Tag Archives: fiction forms

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

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Recycled Reads: The Human Stain


I’m pleased to kick off 2013 with the second in a series of recycled reads from my Goodwill in Los Feliz. The book is The Human Stain by Philip Roth, which forms the third in a loose trilogy following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and has been much lauded since its publication in 2000.

Critiquing Philip Roth is daunting, as the novel is damn good, but there is much to dissect from the perspective of a writer. Let me start by saying that I was bummed after reading The Human Stain because  I felt like it had the potential to be one of the best books ever penned by an American author if it weren’t for a few vexing narrative decisions.

First things first. Who’s story is this anyway? Nathan Zuckerman is presented as the narrator  in a key juncture in the life of the book’s protagonist Coleman Silk, a classics professor at a small New England college. We begin the novel shortly after Coleman’s wife has died, and he has been forced to retire after referring to absent students he’d never met as ‘spooks.’ Unknown to Silk, the students are African-American, and he becomes embroiled in a scandal that ruins his academic career.

Unfortunately, Zuckerman is only present at the beginning and end, with a bit of him mixed throughout the novel with the close third person perspectives of multiple characters: Faunia Farley, a janitor with a tortured past, her abusive ex-husband and Vietnam vet Les Farley, and Delphine Roux, a lonely young classics professor and careerist who plays an active role in Silk’s fall from grace.

The stories of these four characters are compelling, and Zuckerman’s half-role as narrator impedes our ability to truly commit to the dramatic world they inhabit. If the intention was to have Zuckerman uncover the shocking mystery that Silk was in fact part African American and completely turned his back on his past to better assimilate into American life, then why did Roth so richly delve into stories of other characters that the narrator would have no way of knowing?

The problem with Roth’s partial commitment to the “I” voice of  Zuckerman is that he can’t maximize using the narrator as a detective to unearth the mysteries surrounding the life and death of Silk. And because we never fully commit to the world of the other characters, we have many lost opportunities for dramatic tension. For example, we start with the drama of the scandal and retirement completed; we know far in advance the Silk will die; and the description of the supposed murder of Silk by the jealous Les Farley is described in a single sentence.

The novel’s half-commitment to unspooling a mystery and  to the active portrayal of the tragic love triangle makes me feel like we are presented with two half-novels spliced together. Don’t get me wrong, only the genius of an author like Roth could have overcome these types of challenges with a truly memorable novel.

On another note, Philip Roth made quite a stir this year with an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker refuting the origin of The Human Stain, as well as the sad news reported in the French magazine Les inrockuptibles  that he is retiring from novel writing. This is a loss for us all, as his later work, such as The Human Stain, challenges us to ask questions of ourselves and America.

– Martin Ott

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Writeliving Interview – Pam Houston

I am thrilled to feature our first fiction writer in our interview series – Pam Houston. I have been reading her work for almost 20 years now (better be careful not to date me or Pam too much!).

Soon, I plan on announcing a new blogger to join the Writeliving team. In the meantime, enjoy the interview and feel free to comment.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

It has been suggested to me that the poet, Larry Levis has been the very most influential writer to my work, and it may be true. He taught poetry at Utah when I was there studying fiction, and though I was too scared to take a class from him, (and man, do I regret that) he was writing The Widening Spell of the Leaves at that time, and I paid really close attention to how he made that book. That book taught me about making associative leaps (wild ones, and yet, in retrospect, inevitable somehow), which is, in my opinion, the most fun a writer can have, the thing that keeps the process always new and exciting. It may be true that he, more than anyone else, taught me what to reach for in my work. I feel like there could never be a conclusive list of writers whose work I have read that has left an imprint on my own, but a few of my strongest influences follow: Ron Carlson’s work taught me pacing, and how to bump humor right up against pathos as many times as the story can bear. Lorie Moore’s work taught me the particular way humor works for a female. Toni Morrison taught me the importance of making my characters multiple, no heroes, no villains, and also the unlimited number of layers a story can have. Russell Banks’ stories taught me how form follows function. Richard Ford’s Rock Springs taught me that the landscape of the west has its own voice, and Gretel Ehrlich convinced me that I had a place in it. Tim O’Brien’s work introduced me to the rich territory that exists between fiction and nonfiction. Jack Driscoll taught me that if you don’t risk sentimentality you are not in the ballpark.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I feel like my first job as a writer is to pay really strict attention out in the world, and then to bring the resonant images, scenes, moments, glimmers, back to the page with me and turn them into language. Every single thing I have ever written has begun with the question, “What glimmered at me lately?” In this way I am sort of a collagist. I don’t ever say, for example, “I think I would like to write a story about…., or, “I have an idea for a character who…” I pay strict attention, both to what is going on in my physical proximity, and also to whenever something that is happening out there in the exterior landscape resonates with what is happening in my interior landscape. I trust those shivers of recognition more than I trust anything. Whether I am at a sky burial in Tibet, or in the check out line at the Whole Foods, hearing the crack of my turned ankle on an ancient stair in Greece, or listening to the sound of goat bells over the sound of the waves of the Agean…I collect those, and do my best to represent them fully in language, and then combine them with other resonant glimmers and they cook for a while in there and over time, a story emerges.

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

Well, I am not sure this really qualifies as adversity, but it is a nice story. I went to graduate school at the University of Utah, and my work was pretty much uniformly disliked by all of the fiction teachers there. David Kranes, the playwright, liked it pretty well, but in my years there I collected a stack of evaluations, the worst of which said, no kidding, “Pam should find something else to do with her hands.” It was my class at Utah, along with some professors, that started the conference called Writers At Work in Park City, and one of the things we got in exchange for our volunteer work on the conference was a 30 minute one-on-one with a visiting writer, editor, or agent. Because I had become so convinced at Utah that my work was awful, I had turned in the name of three writers on my preference sheet, and when they hung up the pairings I didn’t find my name anywhere, and when I asked, the woman at the desk said, “Oh, sorry, all of the people you chose had full plates, so we couldn’t get you in.”
This was pretty much the way I was used to being treated at Utah, and it was pretty much the way I had been treated in my family of origin, which is likely why I picked Utah, so I just sucked it up and walked away. But Shannon Ravenel, who was one of the editors at the conference (Best American Short Stories series editor all through the 80’s, founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.) followed me out of the ballroom, and said, “You know, my plate is not full. If you have a copy of a story you want to give me, I would be happy to read it.” Now let me just say that this was an entirely unprompted act of kindness on Shannon’s part. She had no reason to think I was any good, in fact, I was not, at that time, very good (though not quite as bad as my professors said). She had simply witnessed my dismissal by the pairing lady, and reached out to me in a human way.
 Shannon read my story, and was so excited about it, she showed it to Carol Houck Smith, a W.W. Norton editor at that conference. She also called her friend, agent Liz Darhansoff, and told her to contact me. Pretty much my entire career grew out of that moment of un-asked for kindness. Carol was my editor until the time of her death, and I have published five books with W.W. Norton. Liz Darhansoff is still my editor to this day.

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

That I was Chaplin of Delta Delta Delta sorority at Denison University, which meant I was in charge of 80 girls “spirituality” when I was little more than a girl myself. But perhaps you mean something less silly than that. When I was four years old and my mother was a night club singer, I would go to the bar with her, wearing my thigh high white boots and sing “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” and at the part in the song where Nancy Sinatra always said, “Come on, Boots, start walkin!” I would walk across the top of the baby grand. Only marginally less silly. How about this? Nothing terrifies me quite like the prospect of playing co-ed softball.

About the author:

Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012, by W.W. Norton.  She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays called A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century.  She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards.  She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.  She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.


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What’s in the Black Box by Jennifer Egan

Originally, I thought I was going to write a blog post about what it was like to read Jennifer Egan’s story Black Box on Twitter, but I actually found that my attention span made it impossible for me to read it that way. For me, the jury is out on Twitter as a delivery method for either poems or fiction.

However, after I finished the story Black Box the old-fashioned way in the actual The New Yorker magazine, it struck me that Egan’s story reminded me a form of poetry: instructions. There are many examples of different poems with “lessons” and poets giving instructions on how to sing, love,  or even drown.

That got me to thinking about other similarities between poetic and short fiction forms. Jeffrey Levine, editor of Tupelo Press, once said in a workshop that all poems are really list poems. Some fiction writers have tapped into this reservoir of inspiration as well. One of my all-time favorite stories – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – is nothing more than a list.

One thing that Egan and O’Brien both did in tapping into these forms was to keep a narrative arc moving, something that Sandra Cisneros also manages to do in her short story Eleven, which uses another staple of the poet, repetition, to help describe the frustration of her young narrator.

All of this has now got me wondering whether I can create a short story that’s a recipe, incantation or curse. There is value in looking for inspiration outside of your own form to help you think outside of the (black) box in your own writing.

Martin Ott

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The Nostalgia Echo – Mickey Hess

The Nostalgia Echo by Mickey Hess, the first novel from C&R Press, is a book with many layers. It follows the storyline of a professional narrator named Gene in search of his birth mother, armed only with a Polaroid photograph of her at a book signing for Doctor Everett Barnes, a nostalgia expert who is at the center of the novel and its subplots.

The Nostalgia Echo is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s City of Glass in that the quest is not the actual quest, but rather the exploration of what is real and what is not from the perspective of an unreliable narrator: “I like to pretend I’m an objective reporter of whatever story I’m telling, but when I get bored and cranky I tend to make things up.”

This propensity for the narrator Gene to make up major and minor characters recasts the true quest of this novel. Its subject is American culture, and our often-misplaced nostalgia for the good ol’ days.

As Doctor Barnes explains, “As children in the Fifties, we dreamed about flying cars. Then in the 1980s I saw a motion picture about a flying car that would take you back to the Fifties. So we’ve seen the future and it doesn’t look good.”

The Nostalgia Echo also contains science fiction elements – like we see in many of Vonnegut’s books – that are so close to our own reality that we barely think twice about them. For example, a drug company twists Doctor Barnes’ assertion that nostalgia is a malady and tries to make a profit by marketing its cure in pill form.

You’ll also be graced with cameos from Americana that intrude into the lives of characters struggling to make sense out of their surreal lives: the Dukes of Hazzard boys, Albert Einstein, J.D. Salinger, and Zorro vs. Godzilla.

The Nostalgia Echo also has another effect, an “echo” that stays with you after reading it. Be prepared for this inventive novel to evoke your own nostalgia, and the truth of everything from childhood memories to modern American history. As nostalgia expert Doctor Barnes explains: “Stories don’t exist in real life. In real life, things just happen, and when you try to make a story out of them, the truth moves further and further away from you.”

Martin Ott

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