Novels are intense, but short stories are turning heads
by Rob Neufeld
The short story is showing some muscle. November last year, John Grisham’s collection, Ford Country, topped the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers are giving short story writers a lot of slots in their hardcover catalogs.
Marisa Silver, Warren Wilson College MFA alumna, just published Alone with You, a collection of stories, with Simon & Schuster. Veteran editor Otto Penzler has persuaded the biggest spy novel writers—Lee Child, David Morrell, Dan Fesperman, and others—to try the short form in a new anthology, Agents of Treachery.
There is additional cause for local interest. It has already been reported that Ron Rash’s story, “Into the Gorge,” won a place in the 2010 edition of The PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories. Now, his book, Burning Bright, a collection of stories, has been named a finalist for the prestigious Frank O’ Connor International Award for books of short fiction.
Rash is one of five U.S. writers— along with T.C. Boyle, Robin Black, Belle Boggs, and Laura van den Berg—who have made an American affair of the award process. David Constantine, the only non-American, is British.
One of Rash’s contributions to world literature is his modernizing of the mountain story. In “Into the Gorge,” Jesse, a 67-year-old mountain man, considers how the Park Service and gated communities have displaced old home places.
He recalls how his great-aunt, realizing her loss of hold on the world, had gone to her birthplace, sat against a tree, and froze to death with her clothes off. “Her ghost was still down there, many believed,” Rash writes, “including Jesse’s own father, who never returned to harvest the ginseng he’d planted.”
The mountains have long been strong in tales, as short or long as you’d like. A few of the local geniuses who have put their true product in print are: Gary Carden, Curtis Blanton, and Bill Carver.
The oral tradition, as practiced by Carden, Connie Regan-Blake, and Donald Davis here today, feeds another modern trend in short story popularity: professionally read and broadcast stories. “Selected Shorts” on NPR radio is only one good example.
Pacing, voice, and sharpness have become so dominant in contemporary stories, it makes you think authors are reading their stories aloud to imaginary audiences as they write them.
Go east 250 miles to find one of the premiere short story writers of today, Jill McCorkle, born in Lumberton, living in Hillsborough.
McCorkle’s one-liners are not jokes; they’re the way people talk when uttering powerful thoughts. She lets that tendency reach a farcical head in her story, “Surrender,” published in her new collection, Going Away Shoes.
Roald Dahl would be clapping with appreciation, reading how a fatherless little girl turns into a demon-child when with her grandmother. The child’s one-liners are shocking, but the story’s pathos grows, and, in the end, McCorkle performs a flourish by having the girl’s name finally and redeemingly mentioned.
The O. Henry prize collection is a must-read volume. Two other great annuals are Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin); and New Stories from the South (Algonquin).
In the O. Henry prize story, “The Headstrong Historian” by Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we get, within eighteen pages, a multi-generational chronicle of a tribal society undergoing colonialism. The way in which the author makes history feel like an intimate tale is remarkable.
For instance, Grace, the third-generation teller in the story, recalls elementary school with childlike perception. Teachers had told her “stories of the destruction of their village by the white men with guns, stories she was not sure she believed, because they also told stories of mermaids appearing from the River Niger holding wads of crisp cash.”
The O. Henry collection represents a market place of leading story writers. In it, Western North Carolina shares a courtyard with many Americans and many from other countries.
• Connie Regan-Blake presents the day-long storytelling workshop, “Finding the Storyteller in You,” at the Girl Scout Center, 64 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, Asheville, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call 258-1113, or visit www.storywindow.com to learn more and register.
• Gary Carden, Lloyd Arneach, Glenda Beall, and other storytellers share the stage at “The Liar’s Bench,” City Lights Bookstore, Sylva, Aug, 7, 7 p.m. Call 586-9499.