Short Stories

Make Each Word Count: An Interview with Marcus Pactor

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Marcus Pactor read from his short fiction collection Vs. Death Noises as part of the TireFire fiction series in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he sent me a copy of the collection, and I enjoyed it immensely, so I was doubly excited to get a chance to ask him a few questions about writing and how he fits it into his busy schedule.

You came from Florida up to my hometown of Philadelphia to do a reading for the TireFire fiction series. That’s dedication! What motivated you to make the trip? Was it worth your while?

I read Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities last year and dug it so much. I did what I previously considered a junior high stalker thing by asking this total stranger to be my Facebook friend. He agreed. He found out about my book that way, liked it, and invited me up. I have never been a junior high stalker, but I imagine this was like the junior high stalker’s dream. Besides that, I think it’s important to read wherever people are interested in my stuff. You never know who you’re going to meet.

It was entirely worth the trip. Christian and his family are great, warm people. Philadelphia’s downtown is a beautiful, large and cared for in a particular way that I have rarely seen. That art museum is a treasury. In addition, I reunited with an old, old friend.

Note: I have since learned that what I did on Facebook was pretty standard practice and not widely considered stalkerish.

Along similar lines, what motivates you to write? I ask because I know firsthand how difficult it can be to fit writing into a busy schedule, but just keep doing it anyway, and I’m trying to figure out why.

If I didn’t write, I’d probably be talking to myself all the time. I’ve got all kinds of ideas and people in my head trying to get out. Writing is about the healthiest way to get them out. It’s purgation, I guess.

I’m also motivated by the date August 30. Some time on or around that date, my wife and I will welcome a little son to the world. I have to write as much as I can before then, because my schedule will probably become more crowded afterward.

You teach at University of North Florida, and Rate My Professors reports that your students love your classes. What, specifically, do you teach, and how do your teaching and writing inform each other?

It’s strange to think that they love them. I mean, I love my kids, but we spend about a third of the semester explaining why certain kinds of sentences don’t work and why “he ejaculated” is no longer an acceptable dialogue tag. Maybe they love it because it’s a public place in which they feel free to discuss ejaculation.

This semester I’m teaching four fiction workshops. By the end of this week, I’ll have read 130 or so stories by students. Two weeks from now, I’ll have read 65 revisions. By the end of the semester, I’ll have read close to 2000 pages of my students’ fiction.

The pleasures of teaching mostly involve seeing the students improve from one piece to the next. Most of them really do work hard. It’s great to see when it pays off, especially when they get published.

Teaching has also helped me become a much better reader of fiction and practitioner of language. A lot of people can feel that something has gone wrong in a story, but a teacher has to recognize what that something is, where that something is located, and how to fix it. I mean, he has to say more than that “these sentences don’t work.” He has to be able to explain why they don’t work, especially when the grammar is impeccable. He has to point the way. He has to make recommendations that a student can respect.

Reading their stories has forced me to think hard, much harder than I ever had before, about what makes fiction work. A lot of what I figured out went into this book.

Your book is called Vs. Death Noises. Can you explain the title and any principles that guide your writing?

The book’s title comes from the first story, “The Archived Steve.” Steve had this awful emphysemic voice. He slurped from electronic cigarettes. The narrator said the sounds were death noises. Noise isn’t an element common to every story in the book, but it’s in enough of them for the title to work. Plus, tons of people seem to dig it.

I don’t know if I want to use the word “principles.” It’s a much better word for critics to use about a writer’s work than it is for a writer to use about his own stuff. My principles shift all the time, which might be why I don’t want to call them principles. Right now, I like these: –Make each word count. –Form is content. Content is form. -Tell a couple of jokes, but be serious. Seriously tell a joke. A purely sad story is not my kind of beer.

The book’s publisher is Subito Press. If I remember my Latin correctly, that means “suddenly.” Was there anything “sudden” about the writing or publishing of this book? How did you find them–or did they find you?

It was both sudden and not sudden. First, the not so sudden: the stories themselves were written over the course of two-plus years. Then, suddenly, it was summer. I was 35. My girlfriend, now my wife, and I were getting serious. I needed a freaking book. I found Subito’s contest on Duotrope and entered. Everything worked out.

And, finally, what’s on the horizon for you?

I mentioned the baby. Mostly, he is on the horizon. I’ve also got a short novel in the hands of several independent presses and contests as we speak, so I spend a lot of time knocking wood, etc. I’m working on another book too. I’m about to learn how to put up a fence in my backyard. That should be painful.

Thanks, Marcus, for taking the time to chat with me!


Safe As Houses

bookcoverI’ve been intrigued by the phrase “safe as houses” since I first heard it in Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” many years ago. What, exactly, I’ve often wondered, is so safe about houses? Doesn’t some high percentage of household injuries occur within the home? And why are so many of my best observations completely solipsistic?

In many ways, Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories Safe As Houses obsesses over all of these issues with a wry blend of wit, humor, irony, magic realism, and ultimately hope. Throughout the collection, Bertino offers her readers inventive scenarios in which her characters long for the various and frequently elusive forms that the comforts of home might take. There’s the young woman who loses her home in a fire and attempts to win the affections of her wayward father by buying him a dachshund with the insurance money — all while trying to avoid picking up a free ham she’s won at the local grocery store. There’s (How do I explain this in as few words as possible?) the estranged couple whose component members bump into each other while dating idealized versions of each other. (The story is called “The Idea of Marcel.” I assigned it in my American Lit. class. Trust me… It’s great!) There’s the former record-keeper for a group of rebellious college superheroes who combs through memories of the best years of her life in an effort to figure out how she ended up married to a millionaire and living a beautiful but boring suburban home.

To put it simply, if you like quirky, heartfelt short stories, you’ll find a lot to love in this collection. Throughout the collection, Bertino exhibits a proclivity not only for making the outlandish seem at least provisionally plausible, but also for effectively reversing that formula and making it clear that so much of what we take for meaningful and real is ultimately ephemeral. Though it would be a cliche to suggest that Safe As Houses reminds us that home is where the heart is, I’m half-tempted to say that this is the over-arching point of this collection. Yet Bertino takes that cliche and makes it new by exploring all of its implications and reminding us that home is as much a state of mind as anything else. We are all longing for home in one way or another. Though no story could ever fully satisfy that longing, Bertino’s collection goes a long way toward reminding us that we’re not alone in our quest.

(For a longish, meandering, and somewhat creepy prologue to this review, visit Abominations: Marc Schuster’s Random Musings.)


Beasts and Men

Beasts_and_Men_cover_hi-resI’m always excited when Curtis Smith comes out with a new collection of short fiction. I’ve been a fan of his for years now, and his ability to tell a story with wit, wry humor, a good turn of phrase, and, most of all, human kindness, makes Curt’s stories a joy to read. His latest collection, Beasts and Men, is no exception.

Most of the stories in Beasts and Men take place in rural America, and Smith’s characters tend to be outsiders struggling, frequently with heartbreaking yet hopeful results, to find a place in the world. There’s the pair of adulterers who strike a dog with their car only to discover the true nature of their relationship. There’s the high-school outcast trying to carve some modicum of self-possession through prolonged silences and incessant sketching. There’s the young man standing in the backyard of the woman who used to love him, drunk and howling for the love he’s lost. There are winners and losers of all stripes in this collection — all struggling to make sense of the world, all searching for meaning, all intensely and utterly human. Indeed, Smith’s gift for depicting the private moment of spiritual and emotional crisis is on full display throughout Beasts and Men. That he does it so lovingly and with such great care for his characters marks him not only as an author of great skill, but also as one of great compassion.

Visit 2Paragraphs to read an excerpt from Beasts and Men.

Whatever Used to Grow Around Here

In her debut collection of short fiction, Whatever Used To Grow Around Here, Lauren Belski lovingly charts the unmapped and ever-shifting borderland between adolescence and adulthood in contemporary America. For the most part, her characters are twenty-somethings who long not so much for the innocence of youth but a sense of hope and optimism lost after repeated brushes with the daunting ambiguities and contradictions that constitute the so-called “real-world.” In some ways, the biggest question facing many of these young adults who teeter precariously somewhere between the Gen-X and Gen-Y labels is that of what to wear: New sundresses, shirts, and skirts from Banana Republic, Hollister, and Macy’s, all designed to flatter and look great in job interviews, cocktail parties, and other occasions for discomfort that mark the passage into adulthood, or the comfortable thrift-store rags of youth that cost three dollars and still smell of the perfume worn by their former owners? The over-sized Burberry coat your dad gave you, hoping perhaps, you’d one day grow into it? The heavy sweater and matching gloves the girl you just met promises to knit for you if only you’ll come in out of the cold? The loose-fitting dress you wore on your first day of work only to realize, after dozens of late nights and countless boxes of salty Szechuan takeout, that it’s suddenly the tightest thing you own? As anyone who’s passed through the region of uncertainty explored throughout Whatever Used To Grow Around Here can attest, these aren’t easy questions to answer, and while it was TS Eliot who talked about preparing a face to meet the faces you will meet, it’s Belski who dares to ask what you’ll wear once you’ve finished primping. The key to being an adult, it turns out, is to dress the part and keep on faking it until the act comes naturally, to drive in ever-widening circles around the edges of adulthood until the terrain starts to look familiar, to live life, to make mistakes, to get it all wrong yet still have the confidence, however misguided, that one day you’ll get it all right.

Three Stories by Ken Kalfus

I’ve known of Ken Kalfus for a long time. A fellow Philadelphian (or is that phellow Philadelphian?), he shows up at a lot of the readings I attend at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and he’s friendly with a couple of writers I know. Kathye Fetsko Petrie introduced me to him at a Jonathan Safran Foer reading, and Josh Emmons once invited me to join them for tennis. The reason I declined — aside from lacking any tennis skills whatsoever — also accounts for why my one and only meeting with Kalfus was so awkward: I’d never read any of his books. Until now.

I was browsing the shelves at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, when I spotted Three Stories, a tiny book from Madras Press. I couldn’t resist making the purchase largely because reading the book would give me something to say to the author the next time I ran into him, but also because proceeds from book sales go to support the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is where I’ll probably run into the guy. How could I not buy it?

The book, it turns out, is spectacular and makes me realize that I’ve been missing out on some great writing by not looking into the fiction of Kalfus sooner. The first story of the collection, “The Moment They Were Waiting For,” offers a meditation on free will. In it, the denizens of a city are cursed with the knowledge of the exact dates on which they will die — and regardless of the measures they take, their fate is inescapable. In the second tale, “Professor Arecibo,” an academic with a bad reputation overhears a telephone conversation about himself and struggles to deal with the resulting emotional fallout. In the third, “The Un-,” a young writer named Josh Glory yearns for publication and the recognition he imagines will come with it.

For my money, this last story alone is worth the $7.00 I paid for the 68-page collection. As a writer myself, I fully identified with all of the anxieties that make Josh Glory tick. “You could go crazy as you ascended the ladder of literary disappointment,” Kalfus writes. “You could be disappointed that you hadn’t written anything. You could be disappointed that what you’d written hadn’t been published. You could be disappointed that you’d been published but hadn’t sold many books.” The list goes on and on, and every writer in every stage of his or her career will identify with at least some element of the story. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “The Un-” should be required reading for anyone considering a “career” in creative writing.

The collection as a whole has an engaging, subtly Kafkaesque tone that amuses even as it offers a dark vision of humanity. We are all struggling with a multitude of things that can drive us crazy, each story in the collection seems to say, and the only way to deal with the maddening crush is to keep on living one day at a time.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book, and I’ll be seeking out other books by Ken Kalfus in the very near future. With any luck, I won’t get tongue-tied the next time I run into him.

Public Displays of Affectation

Shaun Haurin’s debut collection of short stories, Public Displays of Affectation, offers a subtle and emotionally complex examination of the ties that bind. For the most part, the characters in this collection are looking for love — romantic and otherwise — which is fitting, given the setting: all of the stories take place in and around Philadelphia, widely known as the City of Brotherly Love.  In many instances, the love is forbidden, as in “Best Man,” which finds a not-so-young-anymore bachelor pining away for his best friend’s wife. That the best friend is himself engaged in an extra-marital affair only adds to the would-be lover’s dilemma. After all, doesn’t the object of his affection deserve more than to be cuckolded by an unfaithful husband? As with all of the stories in this collection, the answers to such questions are never easy to come by.

Other stories in the collection find Haurin exploring the love between parents and children. In one heartbreaking instance, a story titled “Bloodsucker,” a grown man dons a vampire costume in order to catch a glimpse of his estranged daughter on Halloween. Elsewhere, in a story titled “Me, Tarzan,” a boy named Sammartino Hayes wants nothing more than to be able to respect his father, a frustrated illustrator who dreams of hitting the big time with a cartoon canine named Bobo Lazarus. At nearly one-hundred pages, this latter story could likely stand on its own as a novella, yet its attention to the frustrating and often conflicting desires that motivate the human heart makes it the jewel in the crown of this intelligent and moving collection.

With a keen eye for the telling detail and a well-tuned ear for dialogue, Haurin explores the myriad shades of gray that shroud adulthood and haunt the contemporary heart, thus rendering Public Displays of Affectation a compelling and emotionally intelligent collection.

Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World

In Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World, Pat Pujolas demonstrates a strong talent for parsing the subtleties of character. Early in this collection of interconnected stories, the author offers a brief vignette about an aging woman named Doreen whose self-assessment suggests that we all must transcend petty categories in order to be fully human: “She wants to tell Roxie that she is more open-minded than them. That she agrees with the overall structure of the church, but not all of its teachings. That she would vote in favor of gay marriage if it ever comes up on the Ohio ballot.” That Doreen eventually falls back on her faith as an out when her relationship with Roxie begins to take on unexpected proportions only serves to further complicate her character: she knows who she wants to be but frequently falls short of her ideal self.

And so it goes with the majority of the characters in this debut collection of fiction. Pujolas describes a wide range of characters, each haunted as much by who they want to be as by who they’ve been. Chief among these characters is Jimmy Lagowski, a twenty-year-old with a scarred face who dreams almost incessantly of an idealized race called the Ceruleans, an asymmetrical species whose shape “gives them a better sense of what fairness is.” That Jimmy should be selected for jury duty in the murder trial around which all of the stories in this collection coalesce is therefore fitting: asymmetrical himself in many ways, his sense of justice is as nuanced as it is complicated.

Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World offers much for the reader to consider, not the least of which are meditations on the nature of humanity and justice—and how these two concepts relate to each other. What’s more, Pujolas’ use of the  of the Ceruleans as a device for framing many of the concepts in his writing evokes the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and to similar effect insofar as both alien races force us to step outside of our own frames of reference to think about ourselves from a new perspective. We are broken, Pujolas suggests throughout this collection, yet not without hope.

A promising debut.