Back to VCCA

Toward the end of last year, I had a long writing residency at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the conclusion of which I wrote about here: End of Residency Blues. While that month was wonderful, it also had its frustrations, generating doubts about the project I was working on.

Over the weeks that followed, I had a chance to think about writing goals for 2018, which I wrote about here: 2018 Writing Goals. People who read about my goals confirmed what I already knew: they were terribly ambitious. But less than six weeks into the year, I’m feeling pretty good about them.

For one thing, I finished selecting the 20 short stories that will make up the anthology I’m editing, Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. There’s still a lot of work to be done (contracting, editing, formatting, publicity, etc.), but we’re easily on track for publication in the fall.

Another goal was to finish a story collection I was working on. I had thought about hiding out in the mountains at a B&B to focus on that, but a different opportunity knocked: a chance to return to VCCA for a short residency. While my last residency of a full month was my longest ever, this five-day stay is my shortest, but it has been incredibly productive. I’ve finished several stories for the new collection—they were already begun and in draft form—and I should be able to complete the manuscript in the next couple of weeks, before my self-imposed deadline of March 1. I’m very excited about that and look forward to submitting some of those stories to magazines and the whole manuscript to publishers in the near future. The image above is my studio, W5, also known as the “corn crib.” Very funky, but it has served me well.

With those two major projects in hand, I’ve begun to turn my thoughts back to the novel that had been frustrating me during my last residency. I have some ideas for restructuring what I have so far, and I’m hopeful that will give me the momentum I need to reach the finish line (“The End”) later this year.

So this residency, despite being extremely short, has been highly productive. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here.

(If you are a writer, visual artist, or composer and have not yet done a residency at VCCA, consider applying. Go here for more information.)

Forgetting English by Midge Raymond

forgetting englishForgetting English by Midge Raymond

This is another book I read last year but didn’t have time to write about. This story collection won The Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, but before the prize sponsor, Eastern Washington University Press, could publish the book, they folded. (The prize is now sponsored by Willow Springs Books.) But somehow, the author was put in touch with Press 53, and they brought the book out in 2011. It’s a terrific collection. (You can buy the book directly from Press 53 by going here.)

These are my kind of stories, set all over the world. “First Sunday,” the book’s opening story, takes place in Tonga where one of the characters has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (another reason the story appeals to me). “Translation Memory” is set in Japan. “The Road to Hana” takes place in Hawaii. Taiwan is the setting for the title story, “Forgetting English.” “Rest of the World” follows its main character from San Francisco to Taipei to Tokyo. “Under Limestone Cliffs” takes the reader to Thailand, “Beyond the Kopjes” goes to Tanzania, “Lost Art” lands in Australia, and “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean” brings us back to Hawaii.

But it was the collection’s third story, “The Ecstatic Cry,” that first brought the book to my attention. In 2014 I was putting together an anthology, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, also published by Press 53, and received the story from Midge as a submission to consider. I loved it. The story is set in Antarctica and involves a romance between two researchers who are stationed there. “The Ecstatic Cry” is now the opening story in Everywhere Stories.

It should also be noted that Midge has gone on to write a novel about the main character in that story, and My Last Continent will be coming out soon from Simon & Schuster.

2013 Reading: Love, In Theory by E.J. Levy

love in theoryLove, in Theory: Ten Stories (Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction) by E.J. Levy is a terrific collection of short stories, linked by their general theme–they’re mostly stories of disastrous love–and by the idea of they theory (“The Theory of Dramatic Action,” “My Live in Theory,” “Theory of the Leisure Class,” etc.).

I met E.J. at VCCA a couple of years ago, and I vaguely recall her reading from this collection, which was then in progress. (Or, at least, when I read the concluding story, “The Theory of Dramatic Action,” I was sure that I’d read it before, in part, so that’s my, ahem, theory.) And then, as it turned out, we were both on the same short story panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book this year. I had hoped to finish reading her book before the festival, but, alas, that didn’t happen.

This collection won the Flannery O’Connor award, which is reason enough to read it.

Short Story Resurgence?

storyWe are now being told that short story collections are all the rage. A story from yesterday’s New York Times is circulating among writers on Facebook today that argues short story collections are undergoing a resurgence–thanks to the Internet (Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories.)

Story collections, an often underappreciated literary cousin of novels, are experiencing a resurgence, driven by a proliferation of digital options that offer not only new creative opportunities but exposure and revenue as well.

The author, Leslie Kaufman, cites 2013 releases by such notables as George Saunders, Karen Russell, Amber Dermont, and Jess Walter as evidence of … something. Kaufman also quotes Cal Morgan of Harper Perennial: “The Internet has made people a lot more open to reading story forms that are different from the novel, and you see a generation of writers very engaged in experimentation.”

I don’t know about that Internet claim, but those of us who were paying attention already knew great things were happening with the short story. Consider the Story Prize. Take a look at the blog posts by authors who were nominated for this coveted award in 2012: Index of Blog Posts. The list of 2012 story collections is mind-boggling, including some really terrific books by both established and emerging writers.

For years, short story writers have been told by agents that story collections don’t sell. Readers don’t buy them (except, presumably, for other writers of stories), so publishers don’t publish them, so agents won’t represent them. No writer I know was ever convinced by this argument, but there wasn’t much we could do about. Agents were/are the gatekeepers to the big publishers, and so there was cycle that fed on itself.

Fortunately, though, there are some small presses that produce some excellent short story collections. Press 53, for example, which published both of my collections, specializes in story and poetry collections. I’m hopeful that, if it’s true about the story collection resurgence, that readers look for titles beyond the big publishers.