photo: Bobbie Hanvey
As I was reading the stories in David Park’s Gods and Angels, I took note of the way he’s able to dig into the emotional lives of his protagonists, whether it’s a teenage boy who’s tired of having to spend the day after Christmas with his estranged (and clinically depressed) mother, or a middle-aged man who’s struggling, during a weekend getaway, to find a way to relate to one of his best mates (who’s also coping with depression). His stories take intriguing turns, like a university lecturer in Belfast who strikes up an uneasy friendship with some retired local toughs, or the retired schoolteacher on a remote (possibly Norwegian) island who uses Skype to keep in touch with his daughter, but they’re almost always rather subdued—less about the events that take place than about the characters’ responses to them. In this guest post, he explains how that approach is rooted in some of the writers he’s most admired.
Despite what others might say, it’s probably not possible to write a short story in Ireland without James Joyce metaphorically peering over your shoulder. In my case he’s actually there, because a small portrait I bought in a local auction hangs behind me on the wall of my writing room. It’s not a shrine and he competes with many other faces and images but I don’t doubt that the influence of his short stories in Dubliners has seeped permanently into my consciousness.
There is the exquisite portrayal of first love’s searing pain in a story like “Araby,” the climactic epiphany in “Eveline” where “all the seas of the world tumbled about her heart.” And of course above all there is the supremacy of “The Dead” that like a stone skims eternally across the creative consciousness and never sinks below the waves, no matter how much time passes or literary fashions come and go.
Beginning with the mundane details of a preparation for a party it moves to establish a social context, then gradually reveals the inner life of the central character until he experiences a life-changing moment that might be called self-knowledge, but in fact is more than this and something for which we have no ready name. The story is constantly rippling outwards until finally it encompasses the universal and time itself with the snow “falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
12 January 2017 | selling shorts |
photo: Robin Rodin
One of the earliest stories in November Storm, Robert Oldshue’s Iowa Short Fiction Award-winning debut collection, has a character who teaches eighth greade math in my old hometown in the Boston suburbs, a few years before I would’ve been taking eighth grade math. (I’m pretty sure it’s not actually based on any of my junior high math teachers, but to be honest I don’t really remember any of them that well.) But what I really love about Oldshue’s fiction is the way he uses voice to carry us through a sequence of events, whether it’s the first-person narration of domestic crises in “Home Depot” or the analytical overview a psychiatrist applies to his personal and professional life while cycling through his contemporary caseload in “Mass Mental.” That last one’s interesting because, as Oldshue notes in this guest post, despite his long career in medicine, it’s the only story in the collection about a doctor. Here’s why…
Because I’m a physician who writes fiction, I’m often asked how I do both. People want to know how I find the time, and, generally, I describe the deplorable state of my lawn, seeing patients while wearing mismatched socks and unironed shirts, and forgetting dates, including the date of one very public reading. The thing people don’t ask but should is how I shed my doctor self when I’m my fiction-writing self.
And this is what I’d say: I don’t. I can’t. Instead, I make myself aware of the differences between the two so, on a given day, I know which one I’m doing.
2 January 2017 | selling shorts |