By Art Taylor
A few weeks back here at SleuthSayers, Paul D. Marks hosted his fellow Macavity Award finalists for Best Short Story for a chat about where their nominated stories came from—ideas, inspirations, etc. It was a fine post, and I was glad to be a part of it myself.
Following Paul’s lead in advance of Bouchercon less than two weeks ahead (!), I invited this year’s Anthony Award finalists in the same category (I’m honored to be among this group too) to choose a representative excerpt from their respective stories and offer a quick craft talk on the passage in relation to the story as a whole. Unfortunately, getting all the finalists on-board and on deadline proved a challenge; Megan Abbott, for example—whose story “Oxford Girl” simply blew me away when I read it last year—was gracious as always, but had travel looming and was on a tight timeline generally. (For those who might not know, she’s one of the forces behind the critically acclaimed HBO series The Deuce.)
Still, with other authors willing to join in, I thought it would be good to push ahead—with me offering some quick reflections myself on passages from Megan’s story and Lawrence Block’s as well, before sections from Johnny Shaw, Holly West, and me on our own respective stories. And just a quick reminder for readers here going to Bouchercon: Four of us—Megan, Johnny, Holly and me, along with moderator Alan Orloff—will be on a panel at Bouchercon on Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand
Centre room. We’ll be chatting more about our stories and about short
fiction in general, and hope to see you all there!
In the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs of the first two stories, along with links to read the full stories for free!
“OXFORD GIRL” BY MEGAN ABBOTT
From Mississippi Noir
Two a.m., you slid one of your Kappa Sig T-shirts over my head, fluorescent green XXL with a bleach stain on the right shoulder blade, soft and smelling like old sheets.
I feigned sleep, your big brother Keith snoring lustily across the room, and you, arms clutched about me until the sun started to squeak behind the Rebels pennant across the window. Watching the hump of your Adam’s apple, I tried to will you to wake up.
But I couldn’t wait forever, due for first shift at the Inn. Who else would stir those big tanks of grits for the game-weekend early arrivals, parents and grandparents, all manner of snowy-haired alumni in searing red swarming into the café for their continental-plus, six thirty sharp.
So I left, your head sunk deep in your pillow, and ducked out still wearing your shirt.
“AUTUMN AT THE AUTOMAT” BY LAWRENCE BLOCK
From In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper
If you chose your clothes carefully, if you dressed a little more stylishly than the venue demanded, you could feel good about yourself. When you walked into the Forty-second Street cafeteria, the hat and coat announced that you were a lady. Perhaps you preferred their coffee to what they served at Longchamps. Or maybe it was the bean soup, as good as you could get at Delmonico’s.
Certainly it wasn’t abject need that led you to the cashier’s window at Horn & Hardart. No one watching you dip into an alligator handbag for a dollar bill could think so for a minute.
Prominent in each of these openings is that “you.” The second-person opening section of “Autumn at the Automat” seems to offer a bit of guidance or a set of rules to follow: You should look both ways before you cross the street, for example, or you should always try to make a good impression. It might be an outside narrator presenting insights to the reader or talking directly to the character, or perhaps it’s a sort of internal monologue the character at the core of the story is having with herself—the woman pictured in Hopper’s painting by the same name as the story’s title, sitting solitary with her cup of coffee in that hat and coat. Soon, the story shifts into a third-person narrative, putting into action all this advice.
In Megan’s story, that “you” serves a different purpose: a young girl at Ole Miss talking to a very specific you, direct address to her new love. And as the story progresses, the narrative shifts back and forth between the points of view of each side of this relationship. Even in these opening paragraphs, the effect is a combination of intimacy and isolation. How close our young narrator is to this young man, snuggled against him, watching his Adam’s apple, talking directly to him—and yet how far away, unable to wake him. It’s a distance that grows throughout this lyrical, heartbreaking, and ultimately haunting story.
“GARY’S GOT A BONER” BY JOHNNY SHAW
From Waiting to Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by the Replacements
I started to stroke it as I walked. Figured if I could rub one out, it would lose its swell. I had never masturbated outdoors. I found it difficult to feel anything but shame. I worked it until my arm was tired, but got no yield.
I thought of baseball. Football. All the balls. I did my income tax forms in my head. I even tried thinking about the day my dog Roscoe died. Up until that moment, it had been the saddest day of my life. I had hit a new low, holding my rock-hard dick while thinking about my dead dog.
I was stuck with the damn thing until it decided to surrender.
I’m sitting here, rereading it, trying to come up with something clever to write about. I have notes on the connection between humor and empathy, about how fun isn’t inherently frivolous, about dramatic tone change that can amplify the believability of broad comedy or stark realism. I wrote some stuff about the impact of oral storytelling, particularly the art of the shaggy dog story, on my writing.
But I just can’t do it. I can’t in all seriousness write a thesis about elevating the dick joke. Mostly because the dick joke is fine right where it is. A tool like any other. (You see what I did?)
“QUEEN OF THE DOGS” BY HOLLY WEST
From 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback
"C’mon, let’s dance,” Marisol said, pulling her friends to the floor. She closed her eyes, immediately lost in the music. She loved everything about dancing; the way the bass beat reverberated under her feet, how men watched her out of the corners of their eyes as they danced with other women or from the sidelines, working up the courage to ask her to dance. Here, she was no longer just a maid who cleaned other people’s toilets. She was a foxy lady, the object of everyone’s desire. A dancing queen.
But most of her experiences were mundane, as you'd expect a lifetime of cleaning up other people's messes to be. She'd known extreme poverty throughout her life and always seemed to be on the edge of it. I don't know if she ever felt like a "Dancing Queen," but I hope she did, if only for a moment.
“PARALLEL PLAY” BY ART TAYLOR
From Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning
“The tire,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d make it all the way home, figured I’d have to play knight in shining armor again. But here you are.”
Too stunned to answer, Maggie tried to snatch Daniel back and shut the door, but her son pulled away from her like it was a game, poked his head around one knee, then the other, and then into the doorway again.
“Hey, Daniel,” Walter said, stooping down, leaning forward, releasing his own son’s hand to take Daniel’s instead. “It’s Jordan, your friend.”
“Jordan,” Daniel repeated, and Maggie could hear a mix of pleasure and surprise in his voice, like when he got a new Matchbox car.
Walter stared up through those smeared glasses. “I hate to barge in for a play date unannounced, but given the circumstances . . . ”
Maggie shook her head, tried to hold back the tears suddenly welling up behind her eyes, finally found her voice. “It’s really not a good time right now. My husband—”
“Away on a business trip.” Walter nodded. “I heard you talking to Amy, that’s what got me thinking about this, making sure you got home in one piece.” He looked at Daniel again, smiled. “Surely you could spare a few minutes for the boys to play.”
She nodded—unconsciously, reflex really. “A few minutes,” she said. “A few, of course.”
Her words sounded unreal to her, more than his own now, and even as she said them, she knew it was the wrong decision—everything, in fact, the opposite of what she’d always thought she’d do in a case like this. But really what choice did she have, the way Walter had inserted his foot into the doorway and held so tightly to Daniel’s hand?
And then there was the box cutter jittering slightly in Walter’s other hand, raindrops glistening along the razor’s edge, the truth behind that flat tire suddenly becoming clear.
I’ve already written at B.K. Stevens’ blog “The First Two Pages” about the relatively slower start of the story, but I wanted to look at this scene here for two reasons. First, I think it encapsulates the mood and approach of much of the story—the intersection between an everyday conversation on the surface and the life-or-death stakes coursing under that conversation. Second, I wanted to focus on the decision to postpone the mention of that box cutter. My writing group was very divided about this scene when I brought in my draft: Wouldn’t mentioning the box cutter at the start—“an umbrella now and…”—add drama more quickly? get the reader into the conflict more quickly? Perhaps. But I continued to think (hope!) that readers would be drawn ahead by questions about Maggie’s reaction, wondering about the uneasiness she’s feeling, and perhaps sharing with her some small disorientation. What’s happening here? And could this really be happening at all?
Again, I hope that readers here attending Bouchercon will come out to the Anthony finalists panel featuring Megan, Johnny, Holly and me and moderated by Alan Orloff—Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand Centre room. See you all in Toronto!