You know how it goes, one book leads to another. Sometimes to several others as a matter of fact. Lately short stories seem to be like potato chips (my own downfall at the moment, though, are animal crackers) . . . you can't just stop at one. Just one more, you say. And then maybe just one more.
So, I've mentioned that I want to read the short stories appearing in The New Yorker this year (that would be dedicatedly reading each week not hit or miss as I usually do), so I read the story by Antonya Nelson in the first issue of 2014. I'd heard the name but never tried her work, though she is an established writer, has been widely anthologized and was named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best young fiction writers at work today back in 1999. I liked what I read and never one needing any further prodding to try more by an author I've enjoyed, I set off for my library's catalog to see what more I could find.
I brought home her 2002 collection Female Trouble and am looking forward to dipping into it. The first story, "Incognito" begins: "You can live a second life under your first one, something functioning covertly like a subway beneath a city, a disease inside the flesh. I did once for several years." Aren't you intrigued? I am. I want to know more. A good short story writer has to hook you right away, I think, or they risk losing their reader. And then they have only a 'few' (comparatively speaking anyway) pages to tell a fully developed story. I'm curious to see what else Nelson has to offer.
While Female Trouble looks good, it was another book that piqued my curiosity that I have started reading, and which I discovered thanks to Nelson's New Yorker story (which started all this . . . ). One of her stories appears in The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett. After each short story there is a brief essay by the author describing the writing experience or inspiration for the story. I've only read two of the twenty-six stories, but they're quite interesting and I am compelled to keep going now that I've started (having only meant to read Nelson's story, which happens to be the first in the collection).
In her "behind the story" essay Nelson (who, like all the authors in this collection, is/was a teacher on the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers) notes that her story "Strike Anywhere" is a departure from her other work. It was a student who "handed over" the story. Nelson had made a statement in class about O. Henry's work and had a student disagree with her saying (in response to her categorization of the irony in O. Henry as being 'easy" rather than "deep") that he "much preferred those stories that 'hung suspended in the mind like a well formed box'" and that "the story rather tells itself".
It was another student who told Nelson about a boy who was eating matches while waiting for his father (who had gone into a bar for a few drinks--leaving him in his truck) and was caught by a drunk passing by who warned him it was poisonous to do so. Out of this curious bit of reality Nelson wrote her story, which made me shudder for a variety of reasons yet pulled me in at the same time.
Next up is a story called "The Flowers of the Forest" by Margot Livesey who I have long wanted to read and what better way to be introduced to a new-to-me author's work than by a short story. Her story is set on the Scottish border sometime after WWII and is told through the perspective of a ten-year-old girl newly moved to the village. It has a 'Go-Between-ish' quality to it where the girl sees things she is perhaps not entirely sure the meaning of. She's a regular visitor to a neighboring farm run by a brother and sister who board a horse belonging to a wealthy neighbor. It's the adult daughter to whom the horse belongs and she is keen on the brother and you might see where this is going--she falls pregnant after a series of assignations with him.
In her essay Livesey explains that she had been working on her novel Eva Moves the Furniture but had been struggling with it. She "couldn't find either a voice or point of view for Eva that seemed able to contain the story" she wanted to tell. So she would set herself the task of writing stories to help work through this block. She had the setting in mind and knew she wanted two "William Trevor-like characters" and then worked out from there. She used bits of experience from her own youth and knew for it to work she would need an unreliable (or in this case "innocent") narrator to tell the story. It was the voice of this young girl that ultimately became the voice of the narrator in Eva Moves the Furniture.
(Note to self: must read more by William Trevor, including his short stories--it's been far too long and anyway he's been on my mind of late). (Further note to self: check out Margot Livesey's Eva Moves the Furniture now, you wanted to read it before anyway, remember?). See what happens? I'm not joking when I say one book leads to another.
I'll keep going in this anthology since I am finding it hugely fascinating. As a reader I love hearing the story behind the story, but I can see how helpful this might be, too, to writers. The next story is by another new to me author, David Shields, called "A Brief Survey of Ideal Desire". Isn't that an intriguing title?
Just one more thing, as you can see I have yet one more collection to read now. My first NYRB subscription book of the year is Honoré de Balzac's The Human Comedy: Selected Stories with an introduction by Peter Brooks and newly translated by Linda Asher. I am quite excited about it (am having a most excellent run of good books to read at the moment by the way--so many good choices). I plan on reading more Balzac soon, but I'll share the details of that another day. Right now I have just started reading a story by Balzac called "Another Study of Womankind".
I think this is going to be a good short story year for me (certainly one filled with lots of good choices) and hopefully a good NYRB year, too. I likely won't write about all the short stories I am reading (maybe will try with Balzac), but if I come across an especially good one, I'll let you know.