For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Christen Enos: The Short Form Interview

It would be worth it to teach the [comedic theory] class again just to hear students argue whether or not rape jokes can ever be funny.

Author of several short shorts, including “Cats with Pitiful Mystiques,” a 2008 Pushcart Prize nominee

The Interview

How long have you been teaching at Northeastern? 

I've been at Northeastern for almost eight years now.

Is it true that you teach a class on comedic theory? What does that involve—any legendary debates?

I haven't actually taught the comedy class in a while—changing departmental goals and all that—but I do miss it.  The class was for the Freshman comp requirement, and it wasn't about the history of comedy or how to create comedy; rather, comedy was the tool by which students learned to think analytically and critically about texts.  My goal was to teach them how to be college students, without them fully realizing it.

Some of the issues we discussed included how comedy is a tool for positioning people or groups of people as lower than others.  On one hand, making someone, particularly someone with authority, the butt of the joke allows the comedian to achieve power over them.  (We watched The Ali G Show during this sequence.)  We also discussed the flip side to that power, which is, of course, using comedy as a tool of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on by framing others as less-than.  (To discuss this, we read an essay titled “Auschwitz Jokes.”)  Students (hopefully) saw that comedy is never “just a joke,” but has real power.  It would be worth it to teach the class again just to hear students argue whether or not rape jokes can ever be funny.

Some of the issues we discussed included how comedy is a tool for positioning people or groups of people as lower than others.

Thanks for sharing with us a good amount of stories, some of which are unpublished. Are you starting to think of them as forming a collection?

I never write stories with an eye on a collection; I know some writers find that approach allows them to focus, but I worry it would make my work too self-conscious and constricted.  These are just the stories I've written over the course of a few years.  However, as the stories start to pile up, it is difficult to resist the urge to self-analyze and find common threads of themes and topics, both the overt (I like to write about young girls and sisters) and the less obvious (many of my stories deal with how our loved ones can inadvertently hurt us). 

That being said, I have recently begun to think about having a collection, but I'd rather wait until I have “enough” stories, whatever that means, and then see how they could fit together.  Right now, I've been focusing on full-length stories, and I'd love to have a collection that mixed both short shorts and full length. (If Hemingway could do it in In Our Time...)  I think that would create an interesting rhythm to the collection.

And as a writer focusing on short shorts, are you actively looking at other collections of the genre?

I have to give a shout-out to the amazing Rose Metal Press, which has a yearly short short chapbook contest and has published some beautiful collections, both inside and out.  (Full disclosure: The editors are good friends of mine.)  The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts by Claudia Smith and Color Plates by Adam Golaski are some of my favorite short short collections from that press.

Have stories always come to you at a shorter length, or is this a fit you discovered for yourself in the process of trial and error? 

I started my MFA program focusing on traditional-length stories (my thesis was eventually non-fiction, but that’s another story), and it wasn't until RMP published their first book, Brevity & Echo: An Anthology of Short Short Stories, that I realized short shorts were where I should be looking.  It was an epiphany for me: I saw that the stories I really wanted to tell were often about moments, capturing the power of an instant that changes lives.  To put another way, stories did always “come to me” at a shorter length, but—possibly because it felt so natural—it took me some time to realize that was OK, that I didn't need to stretch the story out to 12, 15, 18 pages to make it a real and valuable piece.

Is there a lot more you know about your characters and their situations than what ends up in the story? 

I first came across the “What did your character have for breakfast? What's their favorite movie?  Etc. Etc. Etc.” questionnaire in my high school drama class (it's very versatile), but I have to admit that establishing encyclopedic knowledge about the characters pre-writing isn't my approach; I have what I need and I put it in the story.  However, in telling the story, I get comfortable enough with the characters that, if asked afterward, I probably could expound on their lives and futures.

I do find that the most natural short shorts to write are the ones where I know both the first and last lines of the story before I start.

Some stories like “Idle Runaways” and “Headlights” have the kind of endings without which the stories would be different altogether. I wonder if you generally work backwards or you find the endings as you write. 

It doesn't always happen this way, but I do find that the most natural short shorts to write are the ones where I know both the first and last lines of the story before I start.  The story I'm thinking of is “Blue,” which ends with the children catching blue snow on their tongues; my hometown had a Superfund cleanup site, and I read somewhere that it had snowed blue there once, and that it had a very high incidence of cancer; as soon as I read that, I had a destination for the story.  Regarding those examples, I knew how “Headlights” would end, but not “Idle Runaways.”  If I knew how to ensure a first and last line before I started, my life would be a lot easier. 

Do you find that it's different when you write longer stories?

I do think that, for short shorts more so than longer stories, there is that emphasis on the “twist/tie” ending, as I've heard it referred to: You don't want to overdo it and make it seem contrived, but they do tend to end with a bit of a flourish.

In one story you have an eleven-year-old smoking, and in another, two twelve-year-olds mock-stripping once the adult has gone to bed. Tell us more that.

Huh, I never made that connection. This might be because, in both of the examples you note, the illicit behavior is used for different purposes and from different points of view: In “Disappearance,” the sight of her younger sister smoking is a shock for the narrator, who’d assumed her sister needed protecting, while in “Dancing for the Elephant Man,” the main character explores her sexuality through the “game” she plays with her cousin.

I’m not sure that the coincidence needs to be read any more deeply than a need for conflict, and the inconsistency between how children are viewed vs. how they really act is always a fertile ground.  Not really short story related, but I recently finished a nonfiction book about young girls who crush on celebrities, and one of the themes discussed is the idealization of girlhood as pure and innocent, when in fact it’s a time of intense lust and obsession.

Do you also teach screenwriting? 

I haven’t had the chance to teach screenwriting yet, but the foundation of my writing education came from screenwriting. 

I tend to be a visual writer, and I love subtext more than anything.

Would you say movies have had any influence on your story-writing? 

Before I went to film school at NYU, facing a blank page seemed like the most daunting task in the world, but once I learned about screenplay structure (precipitating incident by page 5, plot point one at page 30, etc.), I learned that you’re never out there facing a completely blank page: There’s scaffolding, and you “just” have to fill it in.  I spent my time at NYU analyzing and writing scripts, graduated, and decided that film was too collaborative/expensive/external, so I began to pursue fiction.  As time went on, I learned more about the “rules” of fiction, but I do return to screenwriting as a touchstone, especially since it foregrounds conflict, which can be difficult for us passive, observant writer-types.  Plus, I tend to be a visual writer, and I love subtext more than anything.

It's interesting to think about all the writers who didn't have cinema as a reference, and now for there to be a wealth of it with its own claim on specific ways of storytelling.

It is fascinating to think about how the advent of film changed the options available to writers, and not just those who pursued screenwriting.  (Of course, today that dominant storytelling medium is television, and the great work writers are doing there is changing the game again.)  There is the concern, as with any formula, of becoming formulaic.  However, screenplay rules aren’t that that dissimilar from the appeal of short shorts: The greatest creativity can come from constraints.

 

Recommended by Christen Enos

How To Be a Real Ballerina
Excerpt

Slather your feet in Preparation H.  Don’t be embarrassed to buy Preparation H. Wear a tampon the very first time. Keep lavender in your shoe bag. Keep your toe nails trim. Stay trim. Drink Diet Pepsi. Eat rice cakes. Pretend you like rice cakes. Learn that pas de chat means “step like a chat.” Let your pas de chats improve. Abstain from growing breasts. Stretch every day. Tell guys how flexible you are. Talk shit. Talk shit about the snow queen’s fouté turns. Point your toes while watching television. Turn out your hips while sitting in a desk. Ignore college brochures, college fairs, career counselors, your parents. Get an apartment with a clothesline so your tights and leotards can dance in the wind without you. Stay mysterious. Wear scarves year round and sandals imported from exotic locations. Smoke, but keep bobby pins in the ashtray of your car. Try heroin once.

The Lover
Excerpt

On Action Line, someone is saying, “And I live by the airport, what is this that hits my house, that showers my room on takeoff? We can hear it. What is this, I demand to know! My lawn is healthy, my television reception is fine but something is going on without my consent and I am not well, my wife’s had a stroke and someone stole my stamp collection and took the orchids off my trees.” The girl sips her bourbon and shakes her head. The greediness and wickedness of people, she thinks, their rudeness and lust. “Well,” the Answer Man says, “each piece of earth is bad for something. Something is going to get it on it and the land itself is no longer safe. It’s weakening. If you dig deep enough to dip your seed, beneath the crust you’ll find an emptiness like the sky. No, nothing’s compatible to living in the long run. Next caller, please.” The girl goes to the telephone and dials hurriedly. It is very late. She whispers, not wanting to wake the child. There is static and humming. “I can’t make you out,” the Answer Man shouts. The girl says more firmly, “I want to know my hour.” “Your hour came, dear,” he says. “It went when you were sleeping. It came and saw you dreaming and it went back to where it was.”

We read it in Taking Care.

Originally published in Esquire, Vol 80 #1.

Hiding
Excerpt

We saw one at a football game once. He had a huge mustard overcoat and a bow tie and a pink face like a ham. He bent down to shake our tiny hands, half-looking at Mum the whole time. Dad was someplace else getting the tickets. His name was Hank. After he went, Mum put her sunglasses on her head and told us she used to watch him play football at BC. Dad never wears a tie except to work. One time Gus got lost. We waited until the last people had trickled out and the stadium was practically empty. It had started to get dark and the headlights were crisscrossing out of the parking field. Finally Dad came back carrying him, walking fast, Gus’s head bobbing around and his face all blotchy. Dad rolled his eyes and made a kidding groan to Mum and we laughed because Gus was always getting lost. When Mum took him, he rammed his head onto her shoulder and hid his face while we walked back to the car, and under Mum’s hand you could see his back twitching, trying to hide his crying.

We read it in Monkeys.

Originally published in Grand Street, Vol. 2, No. 2.

Cross-Country Snow
Excerpt

Nick held down the top strand of the wire fence with his ski and George slid over. Nick followed him down to the road. They thrust bent-kneed along the road into a pine forest. The road became polished ice, stained orange and a tobacco yellow from the teams hauling logs. The skiers kept to the stretch of snow along the side. The road dipped sharply to a stream and then ran straight up-hill. Through the woods they could see a long, low-eaved, weather-beaten building. Through the treets it was a faded yellow. Closer the window frames were painted green. The paint was peeling. Nick knocked his clamps loose with one of his ski sticks and kicked off the skis.

The Bus To St. James's
Excerpt

During the brief speech in defense of conservative education that followed, Mr. Bruce noticed that Mrs. Sheridan was seated a few pews in front of him. With her was a tall man—her husband, presumably—with a straight back and black hair. When the talk ended, the meeting was opened for questions. The first question was from a mother who wanted advice on how to restrict her children’s use of television. While the rector was answering this question, Mr. Bruce noticed that the Sheridans were having an argument. They were whispering, and their disagreement seemed intense. Suddenly, Mrs. Sheridan separated herself from the argument. She had nothing further to say. Mr. Sheridan’s neck got red. He continued, in a whisper, to press his case, bending toward his wife, and shaking his head. Mrs. Sheridan raised her hand.

“Yes, Mrs. Sheridan,” the rector said.

Mr. Sheridan picked up his coat and his derby, and, saying, “Excuse me, please,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” passed in front of the other people in the pew, and left the chapel.

“Yes, Mrs. Sheridan?” the rector repeated.

“I wonder, Dr. Frisbee,” Mrs. Sheridan said, “if you and the board of trustees have ever thought of enrolling Negro children in St. James’s?”

We read it in New Yorker: Jan 14, 1956.