lived In” here.

Then enjoy our discussion here on Anchor:


Or here on Spotify:


Or wherever you get your podcasts!



Sara Majka


When she was young, Sara Majka’s family moved along the New England coast, living in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and small towns in Maine. She received graduate degrees from Umass-Amherst and Bennington College and was awarded a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her first book, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, was published by Graywolf Press / A Public Space in 2016. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island where she teaches writing at RISD.

Sara Majka’s book can be purchased here on Bookshop and here on Amazon as well as directly from the publisher, Graywolf Press.

Upcoming shows:

June 1st: Ellen Birkett Morris

July 1st: Rion Amilcar Scott

July 15th: Maurine Ogbaa

August 1st: Selena Anderson

September 1st: Jacob M. Appel

October 1st: Peter Ho Davies

November 1st: Peter Orner

December 1st: Toni Ann Johnson