Weekly Short Stories

Each week The Literary Roadhouse podcast hosts deeply read and discuss one short story.

Author Spotlight: Jocelyn Johnson

Jocelyn Johnson (photo taken from author's website) Jocelyn Johnson (photo taken from author’s website)

Jocelyn Johnson has been writing since childhood, and her passion for writing accompanied her through global travel from Tokyo to Cusco, Rajasthan, Rio, and many places in between. Writing remained a constant throughout the evolution of her life as she went on to marry, become a mother, and a teacher. As her life changed, so did her writing.  Literary Roadhouse reached out to Ms. Johnson to ask about how her work has developed over the years, and what her first novel, written as a teenager, was about.

Literary Roadhouse: When did you start writing and why?

Jocelyn Johnson: Since forever, I’ve been writing and drawing stories.  I remember, in the 6th grade, devouring S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. When I learned that she’d completed that work as a teenager, I spent a year drafting my own first novel on my IBM personal computer, back when each piece of printer paper was edged in perforated strips.

LR: What and who do you like to read?

JJ: I’m drawn to short stories and novels that surprise me and place me among outsiders. A few books I’ve loved in the last decade: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by  Charles Yu,  We the Animals by  Justin Torres, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell,  and  We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo.  I recently reread the gorgeous, grotesque Beloved by Toni Morrison, and was, once again, appalled and riveted.

LR: You’ve been writing for such a long time. How would you say your writing has developed over the years?

JJ: I’ve developed an expectation to work harder, and on more complex problems. I’m willing to re-imagine characters, scenes, whole strands in order to figure them out. Also I try to be  a little braver and more emotionally honest in my fiction these days.

LR: What can you tell me about the first novel you wrote as a child? What did that explore? What were the characters like?

JJ: The novel I wrote as a teenager is about Shadow, a lovesick, mohawked boy from San Francisco who travels east to find his girlfriend after she is sent away for attempting suicide— light, right?  At the time, I was interested in disaffected youth; I was disaffected youth.  

When I decided to write a novel as an adult, I found an old draft of Shadow, and drew on the bones of that original story. Nearly all of the particulars changed when I re-imagined my protagonist as sixteen-year-old Aisha Bell, a young photographer girl of color who falls hard for another girl. The short story “The Hasselblad” was born from this transition in the novel.

Ms. Johnson’s essays and fiction have appeared in Life with Objects, Storyglossia, Salome Magazine, Literary Mama and elsewhere. Her work has placed first in the University of Virginia’s Museum’s Writer’s Eye Contest, been anthologized in Jane’s Stories “Bridges and Borders”, and received honorable mention in the E.M. Koeppel fiction award. Her short story “The Hasselblad” placed first in the Richard Bausch Short Story Contest at Our Stories (Spring 2012). Her first novel (written as an adult), Our Savage Hearts, is represented by New Leaf Literary and is currently on submission.

Jocelyn Johnson lives in Virginia with her husband, son, and two dogs. She blogs about parenthood, art, the world we live in, and the intersections between these things, at her website www.jocelynjohnson.com.

Defining Magical Realism

Tomek Sętowski Tomek Sętowski

I’m not one of these readers who has been fascinated by magical realism for two decades. I first heard the term last year, in reference to Haruki Murakami. I’d only read Norwegian Wood and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, so I brushed the term off. It was only when I started to research his other novels that the term kept reappearing in reference to both Murakami and some of the most popular Latin American writers. It was hard to find a single definition, but eventually I brushed it off as little more than, a way non-western, non-white’s see the world. To put it crassly, “the Magical Negro’s hip literary Latin cousin.” This negative misperception was only intensified when I heard a podcaster wonder aloud, “why are we reading Murakami, we are supposed to be reading literary fiction not ethnic fiction.” It wasn’t an auspicious beginning to my relationship to the word or the literary community as a whole.

Then I began work on a novel that was blurring the line between the normal reality and the reality of someone whose ancestral religion was invading that reality. My novel was in the current world with current beliefs. There was nothing in it that felt like fantasy. Hearing your ancestors talking to you wasn’t something made up to me. It was an intrinsic part of my familial DNA. It was real, yet… it wasn’t. Anyone not familiar with African traditional religions could look at the story and wonder if it was fantasy. It wasn’t though… I was trying to show how I see the world, not create a new one. So I went digging and found a branch of Magical realism used for African literature called Animist realism. The hole kept getting bigger, and yet I still bristled over the word as a book written from a Christian point of view wouldn’t be considered Magical realism. “What is this thing,” I thought. After falling into a deep internet hole, I almost have a definition.

Where things are between remotely possible and impossible.

— Christina Garcia

The term Magical realism was first used in reference to art in the 1925 by the German art critic Franz Rohs. It was used for works that looked at reality in such a hyper real way that it was almost surreal. Rather than the magic of the subconscious, this was art that attempted to express the magic inherent in our world.

Isabelle Allende Isabelle Allende

The term moved quickly from being applied to the visual arts to literature influencing Latin writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garia Marques and Isabelle Allende. These writers are where I’ve heard the term most frequently used as Latin American literature is currently enjoying international popularity, but the matter of fact portrayal of magical events lends itself easily to many cultures.

What happens when a highly detailed realist setting is invaded by something too strange to believe?

— Matthew Strecher

As I researched the definition of Magical realism, I discovered that many of my favorite and most spiritually challenging films were in fact classified as magical realism. I can’t forget sitting in a theater at 17 years old watching Like Water For Chocolate, or the way my skin tingled after watching Amelie. My way of seeing the world was permanently changed because for once, I recognized the way I saw the world through another artist’s eyes.

So what is Magical realism? I’m sure there are doctoral theses written on the subject. For me, it is any art that shows reality in such wonderful focus that it retains the magic of reality. It is a book or movie or film version of waking up and seeing the world before you are so awake as to remember what is real and not real. Ask me what magical realism is 50 times and I’ll give you 50 answers. I’m still deciding, but I’m also enjoying the journey to figuring it out.

Amundsen – Alice Munro – Literary Roadhouse Ep: 5

Next week’s story is The Hasselblad by Jocelyn Johnson.

This podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher and podcatchers. If you can take a few moments to leave an iTunes and/or Stitcher review, it would help us immensely.

On today’s episode, we had a great argu… I mean discussion of “Amundsen” by Alice Munro. To quote Anais, “when Maya said 53 minutes had passed I was absolutely shocked. How? What is time?” This story had us split down the middle. I would say us old folks are right but… I’m not old! (Anais Ed. Note: Pffffft.) The messy podcast is on the Youtube page, and the glistening audio version will be available by morning. Don’t forget to check out Alice Munro’s Author Spotlight to learn more about her.

We do have a rating scale. For the history of this goofy system, see Anais’s post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” You gave last week’s story, “Eminence” by Caroline Casper, 3.3 Bradberries, after including a last minute e-mail entry.

On a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “Amundsen”? Tell us in the comments below or via voicemail, and we will give you the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is The Hasselblad by Jocelyn Johnson.

We hope you’ll enjoy the story, and join us next week for the discussion. The podcast will be available at the top of this post, iTunes and other podcatchers by early Wednesday morning.

Can’t wait until iTunes downloads the new episode? Subscribe by Email

Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro Photo credit to Derek Shapton Alice Munro Photo credit to Derek Shapton

Born in 1931 to working class parents in Wingham, Ontario Alice Munro was raised in an environment where men did the “important” work leaving her free to read and explore writing. Critics largely consider Munro a master of the short story. Her works have focused on small town life from the female perspective and are often compared to the Rural Literary Tradition of the American south with a Canadian point of view.  Living a simple yet eclectic life she left university after only a couple of years to marry. Throughout her life she has owned a bookstore, raised three children, been a writer in residence, married again and eventually won multiple literary prizes, culminating in the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature.

While she published 14 short story collections, individual short stories and multiple versions of stories, Alice never wrote a novel. In an interview with The Atlantic, Munro says, “I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up.” In 2002 she told the New Yorker, “For years and years, I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel, Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.”

By accepting and putting away the idea of striving toward the novel, she managed to create the complexity of the novel within short fiction. This complexity or Novel in Miniature, as it’s been called, is indeed what she is known for. As I read interview after interview, and several articles, I was left wondering if she would be our last, “Master of the Short Story.” Writers don’t have the luxury to purely focus on the short story. “They don’t sell”, publishers say. “When are you finishing your novel?” I hope for art’s sake the gut sadness I felt is untrue.

She is easy to laugh, humble, with quick wit, and a simple honestly. When George Stroumboulopoulos asked what people should know about Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood replied, “she’s a really really wonderful person.” Soon after winning the Nobel Prize Munro retired from writing to focus on being with her friends and letting more of life in. She has stated that she wants any unpublished works destroyed upon her death; so whether we will hear more from her pen remains to be seen, but the work she produced over 6 decades is impressive both in volume and focus. I highly recommend listening to her Nobel Prize interview posted below. She reminds me of many women I have known in my life. When she spoke of being intimidated by academic literary writers or her own avoidance of re-reading her work, I chuckled. In every interview I was struck by how likable and normal she is which made me even more excited to read her work. Please join us in discussing her story Amundsen on this week’s podcast and in the comments after the show.

Eminence – Caroline Casper – Literary Roadhouse Ep: 4

Discussion Notes: Eminence

Next week’s story is “Amundsen” by Alice Munro.

This podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher and podcatchers. If you can take a few moments to leave an iTunes and/or Stitcher review, it would help us immensely.

On today’s episode, we had a great discussion of “Eminence” by Caroline Casper. For the first time, we found a story we all liked; I’ll try not to let that happen again. I enjoyed how even though we all enjoyed the story, we liked it for different reasons. The messy podcast is on the Youtube page, and the glistening audio version will be available by morning. Don’t forget to check out Caroline Casper’s bio and thoughts here.

Speaking of the Author Spotlight, this is a new blog post series where we will write a post highlighting the author of that week’s story. Look for those posts every Monday.

We do have a rating scale. For the history of this goofy system, see Anais’s post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” You gave last week’s story, “The Circular Ruins” by Jorge Luis Borges, 4 Bradberries.

On a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “Eminence”? Tell us in the comments below, and we will give you the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is “Amundsen” by Alice Munro.  This is our first Pulitzer Prize winning author! Alice Munro is widely considered a master of the short story, so we’re pretty excited to read her work for the first time.

We hope you’ll enjoy the story, and join us next week for the discussion. The podcast will be available on iTunes and other podcatchers by Wednesday morning.

Can’t wait until iTunes downloads the new episode? Subscribe by Email

Author Spotlight: Caroline Casper

Caroline Casper is a freelance writer of short fiction and nonfiction who also works as Head of Content for an academic digital magazine called Hippo Reads. She holds an MA in journalism and is currently working towards an MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. She is also working on a collection of short stories focusing on real women on issues of truth and authenticity, and women’s complicated relationships with loss, ageing, and objectification. She lives in San Francisco with her husband. Literary Roadhouse reached out to this up and coming writer to ask what motivates and inspires her.

Literary Roadhouse: Why do you write short stories?
Caroline Casper: I think I’m drawn to short stories because of my background in journalism—where the training forces you to tell a riveting story in a short amount of space. I also really like the creative process of short story writing…how themes develop from subconscious threads and connections you may not set out or “intend” to create. It seems to me that short stories allow room to meander and experiment with form, even if that experimentation is just an exercise. Sometimes I find it easier to find creativity in confinement of space.

Literary Roadhouse: Who are your favourite short story authors?
Caroline Casper: My favorite short story authors are Alice Munro, because she’s brilliant and I think her stories manage to mimic the complexities of humanity like no others—there’s so much happening off the page or below the surface—and she’s always doing fascinating things with plot; and Junot Diaz, whose short stories are fabulous. Lorrie Moore is also brilliant and always makes me laugh.

Eminence,” her first short story, was published in Carve Magazine in 2013 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Eminence” also won first place in the 2014 Story South Million Writers Award, as selected by a panel of judges.

How Short is a Short Story?

Here on the Literary Roadhouse, we’re all about short stories. There are two good reasons for this:

1) they are a wonderful form of literature, forcing tight storytelling and encouraging powerful imagery

2) they ensure we (as well as our audience) can read the stories each week for the podcast.

But what do we mean by a short story?

DEFINITIONS

As writers, when we create a piece of fiction, we are aware of the length categories into which stories fall. There are no specific rules on story lengths. There are several ‘conventions’, but there is no strict agreement.

Let’s look at the stories we’ve chosen so far:

Week 1: The Story of an Hour – Kate Chopin – 1,103 words

Week 2: The Cheater’s Guide To Love by by Junot Diaz – 9,343 words

Week 3: The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luis Borges – 2,201 words

Week 4: Eminence by Caroline Casper – 4,827 words

So, we’ve already chosen a pretty wide variation, but they all fall below 10,000 words, which is approximately equivalent to 30 pages of a novel. That’s not to say that we can’t choose a story above that – these things are flexible.

But the best definition of a short story has nothing to do with word counts or pages. It’s from Edgar Allen Poe – “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression”.

ARE SHORT STORIES ANY GOOD?

Can you tell a complete story in such a few words? Many readers of novels would say that you can’t, and that you need the length of a novel to tell the complete story and fill out the characters.

Ernest Hemingway, a real master of the short fiction form, responding to a challenge, wrote an infamous 6-word short story:

For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

— ~Hemingway

In just six words, there is a complete story, a sad story. It is inexplicit, subtle, but perfectly formed.

Someone on Reddit asked for a good horror story in two sentences. The one which was by far the best is linked in the references at the bottom (the actual text is copyright). Only forty-four words, and an intriguing and damned scary story.

In truth, most of the best short stories extend well into beyond a thousand words. There is a school thought that a writer can’t produce a quality literary short story with fully-rounded characters and intriguing themes and all the things which make short stories great in less than a thousand words. Reaching for the nearest Best American Short Stories from my shelf (a quality, annual collection of literary short fiction), I estimate that the average length of each of the twenty stories contained therein is around 5,500 words.

So, where does that leave us? How short (or long) is a short story?

It’s the same, whatever label you want to attach to it: it’s as long as it needs to be to tell the story in a compelling way.

References:

http://www.betterstorytelling.net/thebasics/storylength.html
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/length.shtml
Reddit Story
http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm

The Circular Ruins – Jorge Luis Borges – Literary Roadhouse Ep: 3

Discussion Notes: The Circular Ruins

Next week’s story is Eminence by Caroline Casper

This podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher and podcatchers. If you can take a few moments to leave an iTunes and/or Stitcher review, it would help us immensely.

On today’s episode, we had a great discussion of The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luís Borges. This story proved divisive, in many ways highlighting how each of us views reality though our personal experiences and beliefs. It was also our first translated story. Make sure you listen to this episode if you haven’t already. The crazy messy version is on the Youtube page, and the glistening audio version will be available by morning.

We do have a rating scale. For the history of this goofy system, see Anais’s post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” For last week’s story, you gave “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” by Junot Diaz 3.6 Bradberries.

On a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “The Circular Ruins”? Tell us in the comments and we will give you the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is Eminence by Caroline Casper.  This is our first Pushcart Prize nominee! The Pushcart Prize is an American literary award by Pushcart Press that honors the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses over the previous year.

We hope you’ll enjoy the read and join us next Tuesday for the live discussion. The podcast will be available on iTunes and other podcatchers by Wednesday morning.

Can’t wait until iTunes downloads the new episode? Subscribe by Email

The Cheater’s Guide to Love – Junot Diaz – Literary Roadhouse Ep: 2

Discussion Notes: The Cheater’s Guide to Love

Next week’s story is The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luís Borges.

First, a quick than you for all the support we’ve received since going live. The podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher and Podcatchers. If you can take a few moments to leave an iTunes and/or Stitcher review, it would help us immensely.

On today’s episode, we had a great discussion of The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz. Surprisingly the story left each of us conflicted in different ways. Hashing out what we liked and what left us wanting proved to be an interesting conversation. What did you think of the story? Were you like Maya and Kenechi, who enjoyed the story more than the style? Or did you love the artistry like Anais and Gerald, but found the story and characters lacking?

We do have a rating scale. For the history of this goofy system, see Anais’s post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” For last week’s story, you gave “The Story Of an Hour” by Kate Copin 4.2 Bradberries.

On a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate “The Cheaters Guide To Love”? Tell us in the comments and we will give you the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luís Borges.  We hope you enjoy the read and join us next Tuesday for the live discussion. The podcast will be available on iTunes and other podcatchers by Wednesday morning.

Can’t wait til the morning for a podcast? Subscribe by Email

“Because I liked it” — a legitimate critique?

If I reviewed a story and my conclusion was that the book was good, because I liked it, would that be enough for you? I’m guessing the answer is no, but before we dismiss the notion entirely, let’s pause for a moment and actually delve deeper into the question. Is saying something is good (or bad) because you liked it (or disliked it) a legitimate critique? Well, of course the answer lies in what we mean by legitimate critique. I’m not going to go to official definitions here but let’s start with critique.

Let’s start by defining critique as an evaluation of the merits and shortcomings of something — its good and bad points. In this sense, saying that you like something is not a critique at all. However, saying that it’s good could be viewed as a critique, if albeit a very limited one. The decision  to assess something as good or bad needs you, at the very least, to determine that it has good points that you like, or bad points that you do not like, for whatever reason. This in itself is an evaluation of sorts.

Now, legitimate: what would make something a legitimate critique? This is a bit harder, because different people will give you a different response. Some people will flat out tell you that you need more justification than your own personal preference for a critique to be legitimate; that your own preference is simply biased. I ask those people, what isn’t biased? And is bias inherently a bad thing? For example, my friend has exactly the same taste in books as I do — if she tells me something is good, I’m more likely to take her word for it than the word of a professional critic, or someone giving a more ‘impartial’ analysis. I know her, and I can vouch for her taste, biased as it may be. It’s biased in the right direction—towards me.

Often, when we say legitimate, what we’re really alluding to is whether the critique is actually good. I say that despite being legitimate, this particular critique is not good. In order for a critique to be good it needs to have something backing it up other than the critic’s own personal preferences. Let’s say, for example, that before you can call a story good you have to examine its use of various narrative structures and tools, its pacing, the depth of its characters, etc. Let’s say that two different critics examine all these things in one story, and at the end of it they come to opposite conclusions. Critic A praises the author’s use of certain narrative tools, whereas Critic B derides the use of these same tools. So what does this say? That one critic has a better understanding than the other when it comes to critical analysis? Perhaps, but before we allow ourselves to venture down that road, let’s remind ourselves that we are talking about art here. Not science, art. What may be good and enjoyable for one person, is not for another.

I’m sure some of you can already see what I’m getting at here. If we break it down, the difference between two people’s opinion of  a work as good or bad can come down to the differences in preferences of those two people; essentially because they liked/didn’t like the story. What I’m alluding to, in a really roundabout way, is that with art, unless you’re critiquing the specific merits of something, for example, character development or depth of plot, an evaluation of something is often about how much the person evaluating it likes it or not. Often, works that are considered good are those that a lot of people like, and works that are considered bad are those that hardly anybody likes.

So let’s come back to the question of whether or not because I liked it is a legitimate critique or not. Technically that critique is legitimate, but also piss-poor and lazy. It conveys nothing about the merits of a story, but it is legitimate. But I think most people don’t want to settle for legitimate; they want to be good. To do that, you can build from the very legitimate reaction of “I liked it” and strengthen it with critical analysis — why did you like it? Tell me that, and that’s both a legitimate and good critique.

Kenechi