Tuesday, April 15, 2014

“Thank You For Having Me” (You’re Welcome!): Lorrie Moore at Powell’s

By Molly Reid
Portland, Ore., April 11, 2014

Moore: Reading from Bark at Powell's
I’m obviously not the only one who goes a little fangirl for Lorrie Moore. The reading room at Powell’s Books was packed, people standing in the back and along the aisles, clutching their copies of Self-Help and A Gate at the Stairs, excitedly twittering like all the birds of America (see what I did there?).

Lorrie Moore read from Bark, her first story collection in fifteen years. Moore has written several lovely novels, but, for many, she is one of the reigning queens of the contemporary short story. (In a talk she gave years ago for Literary Arts’ Portland Arts and Lectures series, in response to a question about how she knows whether something is a short story or a novel, she likened it to knowing whether an animal is a dog or a cat: “If you throw the ball, and the creature goes eagerly after it and then brings it back to you, wanting to continue for eternity or for as long as you can stand it, whichever comes first, you’ve got a novel. If you throw the ball and the creature doesn’t budge but just looks at you as if you are out of your mind, you may have a short story – or you may just have a cat.”)

With humor that’s often described as mordant or sardonic, but feels more soft hearted than that, she handles the serious matters of life with lyric precision, offering up your very heart disguised as somebody else’s, or something elsea joke, a visit to a dead friend come to life, a dog named Cat.

Bark is what animals do in fear, in anger, in loneliness. It’s a laugh, a cough. A warning. Bark is also the protective layer, able to peel off and heal, sometimes grown rough and scabby over oozes of sap. In the last story of the collection, which she read from, the narrator tells her daughter that she saw a PBS show “that said only the outer bark of the brain — and it does look like bark — is gray. Apparently the other half of the brain has a lot of white matter. For connectivity.” In typical Lorrie Moore fashion, these multiple meanings echo and branch and contradict themselves throughout the stories of this collection. Her characters are a little older, if not wiser, have become more layered, have grown a bit more spiritually gnarled.

The title of the story she read at Powell’s, “Thank You for Having Me,” comes from one of the characters, a farmer who is playing music at his ex-wife’s wedding in Wisconsin, singing songs like, “I Want You Back,” and “I Will Always Love You.” But this character is somehow not pathetic or pitiful, or not only: 
Except he didn’t seem to want her back. He was smiling and nodding at everyone and seemed happy to be part of this send-off. He was the entertainment. He wore a T-shirt that read, THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME. This seemed remarkably sanguine and useful as well as a little beautiful. 
This is typical of the kind of dance performed in the story between humor and pathos, the push-pull of play and heart Lorrie Moore is known for.

This story doesn’t, actually, have much of a plot, at least not in the traditional sense. The only real event is that some bikers roll in and the head biker (wearing a football helmet with plush puppy dog ears glued to each side) gives a little speech about life, shooting a gun in the air. However, the bikers quickly realize they’re at the wrong wedding and speed off before anything really happens. Most of the story consists of the narrator, a woman living in the wake of her own heartbreak, a husband who left, talking to various characters, to the bride’s ex-husband, to her sassy daughter, and musing about life, and death. But the reason it works so well is simple: The writing is so f-ing funny. Every few lines, the audience erupted in laughter, and Moore knew exactly how to read with those interruptions, is obviously used to pausing as her audience continually loses control. She read: 
Aloneness was the air in your tires, the wind in your hair. You didn’t have to go looking for it with open arms. With open arms, you fell of the bike: I was drinking my wine too quickly. 
She read: 
The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding. Why hadn’t I thought of that? 
These lines are funny on the page, but Lorrie Moore delivers them with such sharp smoky intimacy, they feel brand-new, and even funnier.   
 
“Most of the humor I’m interested in has to do with awkwardness,” Moore says in a 2001 Paris Review interview, “the makeshift theater that springs up between people at really awkward times—times of collision, emergency, surrealism, aftermath, disorientation.” This is what prevents Moore’s stories from seeming like just a string of one-liners, wordplay, amusing musingsof which there are many. Most of the stories in this new collection have very serious backdrops: divorce, war, death, torture, psychosis. Two of them—"Referential" and “Wings”re-imagine tales by Nabokov and James. They trace the moments right before and after loss, the language play and humor inextricable from this loss, what floats to the surface when reason and safety fall away.

The story she read at Powell’s is the last story in the collection, and it feels more optimistic than the rest of the stories. Though death and loss still lurk, it takes place at that staple of comedy, a wedding. After all the heartbreak and sorrow, Moore tips the balance a bit, and ends her story, and her collection, on a hopeful note: 
I needed my breath for dancing, so I tried not to laugh. Instead I fixed my face into a grin, and, ah, for a second the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn. 
The red and spinning barn! (I just wanted to try that out, another thing Lorrie Moore can get away with and I can’t: the exclamation mark).

In the Q&A after the reading, Moore politely and thoroughly answered the audience’s questions, even the ones that seemed to me blurted unformed and absent of reason. But she had some good advice, delivered with the same kind of crackerjack humor and poise as her stories: “This is why it’s called art. There’s an element of artifice to it. You don’t write every single thing someone says. You write down the essential thing, and you get people bouncing off each other in interesting ways, and if it’s not interesting, don’t put it in,” she said about dialogue. And: “The difference between someone who is a writer and who’s not a writer is that they’re just writing things down,” in response to a question about whether there was anything in particular that influenced her to become a writer. 

I mean it when I say that’s some of the best advice about writing I’ve ever heard. If I could remember just these two things, if all writers could, what a world it would be: If it’s not interesting don’t put it in. Writers write things down.      

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Video: The Story Prize Event on March 5, Andrea Barrett, Rebecca Lee, and George Saunders

In case you missed The Story Prize event on March 5 at The New School, here's the video. That night, the three finalists—Andrea Barrett, Rebecca Lee, and George Saunders—read from and discussed their work on-stage. And at the culmination of the event, we announced the winner for books published in 2013: George Saunders' Tenth of December. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What the Judges Had to Say About Rebecca Lee's Bobcat

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Stephen Enniss, Antonya Nelson, and Rob Spillman. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.


Here's what the judges said about Rebecca Lee's Bobcat:
“The pleasures of Rebecca Lee’s writing are many—from beautifully crafted sentences to sublime lyricism to biting wit. Simultaneously romantic and cynical, funny and serious, clever and honest—the stories in Bobcat somehow manage several delicate balancing acts with seeming ease. I can’t remember taking greater pleasure in reading a short story collection, and I felt truly bereft when it was over.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What the Judges Had to Say About Andrea Barrett's Archangel

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Stephen Enniss, Antonya Nelson, and Rob Spillman. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.


Here's what the judges said about Andrea Barrett's Archangel:
“When a void seems to separate the humanities and the sciences, Andrea Barrett offers us stories of discovery that bridge this chasm and reunite these estranged dimensions of experience. These stories probe our innate curiosity about our world. The men and women of her stories pose questions, and in that boldness affirm the power of the creative mind in community with others. Even as scientific principles come into clearer view, fictive patterns emerge in Archangel, reminding us of the larger narrative of human advance and discovery that is both personal and communal. Andrea Barrett writes stories that bind.”

Friday, March 7, 2014

News Flash: What They're Saying About The Story Prize Event

Andrea Barrett, George Saunders, and Rebecca Lee
(photo: Beowulf Sheehan)
Here are some press accounts of The Story Prize event on March 5, at which eventual winner George Saunders and fellow finalists Andrea Barrett and Rebecca Lee read from and discussed their work onstage at The New School:

The Outlet (Electric Literature)

Like Fire (Open Letters Monthly)

Last Night's Reading: George SaundersAndrea Barrett

AP

Reuters

PublishersWeekly

GalleyCat

NPR

Shelf Awareness

Poets & Writers

Entertainment Weekly

The Post Standard and here

Star News

Book People

Fiction Writers Review




What the Judges Had to Say About George Saunders' Tenth of December

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Stephen Enniss, Antonya Nelson, and Rob Spillman. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

George Saunders accepts The Story Prize
(photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Here's what the judges said about George Saunders' Tenth of December, this year's winner of The Story Prize:
"This is a masterful short story collection. Full of formal innovations whose purpose is to illuminate character in new ways, these stories reveal the darkest parts of humanity while simultaneously giving us light and hope. They read like an indictment of our current condition but also as a timeless reflection on morality in a frequently unmoral world. The shifts in tone and point of view, sometimes within the same story, are dazzling. Craft, vision, and heart come together in an alchemical reaction creating a work of art that is much greater than the sum of its parts. At turns beautiful and heartbreaking, Tenth of December is destined to be a work of art that defines our times." 
"George Saunders offers, in Tenth of December, a vision and version of our world that takes into account the serious menace all around us without denying the absurd pleasures that punctuate life. This book is very funny and very sad. Its author is generous and wise, and his voice, in bringing us The News, is utterly, charmingly, wonderfully unique."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

George Saunders Wins His First Book Award, The Story Prize, for Tenth of December

George Saunders with the winner's bowl
(photo by Beowulf Sheehan)
To say that George Saunders' work has been widely celebrated, is something of an understatement. He has been a fellow of both the McArthur and a Guggenheim variety. He has won the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper's magazine and have been chosen for the annual O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Story collections numerous times. He has appeared on Charlie Rose, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Colbert Report. Magazine cover stories have been written about him, and he has had had a best-selling book, which appeared on the The New York Times lists for 15 weeks and reached as high as no. 2 on the hardcover list (all for a short story collection!).

Pretty heady stuff—especially considering that those are just some of the highlights. Still, one thing George Saunders had never accomplished—that is until last night—was winning a book award. Well, now he has. Saunders' story collection, Tenth of December, is this year's winner of The Story Prize. After he and fellow finalists Andrea Barrett and Rebecca Lee read from and discussed their work on stage at The New School in New York City, the Founder of The Story Prize, Julie Lindsey, announced Saunders as the winner, and he took the stage to accept the award.

In the days ahead, here and on our Web site, we'll post more about this, including citations from the judges, photos (also on Instagram) from the event and the after party, video, and links to media coverage.