“Backstory” is a term used to refer to information that precedes the story at hand. Backstory fills us in on details that will prove important to the story (if it is not important, it shouldn’t be there, and maybe most stories have no backstory). Sometimes backstory weighs so much that it threatens to tip the story over backward; that’s not good either. But you can cut-and-paste until the surface is how you want it to be. Writing is actually a muscular sport and requires a good deal of trying this and trying that. Only if you are willing to do the hard work of lifting what needs lifting can you expect to find your way to that perfect surface.

More… “In the Middle of Things”

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
Kelly Cherry is an award-winning poet and novelist, and the former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Her latest book, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, is a collection of short stories. TSS assistant editor Maren Larsen reached Cherry by phone at her home in Virginia.

1.I recently read your collection Twelve Women in a Country Called America, and this collection’s title firmly sets the scene of these stories in the United States, but I would tend to argue that the true setting is the American South. You open the book with a quote from Norman Mailer: “This country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a southern accent.” Why do you (and Norman) think that the South is the “real” America?

Well, I don’t think that Norman thought that the South was the “real” America. He was making a sarcastic comment about how southerners talk: slow, not necessarily making much sense, putting in big words. It was a sarcastic crack, but I thought it was a funny sarcastic crack. It just occurred to me that that would be a good starting point for the stories in which the women do talk about their own states, but they also talk about America in general.

More… “5 Questions with Kelly Cherry”

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
Anton Chekov, master of internal conflict

The truth is, almost all of us want more than just one thing. The child who wants water also wants to share it with his mother. The mother wants her child to have water and also food.

Take a look at Chekhov’s stories. Maybe you already have and are already acquainted with his distinctively realistic stories. Anton Chekhov was a doctor and a writer. His writing included four plays and many short stories, almost all of which are justifiably described as great. He had a particular ability to capture the Russian culture in the second half of the 19th century: Its mixed mood of melancholy and ennui, of longing and not being willing to do anything about it. Sometimes his work approaches satire — there is a long tradition of satire in Russian fiction — and indeed he wrote satirical pieces to earn money for his college tuition, but far more often, as he begins to write longer stories, his work is leavened by the delicacy of his descriptions and the efficiency of his narratives. His characters are so real that one remembers them as one remembers people in one’s own life. Most of us in this country have to read his work in translation, and we are fortunate that excellent translations are available.
More… “Desire is Complicated”

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.

Deborah Levy’s short book of short stories is pitched at a relatively high key but a deeper note of sadness underpins it. Her characters are splendidly individual but share a sense of having strayed from home, or of not having a home, or of wondering what it might be like to have a home. In “Black Vodka,” the first and title story, a writer of advertisements at “a leading agency” refers to himself as “the crippled poet,” but that does not stop him from sleeping with a colleague’s girlfriend. Or maybe he feels being “crippled” entitles him? Sleeping with friends’ girlfriends might be how he takes revenge on men whose spines are not misaligned, men whose backs lack humps. It is he who gives the name “black vodka” to a flavored drink to be marketed in formerly Communist countries where noir is trending.

Levy, an English author who was shortlisted for the Man Booker for her novel Swimming Home, is equally perceptive about men and women. There are ten stories here, and each is something like — well, not a bon-bon. More like a sip of whisky or a quick slam of Black Vodka to the back of the throat. As “the crippled poet” says, Black Vodka is “the edgy choice for the cultured and discerning.”
More… ““Only Some of This is True””

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.

At the turn of the 20th century, a well-made American story was one delivered in a straightforward style. O. Henry and Stephen Crane relied on suspense and tight construction to propel the reader along the story’s length. This method backgrounds the writer, foregrounds the tale.

By the second half of the century all this had changed. There were four causes: the rise of the writing workshop, the sudden preponderance of writing students, the starved market for short fiction (gone was the Saturday Evening Post, gone was Collier’s), and the advent of TV. New thinking, as modeled by Eudora Welty and John Cheever and then apotheosized in the K-Mart realism of the students of Gordon Lish, proposed a different method of keeping the American reader turning pages: you made them feel through the characters, sympathize with characters – you made your characters into someone they might meet on the street, befriend, and gossip about. Incident was less important: what was more important was that you made them see themselves in someone with a very different life. This method backgrounds the writer, foregrounds the character.
More… “Singsong Kidspeak”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
Well, not this linked....

The first time I wrote a collection of stories, the editor changed it to “three novellas” and then a second editor changed it to “a novel.” The next time I wrote a book of stories, the publisher described it as “a novel in stories.” Nobody in New York wanted to publish short stories, although two years later there would be a boom in short stories. They should have seen it coming, but publishers are nearly always short-sighted. Not until I published a book of stories with a university press was the book actually called “stories.”

By whatever name, I love collections of linked stories. I have written a trilogy of linked stories. I call it “A Divine Comedy,” which is what the ex-wife of a main character says when she describes the off-Broadway play she has written about him. “It’s such a divine comedy!” she chirps.
More… “Chain Gang”

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
But did the people of India really wish to be photographed?

“Whatever person you decide to photograph,” Antonino Paraggi says in Italo Calvino’s 1955 short story, Adventures of a Photographer, “you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night.” He adds, “Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images.” Antonino becomes an amateur photographer obsessed with documenting almost every moment of his life. When he begins to date the lovely Bice, this obsession becomes even more acute as he turns his lens upon her every move from surveillance shots along street corners to private moments waking up in bed.

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.

One year after publishing Dubliners

There’s one thing certain about the Dubliners: They’re looking to escape. They’re playing hooky from school to watch the ships along the riverside, or sneaking out of work to tip an elbow at the public house, or sitting in class dreaming about the Saturday evening bazaar. Mr. Duffy thinks that, in “certain circumstances” he could rob a bank, but the circumstances never arise. Lenehan thinks that, if only he could find a corner and some good simpleminded girl, he could live happily. No doubt about it, thinks Little Chandler, if you want to succeed you have to go away. Farrington’s boy, seeing no escape from his father, falls upon his knees. There is, for the Dubliners, an incompleteness in everyday life. There is a train always passing them by. If only the poetry book on the shelf, the girl, the drink, the confessional, the faraway place, the foreign sailor —… More…


I get emails, very occasionally, from acquaintances. They’re very short, these letters, as the subject header says it all: NEW ELLISON. Sometimes the sender betrays a faux intimacy with the author, and writes NEW HARLAN instead.

Harlan Ellison. Remember the best episode of Star Trek, the one where Captain Kirk lets Joan Collins die? Or did you ever catch the movie in which a telepathic dog bosses around a very young Don Johnson? (It helps if you’re the sort of insomniac who flips through hundreds of cable channels at two in the morning.) Or maybe you recall his pitchman spiel for the Geo Metro, or his appearances on Tom Snyder’s show or Politically Incorrect, or his segments on the early days of the Sci Fi Channel?

Nick Mamatas is the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild-nominated author of… More…

The real horror story is how poorly he's taught in schools.

Imagine the school board meeting — the kids are reading some dangerous literature in English class. Murder, drunkenness, torture, madness, and not even a sliver of moral instruction. If the students weren’t already so resentful, they might even like what they’ve been given to read, it’s so cool. Imagine the class discussion about the theme of, say, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and that one boy with a heavy metal T-shirt in the back finally joining the conversation with his interpretation: “Some motherfuckers just have it comin’.”

2009 marks the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the most famed and influential writer in American history. Not only does his work entirely limn the culture, but he also created no fewer than two genres of popular fiction — mystery and modern horror — almost single-handedly. Virtually anyone in the U.S. can recite his poetry (a few lines here and there, at least)…. More…