For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Hunter Kennedy: The Short Form Interview

I'm still working off the instructions given to me at fifteen by my seventeen year old fiction editor, who simply said, “The one rule is something's got to happen.”

Editor and author, The Minus Times 

The Interview

What draws you to short stories- as a reader or publisher? 

The first line, the first paragraph, the first page. The story draws me into the boat before I know there's a hook in my mouth. The writer accomplishes that with a demonstrated respect for the language, with risk taking and with an honesty that allows one to learn as they write. Surprise yourself and you'll surprise others.

Are there any misconceptions about the form?

Many, I would think, since so much of short fiction is overly stylized and ultimately formulaic. I'm still working off the instructions given to me at fifteen by my seventeen year old fiction editor, who simply said, “The one rule is something's got to happen.” There were no other rules.  I think it's healthy to be reminded of that occasionally.

I still remember David Berman's comment after reading one of my very early stories— it was something like, “You do know that most people have no idea what's going on here?”

What kind of shifts — be it stylistic or in subject matter — have you seen in The Minus Times submissions over the past 20 years?

Plot devices are becoming obsolete. You read Dostoevsky or Flaubert and everybody's fate hinges on a letter en route. Then in more recent fiction, it was the mysterious phone call. Now land lines have gone the way of the telegraph and communication is almost instantaneous-- yet most drama depends on people not talking to each other, because we fill that void with fantasies or paranoia. I expect a lot of current plots will require assumptions about characters' capabilities and/or knowledge of events that would wreck earlier novels right out of the gate. Yet they may themselves become quickly outdated, if not handled wisely.

There’s a controlled casualness — an organized fiction presented as nearly reckless — in your short fictions that are found with less frequency in longer pieces. Can you talk about what is happening when writing a short story that allows for this? 

That casual recklessness may be a reflection of my character. I still remember David Berman's comment after reading one of my very early stories-- it was something like, “You do know that most people have no idea what's going on here?”— but for some reason he really liked that disorientation. I got a little better at it as I got older, but the challenge I've always faced has been focusing my writing. Even today I still struggle to find my way through that wilderness of words. But at the time I wrote those early stories, I also consciously tapped into that urgency I felt as a young writer and applied it to characters in similarly precarious situations.  

Conversely, what kind of limitations do you find when writing short stories?

I would say character development. I put so much energy into developing characters or situations that I could run with it for a hundred pages but have to abandon them after three. And of course the real trick is knowing when to put down the pen.

If you’ll allow us some time travel, can you elaborate on the writing process for a story like “Tales of the Wing”?

Take the freshman roommate from boarding school that you hated. Remember a story he told you about his grandfather's house, which he claimed was on the Tennessee / Kentucky line. Create a scenario where you have a chance to visit the place while in an uneasy alliance and exploit the opportunity for a succinct coming-of-age story at your own expense.

Content suggests form, and then the necessities of that form help to guide and compress the content into the outlines of the larger piece.

As you’re writing, when does the form come to mind – for you, how do content and form interact?

I refuse to write formal outlines. I usually don't even know how a story is going to end until the words suggest themselves. But I do know the direction I'd like to take the story and do my best to shape the early trajectory. The best description of the process that seems to occur is this: content suggests form, and then the necessities of that form help to guide and compress the content into the outlines of the larger piece.

Recommended by Hunter Kennedy

Hitchcock's Tale
Excerpt

When I was fourteen years old I hit a man between the eyes with a pretty, smooth stone and killed him dead as hell. He'd shot one of Brother Yvo's deer. It was plain to see that the doe was thick in the sides with fawn. There was snow on the ground and the blood of the three slain creatures. Laudato si, oa la morte secunda no farra male. I put the man across my shoulders and walked back up the hill to the monastery.

Scandale D'Estime
Excerpt

Now and then there was a question of what we should do with the new women in our heads. You might go out with some local girl, but she was not really there, she was not the real faraway city woman in your cat head. You might kiss her and moil around — but she was, you knew, fifth string, a drear substitute for the musical woman in a black long-sleeve sweater you had in your mind on the seashore of the East — the gray, head-hurting East, very European to my mind, where you thought so much and the culture labored so heavy on you your heard hurt. The beauty and the wisdom of this woman — uttered along the seashore in weary sighs — was a steady dream, and I woke with it, pathetically, to attack a world fouled by the gloomy usual. I yearned to talk and grope with a woman who was exhausted by the world and would find me a “droll” challenge. She would be somewhat older. She either signed, or mumbled pure music. I had no interest in the young freshness of girls at all.

On the Prairie
Excerpt

There was one Irishman who to begin with puzzled me greatly: God knows what he used to be in his previous life. When it rained he always lay on his bunk and read the novels he had with him. He was a big, handsome man about 36 years old and he spoke beautiful English. He spoke German too.

This man arrived at the farm wearing a silk shirt and in fact he always wore a silk shirt to work in. When one wore out he took out a new one.

We read it in Tales of Love and Loss.

The Secret Sharer
Excerpt

“Why didn't you hail the ship?” I asked, a little louder.

He touched my shoulder lightly. Lazy footsteps came right over our heads and stopped. The second mate had crossed from the other side of the poop and might have been hanging over the rail, for all we knew.

“He couldn't hear us talking — could he?” my double breathed into my very ear, anxiously.

His anxiety was an answer, a sufficient answer, to the question I had put to him. An answer containing all the difficulty of that situation. I closed the port-hole quickly, to make sure. A louder word might have been overheard.

We read it in Txit Land and Sea.

The Gambler
Excerpt

“I think that roulette was devised specially for Russians,” I retorted; and when the Frechman smiled contempuously at my reply I further remarked that I was sure I was right; also that, speaking of Russians in the capacity of gamblers, I had far more blame for them than praise – of that he could be quite sure.

“Upon what do you base your opinion?” he inquired.

“Upon the fact that to the virtues and merits of the civilised Westerner there has become historically added – though this is not his chief point – a capacity for acquiring capital; whereas, not only is the Russian incapable of acquiring capital, need money; wherefore, we are glad of, and greatly devoted to, a method of acquisition like roulette – whereby, in a couple of hours, one may grow rich without doing any work. This method, I repeat, has a great attraction for us, but since we play in wanton fashion, and without taking any trouble, we almost invariably lose.”

We read it in The Gambler.

Hunter says, “This 150 page novella is just a short story compared to his novels.”