Ron Schafrick’s short fiction has appeared in The Journey Prize Stories 27, Best Gay Stories 2015, The New Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, Asia Literary Review, Plenitude, and elsewhere. His collection of stories, Interpreters, was published by Oberon Press in 2013.
Ron drops by the blog today ahead of his July 12 appearance at Brockton Writers Series, with this guest post about his favourite short stories. Thanks, Ron!
Favourite Short Stories
I teach an introductory fiction course, and like many such courses the focus is on short fiction. Recently, at the start of this summer semester, after my usual enthusiastic welcome, one of my students asked me a question after class that part of me has always secretly hoped to be asked: “What’s your favourite short story?”
On the one hand, it’s a bit of an unusual question, naïve and ingenuous, not something any discerning reader would ever ask. After all, of the innumerable short stories out there, how can one possibly pick out just one favourite? And yet, you do hear people speak of their favourite novels (it’s often used as a choice of prompt in case you forget your password on certain websites), or even favourite movies in spite of their own similarly countless options.
But when the question actually came I was a bit flummoxed in my answer. A couple of titles immediately popped into my head, and when I walked away I began to ponder the question a bit more: What are those stories that have made the greatest and most lasting impression on me, both as a reader and a writer of short fiction? Which stories do I turn to again and again for both instruction and inspiration?
In response to my student’s question, the story that immediately rose up from my subconscious was Mavis Gallant’s “Across the Bridge.” Gallant is one of my favourite writers and has had a huge influence on my own writing. I love the sheer confidence of her prose and the exactitude of each word. Some people describe her fiction as a bit cold, but that’s exactly what I love about her. I love, too, how the political and historical are also seamlessly woven into her work. In this story, set in Paris in the 1950s, a young woman is supposed to get married to one man but at the last minute decides she’s actually in love with another. I first read this story twenty years ago, and the last few words—“And, yes, it made me happy”—left me breathless when I first read them. Without giving anything away, it’s a very ironic ending, and yet what better words could there be to end any story? Other Gallant stories that vie for top spot include “Potter”, “The Remission”, “Voices Lost in Snow”, and “The Chosen Husband”, just to name a few.
The other story that also immediately came to mind was Yukio Mishima’s “Death in Midsummer”. Like Gallant’s “Across the Bridge,” I also first read this story about twenty years ago and it left a big mark on me. Set in Japan in the 1960s, it’s about a woman who loses two of her three children, as well as her sister-in-law, while vacationing at a seaside resort. Told from the mother’s perspective, the story that unfolds is a deeply internal one and closely examines the numerous subtle conflicts that arise out of this tragedy: the strain that’s now placed on her marriage, her in-laws’ subsequent perception of her, her own relationship with the surviving boy. It’s one of those stories in which very little happens, and yet everything happens—something I tend to do in my own fiction.
Along a similar vein is Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home.” Back in the ’90s I was a big fan of Carver. He made a big impact on me, and I think this story is one of his finest. When Claire’s husband returns from a fishing trip, she learns that he and his friends had discovered the murdered body of a young woman washed up onto the shore of a river. The men decide that instead of turning right around to find a phone booth to contact police, they tie the floating naked body to a tree and continue to spend the rest of their weekend camping, fishing, and drinking. Like Mishima’s story, the rest of the piece looks at the fallout from this event. Claire can’t help but see her husband differently now, as a man indifferent to violence inflicted upon women, as a man possibly capable of violence himself. She withdraws from her husband and starts to identify with the victim. Told in the first-person present tense, it’s a very compelling and internal story, haunting without a ghost ever materializing. And of course, there is Carver’s voice, which is not only very beguiling but has also influenced my own writing style.
Like a lot of people, I’m a big fan of Lorrie Moore, and her story “Agnes of Iowa” is one of my favourites. One of the things that draw me to Moore’s fiction is her ability to be both funny and sad at the same time, and in this story a South African poet is invited to give a reading at the university where Agnes is a professor. Agnes, whose marriage is starting to wane, is initially alarmed that the English department has invited an apartheid-era white Afrikaner to give a reading; yet when he arrives she finds him both attractive and sympathetic. Stylistically, there’s a lot going on in this story that I really like: the occasional and humorous intrusions of the protagonist’s thoughts into the narrative, almost like non sequiturs and which are represented by the use of the italics; her humorous yet percipient choice of similes and metaphors; and her ability to gently poke fun at her protagonist, making her all the more human, recognizable, and real. I have found myself mimicking her voice in some of my own fiction on more than one occasion. Other Lorrie Moore favourites include: “Dance in America” and “Places to Look for Your Mind.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” is another favourite of mine, and what makes this piece particularly powerful is Nabokov’s ability to tell a story that is at once both highly affecting and yet completely self-conscious of itself as artifice without being heavy-handed about it—and that too is something I sometimes like to play with in my own work.
John Cheever’s “Reunion” is the first story I teach every semester and, I’ve started to realize, it’s also become a favourite of mine. It’s a very short and simple story (I’ve got it practically memorized!), and it’s also a very perfect story, too. I begin with that story because it’s got all those typical “elements of fiction” that I teach—exposition, rising action, climax, resolution, irony, foreshadowing, etc. And of course it’s beautifully written.
Of course, this list only just scratches the surface when it comes to favourites and influences; for a slightly more expanded list, please visit my website. And let me know: what are your own favourites? What are the short stories that have had a big impact on you?
Ron Schafrick visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 (Queer Night!) in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Terence A. Go, jes sachse, Kai Cheng Thom and a special guest talk, “Five Things You Should Know Before You Do Anything About Your Children’s Book Idea”, by S. Bear Bergman!