Archive for the ‘Friday Feature’ category

Friday Feature ~ “Night Train to Kisumu”

April 2, 2021

This seems like an older story than the ones that came before it, but I suppose it’s not. “Night Train to Kisumu” was my fourth published short story, appearing in the March 2009 issue of the online journal Wanderings Magazine.

I wrote this story based on an actual experience I had riding a night train from Nairobi to Kisumu in Kenya more than a decade ago. I was visiting my son, who was serving with the Peace Corps there at the time. I had flown into Nairobi (and waited in vain for British Airways to produce my luggage), then we took a night train, the city of Kisumu being the end of the line for us, but it got us close to the village where he was teaching, and we rode a tuk-tuk the rest of the way (which included crossing the equator).

The train was obviously discarded from a lifetime of use in some better-off land; it was run down and ragged. It was crowded. Some passengers could only afford passage on the floor, and I found myself stepping over them to get from here to there. But it offered a four-course dinner in the dining car if you bought the right ticket. That was an odd experience because the dining car was filled with families drinking pop and beer, while down at the end was a table with a white cloth and silver service on it. We (my sister had also come along) had a nice meal there, but the whole time I was well aware of the disparity between our table and everyone else’s in the car. At one point the train stopped at one of the village halts and out the dirty window I could see two soldiers with guns dealing with a screaming man who, if my son’s Swahili could be trusted, needed to get on the train to visit his mother.

I realized at the time that there was a story in this, and when I got home I wrote it. Then I decided it was good enuf to submit around, and, thinking I was clever, I sorted the likely markets I’d found in Duotrope in reverse alphabetical order. My thinking was that the publications at the end of the list were likely to have the least number of submissions and so I had a better chance. And there I found Wanderings Magazine. I made the submission and was delighted when I learned they wanted to publish it.

Wanderings Magazine survived for a few years, but it eventually folded, and the web address is now for sale.

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This trip was odd in many ways, but the oddest part was actually getting a cell signal while on the train (which had no electricity — how did they cook that dinner?). And I got a call from my wife then. She told me that she was to have quadruple bypass surgery the next day and that maybe I’d want to think about returning home. It took me three days to get home. I’d spent most of a week on the equator without a change of clothes. People were getting up and moving away from me on the planes I took home.

Friday Feature ~ “The Lively Arts in Kansas City!”

March 19, 2021

“The Lively Arts in Kansas City!” was my third published short story, way back in 2008. As I recall (across more than ten years), the story mostly wrote itself.

I’m sure the genesis of the story was the Botero statue you see above, which is in the collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art here in Kansas City. The poor woman in bronze is using her hands to cover herself, fore and aft. I thought about her obvious distress and what she would want if she could have it; the obvious answer was clothing. The more I looked around at the sculpture in the city, the more I saw that they’d probably like to take a break from their artiness and do what they want for a while. (The pioneer mother, forever astride a broken-down horse, would probably like a bath. The giant spider sculpture would probably like something to eat. And so it went.)

And so I had them come to life and go about the city getting what they really wanted. The city marveled at them for a while but soon grew bored. The media covered it until the ratings dropped. And eventually all of the statues returned to their pedestals, having satisfied themselves. The bronze woman above, for example, now wore a modest dress (from Lane Bryant). My “point” was to poke a little fun at my hometown, which has a reputation for not appreciating its art or its history.

This story still holds the record for the fastest acceptance I’ve ever received. Knowing that it had an extremely local focus, I figured only a local publication would be interested in it. I had submitted it to a local ezine called Present, and within about three hours the editor wrote back saying the story was “brilliant” and that he wanted to publish it immediately. That was gratifying, especially since I still doubted my credentials as a fiction writer, certain that my two earlier publications were flukes.

Update 20MAR21 – The comment referencing putt putt golf is about Kansas City’s Nelson Atkins Museum of Art’s second year of hosting miniature golf on its lawn. Patrons, who pay for the chance to play, can putt their way through giant mock-ups of works of art. I’m not in favor of this; it think it cheapens the purpose of the art museum. But apparently it is quite lucrative, and museums are ailing financially during the pandemic. Perhaps I should write a sequel to the story I mention here. I could call it “The Lowly Arts in Kansas City.”

Friday Feature ~ “Race to the Summit”

March 12, 2021

In my early writing years, I spent a lot of time and thought on what kind of stories I wanted to write. Did I want to write in a certain genre? Serious stuff or comic stuff? Realistic fiction or speculative fiction? What did I like to read and could I emulate it? I was still finding my way, perhaps my style, and certainly my subject. So I was trying out different things.

“Race to the Summit” was the second story I had accepted for publication. This was back in 2007 (published in 2008), so nearly two decades had passed since my first published story. I can tell you that I thought a lot about whether or not I was really a writer if it was taking so long to make the magic happen again. (I was writing and publishing a lot of nonfiction in those years.) I began to think that getting “The Mythmaker” published was just a fluke, and I remember setting myself a standard at that time: I wouldn’t consider myself a writer until I had at least ten stories published. That number seemed impossibly ambitious, but if I could achieve it, I would have a substantial body of work that couldn’t be dismissed as luck alone.

So I was encouraged when “Race to the Summit” was accepted for an anthology of speculative fiction: Beacons of Tomorrow. My story is more fantasy than science fiction, or maybe magical realism. I must have been reading a lot of Garcia Marquez at the time for the influence is clearly there. This is one of the few stories of mine that actually received editorial suggestions. I recall one scene that was depicted in a clumsy way that the editor wanted changed, so I did. There may have been a few word changes as well. I wish I could remember more about the genesis of the story; there may be something in one of my journals about it, but good luck finding that! The story involves an earth-bound boy who is infatuated with a girl he imagines to be an angel — a time-honored theme — and his jealousy in learning there is another boy who seems to have captured her attention. What he learns in the end is that he is both right and wrong.

I’m not sure how I learned of the call from Beacons of Tomorrow for speculative short stories, though I suspect it was through Duotrope, which I’ve relied on greatly over the years. By this time, email was the fashion and I submitted in that way. And once again, when the acceptance came through, I kept my success to myself. I suspect I wouldn’t let myself believe it until the printed copy was in my hands. I guess my ambition was a fragile thing. But I now had two short stories published, and I was beginning to believe I might actually pull off this writer thing. Like “The Mythmaker,” my second story appeared in a print journal, and I cleared a space on my bookshelf for these two trophies of mine, where I could see them easily as I sat at my writing desk.

Friday Feature ~ “The Mythmaker”

March 5, 2021

In the preface to the great collection titled The Stories of John Cheever, he notes that he’d left out the “embarrassingly immature” pieces. I remember reading that forty years ago when the collection first came out, and I thought that if a writer of Cheever’s calibre could admit to novice work, I should not be hesitant to say the same about my own.

I am embarking on a semi-regular post on the humble blog in which I visit my published stories and tell you something about them. My thought is that I will do this on Fridays — hence the clever title for the series — but I don’t promise to be consistent about making weekly entries. Still, here I go.

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“The Mythmaker” is my first published short story, appearing in the Spring 1990 issue of The Platte Valley Review. It’s astonishing to me that this was more than thirty years ago. I had been writing seriously for about five years by then (and keeping a writing journal even longer), but I’d had no success getting any of my (embarrassingly immature) stories published. Several well-intentioned people, who weren’t writers, told me the conventional wisdom they had heard, that it would take ten years of effort to get something published. I took that as a given at the time and surprised myself by doing it in five years.

My story is a sort of reminiscence by an old man whose family was an important part of Kansas City history but whose fortunes had fallen greatly by his generation. My city has something of a reputation for not knowing its own past. The story and characters are pure fiction, of course. I wrote it for a contest that a local magazine held for Kansas City stories, suspecting, rightly it turned out, that the winning story would be about a divorced woman having trouble coping with her divorce. The only component I missed in my prediction was that she did her laundry in a laundromat. Still, I thought mine was a pretty good story and I hung on to it.

Then I went to a writers conference at the Kearney State College in Nebraska. The focus of the conference was regional literature, which was something I was interested in at the time. This was my first writers conference and I was duly awed by being able to hang out with like minds, most of whom had credentials. By the end of the long weekend, when the conference was coming to a close, I happened to be walking down the hall beside a man attending, and he said, out of the blue, “So what do you write?” I told him I had a story about history and loss, and he said that he’d like to read it. Oh, also, that he was the editor of a journal called The Platte Valley Review published by that college.

When I got home I sent him my typewritten story — this was in the days before email was prominent, so it went by snail mail — and crossed my fingers. I don’t recall how long I waited to hear from the editor, but when I did, it was the best news in the world. He liked my story and wanted to publish it in his journal. I had done it!

For weeks, perhaps longer, I told no one my news. I wanted to savor it as my own private delight. It may have only been when the five contributor copies arrived in a bulging brown envelope that I shared my secret. I don’t recall, but I do remember how it made me feel at the time, that I could do this thing I had so much dreamed about since I was a child.