A Story a Day for Short Story Month

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I’m in need of some untainted* inspiration… maybe you are, too?

(*Untainted by industry noise and book worries and life stresses. Just something simple, and sweet, and able to get the blood pumping and the fingers moving on the keys.)

One thing that does this for me is reading a good short story. I love short stories, as I’ve confessed before here.

So I was delighted to discover that apparently May is National Short Story Month, and one of my favorite authors, Sara Zarr, is taking on a beautiful project: reading a short story a day for a month, and tweeting about it. If I can get it together, I am going to join her, starting tomorrow. You can, too—just comment on her post, or let her know on Twitter at @sarazarr. There’s also a project in which you can write a short story every day, but that, my friends, is way too ambitious for me, when I’m working on a reinvention of a novel.

My intention is this: To read a short story every day* for the month of May (*Um, every day I am able to. I’m bad at every-day promises, so I can promise there will be at least a few days when I break it.) And I’ll talk about the stories on Twitter, to share what I’ve read.

I’ve decided to use the month to reread some of my most favorite short stories—many of which I have collected in a series of binders I call my “anthologies.” I used to photocopy stories I loved and admired from collections, magazines, literary journals, and anywhere I could find them and collect them in these personal anthologies. I stopped doing this years ago, but I still have about eight or nine volumes of my anthologies that I can dip into this month, not to mention some new books I have on my shelves and links I’ve collected online and a Best American or two I haven’t finished reading yet. So there will be some brand-new-to-me short stories to read, too.

If you have a favorite short story you’d like to suggest, please leave it in the comments below or tell me on Twitter at @novaren.

Tomorrow is May 1, the start of this fun project. I already know what tomorrow’s story will be… but I’ll wait to tell you until the morning. It’s a long-time favorite, and one I haven’t read in more than ten years. I can’t wait to rediscover it.


Keeping track of the stories I read here:

May 1, Story 1: “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter. Favorite moment: a mother’s intuition. Also this moment: “I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.”

May 2, Story 2: “Lucho” by Patricia Engel. Favorite moment: the idea of love. “…I didn’t even know I loved Lucho till that second. But I did. Because so what if he was a little smelly and weird. He came looking for me back when I was invisible. And when he was with me, he acted like I was the only thing he could see.”

May 3, Story 3: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler. Favorite moment: the idea of humanity, and, well, basically everything. This story is new to me, and I loved it. “There were tourists everywhere on the beach, swimming, lying in the sun with daiquiris and ice-cream sandwiches and salted oranges. She wanted to tell them that, not four miles away, children were being starved and terrified. She couldn’t remember enough about people to know if they’d care.”

May 4, Story 4: “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle. Favorite moment: all the waxy weirdness. And the truth in this statement: “‘…He needs to know what he’s dealing with—otherwise he’ll do whatever he wants to her. That’s how older guys are,’ Ruthie explains with a sigh. ‘They underestimate you. They assume you’ve got no one looking out for you. They assume you’re nothing.'”

May 5, Story 5: “Miss Lora” by Junot Díaz. Favorite moment: voice and all voice. “Sometimes after you leave her apartment you walk out to the landfill where you and your brother played as children and sit on the swings. This is also the spot where Mr. del Orbe threatened to shoot your brother in the nuts. Go ahead, Rafa said, and then my brother here will shoot you in the pussy. Behind you in the distance hums New York City. The world, you tell yourself, will never end.”

May 6—I messed up and didn’t read a story today. Does it help to tell you I had a book event that day and was distracted? 

May 7, Story 7: “The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong. Favorite moment: a whole new view of mermaids. “Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people. They are stupid like fish, they eat your garbage like fish, they sell on the open market like fish. Keep your kids out of the water, keep your trash locked up, and if they come close to land, scream a lot and bang pots together until they startle away. They’re pretty basic.”

May 8, Story 8: “The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard. Favorite moment: the concept and every word. “That was how saints were made. Some piece of strangeness happened, and it hooked itself in the heart of someone who saw it, and called it a miracle. Once they decided that’s what it was, people tried to reenact the miracle’s circumstances. They ritualized its pieces. They named the person at the center of it, gave them an epithet, something memorable.”

May 9, Story 9: “Kindness” by Yiyun Li. Favorite moment: The loneliness and isolation of this narrator. The strength of memory… This story is just extraordinary. You can find it in the O.Henry anthology from 2012. “I never showed up in her dreams, I am certain, as people we keep in our memories rarely have a place for us in theirs. You may say that we too evict people from our hearts while we continue living in theirs, and that may very well be true for some people, but I wonder if I am an anomaly in that respect. I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself.”

May 10, Story 10: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell. Favorite moment: the mood, so melancholy and peculiar in all the best ways. “Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno‘s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper that I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I am a vampire.”

Bonus weekend story, which catches me up to Day 6: “The Map” by William Ritter, a Jackaby (Doctor Who meets Sherlock in YA form) short story that is coming out online this summer, before book #2. I don’t think I should quote from it since it’s not available yet, but expect all the sense of classic mystery and excitement you’ll remember from the first book in this little teasing taste… (Full disclosure: We share a publisher, Algonquin Young Readers!)

May 11, Story 11: “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham. Favorite moment: This story was a time machine—I remember reading it many years ago, and a distinct and emotional memory of reading it followed me over the years. Returning to it made me cry, at its end, again. Helps that I actually did live during my formative years in Woodstock, New York—it’s not what they hoped it was. “‘You and I are going to fly, man,’ Carlton whispers, close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. ‘Fly,’ he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces—we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch. Sweet glory. The secret of flight is this—you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. I swear it to this day.”

May 12, Story 12: “The Girl on the Plane” by Mary Gaitskill. Favorite moment: This story is profoundly disturbing. Upsetting. Gutting. Complicated. It was very difficult to read the first time, years ago. I think I  had to close the book before finishing and come back to it later. This time, I knew what was coming. It hurt to read. I needed to read it. I think everyone should read this story. “A stewardess with a small pink face asked if they’d like anything to drink, and he ordered two little bottles of Jack Daniel’s. Patty’s shadow had a compressed can of orange juice and an unsavory packet of nuts; their silent companion by the window had vodka straight. He thought of asking her if she was married, but he bet the answer was no, and he didn’t want to make her admit her loneliness. Of course, not every single person was lonely, but he guessed that she was. She seemed in need of comfort and care, like a stray animal that gets fed by various kindly people but never held.”

May 13, Story 13: “It’s Just a Jump to the Left” by Libba Bray. Favorite moment: Memories of Rocky Horror, but beyond that the sex and longing and rebellion and confusion, the heart. “She couldn’t say why it felt so very necessary to be angry with her mother all the time, but it did. She would walk into a room where her mother sat reading or grading papers and be consumed with a sudden need to wound that would be followed moments later by a terrible guilt and an equally ferocious longing to be forgiven and comforted.”

May 14, Story 14: “Ramadan” by Mona Simpson. I am not actually sure if this is a short story (it later became a part of a novel?) or an essay (it seemed at first to be published in Granta and then Salon.com as an essay?) or that amalgam of both that turns into semi-autobiographical fiction (?), which I find so fascinating, the way fact and imagination combine to form a whole new truth that distorts the memory forever after. Favorite moments: Truth is, this story upset me far more on second read than it did years ago. I am thinking about why that could be. “His skin stretched and spread taut wings from his neck to his top chest bones. I remembered that he was young, probably younger than twenty. I wanted to hear his name. I didn’t want it to be Atassi. He could have been. My father might have come back. Then I remembered my father telling me around the old kitchen table, ‘If I went back, I’d be running the country. I was the John F. Kennedy of Egypt.’ Well, he wasn’t running the country. I read the newspapers. I knew those people’s names. He said so little to us that I saved every sentence. I could lift one up like a bracelet or strand of pearls from a box.”

May 15, Story 15: “Call My Name” by Aimee Bender. Favorite moment: the sadness and entitlement to happiness that never comes. I don’t have to “like” this character to feel and appreciate her sadness. “The men are pleased when I come on the subway because I am the type who usually drives her own car. I am not your average subway girl, wearing black pants and reading a novel the whole time so you can’t even get eye contact. Me, I look at them and smile at them and they love it. I bet they talk about me at the dinner table—I give boring people something to discuss over corn.”

May 16, Story 16: “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor. Favorite moment: when I realized this was going where I thought it was… the perv was a perv. “The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of ‘What were you thinking?’ and ‘Why did you do that?’ Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge—someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.”

…a gap of space and lost days in which I get very busy, do a little traveling, have a book event and a school visit, get home, meet two deadlines, and feel guilty about all the stories I missed, so I start again…

May 22, Story 17: “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Favorite moment: a memory that transports us back in time. This story was filled with regret. Moving, perfect. This connection over Bruce Lee movies: “I stared at Raphael with the pure thrill of unexpected pleasure. ‘I watched the film in the other house where I worked,’ he said. ‘Look at this.’ He pivoted slightly, leaped up, and kicked, his leg straight and high, his body all taut grace. I was twelve years old and had, until then, never felt that I recognized myself in another person.”

May 22, Story 18: “The Snow Queen” by Karen Brennan. Favorite moment: the sadness and the disconnect. “In those days I would have done anything to protect my son. If I were to encounter him now—in an alley, say, covered with snow—I would not be able to melt his heart.”

May 23, Story 19: “Distant View of a Minaret” by Alifa Rifaat. Favorite moment: The calm at the end and everything that says and contains. (Reading the Wikipedia page about how this author’s husband would “allow” her to write and publish, and then take that away, gives me a complicated feelings; I need to read more from this Egyptian writer.) “As often happened at this moment she heard the call to afternoon prayers filtering through the shutters of the closed window and bringing her back to reality. With a groan he let go of her thigh and immediately withdrew. He took a small towel from under the pillow, wrapped it round himself, turned his back to her and went to sleep.”

May 24, Story 20: “Use Me” by Elissa Schappell. Favorite moment: going back in time—this was a story from a book I loved as a young writer in grad school, and I haven’t read it since. I’m such a fan of this writer, even still, years and years after. This paragraph shows some of her power… “I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t fantasized about appearing in one of his books. I imagined how he would see me. I would be young, my blonde bob would be long and red with a shine like patent leather. He’d mention my breasts, which were really nothing special, comparing them to dollops of fresh white cream. My legs, elongated, would cut through space like scissors. I would be smart, but not too smart. I would be naive. Maybe he’d widen the gap in my front teeth. He would rewrite all his parts so he was obviously the one with the upper hand, and invent poetic dialogue fraught with tense and subtle metaphor. In that way I was sure he wasn’t honest. But I would be different. Like a man. I’d have him, and I would leave him. He would put me on the page, but I’d live outside it. I’d live longer than he.”

May 25, Story 21: “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. Favorite moment: This story was incredible. Just incredible. Read it right now and you’ll see what I mean. “I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled her off to a sanitarium. I don’t know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly that they take you away from the known world for wanting it?”

May 26, Story 22: “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” by Alice Sola Kim. Hot damn! THIS STORY. The past two days of stories rocked my world. Favorite moment: Just look at how this story begins with this gem of a first sentence… “At midnight we parked by a Staples and tried some seriously dark fucking magic.” p.s. You can find this story in the anthology Monstrous Affections.

May 27, Story 23: “What the Dead Know” by Manuel Martinez. Favorite moment: Whenever the dead come back to life, you know I am there. “But they didn’t die. They walked out of the hospitals with their families and went to dinner. They went home and coaxed their spouses and lovers to bed. They told everyone that they had died and come back, that they had been given a second chance. They tried to explain that this was different from the type of near-death experience we hear so much about, when the heart stops beating and valiant surgeons are able to start it up again. They told us that this was true resurrection, but we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand.”

May 28, Story 24: “Nobody’s Business” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Favorite moment: Returning to this story after many years (this is another one from my anthology). “Sang had been laughing at him, but now she stopped, her expression pensive. She looked up at the house, a balled-up comforter in her arms. ‘I don’t know, Charles. I don’t know how long I’ll be here.'”

…a lost weekend…

May 31, Story 25: “Light” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. Favorite moment: I was taken in by the first lines, straight off… “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.”


There. I write this on June 1. The month has reached its end, and I somehow forgot to read some Alice Munro, which I shall rectify very soon. There were 31 days in May, and I only reached 25 stories, but just imagine a month full of 25 stories… it was 25 times richer than it would have been without.

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AWP: The Writer (Not Author) Conference

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I remember my first AWP conference. It was in the winter of 2008, before I had my first book out, and around the time I had racked up dozens upon dozens of rejections from literary agents for my second adult novel and was feeling pretty low about my publishing prospects.

I still wanted to write literary fiction for adults, and I had not yet embraced writing YA. The AWP conference was in New York City that year, within walking distance of my office, but I took two personal days to attend. I went to as many panels as I could take and carried home as many literary journals as I could handle on the subway… There was one panel I remember distinctly, because it ended up sitting with me for months afterward. It was a panel about YA fiction, and the wonderful Margo Rabb was on it. I had written down an anecdote she’d said, which was when she told her writer friends that her novel—written from a teenage perspective and originally intended for adults—would be published as a YA novel they said, “What a shame.” She spoke about lifting those judgments and the readers she’s found in YA fiction in a way that made me think about doing this, and I do think she’s one of the reasons I’m here today. That was a transformative time for me, when my mind was open… a perfect moment to attend AWP.

Now, years later, I just attended my fourth AWP conference—this time in Minneapolis. My first time going, I was a quiet note-taker in the audience, but this year, I was on two panels of my own, speaking before crowded rooms full of people. (And then, after, quietly taking notes in the audience at everyone else’s panels. Some things never change.)

Photo: Claire Kirch, courtesy of Publishers Weekly. From left: me, Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, and Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Photo: Claire Kirch, courtesy of Publishers Weekly. From left: me, Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, and Jewell Parker Rhodes.

I was thankful to be sent to the conference by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, where I am an instructor and a YA mentor in their Your Novel Year certificate program. Our panel was in the first slot on the first morning of the conference, on Plot IS Character, Character IS Plot, with the glorious Jewell Parker Rhodes, the director of the Piper Center and an incredible writer and woman, along with some of the Your Novel Year instructors, including Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, and me. We talked about plot and character and how the two intersect and inform each other… and our panel was even written up in Publishers Weekly!

The next day, I took part in a panel on Growing Up in a Magical Space: Magical Realism in Contemporary YA and Children’s Literature, moderated by the immensely talented Laura Ruby, one of my favorite authors!, and with wonderful fellow writers Janet Fox, Nikki Loftin, and Samantha Mabry. We had a great discussion about the blurry definition of magical realism in YA, and I confessed that, to me, The Walls Around Us is a ghost story, though I’ve seen it called magical realism all over the place and had to question my own understanding of the genre and my intentions.

So that was the official stuff. It was an honor to panel with these wonderful fellow authors, and I was thrilled at how packed each of the rooms were and by the great audience questions and the discussions we had.

However, for me, the AWP conference is about far more than talking on a panel, even beside some phenomenal fellow YA authors. AWP is the one conference where I can be a writer and not an author. This is so refreshing to me, it’s like tugging off an uncomfortable set of professional clothes and slipping on a soft pair of pajamas.

What happens when you get to an AWP panel late... You sit on the floor and listen. Here's my view of the Young Adult Literature and the Female Body panel.
What happens when you get to an AWP panel late… You sit on the floor and listen. Here’s my view of the Young Adult Literature and the Female Body panel.

AWP is my favorite conference out of all conferences because of the main focus on writing craft. I like the sense of skill-sharing—that so many writers (was it almost 13,000 this year in Minneapolis?) come together to talk writing, and also do readings and see old friends and have parties and whatever else happens when so many thousands of writers get together in a borrowed city for three/four/five days. I like that I go to think only about writing, to talk only about writing, to gather inspiration and knowledge to make more writing and to teach writing and work with other writers. I’m not being my author-self, I’m being my true-self, which is a writer.

For someone who struggles with the public face of being an author—the online persona, the in-person persona, the competition, the comparison, the cliques, every last stitch of it—I found AWP reinvigorating and, well, refreshing. Probably because YA is still such a small pocket of the conference and so many other kinds of writers are there, too, and I know I’m not in their cliques, perhaps? Maybe the pressure is off because most of the literary magazines and small presses filling the book fair wouldn’t publish me anyway, so I don’t care as much? Maybe that’s it? The sense of freedom?

(Though I did gravitate to the One Story table… buying some issues to support them and sending a little silent wish into the ether that I would one day be published by One Teen Story, my current dream journal. Hey, I haven’t changed that much.)

The mayor (!) of Minneapolis introduced the keynote speaker, Karen Russell. p.s. The mayor of Minneapolis has an unpublished YA novel in her drawer... YA editors, get on that?
The mayor (!) of Minneapolis introduced the keynote speaker, Karen Russell. p.s. The mayor of Minneapolis has an unpublished YA novel in her drawer… YA editors, get on that?

All I know is AWP is entirely what you make of it. What I like to do is attend select craft panels and readings and wander the book fair and support literary journals and small presses I admire. No pressure. No stress about networking, though it tends to happen naturally. I keep my schedule overbooked and always open, in case I change my mind, which I do, constantly. I let myself follow my whims.

And I take advantage of how gigantic the crowd is… and disappear to have introvert time in my hotel room whenever I feel like it.

At this year’s AWP, I came away with so much thinking and inspiration and challenges to myself, some I am still mulling over now, a full week later.

Some of my favorite panels included Young Adult Literature and the Female Body with Megan Atwood, Brandy Colbert, Christine Heppermann, Alexandra Duncan, and Steve Brezenoff… Women Writing Darkness: Villains, Violence, and Unhappy Endings with Michelle Hoover, Allison Amend, Sabina Murray, Sheri Joseph, and Kate Racculia… Young Adults, New Adults, & the Women Who Write Them: Navigating the Politics of Gender & Genre in Young Adult Literature with Cecil Castellucci, Laurel Snyder, Lynn Melnick, Marian Crotty, and Stephanie Kuehn… Politics of Empathy: Writing Through Borrowed Eyes with Lorraine Berry, Matthew Salesses, Prageeta Sharma, Tess Taylor, and Aimee Phan… Striving for Balance between Language and Prejudice in Teaching Writing with Alexander Chee, Danielle Evans, Christine Lee, Jennine Capó Crucet, and Mat Johnson… and Teen Sex in Fiction for Adults with Pamela Erens, Gina Frangello, Anna March, Elissa Schappell, and Julia Fierro.

Yep. I went to a good bunch of panels that resonated—and there were so many more I missed, which makes me hungry already for next year’s conference, if I can afford to go, fingers crossed. There is so much going on at once, so much happening at the conference and at off-site places surrounding the conference, that you will never ever feel like you’ve done enough or seen enough people… which I guess makes you all the more inclined to come back next year.

There were only a few panels on YA or children’s books when I attended AWP in 2008. Now, not so many years later, we’re very much a part of things at this yearly conference that you just can’t deny us. Here’s a small sampling of photos from YA and children’s panels this year that was featured in Publishers Weekly.

Some other cool moments: I won a week-long writing retreat in Los Angeles in a raffle! I ran into my oldest writing friend on the plane and ended up hanging out with her for much of the conference (hi, Erin)! I ran into my very first writing workshop teacher, from my first year in college, and she recognized me right away! I introduced myself to a literary fiction author whose books I love and she actually knew who I was! I saw so many colony friends and MFA classmates and summer workshop friends and authors I admire and lovely Binders and I read an intense and gorgeous book on the plane ride home that I’d picked up at the book fair: The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson.

I hope to be able to attend AWP in Los Angeles in 2016. And if I do, let’s try to run into each other there, okay?

 

 

The Book I Want You to Read: ALL THE RAGE by Courtney Summers

AlltheRageEvery once in a while there comes a book that you wish you’d written yourself. A book you want to read again immediately after finishing because you need to keep it in your life a little longer, or unlock its secrets, or savor the brilliance… Whatever the reason may be, all you know is that this is a book you will not be able to forget, ever. It is a book you want to share with friends and strangers. A book that has made such an impact on you that you want it to wedge its sharp corners into everyone else, too.

This book for me is All the Rage by Courtney Summers. And you are in luck: It is on sale TODAY.

I’ve been a fan of Courtney’s work since we connected over our blogs—this very blog here—and I have loved each and every one of her books (and I was honored to even be asked to blurb one! the ferocious, gripping, and glorious This Is Not a Test), and it’s always difficult to shine a light on just one of a favorite author’s books.

But All the Rage is my most favorite Courtney Summers novel yet.

Here is the jacket copy…

The sheriff’s son, Kellan Turner, is not the golden boy everyone thinks he is, and Romy Grey knows that for a fact. Because no one wants to believe a girl from the wrong side of town, the truth about him has cost her everything–friends, family, and her community. Branded a liar and bullied relentlessly by a group of kids she used to hang out with, Romy’s only refuge is the diner where she works outside of town. No one knows her past there. But when a girl with ties to both Romy and Kellan goes missing after a party, and news of him assaulting another girl in a town close by gets out, Romy must decide whether she wants to fight or carry the burden of knowing more girls could get hurt if she doesn’t speak up. Nobody believed her the first time–and they certainly won’t now–but the cost of her silence might be more than she can bear.

With a shocking conclusion and writing that will absolutely knock you out, All the Rage examines the shame and silence inflicted upon young women in a culture that refuses to protect them.

But let me tell you in my own words…

This is an important book. This is a book we need, in YA and in the world. This is a book by one of the best YA writers of our time, at the height of her talents.

Do not miss this book. Go out and buy it this week if you can. Then come back and tell me what you think about it.