One of the most common questions that audiences ask authors at the end of short story “readings” is a variant of the following: “Where did you get the idea for the story?” “Where did the story come from?” What is the story based on?” “What was the originating germ of the story?” I guess it’s one of the few questions you can ask an author who has just read one of his or her stories. Authors know that audiences will not be satisfied with the answer, “I just made it up,” although that may often indeed be the case. The question suggests that audiences are fascinated with the “real life” or “idea” that somehow must underlie a story, as if it were the real life or the idea that is most important. However, it is likely that what engaged the author was the process by which the story transforms “real life” or “idea” into a meaningful fictional artifice.
Although I do not know whether Heidi Pitlor or the publishers of Best American Short Stories specifically request authors to talk about the origins of their stories, this is usually what they do in the’ “Contributors’ notes.”
Julie Otsuska, “Diem Perdidi”
Julie Otsuka says that she had been taking notes for “Diem Perdidi” on the backs of envelopes, napkins, and ATM receipts for many years—ever since her mother was first diagnosed with dementia—before she came up with the “She remembers,” She does not remember” structure and the second-person voice addressed to “me” that made this story possible. When readers ask where a story comes from, they often perhaps do not realize that the most important and mysterious question is what made it possible to transform some experience of idea into a fiction. The answer always has something to do with form or technique, voice or structure, some literary convention or device that miraculously makes a story.
“Diem Perdidi” means, “I have lost a day,” supposedly uttered by the Emperor Titus at the end of a day when nothing meaningful was achieved—perhaps the opposite of “carpe diem,” for all days that are not seized are inevitably lost. The story uses the convention of a repetitive rhythmic refrain or list emphasizing the most important verb for those stricken by, or witness to, dementia— the verb “remember.”
But the list is not composed just of random things that the woman remembers or does not remember; they are specific to her as an individual and as a member of her culture— for example, the loss of a daughter or her incarceration in an interment camp during WWII. And even though most of the sentences begin with “She remembers” or “She does not remember,” they are routinely repetitive; the length of sentences varies, and the subject matter continually and meaningfully changes. Frequently, the repetitive sentences are interspersed with brief statements by the woman herself in italics, e.g., “I shouldn’t have talked so much,” “I didn’t know what else to do.” Furthermore, the general remembered items are interspersed with remembered items specifically about the writer/teller, addressed to “you.” And the story ends, inevitably, with all those things the woman remembered in the first paragraph—the name of the president, the name of the president’s dog, the day, the season, the year—forgotten in the last paragraph, except, of course, she does remember the death of her first child and the taste of dust in the interment camp, for some things are too painful to forget.
This is a story that could have been sentimental and self indulgent, but Julie Otsuka finds just the right form and tone to make it deeply engaging and meaningful. It’s not the origin of the story that is important, not even the “real life” behind it that must have been so painful to experience—but rather the restrained formal control that transforms it into a meaningful fiction about how one’s life in memory fades and resurges, fades and resurges until finally it simply fades away.
Edith Pearlman, “Honeydew”
Edith Pearlman is a classic example of how short story writers, even very fine short story writers, can get ignored by reviewers and the reading public. How can this happen? Well, it can happen when, like Pearlman, the writer writes only short stories and never novels. Only a few writers who make this decision manage to get widely read: Raymond Carver, because, with the help of a savvy editor, he created a stylized, attenuated world of blue-collar misfits that caught the attention of reviewers. Alice Munro, because she is such an intelligent observer of the inner lives of women and creates a complex, densely populated world that reviewers can justify as “novelistic. A good short story write can be ignored by the relatively wide circulation magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, and is published instead only by low circulation journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Idaho Review, and Ontario Review. A good short story writer can be ignored when those stories are collected in books that only university and small presses care to publish, and, which, for lack of funds to promote them, never get widely reviewed.
Edith Pearlman is a master of short stories that are unmistakably short stories; they are not “novelistic,” either in style or in substance, and for that reason, they have, until recently, seldom been read. All lovers of the short story should therefore be thankful that, after she published short stories for years in little known places, Edith Pearlman’s collection, Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories was “discovered” last year--winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and becoming a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, the Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award in fiction. The fact that it has taken reviewers over thirty years to “discover” and appreciate a writer now in her mid-seventies simply shows how little respect the short story as a form receives in a literary world where the novel reigns supreme.
Pearlman says “Honeydew” began with a specific request for a story from the journal Orion, which announced in its first issue several years ago its “fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.”
So what does a writer do when requested to write a story tailored to the journal’s stated thematic purpose. What Pearlman did was to dig around in a story she was already working on—a triangle story involving a mistress, wife, and the man between them—and find a way to get the story “vigorously involved in the natural world.” She had already done an essay for Orion on beetles, so she did some more entomological research on beetles, including the honey-dew-making Coccidae as well as moth grubs that, ground up and mixed with water, produced an ecstatic sleep, and with suicidal ants. The narrative problem was how to make a story out of this mixed bag of bugs?
In the first paragraph Pearlman creates a private school for girls with a ravine on one side where a suicide occurred a century before. She creates an very bright adolescent girl in eleventh grade who is anorexic; she creates a headmistress whose palms ache to spank the girl, and just to complicate matters further, she makes this forty-three year old headmistress six weeks pregnant by the father of the anorexic girl.
She creates a tone that takes all this very seriously, but describes it slyly and slightly sarcastically, for anorexia is a disease that is very serious, but that could be solved if the damned girl would just eat. She used the results of her research to describe beetles that gorge on decaying corpses and defecate at the same time, turning flesh into compost, noting, “The uses of shit are many.” And she made use of paradoxical fact that the life-saving manna that saved the Israelites in the desert was actually the result of beetles feeding on plant sap, which rushes through the guts and out the anus floating to the ground to be eaten—creating sweet shit called “honeydew”
This is such a delightful story, so full of seemingly unrelated, but actually tightly woven details, I don’t want to spoil it for you by summarizing it. As is often the case with great short stories, it is not the plot, or even the characters that draw you in and keep you moving toward the meaningful metaphoric end, but rather how all the parts are so integrated that even as the story is a surprise, it seems inevitable. The ending, when the young girl metaphorically becomes the insect she strives to be, and the suicidal ravine, like Chekhov’s gun on the wall, is thematically integrated, is an absolute treat. This is a wonderful story by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest short story writers.
Angela Pneuman, “Occupational Hazard”
Angela Pneuman says this story originated when she was working at a wastewater treatment plant and happened to see a television interview with a man whose nose, arms, and legs had been eaten away by a type of bacteria that he had picked up through a paper cut at his office. She thought there could be a connection between this victim of bacteria and how her work involved trying to harness the operations of bacteria. The narrative problem was how to ground this connection in the real life of a character and thus make it more than a concept.
To do this, Pneuman invents a sewage treatment worker named Calvin whose foot slips off a catwalk and submerging his left leg up to the knee in the sewage—something he calls an “occupational hazard” when others smell it. When another man he works with dies from a strep infection from a paper cut, Pneuman must invent some way for this death to affect Calvin. So she invents a first wife and a sullen daughter for the dead man who Calvin encounters at the funeral. It is the daughter who challenges Calvin, but the momentary sexual encounter Calvin has with the 15-year old girl seems, in the pejorative sense of the word, simply “invented.” The conflict between Calvin and his wife because she wants to have a baby and he does not also seems “invented.”
I know, of course, that stories often have to be “made up,” but they probably should not appear to be just “invented” for the sake of some pre-established concept. I find this story overlong, filled with inconsequential dialogue encounters. I suppose when Calvin begins to realize that the dead man’s relationship with his first wife and daughter has left some damages, he feels his own vulnerability and culpability. But I cannot see that his motive for sexually comforting the daughter is meaningfully complex, nor that his need for forgiveness from his wife is penitently integral to his Calvinistic “sin.” The story just seems too self-consciously “rigged” to me.
Eric Puchner, “Beautiful Monsters”
A few years ago, I reviewed Erich Puchner’s debut collection of stories, Music Through the Roof and thought it to be an example of short fiction consciously created within an MFA program (this one at the University of Arizona). Instead of erupting with originality out of powerful compulsions, as great stories must, Puchner’s stories seemed largely learned—skillful, but imitative both in style and substance of so many other stories developed in MFA programs proliferating across the country. First, there was a story about a loner aimlessly searching for significance. Then there was a story about a young woman looking for love. Next there was a story about bullying children preying on weak outcasts. And of course there were one or two multicultural stories about the plight of the immigrant. Of all these well-made stories, the most academically rigged with symbolic significance and thematic unity was “Legends,” a textbook piece self-consciously held together by the relentlessly repeated theme of death. A man with a “lazy heart” takes his wife to Mexico to try to revive their marriage, where a stereotypical con artist accompanies them to a museum to see mummies and to a semi-comatose woman who performs miracles. Naturally the young man ends up losing everything.
Puchner says “Beautiful Monsters” was a real departure for him, for he is not a fan of science fiction, although, like many of us, he was an avid reader of Ray Bradbury’s Martial Chronicles when he was a child. He says this story started with an image in his mind of a huge man, like Bigfoot, showing up in a young boy’s yard one morning. But, the question was how to make this obsessive image into a story. His method for doing so was to play a little reversal on the Peter Pan story, in which the children are in control, and the adults are the outcasts. It’s a concept story about the human need to escape growing old and dying. It’s entertaining enough, with some grotesque and gruesome details meant to make one squirm with the archetypal fear of death and decay; it ends with a Frankenstein monster, fairy-tale mob holding heads on poles, but heads, which, freed from their bodies, and thus ironically free from the fear of death “dance down the street” “nimble as children.” The way Puchner got from that image of the “Big Foot” monster in a boy’s yard was to simply flip a fairy tale. I could not get involved in this concept story.
George Saunders, “Tenth of December”
George Saunders has always been very good at concept stories. The reviewers of Saunders' three collections have called him variously "a cool satirist," "a savage satirist," and a "searing satirist." Typical of the satirist's need for an object of attack, Saunders says he always starts off earnestly toward a target; however, he self-deprecatingly notes, "like the hunting dog who trots out to get the pheasant," he usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll." Comparing Saunders to Vonnegut, Pynchon, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, critics have praised his demented black comic view of modern culture that showcases Americans' fears, shames, and their need to be accepted.
In his “Contributors’ Notes” to “Tenth of December,” Saunders says, “Sometimes a story comes from a little lonely moment of unwilled, spontaneous fantasy. To illustrate this, he gives the example of a story in his collection Pastoralia, entitled “The End of Firpo,” which came from seeing a miserable little boy standing on the curb of a busy street and asking himself what would he do or say if the kid got hit and he happened to be the first responder. The result was, in many ways, the most heart-rending story in the collection, in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermos and plugging their water hose to make it explode. FIRPO is the word Cody's mother and her boyfriend use to refer to anything he does that they think is bad or dorky. During a bike ride, Cody imagines that his ultimate revenge will occur when he is famous for his splendid ideas, such as plugging up the water hose. The story ends with irony and pathos when he is hit by a car and the only person who has ever told him that he is "beautiful and loved" is the man who has hit him. The story succeeds by initially making the reader scorn Cody for his mean-spirited vengeance and his childish compensation fantasies, only to make us feel sorry for the boy when, with resignation, he accepts that he is the FIRPO his mother and her boyfriend say he is, even as the man who hit him futilely insists that God loves him and that he is beautiful in His sight.
Saunders says “Tenth of December” came to him similarly one day when it hit him that he would die someday and that it would happen by means of a series of actual events for which he would have to be present. After thinking about this a bit, he says he was left with a “conceptual seed” about a man with a fatal illness, who decides to kill himself by freezing.
The result of playing in his mind with this “conceptual seed” is a concept story or fable that, for me, just goes on too long and too self-indulgently, with Saunders seemingly having a great deal of fun, but just not engaging me either in the character or the concept that surely must lie somewhere beneath all the Mary Poppins cockney stuff and the adolescent jokes, e.g., “Mr. President, what a delightful surprise it was to find an asteroid circling Uranus.” I tried to read the story three times, but just got bored each time. If any of my readers can help me appreciate this story, I would appreciate hearing from them. I have read all of Saunders’ previous stories and enjoyed them, but just not this one.