The moon was full and white, like a breast. Leaves still rattled in the hard cold limbs of the trees, and the leaves were made dry and vibrant by the year’s last great season. The pale lights of the night had usurped the chromatic radiances of the day. Light always begets light. Eternity carries a torch.
–From the short story “Bestow” by Nicholas Trandahl
Short stories were intimidating to me. They always had been. They were more intimidating than writing novels, more intimidating than poetry. Brief, concise, no room to meander before it was over. With my two prior novels, Clark’s Turning Leaf and An Uncomfortable Life, I tended to wander a bit. My literary fiction tends to place the focus of the story on the characters and setting as opposed to a plot. I have always liked writing about life, my fiction being an extension of my poetry.
My literary idols (Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, John Cheever) were all flawless short story writers, masters and practitioners of that delicate art form. But the dilemma remained; how to convert my quiet and delicate fiction to a brief piece of short fiction? How was it possible? But then I discovered James Salter. The late Salter, also a master of the short story in addition to his peerless novels, wrote prose that was domestic but tense, sexual, melancholic, and beautiful. He wrote about the lives we struggle to conceal or gloss up to onlookers.
James Salter’s work showed me suddenly that there were countless stories in all of our lives, in our pasts and present. They could be brief and subtle, erotic, easy to miss or forget, too easy to take for granted. But an expert writer like Salter could notice these ethereal stories. He could isolate them, snatch them out of our lives and put them to paper. He could expand and condense them to the forms of novels or short stories. So my task was revealed to me. I needed to pay more attention to life, to people, and I needed to locate those quieter stories and write them … quickly, before them were lost.
And so I did. Feverishly.
Story after story plunged from my fingers and onto the paper being fed through my typewriter. Contemporary tales of lives, uncertain existences but also solid lives of contentment, continued to pile up at my desk. Stories about lust, sadness, resentment, frustration, happiness, sex, nature, writing, books, food and drinks … many many drinks.
In the process of writing all these stories (some of which were a bit to risque for my publisher) I remained fueled on a heavy dose of all my favorite writers, mainly Salter. I paid more attention to my life and the people and places around me. I saw beauty in EVERYTHING. I saw a story everywhere I looked. There were no longer limits. During the process of writing these short stories, my best writing would come in the evening, when I was alone at my writing desk with a freshly-made cocktail or two at hand, the events of the day still raw and vibrant in my mind.
In a matter of months I had a fat stack of short stories that I was eager to share with my publisher. My editor, Pamela Swyers, loved them all, though some of them couldn’t be published by them because of their nature. The stand-out tale for her was “Cocktails”, and so we chose that for the ending story of the collection and we used that as the title story of the book. It’s a fitting name for the book because cocktail drinks feature heavily in several of the stories, most but not all. Cocktails are a common thread appearing through much of the collection of short stories.
And so where are we now? Where is my writing? The collection came out in late August, and I’ve been writing a little bit of poetry, a handful more short stories, but I’m having some difficulty falling back into my more familiar role of novelist. What does that mean? Have I lost something? Gained something?
Does it need analyzed?
I like to imagine that maybe, decades from now, I’ll be a writer known for his poetry and short stories. I’ll have a couple short novels under my literary belt, but they won’t be what I’m known for. Maybe I’ll be like Cheever, daresay like Capote. Maybe, if the universe is very kind, my prose will be remembered like James Salter’s.
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