AUDIE CORNISH, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. If you're a regular listener of this program, you know that short fiction has a special place at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on the weekends. In fact, we're gearing up for the next round of our Three-Minute Fiction contest in just a few weeks.
To give you some early pointers, we took to heart a sacred tenet of creative writing: Show, don't tell. So Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo is here to walk us through a few of his picks for the best new voices from this year's "Best American Short Stories."
Russo edited the collection, and he joins us now from Colby College in Maine.
Richard Russo, welcome to the program.
Mr. RICHARD RUSSO (Novelist): Hey, it's great to be here.
CORNISH: So we're going to hear the actual authors of these stories read excerpts of their work. But first, Richard, tell us a little bit about your first choice here. It's called "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," and it's by Chicago-based writer Rebecca Makkai.
Mr. RUSSO: Well, this is one of my favorites. Well, you know, there are 20 selected from 250. They're all my favorites. But the story begins with this college professor who teaches Coleridge, often "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and she makes a mistake and shoots an albatross and kills it.
It's a story about how deeply we need for others to see us as we see ourselves, even as day to day, we're making mistakes in the way we view others.
CORNISH: And we have that clip of that that Rebecca read that I think fits into what you're describing. Because in her story, the main character, Alex, is doing a lot of questioning of her fiance and her place at the university. And here's an excerpt for when all these tensions smack her in the face, and it's actually when she's trying on her wedding dress.
Ms. REBECCA MAKKAI (Author, "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship"): (Reading) She stared in the mirror, not at the dress but at her horrible face. Her skin was dried out, and her eyes were puffy, and her hair was a dark mess.
She wanted a necklace with a big, red stone to match that brilliant red on the albatross' neck. What she hadn't been able to describe really to anyone about that day in Tumby Bay was the sublimity, the blinding beauty of that bird as it flew and as it lay where it fell.
She could bring back in an instant that moment of white light rising beyond the leaves, her hand shaking against the gun.
(Soundbite of gunshot)
Ms. MAKKAI: The echo of the shot seeming to come first because her ears went dead, then the loud roar as they woke again, the flapping and cracking as something fell down through the trees branch by snapping branch.
She wanted to take it all back, to return to that moment at the lake's edge and take back that one moment of horrible misprision. She'd been walking around blind ever since that day.
Mr. RUSSO: That's gorgeous prose, isn't it?
CORNISH: Yes. That's "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship" by Rebecca Makkai
Richard, you also chose a story by a writer named Wayne Harrison. He is a professor at UCLA. But after high school, he worked as a mechanic. And in his story, which is called "Least Resistance," the narrator also is a young man working in a mechanic shop. But this young man is having an affair with the wife of his boss, a character named Nick.
Mr. RUSSO: Right.
Mr. WAYNE HARRISON (Author, "Least Resistance"): (Reading) Maryann put in a cassette, and the sound that rose from the speakers was unlike any I'd ever heard. Two rich voices that could only belong to gorgeous, dark-eyed Indian women sang the first chorus. Behind the chant were the slightest sounds: tiny wind chimes, tiny buzzing. You could hear tears in the women's voices, anguish then resolved safety. What are they saying?
It's a salutation to that which we are capable of becoming. Maryann took my hand and brought me to the carpet, piled my legs in rough approximation of a lotus and positioned herself beside me. I started to sway. It was warm, and we were naked with this remarkable sound. And then the phone rang.
(Soundbite of telephone)
Mr. HARRISON: She let the machine answer, and the sound of Nick's voice in the house shot through me like a sparkplug jolt.
Unidentified Man: Hey, I can't find the last...
Mr. HARRISON: When the message was over, she turned off the chant tape, and we dressed in the silence of Adam and Eve after the apple.
CORNISH: That's from the story "Least Resistance," and that's author Wayne Harrison reading that selection. And Richard, this is another love story that you chose, and I want you to tell me why you were drawn to this one.
Mr. RUSSO: I was drawn to it, I think, because of how straightforwardly Wayne Harrison sets up the conflict right at the beginning. The two people that he cares most about in the world are this Nick Campbell, who owns the garage that he works in, and the vulnerable woman with whom he falls in love.
And you understand right from the start that he has to betray one of them and possibly both of them and perhaps himself in the bargain.
The suspense in this story is remarkable because the conflict is so clear and because we realize everything is on the line.
CORNISH: One story that is not a love story - it's more of an out-of-love story, is called "All Boy" by Lori Ostlund. She's currently a visiting writer at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. And her story is about a boy named Harold whose father, we learn, is likely gay. And we see a lot of the family's confusion through Harold's eyes.
Ms. LORI OSTLUND (Author, "All Boy"): (Reading) Harold was quite familiar with Mrs. Norman's feet. They were what old people's feet should look like, he thought.
Mr. RUSSO: That's the brilliant part of this story, I think. Not everybody writes well from a child's point of view. The things that she gets so brilliantly right here is to recapture his innocence.
One day, the babysitter has had her daughter come in, where the daughter is clipping her enormous toenails.
Ms. OSTLUND: (Reading) With nails so yellow and thick that she could not cut them by herself.
Mr. RUSSO: And Harold wants one as a souvenir.
Ms. OSTLUND: (Reading) May I watch, Harold asked, because he was the sort of child who differentiated between may and can and found that adults often responded favorably to this, granting him privileges that they might not otherwise have.
Mr. RUSSO: The job that she does locating herself in the world of a really smart kid who yet does not understand what his parents are doing or the language with which they're talking about is just - it's just heartbreaking and wonderful.
CORNISH: Last up is a story you chose that actually has my favorite title of the collection.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, mine too.
CORNISH: It's called "My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened With the Lion Tamer," and it's by Brendan Mathews.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: And he teaches at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts. And we're going to hear a sort of climactic scene where we actually learn what did happen to the lion tamer.
Mr. BRENDAN MATHEWS (Author, "My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened With the Lion Tamer"): (Reading) When he waded in among the lions, the crowd went church-quiet. Then he started shouting, urging the lions in one direction or another. And when they didn't respond, he went to the whip.
He waved it over his head like a pompom, and the lions seemed happy to ignore him until he jerked it back in one quick motion and the tip of the whip bit into the haunches of the biggest cat in that cage.
The lion's yellow eyes narrowed. And if something that big can pounce, then that's exactly what it did. It pushed off with its meaty legs, and before the lion tamer could raise his little chair, it was on top of him.
(Soundbite of screaming)
Mr. MATHEWS: Once he was on the ground, the other lions moved in. The lights went out in the center ring, too late, I'm sure, to spare the ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, the fire-lit sight that would linger long after we left town.
CORNISH: This story has a sort of fairytale quality about it. It's told from the point of view of a clown who's in love with a trapeze artist who is in love with a lion tamer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. What attracted me to this story initially was how ambitiously it creates this whole circus world. Normally, church stories are snapshots. But Brendan Mathews manages, I think, to create that whole world here. It's really a tour de force performance, I think, by a young writer.
CORNISH: Richard, what makes a good short story?
Mr. RUSSO: A short story is something that I think can be intuited and envisioned and held in your mind almost at once, that is, its beginning, its middle, its end. It will, of course, if it's a really good story, surprise you. But it can be imagined that way.
And I so admire the craft and the ability of a great short story writer to see things whole, how the parts fit. Even though, of course, there will be marvelous surprises along the way.
CORNISH: That's Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo. He's the editor of the latest collection of "Best American Short Stories." He spoke to us from the campus of Colby College in Maine.
Richard Russo, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. RUSSO: I enjoyed it.
CORNISH: And if you want to read the full version of the story, "My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened With the Lion Tamer," visit our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Russo edited this year's compendium of the best short stories. He speaks to Audie Cornish about the best new voices in fiction.
It won't be long now before Three-Minute Fiction returns to Weekend All Things Considered.
In the meantime, we asked Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo to discuss some his favorite stories from this year's anthology, Best American Short Stories.
Russo, who edited the collection, offered these examples from lesser-known writers who -- unlike a few others in the collection -- aren't household names.
"But they will be," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish.
"Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," by Rebecca Makkai (Ploughshares)
Chicago-based writer Rebecca Makkai brings this story about a college professor questioning her marriage, her place at her university, and whether or not she's a racist (she accuses a quiet Korean-American student of needing to speak more in class, thinking the student wasn't encouraged to speak in her native land).
The tension is kicked off when we learn Alex, who teaches Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," accidentally shot and killed an actual albatross. "To her personal horror, and professional embarrassment," a chipper alumni magazine makes her question how she appears to others.
"It's a story about how deeply we need for others to see us as we see ourselves, even as day to day, we're making mistakes in the way we view others," Russo says.
"Least Resistance" by Wayne Harrison (The Atlantic)
Before he pursued writing, UCLA professor Wayne Harrison worked as a mechanic after high school -- and so does the narrator of his story "Least Resistance."
Harrison's narrator, Justin, however, is having an affair with his boss, Nick Campbell, who himself serves as a surrogate father-figure to Justin.
"The two people that he cares most about in the world" Russo explains, are Nick and Nick's wife, Mary Ann.
"I was drawn to it, I think, because of how straightforwardly Wayne Harrison sets up the conflict at the beginning," he says. "You understand right from the start that he has to betray one of them, and possibly both of them, and perhaps himself in the bargain."
"The suspense in this story is remarkable," Russo says, "because the conflict is so clear and because we realize everything is on the line."
"All Boy" by Lori Ostlund (New England Review)
While many of the stories in this year's collection are love stories, one story that's more an out-of-love story is called "All Boy" by University of North Carolina Kenan Visiting Writer Lori Ostlund. It tells the story of a complicated marriage between two Midwestern parents, viewed through the eyes of their precocious young son, Harold.
"That's the brilliant part of this story," Russo says. "Not everyone writes well from a child's point of view."
Harold's father, we learn, is likely gay. Though his mother knows and is willing to remain married, Harold is the quiet observer of some veiled, passive-aggressive dinner conversation.
Russo says Ostlund writes without being condescending to Harold, but instead recapturing the innocence of childhood.
"The job that she does locating herself in the tale of a really smart kid -- who, yet, does not understand what his parents are doing or the language with which they're talking about -- it's just heartbreaking and wonderful."
"My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened With the Lion Tamer," by Brendan Mathews (Cincinnati Review)
In one of the collection's more whimsical stories, Bard College at Simon's Rock professor Brendan Mathews tells the story of a clown who's in love with a trapeze artist -- who's in love with a lion tamer.
The fairy-tale quality of the story, Russo says, "is enhanced by the fact that none of the characters in this story have names. They are what they do."
Normally, short stories are snapshots. But Mathews, Russo says, managed to create an entire circus-like world.
"It's really a tour-de-force performance by a young writer," he says.
What Makes A Good Short Story?
Russo has his own advice for writers tackling short fiction.
"A short story is something that I think can be intuited and envisioned and held in your mind almost at once," he says.
That means beginning, middle and end.
"It will, of course -- if it's a really good story -- surprise you," he adds.
And it's the daily act of sitting down to write that makes a true writer, Russo says. "Writers are people who put pen to paper every day."
In his introduction to the book, Russo writes that one thing he's most proud of about the collection he edited is that it's "blessedly free of the narcissism of the age."
"We were able to find a group of 20 wonderful stories for this collection that engage with the world in the way that a story teller should -- by focusing outward on that world," he says.