TMR Editors’ Prize
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: 36.1 (Spring 2013)
Featuring the winners of the 2012 Editors' Prize as well as work by Cara Blue Adams, Jennifer Anderson, Aaron Belz, Jerry Gabriel, Darren Morris, and Brad Wetherell... along with a conversation with Steve Almond and William Giraldi and a look at the art of Al Hirschfeld.
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- The Nifty Trick of Dan Chaon’s “A Little Something to Remember Me By” | Rebecca Meacham on Here’s A Little Something to Remember Me By
- Francesco Sinibaldi on Short Story Month, Day 31: “Babylon Revisited”
- Francesco Sinibaldi on Working Writers Series: Darci Schummer
- Francesco Sinibaldi on The November Story
- essay writing on Short Story Month, Day 28: “The Lady with the Little Dog”
Author Archives: Mike
We are pleased to announce our winners of this years audio competition! Winners were selected in collaboration with guest judge Laura Starecheski of NPR’s State of the Re:Union. Stay tuned for these pieces to be released as featured podcasts on TMR’s website in the early fall.
1st place: Laurel Bastian for her entry “We All Want Out of this Play”
Runner-up: Henry Finch for his poem “Key Largo”
1st place: Anna Vodicka for her entry “In Search of Magic Kingdoms”
1st place: “The Storm” Produced by Kenny Malone with the WLRN-Miami Herald News team
Runner-up: “Teen Contender” Produced by Joe Richman, Sue Jaye Johnson and Samara Freemark, Edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro with Marianne McCune
Special thanks to Laura Starecheski; my contest co-editor Claire McQuerry, our fantastic contest interns Sarah Dettmer, Becca Sakin, and Danny Miller; and to the rest of the TMR staff (especially contest assistant Maura Lammers). We had more entrants this year than ever before, and a fantastic variety of strong work was submitted that made the selection of winners all the more difficult. If you didn’t place this year, we hope you will consider submitting in 2014!
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Mike Petrik (and today is his birthday).
For anyone out there who has read my work, please direct all criticism and complaint to Sherwood Anderson and to his short story “Paper Pills.” It is entirely their fault that I am here doing what I am doing. There are writers I love to read more than Anderson, and many whose work has impacted my own more substantially. But it all started with this short story, a story that I put down and thought: A) something just happened to me, and B) I want to be able to do that to others.
“Hands” seems to be the story that gets discussed the most from Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but I’ll take Paper Pills” over it any day. It is a love story, and at right around four pages, it is a compelling depiction of a lifelong love more affecting than most romantic novels and films (sorry, The Notebook).
The story begins with Dr. Reefy’s wife already dead and gone, and him an old man forgotten by Winesburg, but within whom there remained “the seeds of something very fine.” Then we move backward, to the story of his courtship of “the tall dark girl who became his wife.” A story that Anderson, in a hall of fame worthy metaphor, describes as “delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in Winesburg,” the ugly apples left hanging on the trees after the pickers have passed through that are something “only few know the sweetness of…”
The story of their love is something better read than summarized, and I hope you will. I’ve always thought a great short story should convey something new or vital in a way that is best expressed through the words on the page and that renders any attempt at summary obsolete and unsatisfying. I think that is true of “Paper Pills.” It is straightforward realism, largely expository, and maybe even a bit sentimental—not exactly things I look for in short fiction, but it moves me on every reading, and I wonder, often, if I would call myself a writer had I not come across it.
I have been talking about Euell Gibbons a lot lately. Too much, really. People are starting to give me funny looks, their eyes are glazing over. All signs it is a good time to write a blog post about the man—am-I-right? My thesis: we all need to read his books, and not just for the usual Earth Day—back to nature—reasons, but for those too.
Maybe he’s on my mind because it’s spring here in Missouri (scratch that, it snowed this morning) or maybe it’s because Earth Day was this past Monday, and almost definitely it is because I have become something of a Gibbons acolyte. But I keep bothering people with stories about the famous Grape Nuts spokesman and expert on all things wild and edible. I tell his stories like I knew him, despite the fact that he died a decade before I was born, and he deserves the credit for that.
His fairly famous books, once perennial bestsellers, (most famously, Stalking the Wild Asparagus 1962) are, for me, a surprising hybrid of modes of nonfiction. And he might just be my favorite writer in the CNF genre, though I doubt he gets mentioned in that category very often. In Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop, he moves quickly from a discussion of the merits of fishing for what others pass up, to memories of catching dogfish on days off when he was newly married and selling their livers for more than he made at his weekday job, to a how-to on properly cleaning them, to (admittedly my favorite part) his recipe for beer-battered dogfish—his personal favorite version of fish and chips.
When my father first sent me a copy of his work, I dug into the books, reading them as field-guide first. The result was my wife putting on a smile when I made boiled and buttered periwinkles and my grandmother making frequent grumbled references to the time I baked chicory root for four hours on an eighty-degree July day and then never actually got around to making that chicory coffee. There were some good meals in there too—his stuffed clams has become my family’s go to for the palm-sized Rhode Island quahogs we rake up.
But as I kept reading the books, it was the stories that stayed with me. Foraging to survive as a youth during the Great Depression, stampeding carp from horseback then being at a loss on how to cook the resulting bounty, finding wild asparagus and eating it for days in the early spring—here Gibbons notes how difficult it is for those reading him now to understand how incredible it was to taste that first fresh green flavor after the long winter.
Or when he gets angry from reflecting—first as a foodie at the uniquely American ability to sneer at unusual foods (this precedes a recipe for Woodchuck in Sour Cream) and later as a fisherman at the fact that he gets skunked every time he goes out after American Eel, despite catching them like crazy when fishing for anything else. I get very nostalgic reading the latter example, having in a couple decades of coastal fishing, never pulled an eel up or even seen them caught in any number. It is all too easy when reading his books, to note the way the world has since changed, and rarely for the better.
So in the spirit of Earth Day, I hope I may have convinced someone new to read Euell Gibbons as a great writer and environmentalist, as a cook and botanist and fisherman and cultural critic and historian. And to take his books outside with them and adjust their eyes to scan for the green and brown of something work cooking up hiding in the leaf-litter. I happen to know that my Contest-Co Editor Claire McQuerry found an early morel mushroom last Saturday despite the cold here in Columbia. Thanks Euell!
And eat your Grape Nuts. Word has it they taste like wild hickory nuts.
Lately I’ve been working diligently to grow a non-ironic mustache. Dear God, why, you might ask (and my wife, Bethany, certainly has). Well, it has to do with a concept that’s been on my mind of late, that of the need to create some sort of writerly persona. I clearly haven’t gotten very far with my own persona, as the only major conclusion I’ve had is the likely erroneous one that a mustache might imbue some sort of writerly panache. The idea of affecting a writerly persona may seem a bit silly and is definitely vain, but it also seems pertinent. Not long ago, the concept of persona was central in an assertion that Jeffrey Eugenides had based a character in his forthcoming novel The Marriage Plot that was based on David Foster Wallace. A large reason for this claim is that said character wears a bandanna and work boots (Eugenides has denied the connection)–tropes of the public image of DFW. Clearly, there is some power in the style and persona a writer creates, no matter how considered that style might be (I am looking at you Tom Wolfe). Think of your favorite author’s book jacket photo. Don’t you think that at one point or another he/she sat agonizing over a table covered by nearly identical snapshots?
Taking a break from the effort of growing a mustache, I considered authors who had definitely notable and concrete public personae. Very few of the authors that came to mind were contemporary writers. And of the contemporary writers that did come to mind, most were more aligned with the persona of someone like Thomas Pynchon, whose persona is the lack of a public image. You may remember that he famously voiced himself for a Simpson’s episode where his cartoon persona appeared with a bag over his head. Last week my colleague and sometime nemesis Arijit Sen wrote about the impact Facebook and its ilk were having on the novel, and I think that a lot of what he said also rings true for the idea of affecting a writerly style. Everything we do seems so considered and is so thoroughly narrated in the age of Facebook, that it is very difficult for an author’s style to seem natural or spontaneous. I can think of a number of contemporary authors’ writing styles, I can call to mind their appearances, I can even often remember their political and aesthetic leanings, but I can’t think of how to describe their personae. Maybe this is a personal failing and some of you out there see a lot of writers who have this type of mystique, but for me it lies largely with those who resist publicity like Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy.
Really, I’m interested in this because I feel unsure of how I could create some sort of memorable persona. Sure I could be myself, but as my wife assures me, I am getting too old for graphic T-shirts depicting my favorite animals ( I am having as much trouble saying goodbye to these as I did saying goodbye to sweatpants in my post-elementary years). To ease my transition, and probably with the hopes of distracting me from mustache-farming, Bethany has been pointing me to the website Nerd Boyfriend where she hopes I’ll ditch the penguin T-shirt for the classic styles personified by writers, artists, actors, and musicians from the past (I might be on board with a few of David Bowie’s earlier looks). So, have you succeeded in creating your own writerly style? If so, some pointers would be just fantastic. Here’s one great style for the road…
Recently I’ve embarked on the task of reading for my PhD comprehensive exam. One of my focuses is on contemporary environmental fiction, and while assembling a list of representative works, I found myself constantly wanting to add works of environmental creative non-fiction—works that strongly advocated for various ideas on conservation. I’ve been trying to resist this since my own emphasis is on writing and studying fiction, but have also been forced to ask myself why is it the case? Why does it seem so much more natural to look to nonfiction for activism?
Plenty of environmental or conservationist writers work in both genres. Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, and Rick Bass all come to mind. But if I wanted to examine their activism, I feel that I would turn first to their essays. This makes sense. An essay can potentially be more directly argumentative and assertive of a specific world-view, can develop pathos for an author’s explicitly stated perspective. It seems common for environmental nonfiction to present a direct and powerful argument, complaint, or advocacy. In Rick Bass’s book-length essay The Nine-Mile Wolves, for example, while Bass is interested in the narrative and artistry of a well-told story, he is always clearly moving toward a final argument for the continued re-incorporation of wolves into the American environment, as well as for a more balanced relationship between nature and humankind.
Much more difficult to call to mind are works of fiction that are as explicit in their activism. The most iconic is Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Though he is also greatly respected for his conservationist nonfiction, Abbey’s activism seems most remembered as tied to the environmental warfare that occurs in the The Monkey Wrench Gang, as represented by the dam-busting and eco-sabotaging characters that the reader is so clearly meant to empathize with and root for. But this novel seems the exception.
When I think of other works of environmentalist fiction, such as many of T.C. Boyle’s novels or the works of the aforementioned contemporary authors, the conservationist perspective seems much more subtle and sublimated in the narratives and characters and settings and conflicts. The activism may still be there, but it is buried beneath an emphasis on the story, versus in activist nonfiction where the story is being wielded to best assert a point of view or ongoing question held by the author. Maybe it has to do with the frequent advice young writers of fiction get to avoid writing stories with strongly stated morals, or from a fear of appearing didactic and heavy-handed—all of which seems like good advice. However, in environmentalist fiction and poetry (as well as in the best environmental creative nonfiction, now that I consider it) art is the emphasis, not activism.
It seems beneficial to have both modes of environmental advocacy. An explicitly activist essay might have much more success accomplishing or advocating for some concrete goal like the reintroduction of wolves, the dangers and need for regulation of industrial pollution (as in Rachel Carson’s now famous Silent Spring), or other such causes. And a subtly environmentalist essay, memoir, poem, story, or novel might have a unique potential to gradually alter a nation’s environmental worldview or encourage some degree of increased empathy with an issue.
I wonder what others make of the connection between art and activism, and whether the same sort of division of focuses might be going on in other sorts of activism?
When the time comes for Pulitzer announcements, I am usually waiting eagerly to hear who wins the fiction award. If I’ve read it, I feel a self-satisfied vindication that I am keeping my finger appropriately placed on the pulse of contemporary fiction. If I haven’t read it, well I usually go ask my wife, who diligently pays attention to new fiction, not half-pretending to as I am. Last year, she’d read the winner Tinkers, and had been nudging me to read it for a solid month when the award was announced. This year, I was right there with her, having read A Visit From the Goon Squad for a graduate class just a week before the announcement. Of course, plenty (ok, ok most) of the books released this year I’ve yet to read, but that doesn’t take anything away from Jennifer Egan and her work. This book deserves the Pulitzer Prize; I’ll do my best to explain why.
First, a bit of a summary for those who haven’t read it: A Visit from the Goon Squad is what might be called a novel in stories or linked short stories or a short story cycle. Semantically these all mean slightly different things, and I’m not sure exactly where Egan’s novel falls, but that doesn’t seem all that important. What is important is that the stories in A Visit jump through a large cast of interrelated characters and a large expanse of time. They are connected not only through their relationships, but also through the music industry. It is a book, though not chronological itself, that is largely concerned with time and with the way people rise and fall along the course of their lives.
Now, why it deserves it: It seems that the best novels in stories are able to collectively characterize a time and a place and an atmosphere. An iconic example is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which not only represents a small town in a rapidly urbanizing America. Egan takes this form, and lets it play out on a much larger scale. A Visit isn’t geographically confined. It spends a great deal of time in San Francisco and NYC, but also moves to a safari in Africa and a visit to an unnamed dictator in an unnamed out of the way country. It also isn’t constrained to depicting a sliver of time, rather an era–within which whole lives are lived and characters rise and fall and rise again.
Another cue Egan takes from writers of this form such as Anderson is the use of a central character around which the others seem to revolve. For Anderson it was the young journalist George Willard; for Egan, it is Sasha, who is everything from a runaway teen to a kleptomaniac assistant for a music mogul to a mother. Many of the characters recur and many of the characters are protagonists at one point or another. Egan’s skill in organizing the narrative is such that at times I could guess whose story we’d get next, because a special attention was given to some peripheral character lurking at the edge of the narrative, waiting for his/her chance to speak. But Sasha seemed the heart of this overarching narrative, and she was certainly a compelling one.
Egan expands or elaborates on the form in other ways as well. She plays with point of view, voice, narrative style, and even structure. The latter occurs most significantly on the books B-side (a clever divide Egan sets up to reflect the sides of a record), in the story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses By Alison Blake.” This story is in fact a sequence of powerpoint slides constructed by a young girl in the near future. I was hesitant and worried the structure might become a conceit or a gimmick when I saw this story, but after reading it, I am convinced it is the books finest moment. In the end it doesn’t feel all that experimental because Egan so deftly creates narrative in the unusual form. It is the most effecting and complete short story I have read in quite some time, though I believe that is brought about by perhaps Egan’s greatest success.
In my opinion, this greatest success is that the stories in A Visit work together and build something much greater than the separate parts. Taken alone, more than a few stories were well realized, interesting, and, finally, not all that compelling. However, when stories such as “Safari” or the aforementioned “Great Rock and Roll Pauses…” came along, they brought the book to a new and much more significant level, and similarly granted significance to everything around them. If this book was the record it imitates, these stories would be the singles. However, as with the best records, experiencing those singles alone can’t elevate them to the level they reach as a part of a whole when experienced with the entire work. A Visit From the Goon Squad‘s success is brought about by the deftness with which characters and times and places and conflicts and narratives are interwoven.
I was happy to see it justly recognized with a Pulitzer. A big congratulations to Jennifer Egan and to all the other Pulitzer recipients.
Mike Petrik is an intern at The Missouri Review, and a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri.