photo via Lenore Myka
The stories in Lenore Myka’s King of the Gypsies are rooted in an uneasy intersection of American and Romanian culture, with characters from each nation struggling to make sense of each other and of their experiences. As she wrote, Myka explains in an interview, “I just tried to keep in mind what I knew about my friends’ lives there and what I had observed and experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer living at essentially the same standard as my colleagues and friends. I tried to be empathic but also true to what I inherently felt about day-to-day living in a post-communist country.” In doing so, her stories are set in often brutal circumstances, but, as she mentions in that same conversation, “ultimately my stories are about resilience, and in resilience there is always hope.” In this guest essay, Myka reveals some of the other writers who’ve helped her understand how to create characters with the kind of complex resiliency you’ll find throughout this collection.
When people unfamiliar with but desirous of reading short stories ask me to tell them my favorites, my brain goes blank. Ask me what I least like—now that’s a much easier question to answer. But a favorite anything—color, food, hobby, place—unnerves the generalist in me. Doesn’t it depend on the weather, the day of the week, whether or not you’ve had your morning cup of coffee, your mood?
Sure, there are the usual suspects: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien; “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter. Lorrie Moore, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg or, further back, Chekov, Mansfield, Faulkner, Hemingway. I’m leaving dozens of my favorites out here; the list becomes unruly. Lest we get cynical about contemporary literature, there are, in fact, many great short story writers, old and new, out there. There will no doubt be many more to come.
The frustration and beauty of being a writer is that you are always learning. My own writing projects/puzzles often determine my current list of favorites; these favorites become my teachers. Right now, I am studying character and so am obsessed with Grace Paley, Jane Gardam, Mavis Gallant. I like tough, scrappy old ladies because I hope one day to be one. Mostly, I feel that I am trying always to write towards these authors, to emulate in my own work something that might distantly echo the near-perfection they achieve.
11 October 2015 | selling shorts |
photo: Shannon Smith
As Ceridwen Dovey notes in this guest post, not only are the stories in Only the Animals narrated by animals, but each story draws upon a different writer for inspiration. A camel accompanies the Australian short story writer Henry Lawson on a fateful desert trek, for example, while Himmler’s dog, taking on his master’s enthusiasm for Hesse-inflected Buddhism, struggles with feelings of confusion and failure after being rejected. Dovey’s ability to take up different voices, and to make each feel utterly convincing, reminds me in some ways of the stories of Jim Shepard—a sense of strangeness and familiarity in equal measure. Here, she describes how one of these stories, in which Colette’s cat is stranded on the Western Front during the First World War, took shape.
Each of the stories in Only the Animals is told through an animal narrator who has died in a human conflict of the past century. Right from the beginning of the project, I knew that writing from an animal’s eye view was territory that many, many other authors had covered. The parrot story was the first I wrote, and at the time I was reading J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and while doing research for the story I went back to the original Flaubert story about a woman’s relationship with a parrot, A Simple Heart.
I was searching for a way for the stories not to be relentlessly depressing. So I decided that each animal soul should also pay tribute to an author who has worked in this symbolic space before—and in this way put a bit of hope and humour in the stories, to signal that some of our best writers have tried to find a way to say something meaningful through animal characters.
I knew that I wanted to write a story set in the trenches during World War One, when many of the soldiers at the front kept pets—cats, dogs, rats, pigeons—to keep up their morale. I’d heard a story about the French turn-of-the-century author and music hall performer, Colette, having had a close relationship with her cat, but I’d never read her work myself. I went to the library and took out every book by her that they had on the shelves.
15 September 2015 | selling shorts |