"Every so often, that dead dog dreams me up again." And we're there, at attention. A bravura opening line, full of pulls, secrets. I get chills reading it. That dead dog dreams me up. We're going back in time, we're going to experience everything after that line in a backwards frame dreamed up by a dog. He won't be the narrator, though - just the spirit guide, if you will.
That's not the opening line of this collection of short stories, originally published in the early 1990s and recently re-released by Other Press. But it is the single sentence that best captures Stephanie Vaughn's astonishing, Grace Paley-like facility with the technical construction of the short story, and with the artistic achievement possible when a novel's worth of emotions and relationships are compressed into brilliant, diamond-like stories. It also shows how she does it without showing off. No big words, no strained punctuation. None of the flailing that all of us, the lesser talents, have to resort to.
Many of the stories are about the often-unwritten world of children growing up on military bases - four of the stories, including "Dog Heaven," from which the opening quote is taken, are narrated by Gemma; whose father works for the US Army and who travels with him around the country as he takes new posts. The transience of these lives, their brief connections, the way these children are planted and ripped out until they grow thick emotional calluses, are brilliantly explored.
For the last few months, I've been traveling - I'm currently studying in Berlin, and over the summer I worked in western Massachusetts. This is the book that I've brought with me, wherever I go.
-Ben Miller, Assistant Prose Editor
An Excerpt from "Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog," from Sweet Talk, by Stephanie Vaughn. Copyright 2012, by Stephanie Vaughn. Sweet Talk is in print and available from Other Press.
I went downstairs and put on my hat, coat, boots. I followed his footsteps in the snow, down the front walk, and across the road to the riverbank. He did not seem surprised to see me next to him. We stood side by side, hands in our pockets, breathing frost into the air. The river was filled from shore to shore with white heaps of ice, which cast blue shadows in the moonlight.
“This is the edge of America,” he said, in a tone that seemed to answer a question I had just asked. There was a creak and crunch of ice as two floes below us scraped each other and jammed against the bank.
“You knew all week, didn’t you? Your mother and your grandmother didn’t know, but I knew that you could be counted on to know.”
I hadn’t known until just then, but I guessed the unspeakable thing—that his career was falling apart—and I knew. I nodded. Years later, my mother told me what she had learned about the incident, not from him but from another Army wife. He had called a general a son of a bitch. That was all. I never knew was the issue was or whether he had been right or wrong. Whether the defense of the United States of America had been at stake, or merely the pot in a card game. I didn’t even know whether he had called the general a son of a bitch to his face or simply been overheard in an unguarded moment. I only knew that he had been given a 7 instead of a 9 on his Efficiency Report and then passed over for promotion. But that night I nodded, not knowing the cause but knowing the consequences, as we stood on the riverbank above the moonlit ice. “I am looking at that thin beautiful line of Canada,” he said. “I think I will go for a walk.”
“No,” I said. I said it again. “No.” I wanted to remember later that I had told him not to go.
“How long do you think it would take to go over and back?” he said.
He rocked back and forth in his boots, looked up at the moon, then down at the river. I did not say anything.
He started down the bank, sideways, taking long, graceful sliding steps, which threw little puffs of snow in the air. He took his hands from his pockets and hopped from the bank to the ice. He tested his weight against the weight of the ice, flexing his knees. I watched him walk a few years from the shore and then I saw him rise in the air, his long legs, scissoring the moonlight, as he crossed from the edge of one floe to the next. He turned and waved to me, one hand making a slow arc.
I could have said anything. I could have said “Come back” or “I love you.” Instead, I called after him, “Be sure and write!” The last thing I heard, long after I had lost sight of him far out on the river, was the sound of his laugh splitting the cold air.
To all you fiction writers: want to enter a short-story contest judged by acclaimed author David Rakoff? Here's your chance!The College Group at the Met and Selected Shorts, a short story performance series at Symphony Space and on public radio around the country, co- present another student writing contest. Students are asked to write 500 words or less about a “private paradise,” in celebration of the upcoming exhibition, The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, opening on February 1, 2011. Four winning entries, selected by the CGM committee, Symphony Space, and special guest judge David Rakoff (author of Half Empty and Don’t Get Too Comfortable and frequent contributor to NPR’s This American Life), will be read aloud at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday, February 4, 2011, recorded, and possibly aired later on Public Radio International. The special event will be hosted by David Rakoff.Download the submission form here and start writing! GildedInk
I, sadly, can't write poems that will leave everyone gobsmacked. I enjoy writing stories; I'm sure some of you like prose more than poetry as well. Well, I'm going to make your day if you do. I'm starting a round-robin story; that means you should all add lines (yes, as much or as little as you want. I would recommend writing more than a line everyone.) to the story to make it successful. Try it; make the story as grim, wacky, dramatic, etc... as possible. Later, we can post the entire story and see how great it is.Here we go:Marybelle huffed in annoyance as she hiked up the never ending material of her white gown. Blocks ago, she had thrown her matching heels away. Grumbling under her breath, she crossed the street to the bus stop. A man walking by stared at her oddly."What? You've never seen a lady walking in her wedding dress?" She shouted at him. Eyes widening, he crossed the street hastily."Jerk," she muttered under her breath and rudely gestured at his back. So, what if she was walking barefooted in her wedding gown? Who the hell cared if her hair was no longer in a stylish high bun and that her mascara was dripping down her face?Marybelle silently cursed at the people who stared at her like a zoo animal as they passed by. Finally, the bus came. Patiently, she waited for people to get off and ignored their curious faces. Grabbing her ballooning skirts, Marybelle stepped into the bus.Well? Why don't you all continue and let's see where this goes?
Rejoice, young ward! Author and NYU alum Yannick Murphy has graciously agreed to a brief interview via email with W10th. She is the author of the novels The Sea of Trees, Here They Come, and most recently, Signed, Mata Hari. She has also written several children's books and story collections. I can safely say that Here They Come is the novel that inspired me to start seriously writing on my own. Yannick's writing style borders on prose poetry, and she evokes beautiful images and haunting emotions, even while plumbing the darker depths of the human experience. So, without further ado- the interview:
W10th: Which is harder– writing children’s books or "adult" fiction?Yannick: It depends on what you mean by harder. Is it hard to come up with a good idea for a children’s book? Yes, it is. Is it hard to come up with a good idea for a novel, yes, for me it is. Is it hard to sit down and do the physical writing once that idea is in place? No, that’s when the fun starts. Maybe they are both hard and both fun, but since children’s books are shorter, the fun doesn’t last as long, whereas the novel lasts longer, but it also challenges you to sustain the fun in a longer piece. What’s really fun is when, in a longer piece, you have the control and at the same time you are open to where the writing is going and not where you want it to go. What’s really not fun is when you have a lot of words strung out with no meaning in sight and no way to get back to the meaning you thought the first sentence had before you even wrote it.W10th: Has having children affected your writing?Yannick: I like reading them my stories, and they are honest critics. When you have children you are exposed to lots of children’s books because you’re reading them to your children all the time, so you get familiar with the style and form of children’s books and it ends up inspiring you to write children’s books, or it ends up making you angry. Being angry helps you write the books too-- you just can’t believe someone wrote such a bad book for kids, so you try and do it better.W10th: Since this is for an NYU blog, of course I can’t ignore the fact that you attended NYU and studied under Gordon Lish. How was your experience at NYU? Do you ever keep a Lishian mentality while writing?Yannick: A Gordon Lish mentality is the best kind to have when writing. Hemingway said every good writer should have a built-in, shock-proof shit detector, and having a Lishian mentality is like having that detector on at all times. A Lishian mentality includes never forgetting that you’re trying to write your best sentences possible and that those sentences answer back to your very first line. If you forget, then you’re just typing, not writing. When I catch myself merely typing, and not creating, I know my Lish detector’s on.W10th: Can you tell us a bit about your early writing career when you were fresh out of college?Yannick: I don’t think I really ever had much of a writing career. I went straight to NYU graduate school after college. Gordon Lish published my first collection of short stories at Knopf (Stories in Another Language). Most of those stories were written while I was in Gordon’s workshop at NYU and while I was working day jobs at the same time. I had an “I’m working trying to make money at jobs and writing when I get home and on the weekends career.” So that’s what it was like, and what it’s still like, always trying to find the time to write. Isn’t that what all writing careers seem to be?W10th: What is your writing process? Do you have a specific time or location? Have your habits changed over the years?Yannick: Before I married I would write at night. When I got married, my husband would wake up early in the morning to go to work, and so to be on the same schedule, I changed mine. I started writing early in the mornings, and when I started having children I would get up before they were awake and try to write as much as I could. At times, it was humorous, because when my husband woke up I wouldn’t want him to wake the children, so I would have a fit if he closed the door to the bathroom too hard, or if he made too much of a racket getting his cereal bowl out from the cupboard. I turned him into a nimble tip-toeing six-foot tall, 190 pound, bleary-eyed man.W10th: What are your thoughts on MFA programs? Do they produce higher quality prose or generic, predictable writers?Yannick: It all depends on the teacher you have. That’s the bottom line. If a student is seeking out a good MFA program, I wouldn’t suggest looking at anything except the quality of the teachers, and by this I don’t mean the success of the writers on the faculty either. Some successful writers may not be the best teachers, they may also not be the best writers just because they’re successful. I was lucky that I had Gordon Lish as a teacher. But I had to make that luck happen. When I first heard Lish was going to teach at NYU, I was determined to take his class. I had read Amy Hempel’s article about him in Esquire where she described what a great teacher he was. What I understood from that article was that he would test me and make me question my writing like no other teacher had, and I craved that kind of discipline and the benefits I knew my writing would achieve from looking at myself that hard. For too long I had had writing teachers who said of my work, “That’s nice. Very nice.” I knew that I could be more of a writer than I was. When I went to register for Lish’s class, the head of the NYU program told me I couldn’t because it was only open to second year students and I was a first year student. Tearful, I told him I really wanted to take Lish’s class, but he still wouldn’t let me. I found out in what room Lish was teaching his class and I went before the class started that evening. I approached Lish in the hall (he was unmistakable in a canvas cloth coat cinched with a leather belt, and a sort of outbackish style hat worn at a rakish angle) and I said to him “I’m Yannick Murphy, and I’m not supposed to be here.” Lish let me in after that. Everything valuable I learned about writing at NYU I learned in Gordon Lish’s class. I don’t think it would have mattered if I had gone to Kalamazoo University; so long as I had Gordon Lish as a teacher, I was well on my way to engaging myself in my writing more and seeing the possibilities of prose in a way that I had never imagined before.Yannick Murphy is releasing a new novel, The Call, forthcoming in 2011- keep your eyes peeled! And seriously, read Here They Come- it's gorgeous.