Keith Lesmeister


Life as a Shorty: “Coyote” by Ryan Ridge, published in CHEAP POP

Posted on December 21, 2016

This week’s story comes from CHEAP POP, a literary journal dedicated to micro-fiction. You can read Ridge’s story here.

 

Ryan Ridge’s story, COYOTE, clocks in at 156 words. What can an author accomplish in this space? With so few words? Ridge captures something important here, no doubt, and while I want to point out some metaphor in the story, some critique on society and how society views those members who live on the fringes, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, let me ask you to take 2 minutes, read Ridge’s piece, and comment below. CHEAP POP promises “stories that, regardless of their short nature, stick with you.” Ridge’s story has really stuck with me. I’ve read it several times now. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

Life as a Shorty: Roxane Gay’s story, “In the Event of my Father’s Death” reprinted in Vice Magazine

Posted on December 14, 2016

Read Roxane Gay’s story here. And check out my brief review below.

 

I’ve read several of Roxane Gay’s stories now – some online, one in Hobart, and another in Midwestern Gothic. Her stories are lean and powerful, taking residence in rural areas marked by cheating husbands and wives, cigarettes, sex, booze, and trailer homes located on large swaths of undeveloped land. “In the Event of my Father’s Death” is no different. In this story, a girl gets dragged along on weekend “fishing trips” to visit her father’s mistress. While the father and the mistress are busy in the bedroom, the girl is either in the living room listening or out roaming the countryside. And while the title tips us off to a major event – that event itself isn’t the defining moment of the story. The defining event occurs between the girl and her father’s mistress after the funeral — a scene that leaves readers on the verge of something significant. It doesn’t spell out what happened. It doesn’t need to. We already know of the monumental shift in the narrator’s view of the world and herself. But I’m curious: what do you think of where the story leaves off? Leave a comment below.

Life as a Shorty: two flash fiction pieces published in the museum of americana

Posted on December 7, 2016

the museum of americana is an online literary journal “dedicated to [work]…  that revives or repurposes the old, the dying, the forgotten, or the almost entirely unknown aspects of Americana.”

 

In their latest issue, they’ve published two heart-wrenching flash fiction pieces that you can read here.  My brief review below.

 

Here are two stories written by two authors — Peg Alford Pursell and Erin Armstrong — but are connected in feel and subject matter. Both have a sense of quiet longing or a sense of loss. The language and sentences work in harmony to create this lonely aura around each. Take for instance the first line in Pursell’s story: “The day after Christmas. Snowing. The countryside white. All the streets. Dark footprints led to the station.” Here, the snow has blanketed everything, creating a kind of quiet stillness that introduces the story. More, readers arrive at a “station” which brings us to a moment of significance — someone arriving or someone going away. In Armstrong’s piece, in which the narrator contemplates her past relationships, we get this heartbreaking line: “Three months he wrote and inquired as to her being.” The “three months” indicate a start and stop to their communication (in this case letter writing), and the lack of intimacy in “inquired” and the lack of specificity in “being” creates a kind of cool distance and aloofness. I mean, people “inquire” about a new vehicle, not a person with whom they are intimate.

 

What do you think of these two stories? Drop a line in the comments section if you’d like to be part of the conversation.

 

Life as a Shorty: a weekly blog dedicated to recognizing and celebrating short stories. 

 

 

Life as a Shorty: “Legs” by Libby Flores, published in Tin House Open Bar

Posted on November 30, 2016

Libby’s story “Legs” clocks in at just over 100 words and will take you a minute or two to read. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll read it over and over again, trying to figure out how she accomplished this in so few words. Read Libby’s story here. And check out our interview below.

 

Keith Lesmeister: There’s a kind of sensual ache in “Legs,” maybe even a touch of desperation, but it’s not romantic in the least. And you accomplish all of this — this mood — in just over 100 words. I’m not sure what I’m asking here. I guess I want to know: how the hell did you do that??

Libby Flores: First off, thank you for those kind words. Truth be told, I have no idea how I did it. I think there are weird windows in writing where you step into something that feels like it was already happening and you are just lucky to be there in time to put the words down. I remember sitting down that Sunday to fulfill my daily writing routine, and I was stuck. I texted a friend and said, give me four words. My promise to myself was to use those four words (all W words go figure) and then I could go about my day. I have since thanked that friend for those four words.

 

KL: You create these two characters, their lives, their situation, and render it so completely. Again, in so few words. Did you just drop in on them? Have you been living with these two characters for a while? How much (or how little) did you know about them before this story took shape?

LF: I didn’t know them before. I do feel like I happened upon two people in a state of disrepair. Maybe after a fight, or maybe after the last time they would ever sleep together. Now looking at it: the opposing factors at work were her last smidgen of hope and the stagnation that had taken over their lives, the world moving on without them. That need for a glass of water, well we know that expression —give a character something to want. In her case, that water represents so much more that just relieving a momentary thirst.

 

KL: Did you always know it’d be a short piece?

LF: Yes. When I write flash it tells me— rather than something I decide beforehand. It’s rare that when I am writing for me not to know it’s a flash piece. The last line never lies. If it rests, or as Amy Hempel used to say, “lands” that is always a great indicator to stop.

 

KL: The short form is such a wonderful, mysterious alchemy of just the right sounds and details, not unlike poetry. How conscious are you of these sounds and details while in the actual act of writing?

LF: For readers, I believe that is where the connective tissue of writing is found. Or as Sorkin would say that is where the writer eats. I have done some odd things to assure I’ve gotten a detail or sensation correct. The experience of a story, when it is at its best, is an accumulation of all the details so then it can deliver an unmistakable hurricane to your chest.

 

KL: “Knees like turned down saucers.” How did that wonderful simile reveal itself?

LF: Thank you, Keith. Oh dear, I don’t know. I can say this: I’ve had bad knees my entire life. I may be a writer that has had to think more of them than most.

 

KL: Other flash pieces or authors you might recommend?

LF: Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Agatha French, Kristen Arnett, Jamie Quatro, Jamaica Kincaid, Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Tin House Flash Fridays have excellent taste :). George Saunders “Sticks” splits me wide open every time. Anne Bettie’s “Snow” will peel the paint of your soul.

 

KL: What are you currently reading?

LF: Lots of poetry. Carl Phillip’s Reconnaissance. That book. Wow.

 

KL: Last question: turkey, ham, or vegetarian/other option for Thanksgiving? And what’s your favorite kind of pie?

LF: Turkey always. My mother’s butterscotch pie— every time.

Life as a Shorty: “Lesser Missiles” by Kathryn Savage, published in American Short Fiction

Posted on November 23, 2016

Read (or listen to) Kathryn’s wonderful story here.

 

And, check out Kathryn’s interview with ASF Online Fiction Editor Erin McReynold’s in which they discuss asteroids, writing, and books.

 

On the surface of Kathryn Savage’s story, “Lesser Missiles,” the narrator discusses her relationships with men — current lover, best friend, childhood crush, and another relationship which I won’t disclose here. But this is not a surface level story. Savage has created here an intimate, believable, voice — one with all the trepidation and hesitancy of a person who has experienced the kind of loss central to this story. There are few writers with this kind of steady control of voice and narrative structure, working together to create that envious alchemy that all story writers strive toward. More, Savage explores the ways in which memory shapes who we are now and what we think of our past and current self.

 

Check out Kathryn’s story and let me know what you think.

Life as a Shorty: “Left Leg, Just Above the Knee” by Jason Lee Brown, published in the Kenyon Review Online

Posted on November 16, 2016

Read “Left Leg, Just Above the Knee” here.

 

Jason Lee Brown was kind enough to answer a few questions about his story. He’s open to others if you have one of your own — feel free to leave your comment or question in the “comments” section below.

 

Keith Lesmeister: The opening line is a beauty, “Life would be livable if I could relieve this inner pull to amputate my left leg.” This sentence provides a sense of internal conflict, which starts the story in motion and drawing the reader in fully. It also introduces this distinct and unique voice — humorous, observant, and always honest. Could you discuss this narrative voice, perhaps offer a few thoughts about how it emerged.

 

Jason Lee Brown: I think the twist in the last four words of the sentence, “amputate my left leg,” is what blends tragedy and humor into the voice. I like rhythm and hidden musicality in my short prose, and this first line contains alliteration, assonance, meter, rhyme, and half rhyme. These poetry elements give the first half of the sentence an almost upbeat feeling before the grotesque twist of the last four words. I think that juxtaposition gives the line its voice.

 

KL: You accomplish a lot here in just under 700 words. Could you discuss how this story took shape. Did you start off knowing it would be a flash fiction piece?

 

JLB: I knew it would be a short piece, and by looks of the first line, it might have started out as a poem, but I’m not sure. I had run across this list of bizarre disorders, and BIID was one of them. I tried to write about four of the disorders, and this story is the one that took off. Once the first couple paragraphs took shape, I stayed with 100-150 word paragraph scenes to keep a consistent pacing. The most difficult part was finding an ending paragraph I was happy with.

 

KL: There’s a deft use of subversive humor in the piece that seems to underlie something…. a kind of melancholy, I think. Could you talk about how those two ideas work in tandem with each other in your story?

 

JLB: I try to use levity in the same way I use rhythm, musicality, and other poetic devices. Levity can help make tragic subject matter easier for the reader to ingest, but that has to come through in a way without marginalizing the character or the illness. This character’s underlying humor also comes from this place where his desire is considered a disorder, yet in the face of all opposition, he has this fuck-you attitude and determination that doesn’t stop.

 

KL: Since this is a blog celebrating short stories, could you share some thoughts about the short story, generally. Any favorites? What do you like about them? Do you find them challenging to read/write? Other thoughts?

 

JLB: Well, I like short stories enough to start my own anthology, so I am going to take this question as a chance to blatantly promote the soon to be released New Stories from the Midwest 2016 (New American Press), a best-of anthology that presents the most recently published short stories set in or inspired by the Midwestern United States. Here is the TOC.

Thomas M. Atkinson                         “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills”

Charles Baxter                                   “Forbearance”

Catherine Browder                           “Departures”

Claire Burgess                                   “Upper Middle Class Houses”

Peter Ho Davies                                 “Chance”

Stephanie Dickinson                         “JadeDragon_77”

Jack Driscoll                                       “All the Time in the World”

Nick Dybek                                         “Three Summers”

Stuart Dybek                                      “Tosca”

Abby Geni                                           “Dharma at the Gate”

Albert Goldbarth                               “Two brothers”

Baird Harper                                     “Patient History”

Rebecca Makkai                                 “Dead Turtle”

Monica McFawn                                “Out of the Mouths of Babes”

John McNally                                      “The Magician”

Emily Mitchell                                    “Three Marriages”

Devin Murphy                                    “Levi’s Recession”

Joyce Carol Oates                               “A Book of Martyrs”

Lori Ostlund                                       “The Gap Year”

Nicole Louise Reid                            “A Purposeful Violence”

Christine Sneed                                 “In the Bag”

Anne Valente *                                   “The Lost Caves of St. Louis” *

Lauren van den Berg                        “Lessons”

Josh Weil                                            “Long Bright Line”

Theodore Wheeler                           “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine

Guest Editor Lee Martin                   “Introduction”

* Winner of the inaugural Jay Prefontaine Fiction Prize

 

Jason Lee Brown is the author of the novel, Prowler: The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the novella, Championship Run, and the poetry chapbook, Blue Collar Fathers. He is the Series Editor of New Stories from The Midwest and a contributing editor of River Styx. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Kenyon Review, Literary Review, North American Review, The Journal, Southern Humanities Review, and Ecotone. He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Life as a Shorty: the morning after

Posted on November 9, 2016

(NOTE: Life as a Shorty is a blog recognizing and celebrating short stories published in online journals. I usually post something every Wednesday. But instead of posting a story today, I want to share with you the following).

 

I’d been sipping whiskey all night, watching CNN, so when I woke up this morning I had a full bladder, a slight ache in my right shoulder from sleeping on it, a dry tongue, and a low-level headache. Nothing a strong cup of coffee couldn’t take care of. I walked into the living room where my youngest child was already on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. She’s eight and an early riser. I checked CNN.com, read the headlines, turned off the computer, hugged my youngest child. She said to me, “Your breath smells bad.” I kissed her on the cheek. She said, “Now I have to wash my cheek.” I asked her, “Pancakes and eggs for breakfast?” “Sure,” she said.

 

(Don’t worry, this post isn’t about turning the other cheek.)

 

So I made pancakes and eggs, sipped coffee, and stood over the cast iron skillets while my other two kids emerged from their rooms and sat down to eat. I slid pancakes and eggs onto their plates. They lathered their pancakes with peanut butter, like they always do, and ate their food while I watched them and thought about what I wanted to say.

 

I needed to say something.

 

Throughout this election cycle, my wife and I have been outspoken opponents of our president-elect. I mostly talked about the disaster that is/was the Trump campaign – the very thing itself built on fear and hatred. I, along with the “liberal media elites,” didn’t think Trump had a legitimate chance at winning. On temperament alone I thought he’d lose. And I thought people could see through the façade, this fear-based and hate-based rhetoric. I don’t need to tell you how wrong I was.

 

My wife and I have tried to teach our children the importance of looking out for those marginalized people who most need a voice or protection—those kids or classmates who get picked on or bullied or made fun of because of their haircut or worn out shoes or other reasons altogether. My wife and I have talked to our kids about those who are economically disadvantaged or undocumented or others living in fear, for a whole host of reasons, and these are the people—our friends and community members—who need our love and support. More now than ever.

 

This morning I told my children that the people who elected Trump are people in our country who feel as though our current political system, our current way of doing things, isn’t working for them. These are the people who feel as though they don’t have a voice and aren’t being represented by those in political office or the media. And the president-elect (Trump) stepped in, tapped into this group’s fear (and hate and bigotry, though I didn’t tell my kids this) and promised to support them, to represent their interests. He told them he’d protect their jobs, their future, among other things. And while we don’t need to support or protect these people, I told my kids, we do need to try to understand where they’re coming from—we need to listen more than we need to speak. We have a lot to learn.

 

Here’s what I didn’t tell my children:

I’m tired.

I’m concerned.

I’m concerned about being uninsured – yes, I am one of millions of Americans who has affordable health care because of Obamacare.

I’m concerned for women, immigrants, refugees, the LGBT community, and so many other groups who have been demonized by this president-elect.

I want to try and understand how/why people voted for the president-elect. Was it a single issue vote? A protest vote? Supreme Court? What are those issues for which you may have voted? I’m doing my best here—trying to understand.

Mostly, I’m concerned for this idea of basic human decency.

But again, I didn’t mention any of this to my children. They have important things to do—school and sports and piano practice and band practice and chores around the house and friends to play with. Like I said, important things to do.

 

My kids are at school now, and I’m just remembering that there was a light frost on the ground this morning. I’ve always loved working outside in the fall after a light frost, which means I don’t have to worry about mosquitoes or other bugs bothering me. I’m thankful that the only class I teach today is in the evening, and that my daytime classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I have all day to work outside, paying attention to those long neglected outdoor projects. Today I’ll probably trim branches and bushes in the front yard. There’s an overgrown hedge of bramble, but inside the bramble I’ve noticed a volunteer fledgling fruit tree. I’m not sure which kind of fruit tree it is, but I plan to give it space to breath, clearing away all the vines and buckthorn. I think I’ll do that today. I’ll probably put a fence around it too. If I want any chance of it growing and thriving, I’ll have to protect it in just the right way—allowing enough space for it to grow and breath, while protecting its foundation.

Life as a Shorty: “Toucan” by K.L. Browne, published at Ascent

Posted on November 2, 2016

Read Toucan here.

 

“Kristen and Lulu split the salmon and held hands as if they shared one cardiovascular system.”

 

This observation from the story’s protagonist, Carrie, a young woman who finds herself on the periphery of this (new) group dynamic, when just a couple of short years ago she and Lulu were best friends. But time, space, and circumstances have pulled them apart, emotionally. And now she finds herself out to dinner with four other women, three of whom are more or less strangers.

K.L. Browne’s story is about the ways in which friendships/relationships evolve, those inevitable changes — some subtle, some life altering — and the way we act and react to those changes. There’s a sophisticated psychological component to this story, which offers an unsettling view of group relational dynamics. But more, it asks that vital question we all ask ourselves in every relationship: how much can I give here? how much do I want to give? am I being fair to myself and this other person?
What do you think of the relationships in the story?

“Between Stars” by Benjamin Kolp, published in the Kenyon Review Online

Posted on October 26, 2016

Read Benjamin’s story here.

 

This is a short story about the relationships we have with one another and the grander world around us–a story of connection and loss. “Between Stars” expands and contracts, zooming in, zooming out — showing the contrast between what we’ve lost and what/who we keep close as a way of existing in a meaningful way, illumining our intimate connections with others. But what do those relationships mean against the grandness of all of this? This world, this atmosphere, this galaxy, and beyond — those places and spaces we have yet to define. And nothing promised to us, ever, except for this:

“Given time, the sun burns out. The Earth’s orbit widens as the sun loses mass and the rock finds the star less compelling. But the planet doesn’t stray fast enough; the sun grows as it dies. It reddens and swells, grasping at the Earth, charring it in a flaming embrace.

But not yet.”

 

What are your thoughts?