Stories


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

“I write.” Not “I’m a writer.”

Silly semantics?  I don’t think so.  I love writing, I’m incredibly happy I write. I’d be miserable if my brain dried up--but what I do is write, what I am is me.

I know, you don’t hear anyone say “I do medicine” or “I provide legal services.”  And certainly, now that I’ve had enough stories published, I probably won’t be accused of puffery if I introduce myself as an author.

But what comes out of my mouth naturally, without thinking about it, is “I write.”
I said that to a writer I ran into recently when she asked what I did.  She asked what I wrote, and I told her. “You should try novels,” she said, as one does to a child who really should leave those training wheels behind. Clearly she didn’t think I had the right credentials for her club.

Whatever you write, don’t accept that from anyone. One kind of creativity isn’t better than another–just different. Don’t let anyone slap labels on your work, or on you–and don’t do it to yourself. You might think you’re one kind of writer–and then something strange and unexpected falls out of your head one day, and you realize there’s a lot more in there than you knew.  Or even wanted to know.

The joy of writing is doing anything you want to on the page. The joy of living is finding out how much there is to you. Keep away from those labels–and enjoy all that nice new space around you.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

 by Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper:  You wrote a fiction collection based on your personal experience of being a  nurse in Viet Nam during that war.  It is titled “Don’t Mean Nothing.”  Can you explain this choice of title?

FBpic Susan O’Neill:  “Don’t mean nothing”— as spoken, was actually Don’t mean nothin’—  an omnipresent catch-phrase. We used it whenever we were frustrated about anything, but in particular with the craziness of the war, and how it didn’t square with any known logic. It was our generation’s FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition) or Catch-22. A death, a broken heart, bad news from home, an operating room full of broken bodies after you’ve spent the night on call. Hell, even finding that they’d run out of SOS at Midnight Breakfast (yes, creamed beef on toast, and there really was breakfast at midnight at hospitals) could elicit a “Don’t mean nothin’.” Nurses, techs, soldiers, pilots, whatever—  we all used it roughly the same way, as a faux-offhand reaction to just about anything that happened, on a scale from annoying to disastrous. It was probably the second most popular expletive in Viet Nam.

ST:  SOS to mean ‘shit on a shingle.’  I remember that usage from my youth, too.  Sue, this collection hit me in two ways: First, personally, because I had some ‘minor’ experience of Viet Nam having flown in with the troops as a stewardess.  And most of all because of the power of these stories, put forth in straight, simple prose.  Was it an emotional experience for you writing this book decades after the war was over?

S.O.N.  Initially I didn’t even consider writing about Viet Nam. I had tried to keep a journal, but dropped it after about a week. I wrote an essay for RN Magazine while I was in-country, about a kid we “adopted” at one of my hospitals, but that had been horribly re-edited (or maybe just horribly written and badly re-edited), and I’d hated the final edition.

When I got back to the States, I was exhausted, depleted to the depths of my soul (which, at that point, I wasn’t sure I even had). Nobody really wanted to hear about Viet Nam, as I discovered when I got in people’s faces— as I too often did— about the tragic craziness and injustice of it.  I got married, had my first child, traveled a bit with Paul and Kym on money Paul and I had saved in Viet Nam, marched on Washington, spent a year in the now-defunct Peace Corps Family Program, sang in bars, wrote funny columns for local newspapers, did the occasional nursing gig, and took the odd college class. I had a lot to do, and a lot to adjust to. And I was still too angry about the war to even consider putting it down on paper— not that I would’ve known how.

ST:  You came home and had a child.  That is a way of starting the healing.  In this collection there’s a story about a Vietnamese boy child called Butch. 

It begins:  “Spec 4 August Wray met his son—  the child of his heart, if not his loins—  in June of 1969.” 

 What was the genesis of this particular story?

S.O.N.  Ah. That’s the boy I wrote about for RN Magazine. The child himself was pretty much as I described him in the story. A few men casually spoke about adopting him, but nobody I know pursued it. But…here’s where fiction raises its foxy little head: what if somebody did?

In that story, Auggie Wray (Spec 4 August Wray, the character) simply suggested himself for the job, then grew to fit the picture. I intended him to be married, and to live in Maine— I was comfortable with Maine because I’d lived there for ten years— and I intended him to be a quiet man. I was actually surprised when he turned out so shy. Ultimately, I followed his lead as he worked to adopt Butch. Most of the story was his doing: he took over that “what if.”

The story was also greatly influenced by a sense of futility I’d developed from volunteering at an orphanage.

The orphanage was in Hue, and I used it in the story even though I’m really not sure where the docs who brought Butch in had found him. Each week, on my day off, I showed up in the courtyard with two or three other volunteers, and the kids would swarm all over us.  There was an absolute herd of kids, desperate to be noticed, touched, hugged. Many— maybe even most of them— were half-American or half-Korean or half- whoever else was soldiering in their country; many of them, I learned, actually had living mothers. Their mothers had left them at the orphanage because they couldn’t afford to keep them, or because the child’s different look could mark a mother as consorting with the enemy. Which, of course, could be fatal. The place broke my heart every time I went there.

Orphans, demi-orphans, mothers— they are all casualties of war. A reporter might write the odd feature story in the news about an orphan, but if you’ve been on the ground in a country where war is being waged, you realize at a gut level how many, many children are left like litter by the wayside. How can their lives ever be “normal,” during the war or after it? It’s just so horribly unfair, so horribly wasteful. So much damage for the innocents— all because politicians who will never meet them work their strategies and alliances and games against other politicians, all at a safe, insulated distance.

So in a very small, micro-vision way, this book is a story about all that. And about caring about it, and getting your heart broken.

I might note, also, at the time I met Butch, we all assumed that he suffered from malnutrition— that was why his legs were deformed, and his belly so round. Maybe that was true. However, a few years after I got back to the States, I was watching a report on TV about the effects of Agent Orange on the population of Viet Nam, and one of the children in the documentary had the exact same deformity as Butch.

 S.T.:  Kirkus Review wrote: “M.A.S.H., with lots more sex and cursing.”  A Kirkus Review is a great thing to have on your book.  You told the stories straightforward and therein lies its power.

I also have to mention your book cover.  The photo is compelling and rather heartbreaking in that it sums up a lot.

DMNphoto

S.O.N.  It’s a picture of Nancy Jones Johnson, taken by Eileen Hotaling, who served together in Viet Nam and are still friends. I’ve never met either woman; I found it through a mutual friend back when Ballantine (who first published this book) was looking for an appropriate cover photo. Ballantine didn’t want it, and solved the relevance problem by turning most of the cover into whitespace, keeping the helicopters on top. I later offered the picture to UMass Press when they made their paperback edition of my book, and they used it as the whole cover— rather dully, I thought. My current editor at Serving House Books loved the picture and coupled it with a letter he had from the era.

I’ve sent the two nurses copies and small “rights payments” for the last two copies, and received pleasant notes in reply. I confess that I don’t know the specific story behind the picture. But children were far from unusual in Army hospitals— I wouldn’t be surprised if civilian death and injury tolls were substantially higher than military. You can aim an M16, but bombs, mines, grenades, napalm and mortars aren’t magnetized to hit soldiers alone.

Sometimes I think we are cavalier about waging war because we haven’t had it on our soil— not intense, prolonged, possessive war like those we fight in other countries— since the Civil War. We have no memory, no knowledge of the real damage and chaos it wreaks beyond that affecting the soldiers we send to fight.

 

Susan O’Neill has also written Calling New Delhi for Free [and other ephemeral truths of the 21st Century] (Peace Corps Writers, 2013), and her book Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam (Serving House Press expanded edition, 2010; Ballantine 2001; Black Swan [UK] 2002, UMass Press 2004) can be found HERE.  You can also read more at her website http://susanoneill.us. 

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Susan Tepper is the author of four published books.  Her current titles include The Merrill Diaries and  From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press, 2012) – a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked-flash.  Tepper has received nine Pushcart nominations, and one for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel What May Have Been (with Gary Percesepe) published by Cervena Barva Press in 2010.   Tepper created the Monday Chat Interview series at Fictionaut, and the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC.  Her work appears in hundreds of print and online venues.  www.susantepper.com

by Gay Degani and Jim Harrington

logo for short story month 3We asked writers and readers to help us compile a list of favorite short stories in honor of Short Story Month 2013. Our goal was 150. With the assistance of many wonderful friends, we not only met that goal, we blew past it to a total of 161! Thanks to everyone who participated start making a list of your favorites for our 2014 list.

View the list here

and happy reading!

We have one more week in our quest to compile a list of 150 short stories and are well on the way to our goal. Thanks to all of you who have submitted your suggestions. If  you haven’t posted a suggestion yet, you have until Friday. Once the final list is compiled, we’ll post it on the blog and send out an announcement. Below is the original notice with links to the sites to post your suggestions.

 

logo for short story month 3

by Gay Degani

Every year, Flash Fiction Chronicles has honored May as Short Story Month by asking readers to supply their favorite short story links.  We have asked for 100 links to excellent online stories in the past.  This year I’m hoping we c

an reach 150!  This sets all of us up with many many great pieces to read during the course of 2013-2014.  This is a loose, fun endeavor.  No prizes and not too many rules.

Got to this page on FFC, or this Facebook group page for further instructions and to submit your list of stories.

Onward to 150 story links!

 

by Susan Tepper

In this new Interview Series, Susan Tepper talks with authors about their books and lives, hopes and dreams.

Richard Peabody

Richard Peabody (photo by Dean Evangelista) is a French toast addict and native Washingtonian. He has two new books out— a book of poetry titled Speed Enforced by Aircraft (Broadkill River Press), and a book of short stories Blue Suburban Skies (Main Street Rag Press). He won the Beyond the Margins  “Above & Beyond Award” for 2013.  Peabody has edited Gargoyle Magazine since back before Elvis died.

 

Susan Tepper: French Toast is your addiction of choice, according to your book’s back cover. How often do you imbibe? What is your favorite way of having French Toast?

Richard Peabody:  I don’t imbibe frequently enough. I did have some at AWP. Those who have the book expect it of me. That particular version was on Hallah and it was melt in your mouth good. I dream of morning after spoon-fed morsels with whipped cream and berries. Maybe honey instead of syrup. Warmed slightly. But this begins to sound like Sean Connery’s Bond— yoghurt, with ripe green figs and freshly-ground, black Turkish coffee.

 ST:  Do you imbibe in the nude? Alone or with friends? 

 RP:  Lucinda threw me an all-female bachelor party. A perfect time for French Toast though we had sushi. Naked sushi models were not yet the rage. I can imagine naked French Toast models might get a bit too sticky for comfort. And I remained clothed.

 ST:  Who is the elusive Lucinda?  For years I’ve seen her listed as co-editor (Lucinda Ebersole) on your Gargoyle masthead.  Yet never have I seen a photo of Lucinda, or noticed her making an appearance at AWP or any conference.  Does the mystery woman Lucinda exist in corporeal form?  I picture her with sandy flowing hair and pale, diaphanous garments.

Lucinda Ebersole… bought an entire West Virginia town on Ebay a few years ago. Really.

As she said at the time, be careful what you click on. 

RP:  Lucinda Ebersole, a fellow Pisces, bought an entire West Virginia town on Ebay a few years ago. Really. As she said at the time, be careful what you click on. She moved out to Shirley, WV where she owns the building the USPS rents as the local post office, and the remainder of the buildings on main street. She raises chickens, gardens. Her two blogs are —
http://lucindaville.blogspot.com/ and http://cookbookoftheday.blogspot.com/

Plus she sells wooden cake boxes.  I don’t consider her the Ophelia type per se, but her author shot for her St. Martin’s novel Death in Equality shows her underwater wearing pearls. We used to do book fairs together. We introduced the Karen Finley “Barbie” (book) at the Miami Book Fair back in 1993 and gave out an award at the Firecracker Award ceremony in Chicago in 1994? I think that’s right. “Mondo Barbie” made us so hot for a skinny minute that Lucinda was actually asked about fashion in the NewYork Times Magazine that year.  She does have sandy flowing hair.

My mom’s from North Carolina. Between her and Lucinda I had to be a feminist.  And both have influenced characters in “Blue Suburban Skies.”  At least I like to think so. Enabled me to spend more time in the female POV in some of those stories. You never know whether it works or not until you get some feedback from readers. What’s surprised me is how much feedback has been directed at three of my male characters—Renfro, Eddie Luhan, and Wyatt. People really like them. Enough so I’ve been asked if there are other stories that feature them. Of the female characters the one I hear the most about is Isabelle from “Travels in Major Minor.”

My rule about covers has always been this—

Will a person see it face out from across a room and be curious enough to walk over and pick it up? If the image can’t do that it’s not the right one. That’s why we spend a lot of time trying to find an image that will grab people’s imaginations. 

 ST:  The title story in your book (of the same name) “Blue Suburban Skies” centers around addiction.   Do you think the father’s reaction is uncommon?

 RP:  Really? I don’t see it that way at all. I’m not glamorizing addiction and when I hear that word I think hard drugs like heroin or crack cocaine. I don’t see pot as a starter drug. In my experience it often aids people in getting away from alcohol as a crutch. Speaking of addictions. I do imagine that most people’s reactions are more like the wife’s in the story. I was after a much lighter experience–the bonding of two strangers, two men who discover they actually do have something in common. I find it very difficult for men to bond after they reach a certain age in this country. I liked the idea of them sharing something from their glory days, something neither has done in a really long time. Two oddballs making a peace treaty, sharing a little empathy, finding an oasis from their roles as stressed out fathers.

 ST:  Did the burbs pan out for you?  Or did they leave you with something missing, the way they seem to leave Cheever’s characters.  Sort of confused and conflicted.  Left out in the cold.  Stranger in a strange land syndrome. 

 RP:  I think I like the idea of the burbs in the way I like the idea of utopia. It’s easy enough to see why they caught on. A few reviewers have mentioned Cheever but he wasn’t a direct influence. The Vietnam war impacted the burbs, as did the Civil Rights movement. That division and culture war (still being played out in current politics) was like an electric current for me. I think everybody I knew in the neighborhood was confused and conflicted. We were all driven to escape. And we did into travel, drugs, and loud imaginations. My characters are constantly running away only to find that a new place doesn’t eliminate the mental baggage of a life. Nothing new to you or me but for some of the characters it’s all about how that plays out in the world. As I get older I have a certain nostalgia for those lazy burn days. It was never perfect. But there are some strong memories that still tie me to those sweet spots in and among the madness.

And every artist I know, no matter what their discipline, feels like the outsider, the alien. That’s one of the engines we need in order to stand apart, observe, and render our work. Is that a good thing? Depends on the work. Depends on the family unit, or relationship. I think everybody in the arts is seeking some sort of balance in that regard.

 ST:  What inspired this choice of cover for your book? I like it. I’m drawn to the guy’s temple veins bulging as he leans over. It feels personal.

 RP:  Ooh, love at first sight. God-like hunk reaches down from heaven to grab tiny little houses between thumb and forefinger. I think you laugh when you see it. The cover is actually grabbing potential readers exactly the same way. So, you pick up the book, flip it over, and there I am with my fingers in a wolf’s mouth. What’s not to love? I suppose you could say that the individual houses mirror the individual stories as well, though that veers too close to  “Life is a box of chocolates” hokum.

We didn’t take the photo or anything.  Scott subscribes to a few of those freebie photo places and I browsed them and had a few possibilities but when I saw this one the bell rang— this is it. Nothing more behind it really. I’ve been doing this long enough that perhaps my filtering process runs at hyper speed or something? Dunno. I’ve seen a lotta covers. Maybe it’s just sheer numbers. Seen it, seen it, seen it, want it, love it. Ya know?  My rule about covers has always been this—

will a person see it face out from across a room and be curious enough to walk over and pick it up. If the image can’t do that it’s not the right one. That’s why we spend a lot of time trying to find an image that will grab people’s imaginations. And this one has worked as it’s grabbed yours.

 _____________________________Susan-Tepper200w

Susan Tepper is the author of four published books.  Her current title From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press, 2012) is a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked-flash.  Tepper has received nine Pushcart nominations, and one for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel What May Have Been (with Gary Percesepe) published by Cervena Barva Press in 2010.   Tepper created the Monday Chat Interview series at Fictionaut, and the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC.  Her work appears in hundreds of print and online venues.  www.susantepper.com

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