Winner of the 2022 W.S. Porter Prize
Like most kids, I loved a good story, and there were plenty in the large old house in Texas I grew up in. My father had been an actor in soap operas on New York City radio and gave dramatic renderings of Grimm’s fairy tales at my bedside, and my grandfather, an M.I.T. engineer and amateur parapsychologist, knew hundreds of true-life ghost stories. My grandmother’s specialty was family stories, told in her attic studio as she forged pieces of metal into art with tongs and blowtorch and acid vats. My adored uncles were war heroes who had their own stories and ran their own businesses, one a toy store, the other a grapefruit orchard.
Maybe those uncles were the reason I majored in business in college, though it was a bad idea. I was no businessman. I was more of a dreamer and worked on my own after college, repossessing cars for a downtown bank, reading books during graveyard shifts as a guard. Still in my guard uniform, I started slipping into the back rows of English classes so I could hear discussions about storytellers like James Joyce, Grace Paley, and Umberto Eco. I wanted to write my own stories and lucked into a writing program in North Carolina to study with Fred Chappell, then got a Ph.D. at the University of Utah. A few of my stories were published, and I won awards, including an NEA grant and a Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown fellowship. But I was mostly still a student taking side jobs like writing abstracts of scholarly articles for a philosophy journal. The editor rejected most of my efforts but patiently schooled me until I produced a triumph, trimming a thirty-page article of densely tangled philosophical issues (which were mostly hot air) down to a mere one hundred words. “This,” the editor said, “is a thing of beauty.” I began to understand that empty space has its own aesthetic.
Still in Salt Lake City, I met James Thomas in an off-campus workshop. James already had his Ph.D. but stayed on to teach writing classes part-time. I was taking Ph.D. exams and was editing a literary magazine and discovering, in other literary magazines around the country, stories that were unusual because they were very short. Or were they even stories? Were they prose poems? Or something undefinable? I gathered some into booklets and passed them around in the workshop, asking What are these things? No one knew; they were mostly writing novels. But James had been using short-shorts in his writing courses – they were the perfect length for a single class. After the workshop, James called me and said, “Let’s put a book together.” After two years of research, reading, and rating five thousand stories, we selected seventy for a book called Sudden Fiction. It became an instant success, in bookstores and college courses.
The anthology Sudden Fiction International followed, after I took a job teaching at the University of Hawaii and co-founded a journal with Frank Stewart called Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing. Hawaii is a magical place for stories. For Manoa I interviewed a Korean American writer, who spoke only English, and a Korean Russian writer, who spoke only Russian. With the help of two simultaneous translators, they traded a torrent of stories of their families’ diasporas from the Korean homeland. This conversation took place on the beach, under the famous hau tree where Robert Louis Stevenson once told stories to King Kalakaua’s children.
After I left Hawaii, I teamed up with James again for still more anthologies and with more co-editors, such as Chris Merrill, director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program, who joined us for Flash Fiction International.
Publishing so many writers, so many stories, was work I loved to do. But there was never enough time for my own stories. At last, in Austin, no longer teaching, I started writing and publishing my own stories again and gathered twenty-three of them (which, not surprisingly, are mostly very short) for my own first collection of stories, Water Issues and Other Safety Concerns.