Showing posts with label Megan Abbott. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Megan Abbott. Show all posts

29 September 2017

Anthony Award Finalists for Best Short Story

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

The hat made a difference.

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 had never attempted a long walk with a raging erection. I wouldn’t recommend it. It was awkward and painful, my dick bobbing up and down like a broken antenna. And the son of a bitch wasn’t going anywhere. Whatever they put in that pill, it had given me an invincible boner.

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.


Johnny's comments:
Art asked me to write about how this passage speaks to or illuminates the story, as whole. 

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

They found seats at one of the tables on the perimeter of the dance floor. Marisol waved at Dennis, her favorite DJ, spinning records from an egg shaped-booth overlooking the dancers. He winked and pointed a finger gun at her. A moment later, 'Dancing Queen" came over the speakers. He always played it when Marisol came in.

"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.



Holly's comments:
"Queen of the Dogs" is a particularly meaningful story to me because its based on someone who was very special to me. By the time I met her she was in her sixties, but after emigrating from Guatemala in her twenties, she worked as a housekeeper in Los Angeles, taking a variety of jobs over the years to support herself and her two children. There'd been lots of them—cheap motels, maid services, individual households, whatever she had to do to get by. For a few years, she was a live-in housekeeper for a very famous Hollywood producer, until she was fired because another employee accused her of stealing a UK passport. And she arrived at one long-term job to find the man she worked for dead in his bed.

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

Walter’s glasses were still covered by rain, the drops so thick she couldn’t see his eyes, and somehow that troubled her nearly as much as having him show up on the doorstep. Jordan stood beside him, and there was something unreal about that too, as if the two of them had materialized there, same as they’d been standing back at Teeter Toddlers. Except he wasn’t the same, was he? No, he wasn’t holding an umbrella now and . . .

“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.


My comments:
The section I chose—apologies for the length, two lines needed including—comes at about the 40% mark of the story but really marks the first dramatic uptick of the action here.

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!

11 December 2015

Reading Fiction Vs. Nonfiction

By Art Taylor

This week marked the end of classes at George Mason University where I teach—at least class meetings, though finals and lots (lots!) of grading still loom ahead.

Winnie Ruth Judd
The last book we studied in my course "Five Killer Crime Novels" was Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep, a 2009 novel inspired and informed by a real-life murder and murder trial from 1931: the case of Winnie Ruth Judd, known as the Trunk Murderess, the Blond Butcher and the Tiger Woman. Judd was convicted of killing two of her friends, dismembering one of them and stuffing both bodies into trunks which she then shipped from Phoenix to Los Angeles. It was only when she went to pick up her cargo that she found herself in trouble: The trunks were beginning to smell...and to leak.

In advance of reading Bury Me Deep, the students and I dig through through the original coverage of the case in the Los Angeles Times—the manhunt ("Greatest Police Hunt in History of West") and capture; the background on Judd's childhood ("Preacher Backs Daughter") and her marriage to an older doctor ("Doctor Wants to Hunt Wife"); her friendship with the two victims and their own background ("Gay Revels Revealed, Narcotics Hinted at in Killing"); a confession that was discovered ("Found in Store Wash Room; Authenticity Denied"); a trial that included hints about the involvements of a Phoenix businessman whom Judd said "knows all about it" (but who skirted past being charged with the crime); and ultimately a conviction for Judd ("Death-Penalty Verdict Returns in Less Than Three Hours")—though I should stress that the story hardly ends there.

Building on some of those same documents and on later books about the case, Megan Abbott "began to reimagine Winnie Ruth Judd's story, with a different final act," as she tells readers in the Author's Note at the end of Bury Me Deep. Accordingly, part of what we study in class are the places where fact and fiction overlap, the points where the author has taken characters and plot in fresh directions, and in the process the ways that the novel opens up perspectives on both the character in the book (Marion Seeley) and the real-life Winnie Ruth Judd, on the place and predicaments of women in the early 1930s, and on the nature of storytelling in general—the struggle for control of a story, where truth resides and where it can be shifted, subverted.

I won't go into too much detail here about all those overlaps and intersections and divergences—though it's provoked some fascinating conversation in class. Instead, I want to focus on a more abstract discussion that's kept threading through that examination of text—namely, the differences in how we read fiction versus nonfiction.

For many people—and I don't mean just my students here, but also readers of my own age and older—the idea of reading fiction seems lesser somehow than reading nonfiction. "Fiction isn't about real things"—that's the kinds of thing I've heard from both students and friends. "I'd rather read about people who really lived, events that actually happened." Even in a case like this, where real events have informed a fictional treatment, students have fallen back on the novelist's ability to just make it up, to shift and transform in ways that diminish rather than inform a broader understanding of those real events. Once you diverge from the facts, they might argue, you also sacrifice something about the truth of a person or a situation.

As you might imagine, I'd argue against that idea—as a fiction writer myself, as a scholar of fiction, and even simply as a reader. To defend my thoughts, I could easily point to the ways in which readers can learn about another era or another culture though novels and stories about other times, people, and places. And even in terms of emotional engagement and investment, it's easy to explore the many ways that fiction becomes real to us. How many of us haven't at some point been caught up in the plight and the demise of a favorite character? How many people haven't cried at some scene in a book or a movie about characters who have no flesh and blood beyond those pages? I can usually bring up Harry Potter to the students in my class and offer up a scene or two for them to consider—none of it "factual," of course, but much of it becoming "real" in other ways to the readers, real enough that they have celebrated triumphs or mourned losses that never, any of them, actually happened.

But despite those examples, some divide frequently persists—and it's also easy enough to find support for the other side of the argument. Even I have read nonfiction books or watched documentaries or encountered books and films based on true events and caught myself thinking, with delight mixed into the incredulity, "Wow, can you believe this actually happened?" Just recently, I would point to Dean Jobb's Empire of Deception about master con artist Leo Koretz, and Clint Eastwood's film Changeling comes to mind too.  It's not just that these texts prove how fact can be stranger than fiction—surely it can. Instead, what strikes me is how we read/experience these differently knowing they're factual. What might be entertaining or thrilling or harrowing as fiction becomes something more; we have to process our incredulity as part of the reading/watching experience. These things really happened—we understand those texts in a different way because of that knowledge.

I don't know that I have anything definitive to say about this topic. In terms of Bury Me Deep, many of my students seemed to divide their experience of the book between those sections where Abbott diverged from the true story and those sections which hewed more closely to the "evidence" they had gained from the original  newspaper articles or from excerpts from journalist Jana Bommersbach's 1992 book The Trunk Murderess. Those sections based on fact seemed to give them insights into what might have really happened. Those sections that were clearly fiction (that "different final act," as Abbott herself called it) were at least to some degree relegated to fantasy, entertainment.

What are other people's thoughts about this? Do you read fiction and nonfiction with different expectations? How about fiction based on real-life events? I'm curious to know!

13 November 2015

"Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery"

By Art Taylor

As you might be able to tell from this post and my previous ones here, my teaching at George Mason University is dominating my mind these days—and lately it's not only the semester I'm enmeshed in but next semester as well that's occupying a lot of my mental energy.

In the spring 2016 semester, I'll be teaching a graduate-level course for the first time: "Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery." That's not my title, I should stress, and I have some issues with the idea of what's meant by the "the literary mystery"—a phrase that could go in a number of directions: mysteries that have books or bookish folks at the core of them maybe? But as intended primarily for aspiring writers in the MFA program here at Mason, I think the goals of the course are potentially a good one: an exploration of genre fiction, a look at the places where these persistent classifications of genre fiction and literary fiction blur, and a study of what so-called "literary writers" can learn from genre writers. To put all this in context, back when I was in the MFA program at Mason myself, I had a fellow writer tell me he'd finally read a Stephen King book and was surprised that it was actually good!

Stephen King
More context: I remember at panel on genre fiction at an AWP conference several years ago, where a writer/professor in another MFA program talked about the difference between his students interested in writing genre fiction and his students interested in writing literary fiction: If a he told students writing fantasy that they might want to read Gilgamesh or The Aeneid or any of a number of "high literary" works, they'd have it read by the next week, whereas if he suggested to literary-minded students that they should read a thriller or a sci-fi novel, they'd drag their heels.

There's lots of room to learn, clearly, from lots of different writers and lots of different kinds of writing—and I've often been fascinated, often written myself about, these delineations between kinds of books, the prejudices and biases at the core of such attitudes, and the continuing evolution of writers attitudes toward genre, how those writers might be informed by formal traditions on the one hand and how they might challenge them on another.

Much more to say on all this, but I mostly wanted to share some of the books I'm considering teaching—and invite others to chime in with books I might add to the reading list, whether one for the syllabus itself or a supplemental list for students to explore on their own.

The course will start out with a selection of short stories surveying both the foundational history of the genre (Poe and Conan Doyle there, among others) and also various subgenres within the larger world of crime fiction: the traditional mystery, the hard-boiled tale, the noir story, domestic suspense, the police procedural, true crime writing, etc. etc. But once that foundation is laid in the first few weeks, here's the list of full novels—and one feature film!—that have risen to the top so far (in no particular order yet but all, purposefully, pointedly, from 2000 onward):

  • A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
  • Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of Everything, Megan Abbott
  • Country Hardball, Steve Weddle
  • Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan 
  • The City & the City, China Miéville
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Thoughts? Additions?

I have a second list of strong contenders too that will be on a growing supplemental list, so.... Thanks in advance for suggestions and additions!

30 October 2015

Old School, New Readers

By Art Taylor

A few years back, one of the professors in the English Department at George Mason University (where I myself teach) told me that she never put her own favorite books on the syllabi for any of her classes; seeing what the students said about them was too heart-breaking for her.

I'm currently teaching a class called "Five Killer Crime Novels"—a gen ed survey of some of milestone books in the genre, or at least books that serve to represent/illustrate some of the trends and range and depth of mystery and suspense fiction. So far, we've read Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, along with a sprinkling of short stories; still ahead are Ed McBain's Sadie When She Died and Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep. (And yes, I know there are tons and tons of others that could've/should've made the list!)

Whether I'd count these books as all-time favorites or not (Red Harvest certainly is), each of these are books I love, one way or another. And indeed it is a little heart-breaking to have students talk (spoiler alerts!) about how disappointed they are by various aspects of the three we've read so far. "We finally see the hound and then in the next paragraph they just shoot him and that's it?" And: "She could've cut about 50 pages toward the end of Roger Ackroyd. It was so slow and so boring." And then: "I'm sorry, Professor Taylor, but Red Harvest just sucks."

I'll admit it; my internal response to that last one was along the lines of "You think your comment shows your superiority, but really it just reveals your ignorance." But I would never say that publicly, of course.

(Oh, wait.... Whoops.)

Actually, I try not to take offense to these kinds of comments and criticisms, but instead try to transform them into productive aspects of class discussion. The complaint about Hound of the Baskervilles, for example—that quick movement from the hound's appearance in one paragraph to his demise in the next—leads to a closer look at serialization and how the publication schedule built suspense. The eighth installment of the story in The Strand ends strategically at the break between those two paragraphs, with these words: "Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog."

AND STAY TUNED FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!

A different effect, right?

Other reactions call for deeper discussion: Why are certain scenes included? What is the potential purpose of such-and-such artistic decisions? What are the potential effects on the reader? Why structure and pace a scene this way? or a chapter? or a succession of chapters? Or more to the point: Can you articulate why you think this book "sucks"? The key isn't the judgement itself—pro or con—but backing up judgements with evidence and authority.

"Red Harvest was just a bloodbath. I couldn't both to get connected to the characters, because after a while, I knew they were just going to die. And nobody seemed to care, not even the detective—and we're not connected to him either. We don't even get his name!"

OK, let's dig deeper into all that, I'll say—and then we do.

My point here isn't to criticize my students or to celebrate my own tactics in the classroom. My students are—fortunately!—a bright and active bunch, and our discussions are often sharp and insightful. But I do wonder sometimes about the reasons behind some of those gut responses of boredom, dismissal, dislike.

Is it that students have been so conditioned by today's various media—the pacing of a CSI episode, for example, or the short bursts of information that constitute news, or the structures and expectations of Facebook status updates, tweets, and IM exchanges—that older works become dated in more fundamental ways than just their vocabulary or dress or gender attitudes? Maybe today's modes of communication and storytelling are so different that the average student can't relate.

Is the issue about the age or era of a book at all, or is it something about the genre itself (crime fiction) or the form (a novel) that is the impediment? Sisters in Crime has done studies about the demographics of mystery readers (an aging one, as it turns out), and many students in my gen ed classes these days don't count themselves as readers at all—not in a conventional sense, even as their days often consist of more reading in other ways than most "grown-ups" do.

Is it that many of my students in this class—a gen ed class, drawing mostly on majors outside the humanities—simply aren't interested in literature at all, so the process itself might be with some level of disinterest or even hostility?

I don't know the answer to these questions. Likely some deeper study would be required, and maybe I haven't even asked the right questions or framed any of this properly in the first place. Either way, I'd love to hear what others think.

In the meantime, however, an anecdote to end this on a more positive note—a story I've told before:

A few years ago, we'd come to the end of the semester for a class that examined hard-boiled detective fiction as social documentary (maybe my favorite class of all the lit courses I've taught). It was final exam day, and students were turning in their exams as they completed them, mumbling quick good-byes, and heading out of the classroom, done for the semester.

One student turned in her exam and then walked around the desk to where I was sitting, gave me a big smile, and held out her arms wide.

I have to admit, I find myself disinclined to hug students—for a variety of reasons, as you might imagine—so I didn't stand but just sat there, gave her a "what's this? look or gesture of some kind, I can't really remember.

But I do remember what she said: "Professor Taylor, before this semester, I'd never read an entire novel, and now I've read six of them."

I stood.

I hugged.

We're Facebook friends now, and she has a daughter of her own these days, and my hope isn't simply that she's continuing to read herself but that she's reading to that daughter too.