Million Writers Award Finalists Talk About Their Work

StorySouth’s Million Writers Award was launched by the magazine’s editor, Jason Sanford, in an effort to promote the best of fiction published online. Last year, I asked all ten finalists to talk about their stories, and I’m doing it again this year. So here are the short-listed writers, on their work.

Terry Bisson: “Super 8,” published in
I’m a science fiction writer, and rarely deal with my own history. Super 8 came to me when I saw a video that an old friend had patched together from “home-movies” of our dome-building commune days. I imagined the film itself as a character, and took it from there. I happen to be a Southern writer myself, and even thought of calling the story Rank Strangers.

Jai Clare: “Bone on Bone,” published in AGNI.
“Bone on Bone” was inspired while I was at a gig of a wonderful British contemporary jazz band. It was dark and the music was sexy and the pianist was marvelous and smiled broadly. Suddenly the words I fell in love with a pianist came to mind, though of course on this occasion it wasn’t autobiographical! And the next day I created this groupie vampiric type character who is in love with a man’s talent rather than the man himself. Some people have commented on the freeform shape of the story as if I was mimicking the music itself. If so that was totally unconscious. I just wanted to get as close to the feeling of listening to live music as I was capable of. And somehow show how obsession and love can develop.
It was a great honour to be published by Agni. They didn’t even change my English spellings! Many thanks to them and to Jason Sanford

Xujun Eberlein: “Second Encounter,” published in the Paumanok Review.
I once heard a story from an old man. In 1949, during the regime changeover in China, he was a political instructor for a Communist militia, and was acting under orders to suppress local bandits. One day they executed several arrested bandits, but at one point the execution of a man failed as one of the guns misfired. When the shooter, who had checked and adjusted his gun, asked whether he should shoot a second time, for some reason the instructor hesitated and did not say yes. A decade later, the instructor, who had become a high-level government cadre, returned to the same town on business. He ran into a happy farmer carrying rice on a mountain path who called on him, “Instructor Jin, do you remember me?” Jin didn’t, not until the farmer thanked him profusely for not taking his life.
Now, from the comfort of my American home, whenever I hear news about a teenage suicide bomber, my heart aches not only for the people hurt, but also for the teen bomber. There exist two irreconcilable worlds in our time, one views a suicide bomber as a hero and another views him as a terrorist. But to the family, he is most likely nothing more than a son, or a brother. He reminds me, painfully, of the Chinese teenagers I knew in my childhood. While my elder sister gave up her life at 16 during the Cultural Revolution for her reverence of Mao, her peers, those known as Red Guards, fiercely killed each other. They killed, not because they were ruffians, but because of their perceived differences in ideology, however small the differences really were. It seems only time can teach the lesson and wake us up from a nightmare of heroism. I can’t help but wonder, if the teenage suicide bomber had survived and lived for another 10, 20 or 30 years, what would he think and say about his action.
These two seemingly unrelated threads formed “Second Encounter.” I am indebted to Paumanok Review for publishing this story and to In Posse Review for publishing online my first story in English.

Alicia Gifford: “Toggling the Switch,” published in Narrative Magazine.
“Toggling the Switch” is the result of a moral dilemma I liked to pose to friends: What if you hit someone in your car, and killed them? Say, you’d been drinking. Maybe you’d smoked some pot, too. Say, no one saw it. Say, the accident was unavoidable. Say the victim was dead dead dead and nothing you could do would change that. Say, you had everything to lose. Would you turn yourself in? If you could get away with it? Would you be tempted?
All my friends unequivocally said yes, they’d turn themselves in. But I wasn’t so sure. The drive for self-preservation is a strong one, and it’s hard to say what anyone would do once confronted with the circumstances. And so I wrote this to explore it some, to pose the question.
Was Toni wrong to do what she did? Are there absolutes?
What would you do?

Richard Grayson: “Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn,” published in Fiction Warehouse.
Like many of the stories I’ve written over the past 30 years, this one is autobiographical. Although sometimes it seems as if half the writers in the country now live in Brooklyn, the part of the borough where I grew up was in some ways closer to Manhattan, Kansas, than the Manhattan across the East River. It’s a frankly nostalgic story in which I’m attempting to describe how libraries have influenced the narrator as a writer and a would-be adult. I used the different branch libraries as a framing device because I have a hard time writing linear fiction.

Trebor HealeyThe Mercy Seat,” published in Blithe House Quarterly.
Things had been going badly wrong, and out of the frustration, anger and despair, I sat down to rant on paper, and it grew into something else-a door opened to all the chaos, the crap, the hideous mess of life. I started out in a fury but ended up with a broken heart. Along the way, I ranted and raved, thought twice, admitted it hurts, felt the hopelessness, remembered love is the answer. Tragic. Comic. Then I laughed until I cried, organized my thoughts, and wrote the damn pain into a love story.

Dave Housley: “Ryan Seacrest Is Famous,” published in Barrelhouse.
This story surprised me a little bit. I had this idea about a guy who is being driven crazy by the fact that Ryan Seacrest is famous and he isn’t. This may have something to do with my deep-rooted feeling that I should have been a Beastie Boy, despite the fact that I can’t rap and have no musical talent and grew up listening to hair metal in central Pennsylvania. I think men in their thirties, or at least a lot of the ones I know, have a tough time coming to grips with the fact that their lives are more or less settled, and they generally have NOT become rock stars or power forwards or famous gonzo authors. There’s an aha moment that really kind of sucks and you either get past that, as most do, or it drives you crazy, which is what’s happening to this guy. I hope the story gets at that a little bit, but does it in a funny, offbeat kind of way. After all, it’s really not that bad to not be Ryan Seacrest.

Joan Shaddox Isom: “Remade Tobacco,” published in Eclectica Magazine.
I live in NE Oklahoma, the end of the infamous “Trail of Tears,” (referring to the historical Cherokee removal from the southeastern part of the country.) While working as a writer-in-residence in Oklahoma schools, some Native American students often talked to me about conflicts, both cultural and religious/spiritual. I began thinking about how some of these young people were caught within two or more forces: one, their elders; two, their parents, often practical people just trying to make a living, and three, school and peer groups. Throw in a father emotionally damaged from a war, and you have a complicated household through which my protagonist must navigate. The reader may decide whether she is coping, or whether she has fallen into the dysfunctional climate around her.

Corey Mesler: “Madam Sabat’s Grave”, published in Pindeldyboz.
“Madam Sabat’s Grave” is a piece from my forthcoming, crazy-quilt novel, We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon. As such, its genesis is tied deeply to the 2-year genesis of the whole. The novel-and the story-stem from my belief that the 1960s entered my bloodstream like sickle cell anemia, setting up its gypsy camp, leaving me a hippie for life. That, coupled with my cockeyed, anti-research method of employing history, fashioned the mad impulses behind these tales.

Chika Unigwe: “Dreams,” published in Eclectica Magazine.
Ms. Unigwe is currently on travel and was not able to contribute.

Please take the time to read these fine stories, and then vote for your favorite here.