Category Archives: Short Stories

Writeliving Interview: Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender Photo

I read the short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt after graduate school and I knew immediately that a fresh and important  literary voice had arrived on the scene. I was thrilled to be able to take a UCLA extension writing course with Aimee Bender not long after I read her book and she made an impression on me as a teacher–how to take chances and explore possibilities. Two of the stories in my forthcoming short story collection Interrogations started in Bender’s class. Hope you enjoy insights into her creative life.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

How to pick one? Today I will pick William Maxwell, because I’ve taught his beautiful novel So Long, See You Tomorrow many times and every time it reminds me something crucial about plot/absence of plot and how big feelings can revolve around tiny moments.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Blocks of time, stopping at a predetermined time even if it’s going well, no windows to look out of, no internet, no coffee shop, perhaps a yogurt.

How has being a teacher affected your own writing?

It supplies structure in my day and the pleasure of talking to smart students about writing which validates my own investment in this strange and wonderful and difficult thing a group of us do! Teaching is social, which provides a useful foil for the solitude of writing. The two acts are so different.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

Tangents are useful. Staying on point is not the point, especially in early drafts. Wander, explore, make messes.

How does writing short fiction and novels impact the other genre?

My stories are often longer now that I’ve written novels. Novels have helped train me in scene writing. Stories help with sentences, though sentences are pretty key to novels too. Both are hard and fun in different ways.

What are you currently working on?

Finding a novel.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

So much! The first of the Knausgaard series was fantastic, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, and Silence Once Began by Jesse Ball both thrilled me, and I just read the David Shields’ conversation book I Think You’re Totally Wrong and found that pretty fun and stimulating to read, too.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

All the piles of rejections from journals and magazines I gathered over years. It was a trudge and I felt discouraged a lot. An agent said my stories were ‘little’ in a way that felt very defeating.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I can play the beginning part of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd on the guitar. The easy part.

About the Author:

Aimee Bender is the author of five books, including The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and most recently, The Color Master, a NY Times Notable book of 2013.  Her short fiction has been published in Granta, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and more, as well as heard on “This American Life.”  She lives in Los Angeles.

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Map Literary – On the Map of Online Literary Magazines

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As we have seen some of our best literary magazines move online or create online editions, the launch of some of the best new literary magazines have occurred in the online space.

There are some of the newer  online magazines I read for poetry like Plume or short fiction like Joyland, but there is one magazine that I follow each issue in equal parts for poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and art: Map Literary.

The Spring 2014 issue is no except. Work of interest includes poetry by Simeon Berry, the short story Your Hands by Scottish writer Halsted M. Bernard, and artwork from the Ark Codex from Calamari Press

The magazine is affiliated with the English Department of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences at the William Paterson University of New Jersey, but the accomplished editors, with a track record of publishing success, imbue the magazine with a modern aesthetic and content that combines artistry and relevance.

This is one magazine to put on your lit mag roadmap.

Martin Ott

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The Poetry of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

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One of my New Year’s resolutions is to better utilize the lengthy commute to my job by the Los Angeles airport. Another is to read more in 2014 than in 2013. Another is to be more budget conscious. Multi-tasker that I am, I decided to combine all of these resolutions together in the form of library audio books.

So I went to the Los Feliz Public Library and was embarrassed to discover that my old library card had gone inactive and I needed to fill out a new form. My first selection with my new card was War Dances by Sherman Alexie.I have read a number of Alexie’s stories and poems in magazines over the years, but hadn’t yet read one of his books.

War Dances is a combo platter of short stories, flash fiction, and essayistic vignettes. I was quite moved by Alexie’s ability to weave hardscrabble stories with complex themes and layered mythologies while still managing to shape the stories in a way that made it seem like your literate uncle was sitting down next to you and sharing a story from his life. Alexie’s voice was hypnotic for my commute that week, and I instantly became aware of poetic threads throughout his work::

  • Bookend poems that help frame the collection
  • Odes to mix tapes, sweethearts, and pay phones
  • Imbedded poems within stories

What strikes me most, however, is that there is little difference between the poetry and the prose. The poems have the same accessibility and humor of Alexie’s prose, and the prose contains aspects of what might be considered narrative poetry. For example, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a prose writer who so effectively and continuously utilizes repetition. Nouns are repeated throughout the book in a singsong flurry, mostly in groups of threes. In the story Invisible Dog on a Leash, the protagonist states: “Isn’t it cool to live in Bigfoot country? In the heart of Bigfoot country? In the heart of the heart of Big foot country?”

There are also multiple examples of meditations on things, that remind me of object poems, from the bat in Breaking and Entering, to the owl in Bird Watching at Night, to the cockroach in War Dances. There are also a few times where Alexie provides clinical or dictionary definitions of certain words, then use the word in a metaphor or analogy. In The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless, the protagonist defines “microlender” in the context of a woman he is interested in, then later uses it in a different context to define his relationship with his daughter.

Even though I occasionally become annoyed when it felt like the author’s voice intruded into the stories, I happily listened to War Dances twice. I’m pretty sure that the fiction writer and poet inside of me won’t have to get into a fistfight for me to select another book of Alexie’s for a future week of commutes.

Martin Ott

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Writeliving Interview – Nance Van Winckel

A year ago, I came back home from the AWP conference in Chicago energized to create community for myself as a writer, and to provide a forum for others interested in the craft and practice of writing. Through the Writeliving blog I have been blessed to connect with many talented and inspirational writers. One of those has been Nance Van Winckel: fiction writer, poet, and visual artist. I hope you enjoy her insights into her creative life and I recommend that you check out her new poetry book Pacific Walkers.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

With poets, I’d say Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Plath, Berryman, and Tomas Transtromer. With fiction writers, I’d say Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Chekov, and my newest love—Proust. These are writers I know I can repeatedly return to and each time find something new to admire—both in what their works have to say AND in how they say it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

About “process,” I wish I could say I had one. Each new writing project seems to demand a different manner of “making.” Possibly figuring out that new method of composition for each new project IS my process. I know I like, in poems, for the collections to be series, but how the poems will speak back and forth to each other—through what voices, from what tonalities and physical worlds—those issues I enjoy experimenting with. I probably keep only one out of every dozen separate poem drafts. I appreciate how a book project takes me into uncharted (for me) territory and requires me to learn what seems like a new kind of shaping. One of my first books of poem series, Beside Ourselves, came about largely through collage (of journal notes, a travel diary, and the fuzzy memories of a disastrous love affair), while this new book of linked stories, Boneland (due out in October), was an interesting experiment in trying to make a “family” of a cast of characters who’d populated some recent flash fictions and longer fictions. With both projects, I felt a certain stress that I wouldn’t be able to make each book coalesce; every time they threatened to implode I’d suddenly find a new little element that shed light on their commonalities.

How does writing both poetry and fiction impact the other genre?

I don’t find that the actual methods of making poems and making stories have much at all in common. In fact, in learning to write fiction, I found my first major hurdle was realizing that the organic process by which I’d always written poems was just not going to cut it. In fiction some small glimmer of a route—maybe not an ending, but some grip on characters and/or dramatic events—that sort of advance knowing was not going to hurt a story. Hell, it was going to help! Over the years as I’ve worked on stories, my poems may have become less narrative, or less primarily narrative. Fiction seems to have sucked some of that away. And no doubt my love of and frequent use of persona in poems may have helped me toward that full emersion into a character’s mind so crucial to stories.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Aside from trying to ride out the waves of grief over certain loved ones’ deaths—notably my younger sister and father, I think these last couple of years may have presented the biggest challenge. I wake up worrying over my 87-year-old-mother and 97-year-old stepfather, trying to track on all the parts of their lives I now attend to FOR them: their meals, meds, doctors’ appointments, bills, etc. Not ever having had children, I have never really been responsible FOR other people before. It was not easy to step into this role. Writing has always been on the front burner for me, and all else that made demands of me I pushed onto back burners. Now I’m learning to be another kind of person, someone with a modicum of patience who can step up, as it were. To do so I had to quit worrying that I might lose a story if I didn’t immediately sit down and write it. Now I trust that if I lose a poem or a story, probably another one will come along in its own good time. I remember something Grace Paley said: “I don’t have a career; I have a life.” I’m not sorry writing was on the front burner for me for fifty years, and I’m not sorry it can’t be right now.

Can you tell us anything about your new poetry book Pacific Walkers?

In my mid-20’s I was a newspaper reporter, and some of the narrative voice and dramatic situation of these poems incorporates that world, a journalist’s responsibilities to facts, as well as the constrictions of time (deadlines) and space (number of words).

People put up signs for their missing pets; milk cartons carry photographs of missing children. But what of those who are found (dead) but NOT missed? These unidentified bodies are the persona’s immediate “story.” Several of the poems quote information from the Spokane Medical Examiner’s website, detailing information on specific John and Jane Does. Does turning such stories as these into news-bites eventually create a numbing effect on most of us? How is it possible for a human being to go completely un-missed? The book questions how well facts can render the “truth” of these sad lives. It seems a strange irony too that the bodies have no names but the particular items found with the bodies do. Pacific Walkers, for instance, is the brand name of a pair of boots found on one of the John Does. America’s anonymous dead. For me, their status as unnamable makes them all the more haunting. And perhaps their ghostly presence in the world suggests the eventual anonymity of most of us. We may leave behind descendants and/or names on tombstones, but ultimately we too become unknown.

Incorporating some of my visual art (digital photo-collage), I have created a 1.5 minute film offering a glimpse into the book’s world.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Lately I’ve been putting very spare poems on walls! I’m tagging back with my own little poetic bits of text among the graffiti and street art I find along my urban walks. But only digitally so. I have a new website devoted to this photo-collage work.

About the Author

new nance pix

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review.

She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press.

She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson.

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I ran across this post when contemplating my own short story writing, and a collection I have been editing and circulating. Even though my manuscript has been a finalist three times, it feels like a daunting task to get a short story collection published.

– Martin Ott

The Short Review

Two blog posts caught my eye this week, both dealing with the question of publishing short story collections. Over at Beyond the Margins, Becky Tuch’s post is titled “Nice Short Story Collection. But Do You Have A Novel?’, a phrase very very familiar not only to me, I suspect! She says:

Reviews of and praise for short story collections abounds. Yet today’s short story writer is often met with discouraging words from industry professionals and even fellow writers. At a recent dinner, a friend told me of a well-known writer who had completed a short story collection and a novel. The publishing house which would acquire his work said that they would pay him one amount for his novel. For his short story collection and his novel together, they offered him the same amount. Evidently, the house had valued his story collection at $0.

Over at the Canadian Lemonhound

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