I stumbled upon this week’s published piece curled up in bed on Sunday morning flipping through The New Yorker. The image caught me — mountains in flames and glasses forgotten on a white counter-top. Living in Santa Barbara, we’ve recently gone through the biggest wildfire in California history. In the middle of December. It’s been said over and over that there is no longer a fire season. Every season is fire season with our changing climate and drought-stricken landscape. Mass evacuations, apocalyptic skies, smoke masks, and emergency supplies: how do we adapt to this new world?
Of course, I dove right into the story — “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas. The story centers upon an ophthalmologist who gets burglarized and searches the flea market called the Thieves’ Market to try to regain her lost goods. Throughout the story, Bordas explores the themes of loneliness, self-reliance and survival in interesting ways. Here are some questions to ponder while reading “The State of Nature”:
- How do material belongings play into the notion of connection and loneliness?
- Is it better, or even possible, to survive (the impending apocalypse) in isolation?
- How does the author play with sight in this story, and being able “see” one another (especially between “state-of-nature guy” and the narrator)?
- How does the author subtly build up to the reveal about the mother’s secret?
Read up! https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/09/the-state-of-nature
Camille Bordas has published two novels in French. Her ﬁrst English-language novel, “How to Behave in a Crowd,” came out last year.
This week’s quirky starstruck story is “Roy Spivey” by Miranda July, which was originally published in The New Yorker. I stumbled across it while I was searching through lists of the best New Yorker stories, and the tagline “Travelling with a movie star” caught my eye. My current work-in-progress features some Hollywood glamour, and I’m curious about how ordinary people interact with the oh-so-famous few. Here’s the story and Miranda July’s bio:
Miranda July is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. Her most recent book is The First Bad Man, a novel. July’s collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been published in twenty-three countries. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker; It Chooses You was her first book of non-fiction. She wrote, directed and starred in The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know — winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
A few questions to think about while you read:
- Do you sympathize with the narrator? Have you ever had a similar reaction to famous people?
- Why do you think the narrator waits so long?
- How do you feel about the ending?
This week, I’m thrilled to talk about “Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” by Lilliam Rivera. I met Lilliam at an awe-inspiring AROHO Writing Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico a few years back, where we climbed red rocks and talked like sisters. Since then, she’s recently published her book, The Education of Margot Sanchez (go read it!), a contemporary young adult novel from Simon & Schuster. The story we’re reading this week was originally published in Bellevue Literary Review and was a Pushcart Prize winner. I’m not going to even mention all her other stories and awards, but let’s just say this girl’s been busy (and you can read more about her here).
A few questions to get us talking about this death-defiant story:
- Would this piece work as wonderfully if it wasn’t told in second-person?
- Why the red dress?
- Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican music and dance performance, and Lilliam uses the structure of the song and dance to frame the story. What effect does this have? Can you think of any other stories or books that use a similar method?
This week we’re reading a funny caveman story from the New Yorker titled “I Love Girl” by Simon Rich. According to the New Yorker, “Simon Rich tells the tale of a lovesick caveman, Oog, whose nemesis, Boog, has captured the attention of Oog’s beloved Girl with his abstract cave paintings and blustery self-confidence.”
Simon Rich has written several works of fiction, including “Spoiled Brats,” a collection of stories. He is also the creator and showrunner of “Man Seeking Woman,” on FXX.
The story starts:
I am Oog. I love Girl. Girl loves Boog.
It is bad situation.
It’s basically every love triangle ever written, but somehow Rich injects such humor and humanity into his caveman story. I hope you enjoy it!
- How does Rich keep the love triangle trope while also subverting it?
- Does the language bother you, or does it better transport you into the caveman point of view?
- How does Rich make a caveman story so relatable?
- Was the ending satisfying? Unexpected?
This week we’re diving into the first chapter of the YA fantasy novel This Savage Song by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab. It’s an opening chapter that snatched me up like the dark monsters that lurk in this deliciously savage story. Here’s a little more about the book:
“Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. In This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab creates a gritty, seething metropolis, one worthy of being compared to Gotham and to the four versions of London in her critically acclaimed fantasy for adults, A Darker Shade of Magic. Her heroes will face monsters intent on destroying them from every side—including the monsters within.”
A few questions to consider as you read the first chapter:
1) How does Schwab balance world-building and backstory while still writing a captivating scene?
2) Throughout the book, Schwab blurs the lines between human and monster. How does she show this even from the start?
3) There’s a lot of pressure for the first chapter to basically accomplish everything. How do you feel about Kate Harker, and what threads has Schwab sewn into the first chapter to hint at where the character arc and conflict are heading?
Take a wild clip-cut cinematographic ride into this week’s story “I Can See Right Through You” by Kelly Link. It was originally published in McSweeney’s Quarterly and was included in her short story collection Get in Trouble, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. According to Kirkus Reviews: “In stories as haunting as anything the Grimm brothers could have come up with, Link (Magic for Beginners, 2005, etc.) gooses the mundane with meaning and enchantment borrowed from myth, urban legend and genre fiction. …. In “I Can See Right Through You,” an actor past his prime, famous for his role as a vampire, yearns for the leading lady who has replaced him with a parade of eternally younger versions of what he once was—but who is the real demon lover?”
Kelly Link is the author of the collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get in Trouble. Her short stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, etc.
- Near the beginning of the story, she writes, “Film can be put together in any order. Scenes shot in any sequence. Take as many as you like. Continuity is independent of linear time. Sometimes you aren’t even in the scene together. Meggie says her lines to your stand-in. They’ll splice you together later on.” The story jumps through time and throws us little snippets and “stand-ins” (both literally and figuratively) for Meggie and the demon lover. What does Link accomplish with this style, and what makes it successful?
- What do you think happened in the end? How does it tie back to the Ouija board from the beginning of the story?
- Why does Link call the narrator “demon lover” for most of the story until very late in the narrative when he’s named “Will Gald”? Why wait until he’s on camera?
- How does the setting contribute to the mood of the story?
Happy reading and fantasizing about your very first “demon lover” 😉
Reblogging to the Mugsters!
Can you tell a short story on Twitter without going stir-crazy with the 140-character limit?
This week, we’re reading a short story originally published on Twitter by one of my favorite authors. David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of Slade House, The Bone Clocks, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time in 2007.
Mitchell isn’t afraid to cross genres in his novels, and so it wasn’t a big surprise that he made the leap to Twitter. He posted “The Right Sort” in the form of 280 tweets over one week. In the story, a teenage boy named Nathan Bland is dragged to a party at the mysterious posh house of Lady Briggs. He slips one of his mother’s Valium pills to help with his anxiety, and from there the story dives into a strange and suspenseful tale that would give Edgar Allan Poe the shivers.
Here are a few discussion questions:
- Did the Twitter format change your experience of his story?
- Although we experienced reading this story in one sitting in a continuous stream, how do you think Twitter fans would have experienced this story in real time?
- Could this Twitter format have worked if it was a romance or comedy, instead of a suspense story?
- Did Mitchell leave out any story elements due to space constraints? Did it feel like a full story?
Recently, I attended the “Write by the Lake” workshop at University of Wisconsin at Madison. My specific session called “Creating Momentum” was focused on maintaining tension and conflict in every scene. In just one week, our teacher Tim Storm managed to pack in an incredible amount of helpful revision techniques.
One of the stories we read really stuck with me, and I’d love to share it with ya’ll. “Anything Helps” by Jess Walter debuted in McSweeney’s, was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2012, and is also included in his short story collection We Live in Water.
Here’s a little more about the author: Jess Walter is the author of six novels, most recently the New York Times bestseller Beautiful Ruins (2012). He was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for The Zero and winner of the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel for Citizen Vince. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Playboy and other publications. He lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington.
And now, a few questions to get your brain percolating:
– How does Walter go beyond the typical story of a homeless man down on his luck?
– How does he make you connect to the main character versus walking past, eyes averted, coins flung to the ground?
– How does Walter built tension throughout the story?
– Were any of the events in the story expected?
This week’s published story is “Breaker” by Tommy Wallach. He is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. His debut YA novel, We All Looked Up, came out in March, and is a NY Times Bestseller. He also made a soundtrack for his book… talk about multi-talented! It’s the story of a group of teens facing the life-changing possibility of an asteroid hurtling toward the Earth. Madness, I know, but Wallach manages to create beautifully complex and honest characters that makes the whole premise worth it. Trust me.
“We All Looked Up” (book cover) – Tommy Wallach
I came across Tommy Wallach’s writing after seeing him in a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books panel along with Aaron Hartzler, David Levithan, and Leila Sales. (Fellow Mugster, Taylor Ross joined me for a day brimming with all sorts of literary ear-candy!)
Anyway, I loved his debut novel We All Looked Up, and during the panel, he mentioned that he published a story in McSweeney’s that was one of his proud accomplishments. The story is very different from his YA novel. It’s brief, so go read it now!
Some questions to mull over while reading:
1) Does his use of repetition distract you or deepen your experience of the story? Or any other ways it affected you?
2) How does the repetition tie back to the idea of being a “breaker”?
3) How do you feel about how he addresses the reader at the beginning?
4) How do the gun shots and the broken condoms come together in the story?