Wednesday, 17 December 2008


BookFox's choices for best short story collections of 2008 include a number of books that were featured on The Roving Editor. It is especially gratifying to see Glen Pourciau's Invite on the list, as this a strong debut from one of the most interesting new writers to emerge this year.

Donald Ray Pollock has attracted more coverage than Glen, but he deserves all the praise he has received. The challenge for him now will be to produce a worthy follow-up to Knockemstiff. Nam Le's debut collection, The Boat, and Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth are also excellent choices.

One story I managed to overlook on its appearance in the New Yorker in September was 'The Noble Truths of Suffering' by Aleksandar Hemon. Set in Sarajevo, this is a darkly funny exploration of the writing life which shows how creativity can find inspiration in the midst of death, destruction and domesticity. I am grateful to another of our featured authors, Joshua Ferris, who has named it as 'the best story of the year' in Granta's year-end round-up.

I would welcome nominations from readers of their favourite writers of short fiction in 2008, or for names we should be looking out for in 2009. Judging by the interest I have had in my post on Wells Tower, I fully expect him to feature prominently in next year's literary lists.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Amos Oz is an another of those eminent living writers whose work I have only just sampled for the first time.

'Waiting', in this week's New Yorker, is a profound and powerfully atmospheric tale. Set in an almost deserted Israeli village on a sleepy Friday afternoon, it reads like an existential ghost story. The ghost in question is Benny's Avni's wife Nava, who has disappeared leaving only a note that says, 'Don't worry about me.' (That's a hell of a note to leave. If Raymond Carver had written the story, that's probably what it would have been called.)

Benny, head of the District Council and pillar of the community, doesn't so much wait for Nava as embark on a journey in search of a woman he has never really known. All the while he is shadowed by a stray dog, which appears to be showing him the way:

'He asked himself, Would it not be better to go straight home? After all, she might have returned and was perhaps resting, puzzled by his absence, maybe even worried about him. But the thought of the empty house terrified him, and he went on, limping, following the dog, who never looked back, his muzzle lowered as if sniffing the way.'

I was reminded of the mundane, yet menacing terrain of John Cheever's 'The Swimmer'. In Oz's story, Benny's wanderings take him to a bomb shelter and the school where his wife teaches: 'The school’s metal gates were already locked for the Sabbath. Both the building and the playground were surrounded by an iron fence topped with barbed wire.'

I don't know if 'Waiting' is from a forthcoming collection, but there is at least one volume of Amos Oz's stories in print, which I look forward to investigating further.

Saturday, 29 November 2008


I've recently come across two excellent magazines offering online literary content. The Drawbridge has published work by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Siri Hustvedt, Irvine Welsh and DBC Pierre. The current issue features an excerpt from José Saramago's new novel, though, as with most of the articles, you'll have to purchase the print edition to read the full text.

I first came across Salena Godden's name in a mailing from Litro magazine. Her writing has also appeared in The Drawbridge, and you can read her entertaining story, 'The Walrus and the Diamond Ring' here. Like The Drawbridge, Litro is a London-based publication. It was 'founded in 2005 by Mike Fell to provide commuters and office workers with a short story every week. Mike came up with the idea of Litro after finishing Dubliners by James Joyce somewhere near Mornington Crescent.' An admirable enterprise. I was glad to discover interesting work by two new names, Carol Farrelly and Deborah Nash.

Friday, 14 November 2008


The Roving Editor spends rather less time in New York than in North Yorkshire, so unfortunately I missed Deb Olin Unferth's event at the MercBar this week. If her readings are as entertaining as this YouTube clip suggests, it would have been well worth going along. Her phrasing and delivery of a story entitled 'Deb Olin Unferth' reminded me, weirdly, of Gil Scott Heron, though the content is uniquely (and literally) her own.

I heard of Deb Olin Unferth through Ron Hogan's always diverting blog, Beatrice, and discovered a few short pieces by her here, and here. The themes of theft and tourism seem to loom large in her work, and the sense of humour is bone-dry. I look forward to her debut novel, Vacation, though this doesn't appear to have been picked up by a UK publisher as yet.

Friday, 7 November 2008


There's more than a touch of Saki in 'Leopard', a short story by Wells Tower in this week's New Yorker. Both writers seem to share an instinctive understanding of the battle lines separating children from adults. In 'Leopard', as in the collection Beasts and Super-Beasts, the animal kingdom is a metaphor for the forces of nature that can invade the most ordered human existence.

Wells Tower is a new (and unusual) name, but something tells me we will be hearing it more often in the future. Oh, and I must also thank the author for adding a new word to my vocabulary: everything about his story is copacetic, in fact.

UPDATE: Read The Roving Editor's review of Wells Tower's debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, here.

Monday, 3 November 2008


"Finding new writers is hard." This is how Glen Pourciau responded when I asked him to name any emerging authors whose work had impressed him recently. He's dead right, which is why I don't post every day of the week. The Roving Editor welcomes recommendations from readers, and particularly from readers who happen to be writers too. Recently Donald Ray Pollock gave us his choices, and now it is the turn of Glen, author of the fine short story collection, Invite.

"The writers that come to mind are Cate Kennedy, Benjamin Percy, and Ander Monson," he told me. "Cate Kennedy had a story in the New Yorker a couple of years ago that I thought was significantly good. It was called 'Black Ice' and it has also been published under the title 'Cold Snap'. ... Her collection is called Dark Roots.

"Benjamin Percy has gotten pretty well known. He's published two collections [Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk] and has had a couple of stories in the Paris Review. He won their Plimpton Prize. One of his Paris Review stories was reprinted in The Barcelona Review."

And finally... "Ander Monson published a distinctive collection a couple of years ago called Other Electricities."

Thanks for these pointers, Glen. Watch this space for more word of mouth from writers we admire at The Roving Editor.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


The Guardian Review is quick off the mark by publishing an absorbing short story by this year's Man Booker winner, debut novelist Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger.

In 'The Sultan's Battery' Adiga creates a character called Ratna who could surely carry an entire novel. A hard-nosed huckster by trade, he is preoccupied with the need to marry off his three daughters but ultimately finds that human feelings and frailty cannot be ignored:

'He walked fast towards the white dome of the Dargah, a fold-up wooden stool under one arm, and in the other a red bag with his album of photographs and seven bottles full of white pills. When he got to the Dargah, he walked along the wall, without paying any attention to the long line of beggars along the wall: the lepers who were sitting on rags, the men with mutilated arms and legs, the men in wheelchairs and the men with bandages covering their eyes, and the one creature, with little brown stubs like a seal's flippers where he should have had arms, a normal left leg, and a soft brown stump where he should have had a second leg, who lay on his left side, twitching his hip continuously, like an animal getting galvanic shocks, and intoning, with blank, mesmerised eyes: "Al-lah! Al-laaaah! Al-lah! Al-laaah!"' (Continue reading...)

Monday, 13 October 2008


In 'Waiting', Hisham Matar brilliantly employs the metaphor so memorably mined by Samuel Beckett to give a sense of the mental torment suffered by those imprisoned without charge.

His story is one of 42 short pieces contributed by writers in support of Liberty's campaign against the UK government's proposed extension of pre-charge detention to 42 days. Other prominent names whose work appears on the 42 Writers for Liberty site include Julian Barnes, A.L. Kennedy, Michel Faber, David Mitchell, Monica Ali and Mohsin Hamid.

Matar's debut novel, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Monday, 6 October 2008


James Joyce once claimed that if Dublin were ever to be destroyed it could be recreated from the pages of Ulysses. In his debut short story collection, Donald Ray Pollock performs his own remarkable act of literary resurrection by putting an Appalachian ghost town back on the map.

His book, Knockemstiff, is reminiscent of Joyce’s Dubliners both in the way its downtrodden characters reappear in different stories and in the paralysis that prevents them from ever getting away. Though its raw honesty can make for an uncomfortable reading experience, Knockemstiff is one of the most intimate and vivid portraits of a place and its people that I have encountered in fiction. It is a major achievement and deserves to be read long after the 'holler' from which it takes its name has disappeared.

It is my great pleasure to present this brand new author interview. Don is a quietly inspiring character, as you will see. And for those of you who missed it first time around, here is a previous post which links to 'Pills', one of the stories in the book.

How and why did you become a writer?

I went through this mid-life shift or crisis or whatever you want to call it when I was 45 years old. I had been working in factories around 28 years by then, and I was just disappointed in my life, I guess. It hadn’t turned out like I had planned, in other words. So I asked myself what I’d like to do for the rest of the time I’ve got left in this world and the only thing that really appealed to me was being a writer. I had always been a big reader and I had a degree in English literature (the paper mill where I worked had a programme in which they paid for most of your tuition if you wanted to go to school part-time). So I told my wife that I was going to give it 5 years and see what happened. I didn’t know any writers and had never taken a creative writing course or anything, so I wasn’t sure how to start. For a year or so, I typed out stories by other writers that I liked, along with working on my own stuff. At the end of the 5 years, I had published maybe 6 stories in small literary magazines and been accepted into a MFA program at Ohio State University. I made the big leap and quit my mill job then, in 2005.

What can a short story do that a novel can’t?

That’s a good question. For me, as a writer, short stories appeal to me more than novels simply because there is a quicker payoff for one thing. Also, I tend to like stuff that is cut to the bone and short stories are much easier to revise 10 or 12 times than a full-length novel.

Which writers have made a difference to you?

Well, there are so many, but I remember reading an article about William Gay, the southern writer from Tennessee, publishing his first novel when he was in his early 50s. This was right around the time I was going through that mid-life bullshit, and he was a big inspiration. Gay had pretty much been a carpenter and worked odd jobs all his life. I’m fairly certain he didn’t go to college or anything like that. I think his story got me to thinking that maybe I, too, could do this thing if I really worked at it. As for other influences: Carson McCullers, John Cheever, Richard Yates (especially The Easter Parade), Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, Will Self, and Magnus Mills, among, as I said, many others.

What is your writing regime?

Mostly, I try to get up around 6:00 AM and work until 11:00 AM (I work in my attic, which is the only place I’m allowed to smoke in the house). If I’m revising, I find that I can go longer, so I’ll work a couple more hours in the evening (in the evenings, I allow myself to listen to music). Of course, a lot of days I don’t really get much done, but I still make myself sit in front of the computer or the typewriter. I think it’s good training, forcing yourself to sit there even if nothing is happening. If you can’t sit in the chair for an extended period of time every day, then you probably won’t make it as a writer because that’s really the hardest damn thing about it.

Over how long a period of time did you write the stories in Knockemstiff?

I wrote a couple of them (‘Bactine’ and ‘Fish Sticks’) pretty early, maybe after I’d been writing for, say, 18 months. Then I tried to write stories for a couple of years that were about people I really didn’t know anything about, for example, nurses and lawyers and rich people. I eventually figured out that, at least for the time being, I better stick to the people and the place that I know. So I started focusing on the holler again. I had maybe 7 of the Knockemstiff stories finished when I entered graduate school and wrote another 10 or 11 in the next 16 months or so (from August 2005 until November 2006).

How have people from Knockemstiff responded to your book?

Surprisingly, the reaction has been pretty positive, though I’m not sure how many people out there have actually read the book. I think I’ve only heard of one person who really hated the book. I tried to make sure that everyone in my county was aware that the book is fiction and not some memoir about growing up in the holler. I think a lot of people in Knockemstiff decided not to read it after they found out that it was fiction.

In what ways has being a published writer changed your life?

I get a lot more emails! And believe me, I appreciate them. Also, I did some travelling that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, especially when the book first came out. But really, it hasn’t changed things much for me, as far as what I do. I live a pretty simple life: I write in the morning and then take a long walk and sit on the porch and talk to my dog a lot. Sometimes I don’t see anyone but my wife for several days at a time (one reason I like getting the emails). I try to read at least one or two books a week. With that said, I know that I was extremely lucky to find a publisher like Doubleday. I know lots of writers who are better than me and are still looking for that first break.

How would you feel about a movie adaptation of your work?

I’d love it! Heck, I figure the movie version always gets more people to buy the book. Then, of course, there’s the money aspect, which would make it possible to just keep writing for another year or two without worrying about ending up in the soup line. But, though there have been several good movies made from short story collections, like Short Cuts and Jesus’ Son, I realize that’s a long shot for Knockemstiff. I mean, I can see it as a movie, but then I know nothing about film.

What are your future writing and publication plans?

Right now I’m working on a novel which I hope to have completed by the end of February 2009. That’s it, really. I’m not a person who can work on several projects at once. To finish something, I need to get obsessed with the story and I can’t do that if I’m bouncing around. After the novel is finished, I’m writing a short story for Peter Wild in England for an anthology of fiction inspired by music from The Velvet Underground. I’ve also got three or four short stories that I’d like to revise and try to get published. Then, if everything works out, I’ll begin another novel next May.

Are there any new writers out there whose work you admire and would recommend?

I can't say enough good stuff about Keith Lee Morris' recently published novel, The Dart-League King (Tin House). Also, look out for Kyle Minor's short story collection coming out in November, In the Devil's Territory (Dzanc Books). Any short stories by Keith Banner, including his collection, The Smallest People Alive. And if you haven't already, check out Sam Lipsyte's Venus Drive, another great and quirky short story collection, and Jason Brown's Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work: Stories.

Thursday, 25 September 2008


Since starting this blog I've come to realise that it's as likely to advertise my ignorance as it is to show off my impeccable literary taste. So this is the moment to admit that until today I had never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates.

The opportunity to rectify this embarrassing gap in my reading came via an email from Narrative magazine about its Story of the Week. (I encourage you to take a moment to register for this free service on the Narrative website.) Gargoyle is an urgent monologue about loneliness, infidelity and betrayal in which the perspective of the narrator shifts disconcertingly from mistress to wife and back again. Its theatricality, circularity and theme reminded me of Play by Samuel Beckett, seen here in a screen adaptation by the late Anthony Minghella.

Gargoyle led me to another Joyce Carol Oates story, this time in the New Yorker. Spider Boy is just as impressive, and again features a central character who is haunted by a kind of doppelgänger.

Narrative magazine doesn't indicate whether Gargoyle comes from a forthcoming collection, but Spider Boy can be found in last year's High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories. Yet another one to add to the must-read list.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Once again I am indebted to the Guardian Books blog, this time for drawing my attention to Untitled Books, which describes itself as 'a young, hip, discerning new literary service and online bookshop.' Not only that, it 'also aims to find, support and promote the work of up and coming and new authors'. Good on them, I say.

As evidence of the latter pledge, the website features a number of short stories by writers whose names were new to me. I enjoyed Katy Darby's Mufti Day, a touching and funny exploration of how a sober city gent comes to terms with the loss of his job and the death of his wife. Bugs Bunny, karaoke and sartorial experimentation all play a part.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


The Guardian Books blog has welcome news about the launch of the Horizon Review, a new online literary magazine with a venerable old name. The debut issue features six short stories, which I am looking forward to sampling.

Meanwhile another famous literary name, Hamish Hamilton, is behind the magazine Five Dials. This is a produced as a very attractive downloadable PDF. I particularly recommend Arthur Bradford's story in the second issue, which has just been published. Called 'Travels with Paul', it reads like the plot of a Jim Jarmusch road movie. I hadn't read anything by Bradford before, but would be encouraged to investigate his collection, Dogwalker.

Monday, 15 September 2008


As mentioned previously, the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award will be presented to Jhumpa Lahiri later this month. In a controversial decision, the jury decided to dispense with the traditional shortlist and announce her collection, Unaccustomed Earth, as the outright winner. You can read an illuminating interview with Lahiri here.

The success of the book—it went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—is enough to gladden the heart of any lover of the genre, or cure any publisher of the prejudice that short story collections do not sell. Fortunately the work itself more than lives up to expectations. Lahiri has a calm, beguiling style that immediately draws the reader into the lives of her characters, a hidden world of Bengali immigrants transplanted to suburban middle-America: 'I spoke to no one of your arrival; I almost never revealed details of my home life to my American friends. As a child, I had always dreaded my birthdays, when a dozen girls would appear in the house, glimpsing the way we lived.'

The narrator's use of the second-person singular address in Once in a Lifetime, from which the above excerpt is taken, is masterly. In Hell-Heaven, also published in the New Yorker, the sadness of a woman who has loved and lost is conveyed through the prism of her daughter's childhood memories. The quietly devastating denoument of the story reminded me of 'The Dead' in James Joyce's Dubliners. I can think of no higher praise.

Monday, 8 September 2008


One of the great pleasures of blogging is the opportunity to have a conversation with one's readers. It is always gratifying to get a positive response to a post about a featured author, but especially so when the response comes from the author concerned.

I am delighted to have struck up a correspondence with Glen Pourciau, whose debut collection of short stories, Invite, I showcased last month. I am also grateful to his publisher, the University of Iowa Press, for sending me a review copy of the book, which I am currently enjoying. The Roving Editor’s aim is not to engage in literary criticism, but to highlight literary excellence. In other words, to let the writing speak for itself. Just occasionally, we may be fortunate enough to hear directly from the author, as in this characteristically concise interview with Glen.

How and why did you become a writer?
I decided to become a writer after I read The Trial by Kafka. That’s what did it. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever read.

What, for you, is the essence of a good short story?
I have to hear the voice of the narrator to start writing a story. I think there should be complete unity between the voice telling the story and the story that is being told. As I see it, detail should be limited to what’s right for the voice and relevant to the story. Tone is the most important aspect of the voice.

Which writers do you admire?
Kafka and Beckett. I greatly admire Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas. I’m conscious of an influence from Harold Pinter. Thomas Bernhard is also in the top handful of writers I admire.

What is your writing regime?
Weekdays, I’m at my job. I manage a public library. I write very regularly on the weekends, about four hours each day, and sometimes at night during the week. I tend to pick things up at night when I’m absorbed with something. This can have to do with getting something down while a scene is vivid or it can have to do with editing.

Can you tell us about your new book, Invite? How, for example, did you decide which stories to include?
The question of which stories to include in a collection is complex. This is what I did. I got a group of stories together that I thought of as the core. I asked myself what connected those stories. In my opinion, if there isn’t a connection between some of them, the ones that are not connected have to go. They hurt the team. A story collection, as I see it, should not necessarily be a group of the writer’s best stories but the group of a writer’s stories that go together best. After settling on the core, I looked at my other stories and picked ones that best shared a kinship with the core. Ideally, each story in the group should make the other stories stronger.

What about your future writing and publication plans?
My plans are to keep writing stories and submitting them to literary magazines. I'm working on a second collection that I think could be ready, if I can decide which stories to include.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


The short story often seems to be a neglected or undervalued literary genre. But not at the Munster Literature Centre. This is the home of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, 'currently the world's richest prize for the short story form.' The 2008 prize (worth €35,000) will be awarded to Jhumpa Lahiri at a festival in Cork beginning on 17 September. Amongst those attending will be Yiyun Li, Clare Wigfall and Bernard MacLaverty.

Bucharest-based Irish writer
Philip Ó Ceallaigh was on the 2006 shortlist for his debut collection, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse. As its Short Story of the Month the Munster Literature Centre website features a new story by Ó Ceallaigh called 'Thomas and Mohommad', an unsettling account of a tourist's quest for redemption in the narrow streets of Cairo. A similar sense of dislocation pervades 'The Retreat from Moscow', one of the stories from the book, which was first published in the Dublin Review.

Monday, 25 August 2008


'You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with haemorrhoids.'

I'm not sure if this is an accurate decsription of the contents of Nam Le's debut collection, The Boat, but I do know that 'the Vietnamese thing' is very much to the fore in at least one of the stories in the book. 'Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' (from which the quote is taken) was first published in Zoetrope: All-Story, and is a beautifully layered meditation on the nature of memory, identity and creativity. The author's biography on the Zoetrope website applies equally to his narrator, who is also called Nam: 'Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. He practiced as a corporate attorney before coming to America to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop.' (Keen-eyed readers may even spot a reference in the story to Yiyun Li, a fellow Iowa graduate, and subject of a previous blog post.)

The story begins with the narrator dreaming about a poem he is working on; Le himself writes with the precision of a poet. Take this perfectly wrought sentence: 'On Washington Street, a sudden gust of wind ravaged the elm branches and unfastened their leaves, floating them down thick and slow and soundless.'

The Bridge has just been published in the UK by Canongate. I am looking forward to investigating the rest of the collection, lesbian vampires or not.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


Joshua Ferris may not be a new name, but it's taken me until now to catch up with his work, thanks to a story in last week's New Yorker called The Dinner Party. This reminded me to check out his debut novel, Then We Came to the End, for which I'd seen glowing reviews when it appeared last year. Good comic writers are rare, but Ferris is a painfully acute observer of everyday rituals, and genuinely funny with it. Read the first chapter of his novel in the New York Times.

Tobias Wolff, on the other hand, is a writer I have long admired. The publication of his latest collection, Our Story Begins, is an excellent excuse to link to Awake, which is in the current edition of the New Yorker. Wolff is arguably the finest living exponent of the short story form. If you are discovering him for the first time, you have a treat in store.

Monday, 11 August 2008


'To me, I just feel that always the most interesting or exciting thing about a story is not the drama, but people who watch that drama happen. . . I'm always very much more interested in, I guess, the onlookers. I wanted to write about these people who watched everything without doing anything.'

This is Yiyun Li speaking in an interview in Saturday's Irish Times, ahead of her event that evening at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. She is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today.

Li has won major awards for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, her debut short story collection. Two excellent examples of her work can be read via the Gettysburg Review and the New Yorker magazine. In What Has That to Do with Me and A Man Like Him the themes of passive and covert complicity in tyranny reminded me of Orwell's 1984 and the recent film The Lives of Others. Li's achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that she is writing in English, a language she could barely speak when she moved from Beijing to the United States in 1996.

Friday, 8 August 2008


The Roving Editor's researches have taken him to the above locations this week, or at least to the websites of the literary reviews that bear their names. The common denominator is that they have all recently published stories by Glen Pourciau, a writer new to me. Pourciau appears to specialise in short, unsettling fictions set in a world where Larry David intersects with David Lynch. I highly recommend sampling Claim, Window and The Dangerous Couple. And a little Cake for afters.

Pourciau's debut collection, Invite, is coming out in the States in October. If there are any enterprising UK publishers reading this, you know what to do. . .

Tuesday, 5 August 2008


The idea behind the Roving Editor is to do for new writing what the best mp3 blogs do for music — to seek out quality, keep the commentary to a minimum and let the work speak for itself. There are enough critics out there as it is. What is harder to come by is the opportunity to read a sample of the work of a writer whose name you may have come across in a review somewhere.

By way of illustration, I recently read good things in the Guardian about an American author called Donald Ray Pollock, whose first book, Knockemstiff, has just been released in the UK. I was intrigued enough to take a look online and discovered that one of the stories from the collection has been published by the Barcelona Review. This in itself is a sign of quality, as the Barcelona Review is one of the best outlets for new fiction on the internet. The story is called Pills, and is a beautifully observed account of a teenage boy's doomed attempt to escape from small-town America.

Monday, 4 August 2008


Dublin resident Irvine Welsh is the latest author to contribute to a weekly series running in the Irish Times. The paper is publishing stories and essays to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Welsh has fun with the notion of Mark Renton cut adrift from his Trainspotting cohorts and consigned to a rehab clinic in the depths of Fife. Enjoy.

The series is a collaboration between the Irish Times and Amnesty International and has so far featured new work by the likes of Colm McCann, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. Enright's deadpan surrealism can be savoured in her story Grace in a Tree.