Tag Archives: short story

“The Relive Box” by T.C. Boyle

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A prolific American author, T.C. Boyle has published 24 books of fiction and his short stories have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and McSweeney’s. He received both his MFA and PhD from the University of Iowa, and he is a creative writing professor at USC. His work has been translated into more than two dozen foreign languages, and he’s won numerous awards.

I first discovered this story in The New Yorker, and I later had the pleasure of hearing T.C. Boyle himself read it aloud at the LA Times Festival of Books.


1. Consider the line, “deep in this moment which would give rise to all the rest.” What do you think of the protagonist’s idea that by pinpointing one moment in his life, he can understand everything that came after? How does this story explore the way(s) in which past and present are linked?

2. What techniques does Boyle use to cultivate the tone, both of the story as a whole and of the protagonist’s particular voice? How do these interact?

3. What did you think of Boyle’s use of the second person (“But let me explain the technology here a moment, for those of you who don’t already know”) and the way the author acknowledges the reader. Does this work/not work and in what ways?

4. This story is, in many ways, an exploration of grief, loss, and healing. With a device like this, which allows you to spend time with a (dead) person, would you ever really able to let go?

5. How does Boyle use the relive box to illuminate and explore the father-daughter relationship in this story?

6. What is the significance of Queenie?

7. What do you make of the conclusion? How does it further illuminate the story, and what do you see happening in the future for Wes (and Katie)?

This story will appear in Boyle’s upcoming collection, The Relive Box and Other Stories, which he’s currently working on. In a post dated July 11, 2016 he said he was revising one called “Are We Not Men?'” and that it “is not far off the mark with regard to the reality of what we are unleashing on the world with CRISPR/Cas-9 technology.” Can’t wait to read that one! In the meantime, enjoy “The Relive Box”–looking forward to discussing it!


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“Covered Up Our Names” by Jackie Lea Sommers

Hunger Mountain Cover
One of the best parts of the AWP Conference last month was visiting the book fair and hauling in a sweet stash of literary journals. I was drawn to this one because Hunger Mountain is VCFA’s journal–and Vermont College of Fine Arts has one of the best YA programs in the country. Also, let’s be honest: horses and hearts.

This session’s published piece, “Covered Up Our Names,” by Jackie Lea Sommers, appeared in Volume 18, the Winter 2013/2014 edition of Hunger Mountain, and was the story for which Sommers won the Katherine Paterson Prize from Young Adult and Children’s Writing. Sommers’s first novel, Truest, also YA, was published by HarperCollins in September 2015.

A few discussion Q’s:

1. Aside from the ages of the protagonist and supporting characters, what makes this a YA story? What makes it a literary YA story?

2. Did you find this story (or parts of it) predictable? Which parts, why, and how does being able to guess what’s going to happen enhance or detract from your experience?

3. Sommers uses an Emily Dickinson poem to tie in major themes, and the title comes from the poem. Discuss the poem’s/title’s significance.

4. YA often deals with heavy subjects, from eating disorders to rape to (as in this story) cancer. What makes this one different/special/work?

5. What techniques does Sommers use to balance the story’s heavy themes/subject matter?

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“The Closest Thing to Animals” by Sofia Samatar

Becca and I were chatting about the intersection of literary and science fiction, and she suggested I read “The Closest Thing to Animals,” by Sofia Samatar. It sucked me right in and I thought, this would be great for the MUG published piece! It’s a wonderful example of contemporary science fiction, especially as the lines between all kinds of genres become more and more blurred.

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories (due out March 2016). She has won the John W. Campbell Award, the Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award.

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“The Closest Thing to Animals” Image Header, firesidefiction.com


Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does Samatar sculpt the voice? How did you feel about the speaker, and did your feelings change over the course of the story?
  2. What can we learn from the way Samatar explores and blends race, science fiction, and character development?
  3. How does Samatar achieve a successful exploration of friendship?
  4. To me, one of the main questions here is: What is essential? How does Samatar answer this?

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“The Crabapple Tree” by Robert Coover

I’ve become increasingly interested in the “modern fairy tales” trend, and I had just gotten acquainted with the Grimm tale “The Juniper Tree” after reading Lorrie Moore’s short story by the same title when I discovered “The Crabapple Tree” in The New Yorker. I’m pleased to share this story with MUG this week!

Robert Coover is an American author with ten novels and numerous plays, novellas, short stories, etc. to his credit. He’s known for experimenting with metafiction and magical realism, and he has taught at several universities, including Brown. You can read “The Crabapple Tree” here.

Image from The New Yorker; Artwork by Edel Rodriguez

Image from The New Yorker; Artwork by Edel Rodriguez

Questions for discussion:

  1. What do you think of Coover’s choice to make the speaker of this story an outsider, and to have her telling of it so far removed in time? What do you make of her voice? What purpose do these choices serve?
  2. Fairy tales often traditionally served as warnings for children… what does this tale caution against?
  3. Is the Vamp under the crabapple tree?
  4. Who is the villain in this story?
  5. What do you make of the final line?
  6. How does the Grimm story enhance your reading of this story? In what ways is “The Crabapple Tree” more “adult”?

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“Beast” by Samantha Hunt

tinouseSamantha Hunt is an American author who happens to have a very cool website. Her books include The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas, and her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, Harper’s Bazaar, the Village Voice, and more.

I read “Beast” in conjunction with other “fantastic” stories, including “Sleep” by Haruki Murakami, Kelly Link’s “Travels with the Snow Queen,” and “The Young Wife’s Tale” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. I was really interested in how linked these stories were in terms of exploration of the feminine, the subconscious, nighttime, and dreams, but we’ll just talk about one story today.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What role does sleep (or lack of it) play in the story?
  • Is the deer a symbol of power, or victimization? True animal self, or becoming something one is expected to become/becoming one of many?
  • What about the correlation with the story of the man working while his sister goes to school? And the line, “It seems important to understand whether or not it is worth it to sacrifice yourself for someone else.” (bottom of 142) How do you read that?
  • How about that ending? Was it satisfying? Is it real? Is it a dream? Does it matter? Why does her husband change, too? Why does he seem to be so familiar with the process of becoming a deer?
  • What technique would you borrow from Hunt in your stories?

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“That Tear Problem”


Illustration by José Baetas.

“That Tear Problem” by Natalia Theodoridou is a science fiction short story that occupies a very internal place  and ponders in the flavor of Descartes. It’s especially interesting to me because there is not a lot of action, and yet Theodoridou delivers something both poignant and funny as the character struggles.

Theodoridou is a Greek theatre scholar and fiction author. Her science fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Spark, Strange Horizons and more.

Discussion Topics

  1. How does Theodoridou develop character even though there’s basically only one character?
  2. How’s the pacing?
  3. Do you have a clear sense of what is going on in the piece? How does that add or detract from the character’s state of mind? How about the story as a whole? Do you wish there was more explanation?

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Rethinking Revision

Last week, Anthony said that creating vivid characters has been a weak spot for him in the past. Continuing with the theme of self-criticism, today I’ll be talking about…


A tale of two rewrites.

Rewrite #1.

rewrite twit

I have a story about a guy named Equivan and his grandfather, whose name is also Equivan. Equivan lives in Fate Year, while Equivan lives in Bull Year. Even better, Equivan’s grandmother and Equivan’s wife, Kentar, is immortal, so Kentar regularly talks with both Equivan and Equivan in both Fate Year and Bull Year.

Still with me?

Fortunately one of the magazines I submitted this story to was kind enough to point my mistake out: there’s no way for the reader to tell the difference between two concurrent storylines. And what the hell even is a Bull Year and a Fate Year, anyway?

They requested a rewrite.

It’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, not getting an email that says “Your story has much to be desired and we’re not sure why anybody would want to publish this” is like Christmas/Hanukah/Winter Solstice come early. On the other hand… Rewrites were in my future.

Rewrite #2.

rewrite twit2

In 2011, I began a self-termed “scifantastic” novel with the seed of an idea: A kitten playing with a ball of string.

Stay with me. See, the string was a metaphor for the gods’ power, and the kitten was a metaphor for meddling mortals, thus creating magic. And so a spunky kitten named “Mew,” a companion of a hero/android named Boris, continued to sneak around with the crew.

By the time the first draft was done, Mew had done nothing of any importance.

Mew had to go.

Revision: Two Lessons

I used to dig my heels in when it came to rewrites: “But this is the way the story is! It’s done! Just accept it!” And maybe I’d change a word here or there, but I believed in the sanctity of my original piece and gods help me if I was going to sully it by changing things.

But revision is called revision for a reason. I’m in the process of learning to embrace rewrites: it’s a chance for me to change how I think about the chapter or story. What if is a good place to start, not only for a first draft but also when digging in to rewrite.

What if Equivan is dealing with the repercussions of his father’s reign, not his grandfather’s? It would make it much more immediate for the character’s memory (who doesn’t love some good daddy issues?). Plus there’s the added bonus of not having two characters named the exact. same. thing.

And what if instead of naming the years they’re living in (and needlessly complicating the plot line), I write the past as if it’s a fairy tale, and I write the present storyline in a more modern voice?

What if opens me up to new characters.

What if lets me delete a whole scene and start on it from scratch without getting massive anxiety.

It’s a mindset of play, rather than a mindset of work. Revision should be just as creative as the first draft is.

Cut. Cut. Cut.

Less is more.


Less = more.

The more you can say with less space, the more brilliant you become. My favorite feline Mew wasn’t the only character who got cut out of that first scifantastic draft. There was a boy who only existed so he could get killed later on. There were unicorns. There were Amazon women. There was an entirely new species of aliens.

I gave some of their lines to other, more important characters. In some places I cut out scenes entirely. And do you know what? The story did not fall apart.

There is a kind of therapeutic release with getting rid of old junk. Donating to shelters, thrift stores, or just tossing stuff out opens up your closets for better stuff. You can be mobile and flexible. You can move without worrying about that junk weighing you down.

The same thing works with words. Cutting out 20,000 words from that first novel draft was like a breath of fresh air, freeing me from the mental weight holding me down (and actual physical weight in the printed draft). I had less characters to juggle and my vision was clearer.

The MUGsters’ critiques really help with noticing scenes that could be tightened up, things that could be tossed out. So the next time you have a big revision ahead of you, keep two things in mind: can you play with it to make it better, and do you need it? You’ll end up with a leaner, meaner manuscript – until, of course, the next rewrite.


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“Runaway,” Alice Munro


This session’s published piece is “Runaway,” by Alice Munro.

I read Alice Munro’s Runaway in order to facilitate a book group discussion on the collection of short stories (see this post on my blog). I discovered that I had actually already read one of the stories, “Chance,” for a different writers group, so I was familiar with Munro’s lyrical yet economical prose–she’s been called the Chekhov of our time–but when I first cracked the book, I didn’t know that. Instead, I thought I was going in blind as I read the title story, and though I was awed by the power of Munro’s writing, my main thought went something like this: Are all the stories in the book going to be this weird? It was an “I don’t get it” experience, not to mention “I don’t like it.” However, as I thought about the story, and after discussing it with the book group, I had a greater appreciation/liking for the story. Which is why, self-tasked with presenting one of her brilliant pieces to MUG, I chose this one.

First, a brief note on Munro:

Alice Munro has published 11 collections of stories and a novel. She’s received many awards and prizes, including three of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and two of its Giller Prizes, the US National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Edward MacDowell Medal in literature. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, and others, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

Questions for reading:

1. What do you make of the relationship between Sylvia and Carla? Between Carla and Clark?

2. Do you think it was right for Sylvia to try to help Carla?

3. Do you think Carla has the achieved the “more authentic life” she told her parents she wanted? What did she mean by this? Why does Carla return?

4. What is the significance of the goat? Its disappearance, reappearance, and the bones Carla discovers at the end? 

5. Munro is a master of “show don’t tell.” Which sentences/scenes particularly struck you?

6. Consider Munro’s use of epistolary technique. Why would she do this? How do the letters enhance the story?


More on Munro:

In this NY Times article, Munro claims she is going to stop writing.

An interview with Alice Munro in The Paris Review.

And, some of my favorite tidbits from a 2008 New Yorker interview:

  • As a child, Munro was constantly telling herself stories. One of the first was “The Little Mermaid,” by Hans Christian Anderson, whose ending she couldn’t bear. The mermaid has to make a choice between killing the prince and going back to join her mermaid sisters, a decision that Munro thought was horribly unfair. So she made up a new, happier ending.
  • People in her hometown who read her stories often say, “Well, that was certainly strange.” Or, “I read your story in The New Yorker,” after which there is a long pause and Munro almost feels that she should say she’s sorry.
  • She sees her stories visually before they become words. She often starts with an image of some incident and the people involved—a sense of some action, or some effect that the characters have created on each other. She doesn’t know at that stage exactly what’s happened to them or what they’re saying to each other, only that these people somehow belong in the story together.
  • The process of writing hasn’t got any easier as she’s aged. Every day is still a struggle, and “it always seems like a miracle that I’m so grateful for, if it seems to work.”

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