Wednesday, 9 December 2009


In what has been an exceptional year for the short story, the announcement of Petina Gappah as winner of the Guardian first book award is further cause for rejoicing. Her debut collection, An Elegy for Easterly, is published by Faber.

You can read a brand new story called 'Miss McConkey of Bridgewater Close' here. This is a quietly powerful piece about a child coming of age as Rhodesia transforms itself into Zimbabwe.

In her blog, the author describes the background to the story as 'the time that I find most interesting to write about, the move from settler rule to majority rule and the early days of independence. I am interested in exploring how independence materially changed lives, especially for the blacks who made it to the suburbs and whose children found themselves in the alien territory of formerly whites-only schools.'

Not only that: she also includes the video for the hit 80s record (by David Scobie, 'one of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe's early rock stars') her parents dance to at the end of the story. It takes you right back. . .

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Despite appearances to the contrary, the Roving Editor has not been on an extended summer break. There may have been no blogging of late (apart from via Twitter) but there's been plenty of browsing -- all the fine publications that usually yield the exciting new work featured here have been regularly frequented.

The trouble is, nothing has really grabbed me in the same way that Eleanor Catton and Patricia Engel did earlier this year, or Donald Ray Pollock and Wells Tower did in 2008. Admittedly, it's asking a lot to hold out for talent of that calibre, but that's why I write the blog -- and also why I don't write it that often. It may be that I've been looking in the wrong places; if so, please feel free to point me in the right direction.

In the meantime, to prove I've been a-roving, here are some pointers to work I've enjoyed in the last while but which hasn't quite fit the criterion of being by an emerging writer; while a couple of the names were new to me, all of the writers are established authors to some extent. . .

The excellent Fifty-Two Stories site will run until the end of the year, and I would recommend recent contributions by Lydia Peelle ('Phantom Pain') and the celebrated Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany ('The Kitchen Boy'). I came upon the distinctive voice of Glen Pourciau in the Paris Review last year; 'Nightblooming' by Kenneth Calhoun is one of the most entertaining pieces I've read in 2009. Finally, Five Dials is the most attractively presented online litmag out there; its latest issue has a Paris theme, and features fiction by Steve Tolz.

Do watch this space, and do get in touch if you've got any hot tips to share.

Friday, 26 June 2009


When she spoke to The Roving Editor back in April, Patricia Engel promised to keep us posted about two book projects she had in the works. Now comes the excellent news that her debut short story collection is to be published in the US by Grove/Atlantic in autumn of next year.

Publishers' Marketplace reports that the book, entitled Vida, 'follows a single narrator growing up in small town New Jersey and navigating her identity as a daughter of the Colombian diaspora'. It will doubtless include the stories 'Lucho' and 'Dia'. This is to be a two-book deal, and Vida will be followed by a novel, as yet untitled.

Here is how Patricia described what motivates her as a writer, and why she is drawn to short stories in particular: 'I love the vulnerability of the form and that there is nowhere for the author to hide. A short story requires swift seduction but can be as memorable and transformative as the drawn out affair of a novel. I write stories for the pure thrill of it. If it didn’t feel like a party when I sit down to write, I probably wouldn’t do it.' (Read the rest of her Q&A here.)

Congratulations, Patricia -- enjoy the party!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Téa Obreht wasn't born that long ago (1985), but she is a born storyteller. Her literary launch is an auspicious one, taking place as it does in the pages of the New Yorker's recent summer fiction issue, among such luminaries as Jonathan Franzen, Aleksander Hemon and Yiyun Li.

'The Tiger's Wife', excerpted from Obreht's debut novel of the same name, has the elemental pull of a fable and the rootedness of a folk tale, but from the outset its concerns could not be more urgent and contemporary:

'Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs . . .'

As we follow the traumatised tiger through the war-ravaged landscape and to the ridge above the village of Galina, he becomes the embodiment of the fears, superstitions and myths of the local people. And for one little boy, the narrator's grandfather, he is Shere Khan come to life from the pages of his beloved Jungle Book.

This is a rich mixture, but the material is beautifully handled by Obreht. The story never gets bogged down in allegory; its resonances ring true. It is the work of an author who is destined for great things.

Obreht, who was born in Belgrade in former Yugoslavia and left in 1992 on the outbreak of war, has said in an interview that her novel is based on personal experiences: 'It’s a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.'

The Tiger's Wife will be published in the US in and in the UK in July next year.

(In a departure from The Roving Editor's usual practice, the featured work is not freely available to read online. However I thought the story too exceptional to miss, so I would encourage you to sign up for the New Yorker's free preview of its digital edition here.)

UPDATE: More on Téa here.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


If you haven't heard of Patricia Engel yet, you haven't been reading The Roving Editor. She is a gifted exponent of the short story, at a time when the form is at last gaining the recognition and audience it deserves. (Read James Lasdun on this encouraging phenomenon here.)

So far Patricia has only published in literary journals, albeit in titles of the calibre of Guernica and the Boston Review, where her talent was first noticed by Junot Díaz.

It can’t be long until her work appears between covers. Indeed Patricia tells me that she is currently working on two book projects, and has promised to keep us posted about their publication. In the meantime, it is my great pleasure to present this Q&A with a rising literary star.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and what led you to become a writer?
My parents are Colombian and I grew up in New Jersey, among an extended family of musicians, painters, and a grandmother who was a writer. I sketched, painted, and read constantly, particularly biographies, books about mythology and the paranormal. Writing was a way to entertain myself, build a bridge to another life. I'd never let others read my work, though. My stories were only for me. Eventually the compulsion to write swallowed most of my other brewing dreams and I complied.

What attracts you to the medium of the short story?
I love the vulnerability of the form and that there is nowhere for the author to hide. A short story requires swift seduction but can be as memorable and transformative as the drawn out affair of a novel. I write stories for the pure thrill of it. If it didn’t feel like a party when I sit down to write, I probably wouldn’t do it.

Which writers do you admire?
I admire any writer that goes into the page raw-hearted, but the first heroes to blow my mind during adolescence were Marguerite Duras, Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Maryse Condé, Gabriel García Márquez, Esther Freud, Alexandre Jardin and Romain Gary.

Where and when do you write?
Usually at desk or table at home, starting early in the morning. I prefer silence, solitude, and natural light. I rarely write at night.

How did you first come to be published?
In college, I majored in French and Art History, not Creative Writing, and had no sense of the publishing path for a very long time, which was a good thing because it allowed me to focus only on the writing. Then one day I sent ‘Lucho’ to the Boston Review and the fiction editor liked it.

How has being published affected you as a writer?
Placing a story in a journal is like finding a home for a stray cat. Not exactly a miracle, but no small deed either. I'm extremely grateful every time it turns out well.

Your stories seem to feature recurring central protagonists (I’m thinking of Sabina, who narrates both ‘Lucho’ and ‘Día’) and a large and colourful cast of more peripheral players. Can you say something about your approach to creating characters?
The Sabina stories are part of a collection that follows her over two decades. In creating characters I try to give readers the friends they never knew they wanted or needed. I enjoy characters that are tender and cruel, confronting their humanity, who manage to form profound bonds despite personal chaos. My stories are built on the idea that we are the sum of the people we’ve allowed ourselves to care about. We test one another, and we make each other better.

Have you come across any new writers whose work you would recommend?
I wouldn't say they're new, but the voices I've recently pushed on friends are Jorge Franco, Philippe Grimbert, Faïza Guène, Chimo, and Fernando Vallejo.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


I first came across Patricia Engel last year when her story, 'Desaliento', won the Boston Review's annual prize for fiction. I enjoyed her unhurried storytelling and unfussy prose, and made a mental note to look out for more of her work.

The opportunity came via the latest email bulletin from the always worthwhile Guernica magazine. The current issue features 'Día', a beautifully observed vignette of an awkward encounter between two friends who could have been lovers but never were.

Unconsummated relationships are something of a motif in Engel's work, at least on the evidence of the pieces she has published online. 'Lucho', her earliest published fiction, is narrated by the teenage Sabina, whose grown-up voice we hear in 'Día': 'He was 16 and I was 14, which meant we could be friends on our block but had to ignore each other at school. He had squishy lips and a small round nose, smooth shiny skin and greasy dark hair. All the girls checked him out. But Lucho was kind of dirty for a town like ours.' In this story, tragedy intervenes, and is all the more affecting for the suddenness with which it interrupts the leisurely unfolding of what could otherwise be an unremarkable tale of adolescent infatuation.

Engel's knack of drawing the reader into the everyday world of her characters, then revealing in passing an incident that catches the reader unawares, is also evident in 'Prison Letters', an excerpt from which appears in Slice magazine: 'Victor would go on benders, disappear for days, but always turned up on Sunday mornings and went to mass with my mom even when he was still with his first wife, a Jewish girl named Rebecca who died before I had a chance to meet her. They were on the rocks and she was pregnant. She went to see her parents after a big fight with Victor and an eighteen-wheeler smashed into her Datsun on the Long Island Expressway. Victor blamed himself and jumped off the roof of his house but didn't get so much as a scratch.'

Is it fanciful to extrapolate from this a literary kinship between the Colombian-American Engel and Gabriel García Márquez? Perhaps. Engel is no magic realist, but she is a natural storyteller, and if I can risk invoking the name of another literary titan, she has something of Salinger's way with vernacular and feel for family relationships. Like both writers, she can also be very funny.

Patricia Engel is an exceptional talent, but as far as I know she has yet to be signed up by a publisher. It is surely only a matter of time.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


I've written before in praise of Eleanor Catton's short stories. Now comes the welcome opportunity to sample her debut novel. This extract from The Rehearsal appears on the newly relaunched website of Granta, who will be publishing the book in the UK in July.

It is a vivid, multi-layered creation, a performance in every sense of the word. By combining intense theatricality with the raw emotions and experiences of her teenage protagonists, Catton appears to be doing something truly extraordinary with the novel form. For me, the writing has more in common with the drama of Pirandello or Beckett than a work of prose fiction. I'm thinking in particular of Six Characters in Search of an Author. But this is no mere exercise in style: the novel's ingenious framework is there to serve a purpose, not to be noticed or admired for its own sake.

On this evidence Catton has a compelling tale, or tales, to tell in The Rehearsal, and I for one am impatient to read more.

Monday, 23 March 2009


Of all the writers featured on The Roving Editor, Wells Tower is the name that attracts most visitors to the blog, thanks to a brief post back in November. This augurs well for the success of his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, which is shortly to be published on both sides of the Atlantic.

If I were asked to identify the qualities in Wells Tower's writing that make reading these stories such a rewarding experience, I would say that what impresses me most is the depth of his characterisation and the freshness of his language. The essence of good short story writing is economy, and in the same way that Picasso could conjure life from the simplest of lines, Tower has the gift of creating flesh and blood people out of a handful of words.

And what well-chosen words they are. Take this pen-picture of the narrator's father, abandoned by his much younger lover, in 'Executors of Important Energies': 'My father felt astonished in his grief -- pushing fifty, the silver tufts bursting from his ears, to find his heart broken for the first time in his life. That was the one time he tried hard to be my friend. He had me over on weekends. He'd tell me love was like the chicken pox, a thing to be got through early because it could really kill you in your later years.'

This quote also hints at a trait shared by many of Tower's protagonists: a sense of humour and self-knowledge in the face of adversity. In one of the best stories in the book, the carnival-set 'On the Show', there is a rare moment of tenderness between the new attendant on a ride called the Pirate Ship and one of his customers, a blind woman: 'The ride ends, and Jeff goes to her and helps her down the platform. She is warm against him, and cannot stop laughing. "Thank you, thanks very much," she says, and Jeff Park feels glad to have found work on the Pirate, a machine that draws joy out of people as simply as a derrick draws oil from dirt.'

Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for Tower as a comic writer, for all the bleakness of the lives and landscapes he depicts. The comedy is there in the grotesque tableau of a man obliged to void his dog's bladder using a kind of Heimlich manoeuvre ('Retreat'); in the uneasy conversation between a violent man and his ex-wife's hippy lover, suddenly thrown together on a road-trip ('Down Through the Valley'); and, most flamboyantly of all, in the Pythonesque but ultimately poignant title story, an everyday tale of marauding Vikings who speak in modern American: 'A hydra flew in last night and ran off with Rolf Hierdal's sheep. We can't be putting up with this shit. It comes down to pride, is what it comes down to.'

Uncomfortable encounters and strained relationships are something of a Tower speciality, as are sudden explosions of violence. All of these elements are present in 'On the Show', which for me is the key story in the collection. Its fairground setting seems a perfect metaphor for the desire for thrills and transcendence that drives the characters in the stories, a desire that the gaudy rides can only satisfy fleetingly before disappointment takes hold again. Jeff Park has an assignation with a girl with a fondness for phosphorescent candy whom he meets on the Pirate Ship. She doesn't show. Eventually he tracks her down: 'He goes to her quickly, puts his hand on her shoulder, and pulls her toward him, hard enough that her head jerks back. People turn. Her jaw hangs wide and pretty, but the light in her mouth has gone out.'

I could go on, but the main point of this blog is to direct readers to the work itself. You can whet your appetite for the book by sampling two of the stories online: 'Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned' and 'Wild America'. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


The Guardian Review has an excellent, thought-provoking essay by Salman Rushdie on the subject of literary adaptation. Rushdie's contention is that the aim of any such enterprise – whether it is the translation of a poem or the transfer of a novel to film – should be to capture the essence of the original work. Slavish "fidelity" to the source material is both misguided and futile, hence his apparent respect for what he describes as the "creatively savage" approach taken by Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's 2002 film.

However Rushdie also wishes to examine the notion of adaptation in its broadest sense. To do so, he says, "is to see that all the meanings of the word deal with the question of what is essential – in a work adapted to another form, in an individual adapting to a new home, in a society adapting to a new age. What do you preserve? What do you jettison? What is changeable, and where must you draw the line? The questions are always the same, and the way we answer them determines the quality of the adaptation, of the book, the poem, or of our own lives."

In the course of the article, Rushdie reveals that he is working on a screenplay of Midnight's Children, which is to be directed by Deepa Mehta. It will be fascinating to hear his further thoughts on the adaptation process once this project comes to fruition.


Barney Rosset, legendary New York publisher, is the subject of Obscene, a documentary film released in the UK this week. View the trailer here, and read a New York Times feature here.

Though Rosset relinquished Grove Press some years ago, he is still Editor in Chief of the Evergreen Review, which made its first appearance in 1957. The magazine now publishes most of its content online, and there are several short stories by new writers in the current issue.

Friday, 6 February 2009


The latest New Yorker fiction offering is from a veteran of the magazine, Steven Millhauser. 'The Invasion from Outer Space' is a witty exploration of what occurs when our most deep-seated fears are made manifest, when events of which we have dreamed or which we have only experienced through books and films become reality.

The imagery of 9/11 was so disturbingly familiar from popular culture that it has become difficult to revisit the cliches of the disaster movie, for example, without evoking that day. Millhauser turns this phenomenon on its head by taking as his subject a version of The War of the Worlds in which the long-dreaded alien encounter turns out to be a bit of an anti-climax. The narrator wants 'terror and ecstacy', but all he gets is a coating of yellow dust.

It's a tribute to the author's sensitivity and sense of humour that the story itself doesn't disappoint, and, unlike the extraterrestrial visitation, at just over 1500 words it doesn't outstay its welcome either.

Steven Millhauser's most recent collection is called Dangerous Laughter.

Friday, 30 January 2009


A welcome online fiction showcase has been launched by Harper Perennial, as reported by 3:AM. Curated by Cal Morgan, Fifty-Two Stories will publish new work every week this year by both established and emerging writers of the form.

The series got off to an auspicious start with its first offering. Simon Van Booy's 'The Missing Statues' has a classic storytelling set-up: two strangers meet and fall into conversation about events from another time and place that are somehow connected to the here and now. One of them tries to comfort the other, saying: “I simply want to know why a missing statue has reduced a young American businessman to tears.”

Like the statues of the title, everything in the story is at one remove from reality: the narrator speaks of Venice, but only as it is reimagined in Las Vegas. His tale involves a man who pretends to be an Italian gondolier, mimes the voice of Enrico Caruso and recognises his own daughter in a woman whose small child he befriends.

British-born Van Booy's writing is highly coloured and romantic, but manages to skirt sentimentality. There is real feeling behind these facades, these masks and wishful imaginings.

The story is taken from a forthcoming collection called Love Begins in Winter, which is published in the US in May, and in the UK in November. It should be worth investigating, as should the rest of Cal Morgan's choices for Fifty-Two Stories this year.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009


The Roving Editor started life blogging about the links between literature and movies under the title The Word on Film. It seems appropriate to return to this relatively unexplored zone via Zoetrope All-Story, the literary magazine published by Francis Ford Coppola.

This time last year we knew of two forthcoming films based on F Scott Fitzgerald stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttton and Pat Hobby. Here is screenwriter Eric Roth in the current issue of Zoetrope on adapting Benjamin Button. The magazine also carries the story itself, though it's not available to read online. It was originally published in the collection Tales of the Jazz Age.

Meanwhile the only update on Pat Hobby is that it is being lined up for production this year; the film company's synopsis reads: 'Fitzgerald’s beloved hack fights for a writer’s buck in the Hollywood studio system.'

The author himself was no stranger to penury, of course, but these days he'd have found it a lot less difficult to make a beautiful dollar in Tinseltown: as well as the aforementioned adaptations, there is also news of yet another remake of The Great Gatsby, this time by Baz Luhrmann. However Variety has this cautionary tale of the mixed artistic and box-office fortunes of F Scott on screen.

Francis Coppola should be watching all of this with especial interest: he wrote the screenplay for the faithful but unloved 1974 adaptation of Gatsby.

Friday, 9 January 2009


Among a handful of literary names on the Observer's 'hotlist' for 2009 is the young New Zealander Eleanor Catton. From what I have seen of her work, the interest is entirely justified. 'The Outing' has the mingled humour and menace of a Hitchcock movie in miniature, while 'Necropolis' is a beautifully observed depiction of a dead-end job. It's no surprise to see that the author is a fan of Muriel Spark.

'The Outing' has apparently been reworked as a scene in Catton's debut novel The Rehearsal. According to the Observer this is due to be published by Granta in the UK in July, though this edition is not currently listed on Amazon, and the publisher does not appear to have a website at present. More details when we have them.