Literary Gut Punch: From Heather O'Neill's And They Danced by the Light of the Moon

Heather O'Neill's work always has this dreamy, fable-like quality. And They Danced by the Light of the Moon is no exception. Jules is desperate to believe he can escape the collective fate of the town. Manon is the girl of his dreams. For Manon, Jules is something altogether different:

Manon, however, only decided that Jules would do when she saw him roller-skating at the Récréathèque. Jules was skating backwards and doing figure eights with his feet. He did this gesture with his hands as if he were dealing cards onto a card table. Everyone else ignored Jules’s grandiose performance that night. But Manon knew suddenly that Jules was different than anybody else in Val des Loups. That’s what young people look for: someone who will open strange doors for them.

Literary Gut Punch: From Lindsey Smith's Experience™

I've written about Lindsey Smith before. She's my literary soulmate. The PB to my J. We met while we were students in Sarah Selecky's Intensive, and have been pals ever since. Lindsey's writing is brave and unapologetic. It takes up space in your heart. Recently, her story Experience™ was selected by Lisa Moore as one of two runner ups in the Little Bird story contest. I was not at all surprised. Moore said it better than I ever could, describing the piece as "a canny, lyrical, post-modern, and clever story about romantic love" and the prose as "tight, crisp, and affecting". Without further ado, here's a pretty little punch that clobbers you right in the kisser.

That first time, do you remember? When you said, “Hey,” and leaned into the tilt of the café table to make sure I didn’t walk past? In that instant, I remembered the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. How it looked and how it felt swishing around in my wanting baby mouth. I remembered it even as I knew there was no way I could possibly know anything about the imperfect whiteness of my mother’s milk. You said, “Hey,” and I regressed. Your voice made me do it.

My story 'Perv Jungle' won the 2016 Lit POP Award!

I can't believe it! 
Sam Lipsyte— the Sam Lipsyte— chose my story as the winner of this year's Lit POP Award. I'm honoured and ecstatic and can't think of smaller words right now. My stomach feels like it's hosting a mariachi band.

I know it's not about the accolades or the recognition, but hot damn, sometimes it's a nice feeling to know that something you wrote resonated with someone.

To celebrate: burritos for dinner, and a Jays game.

Literary Gut Punch: From Junot Díaz' Miss Lora

I've read Díaz' collection (This Is How You Lose Her) several times over the years. It doesn't matter how many times I've walked the streets in his stories, I still round a corner and get cold-cocked by a universally stunning coupling of sentences.

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That's what happened with your girlfriend, Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse and your heart flew out of you.

This story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around

I recently pulled a story out of hibernation (AKA: a folder on my desktop called 'Don't'). I had forced it into a slumber because, like a bad relationship at the very end, everything the story did annoyed the absolute stuffing out of me. (If my relationship with this story had an anthem, it'd be this.) It was crawling around under my skin like some alien insect on The X-Files. I let it go on for far too long, even though I knew better. Even though the healthy part of me was saying, "Drawer this hoser!"

The good news is that when I pulled it out all these months later, I didn't totally hate it. In fact, it started speaking to me, telling me what it needed, and even what it was concerned with trying to say. And me, being the good little minion that I am, got back to work.

Yadda yadda yadda, the story is at it again. Every time I think it's done, it goes and becomes something else. I sent it out to a Dear Writer Friend, whose advice was: "Depopulate!" They used the word 'disoriented'. 

But they also said they like it. A lot. Which gives me those tingles on the top of my head. 

So I'm back to work, where the story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around. Even though it's not my favourite thing I've ever written, when it finally settles down, sending it out into the world will actually feel like my biggest achievement yet. 

Literary Gut Punch: From Adam Ehrlich Sachs' The Philosophers

Sachs' story was featured in the February 1st 2016 issue of The New Yorker. I read it sitting in a chair at my hair salon and within the first paragraph, I knew (as much as someone can know a thing), that it was a special kind of sacrilege to keep reading something so beautiful while Ginuwine's "Pony" was being pumped out the speakers. But I couldn't stop.

This story, which is actually a series of vignettes, blew my heart wide open. It reminded me what a story can do. It's been a while since I've encountered a writer who, upon reading a single story of theirs, I want to crawl up inside their mind and play, like a first-grader on a jungle gym.

This entire story is Literary Gut Punch

Soon the madman had talked to everyone worth talking to, seen everything worth seeing, thought about everything worth thinking about, and yet again was left bored and lonely. Even the company of geniuses wasn’t enough; boredom would always be with him, he realized, as long as he had this huge, historic intelligence. Suicide was the only way out. He decided to commit suicide by paradox. He would go back in time and kill his own grandfather—a logical impossibility, as we all know, he said, since killing his grandfather would mean that he himself wouldn’t be born, which would mean that he couldn’t go back in time to kill his grandfather. So this might be interesting, he said. Plus he would get to murder the man who had handed down to him this huge, horrible, historic intelligence.

Literary Gut Punch: From Dana Spiotta's Jelly and Jack

Jelly and Jack was published in The New Yorker in December of 2015. Jelly's consciousness is a painful but enchanting place to be. The story slowly undresses itself, but at the end, it was me left feeling naked. There were many beautiful moments in the story, but when I read this particular passage, I felt all the air hovering at the front of my mouth. I had stopped breathing. So, of course, this is my most recent Literary Gut Punch for the annals. All you need to know is that Jelly is about to listen to a piece of music by Jack. Here it is:


Jelly closed her eyes and leaned back again. She called this body-listening. It was when you surrendered to a piece of music or a story. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. Some people started to speak the second the other person stopped talking, or playing or singing. They were so excited to render their thoughts into speech that they practically overlapped the person. They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response was the only thing they valued.

George Saunders: What stories are "about"

George Saunders was interviewed by Deborah Treisman about his latest New York short story, Mother's Day. The following paragraph resonated with me, about how important it is to not be bullied by intention when starting out with a story.

It’s funny with stories (or, at least, with mine)—they are, of course, going to be “about” something and appear to present certain views re those things, but if I start out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting enough to finish. What seems to happen is that, while I’m concentrating on the more mundane technical aspects (working on individual lines and the point-to-point logic and velocity and so on), a certain set of meanings will begin to come forward. So I’m dimly aware of those but trying not to be too aware of those, lest the story become only about those, if you see what I mean. It’s really only when the story is done (like, in this case, within the last week or so) that I can do much direct thinking about what themes it might be taking on, and then—weirdly—the thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself. The story is about something . . . but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset.

My story "Kitten" is featured in Matrix Magazine

I'm so excited that "Kitten" found a home with Matrix Magazine. 

This story has been around for a couple of years, but its needs eluded me for a long time.
Yet, I couldn't quite give up on Barry. I kept coming back to him, hat in hand, every few months. 

The whole story dances on the head of a pin: this small moment where Barry walks in on something he was not expecting.

I hope you like it. Here's a little taste:

The youth began to snore and more than anything Barry found himself craving the Good Old Days he’d been born too late for. The days he had only ever inherited nostalgia for, from books and films. Back when daughters slept in thick, wrist-to-ankle nightgowns, made preserves, and essentially stayed in their bedroom brushing their hair until they got married. And how, when they’d hear a scary sound they’d creep down the stairs with nothing but a tiny nub of a candle, and at first they’d feel brave but they’d ultimately call for their Papa, who’d spring from his bed, boots already on and musket already in hand because men used to be like that, ready for confronting anything, but the sound would only ever end up being the wind riling up the trees or creaking the outhouse door and so they would hug and each go back to bed laughing like loons.

Tracy Chevalier on "putting a frame around" small moments

I listened to a fascinating conversation on the TED Radio Hour between writer Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Guy Raz. Chevalier talked about growing a whole novel out of a single painting. If you haven't listened yet, I highly recommend it. She said one thing in particular that really stood out to me as a short story writer:

"We have dramatic lives, though they might not seem dramatic to the outside, but to us it's those little daily incidents of life that are dramatic, and if you put a frame around it—an actual painting frame, or if you put a frame that is a novel around small incidents—they suddenly become bigger because you focus. And anybody can focus on things that don't seem to mean much, and suddenly they become much bigger and much more important than you ever imagined."

I would argue that the short story also frames these small, uncelebrated moments, zooming in and examining the minutiae of a life, pixel by pixel.