Entering its 14th year and a new decade, the New Short Fiction Series moves from its former home at the Beverly Hills Public Library to the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd. The second Sunday of every month, Sally Shore and her troupe of local stage and screen actors present the short fiction of West Coast fiction writers. If you’ve never seen fiction read by a professional actor, you’re in for a treat.
This page will include periodic interviews with featured authors, and other news & notes from the Series.
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An interview with Suzanne Rivecca, whose stories and debut collection Death Is Not An Option were featured in the July 11 2010 show.
Let’s talk first about length. At AWP this year, Jill Meyers from American Short Fiction led a panel called ‘Going Long’ in which she spoke about extended length being the ‘midwife’ for certain narratives that wouldn’t be fully formed at a standard word count. I thought about that with your stories. There’s no filler, nothing gratuitous–but the longer length allows certain complexities to emerge. Talk about that, whether you got pressure from teachers or editors or fellow students to cut back. And was Alice Munro an influence in that regard?
I didn’t get much pressure to shorten from teachers or editors, but primarily from other students in workshop. I think sometimes the workshop creates an atmosphere wherein people know they have to speak up and make a criticism, they know that’s their ‘job’… There’s also a mentality that every story can be improved by ‘tightening.’ There’s something virtuous and ascetic about ‘tightening’–it’s a weird deification of linguistic thrift. But I had one teacher who said that you should resist the urge to leave characters in the lurch when they’re in an uncomfortable situation–you should stick with it and see them through that situation, work through the discomfort. That was very helpful to me in terms of letting a scene grow, organically, instead of foreshortening it for punchy effect. Alice Munro has definitely been an influence in that regard and in every other. Her refusal to let her characters off the hook, the ruthless emotional inventory she takes of them, has been her stories’ most influential quality for me.
Two of the stories feature extended excerpts from letters. And the entire story ‘Consummation’ can be read as a kind of letter.
I tried to write ‘Consummation’ a couple different ways before I decided on the letter format. Originally it was a literal letter, with a salutation and street address and everything. But I removed that part. The epistolary form allowed me to see around the narrator’s point of view a bit–the formality and artificiality of the form of address allowed her to take on a kind of guise, to present herself and make her case very deliberately and carefully. Because it was such a one-sided exchange, it favored her, but it also gave her away. I like that aspect of the letter form in stories; it gives the narrators enough rope to hang themselves with.
There’s a fascinating interplay in your stories between ideas and emotions. Your protagonists are hyper-articulate, and very smart–sometimes too smart for their own good. But you the writer never lose sight of the fact that it is emotions, and messy emotions at that, that drive a good story.
I think that, for most of my characters, their intellectual development happened far in advance of their emotional development. They are eternally playing catch-up. The emotions are immune to logic and analysis, but not vice versa. It’s harder, and more interesting to me, when you’re smart enough to know you’re acting destructively–when you’re even smart enough to know why you’re acting that way–but there’s a core of stubborn incomprehensibility to your behavior that prohibits you from gaining power over it.
As a kind of follow-up: One of my pet peeves is the overly self-aware narrator, who always seems to know what she’s feeling and why. Your characters, by contrast, while highly articulate, are constantly blind-sided by emotions they don’t see coming and don’t understand. That to me reads much more truly. Talk about how you arrive at that place with a character.
I didn’t want my narrators to be smart at the expense of everyone else in the story; I hate it when a narrator is used as a vehicle to prove a point or to be the author’s above-it-all stand-in. So I kept trying to discomfit them, to throw them for a loop. Whenever they were feeling too smug or on top of things, I tried to throw them a curveball. For example, in ‘Look Ma, I’m Breathing,’ Isabel knows full well that the landlord who’s harassing her is a pathetic, broken man who’s projecting all sorts of insane baggage into her, but what she doesn’t quite understand is why his message hits such a vulnerable nerve with her. So, even though she solves the problem with supreme competence… she’s still left with this far messier emotional dilemma that’s impossible for her to solve.
And finally, as a follow-up to that: You seem to carefully avoid the classic ‘epiphany’ moment. At the end of your stories, we may understand your protagonists better, but it’s unclear whether they do. And even our understanding of them is a murky and tangled one. Do your characters remain mysteries to you?
I like the Catholic Church’s definition of mystery: a truth that’s beyond human comprehension and has a dignity and inviolability that rebuffs all attempts to grab and examine and muddy it. I think that everyone has a core of fundamental unknowability, and there’s a certain grace in just letting that be. So I like to take characters up to that point where the screen’s being pulled back and they’re dazzled by what they’re seeing, but true self-knowledge eludes them.
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An interview with Kate Milliken, whose stories were featured in the June 12, 2009 show.
A la Hemingway’s iceberg theory, there’s a lot of submerged stuff in your stories. There’s a real tangle and mystery to them: in each of the stories I read, there’s a point where you realize, ‘Hmmm… there’s more here than meets the eye.’ How do you get to that level of subtext? Do you write long and then whittle? Are there things on the surface in early drafts which you then go back and bury?
Of course I always write more than anyone ends up seeing, but I can’t say I write long. I labor more at the first draft than any other. I’m always whittling as I go. But I also spend a lot of time outside the story, getting to know the characters in larger contexts: where they’re coming from, where they’re going, how their cousin Larry liked that Christmas tie, if they’re dog or cat people…the important stuff, but also the minutia. Minutia comes in handy. I want to know my characters like siblings, if I don’t do that, if I don’t establish that intimacy with them, then I tire of their company easily and they end up sounding like other characters I’ve already written. Which has happened more than I care to admit.
Regarding things on the surface getting buried later, I think that does sometimes happen, yes, of course. But more often—I hesitate being deductive here, but—my stories are usually about people finally seeing or acting on something that they had buried, and so through the story they are revealing themselves to themselves and therefore the buried elements are innate to the story’s development.
The stories I read all seem to deal, on some level, with the way people fail or disappoint each other. But they don’t at all come off as cynical. Which made me think a little of Carver. Does that make sense? And who are some writers who have been important to you as a writer?
I’m glad you didn’t find the pieces cynical. I’m a sarcastic person, but not cynical. I think the latter lacks hope and I’m big on hope.
And Carver! Well, sure that makes perfect sense—or at least I really, really want it to. Carver was one of the first short stories writers who had an impact on me, whose work left me feeling that something in me had shifted. That’s a big thing for a young reader, to feel changed by a line of dialogue, by the way a moment turns on someone’s glance; that a piece of fiction could suggest to you a new way of living – or, rather, how not to live. It’s big enough to make you want to write. I learned a lot about dialogue from Carver. Other authors of equally invaluable instruction: Amy Hempel, Joan Didion, Grace Paley, James Joyce, Joy Williams, James Salter, Mary Gaitskill, Jill McCorkle, Tim O’Brien, Virginia Woolf. And the poets Sharon Olds, Alice Anderson and Adrianne Rich. Not a writing day goes by without my looking to one of them for inspiration or reassurance.
You’re very good at avoiding awkward exposition. The world of the story opens up to us gradually, we find out things only when we need to, and in context, in stride with the story. Is that something you work at? And do you find that it’s a difficult discipline for beginning writers to grasp?
I find most exposition ends up being awkward, so I guess I do work at it. Actually, it might be that I’m just not very good at it. And sometimes it is very much needed.
But as far as it being difficult for beginning writers, yes, I think it is and if it weren’t I wouldn’t have much to offer as a teacher. I subscribe to the [Flannery] O’Connor line: no meaning but in things [a theme she often returns to in Mystery & Manners–and of course William Carlos Williams said “no ideas but in things”]. Well, things are the opposite of exposition. Things, the tangible, that’s what I try to make a story from, so that everything does mean something, it has literal and emotional weight, everything is there for a reason and the reason is to reveal, to make real all of that stuff that our first impulse (often our laziest) was to just tell. If I just tell you something, well then I haven’t bothered to take you anywhere and you’re probably pissed about the price of that ticket.
Last, the stories I read, while again not cynical, seem to have a bit of a dark vision. How does that reconcile with having a young child, and has she changed the way you write?
Damn good question.
As you said earlier, some of my characters are wrestling with the sense that someone or they themselves have failed them. I think this darkness, this air of disappointment is in part from the air I grew up breathing and I’m often trying to write my way out of it. My daughter has brought more optimism into my life, for sure. Her awestruck amazement with the world around her—the hours we’ve spent this week figuring out how to push a button into a buttonhole—I hope will eventually seep into the air my characters breathe too. But for now, if anything, my work is probably a shade darker than it was before. Seeing just how bright and fabulous it can all be makes for an even starker contrast.
But her being, her little face is the greatest motivation to write that I have ever known. And I know that when I’m not working on something, I don’t make for the best company. It seems writers, artists, have a need for that story arch, that drama, and I think if we aren’t actively creating it, we go looking for it – we make the drama around us, in our own lives or we get sullen. She motivates me to write so that that artistic tendency stays occupied and I can be present and fully take part in her innocence and wonder. Having a kid you get to be a kid again, if you’re willing. And then when you’re writing you’re also playing. I’m really having the time of my life.
I just hope she never feels a need to read my work and that she’ll always remember my jokes.
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An interview with Kirsten Menger-Anderson. Stories from her collection Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain were featured in the November 2008 show.
This is such a unique conceit for a story collection. How did it come about and evolve?
The book began as a single story, “Reading Grandpa’s Head.” I had been reading about phrenology; I was fascinated by the belief that we could determine personality from the shape of our heads alone. That got the whole thing going. I started to read medical histories, particularly the work of Jan Bondeson (A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities), and I kept getting excited by the medicine of by-gone eras. I wrote piece after piece. All set in different time periods, all concerning different medical techniques. The idea of the family came later, though once that was in place, it helped guide me to new times and new sciences.
The book is peopled with characters who largely don’t understand their own impulses—which rings very true to me. And the book’s succession of doctors and healers, espousing theories that to us seem crack-pot, is the perfect vehicle for that theme. Because although the science has improved, we humans are every bit the mystery we’ve always been.
We are mysterious creatures. We’re still struggling to understand how we work. When I wrote the pieces, I was thinking about truth—or accepted truth—and how that is defined by our times and our technologies. We might find Dr. Jan Steenwycks’s efforts to determine a patient truly dead (garlic, probes, etc) amusing, but we still struggle with that mystery today. I was reading an article about a new heart transplant procedure for infants. To preserve the heart, which can be damaged if left too long in a corpse, the surgeons were removing the transplant organ from dead infants before the time proscribed by the 2005 “dead donor rule” (which suggests that doctors wait between 2-5 minutes before declaring death). Note the year: 2005. And we’re still debating.
There’s a great deal of social unrest throughout—and though it’s largely in the background it seems essential. There are the ‘Negroes’ rising up and burning the docks in an early story (1741); in “The Baquet” (1850) there is women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, a gang of homeless youth; later, McCarthyism, and Attica. The setting of New York seems key in this respect: both as a meeting ground for the Old and New World, and as a kind of social laboratory for America. You conjure that volatility wonderfully in the description of the factories “that rose like flaming candles” throughout the city. Talk about New York as setting, about social and political context, and researching the book.
Although I lived in New York City for nearly three years, I didn’t learn much about the city’s history until I started working on Doctor Olaf. I bought a copy of Burrows and Wallace’s Gotham, which chronicles the city’s history through 1898. I was struck not only by how rich the city’s history is, but by its darkness—the public hangings, the slave markets, the position of women (who could not own property, sign contracts, or be the legal guardian of their own children, not to mention vote). I thought these social issues would pair well with the medical ones, and I tried to weave both threads through the stories so that we could see snap shots of significant (and often misguided) moments in our social and scientific history—a bit like unconnected points on graph paper that readers can fit their own “how we have progressed” curves to. I really loved the research. I’m particularly fond of old city maps that show the farms and lakes that used to cover Manhattan.
There’s an interesting shift in the collection from the early stories dominated by men, to the later ones where women and their issues are more featured. It felt like “Hysteria” was a turning point. Though the father, Willis, is prone to seeing signs of hysteria in all the women around him, including his daughter, it is his daughter’s healing touch that comes to the fore at the end of the story—and is confirmed in the next story.
Addressing the position of women in the sciences and in society was important to me, and I’m glad you picked up on that theme. Aside from a few very strong personalities (Maria Montessori comes to mind–founder of the Montessori schools, and considered Italy’s first certified female physician. She graduated from the College of Medicine at the University of Rome in 1896. Gertrude Stein spent a few years at John Hopkins Medical School several years later, but left without a degree), it is rare if not impossible to find women doctors in the time that comprises the first two thirds of Doctor Olaf. Edith, Willis’s daughter, may well have made a fine physician, and she does get a chance to work with medicine—if phrenology can be called such—but she is merely an assistant. It is not until the end of the book that we find a woman doctor. I wrote three different endings for Doctor Olaf, and the most important thing all three had in common was her character because I wanted to show that very positive change in medicine.
In the lives of this family’s long line of doctors, both in their practice and in their family lives, there is a fascinating combination of care and disregard. From Doctor Olaf van Schuler himself, who seems to genuinely care for his mad mother but keeps her tied up; to Abraham who performs a lobotomy on his sister; to Stuart who builds a fortune off silicone breast implants; and even his daughter, Elizabeth, more principled in her work but cool and removed from her loved ones. To me you really nailed a difficult tone of moral ambiguity.
Thank you. I very often intended for the characters to be “good”–meaning that they did what they thought best for their patients, their families, and themselves. What is actually best, however, is often quite different from the chosen path, and I think that can create an interesting tension.
The final story, “The Doctors,” while it doesn’t provide any kind of false summation to the book, does shed an interesting light on this central question of healing. Particularly the last scene and the last line, which parallels nicely with Olaf’s final lines in the first story, “We can heal the soul. We have the power.” As I closed the book I realized that, whatever the characters’ faults, that impulse to heal is genuine throughout.
I’m glad you felt parallels between the first and last stories. I wanted to end the book on a positive note—with the belief that we will continue to learn and make progress. The word “save” in the final line resonated with me in many ways—both as a contemporary echo of the religious notions that appear in the first story, and as an empowerment—we can make a difference, that is our charge.
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On September 12 2008, the Series presented four of my stories, three from my novel-in-stories (in-progress), Claudia. The show featured the following amazing cast:
- Deborah Geffner, who made a splash in the film All That Jazz (she was also starring in A Chorus Line at the time), and has worked steadily since on both stage and screen; with recent appearances on, among many others, Monk, Grey’s Anatomy, and Criminal Minds
- David St. James, who has too many credits to do justice to; including the films Donnie Darko, Contact, and L.A. Confidential; and the shows Las Vegas, The West Wing, Monk, and Everybody Hates Chris
- Robert Standley, whose credits include Invasion, HBO’s Turn of Faith, as well as Melrose Place and As the World Turns
- Sally Shore–the Series founder and director; an actor and spoken-word artist who counts Spalding Grey and mentor George Carlin among her influences
For more information about Claudia see the MY STUFF page.