Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The End of Short Story Month: Read Eudora Welty's Collected Stories

Photograph from this article in the Library Journal
I live down the hill from a Free Little Library, and before I went to Texas for two weeks to save my flooded house, I stopped by the library to find a book. Usually, the books we choose from the library are children's books for our son, but on that particular day, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty sat there behind the small door.

That is not a pocket-book, my partner said, nodding at the book when she picked me up from the airport.

She was right. I guess people take light reading on the airplane. My light reading weighed a couple pounds, and might have counted as carry-on luggage had airport security felt like making an argument.

The copy of the book is large. Not just thick, but with large pages about two-hands tall. It was published a year near my birth year. Were I my mother, I would find this significant in a telling way. Because I'm a writer. Eudora Welty was a writer. We are women. We write stories. Continue the similarities necessary for symbolism, as you see fit.

But I'm not my mother, though I do share her tendency toward symbolism, so as I looked at the copyright page, I just imagined what my mother would say. Were Eudora born in 1913 like my grandmother, rather than in 1909, it would be easier to believe, rather than simply imagine, implications between numbers and lives.

Book cover in full black with red lettering for the title and gold lettering for the author's name. All letters in full capital letters.
Cover of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
The copy is also water-damaged. Not so bad to interfere with the words, but clearly the book is
rippled. Perhaps left in a basement box. Perhaps a bottom shelf over so many years by a window that tended to be left open.

Inside the copy is the New York Times obituary of Eudora Welty, cut carefully out. It ran from one page to another, and both pages are here. In the margins of only a few stories is blue-ink cursive in a woman's hand, or at least the cursive is small and careful and reminds me of the cursive from the weekly letters my grandmother wrote to my mother.

It's a copy, then, that was not only bought, but also saved. A copy read through. A copy owned by a person who took time while she read. A teacher? Maybe. A student, surely at one time, to have a habit of writing in the margins.

All of this is important to me. I'm one of the history of people that believes the book is a sacred object, one in a line of people who has inherited the memory of when books were incredibly expensive, always rare, for only the wealthy, kept from the hands of the class of people that encircle the trunk of my family tree and reach out.

I can't help but feel romantic about the physicality of a book, this place where someone's thoughts wait to enter the thoughts of another, all without speaking. So intimate, this.

Well, not every book does this to me. Not every binding. I started examining the book after I started reading the stories and realizing how wonderful they are.

What took me so long to find her? I think I read an excerpt of her talking about writing, on growing up as a reader. I might have even taught it to a class of 101 students, years ago. I've read a few of her commonly anthologized stories, "A Worn Path," for example, but the anthology stories didn't strike me like these have. 

Regardless. This is an excellent book of stories. I'm five stories in, 50 pages out of over 600 pages. If I wait to suggest this book to you, several years will have passed. That's how I read now. When I find a collection that is awesome, I force it to last. For example, when I read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, I waited a year before reading the very last story.

But I want to tell you about this book now. It is a strange book. Her writing reminds me of Flannery O'Connor, whose work I very much enjoy. And Harper Lee. Not just because she's Southern, or maybe also because of that. She also reminds me of Patricia Highsmith. And all the writers I like, do have a tendency to have lived in the South, and to gravitate toward depictions of the grotesque, the not-quite, the school of you-won't-believe-it-but-yes-life-is-like-this, with a twist of dark humor in the voice, always there, too. Writers who write about characters who live in poverty but whose lives are not the butt of jokes because of that. Characters whose lives didn't turn out as happy stories might. Characters who find themselves controlled by others who don't realize how they're controlling the lives of others. Female characters, in particular, caught in lives orchestrated by a history of gendered expectations--whether they realize this, fight this, or not. Usually, not, though the writer does.

Maybe I gravitate toward fiction written in the 1950s because my mother was born in 1939. Once, when I asked my mother about feminism, she said, Well, it was a surprise. I hadn't even considered it.

Anyway. You might enjoy Eudora Welty's stories, too. Today is the last day of National Short Story Month in the United States. A perfect way to celebrate is to find a copy of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty and enjoy the pages between now and next year's short-story month. I won't be done with them yet, but we can check in, then.
  • Find The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in a public library near you by using
  • Purchase The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in your local bookstore by using IndieBound.
  • Locate the nearest Free Little Library near you, and hope that you have a neighbor who left it there; or, leave your copy there when you're done with it.
  • And, Amazon, has a copy, too.
Or begin by reading my favorite story so far, "A Piece of News." Here is one of my favorite passages from it, in which the main character Ruby imagines her death after reading an article in the newspaper about her own death, or the death of a woman with the same name, or (so many overlapping possibilities):

[…] At once she was imagining herself dying. She would have a nightgown to lie in, and a bullet in her heart. Anyone could tell, to see her lying there with that deep expression about her mouth, how strange and terrible that would be. Underneath a brand-new nightgown her heart would be hurting with every beat, many times more than her toughened skin where Clyde slapped at her. Ruby began to cry softly, the way she would be crying from the extremity of pain; tears would run down in a little stream over the quilt. Clyde would be standing there above her, as he once looked, with his wild black hair hanging to his shoulders. He used to be very handsome and strong!
He would say, “Ruby, I done this to you.”
She would say—only a whisper—“That is the truth, Clyde—you done this to me.”
Then she would die; her life would stop right there.
She lay silently for a moment, composing her face into a look that would be beautiful, desirable, and dead.

(Excerpt from the story "A Piece of News" by Eudora Welty)

June 11: The Whole World at Once in Hollywood

My new collection of stories, The Whole World at Once, has been selected by the New Short Fiction Series in L.A. This means that the book will have an official launch party in North Hollywood, at The Federal Bar. On the night of Sunday, June 11, a group of actors will perform several of the stories, glasses of water or wine will be toasted, a cake will be cut, and I'll be there, shyly signing copies of the book.

The New Short Fiction Series is "the longest running spoken word series presenting the best new West Coast fiction's best voices," and I'm honored for my stories to be part of this. If you're in the area, please come to The Federal Bar to enjoy the evening with me and support a local institution that believes in art, fiction, and the stage. 

June 11, 7 PM
5303 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601

Ticket information:
$12 advance purchase with dinner reservation
$10 advance purchase with dinner reservation for 5+
$15 advance purchase
$20 at the door, cash only


The Whole World at Once is a collection of strange, beautiful stories in which characters walk rural landscapes and the surreal experiences of griefLearn more at the publisher's website: West Virginia University Press.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Tacoma Stories spends time with The Whole World at Once

The website banner reads Jack Cameron's Tacoma It's in all caps and centered.
Over in Tacoma, Washington there lives a man named Jack Cameron. He runs a blog called Tacoma Stories, where he tracks local news, often criminal in nature, and often tries to add layers of empathy that go missing from the sort of newspaper coverage we're used to. So, that immediately made me want to meet him. 

And that resulted in Jack asking me five questions for a feature on the site called 5 Question Friday. It was published this morning, in anticipation of my reading stories this Sunday (5/28) at King's Books in Tacoma. 7 PM. I hope to meet you there.

Read today's 5 Question Friday at Tacoma Stories (click)

The picture is taken as a corner shot of a beige building with maroon trim. A mural on the side wall reads King's Books. Rare Used New. Almost A City Block of Books.
King's Books: 218 St Helens Ave Tacoma, WA 98402 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Notes on Grief: The Whole World at Once at Necessary Fiction

I wrote a short essay on the writing of my new collection of fictions, The Whole World at Once, for the wonderful website, Necessary Fiction. Which means that I wrote an article mainly about the experience of grieving while writing fiction.

From the article . . .

Our everyday language isn’t made for talking about sadness with strangers. So, it’s hard to talk about my book to people without making them or myself feel uncomfortable. Death’s uncomfortable. Sadness is, too. At least in this culture. Which is what makes mourning so surreal. Because no one knows how to talk about it, what it means, especially if you don’t believe in god or have the language of ritual to help the conversation. The stories in The Whole World at Once try to create the language that can communicate loss, awkwardness, humor without making anyone feel wrong or strange. That’s my intention, anyway.

Keep reading "Notes on Grief While Writing Fiction" here

Rainy Windows 1 by Ă–mer Diyelim,
Used under CC license

Roadside Poppies on Memorial Day and, this weekend, The Whole World at Once

The only veteran in my family is my mother's father, who served in WWII and so was absent the first several years of my mother's childhood, and then a stranger when he returned. But so handsome, she says when she remembers meeting him, to her for the first time outside of the letters her mother read aloud from. I grew up in a town of veterans because I grew up in a rural town, and there are four typical directions for life after high school: the factory, the family farm, college, or the military.

Poppies via
What I remember about Memorial Day when I was a child was stopping at the one lighted
intersection downtown, and the men selling fabric poppies with small slips of paper wrapped around their metal stems. Sometimes my mother reached out the driver's side window and bought one, more often she didn't, because I remember wanting one but not receiving.

The other memory I have of Memorial Day, and this one, I don't know how accurate it is because it happens at every cemetery where I've lived near, is how the cemetery came to life on that day, with the small American flags on wooden sticks, the styrofoam wreaths of red fabric carnations erected on green wire stands that sold out of that one aisle in Ardnt's General Store. And then, after that day, the memorials stayed a little longer before I would find pieces of them, and other similar offerings, later that year or another year, faded and blown to the back of the cemetery or in the ditches.

When I was contacting bookstores about readings for The Whole World at Once, I didn't use a physical calendar that has MEMORIAL DAY blocked out in clear lettering. I must have referred to my phone calendar. Because I scheduled not only one reading, but also two readings for Memorial Day weekend, which for many people, is a weekend to celebrate the promise of late Spring becoming early Summer. Boats on lakes. Bags of charcoal emptied into park BBQs. Plastic tablecloths and plastic tubs of potato salad and baked beans. Sunburns. Family. Somewhere, a parade. And, for many, the quiet moments of choosing the wreath of carnations from the local general store or, more likely, an aisle in a superstore, before driving to the cemetery and sitting in the grass with memories.

Attending a book reading? Not typically on the list of Memorial Day must-do items.

But I will be reading stories in two bookstores in Western Washington, and I hope that you can take an hour to come listen. I'll be reading an excerpt from the story, This Bomb My Heart, which follows the lives of a sister, and her brother who returns after multiple tours of war to plant and dig up landmines in the backyard of the farmhouse where they grew up. I'll also read the full story, The Boy in the Red Shirt, which was motivated by the photograph of the Syrian boy, and all the people, who have been washing up on distant beaches since people have been evacuating Syria.

So, if you want a break from the BBQs and your family or the silence of living alone, or whatever the circumstances of your life, bring your life to the bookstore, and I'll read to you. Here is where I will be so you can find me:

Saturday, May 27: Lake Forest Park, WA
6:30 PM/Reading and Signing
Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE) 

Sunday, May 28: Tacoma, WA
7 PM/Reading and Signing

Should you find someone selling poppies on your way to the bookstore, please bring one for me.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Whole World at Once is in the newspaper: Stories highlight beauty, awkwardness of grief

My mother flew from Illinois to Washington this week to be present at the book release party for my new collection of stories, The Whole World at Once. It is a long tradition in our family to exchange clippings from the newspaper. I remember my grandmother enclosing pieces of the Evansville, Indiana newspaper in her Tuesday letters to my mother, often cut with her pinking shears that she kept in the mug on the table-lamp by her recliner. And, in my hometown newspaper, The Casey Reporter, many of my memories are also recorded in grainy black-and-white newsprint. That time I tie-dyed T-shirts in a picnic shelter as part of Art in the Park. There I am, glowing up at the camera with the face I used for posing.

I have a complicated relationship with the newspaper, since much of a rural newspaper is the fact of people's stories ending in the obituary section. Everyone you know will be in it, eventually. And so will you. One time I typed obituaries for the newspaper when my friend Ashley was working there. That is another story. Or not.

My mother highlighted our names.
So, it wasn't a surprise when my mother arrived in my living room bearing copies of the hometown newspaper in full, in sections, or as stories clipped and folded. Not with pinking shears, though, because she doesn't sew like my grandmother did. My sister sewed like my grandmother. And taught herself how to garden like my grandmother. They both had beautiful gardens.

But the surprise was not that my mother brought the newspaper but the article she brought. It had run recently, in a sort of "On-this-day-back-in-time" collage of stories. There we are, my sister's name for a poetry award in 1987, and then me in 1997 in my show-stopping performance as Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn in The Music Man. In the articles, we're both alive. Now we're not. I am, she isn't.

If my sister were alive, or if her death weren't linked with the word suicide, how easily we would have passed over this article. All of us. Maybe my mother wouldn't have even noticed. Maybe Jennifer would have said, Cool. Maybe Mom would have written in the blank space, Send to Jennifer when you're done, and I would have dutifully forgotten or miraculously sent it back to the Midwest. Maybe other people in town who watched us grow up, sixteen years apart, and then for many years together, might have noticed our names and clipped the article and brought it to my mother at the McDonald's up by the interstate where she and other retirees visit every morning. If anyone did notice our names, so much prevents them from knowing what to do with this article. With suicide, everything becomes a clue. And then not. And then. And then. I don't know what to do with this article.

Neither did my mother. Which is probably why she cut it out, carried it 2,000 miles through the sky, and handed it to me the day before what would have been my sister's birthday. Or is still her birthday. My sister loved a good birthday.

Probably it's nothing. It's just one of those things. You know.

Today, I walked into the coffee shop where I write, having seen my mother off at the airport less than an hour earlier and after a week's visit. My barista friends and one of my coffee shop friends were smiling.
You're in the newspaper, they said.

Which shouldn't have been a surprise since I'd done the interview a few days ago, cross-legged in my car outside the same coffee shop so that I could hear the reporter on my phone. I have a new book, The Whole World at Once. It's dedicated to my sister. I'm reading from the book tomorrow downtown. My point is that all of this should have prevented surprise that I'm in the newspaper.

But on my drive to the coffee shop, I'd encountered a mother duck crossing a busy street, her ducklings following behind her. How beautiful, I thought, that all the cars are stopping once I knew why. How good. This is a good moment, I thought.

And I pulled over to take pictures, parking in the car wash, glad not to be in the way, exactly as my father would have done. My father gone, too. My father who took me across country roads, chasing twilight and beautiful angles. So that's where I was in my mind. With these ducks but with my father, too. Trying to position the camera as I've been taught. To capture the ducks as they are but also in a way that they would last, so that I could show my partner who loves animals, and then my son who doesn't yet know that ducks cross roads or that people will stop their lives to protect others'. What a nice way to start my day, I thought.

Mama duck leads her ducklings past the car wash on Monroe

You're in the newspaper, they said as I walked into my coffee shop.
You see now why I was surprised.

I'm supposed to share with you the Spokesman Review story. And I want to. I said all of it thinking you would read it, thinking of you before you knew of me. Like Whitman. Kind, gentle Walt Whitman.

But, it doesn't seem right or real, not to share this other story, too. Not that it's story. It's just a layering of time sifted into a morning. I guess. Grief and ducklings all of a morning, I guess. Here, friend.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

It's May! A Literary First Friday in Spokane with The Whole World at Once

I've lived in Spokane nearly seven years now, and one of the best aspects of living here is a monthly arts series known as First Friday. Before now, I have never lived in a city that has a First Friday, but evidently there are other places that do this. 

If you are not so lucky to have a First Friday, or if you have just found yourself in Spokane, this is how it works:
On the first Friday of every month, community members can attend an assortment of arts events scheduled for just this day, from visual art show openings, art film screenings, to tours of children's art at local schools. The point is art--art--art! 

And for May's First Friday(5/5/17), I'm participating at Auntie's Bookstore. I'll read from my new collection of stories, The Whole World at Once, followed by a discussion about grief, rural landscapes, and fiction with EWU instructor and singer/songwriter Liz Rognes (and my dear friend). Copies of The Whole World at Once will be available for purchase.

Hope to see you there!

Details in a nutshell:
Auntie's Bookstore
402 W. Main
Friday, May 5
6 PM - 7 PM
Reading, Discussion, Book Signing