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?