In celebration of National Short Story Month, I have asked several acclaimed fiction writers to answer five questions for me. My previous installment included Alan Heathcock, Lydia Millet, Eddie Chuculate and Shann Ray. click here
My second installment will solely consist of Blackfeet author, Stephen Graham Jones, who went above and beyond what I asked and turned in an epic collection of answers.
by Stephen Graham Jones
What is your favorite opening line of a short story?
Man, that's a hard one. Just scanned through a few, and--never knew this--but I seem to like hooks for two reasons: some conjure the whole story that I love love love, which I think has to count as nostalgia, while others are just perfect and apt openings. How about two, from the A's:
--In walks these three girls wearing nothing but bathing suits.
That's John Updike, whom I otherwise despise. But, man, that hook does it all just right, doesn't it? What a hook line's doing when it's working is tempting the reader in, making a promise, and kind of previewing the theme of the whole story. In this case, "A&P," which I guess is some northeast store; my analogue would be M-System, maybe? Piggly Wiggly? Either way, that hook's short, simple, sweet, and, near as I can tell, it makes it absolutely impossible not to read the next sentence. And then the whole story.
--Seymour didn't want money--he wanted love--so he stole a pistol from the hot plate old man living in the next apartment, then drove over to the International House of Pancakes, the one on Third, and ordered everybody to lie down on the floor.
Mr. Sherman Alexie, "South by Southwest," what I would argue is his best story to date. And one of the better stories we've been given, period. I mean, aside from obviously hooking us, this is also showcasing the skewed logic of this Seymour dude, and it's just delivering so much exposition (in a city, in an apartment, broke, alone, hopeful, names's Seymour, he's got a car) all at once. Not a lot of writers can come up with a tone that can do that. But Alexie can, and does. We rollick through this line, and then every line after, for the whole story, is this wonderful escalation, that, really, I've yet to see repeated. Closest story to this, for me, is Jonathan Baumbach's "Bright is Innocent," a kind of Hitchock pastiche.
If I can pull a song into this opening line-thing, though, then my vote's for Bonnie Prince Billy's "I'd be riding horses if they'd let me," from "Horses." That evokes so much, and all at once, and so elegantly. I wish I could do something like that each time out.
Name one short story that inspired you to write short stories yourself?
Margaret St. Clair's "The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes." I think I read it at the exact right minute of my life. I'd already been through Where the Red Fern Grows, and knew without a doubt that I could stick an axe in a tree like that, and hang a lantern on it, let it rust, but this story, man. It still destroys me. In the best way. It's this kid who can see one day into the future. And the world knows it, and loves him, and watches his television program every morning, to hear his predictions. Which are never wrong. But then one day he looks ahead and sees this comet just hurtling to Earth, to wipe us all out, no chance of survival, no Bruce Willis, so, on his program that morning, he looks right into the camera and he says that this is going to be the best day ever. That people are going to hug each other, nobody's going to be unhappy, all of it. It's the best gift he could possibly have given the world, and it's a lie. This is at the bottom of everything I write.
Who are your five favorite short story writers?
Just five. Man. Stephen King, of course. I love how a lot of his stories, you can tell he's just fooling around, that he just wanted to see what would happen if he tried this. And he's talented enough, he nearly always makes it work. Early Tobias Wolff, I'd say. I mean, later Wolff is solid too, but early on, when his stories were more mechanical, more rigid, they were a study of how to fit the elements of a story together for maximum effect. Lee K. Abbott. Dude can seriously write. People don't read him enough either, I don't think. I mean, we associate him with Thom Jones and that whole crowd from the nineties, I think. And Jones and Bass and all them were and are good, of course. But Abbott, something the way he moves through a story, it's just completely natural, while feeling wholly exotic. Two more, now. How about the Stephen Millhauser of Penny Arcade the The Barnum Museum? Can I limit his person-ness like that? His later stuff hasn't really been for me, but, in those two early collections, you could see his imagination just firing like crazy, and his fascinations were all laid bare. Very cool stuff. And, last and most hot right now, but more for long series of long books (which are excellent), George RR Martin. His stories work in peculiar and unconventional ways, which I've never quite been able to crack. Or, I can't replicate them, anyway, but they're always in-mind, are always a challenge, a goal. And, were I not keeping myself to somewhat contemporary, here, Robert E. Howard would definitely be on this list. His stories aren't remotely neat, or contained, and often not even well-crafted. But they're so, so sincere, each time out. And I appreciate sincerity above all, finally.
What are five short stories that you would recommend everybody should read?
Lorrie Moore's "Lawns." That's the story I've read the most of any story. Over and over and over. Joe R. Lansdale's "The Night They Missed the Horror Show." It's flat-out one of the best stories ever written. You might think you know horror, but, if you don't know this story, think again. Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild." She makes it look so easy, what she's doing in that story. But it's so, so difficult. Nobody can touch that story. All of which are stories probably in anthologies, on classroom desks already. And deservedly so. Really, we should wrap them up and mail them on the next Voyager, to prove to other systems that we've got a clue. But your readers are maybe here for the stuff they don't know about. So: David James' Keaton's kind of title-story to his brand new Fish Bites Cop, "Nine Cops Killed for a Goldfish Cracker." I mean, it's not exactly friendly to the guys in blue, no. But this story, it's alive in the same way Alexie's "South by Southwest" is. I've read it a few times now, and each time through, I'm learning, and learning. Cribbing down notes for how I can pull off something just in this general arena of storytelling. And how about Jeremy Robert Johnson's "Persistence Hunting," from his recent We Live Inside You? I mean, every story in that collection, it hurts it's so good--hard for me to pick just one--but this story, it's playing with genre in some very cool ways, very quiet ways, but ways that spin everything just slightly better. And, since I'm assuming everybody else is going to be cheating, I'm going to cheat too: two more stories. I'm excited, talking about all this, I mean. Erin Almond's "In the Realm of the Casual Gods: A Dungeons & Dragons Love Story," from The Normal School (Fall 10). I'm going to have a really hard time thinking of a more perfect story than that. Well, okay: Brian Evenson's "The Munich Window." I've read this one so many times as well. Am so, so, jealous of it. "After the Stations of the Cross," by Peter Tsyver, from one of the Pushcart anthos. This story's about me, I'm pretty sure, and I'm kind of bummed not to have got a byline. But I feel the same about Joe Hill's "Voluntary Committal," at the end of 20th Century Ghosts. If I could, I'd rub his name off that one, sneak mine in. And, for an illegal fifth, which I guess brings this paragraph of a list to, what, eight? there'll always and forever be John Vanderslice's "Wedgewood Blue," from, if I'm half-remembering even close to correctly . . . Western Humanities Review? Like, ten years ago, or more? Does anybody have a photocopy of this one? Every single time I lay pen to paper, I'm trying to write that story. And every single time, I fail. And I'll keep on failing. I'll insist on failing, just for that outside chance of, once, making it.
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