Barry Yourgrau: My Go-To Flash Fiction Author

9780385313766Almost every autumn, I facilitate a two-hour workshop for high school students that explores and encourages the writing of extremely short fiction. Through nearly a decade of iterations, this workshop has evolved, expanded to encompass Mac vs. PC commercials and Ben Loory’s “The Girl in the Storm”, while contracting to only mention rather than consider the stories of Alan Lightman and David Eagleman. But even with all the exciting new developments in short-form media (the advent of hint fiction, resurgence of interest in short films, etc.), I always have my students read and discuss work by Barry Yourgrau, a pioneer of flash fiction who excels at telling adventures in mere pages or even paragraphs and is a master at mixing the mundane with the magical. Maybe you’ve never heard of him. He seems to be often overlooked, and if it weren’t for one evening over ten years ago, I too might never have heard of him.

514ZP725MELI don’t remember how I ended up there; it was probably mentioned by my creative writing instructor. But what matters is that I did end up there, at a most delightful and extraordinary event for his book The Haunted Traveler in the MIT Media Lab building, where Barry Yourgrau embarked us upon a safari into a realm of literature I’d only glimpsed, acquainting me with a place so enchanting I have never since left. Throughout that evening, over and over, mere minutes with his words would bring me deeply into, through and, before I knew it, out of some strikingly peculiar situation, perhaps humorous, definitely relatable. A man stalking a woman with Cupid in tow, the relationship between a ghost and the music teacher he comes to love, the strife ensuing from furtively watching the dreams of sleeping lover. These stories were uniquely, marvelously enthralling, only roughly characterizable from past experiences as something and nothing like Roald Dahl meets Edward Gorey meets O. Henry. And I was hooked. There was then little choice but to become a denizen of Barry Yourgrau’s universe of mini-worlds that foray into varied topics from familial relationships and perilous travel to romantic affairs and monsters. So many of their scenes and escapades are too good not to share with avid readers and aspiring writers. Continue reading

Hedgehog’s Dilemma—Just Read: Say What You Will

Say What You Will, cover“WHY DID YOU APPLY FOR THIS JOB?”

“Because I wanted it. I thought helping someone else might take me out of my head for a while.”

Amy’s head bent down as she typed for a minute. Then she rethought what she’d written, pushed delete, and typed something else. “THAT’S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL.”

There’s so much packed into this recently released novel, it’s like Stargirl meets Juno… meets Beautiful Life? Regardless of what this engrossing work of YA lit reminds me of, Say What You Will feels uniquely epic in the sweep of emotions and situations it quickly draws the reader into. While the characters and their situations can be very, um, adolescent, the insights they offer into human thoughts and needs are perhaps timeless; sometimes we end up saving ourselves by trying to save those we care about; sometimes silence, whether easy or hard to break, can corrosively persist between us if we default to passivity; sometimes we’ll push away those care about by trying to draw them closer.

If you spot this in a bookstore or have a moment to use Amazon’s “look inside” feature, give the first few pages a read. After I did, I had to read the whole thing and wound up being taken by it to unexpected places, including back to my alma maters.

When this book is turned into a major motion picture, Allison Weiss‘s “I Was An Island” must be in the soundtrack.

NaNoWriMo kicks off today!

NaNo Poster2.47

It’s now National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! Although I won’t be taking part this year (to preserve the quality of other projects and the mental energy they need—though admittedly, frenetically writing a novel could be highly invigorating and re-sanitizing…), I am once again excited to find out what happens and am generally thrilled about the very idea of writing an entire novel in 30 days in the company of other literary creatives; it’s invigorating to know there’s a chunk of time proclaimed for a collective challenge to craft substantial fiction. And there’s so much great stuff on, like listings of local events, fun posters and ways to get encouragement from fellow novelists.

Good luck to all you November novel writers out there!

Currently Reading: Schroder by Amity Gaige

I looked at her, trying not to look as sad as I felt. “I love you, you know.”

Schroder, coverIn need of a new novel for quiet evenings, I decided to give Schroder a read after listening to this NPR interview with the author. So far it is engrossingly excellent. The language has a unique fluidity to it and aptly captures the giddiness parents and children can sometimes can sometimes have around each other, that exuberant manifestation of the love that bonds them. There is also a keen tenderness that pervades the narration; at the book’s outset, the narrator and consequently you know where things have ended up, and as things unfold on the journey the narrator and his daughter undertake, there is a sense of precariousness.

Currently Reading: Sorry Please Thanks You

When I read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (HTLSiaSFU) about two years ago, after finding a proof for sale at Portland, OR’s Powell’s City of Books, I was utterly stunned. The unlikely amalgamation of pseudo-scientific and magical realism ideas Charles Yu explored in that multi-layered novel were intoxicating to my cognitive-science-and-linguistics-obsessed mind, musings on the nature of fiction deftly worked together in a loftily intelligent literary achievement.

While you can tell when reading Sorry Please Thanks You that its stories come from the same uniquely nerdy and heartrending approach to literature, especially in “Standard Loneliness Package” and “Open”, overall this collection doesn’t pack the kind of intellectual and emotional punches HTLSiaSFU did. Charles Yu again explores compelling, nerdy ideas in fresh ways, and while the worlds of these stories are unlike most you’ll find in today’s fiction, they often didn’t resonate with me as cerebrally as I hoped they would.