We want to extend our gratitude to Alice Kaltman for her generosity in reading our fiction submissions, as well as answering questions regarding writing and craft. Many thanks to Alice, author of the collection of stories Staggerwing, for offering her insights and choosing our fiction contest winner.
We’re excited to announce that she chose Tom Gumbert’s short story A Conversation with Rose, published in May on our site. As the winner of our contest, Tom receives a $50 award from Sunlight, sponsored by an anonymous donor.* Congratulations, Tom!
About his story, Alice said, “Here’s a story that manages to give so, so much in less that 2000 words – a sense of place, important back story, insight about a longstanding marriage between regular folks, heartbreaking details about their inevitable sufferings. I was sucked in from the start by the direct, confident nature of the writing.”
Below is our interview with Alice about her writing process and what she believes makes a compelling short story.
You write short stories. Why? How did you come to be interested in this genre?
As a reader, I’ve always been a huge fan of the short story. A well done story is just enough to fill me up, and leave me feeling blissfully sated. I am in awe of writers who know what to keep, what to leave out, how to make a story ‘work.’ I became interested in writing stories after completing two novels that were well received but had not yet been published. I was in the frustrating depths of novelist purgatory, on the verge of throwing in the writing towel altogether when I thought, why not try my hand at stories? I assumed I’d suck at short fiction—so perfect and unattainable those precious gems. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to master the form. The precision. The magic! The all important subtle choices.
Looking back at it now I realize it was a huge risk for me to dip my toe into the short fiction world. But I am so glad I did. I’m still shocked that writing stories came easily to me. Even more so, that people like to read my stories. I keep waiting for the ease to end, and the readers to disappear.
How is the process of writing a short story different from that of a longer work?
Time, mostly is the difference. I can finish a story in a month or so. A novel takes at least a year. To write a good story you have to think economically. You can only take a carry-on. No extra baggage. Because of this, it requires huge amounts of creative thinking and lots of letting go. A story writer has to ignore interesting tangents and lengthy descriptions. Get rid of inconsequential supporting characters. Save them for another story, or kiss those babies bye-bye. A novelist has more leeway. This makes many published novels—dare I say—overwritten and boring.
Novel writing is also very hard. Mainly, it takes MUCH longer. But I don’t think writing a brilliant novel is any more impressive than writing a brilliant story.
What helps a short story engage the reader quickly? What makes a short story successful?
A successful story is a story that people like, regardless of genre, form, structure, etc. That said, I think first lines really are important. First paragraphs even more so. You need to give your reader a compelling sense of character or place or both for them to keep reading with investment. Plot can come after. Some fantastic stories have very little plot, they live off the wonderful fumes of a writer’s voice and the aforementioned characters and places. Some stories have much more plot. Whatever kind of story you write, you need to provide a satisfying end, even if the larger story beyond your story isn’t over. Readers can imagine their own grand finales. Just don’t leave them hanging at some arbitrary place and think it’s okay, or cool, or edgy. Even though your story is not “War and Peace,” it still has to feel satisfyingly conclusive.
What set our fiction finalists apart in this short story contest? Did any themes unify them?
Voice came through in all the marvelous stories I read. Nothing trendy or forced. I was drawn into each story by the authenticity and connection between writer and writing. There were unifying themes of family, loss, travel, death, love, identity…you know, all the big ticket items. The main thing I can say, and this is a big compliment, they were all wonderfully human.
Are there particular writing craft books that you recommend for writers?
True confession: I’ve never read a craft book. I’m a bit allergic to rules, and even though craft books aren’t exactly rule books, I’m scared to know what they suggest because I’m convinced I’m doing this writing thing all wrong and craft books will verify my fear.
Rather than books, what inspires me is listening to writers talk about their work, their approaches, their lives, their quirks. I’d recommend going to live readings or listening to interviews, podcasts, etc., of writers you admire. Bask in their glow. Some of it will rub off, especially if you don’t try too hard. Two podcasts that I particularly love to listen to are Writers and Company from CBC Radio and The New Yorker Fiction Podcasts. Great writers, great questions, great inspiration.
What does your writing day look like?
If I am lucky enough to have a full day where writing can chose its preferred slots, I’m best generating new material in the early to mid-morning, and tweaking/editing later in the day, or early evening.
I also love to run or swim when I’m stuck and need to figure out what happens next in either a story or novel. Twenty minutes in meditative, aerobic activity and my mind starts to crackle and spark, and I (almost always) find the next solution. It’s sort of miraculous.
What are you currently reading?
I just read the novel Anything is Possible and was blown away by the always amazing Liz Strout. She’s the master of weaving stories together novelistically. Talk about unique voice and imagination. I bow at the shrine. It’s hard to choose the next book after reading something so jaw-droppingly fantastic. Any suggestions?
Tell us about your latest release and what is next for you.
My collection of stories Staggerwing is out now. Readers can find it online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and the Tortoise Books website. And it can be ordered at most bookstores.
I’m also thrilled that my Young Adult novel Wavehouse originally written over ten years ago will be published next summer by Fitzroy Books. I’m working on edits right now and I tell you: after my long, wonderful relationship with short stories, it is damn hard to dive back into the murky waters of long form.
I’m also (gasp) working on a novel for adults, which might also be considered connected short stories. It is currently a big hot mess. Fingers crossed it gets its act together.
Where can writers find you online?
Come find me, please:
Thank you so much Rudri and Beth, for inviting me to The Sunlight Press. It has been such a blast!
* Read more about our current nonfiction contest here, also sponsored by the same donor. We are very grateful for the support.