Category Archives: Short Stories


Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow is a collection of stories about women, most of whom are in the process of deceiving the men they love. They are cheating on spouses; they are longing for other men they aren’t with; they are in search of something different. These women aren’t bad people. They are human – funny, flawed, loving – and feeling constrained by the roles they have found themselves in. I really enjoyed this collection of stories. Heiny’s characters are anything but single, carefree and mellow; they are deeply entrenched in relationships, highly introspective, and emotionally intense. My favorite story is called “That Dance You Do” and is about a mother planning her son’s 8th birthday party. It’s just perfect. I laughed out loud many times reading that story, just as I did throughout the whole book.

Single, Carefree, Mellow came out this past week, and Heiny has been getting a lot of attention. She has a story of her own to tell: her first story was published twenty years ago, when she was 24. She sent it to 30 magazines, only to be rejected by all of them, and finally sent it to The New Yorker, who accepted it. That story – “How To Give the Wrong Impression”- is included in Single, Carefree, Mellow, and is about a young woman whose romantic love for her male roommate is unrequited. After the success of that story, Heiny got married, had kids, and didn’t publish anything for 20 years, until this collection came out.

I had the great pleasure of attending a Q&A at Politics & Prose tonight between Heiny and her editor, Jenny Jackson, from Knopf. (I knew I would like her – she has edited Jennifer Close, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Emily Mandel.)  It was a really interesting conversation, which I have tried to sum up here. Read this Q&A and I promise you will want to read the book.

Q: Tell me about the story “How To Give the Wrong Impression” and why there was such a long break after that one.

A: There was a girl in my building who told me about “the guy she lives with”. I asked her if he was her boyfriend or not, and the whole story unrolled from there like a rug. It’s as personal to me today as the day I wrote it. Of all of my protagonists, I am most like her.

After it was published, I wrote a lot of YA novels, then got met my husband, got married and had kids. That took everything out of me. I didn’t start writing again until my youngest was in first grade. Then the floodgates opened. I think the imagination is like a muscle – the more you write, the easier it gets.

Q. Most of your stories are about relationships and women chafing against marriage. Did you set out to write about love and infidelity?

A: Sex and relationships is what I like to read about, so it’s what I wanted to write about. In my collection, infidelity is really second to what I want to write about. The inspiration for the infidelity? My husband was a spy, a professional secret-keeper. I had to keep his job a secret and be careful about what I said. That colored my fiction.

Q: When women characters are unfaithful, there is often the opinion that they have to get their comeuppance and be punished for it. That is not the case here. Was that a conscious decision here, to buck convention?

A: No. I don’t like to write about the beginnings or ends of relationships. I don’t like to write about the day of reckoning. I would rather talk about the middle. I am interested in whether the infidelity will change the relationship or the people. I leave a lot up to the reader; I am not moralizing.

Q: Do you care if your readers dislike your characters?

A: I love my characters like I love my children. They are flawed but I love them anyway. I don’t care if my readers like the characters as long as they are enjoying the book.

Q: Let’s talk about the feminist aspect of the collection. These women are chafing against convention and are feeling circumscribed in their lives. A lot of the drama here happens in the kitchen, in the car, in the dining room. What drew you to the domestic sphere?

A: I am not a person who could write an international thriller – I don’t know much about politics or foreign policy. I get my news from Facebook. When you have kids, you enter a parallel universe of naps, playdates and logistics – a domestic microcosm. That’s where I see things happening.

Q: Maya appears in three of your stories. Why? Could you write a novel about her?

A: The Maya/Rhodes stories were hard to write because I like Rhodes so much. He deserves better than Maya. But things would happen to me and I’d see them happening to Maya. I don’t think I could do a whole novel about her because I feel such solidarity with Rhodes.

Q: “How To Give The Wrong Impression” was written 20 years ago, but it still holds up. Why do you think that’s true?

A: Unrequited love is always relatable. It is as old as jealousy.

Q: The story “That Dance You Do” is about a particularly horrible experience at a kid’s birthday party? Was this true to life? Is that your most autobiographical story?

A: This story was based on my son’s 8th birthday party. But it’s so boring to say that this is my most autobiographical story. There are a lot of true things throughout the book. I often put something true into a different context within the narrative.

Q: Short stories used to get a bad rap. Publishers were reluctant to put a lot of muscle behind them. Now, there is a real spark behind short stories. Why do you like writing stories?

A: To me, writing a novel is like being at a horrible monthlong family reunion. There is no escape, and you’re surrounded by the same people all the time. Writing a short story is like stopping at a bar and having one drink. You can minimize the damage.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise about being published?

A: It’s so fun! I was worried that I would lose the personal responses I got when I wrote short stories, but that hasn’t been the case. It has been wonderful.

Q: Tell us about the novel you are working on.

A: It is very different from my story collection. The narrator is a man, and he is married to an over-the-top extrovert. Is that type of person, who is fun and exciting to be with but doesn’t stop talking, a good choice for a life partner?



So, a week ago I had my 8-year blogiversary. It’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since I launched EDIWTB on a whim, inspired by blogging as a medium and a desire to marry it with my love of reading. In the blogging world, eight years is pretty long. When I launched the blog, there weren’t that many book bloggers out there. Now, there are thousands of us. But there aren’t a lot of us who have been around for 8 years and have kept at it, and I am proud to say that I am still here. I don’t read nearly as much as a lot of other bloggers, and my post frequency waxes and wanes, but I am still here, reading when I can.

A few stats: in eight years I have posted 872 times, read 317 books, gone to BEA 5  or 6 times, and enjoyed countless conversations with other book lovers in person and online, in comments and on Twitter and Facebook, and loved every second of it. And then, of course, there’s the bookstore in my house, stocked with review copies that publishers have been kind enough to send me.

Here’s to eight more years!

And now to today’s review: Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Redeployment is a collection of stories about life as soldier in Iraq. They are told from a range of perspectives: chaplain, infantry, corpse corps (the people who collect the bodies after attacks), civilian. Some of them take place in Iraq or right after vets have returned home and are trying to re-enter civilian life, while some take place years after the war.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know a whole lot about the military, and a lot of the acronyms and various roles within the whole Iraq operation were unfamiliar to me. I am drawn to fiction about the Iraq war – such a departure from the usual domestic fiction that I read – in part because it is such unfamiliar territory, and because I feel a duty to understand that world and get in the heads of these men who are so far removed from my daily life. Klay did a really incredible job of conveying what they were thinking and what got them through the days in Iraq. His characters are realistic, not noble and singular of mission, but flawed and complex. Klay’s writing is both immensely readable and also breathtakingly powerful. He seamlessly moves from quite disturbing wartime scenes to internal, emotional exploration within a couple of paragraphs, conveying the many layers of complication in our conflict in that troubled area.

A few stories  in Redeployment stood out to me: “Prayer in the Furnace”, about a chaplain stationed in Iraq trying to understand his role in helping Marines process the horrors they’d witnessed (and sometimes brought about); “War Stories”, about a vet hearing his badly disfigured best friend talk about being burned after an IED explosion, and “Money as a Weapons System”, in which a foreign service officer working in reconstruction encounters absurd challenges.

I really liked Redeployment and highly recommend it. I have a few other Iraq fiction books on the TBR list, such as The Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and am eager to get to them.

Summer Shorts 2014: SHARKS AND SEALS by Susanna Daniel

I have a special treat for EDIWTB today.

I am participating in a blog post series called Summer Shorts. In this series, a new short story has been featured every day on a different blog, featuring an audiobook narrator reading the work of one of his or her favorite authors. Readers have listened to a different short story for free each day, and can buy the whole collection from Tantor (with 20 additional bonus tracks) for $9.99 (effective through TOMORROW, June 30; after tomorrow the price goes up to $19.99). Proceeds from the purchases will support ProLiteracy, a literacy outreach and advocacy organization.

Here are all of the posts in this series to date. Yesterday’s post was at Miss Susie’s Readings and Observations.

The blog series moves here to EDIWTB today. I am featuring a narration of Susanna Daniel’s story “Sharks and Seals” by Karen White, a longtime friend of EDIWTB and one of the narrators I interviewed for JIAM last year. I have reviewed two of Daniel’s books – Stiltsville and Sea Creatures. You can listen to the story for free TODAY ONLY here:

I am so excited to be able to feature a Q&A with both the author AND the narrator of this story. It was fascinating to ask the same questions of both the woman who wrote the words and the woman who spoke them. I hope that you enjoy the story and the interview!

First, some background on the story, “Sharks and Seals”. It’s short. Really short. Like 3 minutes short. But so well-written, and memorable. It’s about a girl who is encouraged to join the water polo team in high school by a classmate, Stacia.  They become friends, and she spends time at Stacia’s home, where she learns that some families are very different from her own. When a tragedy befalls Stacia, the main character stays in touch with Stacia’s family, maintaining the relationship that has had such an impact on her and opened her eyes to new possibilities in life.

It’s a short story that really packs a punch, with each phrase – each word, even – contributing to the story without a single extraneous note. Like I said, it’s really short – listen to it. You will finish it before you know it.

Here’s the Q&A with Susanna Daniel and Karen White about “Sharks and Seals”.

Q. What was the inspiration for “Sharks and Seals”?

Susanna: I was asked to write the story for a project called Significant Objects, which pairs garage-sale tchotchkes with short stories about those tchotchkes, then auctions off the pairs for charity. I had a photo of two novelty pens, and from that came my story, which is about love and loss — these are the topics of all my work to date, I think, though I’ve written only rarely about a young adult.

Karen: I’ll let Susanna take that one, but I will say that I was very happy to learn that we’d be able to record contemporary fiction this year for Summer Shorts. I started looking around for short pieces online, and it occurred to me, duh, that I could try to find something by an author I’d already worked with and Susanna came to mind right away. I don’t remember how exactly I searched for it, but I ended up on this page with a photo of a shark and a seal pen and this story. I really loved it so I emailed Susanna and happily, both she and the original publisher were willing to let me record it for the Summer Shorts project.

Q: Susanna, “Sharks and Seals” contains two themes that recur across your work – life on, or in, the water, and communication (or lack thereof) among families. What draws you to these themes? Karen, are you a water lover as well (or has performing Susanna’s work turned you into one?)

Susanna: There might come a time when I give a novel the setting of my daily life — landlocked in the Midwest — but I’m not sure it ever will. The water of the ocean, boats, stilt houses, swimming pools: this is the setting of my childhood, and the backdrop for every fictional world I’ve created to date. Parents and children and spouses and siblings — these are the relationships I find most compelling and consequential, in life and fiction.

Karen: Well, I have to confess that while I love living near the water — walking on the beach and playing in the waves, I am NOT a fan of deep water and I am a pretty terrible swimmer. (Some combination of a bad swim team experience at a young age and reading the novel Jaws when I was 12.) On top of that I recorded Sea Creatures right after we’d moved from CA to NC. I grew up in central NC but now I’m on the coast, and reading the very intense descriptions of Hurricane Andrew kind of freaked me out. So I will definitely be evacuating if there’s any inkling of a big hurricane coming here, and praying that my house can take it!

Q: Parenthood is also a common theme in Susanna’s work. Susanna, why are you drawn to parenthood so frequently in your storytelling? Karen, do you find yourself incorporating your own parenting persona into your performances of Susanna’s work?

Susanna: I think I’m more specifically interested in how the family persona and the individual collide and coincide. In my second novel, Sea Creatures, the narrator, Georgia, has to find agency despite the fact that she’s become overwhelmed by her sometimes conflicting responsibilities to her husband and son. Parenting is one surefire way to put a characters’ weaknesses and strengths on display.

Karen: I think what has always drawn me to acting (and narration, which to me is definitely acting) is that I am fascinated by how other people think. Acting gets me as close as one can get to experiencing how another person thinks. Obviously in narration we’re playing lots of roles, but in a first person narrative like Sea Creatures, I get to live more completely inside the head of the fictional narrator and let that person’s voice take over. So in some ways I let go of my own thought and speech patterns. That said, I think in the best scenarios, I am asked to record a book because when the powers that be read the book (or its description), they think of me and my voice. So I guess what results is some amalgamation of me and the character. I hope I’m not quite as screwed up as most of the mother roles I end up playing (and I have recorded quite a few books about mothers who have issues) but I do think I’m probably a pretty neurotic mom. For instance, I try REALLY hard not to be a helicopter parent, which is one of the things that drives me crazy in the world these days, but in avoidance of it, I probably do a LOT of overthinking. Nobody wants to live inside my head!

Q:  How much interaction do you two have when Karen is preparing to perform one of Susanna’s works? Susanna, do you give any direction about characters, motives, or specific scenes?

Susanna: I’m not an actor and I have no experience with voice work – I leave that to the experts! Of course I answer any questions, like how something is pronounced.

Karen: I just looked up our email exchange and I only asked her two pronunciation questions! In my opinion, when the writing is good, I don’t really need any other input. All the direction is there, and if anyone tries to impose anything on top of that, it often sticks out like it doesn’t belong. Even if Susanna were to share deleted scenes about characters, I’m not sure it would be useful because the reader doesn’t get those scenes. I think it’s like the narration has to fit inside the frame that the book has created and going outside of that frame is at best unnecessary and at worst, a distraction.

Q: What are the challenges of writing and performing a short work like “Sharks and Seals”?

Susanna: My biggest challenge was the word count — I don’t write short, generally. My narrators usually have a lot more room to breathe. It took about ten times as long to whittle down the word count as to write the first draft.

Karen: What I loved about this story was that it was so low key and almost unemotional, and yet I could still feel all this stuff going on underneath. Simple and complex at the same time. For me, the challenge in recording a short story (and this is a really short one) is that there’s no warm-up time, you have to be in it completely from the get go. Also, I’ll confess that starting a book is always the hardest part for me because there’s usually an uncomfortable period while I’m figuring out the tone and pacing. It’s not unusual for me to do a first chapter and then start all over again if I feel like I didn’t get it. I think I recorded this one a few times before I felt like I had it.

Q. Do you think that short fiction is better suited for our digital attention spans than full-length novels? Or is the focused escape of a novel more important now than ever?

Susanna: Digitally or on paper, there’s really no substitute, for me, for a novel’s breadth — short stories can be very intense and artful, and sometimes, as a reader, I find them overpowering. I read more novels than stories, though I think I can learn more from a really smart short story than from anything else.

Karen: YES. Both! In my pleasure reading life, I feel like I’ve been through periods when all I can handle is short stories, and times when I really need that escape into a longer book (and hate it when its over). I will say that it seems like I have recorded more stories for collections this past year. Maybe it is a new trend in audiobooks…

Tomorrow: Summer Shorts 2014 Comes to EDIWTB

Tomorrow (Sunday), Summer Shorts 2014 stops here at EDWITB. I will be featuring a audio short story from Susanna Daniel called “Sharks and Seals”, performed by Karen White, as well as an interview with both Daniel and White about the story and their collaboration. You can listen to the story for free on my blog on Sunday 6/30, so be sure to stop by and give it a try. It’s a really short story – 3 minutes or so – and very memorable. See you tomorrow

SO MUCH A PART OF YOU by Polly Dugan

This almost never happens here on EDIWTB, where I am not particularly organized and rarely plan ahead, but I actually finished a book the night before it came out! Shocking! The book is So Much A Part Of You, by Polly Dugan, and it went on sale today.

So Much A Part Of You is a collection of loosely interconnected stories that span from the Depression to the present. Dugan’s stories focus on families and relationships, and particularly how the relationships we develop in our formative years continue to play a big role in our lives as we age. I am not always a big fan of short stories, because I sometimes find them unsatisfying, but I really liked these stories. The threads of connection between the stories (in the form of overlapping characters and one that recurred through most of the book) helped make this collection more cohesive than others that I’ve read.

I like Dugan’s writing style, which is spare and unemotional. The book, however, is full of emotion. Her characters experience love, loss, grief and anxiety, and she conveys those emotions beautifully through their actions and dialogue. I especially liked the college and post-college stories, which accurately captured those confusing years of loneliness and feeling untethered. Some of the parents in So Much A Part Of You are pretty awful, and the characters make mistakes and are often full of regret. No one here is perfect, and there is no neat bow at the end of the book. But isn’t that how life is? I nodded in recognition throughout this book, marveling at Dugan’s ability to capture intense and familiar emotions in such fleeting vignettes.

Dugan has a novel coming out in 2015, which I can’t wait for. I think that she will really take off in the longer format. Until then, tide yourself over with this collection.

Depressing-O-Meter: 7 out of 10, thanks to deaths, abortion, and euthanizations at an animal shelter.


You’ve probably seen One More Thing: Stories and More Stories online or at the bookstore, and maybe thought to yourself, “Oh yeah, the short stories by the guy who plays the intern on The Office. How good can they really be?” I can answer that question: they are very good.

One More Thing is BJ Novak’s first collection of stories, many of which had their roots in his standup comedy routine. They cover a really, really wide swath of topics and settings, but they share one thing in common: they are funny, insightful and original. I was impressed throughout the collection by Novak’s ability to shift from the frivolous to the profound even within a single page. Some of the stories are as short as a few lines, while others stretch to 15 pages or so. And while not every one was brilliant, enough were.

My favorite stories were:

  • The Rematch, which imagines who would win if the tortoise and the hare had a rematch, and the hare actually tried this time
  • No One Goes to Heaven to see Dan Fogelberg, a view of the afterlife where everyone meets up with the people who predeceased them and goes to free nightly concerts with the greatest musicians in history
  • Missed Connection: Grocery spill at 21st and 6th 2:30 PM on Wednesday, in which an entire relationship plays out in a single “Missed Connections” post
  • Walking on the Moon, in which the glory of having walked on the moon is dismissed by someone who clearly never did it
  • The Man Who Invented the Calendar, a diary written by the person who created the calendar
  • MONSTER: The Roller Coaster, in which a focus group evaluates a roller coaster designed by artist Christo and meant to mimic life itself
  • One Of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie, in which a group of friends from college tries unsuccessfully to stage an intervention after one of them appears to be partying too much
  • Bingo, in which four cousins play Bingo on a family vacation

It’s no surprise that Novak writes for TV. He has an unfailing ear for dialogue and the way people really talk to each other. There wasn’t a single spoken line in this collection that didn’t ring true for me. I laughed out loud many times, and the stories made me think. They were sometimes absurd, sometimes comical, and always meaningful. There were a few that dragged for me, but only a few.

I got a review copy of the audio version of One More Thing, and it’s a treat. Almost all of the stories are narrated by Novak, with some help from Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Mindy Kaling, Julianne Moore, and others. The audio is great – you can hear Novak inhabiting his stories and characters, which I’m sure he perfected over many standup performances.  The only drawback to the audio is that you don’t know how long a story is going to be, which I think is kind of helpful when you’re reading short stories.

If you’ve been avoiding One More Thing because you think, “enough already from that Harvard guy on The Office“, I urge you to give it a try. It’s entertaining and touching, and I promise that at least a few of Novak’s stories will have a lasting impact on you.

Depressing-o-Meter: 5 out of 10. (Mostly funny but lots of poignant moments too.)

Book Haul From The Strand

You know what I DON’T need? More books!

But I recently found myself with the opportunity to go to The Strand, which I couldn’t pass up. Thanks to my Goodreads to-read list, I ended up with these books:

photo 1 (1)Here is the list:

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (I have wanted this since it came out; have heard that it is better than The Red Thread)

How to Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman (see a theme here?)

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard (coming of age in the 70s)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (highly recommended by Ann Patchett)

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (short stories)

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (have wanted this since it came out too)

Sparta by Roxana Robinson (read the Q&A with Robinson about Sparta here)

If you’ve read any of these, please weigh in! What am I in store for?