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!
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.
Welcome to the first “Let’s Deconstruct a Story” podcast 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 this 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 year to suggest this programming. Please feel free to do the same if you enjoy this podcast.
Our first guest this season is Caitlin Horrocks, author of the story collections Life Among the Terranauts and This Is Not Your City, both New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selections. Her novel The Vexations was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal.
Caitlin was gracious enough to speak with me twice over the past year despite having three kids under the age of three! The first time we talked about her story “Chance Me” at Pages Bookshop in Detroit in front of a Crowdcast audience. This time we discussed “The Oregon Trail,” a story that delighted and baffled me in equal measure because I missed the central premise.
Apple, Podbean, or wherever you listen to podcasts!
Also, I kept my annotated copy of “Chance Me” so when you read Life Among the Terranauts please feel free to reach out if you would like to discuss that story as well.
Bio: Caitlin Horrocks is the author of the story collections Life Among the Terranauts and This Is Not Your City, both New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selections. Her novel The Vexations was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, and One Story, as well as other journals and anthologies. Her awards include the Plimpton Prize and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the MacDowell Colony. She is on the advisory board of The Kenyon Review, where she formerly served as fiction editor. She teaches at Grand Valley State University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer W. Todd Kaneko and their noisy kids.
Life Among the Terranauts is available at the Grosse Pointe Library (for FREE–your very own copy!!) if you happen to live here, at Bookshop (where the purchase benefits “Let’s Deconstruct a Story”), or on Amazon.
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.
Today on the blog, Bill Harris and I will be talking about his story, “That First Year the Business Was Wood,” from his award-winning Wayne State University Press collection, I Got to Keep Moving.
Bill Harris is a Wayne State University emeritus professor of English. He is a playwright, poet, and arts critic. His plays have been produced nationwide and he has published books of plays, poetry, and reappraisals of American history. He received the 2011 Kresge Foundation Eminent Artist award. http://www.billharriswrites.com.
It’s best to read the story before listening to our discussion so we don’t spoil the ending for you. Just click on this link below:
“I Got to Keep Moving” is available from Pages Bookshop here or Wayne State University Press here or Bookshop here or Amazon here.
I plan to continue discussing stories through the fall. Please let me know if you have a new book of short stories out so we can talk about it!
I HAVE THE ANSWER: MARKETING HELP NEEDED!
I Have the Answer has been out since April 11th. It was hard to market or even think about a new book this past spring, and if you are so inclined, I would love your help.
There are two main ways:
Write a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Reviews at these places make a big difference and help drive sales. My hope is that people read the reviews and then purchase the book from their local indie bookstore like Pages Bookshop in Detroit!
If you have already read and enjoyed the book, please let your friends know on social media with either a picture or just a suggestion that they might want to buy the book. Here’s a link to WSUPress for more information: https://www.wsupress.wayne.edu/books/detail/i-have-answer Please use the hashtag with #IHAVETHEANSWER and please tag @WSUPress and @kfor24.
I recorded a podcast last week for Without Books and if you haven’t heard of them, I highly recommend the short messages they record by authors reminding us all about the importance of books.
Today Laura Thomas and I will be discussing the story “Sole Suspect” which first appeared in Midwestern Gothic and is included in her 2017 award-winning short story collection, States of Motion.
In order to get the most out of our discussion, you might want to read the story first and then listen to our conversation afterward. Here’s a PDF of the story. (Below the video, you will find a link to purchase the book.)
Bio: Laura Hulthen Thomas’s short fiction and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Cimarron Review,Nimrod International Journal, Epiphany, and Witness. She received her MFA in fiction writing from Warren Wilson College. She currently heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.
This blog will return for regularly scheduled programming on June 15th, and will now include interviews and features with prose writers as well as poets.
In the meantime, I have listed some news, recommendations, and upcoming events below.
I didn’t want to ask Julia Glass (National Book Award-winner, Three Junes) for another blurb because she gave me one for Garden for the Blind, but I was thrilled when she wrote to me that she’d read the book:
“What a beautiful book! As I finished the last of these astute, moving, and often funny stories, I was reminded of something a fellow writer once said to an audience of fans: “What I want is not so much that you’ll get into my book but that my book will get into you.”
I was also really psyched when Nina Lorez Collins and The Woolfer endorsed I Have the Answer! Here’s what they said:
“Kelly is a longtime Woolfer, and a poet, and she lives in Michigan, where many of these Ann Beattie-esque stories are set. Nina LOVED this collection, and we also highly recommend Kelly’s poetry collection, Goodbye Toothless House.”
Tuesday, June 16th at 7pm: I’ll be talking to the Harrison Public Library on Zoom. The event is free and open to all. Here are the details: Michigan Notable Prize-winner, Kelly Fordon reads and discusses selections from her new short story collection, talks about the writing process, and offers advice for aspiring writers. Her 30-minute presentation will be followed by time for Q and A. Sign up here.
Saturday, June 20th at 1pm: Workshop with Pages Bookshop (details below).
Saturday, June 27th at noon: St. Clair Shores Literary Walk with ML Liebler. More information to come.
Here are some other recent articles and reading lists, as well as an interview with Shelley Irwin at WGVU:
It’s been a few weeks now since the book was released and I think it’s fair to say it was not an optimal time to release any book, however I am grateful to those who purchased it and have posted and shared about the work.
If you’ve received your copy and have had a chance to read it, I would be so grateful for a rating or review. It takes about two minutes on Amazon or on Goodreads.
If you’ve never left an Amazon review before, this is how to do it:
Sign in to your account. …
Click the Orders menu. …
Locate the order containing the product you want to review. …
Click Write a product review next to the order. …
Select an overall star rating. …
Add a photo or video (optional) of the product. …
Type your review. …
Again, thank you for your support.
PS: I adapted this “help me with reviews” template from a writer I really admire, Cynthia Kane, who also released a new book in April 2020. I’ve enjoyed all of her work and her latest is called: How to Meditate like a Buddhist. I highly recommend checking out all of her books.
Please share some of your favorite books with me. I need more reading material!
I have one last update, however I do have to issue a trigger warning here, so if you are triggered by mention of assault or sexual assault in particular, please don’t read below the below this.
Last month, I talked about my sexual assault here on Bookstr.
And upcoming later in a June, an essay about the “real” experience will be out in River Teeth Journal.
As my friend Desiree Cooper says, it takes a long time to learn how to be an advocate. I’m not quite there yet. I want to be a part of the solution. I want to be open and honest. I have forced myself to write about it. I admire fierce advocates who can get up in front of people on panels and share their experience. It took just about everything out of me just to write that sentence above. I still go into a fugue state sometimes (even right this minute) when I think about it. Recent developments forced me to either face these grave injustices or remain silent, and remaining silent did not seem like the right personal choice given the tremendous bravery of other survivors.
It’s a sad fact that there’s no medal, and often much ridicule, for putting yourself on the line, but I’m also 100% sure the more people stand up and speak, the harder these crimes will be to ignore. Many of the people you talk to on a daily basis have been assaulted. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
Keeping that in mind, when you speak to anyone about sexual violence perhaps it would be better not to assume that they have been lucky.
On June 20th and July 18th I will be conducting two workshops in partnership with Pages Bookshop about writing through trauma in fiction and nonfiction. My hope is to offer a few pointers about protecting your own mental health while writing about traumatic events. In my own experience, writing has helped me unpack my feelings about the event, first by using fiction as a way to distance myself from it, and later by confronting it head-on in nonfiction. The goal of these workshops is to help other writers express themselves while taking good care of themselves at the same time.