For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Sam Weller: The Short Form Interview

In a short story, there is a world and a history to the characters that a reader must imagine, must create and, in a way, write for themselves.

Author of The Bradbury Chronicles and Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews. Editor of Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury

The Interview

What draws you to short stories?

I like the “white space” involved in the form. In a short story, there is a world and a history to the characters that a reader must imagine, must create and, in a way, write for themselves. The reader is empowered to infer and imagine that which is not always included on the page. Same with the endings of short stories. There is so often more that could be said; more that could be examined. Novels do this too, of course, but a writer has much more territory, more breathing room to examine and spell things out for an audience in the novel form.  One added bonus for me is that I have so many ideas, I will simply never get them all out if they were all novelized. The short story affords me the opportunity to exorcise my idea demons.

In the end, all the experimentation is worthless if it doesn’t instruct, elicit an emotional response, or entertain. 

How do you find that balance in teaching writing “rules” while making students aware that rules are malleable and, at the end of the day, one must simply write and write some more?

You can't effectively experiment before learning the bedrock rules of the art. I’m sure Jackson Pollack knew the fundamentals of painting and composition before going off into splattermania. You have to understand grammar, be able to string sentences together, understand story, voice, and more. You have to be able to write clearly and allow your audience to see what you, the writer, see. These skills are basic, but they take time and ass-in-the-seatedness. I've  been writing professionally for 20 years but I am just now really pushing the boundaries of experimentation with an essay that is very, very fragmented. It is a mosaic of memories about my love affair with Los Angeles. I wrote a personal essay a few years ago about moving there when I was 24. It was told in a very linear structure, and this new essay is a continuation, but architecturally much more complex. But in the end, all the experimentation is worthless if it doesn’t instruct, elicit an emotional response, or entertain. I dislike writers who craft things with absolutely no story, just to show how brilliant and art-farty they can be. Yawn. I need to be moved emotionally and drawn in. I don’t want to read a long rumination that goes absolutely nowhere. A writing professor I know said to me the other day that “Story is not cool” right now. To me, story will always be cool.

You’ve spoken of Bradbury’s advice, “don’t think,” and how that can have a liberating effect on the writing process. How do you wrangle your impulses and the ‘don’t think’ philosophy during the revision process?

Oh, Bradbury thought during the revision stages. And he generally didn’t like rewriting. Rewriting Fahrenheit 451 was agony for him. Even late in life, he hated rewriting Farewell Summer, the sequel to Dandelion Wine. But Bradbury believed, and he taught me this as well, that first drafts must be impulses—bursts of mad inspiration. “Madness, Maddened,” as he liked to say. They must be intuitive and fast and fun. Hemingway believed this too. So did Steinbeck. Steinbeck said, “Write as freely and rapidly as possible. Don’t correct until the whole thing is down.” Only then can the intellectual side step in to take over for the subconscious.

A writing professor I know said to me the other day that “Story is not cool” right now. To me, story will always be cool.

What role does the short story play in a writer’s development, and in the field of literature as a whole?

It's invaluable for a writer just starting out because he or she can experiment and play rather quickly with all sorts of ideas, forms, and styles. Writers learn beginnings and different styles of endings. They can write in the first and the third  (or the second); they can examine point-of-view and the storyteller’s voice; they can experiment with narrative forms: dreams, epistolary stories; fairy tales, fragmented narratives; model-tellings and so much more. You can do all of this rather quickly because the form is, inherently, fast. Novels take much longer, you don’t get the opportunity to try all this out in as short a period of experimentation. Short stories provide a fertile learning ground. It’s like a college preparatory school for the longer narrative.

How do your goals differ when writing a short story versus a longer form? Does the short form call for a different focus, or lend itself to more experimentation?

I am just writing my first novel now. But I have written a 130,000-word biography on Ray Bradbury as well as a book of interviews with him. The long-form is tough. You have to have gumption, fortitude, and a ton of patience to stay with it. It’s like running a marathon. You can certainly experiment with a novel, but not as quickly.

Recommended by Sam Weller

Evening Primrose

You know the sensation one has, peering into the half-light of a vivarium? One sees bark, pebbles, a few leaves, nothing more. And then, suddenly, a stone breathes—it is a toad; there is a chameleon, another, a coiled adder, a mantis among the leaves. The whole case seems crepitant with life. Perhaps the whole world is. One glances at one’s sleeve, one’s feet.

So it was with the shop. I looked, and it was empty. I looked, and there was an old lady, clambering out from behind the monstrous clock. There were three girls, elderly ingéneus, incredibly emaciated, simpering at the entrance of the perfumery. Their hair was a fine floss, pale as gossamer. Equally brittle and colourless was a man with the appearance of a colonel of southern extraction, who stood regarding me while he caressed mustachios that would have done credit to a crystal shrimp. A chintzy woman, possibly of literary tastes, swam forward from the curtains and the drapes.

We read it in The Dark Descent.

The Fog Horn

It was a cold night, as I have said; the high tower was cold, the light coming and going, and the Fog Horn calling and calling through the raveling mist. You couldn’t see far and you couldn’t see plain, but there was the deep sea moving on its way about the night earth, flat and quiet, the colour of gray mud, and here were the two of us alone in the high tower, and there, far out at first, was a ripple, followed by a wave, a rising, a bubble, a bit of froth. And then, from the surface of the cold sea came a head, a large head, dark-coloured, with immense eyes, and then a neck. 

We read it in The Vintage Bradbury.

Goodbye to All That

I remember once, one cold bright December evening in New York, suggesting to a friend who complained of having been around too long that he come with me to a party where there would be, I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, “new faces.” He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. “New faces,” he said finally, “don't tell me about new faces.” It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised “new faces,” there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. 

This is a memoir-essay about Didion's moving out of New York City.

The Red Convertible

I’d bought a color TV set for my mom and the rest of us while Henry was away. Money still came very easy. I was sorry I’d ever bought it though, because of Henry. I was also sorry I’d bought color, because with black-and-white the pictures seem older and farther away. But what are you going to do? He sat in front of it, watching it, and that was the only time he was completely still. But it was the kind of stillness that you see in a rabbit when it freezes and before it will bolt. He was not easy. He sat in his chair gripping the armrests with all his might, as if the chair itself was moving at a high speed and if he let go at all he would rocket forward and maybe crash right through the set.