Category Archives: Short Stories

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.

ONE MORE THING: STORIES AND MORE STORIES by BJ Novak


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?

NEWS FROM HEAVEN by Jennifer Haigh


A new book out from Jennifer Haigh is always cause for celebration here at EDIWTB. I think she has become my favorite contemporary author. Her books are rich, layered stories, usually about families, told in a distinctive gentle, quiet tone that immediately sucks me in and keeps me reading to the last page. There is always sadness and loss in her books, but they aren’t depressing. Instead, they are realistic portrayals of the ups and downs of life, and the myriad disappointments, secrets, thrills and dreams that make up our individual histories.

News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, which just came out two weeks ago, is a collection of stories that extend the post-war Pennsylvania mining town world Haigh created in Baker Towers (reviewed here). There are a number of characters here that overap with those in Baker Towers; in some cases, Haigh has filled out lives that were skeletal in Baker Towers, and in others she has added new chapters to lives she left at the end of her previous work.

Not all of these stories take place in Bakerton, but the claustrophobic, past-its-prime town plays a role in each of them. Everyone returns home to their once high-flying but now dying town, it seems, whether to visit, or in a casket, or in shame, or for a sense of belonging and history. Haigh’s stories span half a century, and there are many stages here – not only of her characters’ lives, but of the town’s history.

I enjoyed that most of these stories had a catch at the end – a little twist that cast the rest of the story in a new light. I found myself speeding up at the end of the chapters, eager to reach that “Eureka!” moment that Haigh had quietly dropped in. An infidelity discovered many years later, or the discovery that a revered hometown hero was keeping a secret, or simply the question of whether a younger man in an unexpected relationship had honorable intentions or not – these are the little mysteries that Haigh solves throughout the collection.

My only complaint is my typical one about short stories – they just aren’t as satisfying as novels. Each of these chapters could have been its own novel, and I was sad to see it end every time. But I won’t complain – a new Haigh book is a new Haigh book, and it’s simply a treasure.

WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU by Molly Ringwald


Yes, I admit that I am 80s obsessed. I listen to 80s music, my favorite podcast is the excellent Stuck in the 80s, and I can still recite every line of “Sixteen Candles”. But when Molly Ringwald’s – yes, that Molly Ringwald- story collection came in the mail a few weeks ago, I was surprised. I had no idea that she was a writer, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was it published on its own merits, or because its author was Claire from “The Breakfast Club”?

I gave Ringwald’s book When it Happens to You a try on vacation this week, and I was blown away. It’s excellent. It’s a collection of interrelated stories – “a novel in stories”, says the cover – that deal with marriage, betrayal, motherhood, infertility, and modern life in L.A. Damn if Ringwald isn’t an extremely talented writer.

The main characters are Greta and Philip, spouses facing the breakdown of their marriage upon the discovery of Philip’s infidelity. The other characters radiate out from these two – the parent of one of Greta and Philip’s daughter’s classmates; Greta’s mother; Philip’s brother; Greta’s next door neighbor. Events are sometimes told from more than one perspective from chapter to chapter, helping this book avoid the fragmentation and disorientation that often plagues story collections. Ringwald understands relationships, particularly marriages, and her characters are flawed, totally realistic, and utterly compelling.

I read a review that complained that the stories weren’t really stories because the characters felt rather than did. That didn’t bother me at all. I found that these stories were packed with enough drama to support the self-analysis of the characters, and I loved being privy to their innermost thoughts and conflicts. Ringwald’s eye for detail and ear for believable dialogue made When It Happens To You a very pleasurable reading experience for me. I highly recommend this one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.