My Trip to the USA – Part 1: Short Stories
Five years ago, I went to New York for the first time. I was so excited that I kept turning to people in the queue at the airport ‘I’m going to New York!’ Yes, they agreed. They were too, which was why we were all in the same line.
That excitement hasn’t palled. This time round I started off in New Jersey to stay with my friend, the brilliant short story writer Alice Elliott Dark and her husband, Larry, who runs The Story Prize.
Now, the Story Prize won’t be judged until next month so I have no idea of the winners and THIS IS IN NO WAY A SPOILER but given that Larry has been reading short stories pretty continuously for the whole year, I was happy to come away with some of his personal recommendations – as much for what he knew I would like as well as what he enjoyed. Also I wanted books that summed up what was going on in American short story writing at the moment. I also went shopping in New York later.
And from all those, I pass on to you just FOUR of my American hoard of short story collections and this is subjective because they the ones that particularly hit the spot for me:
* Spoiled by Caitlin Macy
* The Mother Garden by Robin Romm
* Mrs Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn
* death is not an option by Suzanne Rivecca
A striking thing about all these collections in that they each have a theme running through the stories, either by type of character – ie rich Manhattan women as in Macy’s, or place – as in Winn’s, or type – the magical ambiguities of Romm’s. This seems to be one of the major changes in collections that are being published now. Interesting.
(But what I didn’t see until I reread this post just now is that they were all written by women. A total coincidence.)
A highlight of the trip was going to Alice’s MFA writing class at Rutgers. She’s a pretty inspiring friend, so I knew she’d be a great teacher too, and it was a lovely surprise to see how funny and smart and generous her students were too. I had already met Jayne Anne Phillips who runs the programme at dinner earlier on my trip, and I really am full of admiration for the whole thing. Makes me miss being part of a uni creative writing team.
I’m just going to sum up a little of what I told the students about how I wrote short stories:
1. Wait for the second thing. Often I start with an image. It may have come from something I’ve seen, I’ve been told, or read. It sticks with me. But if I tried to write this image on its own, it would be little more than an anecdote so it needs a second strand to add tension, to make connections, to take the story deeper. I say I start with an image because the times I’ve started with an idea the story has fizzled out into a lesson, rather than conveying an emotion which is what I think most good short storytelling is. This is why I think so many good short stories end with a picture.
2. Who’s telling the story. Once I have the two images, then I need someone to tell the story. Often the narrator’s voice comes with the first image, to be honest, and when I’m struggling it’s normally because I haven’t listened hard enough. Character is king.
3. Where is it set? I nearly always have a clear place in my mind. And I have the time of year. Often – very often – these won’t feature in the end version, but I need to be aware of them. It helps to ground the story for me. As I look out of my window now at the English snow, I can see that everybody behaves in a completely different way than in the Summer. The best short stories don’t take place in a vacuum, and being able to picture the events of the stories, as in a film, helps make the reader feel safe enough to take in the story.
4. Make it concrete. Keep adding the details. Walk through the house you’re writing about in your mind, what kind of plants are in the garden, what are the curtains like. Make it too abstract and even the keenest reader will only manage to skim the surface.
5. Mind your gaps. There’s nothing I hate more in a story than when everything is spelt out. Nothing better than a few gaps for the reader to fill in themselves and thus become involved in the story in a different way. However I will always go back over my stories, trying as hard as I can to look at them with a reader’s eye to look and see if I have left too big a chasm anywhere. In my experience, the reader can put up with a surprising amount of questioning so long as they feel confident that the writer knows the answer.
And most of all, I told them I wrote my stories by asking three main questions:
1. What does my character want? Especially the things they want that they don’t know themselves.
2. What changes? Maybe it’s even the reader – sometimes the story is ten times stronger if it IS the reader who changes their mind by the end.
3. So what? Why is it important to write – and read – this particular story?
Amongst the questions they asked me is one I’m still thinking about - what is the difference between an American and a British short story?
I found it hard to reply because I think there is a difference, but that’s a gut instinct rather than a researched answer. To my mind, the American short story is often more connected to the land than the British. There’s a feeling of space too in the length and style – perhaps connected to the fact that there are simply more magazines accepting short stories in America thanks to a history of all those wonderful University journals. The British short story tends to be sharper in its tone too, slightly more edgy and, as Alice pointed out, we are not so hesitant about writing unlikeable characters.
Of course these are generalisations. Huge ones, but interesting to think about.
As interesting as the twitter response I received from @TimPendryTWells when I asked what others felt the differences might be. He said: “there’s also the classic difference between US and UK sci-fi – optimistic v dystopian …” and when I questioned him, he replied: “we (UK) are a closed-in defensive and untrusting culture … the individualism of fear of property taken …”
Is this true, I wonder? The good news is that there will be lots and lots more reading I am required to do now for research.