By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
6:29 AM EDT, September 3, 2013
Unlike places such as Montana or Texas with their never-ending skies and wide-open plains, Maryland rewards those who stop and take a closer look. It's a state where views may be best appreciated at the level of an extravagantly petaled flower or detailed cornice.
So perhaps it's not surprising that the state also produces writers who excel at bringing individual moments into sharp focus by championing that literary form in miniature, the short story. On Tuesday, three authors with area connections who all have won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction will read from their work at the Ivy Bookshop:
Geoffrey Becker, 54, is an English professor at Towson University. He won the prestigious prize in 2009 for his collection "Black Elvis," which chronicles the moments in the lives of modern-day vagabonds. The Baltimore resident and his wife are the parents of a 7-year-old son.
Harvey Grossinger, 65, picked up the award in 1997 for "The Quarry" which explores the at-times fraught relationships between Jewish-American fathers and their sons. A Bethesda resident, Grossinger has taught writing at several area colleges, including the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, College Park and Washington's American University.
And E.J. Levy won the O'Connor Award last year for "Love, In Theory," which features stories about people whose heads duke it out with their hearts. Levy, who is in her 40s, lives in Leesburg, Va. She taught for four years at American University and currently is an assistant professor at Colorado State University.
All three had insights to offer about the pleasures and perils of a life dedicated to perfecting the close-up shot.
You all have either written novels or are in the process of writing them. Can you talk about the difference between long-form and short-form writing?
Levy: The short story has a density and richness and beauty and intimacy that it's hard to find in any form of writing other than poetry. Writing a short story is a little bit like making love. There's an intense pleasure that may be brief and that leads to an illuminating conclusion.
I'm pregnant now with my first child, and it seems to me that writing a novel is more gestational than writing a short story. Reading a novel takes more time and writing one takes more time. It slowly reshapes your world.
Becker: I love E.J.'s metaphor. It's sort of the difference between making love and being in a long-term relationship. Writing a novel takes forever, and you're not the same person at the end. You've changed. You've moved. Real life tends to filter in when you're writing a novel in an ongoing way that it probably doesn't when you're writing a short story.
Grossinger: I don't consider myself a natural short-story writer. When I entered a graduate writing program in the '80s, my short stories were just novels in disguise. I had to keep chopping them down. I'm just more drawn to the long form. Short stories have a much narrower vision. They're a moment in time. You can't exfoliate the entire life of a character, with their beginnings and ends, in a short story in the same way you can in a novel.
Everyone always talks about how busy people are today, how no one has enough time, what a short-attention-span generation we've become. So you'd think that short-story collections would be more popular than novels. But the opposite is true.
Levy: I think there are a lot of closet short-story readers. Look at the sales each year for "Best American Short Stories." But it's much easier for an agent to pitch a full-length narrative and say why they think you can get it on the best-seller lists than it is to pitch a short-story collection. How do you explain in a sound bite what a group of short stories is about? They all have different characters and plots.
Grossinger: Book sales are determined by marketing departments, and novels get most of the publicity. Reading short stories isn't the central focus that it was in the '40s, '50s or even the early '60s, when people would sit down and find a short story in The Saturday Evening Post or Collier's. There are fewer magazines. And the magazines that are still around publish hardly any fiction.
Becker: That time Harvey's talking about, when reading a short story was part of everyday life — I think television helped kill that era. Before television, you'd come home from work, you'd have a half-hour to kill before dinner, you'd say, "I think I'll read a short story." Now, you watch a sitcom. Television provides too much distraction.
I myself find reading a collection of short stories to be not the greatest experience. It can be a little wearying, even when I'm reading a collection by a writer that I'm a huge fan of, like Lorrie Moore or Flannery O'Connor. After you read two or three, they all start to seem the same. I'm not sure that short stories are meant to be read sequentially any more than novels are. That's not how they're written.
How does an idea for a story come to you?
Levy: When I write fiction, I'm writing about what happens next. When I'm writing nonfiction, I'm writing about what happened to me in the past. I'm trying to figure out which bus ran me down.
Fiction most often starts for me as a kind of echo. I hear a phrase or I meet someone or I see something, and it has a kind of heightened resonance. It's hard to say why. And then I'll have almost a reportorial instinct and I'll feel compelled to record the phrase or the moment or the way someone is holding her hand.
Grossinger: I usually start with the plot. It's a very conscious decision. For instance, I might decide, "I'm going to write a very long novel that will be split in half. One half will take place in New York, and the other half will be set in Indiana." The characters come from the plot. I don't know where they come from. They just kind of emerge.
Becker: I'm often interested in capturing a time and a place in some way, and a story comes when I imagine characters being in conflict.
My story "Iowa Winter" came out of a real-life experience. I was invited to a reunion for a very conservative family. There were two young men there who were both clearly gay and clearly very sick. No one acknowledged either their sexual orientation or their illness, though both of the young men were being loved and embraced by the whole family. The way that we can love certain people and simultaneously deny who they are is fascinating to me.
Tell me about the central questions you were exploring in each of these collections.
Levy: I agree with [short-story writer] Lee K. Abbott that obsessing is the most human thing we can do. For me, one of the pleasures of writing a story collection is that you can explore an obsession from many different angles, exhaust it, and then move on.
My obsession in this collection was about how we might integrate the heart and the mind. We tend to segregate these in American culture, where a strong streak of anti-intellectualism prevails.
Grossinger: I write about the Holocaust and its after-effects. Not so much what it did to the Jews in Europe, but the impact that it had on the next generation, on the people who didn't experience it firsthand.
All four of my grandparents lost most of their families in World War II. When I was a child, I grew up in the Bronx in a neighborhood that was filled with Holocaust survivors. I also used to teach a course on Holocaust testimony at American University in Washington.
Becker: I'm a musician and I've moved around a great deal, so I have a lot of stories about people who are a little rootless. Art and art-making fascinates me. In the same way that musicians have to learn how to shut up, so do writers. That's one of the things I explore in my stories. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes you make the biggest impact when you play the silences.
If you go
Flannery O'Connor Award winners Geoffrey Becker, E.J. Levy and Harvey Grossinger will read from their short-story collections at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or go to http://www.theivybookshop.com
About the books
Geoffrey Becker's 'Black Elvis" was released Oct. 15, 2009. 200 pages, $24.95. E.J. Levy's "Love, In Theory" was released Sept. 20, 2012. 224 pages; $24.95. Harvey Grossinger's "The Quarry" was released Feb. 1, 1997. 280 pages, $19.95. All three books were published by the University of Georgia Press.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun