Among Animals

amonganimals_250As one of the contributors, I am delighted to announce the official launch of AMONG ANIMALS, a new collection of stories published by Ashland Creek Press.

“This diverse collection of stories explores the ways in which we live among—and often in conflict with—our non-human counterparts. These stories feature animals from the familiar (dogs and cats) to the exotic (elands and emus), and in these stories animals are both the rescuers and the rescued. Within these pages are glimpses of the world through the eyes of a zookeeper, a shelter worker, a penguin researcher, and a neighborhood stray, among many others—all highlighting the ways in which animals and humans understand and challenge one another.”

This compelling new book is available in paperback or digital form and is available for purchase now.


A Few Of My Favorite Books

This is a guest post I wrote for Carla Sarett’s inspiring blog:

This list includes some of my all-time favorite books.

There is another book I’d like to mention, one that is especially appropriate as a gift from mothers to daughters. Veterans Day reminded me of this illuminating and fascinating read.

Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II by Emily Yellin

To Alice Munro

Recently a friend commented on a story from my collection. She told me how much she despised one of the characters (an attractive, unscrupulous woman), and then she proposed alternate outcomes for her. Had I considered doing this with her instead of that? Was I going to write another story about her? Maybe next time she could be overweight, deep in debt—in trouble with the feds! In other words: What Happens Next?

I am often surprised by how invested people can be in the stories they read, how unwilling they are to let go of them. When I told my friend that I had no plans to continue this story line, that when I was done with a story, I was done with it, her face fell. “Maybe you will,” she said, “later.” I smiled and said, “You never know.”

Rousing this degree of interest is of course a good thing, indicating that I did my job as a writer. Still, I wish she had said something about the style of the story. Was it a smooth read? Did she have any favorite passages or images? Had I chosen the best point of view? Did she notice the alliteration? Was the dialogue convincing? Was the setting real?

As I writer I notice all these things when I read. I can tell right away if an author has labored hard, or if he has taken short cuts. If the sentences aren’t clean, if the images aren’t striking, if the writing does not make me pause, think and admire, I probably won’t be finishing the book. Life is short. I want to read the sort of stories that make me wish I had written them, like the carefully crafted work of Alice Munro.

Readers are travelers; books are vehicles. Unless they are writers themselves, most readers don’t seem to care much about how the vehicle works, the machinery behind the journey. Imperfections, even outright errors, are forgiven, if they are noticed at all, so long as pace is maintained. While they may enjoy the passing scenery, what readers want most is to get where they’re going. If the destination pleases them, they will want to go back, hang out with the same characters, see what new trouble they can get into, learn what happens next.

The Da Vinci Code. Harry Potter. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fifty Shades of Grey. These are wildly popular rides, and I respect the authors. A gift to the masses is no small thing.

Blockbusters like these are what makes the latest literary news such a nice surprise. It was Alice Munro who just received the Nobel Prize, and not for crowd-pleasing novels, but for her unstinting effort in the improbable short story genre. Cheers to you, Alice, for giving the world your very best again and again, for writing against the grain and from the heart. That’s showing them.


The Story Prize Blog

For those who are not yet aware of this, Larry Dark, director of the Story Prize, hosts a lively blog, an ongoing series of Q&As with authors who have submitted their collections to The Story Prize.

These are interesting reads, and I hope you enjoy them. Here is the link to my own Q&A. Thank you for stopping by.

The Ready Feast

This post originally appeared on a terrific review site, Booklover Book Reviews

Why do most readers avoid short stories? I’ve posed this question to several people, who have offered a small range of reasons. Some say that short stories end too abruptly, or that they often have no resolution at all. Others mention a lack of plot, claiming that writers of this genre are more concerned with style than story. But the most common complaint is that short stories are simply too short. When it comes to reading material, people favor long-term investments and will not consider other options, even with the possibility of greater returns. “I make friends with the characters,” someone told me yesterday. “I want them to stick around.”

I find this both odd and poignant, basing the value of something on how long it keeps us company. You don’t see this more-is-better mentality applied to other art forms. A symphony does not trump a song, nor is a portrait less important than a mural, or a statue more impressive than a figurine. And poetry—no one accuses poems of being too short. I wish I could write poetry; the audience is small but ferociously loyal.

I understand the preference for novels only in theory. Being a writer, maybe my own characters edge out the competition, but I don’t think of characters as company—entertainers, yes;  companions, no. I ask other things of the people I meet in books. They must be credible, first of all, and informative, and interesting. No matter how scant the time I spend with them, if the author has succeeded, if the characters are well done, I will remember them, and their troubles, all my life.

Novels run the opposite risk, often drowning in their own excess. Sometimes, reading a novel, I get the feeling that the author is figuring things out bit by bit and I am wading through his thoughts, bumping into the clutter. While I’ve read many wonderful novels, I am in greater awe of the spare clean rooms, the potent distillation, of a good short story. There is a bounty of them, from the deliciously chilling tales of Edgar Allen Poe to the devastating brilliance of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. At least once a year I reread Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” just to remind myself what a writer is capable of, and I am no less stunned by the short works of Jean Thompson, Antonya Nelson, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Alice Munro and so many others.

Despite these masters of the genre, the popularity of short stories has been declining for decades, and rare is the author who can make a living off them. Who would guess that in this age of texts and tweets, the short form would be struggling for attention? Maybe this techno world we live in is just the point. People need to escape, to lose themselves in more tantalizing realms, in which case, a short story can be the quickest route, the ideal restorative, the ready feast.

In their heyday, short stories appeared every month in popular magazines. Later they were found only in published collections or literary journals. Today, with increasing frequency, they are popping up in e-readers. Now that readers have an instant and inexpensive way to access short stories, I am hoping the genre will enjoy a renaissance, that people will set aside their fat beach reads, at least occasionally, and try something more slimming. Maybe even delicious.

Betting on Books

Next month is the long-awaited launch of my short story collection, SURVIVAL SKILLS. Soon I’ll be joining the ranks of all the other authors who are hoping their newly published books will find an audience.

In the past several months, many of us have been doing what we can to get the word out, mostly through social media: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest. How successful these marketing venues have been for us remains to be seen. All we know is that exposure is key, and the more we like and follow, tweet and retweet, post and share, the greater our chances for recognition. For those of us who were not brought up in the electronic age, learning the tricks involved in setting up blogs and author pages is challenging to say the least, and it doesn’t help that technology is constantly jumping ahead of itself. Writers of any age would rather be writing than cyber networking, but we enter the fray and do our best.

The most daunting reality I’ve experienced thus far is the sheer number of us. Racing toward the same goal, we are teammates competing with each other. After all, there is only so much recognition to go around, only so much money to spend on books. It’s a selling frenzy and a buyer’s market, with books selling for less than a dollar, or being given away, by the thousands, in hopes of actual sales. Publishers in this country, electronic and otherwise, churn out 800 books a day. In this galaxy of productivity, what sort of odds does one book, my book, have?

And where do buyers begin? With self-publishing having eclipsed conventional forms, how do readers determine quality? Can we trust bloggers and reviewers? Stars and likes? Considering the many ways a web presence can be manipulated, does 15,000 Twitter followers mean anything at all? The internet is a monstrous game of chance and everyone is placing bets.

I’ve no idea how one separates the wheat from the chaff. And of course, one man’s chaff is another man’s wheat. I have zero interest in vampire novels, however well written, but who can dispute their  popularity? I like literary short fiction, a genre not known for blockbuster sales (which is ironic when you consider our tight schedules and short attention spans). I’ve asked people about this and they tell me that short stories don’t deliver, that they just don’t have enough meat on the bone. Well, I think there are plenty of meaty stories out there, stories that amuse and amaze, stories that will break your heart. You just need to know where to look.

So what can I say about SURVIVAL SKILLS? What bare truths can I give you? I can tell you that this an honest offering, that these stories evolved over several years and required my best effort. I can tell you that most of them originally appeared in reputable journals. I can tell you that my publisher, Ashland Creek Press, is committed to promoting quality literature that explores our connections with the natural world.

The characters in SURVIVAL SKILLS are not heroes. Like you and me, they are just trying to outlast the perils that surround them, taking what comfort they can on the way and often acquiring some strange companions. You won’t come across any vampires in these tales, but I’m betting you’ll enjoy them anyway.

Survival Skills Cover