Regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with the idea behind storySouth’s Million Writers Award. The editor, Jason Sanford, wanted to promote fiction published in online journals and this seemed like a good way to spread word of mouth. Now that the awards process is in its last stage, I thought it would be good to hear from the short-listed writers about their work. Nearly all the writers responded to my request for blurbs, so without further ado, here they are talking about their stories.
Sefi Atta: “A Union On Independence Day,” published in Eclectica.
I wanted to write this story in 1995, the year that the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged, after an infamous military prosecution that led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth. Saro-Wiwa was an activist for the Ogoni people and through his struggle against Shell BP, I learned about the environmental havoc in the Niger delta. In 2002, again the plight of this region was headline news when a group of women from Escravos occupied a Chevron terminal and allegedly threatened to strip, if their demands for fairer environmental policies were not met. My narrator, Eve’s, voice was clear to me by now, and I was ready to follow her, but her migration to the US was so tied to the demise of her community, and I didn’t know how to overlook her people or their testimonies. It bothered me that I might have to in order for Eve’s journey to fit into a short story, so I expanded the territory of the story to include them.
Thanks to Eclectica for publishing the story and to StorySouth for selecting it. Also, thanks to Carve magazine, In Posse Review and Mississippi Review for the rest of my online stories.
Max Dunbar: “The Unrequited,” published in Summerset Review.
The story was inspired by a beautiful woman from where I grew up, who is still my muse and ideal reader. The locale is based on my home town, a post-industrial shithole (a bit like Derry in Stephen King’s IT) where all you could really do was sit around in pubs. I wanted to write about unrequited love, about being shy and young and trying to cut a path to that special person through the bullshit jungle of social situations. It was a fairly deep and personal story to write.
Jon Fasman: “What They Weren’t Worth,” published in The Morning News.
The idea for this story came from a newspaper article that mentioned in passing the origins of the phrase “worth your salt”. At the time I read it I was working on a longer fiction project (which became a novel called The Geographer’s Library, due out from Penguin in January 2005) and needed a little break. So just for fun I started making up other metaphorical measures and attributes of worth and came up with a list of around twenty. From those I selected ten and fleshed the explanations out; I still didn’t know that I was working on a story. But when I saw them all lined up, the notion of using them as the skeleton of a short story seemed natural. For better or worse, I find it impossible to write without a form or structure already in place; the shape and geometry of a story, for me, always precede the plot and characters.
I was unemployed in London at the time and was thinking about home, and also about immigrants and derelicts, both of which I had become (and proudly, too). London is the most international city on earth, which is why I love it; I think a curious person (especially a culinarily curious person, as I am) cannot live there without spending a good deal of walking-around time thinking about immigration and rootlessness.
James Cecilia seeing Frances Lowell in a classroom was the first scene that I wrote. I like James very much; he deserves more space than I gave him here, but I think I’ll come back to him. He has a future. So does the word farm the characters cultivate at the end of the story. I’m not sure where that idea came from, either, but I like the mixture of physical and metaphorical, and I like that the end of the story removes you from the real world and into a theoretical one.
Randa Jarrar: “You Are A 14-Year Old Arab Chick Who Just Moved To Texas,” published in Eyeshot.
I wrote “You are a 14 Year-Old Arab Chick,” while I was working on my novel. The first person voice I was using was restricting, so I impulsively switched to second. I wanted the reader, who is probably not a chick, an Arab, or a 14-year-old, to relate to a girl whose experiences are never heard or celebrated. Some of the details of the story are autobiographical running away after listening to Nirvana, attempting to become a vendor, being banned from writing to a friend solely because he was a boy, my father’s confusion with Ps and Bs, and the hot twin with the ignorant tent question. But the rest stems from my imagination: I didn’t move to Texas till I was 20, I didn’t sell all my gold for $60, and my mom never saved any of my letters (yes, mama, I’m still mad at you).
A.C. Koch: “Solid Gone,” published in Stickman Review.
Believe it or not, the story started off as an attempt to write something about the attacks of September 11th, and ended up taking a completely different direction. At the time, I was listening to the Harry Smith American Folkways Anthology that a friend had given me, and the sadness of what happened on that day was reflected for me in some of that mournful music. Originally, the main character Margie decides to rent a car and drive across country because all the airports are closed, but I ended up revising any direct reference to 9/11 out of the story, and instead made Margie the author of her own complications, set into motion by the death of her father. Her ambivalence about returning to her old homelife is synonymous with my feelings about being an American in the age of terror.
The title comes from a Grandpa Jones bluegrass tune which goes, “She’s gone, she’s solid gone,” a phrase I’ve always loved to chew over. Can the absence of something be so solid and tangible you can knock on it?
Rattan Mann: “Self Analysis,” published in Spoiled Ink.
It may seem strange but I never think, plan, or analyze anything I write. The idea has to come from my unconscious and I just follow the ideas instead of leading them. The idea of “Self Analysis” came to me in a dream in 1978. Thus the story was written in 1978 but has remained unrecognized till now. I am deeply thanful to SpoiledInk and storySouth for this recognition.
Gokul Rajaram: “The Boy With The Hole In His Head,” published in Eclectica.
When I visited India two years ago, my mom told me about a neighborhood boy who actually had a hole in his head, the result of a cycling accident when he was very young. I was curious/desperate to meet this boy but it didn’t work out. After I returned to the US, my imagination took this basic idea and ran riot, culminating in the story. I have also been fascinated by how the same story changes when examined from different points of view. I decided to use the multiple POV approach in this story, using dream sequences to link all the POVs.
Jonathan Redhorse: “The Atomic Tellermans,” published in Gator Springs Gazette
The idea for “The Atomic Tellermans” came to me in July 2002. I was preparing to take a few classes at Cambridge University for their two-week international summer school program and I had to do some preliminary reading on such topics as World War II, 20th Century Conflicts, and NATO. As I was reading Wilson’s Ghost by Robert McNamara and James G. Blight, I came across a passage describing a hypothetical process for international nuclear disarmament that would rely on total weapons disposal by everyone in order for it to work. If there was a straggler, then obviously that country (or non-state entity) would hold a strategic advantage. So then I thought, “I should write a story about a suburbanite threatening his neighbors with a nuclear weapon.” Except for Section 3, most of the story was handwritten during class lectures at Cambridge and at my current school, the University of Denver, from August to December 2002.
I could analyze this story to infinity. But I won’t because it would be exhausting and I don’t want anyone to be exhausted. Instead, we should burn calories laughing.
I think the fact that the story was nominated for anything is a weird, happy, wonderful accident. The fact that it was picked up by Carrie Berry (a flabbergastingly creative and industrious individual) for online publication in the Gator Springs Gazette is another amazing accident.
As I approach the start of my third decade, I hope that everyone will be privy to significant happy accidents, provided they are willing to put in the effort for others.
Claudia Smith: “How To Catch A Good Girl,” published in Word Riot.
In high school, I was painfully shy. I had no boyfriends; I never dated. I wore baggy clothes to hide the breasts that were quickly growing into Double Ds. I was what you might call a good girl, and I’m sure that has something to do with this story. Although it went through a few revisions, I wrote this quickly and in one sitting. The voice and character came as a surprise to me. There is some bite to this piece, but also, I hope, beauty and intimacy.
So, read the stories and vote for your favorite here.