Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Gallery

A short story . . .

 

 

Gallery

 

It was Raymond’s suggestion. I understood art about as much as I understood Chinese, so I was never inclined to visit art galleries. I like the colours, I appreciate the skill; the talent involved. I understand that there’s talent. Well, most of the time—as Bob Dylan said. Other times . . . Well, I just don’t know.

Like I said, it was Raymond’s idea, and it sounded like it would be a nice thing to do; I don’t see my brother often enough and if I’m to be completely honest I don’t get out often enough myself. Not since John became ill. And when I do get out it’s usually to visit him at the nursing home. Once a month at the home there’s a support group for the spouses of the residents of the home. One of the women there—Julia—she calls it the “Sad Bastard Get-Together” (SBGT). I laugh at that, even though I shouldn’t. I like Julia; she sees the humour in the sad side of life. She said there’s always a sad side (and don’t I know it), so why not try paint over it with humour?

Like an artist painting on a canvas, I guess.

At the support group they encourage you to be more active; become involved in different activities; join clubs; be more sociable. Now that’s all well and good, but I don’t drive, and with the miserable weather we get here most of the year I don’t want to go out half the time. And as for being more sociable; well, that’s all well and good, but any time I go out it’s always with couples, because almost all of my friends are married and have been for over thirty years. And I know that’s the way it is, because that’s the way it is. But it can be a little hard. It’s hard being around couples all the time when you remember what you had; when you instinctively reach for that hand.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. That’s not important. At the SBGT they encourage us to avoid indulging in negative thoughts; not to spend too much time swimming around in the past. So, I shouldn’t do that, I guess. And in any case I’m not a very strong swimmer—never have been. But sometimes I forget that I shouldn’t linger on those thoughts. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older.

But the trip to the gallery . . .

It was a Saturday and as usual it was raining. I had taken the bus from the shopping centre to town, which left me only a few minutes’ walk from the gallery. Once I’d rambled up the cobblestone street I found Raymond standing at the entrance in his rain jacket. He’d always wear the same rain jacket, even if it was a sunny day. He has a gloomy disposition; always has, always will. John used to call him “Smile Awhile”. John always liked to joke and tease, but not in a mean way.

Raymond and I have similar faces. We both share a petit, stubby nose and a big mouth, as if one was compensating for the other. But while Raymond has always had cheeks decorated with freckles, my skin has always been clear and soft, thank you very much. That’s one thing I’ll hold on to, please. Raymond’s black hair—like mine—is greying in places. He has these narrow eyes which have become narrower with time. You see, his eyelids droop, like curtains, and so there’s not much of an opening for his vision, but he never looks like he’s squinting—just gloomy, like I said. Me, I’ve got my mother’s eyes: big and blue and full of surprise. Although there isn’t much that surprises me anymore.

We kissed each other on the cheek and Raymond smiled in his usual way: as if it took a tremendous amount of effort. He paid the admission, and I thanked him, and we began to wander around the gallery. See, Raymond’s the cultured one in our family; he’s the smart one — the educated one. The one who went to college. Of course, I couldn’t go to college because I was running the family home from the age of fifteen; my mother needed all the help she could get because she was ill, and my father was out working most days. We were a poor family: Me, Raymond, and our sisters Debbie and Cassandra, all shared the same room growing up just outside Dublin’s city centre. The three of us sisters would pile ourselves into the same bed—which was good for keeping warm during the night, and for those moments when we’d hear a noise and become scared—and Raymond had his bed to himself. Considering our financial constraints, the fact that Raymond got to go to college is a miracle in my book. But he did, and he’s reaped the benefits of an education. And I don’t begrudge him that one bit. He teaches now, at a college out by Crumlin.

The gallery was quiet for a Saturday, or so I guessed; I don’t know what’s busy for that place. Raymond would comment on paintings every now and then; saying things like “isn’t the use of vibrant colours here marvellous,” and “the despair’s in the work; isn’t it obvious? This captures a moment in the artist’s life—a moment of despair. It all over it, isn’t it?”. He would look at the works in different ways; every now and then he’d place an elbow on a wrist and a hand under his chin, and would tap his lips with his index finger as he studied a painting. He’d seemed displeased in many instances. I just looked at them and liked the ones I liked and didn’t think much about the ones I disliked. When we came to a painting, “A convent garden, Brittany”, by a man I’d never heard of named William John Leech, I asked Raymond what he thought of it. In it a very pretty woman holding a book is looking up at something, maybe the tree, maybe the heavens—I don’t know. Behind her there are a number of women looking away so you can’t see their faces. There are branches and leaves and flowers in the foreground.

“You like it?” he asked.

“Do you?” I replied.

“I do. I’m a great admirer of Leech: I share his love of sunlight.”

“Then why do you still live in Dublin?”

Raymond smiled and placed a finger over his lips as he looked at the painting.

“Do you like it?” he asked again.

“I do,” I said as my eyes lingered on it. “It’s like life, in a way, isn’t it?” I said tentatively.

Raymond turned his head to me; I wasn’t used to talking about art.

“How do you mean?”

“Well,” I began, and hesitated before continuing. “We can see her face. She’s very beautiful. You want to look at her. It’s like we’re the ones looking at her through the leaves and flowers there at the front, isn’t it? But the other women; they’re just there. We can’t see their faces.”

“Go on.”

“I don’t know. I think it’s like life; only a few will be seen and the rest will live in the shadows of others.”

Raymond nodded. I don’t know if that’s what the painting meant. I don’t think it did: I don’t know very much about art.

“It’s his wife, actually.”

“Oh.”

“It’s oil on canvas. Beautiful execution.”

I nodded as once again Raymond tapped his finger against his lips.

It wasn’t long afterwards that we came across the tank. It wasn’t a very pleasant sight—not to my eyes. There were a number of people around it. It was hanging from the ceiling and was a few feet above the floor. There was a big fish in it, surrounded by blue liquid. The big fish’s mouth was open and its razor-like teeth were on display. It must have been around 6 ft long. It was a horrible-looking thing. We got closer and a few of the patrons moved along. There was a sign in front of it that told us the name of the piece:

                        In the Eyes of the Beholder—Death or Life

Raymond nodded.

“This is the piece everyone’s talking about,” he said excitedly.

“It’s a fish,” I said.

Raymond nodded again.

“It’s a lancetfish,” he said. “That liquid is a formaldehyde solution. It slows the decomposition process.”

I took a step back, walked around the tank, and inspected it. The fish was skinny, and its fin was tall. It’s dead, I kept saying to myself.

“It’s like it’s alive, but it’s not,” I said to Raymond.

“So it seems.”

“Why put a dead fish in a tank?”

“Why not?” he said.

“Is it art?” I asked Raymond.

“It’s in the gallery,” he replied.

We stood in silence for a few minutes, staring into the eyes, the mouth, the soul of this dead lancetfish. I felt sorry for the thing; it shouldn’t be there on display like this, I thought.

While we were standing, looking at the fish and the tank, my phone rang.

Raymond looked at me with disapproval. I hunched my shoulders apologetically. It was the nursing home calling. I couldn’t let it ring out; I’d missed the last SBGT, maybe there was something they wanted to update me on. I walked away into a corner where there was no one else and quietly answered the call.

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Callaghan?” came the voice of a young woman.

“Yes—Mary. Mrs. Callaghan makes me feel ancient—call me Mary. Is everything all right?”

“It’s fine, yes, nothing to worry about, Mary. John’s just been worried and has been asking us to contact you.”

“What’s wrong? There’s nothing wrong, is there?”

“No, no. Not at all. John just wanted to tell you to remember to bring his cigarettes when you’re coming up next.”

In the background I could hear John.

“I’ve only five left,” he was saying.

“Yes, I have some there for him. I’ll be up later today.”

“Okay,” said the young woman. “John just wanted us to call to make sure.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s okay.”

 

The rain had stopped when we left the gallery. Raymond waited with me until my bus arrived. I hugged him and we said we’d do it again soon. He trundled off in his raincoat as I waited in line to get on the bus.

On the way to visit John, as the bus travelled along the river, as the traffic crawled tediously, I thought about that poor fish. Then I thought about the beautiful woman in the oil painting. I imagined her there on that day, in the heat of the sunshine, surrounded by the leaves and flowers, and all that beauty. Then, after all the hours her husband had spent on the work, he would reveal it to her.

When I got to John’s room I opened the door slightly before stopping. I imagined the artist’s wife as she approached the door to the room where she would see the painting for the first time. She’d see herself on that canvas; she’d be the focus of attention for years to come. I imagined the excitement, or the apprehension, as she prepared to enter the room and see the work her husband had made for her. Still I stood outside the door. Then I closed my eyes and entered the room.

 

 

Valley Trail – Tracks and Carver

When I was up at Nita Lake (near Whistler, BC) a few months ago I went for a walk along the Valley Trail. I came across these train tracks and found myself wanting to wander from the trail and follow the tracks to wherever they would lead me. Alas, I didn’t have enough time to go on an adventure.

When I look at this picture I get the same feeling I get when I read a Raymond Carver short story. I don’t know if the image reminds me of Carver’s stories – like when Harry and Emily explore the Washington countryside in ‘How About This?’, or if it is simply an effect caused by both experiences: calm, connected, content. If Carver’s stories can produce in me the same feelings I get when looking at a beautiful image like the one above, I guess you could say he was a talented guy, to say the least. How wonderful, to be able to impart those feelings to someone with the words you put on paper – even if it’s only me.

But where am I? Oh yes, last orders have been called. So I’m off.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

ATTN, ISBN, and Other Abbreviations — Thoughts on an Author’s Road to Self-Publication

Earlier this year I set my sights on June for the release of my debut novel Leaving Sadie. That, it turns out, was a tad ambitious.

From last-minute rewrites and cover alterations, to figuring out where to publish and getting an ISBN (a barcode) – there’s a lot more to self-publishing than I had initially thought. And, apart from all these boxes that need to be ticked before publication, I’m learning that most of the hard work comes after the novel is launched.

Self-promotion nightmares

Anyone who knows me personally knows that a) I’m quite modest, b) I can’t dance, and c) the idea of self-promotion makes me shudder and wake up screaming in the middle of the night covered in sweat and clenching the bed sheets. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but other than writing “ATTN Readers” on my book or website, I’m not crazy about discussing myself or my work.

But self-promotion is an unavoidable necessity in the age of the internet (that’s why I’m keeping this blog). People do it on a daily basis with the likes of Facebook and Instagram, and they may not be pushing a novel, releasing an album, or even selling a product. For some – as you definitely know – they are the product. Many of these types are known as influencers – but I won’t get into that.

I read a comment from an aspiring writer on how Dickens would handle social media – they suggested that he would be all over it; he’d be a self-promoting machine. I do wonder how some of the greats would get on today, when the entire nature of the publishing industry has changed with the advent of eBooks, Kindles and the beast that is Amazon. Or is it more of same-same, but different? Bret Easton Ellis and others have in the past talked about grueling book tours – so yes, self-promotion has always been a part of the deal. However, in the age of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads, and Tumblr (to name a few), aspiring authors are now expected to have a presence on each platform. For some readers, they care as much about the life of the writer as they do the writer’s work. And again, maybe that’s a case of same-same, but different: before the prevalence of social media, public appearances during those book tours gave fans a chance to get to know the name behind the novel; it offered them a glimpse into the life of the person who’s words wooed and wowed readers.

Jonathan Franzen despises social media

In a piece I wrote for writing.ie a couple of years back, I described myself as someone who had a Franzen-esque aversion to social media. For those of you who don’t know who Jonathan Franzen is, he’s an American novelist who has written five novels, three of them being well-known and widely celebrated (and hotly debated) — The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity.

Mr. Franzen is someone who has been severe in his criticisms of social media, to say the least, and has thus been ridiculed across the web for his failure to embrace the likes of Twitter (his true bête noire), and see the positives in social media, not just the clear – and sometimes not so clear – negatives. One could argue that Franzen – who has produced exquisitely written and enjoyable articles on climate change – could use his status to help promote the causes about which he cares so deeply. How many of his readers – devout or casual – may be open to discussions on climate change following a 140-character tweet by Mr. Franzen, as opposed to being presented with a four-thousand word essay to fit into their already hectic schedules?

Anyhow, I digress…

My nod to Mr. Franzen is because, yes – as I’ve already suggested – I did have a strong disliking for social media. In all honesty, I’m still not crazy about it. But it’s part of the industry today. Until I become successful enough to not need it, I need it. Although that’s not to say my Instagram or Twitter pages are overflowing with followers. Quite the opposite, in fact. But a presence at the party is necessary, even if you find these gatherings a little awkward (although was I even invited?).

What’s Leaving Sadie about anyway?

For all my talk of putting out a novel (let’s be honest, I’ve probably mentioned it less than a dozen times on social media), I haven’t really gone into detail on what the story is about. If I’m on a night out and it happens to come up that I write, and that I’ve recently completed a novel, the question “So, what’s it about?” is almost unavoidable. I’ve heard that many writers hate this question; what, exactly, are you supposed to say in response? “Oh, you know, it’s about the crippling and depressing realities of life… the unbearable company of certain types… the unavoidable failures and suffering we all face… the subtleties of relationships and how they impact on us day after day… a postmodern critique of corporate capitalism told through the eyes of an earthworm… the depressing knowledge that we are – all of us – doomed to death, and we know it, and how the hell do you cope with that, man?!… And yes, you can order a copy here… It’s really, really good. Trust me…”

For the record, that’s not me talking about Leaving Sadie.

It’s hard to summarise your novel in a quick sentence, let alone in a blurb on the back page. I even found it difficult when people would ask me what my debut feature film, A Day Like Today, was about… (Well, it’s about life… It’s about relationships… It’s about domestic abuse… It’s about hope… Just go see it!).

Damn it, Shane, what’s Leaving Sadie about?!

Okay, I’ve got to do better than “just read it”. As someone who’s paying the bills by working in advertising and marketing, that’s a pretty tame effort at getting people to read your work.

To put it simply, Leaving Sadie is about relationships, and in particular a couple who are questioning theirs. What happens around these doubts are the events that shape the novel: Henry, a writer, is hoping his next play will be his seal of success, and he’s even met a washed-up, alcoholic Oscar-winning actor who’s agreed to star in it – what could go wrong? Sadie is a musician who’s focus at the minute isn’t her art, but her family; a critical mother, a successful sister, and a cardiologist brother all come together to address the central issue in all their lives: their ill father. But a serendipitous meeting may present to Sadie a career opportunity that’s too good to turn down, and which could take her away from her family, and Henry.

Is this truly a work of fiction?

So, like Henry, I’m a writer. And I happen to have a girlfriend who’s a musician. Those close to me will see other similarities between the story and my life find their way into the novel — that’s guaranteed with this one. Hmm… Am I writing a roman à clef here?

No, I’m not. Unlike my previous work, Leaving Sadie is inspired by a number of real-life events that are quite close to me, but that’s about as far as it goes. There are real-life inspirations, but beyond that, the rest is fiction. Characteristics may be borrowed, but characters are fictitious. Scenarios may mirror reality, but when stepping through the looking glass you’ll find yourself a different world.

Isn’t focusing your debut novel on a writer an absolute no-no? Doesn’t that make you an idiot, Shane?

Maybe. It’s often said that publishers will automatically reject any story who’s protagonist is a writer — if the work is by an unpublished author. I’ve read this, I’ve been told this, but I also read enough books and watch enough films to know that it’s not necessarily true. Countless debut novels have focused on a writer, and too many films to mention do the same. Anyway, Leaving Sadie is as much about Sadie as it is Henry; it’s as much about relationships as it is the arts. In fact, I’m a big fan of Ivan Turgenev, who would devote plenty of pages to his supporting characters – maybe that’s something that’s rubbed off on me (I can only hope a degree of his talent has!).

Also, after submitting Sadie to a mere five or six agents, I decided to self-publish. So I need readers, not publishers, to get on board with a story who’s protagonist happens to write.

What has inspired the work?

Real life always inspires my work, whether it’s something close to me, or something I observe or read about. To be honest, when I wrote the first lines of Sadie I was setting out to write a short story inspired by short fiction masters like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. The former in particular has been a huge influence on me, and is someone whose mastery is often mistakenly labelled with the misnomer “minimalism” — there was nothing minimal about Carver’s work. It was what is was. It was exactly as it needed to me. It was enough. (Sorry, had to get that off my chest).

Eventually the story developed into something longer – something more adventurous than I had initially imagined – and so it became a completely different project that I would work on on-and-off for a few years.

Carver’s hero – and greatest influence – was Anton Chekhov, another writer I’m a big fan of, although rather than embracing his short fiction, I was first drawn to his major plays which had a profound impact on western theatre. Other writers who I regularly revisit and whose style I suppose I use as inspiration, for I am attempting to craft my own style (I hope I’ve achieved that with this novel, after many years of writing badly, then writing not-so-badly – I hope), include J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nick Hornby, Hunter S. Thompson, Haruki Murakami, Françoise Sagan, Woody Allen, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Franzen, Charles Bukowski, and Christopher Isherwood, to name a few. There are many, many more.

So, when’s it coming out?

I recently moved back to Dublin, Ireland from Vancouver, BC, and there’s a strong chance I’ll be on my travels again sooner rather than later, so it’s a bit of a crazy time right now. However, I’m hoping that Leaving Sadie will be ready to go by late August. If not, it should certainly be released this autumn.

I’ll post further updates here and on my Twitter and Instagram pages, and I may even post another extract soon.

Thanks for reading, and for allowing me to partake in a bout of online self-promotion — perhaps Dickens would give me his blessings, but don’t tell Franzen.

For now, last orders have been called. I’m off.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .