For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Manjushree Thapa: The Short Form Interview

If short stories are overlooked by book-buyers in favor of novelists, it's because the marketing for short stories is less aggressive. 

Author of Tilled Earth: Stories, Forget Kathmandu, and several others.

The Interview

What draws you to short stories?

I like compression in fiction. I think this is useful in novels too, but it's often best achieved in short stories. They can be more efficient than novels in creating a world.

The short form occupies a distinguished place in literature. 

Are there any misconceptions about the form?

There's a sense that short stories are lighter, or easier—both to write and to read—than novels. If this is true at all, it's purely because of the pragmatics. One can read or write a short story in less time than a novel. This doesn't diminish its richness, however. A short story can be every bit as affecting as a novel.     

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

In American creative writing classes, students learn craft almost wholly by writing short stories. Stories play a very important role in helping young writers find their voice. The short form has a long and distinguished tradition, however. They occupy a distinguished place in literature.  

How do a writer’s goals differ between writing short fiction vs. long? Does the short form allow more freedom to experiment?

It comes down to an issue of stamina. It's possible to experiment just as much in the long form, but for the writer the investment of time is greater—and the risk that the experiment will fail is also greater. I don't think that the short form is inherently more experimental than the long form. I just think it's easier for writers to experiment in the short form because any mistakes they might make would be less costly to them.  

In South Asia, particularly in non-English literature, the short form remains more popular than the long form, in part because there are so many magazines that print them and popularize them. 

What is the perception of writers who predominantly write short stories?

I don't think any critic would deny that writers such as Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Amy Hempel and Alice Munro were, and are, some of the best American writers around. In South Asia, particularly in non-English literature, the short form remains more popular than the long form, in part because there are so many magazines that print them and popularize them. 

If short stories are overlooked by book-buyers in favor of novelists, it's because the marketing for short stories is less aggressive. There's a sense that they don't sell as well as novels, and though this hasn't been true in my own experience as a writer, publishers tend not to market short story collections with quite the same gusto. 

Recommended by Manjushree Thapa

Emergency
Excerpt

We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers' graves. I'd never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there'd been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It's the drive-in, man!”

“The drive-in...” I wasn't sure what these words meant.

“They're showing movies in a fucking blizzard!” Georgie screamed.

“I see. I thought it was something else,” I said.

We read it in Jesus' Son.

Originally published in The New Yorker: Sept 16 1991.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Excerpt

She spoke to him in a loud voice as if he was deaf or stupid, and there was something wrong with the way she pronounced her words. An accent. He thought of Dutch—the Dutch were moving in around here—but she didn't have the heft of the Dutch women or the nice pink skin or the fair hair. She might have been under forty, but what did it matter? No beauty queen, ever.

In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried
Excerpt

“Tell me things I won't mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana—you see it looking full, you're seeing it end-on.

The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount—the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.

“Go on, girl,” she said. “You get used to it.”

I had my audience. I went on. Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings “Stand by Your Friends"? That Paul Anka did it too, I said. Does “You're Having Our Baby.” That he got sick of all that feminist bitching.

“What else?” she said. “Have you got something else?”

Oh, yes.

For her I would always have something else.

“Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied? That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back the name of the janitor. And that when they pressed her, she said she was sorry, that it was really the project director. But she was a mother, so I guess she had her reasons.”

“Oh, that's good,” she said. “A parable.”

“There's more about the chimp," I said. “But it will break your heart."

We read it in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.

Originally published in TriQuarterly.

The Noble Truths of Suffering
Excerpt

Some weeks before, I had received an invitation from the United States Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, His Excellency Eliot Auslander, to join him in honoring Richard Macalister, a Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed author. The invitation had been sent to my Sarajevo address only a week or so after I had arrived. I could not figure out how the Embassy had known I was there, though I had a few elaborately paranoid ideas. It troubled me greatly that I could be located so easily, for I had come to Sarajevo for shelter. My plan was to stay at my parents’ apartment for a few months and forget about the large number of things (the war on terror, my divorce, my breakdown, everything) that had been tormenting me in Chicago. My parents were already in Sarajevo for their annual spring stay, and my sister would be joining us soon. The escape to Sarajevo was beginning to feel like a depleted déjà vu of our life before we had all emigrated. We were exactly where we had been before the war, but everything was fantastically different: we were different; the neighbors were fewer and different; the hallway smell was different; and the kindergarten we used to see from our window was now a ruin that nobody had bothered to raze.

I wasn’t going to go to the reception; I had had enough of America and Americans to last me another lousy lifetime.

We read it in Love and Obstacles.