Apr 04

I confess: I often eavesdrop in restaurants. I love hearing snippets of other people’s lives without having to hear all about their lives. I think that’s why I love Twitter so much.

Today’s conversation is a result of that “Twitter eavesdropping.” An author and a well-respected book blogger were discussing short stories.So I pulled a metaphorical chair over to their metaphorical table and asked them to back up and start at the beginning. The result is this conversation in interview form that is chock-full of short story recommendations. 

J. Robert Lennon

Photo courtesy of the author

J. Robert Lennon is the author of a story collection, Pieces For The Left Hand, and seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and Familiar. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana, and has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy, Granta, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and his story “The Rememberer” inspired the CBS detective series Unforgettable. He hosts the podcast Writers at Cornell, and co-hosts another, Lunch Box, with poet Ed Skoog. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The London Review of Books, and he lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches writing at Cornell University. Graywolf Press will publish John’s new short story collection next year.

Lori HettlerLori Hettler is founder and moderator of TNBBC. Her passion for supporting the small press and self publishing communities has driven her to showcase those publishers, authors, and novels in unique and interesting ways. TNBCC was born out of The Goodreads group The Next Best Book Club (TNBBC) which proudly boasts an unbelievable 10,500 members who are collectively, endlessly, searching for the next best book! It’s one of the largest, most active group on the Goodreads site. Find Lori on TwitterGoodreads, and Facebook.


TNBBC: Short story collections are all the rage right now. Why do you think that is?

JRL: I can think of three possible reasons. First, the writers who first cut their teeth on the great short fiction of the eighties are now at the top of their game, and people are noticing. (Case in point: Saunders fever.) Second, the massive and somewhat frightening rise in the number of MFA programs has created more workshops, which are usually focused on the short story. So more people are writing them, and those people are reading them with great excitement. And finally, things work in cycles. We get tired of things, we rediscover things. Short stories were bound to make a comeback. I’m glad they have, by the way.

TNBBC: Speaking of comebacks, it would appear that short story writing is something you keep coming back to. Pieces for the Left Hand back in 2005, The Great Zombini in 2011, not to mention all of the short fiction you’ve had published in anthologies over the years… and now the collection that will be published by Graywolf Press. What is this hold that short stories have over you?

JRL: Stories were the first kind of writing I really became obsessed with—specifically Stephen King’s Night Shift. I must have read that book a hundred times in my adolescence, the paperback with the hand on it covered with gauze and eyeballs. And when I started writing myself, it was the natural place to begin. Also, though I love the long-term commitment that a novel brings, I can’t resist the one-night stand of the story—the idea that you can, just possibly, create something complete and of value in one sitting, is very exciting. (Though I admit it usually takes me longer than that.)

TNBBC: Ah. Stephen King. He has managed to embed himself into everyone’s memories, in one way or another. His novel It was the first grown up book I read, at the age of 11 or 12, and I recall it frightened the bejesus out of me at the time. And yet, the more I read of him, the more I noticed his short stories haunting me. And who can forget, as a kid, the Alvin Schwartz/Stephen Gammell series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark…..! What are some of your favorite story collections now?

JRL: Well, Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories is practically an instruction manual for me. And I love the whole oeurve of Alice Munro and, yes, of George Saunders. I liked Wells Tower’s collection a lot, and I’m very excited about this writer Jamie Quatro, whose first collection, I Want to Show You More, was just published in March. Her story “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” is an instant classic.

TNBBC: Gee, thanks John! Now I’ve got to go add these books to my list. I’ve got to admit something. Lately, short story collections have this tendency to wow me. Specifically those being put out by small press – writers like Alan Heathcock, Ben Tanzer, Scott Dominic Carpenter, Kij Johnson, S.D. Foster, Matt Bell, Amber Sparks… they can work crazy magic within short form fiction. Their collections squeeze my heart muscle. In the whacky words of Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy, reading their short stories is like being “in a glass cage of emotion”. How do you discover short story collections? Are they something you are specifically seeking out, are they recommended to you, are they purely happy accidents?

JRL: Usually people recommend them to me—often a student—or I read one in a litmag or an annual best-of anthology. But I have to be honest with you, Lori, you probably read more of them than I do. I probably read far less in my own genre than other writers. I’m too impressionable—I end up writing pastiches. (My book Pieces for the Left Hand, for instance, is way too much like Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, one of my all-time favorite story collections.) So I read a lot of science fiction and mystery, and tech writing on the internet, and nonfiction articles on Instapaper, and so on. (Recall how little of my bathroom-reading piece for you was literary in nature!)

TNBBC: I suppose that is something all authors must be sensitive to… being influenced by what they read and love. So let me ask you this, where did you get the inspiration for the new collection of short stories?

JRL: Well, these weren’t written all at once—they are every decent longish story that I’ve written and published in the past fifteen years. So each one has a different origin. Sometimes I go on a thematic or stylistic tear and write a bunch of stories that are of a piece—this happened with Pieces, and it happened this past year with some new stories. But those stories are for some future collection. This is a grab bag—a good one, I hope.

Thanks so much, John and Lori, for letting us listen in on your conversation. I’ve now got a reading list a mile long, with Pieces for the Left Hand at the top!





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