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National Short Story Month: Five Questions with Four Writers

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   The Rocking Horse Winner, by D.H. Lawrence

   The Magic of Blood, Dagoberto Gilb


If you could fight any character in a short story who would that be?

   I'd fight the entire town from The Lottery, and when I was done with those f*ckers Ursula Le Guin's, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, better watch out.  


 


 

Sterling Holywhitemountain, James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow (2010-11) at the University of Wisconsin Institute


What is your favorite opening line of a short story?

 

Well, I will begin by saying that I'm not going to talk about short stories merely as I think people tend to think of them now, but will also include what most people would call long stories, or even novellas.   Although, as Richard Ford explains in his intro to the Granta Book of the American Long Story, no one really knows what a novella is, even though we all seem to think we do.   Not to mention people have a pretty hard time defining what a long story is.   These days anything over 25 pages seems long, but to Henry James and even Faulkner 25 pages was a lot of the time barely halfway through a story.   The way we conceive of a short story now is so heavily influenced by Hemingway's conception of what constitutes a story (compression), and also by what the various magazines are willing to print given the space they have between their covers.   And despite the fact of the internet's unlimited space, the big publishers of literary fiction have taken little to no advantage of that space, and so for the time being long stories/novellas are still the odd man out, unfortunately, since they are my favorite form.   For me a story is anything from a sentence to a hundred pages or so.   Anything I can consume in an evening or two at the most.   I do wonder how often other writers think about how our current accepted conceptions of what a story is are exactly that.   I think about it quite a bit because what I'm writing lately is all too long to be published in a magazine but not long enough to be published as a novel.   What does that mean for me?   I have no idea.   The only thing I'm really good at doing is doing what I feel like I need to do, and right now apparently what I do is write too-long/too-short fiction.   Another part of what I do is look at things within an historical context -- i.e., I know what this is, but where did it come from?   It's an attitude that's both a product of my own idiosyncrasies and also I think a product of having grown up on a reservation.   It's nearly impossible to grow up in Indian Country and not find yourself saturated with a sense of history.   So there's that.   All that being said, at some point I was supposed to be answering a question.   Answer: "This is not a happy story.   I warn you."   That of course is from Richard Ford's story Great Falls, which comes from one of my favorite collections, a favorite in no small part because it takes place largely in Montana, and he captured something about the economic context of those characters, not to mention the vast loneliness of the northern prairie, both of which mean a great deal to me.   You don't know space on this earth until you've spent a winter night on the prairie, and that space is in those stories for me.


Name one short story that inspired you to write short stories yourself?

I mean, early on what I mostly read was Hemingway, both because I loved his work but also initially because I had an English teacher tell me that's what I should read, and being that I was like 19, what else was I supposed to do?   I'm glad that's how I started out, though, since I'm of the opinion, like his publisher, that no one has influenced American prose in the last 100 years more than him.   The wake left by his work is so vast that even people who have never read him are influenced by him.   (Although arguably in the latter portion of the 20th century and the early part of this century no one has been more influential in terms of style or approach than DFW.)   And as we already know, because I like history I like to think of American fiction in part as a kind of stylistic dialogue spanning centuries.   But there was a question I was answering: The one that really haunted me in the beginning was A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.   I read that thing over and over and tried for so long to write something that good.   When I say "good," I mean both in terms of content and meaning but also aesthetically.   I have a pretty strong aesthetic response to words, and so writers who are able to tell a great story and still come across as linguistically appealing to me are fundamentally interesting.   I used to think that all prose writers loved words, but that's simply not the case.   Joyce obviously comes in at this point.   I find The Dead to be such a beautiful story on so many levels that it's almost too painful to read.   Almost.

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