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Writing Tip Wednesday: “The Missouri Review » Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize”

Discovering the best in fiction, essays, and poetry

Source: The Missouri Review » Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

$5,000 Fiction | $5,000 Nonfiction $5,000 Poetry 

DEADLINE: October 2, 2017

Winners receive publication, invitation to a reception and reading in their honor, and a cash prize.

Guidelines

  • Submit one piece of fiction or nonfiction up to 8,500 words or any number of poems up to 10 pages. Please double-space fiction and nonfiction entries.
  • Multiple submissions and simultaneous submissions are welcome, but you must pay a separate fee for each entry and withdraw the piece immediately if accepted elsewhere.
  • Entries must be previously unpublished.
  • Entry fee: $22
  • Each entrant receives a one-year subscription to the Missouri Review in digital format (normal price $24) and a paperback copy of the first title of our new imprint, Missouri Review Books, The Trail of the Demon by Jane Gillette (normal price $14.95).

Eligibility

  • Previous winners of the Editors’ Prize and current University of Missouri students and faculty are ineligible.
  • Previous Editors’ Prize finalists are welcome to enter again.

Submit

Winners will be announced in early 2018.

Questions? E-mail contest_question@moreview.com.

Read a prizewinning story by Melissa Yancy, an essay by Peter Selgin, and a selection from poetry winners Katie Bickham, Kai Carlson-Wee, and Alexandra Teague.

27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize$5,000 Fiction | $5,000 Nonfiction | $5,000 Poetry DEADLINE: October 2, 2017Winners receive publication, invitation to a reception and reading in their honor, and a cash prize.Guidelines Submit one piece of fiction or nonfiction up to 8,500 words or any number of poems up to 10 pages. Please double-space fiction and nonfiction entries. Multiple submissions and simultaneous submissions are welcome, but you must pay a separate fee for each entry and withdraw the piece immediately if accepted elsewhere. Entries must be previously unpublished. Entry fee: $22 Each entrant receives a one-year subscription to the Missouri Review in digital format (normal price $24) and a paperback copy of the first title of our new imprint, Missouri Review Books, The Trail of the Demon by Jane Gillette (normal price $14.95).Eligibility Previous winners of the Editors’ Prize and current University of Missouri students and faculty are ineligible. Previous Editors’ Prize finalists are welcome to enter again.Submit Online By mailWinners will be announced in early 2018.Questions? E-mail contest_question@moreview.com.Read a prizewinning story by Melissa Yancy, an essay by Peter Selgin, and a selection from poetry winners Katie Bickham, Kai Carlson-Wee, and Alexandra Teague.

Source: The Missouri Review » Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

 

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Filed under 2017, contest, Writing Tip Wednesday

Guidelines | Ploughshares

Ploughshares logo

 

Emerging Writer’s Contest

Deadline is May 22, 2017

The Emerging Writer’s Contest is open to writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry who have yet to publish or self-publish a book. The winner in each genre will be awarded $2,000. Read past winners of the contest here. To submit to the Emerging Writer’s Contest, please visit our submission manager.

The 2017 contest judges are Garth Greenwell (fiction), Meghan Daum (nonfiction), and Natalie Diaz (poetry).

Publication
The winning story, essay, and poems from the 2017 contest will be published in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Ploughshares, and each writer will receive $2,000 and two copies of the issue in which their work appears.

Eligibility
You are eligible if you:

  • Have yet to publish a book (including chapbooks, eBooks, translations, books in other languages/countries, and self-published works).
  • Have no book forthcoming before April 15, 2018.
  • Are not affiliated with Ploughshares or Emerson College as a contributing author, volunteer screener, blogger, intern, student, staff member, or faculty member.
  • Will not have a relationship with Emerson before April 15, 2018 (example: if there is a chance you will attend the Emerson MFA program in the coming year or if your work has been accepted for publication for an upcoming issue).

Submitting
The contest opens March 1, 2017 at noon EST and has been extended to May 22, 2017 at noon EST. We will announce winners in mid-September, 2017.

Fiction and Nonfiction: Under 6,000 words
Poetry: 3-5 pages

Submit one entry per year via our online submission manager.

  • No entries via email or mail will be considered for the contest.
  • Submitted work must be original and previously unpublished in any form.
  • For poetry, we will be reading both for the strongest individual poem and the general level of work, and may choose to publish one, some, or all of the winner’s submitted poems.
  • Cover letters are not necessary. All identifying information will be removed from submissions.

Entry Fee
Entry to the contest requires a $24 fee, which is waived if the submitter is a current subscriber. The fee is:

  • Payable by Visa or MasterCard through the online submission system.
  • Includes a 1-year subscription to Ploughshares (beginning with the Spring 2017 issue and ending with the Winter 2017-18 issue).
  • Includes free submissions to the 2017 reading period

Current subscribers—through the Winter 2017-18 issue—may submit for free.*

*If you are a current subscriber, you will still be prompted to checkout, but you will not be required to enter your credit card information and will not be charged.

To submit to the Emerging Writer’s Contest, please visit our submission manager.

Source: Guidelines | Ploughshares

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Filed under 2017, contest, writing tip, Writing Tip Wednesday

Dark Warm Heart | Tor.com

Source: Dark Warm Heart | Tor.com

“Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson is a horror story about a woman whose husband returns from the frozen Canadian North Territories, obsessed with texts he discovered there.

 

The bite mark was wine-red on anemic-white, crenellating Kristine’s bare shoulder. She moved the strap of her nightgown when Noel stumbled into the kitchen, drawn by the sizzle and clank of the frying pan, so he would be sure to see it.

“Morning,” she said, sliding the sausages onto a paper towel.

“Hey.” Noel stopped short, still scratching at the wiry hair up his belly. He frowned. “Did I do that?”

“No,” Kristine said dryly. She dabbed at the grease. “Somebody else. While you were gone I cheated with a…a hyena.”

Noel came closer, whispering one finger along the ruined skin. Shook his head. “Shit,” he said, wrapping her waist. “Désolé. I didn’t mean to.”

“Good,” Kristine said. She tipped her head back for a kiss. “I don’t mind it,” she decided, plucking at his hand. “See? We match.”

“Yes. Lucky.” Noel held up his broad hand, two of the fingers still scarred purple from frostbite. “What do you call it? An accent color?”

Kristine laughed, and gave him a small shove towards the white table. Noel sat down in his old spot, like he’d never left, while she doled out sausages and toast with margarine. The small kitchen was still crammed full with gleaming wedding gift appliances.

“So finally you had someone to laugh at your jokes?” Noel asked, sawing with his knife.

Kristine smiled. “What?”

“The hyena.”

“Hm. Yeah.” She watched Noel sniff at the sausage, like he’d been rescued off some island instead of from the YEG airport late last night. “And he always ate the leftovers.”

Noel laughed, warm like an electric blanket, and she wished she’d told him the night before. But there had been no space for words, just skin and sweat in a bed that had been too big for too many weeks, and she’d waited this long, hadn’t she?

“I’m going to start on the transcription today,” Noel said, chewing.

“Already?” Kristine asked. “You aren’t going to, I don’t know, warm up for a day? Relax?”

“It’s not so warm here either, Krissy.” He nodded towards the sliding door, half frosted over, and the pinwheeling flakes beyond it. “It’s snowing.”

“Warmer than your igloo in NWT,” Kristine suggested. “I have to run a few errands. Unless you wanted me to stay and help you. With, you know, the bilabial sounds.” She leaned forward and pressed both her lips against his. They felt dry.

“I didn’t sleep in an igloo,” Noel said when they broke, but grinning. “All right. I’ll wash up. Leave the plates.”

Kristine went to the pristine bathroom, which would not be pristine for long now that Noel was back. She’d almost missed seeing his bristles in the sink. She turned the shower on, hot. The mirror fogged fast. She retched a few times over the toilet, but nothing came up, so she stepped inside the shower. After, while the curling iron was heating up, she rummaged a tube of concealer out of her vanity drawer. She shook it as she eyed the bite mark, debating.

She put the concealer back. The mark was somehow like a checked box, a reminder that Noel was real and he was home and he loved her to death, and it was nothing like the cuts up her legs she’d hidden in high school.

When she passed through the kitchen, keys jangling in her fingers, Noel was already swallowed up between Bose headphones, the noise-cancelling kind. His face looked thin and sharp and his eyes were tracking across the laptop screen, left, right, left, right.

“Don’t work too hard,” Kristine said, once she’d tugged one of the headphones down.

“I would never,” Noel said. “Thank you for breakfast.”

He brushed crumbs off his lip before he kissed her good-bye, but the sausages were still sitting on the plate, uneaten. Kristine handed him a Tupperware container on her way out the door.

 

Her shoulder throbbed while she was getting cash from the ATM. It throbbed when she pushed through the Grade 5/6 portable doors to pick up the worksheet she’d forgotten to photocopy, it throbbed when she shivered in the meat section of Superstore, trying to remember if Noel liked minute steaks, and it throbbed when she returned home to find him still at the table with his face sickly awash in laptop light. He’d forgotten he cooked Sundays.

“Hey, Mister Linguist, have you even moved?” Kristine asked, opening the fridge freezer. Cold billowed out as she put the steaks in, then fished for an ice tray.

“Buy me a catheter,” Noel said. He gave a wan grin. “This is great shit, Krissy. Come. Listen.”

“I don’t speak Inuktitut.”

Noel laughed, and said it wasn’t Inuktitut, and then the room was quiet except for the crack-pop of ice cubes into a ziplock. Kristine wrapped the bag in a wet cloth, still watching Noel watching the screen, and held it against her shoulder.

“All right,” she said. “Show me.”

“Come.” Noel slipped the headphones from around his neck and held the ice against Kristine’s shoulder while she put them on.

The feedback volume made her jump.

“Sorry.” Noel dialed it down with a practiced finger. Kristine repositioned the headphones and listened. It was a low guttural wail, broken up by a sort of huffing. When she listened harder she could hear an uncanny melody.

“Nice. What is it?” She looked to the screen, where the spectrogram was showing the noise slither along, pitch black, undulating through the grayscale background. It made her think of ultrasounds.

“Throat-singing,” Noel said. “Beautiful. I tried it, when I was up there. Very difficult.” He turned the volume up slightly. “This is just the icing, though. You know, for when I get tired of the interviews. There are so many stories. Some of them, never heard in English. Never.”

Kristine watched him maneuver the mouse through his crowded screen, over IPA charts and reference logs. He pulled up another audio file. The throat-singing was replaced by an old man’s voice and a dialect that Noel said was all but extinct. She sat in his lap and they pushed their heads together, each using one side of the headphones, and listened.

Noel’s cheek scratched her cheek and his arms ended up around her, but with the ice trickling on her shoulder she couldn’t feel warm, and it wasn’t the time.

 

It happened in the night. Noel’s knee was keyed between her knees, his arm was over her arm. They’d fucked again, not so frantically this time, and Kristine was still awake when Noel plucked her hand out from under the covers. She turned in the dark and saw his eyes were not quite closed.

“Hey,” she said, moving back against him.

He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise. He brought her hand up to his face slowly, deliberately, with his thumb at her wrist. In the quiet Kristine could imagine the sound of her pulse against his skin. He opened his mouth and kissed his way along her arm, teeth skimming her, making her shiver.

Kristine half-smiled. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin. He gnawed at her wrist-bone, tickling her.

“I’m so glad you made it home,” Kristine said. “I’m just. You know. I was scared shitless, when I heard about the storms. When you called.”

Noel bit down, playful.

Kristine winced. “Easy, boy, I don’t need another one.”

Noel’s teeth pressed harder, deeper, so she could feel each individual crown.

“Noel, stop. You’re getting spit on me. Stop.”

Noel pulled back a moment, tracing the indented skin with his finger, and then he bit down again, not playful, a sudden sharp snap like an animal.

“Ouch!” Kristine jerked away. “Noel! Don’t!”

“Don’t what?” Noel asked thickly. Kristine slapped the light on, exposing the purple bags under her husband’s eyes, the sharpness of his cheekbones somehow more pronounced. “I just want…” He trailed off.

“Can’t you leave the transcription for like, a day?” Kristine demanded.

“Everything’s still fresh,” Noel said. “I’m, you know, I’m zoned.”

“You’re being weird. Really fucking weird.”

“You’re being dramatic.”

Kristine went to the bathroom, flicked the light on. She ran cold water over her arm. Her reflection in the mirror looked pale and sick. She prodded her stomach.

“Come on,” Noel groaned from the bed. “You don’t need a Band-Aid, Krissy.”

“Can’t you shave?” Kristine demanded, coming back. “Unpack? Call your dad to tell him you’re back so he doesn’t call me again?” The fresh mark was blooming on her arm, and when Noel saw it his expression was something she didn’t like. Kristine put her other hand overtop to hide it.

“I didn’t know he called you,” Noel said.

“I’m going to sleep in the study. Just for tonight.”

“I’m sorry. Look. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“You hate the hide-a-bed.” Noel rolled up and out of the covers. He scratched at his neck. “I’ll go,” he said. “Are there pillows?”

“In the linen closet,” Kristine said.

She stopped to get them on their way to the study, and then held them against herself while the hide-a-bed unfolded with a creak and a clunk. Noel took the pillows without smiling. He tossed them onto the bed.

“Good night,” he said.

It wasn’t.

 

Kristine needed a swim, so she left early in the morning with the sky still dark and didn’t even open the study door, just exchanged a good morning/good-bye with Noel’s half-asleep voice. Exhaust was billowing on the cold roads like a fog as she drove, one hand on her swim-bag. She dialed her mother at a stoplight. A voice thick with sleep or Valium answered on the fifth ring.

“Hi, honey, what is it?”

“Hi, Mom.” The light lanced green through the clouds of exhaust and Kristine drove. “I just had a question about the thank-you notes, I’m still finishing up and—”

“Noel’s back, isn’t that right? Give him my love. Hugs. How’s his frostbite?”

“I will,” Kristine said. “The thank-you note for Uncle Carrow, I can’t remember his girlfriend’s name. Was it Sheryl?”

“No. Carol? No. Hell, I can’t remember either.”

“Noel’s acting different.”

There was a staticky pause, and then her mother’s voice came edged with a sigh.

“What do you mean?”

“Just, I don’t know,” Kristine said, and she didn’t, not quite. “Doing weird things. Not eating. Yesterday after breakfast he didn’t eat anything all day. He’s, like, he’s obsessing over his transcription. Won’t talk to me.”

“Well, he’s driven, you know—”

“Not like that.” She dropped her indicator and turned into the Glenora parking lot, still mostly empty of cars.

“—and it’s a good thing. It really is.” Another pause. “A lot of things might be or look a little different now. All those little things that were nice, you know, endearing, a lot of those things look different when you realize it’s for the rest of your life.”

“It’s not a honeymoon is over thing, Mom,” Kristine said, putting the car into park. “It’s been over for a while.”

“I mean, your father, my God. He had his days. Weeks. Years. But it was all worth it. I never once thought of leaving him. And Noel’s a good man. A really good man. It’s all about compromises, isn’t it? People thinking marriage is supposed to be easy? Makes me laugh. It’s all about sacrifices. There were things I wanted to do, plenty of things…”

“I’m not talking about leaving him, Mom, I’m just saying he’s acting funny and I don’t know why.” She turned off the engine and fumbled the key into her coat pocket. “This thing with the storm…”

“Sharon. It was definitely Sharon, and half his age, too. Maybe a prostitute. Look, honey, just stop worrying. He hasn’t even been back for a week. Go for a swim, you’ll feel better.”

“Thanks,” Kristine said, hefting her bag. “Bye. Love you.”

“Bye, honey.”

 

She swam longer than she’d meant to, churning up and down the lane until the water felt bathtub warm, and so she went to the school with her hair still hanging wet wires and the toothed trace of swim-goggles around her one eye like a sucker scar. But she did feel better, even though Elijah and Braden had to be sent off to the principal for the third week running.

Noel didn’t answer her text, or the second one. She tried not to worry about it. She fixed a smile to her face as she climbed the stairs to the apartment, went down the hallway that always smelled like weed and Febreze, and keyed open their door. It was dark inside again. Kristine flicked on the lights and checked the bare sink. No dishes. She opened the fridge. Nothing touched.

“Hey, Mister Linguist!” Kristine called. “Where are you?”

No reply. Kristine remembered the noise-cancelling headphones and went looking. She was barely even surprised when she heard the computer hum from behind the study door. Cold was seeping out from the bottom of it. She eased the door open.

Noel was hunched over the laptop like an old man. The shadows hollowed out his cheeks and for a moment his eyes looked like black holes. Then he looked up with a bleary grin and pulled the headphones down around his neck.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

“How were the little terrors today?” Noel slapped the laptop shut.

“Good,” Kristine said. “Fine.”

“That little boy, that Elijah, he didn’t make trouble?”

Kristine cracked a smile. “Yeah, he did. A little bit.”

“He’s trying to impress you,” Noel said, scooting over on the rolling chair. “He has a crush.”

“Hm.”

“That’s why I make trouble.” Noel caught her wrist, the not-sore one, and folded both hands around it. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in my head, sometimes.”

“You scared me a little,” Kristine said. She gave a smile. “It’s okay. It’s nothing. Really.” Noel’s hands felt like ice. The frostbite was ugly. “Why’s the window open?”

“The laptop has been overheating,” Noel said. “I thought, maybe, if it’s colder in the study, maybe that helps.”

“Hungry?”

“I found something in the fridge,” Noel said.

Kristine stiffened. “No, you didn’t.”

“What?”

“You didn’t take anything out of the fridge,” Kristine said. “You didn’t eat anything, did you? You’ve been in here all day.”

“I got something at the Second Cup,” Noel said, but he let her pull her arm away.

“Your shoes were still where you left them yesterday.”

“You’re a detective or something?” Noel was still smiling, but only with his mouth. “You photograph where in the closet I put my shoes?”

“Why are you lying about this?” Kristine snapped. “Are you on a fucking hunger strike or something? Why are you acting like this?”

“Like what?” Noel asked, still prone in the office chair, still not angry. Kristine wanted him to stand up so she could shove him back down. She felt hot and sick all over.

“Was there somebody else up there?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Noel asked, and now his eyes were finally narrowing.

“I mean, did you fuck somebody while you were up there?” Kristine demanded. “You called once the whole time, and now you come back, you won’t talk to me, you’re acting so fucking weird—”

“Of course not.” Noel was up, teeth bared. “Of course I didn’t. Did you?”

“Oh, my God, Noel.” Kristine gave a shaky laugh. “Just shut up, Noel.”

They stood frozen for a long moment, Kristine’s nails digging crescents in her palms. She watched Noel’s face work until the grimace smoothed over.

“Maybe I have a bug,” he said slowly. “My stomach doesn’t feel right. I didn’t want you to worry.”

Kristine nodded. She rubbed her eye with the heel of her hand.

“What happened in the storm?” she finally asked. “Do you even remember calling me? They had a satellite phone in the infirmary, and you called me in the middle of the night.”

“I remember calling,” Noel said, cautious.

“Do you remember what I told you?” Kristine asked, remembering how she’d gone to the bathroom, flicked on the lights, pulled out the test again just to be sure. That was before she’d realized how late it was, that something was wrong.

“I don’t.” Noel shook his head. “I don’t. I don’t remember what I said, either.”

“You were delirious,” Kristine said, wrapping her arms around herself. The bite on her shoulder throbbed again. “You told me how you got stranded, right? Between the station and the village. One of those storms that comes from nowhere.”

“Worst they had seen in years,” Noel said. “They told me that later. Yeah.” His voice had an unsteadiness Kristine was unused to hearing, and somehow it drained all the anger out of her. “What else did I say?” he asked.

“You said the wind felt like teeth.”

“Like death,” Noel said.

“The Ski-Doo broke down, so you tried to walk back to the village.”

“Went the wrong way. They told me later.”

“You said the mucus in your nose and the spit in your mouth were so frozen up you couldn’t breathe, and the wind was like teeth.” Kristine paused. “You said you lost your hands, then your feet. Like being disembodied. Like floating.”

“Should’ve died,” Noel muttered. “Should’ve frozen to death.”

“They told me that, after they took the phone away from you,” Kristine said. “I mean, it’s a miracle you’re all right.” She shrugged helplessly. “Doesn’t this feel better?” she asked. “To talk about it? Isn’t this what’s been bothering you?”

“What else did I say?” Noel probed.

“I don’t remember,” Kristine said. “You were fevered. You know, delirious.”

“Did I say what I saw?” Noel’s eyes were wide. “Kristine. Tell me.”

“Yeah. You did.” Kristine swayed, foot to foot. “You thought you saw someone else in the storm. An old man.”

Noel shut his eyes now, breathing quick and shallow. “What did he look like?”

“Tall,” Kristine said. “Taller than the trees. Skinny like those starving kids they show on UNICEF ads. And he was naked.” She stopped. “People see things. You know. Your brain was practically, it must have been practically shutting off.”

“He didn’t have a face,” Noel said. “Just a big dark mouth. Big black hole. I still remember it so clear. Clearer than what actually happened.”

“I think you might have PTSD or something, Noel. I’m worried.”

“It’s nothing like that.” Noel’s voice was strained. He opened his eyes. Blinked. “I haven’t been myself. I know. I just need to get this transcription done, and then I’ll be done with it all. I’m looking for this one story. I know it’s in there somewhere. Just give me the week, Krissy. Be patient for me.”

“Of course,” Kristine said. “I get it. Really.” She put her hand against Noel’s hip. It felt sharp enough to cut.

“You do?”

“Yeah. I mean.” Kristine paused. “If you need to get through this transcription so you can be done with everything, storm included, and just stop thinking about it, then yeah. I get it. And then you’ll be yourself again. I get it.”

They embraced, and it felt like all angles. Kristine wasn’t sure, but she almost thought her hands could make out the nodes of his spine under his thin wool sweater.

 

He said he didn’t want to pass on whatever bug was in his stomach, so Noel slept in the study again. They pretended it was a sort of game, and reminded each other of the weekend Noel’s French Catholic parents had stayed with them, back during the engagement, when they’d had to rearrange all their things so it looked like they slept in separate rooms.

On Tuesday Kristine stayed late at the school with her lesson plans, hoping she’d come back to find Noel antsy and missing her, something simmering on the stove, maybe his sketch-pad out on the coffee table or a comedy queued up on Netflix. That didn’t happen, so on Wednesday she stayed late at the school to minimize the time between arriving home and going to sleep alone. She pretended she was married to a genius, consumed by his latest work, and she was making sacrifices.

That night, Kristine woke up cold. The shadows in her room were Baltic blue and when she nudged her phone the screen read 3:42 AM. She pulled her feet back under the sheets, coaxing a static crackle, and rolled over.

The apartment door thunked.

Kristine sat up, clutching her phone. Half of a dream was fogging the inside of her skull. She padded into the hallway on bare feet, navigating by the light of her screen, and felt the cold coming from the study. The door was wide open. So was the window.

She hauled it shut with both hands, breathing an icy cloud, wondering about the pipes, how long it took for them to freeze in this weather. Snow was blowing in drifts off roofs and balconies, through the bony branches of a tree where a black garbage bag fluttered.

Someone was in the stairwell, feet slapping the plastic-capped steps. Kristine left the study, checked the bathroom, hoping but knowing better, and then found her jacket and keys. Her inchoate dream was dancing in the back of her head. She locked the door and circled down the four flights that had made moving such an ordeal and such a triumph. She trailed her hand on the nick they’d left with the corner of their big stupid couch.

“Noel?” she called.

The reply was the click and catch of the exterior door opening, closing. She went quickly down the last flight, zipping her coat up to her neck. The forecast had been for an overnight drop down to minus thirty, cold enough to make metal burn. Kristine felt a thrumming under her skin as she came to the glass door. Outside, the lampposts spilled yellow pools on the lumpy ice street. A disconnected shadow was crossing the empty road, going towards the park, the playground Kristine had wanted nearby even though it had seemed too early to think about kids. She opened the door and the cold bit her hard.

“Noel!” she shouted, feeling ice rasp her throat, freeze her nostrils. The shadow didn’t turn around. Kristine pulled up his number by muscle memory and called him as she followed. She held her phone up like a torch, listening to the soft chime, peering into the dark. There was no pick-up, but she hadn’t expected one, and now anxiety was gnawing at her stomach as she reached the park, rounded the corner of the half-painted gazebo.

Noel was ankle-deep in the snow, back turned toward her, and he was naked. In the fluorescent light from the gazebo his skin looked wax-pale, all but translucent, bruised with cold blue shadows. Kristine’s eyes traced the cavities of his body. His spine looked sharp as scalpels. He was not shivering, not moving. Kristine was trembling all over.

The dream was coming back to her now. She didn’t want him to turn around, because she knew what she’d see: a raw-red throat like a subway tunnel, gnashing teeth, no eyes. Her fingers were going numb at her sides.

“Noel, this isn’t…funny,” Kristine said, halting. “You’re going to freeze to death. You’re going to get more frostbite.”

Noel turned, and it was Noel’s face, heavy with sleep. He gave her a confused look. He looked down at his purple-scarred fingers.

“You’re sleepwalking.” Kristine took a hesitant step, then another, crunching through the snow. “Come on. You’re going to freeze. Come on. You’re sleepwalking, like the time in Calgary. At the hotel.” She gripped his hand and tugged. He followed, stumbling slightly, red feet battered by ice. Kristine tried not to look at his ruined toenails.

They walked slowly, slowly, snow peppering their faces and searing their lips. They passed the creaking playground with its rubber swings, the ones they’d sat in, dragging circles in the snow with their boots while they looked up at the apartment complex and invented such big beautiful dreams. She tried to picture Noel pushing a tiny body, bundled in a parka, red-cheeked, but didn’t manage it.

The wind picked up as they crossed the road, and by the time they reached the door it felt like teeth on Kristine’s bare face.

 

In the morning, Kristine left before Noel could wake up and wonder about the bathtub full of lukewarm water, or the towels wrapped around him and under him on the couch. Kristine had played with the thermostat before and after eating breakfast, but the apartment was still cold. She needed the pool, the chlorine warmth of it, the lactic acid in her arms and shoulders. She threw up before she left.

She dialed her mother at the yield sign.

“Hi, honey.” The voice was faux-cheery. “Sorry, I meant to return your call yesterday, it completely slipped my mind. I was over at the Blackstocks’, you know how she talks.”

“I don’t really remember them,” Kristine said. “I was, um, I was out walking last night, and I noticed some vacancies in the apartment down the road.”

“Oh?”

Kristine’s nails drummed the wheel. “Well, I was wondering if you’re still thinking about that. You know, about moving. We talked about it in the summer, remember?”

“Too cold up there. Did we talk about that?”

“You said you wanted to be closer,” Kristine said. She bit her lip. “Grandkids?”

“Honey, do you have news?”

She thought about telling her for a second, imagining how her mother’s voice would turn instantly to sunshine. “No, no,” she relented. “I just meant, you know, for the future.” She could hear a disappointed breath on the other end.

“Too cold, honey, and besides, you know I wouldn’t be able to leave this place. Not after all the work your father put into it. So much of himself, he put into it. It just wouldn’t feel right.”

“I thought you said the upkeep…?”

“I can manage, honey. I’m sturdy. Besides, you don’t need your mother hassling you all the time. You and Noel have each other now. It’s normal to be, I don’t know, to be overwhelmed a little at first, trying to make it as a young couple, especially with him doing the doctorate. But I know you can make it work. You’re a good girl.”

An SUV honked from behind and Kristine realized she hadn’t moved from the yield sign. She pulled away, ending the call without saying good-bye, and wiped at her stinging eyes.

 

When she got home from the school she went straight to the study, rumpled card clutched in her palm. She could hear the laptop hum from under the door. She opened without knocking.

“I made you an appointment,” Kristine said. “With this counselor. It’s through the university.”

Noel glanced up. His face was still swallowed between headphones and his eyes were strangely cloudy. He tapped something out on the keyboard.

“Aren’t you going to ask about last night?” Kristine said softly.

Noel said nothing. The window was shut, but he was shirtless. His collarbones had grown a new geometry, skimming up like shark fins. Sweat was beaded under his hairline.

“You sleepwalked out into the park,” Kristine said. “It was fucking forty below. You could have died.”

Noel gave a fractional shrug. His eyes returned to the screen, and Kristine could tell from the swipe of his finger that the volume was going up.

“I wish you had cheated on me,” she said.

Noel tapped his headphone to show he couldn’t hear. His smile was too broad, too many teeth, a Cheshire cat grin.

“I wish I’d cheated,” Kristine said, feeling a tingle up and down her back, something cold and angular in her gut.

Noel said nothing.

Kristine dropped the appointment card and left.

 

The next day she spent lunch-hour talking in circles with the health center. They mumbled at her about seasonal depression, flu virus. When it came time to teach ecosystems she begged someone out of the staff-room to watch her class watch YouTube clips about photovores and herbivores and carnivores. She went to the bathroom and speed-read through Wikipedia articles and WebMD links. She tried to throw up. A few people asked her if she was all right, and she nearly told them.

When she got home, the apartment was empty and Noel’s shoes were not in the closet. It seemed like the thermostat had finally kicked in, because she didn’t get goose bumps when she shrugged off her coat. Kristine hunted the bare counters for a note for a good five minutes before she gave up and put some Thai in the microwave.

Maybe he’d finished the transcription. Maybe if she went to the bathroom she’d find bristles in the sink, and then he’d be arriving back with clean-shaven cheeks, a bottle of white wine, take-out from the Mediterranean place they’d loved so much that first month after moving in. She would tell him she had news; he would already know. For a moment the image was so clear that Kristine nearly stopped the microwave and put the leftovers back into the fridge.

Instead, she went to the study. The door was wide open again, but the window was shut. Noel hadn’t taken the laptop with him. Kristine hesitated for a moment, then plucked it off the desk and sat down on the hide-a-bed with it. Her hand kneaded the sheets while it booted up. The password screen appeared, and Kristine put in her name, clacked the enter key. The affirmative chime made her almost smile.

The transcription window was already waiting, a block of IPA symbols. Kristine tried to remember the phonetics classes she’d taken; most of the sounds she’d already forgotten. One word seemed to be recurring: wɛŋdəgoʊ. She pulled up the next window, and saw that Noel had translated a section into English. At the top it was labeled audio48.mp3. Kristine clicked back to the sound files and pulled the headphones up over her ears. She started to read.

the wendigo is hunger, and hunger is the wendigo. a man travelled by night. he hunted the herd. the wendigo hunted the man. a man travelled by night and through the wood, and the [blizzard] snow drove him off his trail. the wendigo hunted the man, its arms were the cold and its teeth were the wind. a man had death inside [in stomach]. the cold kills, the hunger kills. hunger is the wendigo. a man lies down in the snow. his body is given to the ice. a man travelled alone. the wendigo came to him with [singing] open mouth. the wendigo has jaws as icicles. the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo. a man travelled by night,

“Krissy?”

She flung upright, all her nerves sparked at once; Noel was inches away and his eyes were black as jet. The laptop crashed to the floor between them, Kristine’s heart hammered in her throat. His face was gaunt, stretched thin, canvas over bones.

“Why did you write that?” Kristine whispered.

“I didn’t,” Noel said. The glass Pyrex pan from the microwave was clutched in his one hand. He held it out between them, arm shaking slightly.

“Bullshit you didn’t. What do you mean? What do you mean you didn’t write it?” Kristine stepped back and felt the cold edge of the hide-a-bed against the bends of her knees. Noel’s pale face was slick with sweat.

“I translated it,” he said, voice wavering. “It was already there. I knew it was there. I just had to find it. Those old men had so many stories.” He held the Pyrex out again, still shaking, and Kristine took it so it wouldn’t fall.

“Why are you doing this?” Kristine demanded. The glass was cold again. “Why are you fucking inventing this?”

“I’m not,” Noel pleaded. “Krissy. Look.”

And she had to. He held up his spidery hand, so much more bone than she remembered it, wrists like doorknobs, and planted his teeth in the webbing between thumb and finger. With a wet tearing sound, he sheared through the flesh. Kristine’s lungs caught, she anticipated the spray of bright red blood, but there was nothing. Something thick and black glistened along the torn skin, and then suddenly the hand was back together again.

“It can’t be me,” Noel said. “I tried.”

“Oh, my God, Noel.”

His face contorted all at once and he lunged, his teeth suddenly canine; Kristine swung the glass dish in the same motion. It slammed against his temple with a thick crack: Noel was reeling off to the side, cursing in French, and Kristine was pushing past him, slamming the door, throwing herself against it. Her breath came in a wail. Noel’s body thumped against the door once, then twice, Kristine shoved back with her shoulders, and then he stopped.

“We’re going to call emergency,” Kristine said, when her heart was beating again. “I’m dialing 911. There’s something, I don’t know, some disease you picked up up there. I know this isn’t you. I know it can’t be you.” She couldn’t keep her voice steady, it slipped away from her between words.

“Oh, fuck,” came Noel’s voice, raw. “Oh, fuck. I drove to the university hospital. That’s where I was. Jacob. You remember Jacob. The med-student. He told me how they keep cadavers. I thought, maybe, I don’t know. I couldn’t get in. They called security.”

“This can’t be real, Noel.”

He went on like he hadn’t heard. “Then I thought, the morgue, maybe. Or, I don’t know.” He gave a broken laugh. “A graveyard. Maybe that. I have to know. I just have to. I’m going to die soon. If I don’t eat, I’m going to die.”

Kristine was muffling a sob in her hand, biting down as hard as she could. “A doctor,” she gasped.

“This can’t be for doctors. When you’re wendigo, you’re wendigo. Until you give in. That was what they said.”

“And then?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know.” He stopped. “There are more stories. More transcriptions. Maybe if I keep going, keep looking. I don’t know.”

Kristine didn’t reply. She sat against the door, tears sticky on her cheeks, and waited for hours. Waited for Noel’s breathing to turn regular, shallow but regular, so she was sure he was asleep. She moved the bookcase in front of the study door, groaning and scraping. It was heavy. Her hands came away with deep red welts.

 

She was up early the next morning, wiping down the kitchen counters and stovetop with Purell so everything gleamed. When she popped the ice cubes out of their tray they skittered off the table and onto the floor. Her hands were shivering as she dropped them one by one into a plastic bag. She set her wedding ring on the counter and dialed her mother.

“Hey, honey, what’s up?”

“Call me my name?” Kristine’s voice came in a sob; she tamped it down.

“What’s wrong, Kristine?”

“It’s nothing,” Kristine said, toying with the ring. “I just remembered, that cousin you had, the farmer. He lost his hand in a thresher. He just wore it on the other finger, right? His wedding ring, I mean. He wore it on the right.”

“That’s right, yes. On the right. I think that might be how they do it in Europe, too.”

“Okay.” Kristine packed more ice around her left ring finger, waiting for the numb. “I was just remembering that.” She went to the counter, to the shiny Cutco knives, another wedding gift. She tried to remember the sharpest one.

“Was that all? I’m half-asleep, honey.”

“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.” There was a long pause. Kristine looked down at her left hand, thinking of how it cupped when she swam, how the fingers all melded together and bit the water just so. She thought about the small warm thing growing in her belly.

“I don’t remember. I don’t remember exactly what I said.”

“Okay,” Kristine said, turning the stovetop on. “Bye, mom.”

“Bye, honey.”

Kristine held the ice around her finger and stared at the stove element, waiting for it to turn orange.

 

“Dark Warm Heart” copyright © 2017 by Rich Larson

Art copyright © 2017 by Samuel Araya

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Storytelling

John Berger (RIP) and Susan Sontag Take Us Inside the Art of Storytelling (1983)

Source: http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/john-berger-rip-and-susan-sontag-take-us-inside-the-art-of-storytelling-1983.html

“Somebody dies,” says John Berger. “It’s not just a question of tact that one then says, well, perhaps it is possible to tell that story,” but “it’s because, after that death, one can read that life. The life becomes readable.” His interlocutor, a certain Susan Sontag, interjects: “A person who dies at 37 is not the same as a person who dies at 77.” True, he replies, “but it can be somebody who dies at 90. The life becomes readable to the storyteller, to the writer. Then she or he can begin to write.” Berger, the consummate storyteller as well as thinker about stories, left behind these and millions of other memorable words, spoken and written, when he yesterday passed away at age 90 himself.

This conversation aired 35 years ago as “To Tell a Story,” an hourlong episode of Channel 4’s Voices, “a forum of debate about the key issues in the world of the arts and the life of the mind.” Though Berger and Sontag surely agreed in life on more than they disagreed (“not since [D.H.] Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such attentiveness to the sensual world with responsiveness to the imperatives of conscience,” the latter once said of the former), they here enter into a kind of debate about storytelling itself: why we do it, how we do it, when we can do it. Berger, for his part, characterizes all fiction as “a fight against the absurd,” against “that endless, terrifying space in which we live.”

Sontag, in the words of Lily Dessau at Berger’s publisher Verso, “considers the storyteller as inventor, in control of the material, out of which the ‘people come.’ Berger conversely takes the form of the story as the result of the language coming out of the people — but he does characterize their differing views as arriving at the same place — the scene of the text.” While both of them wrote fiction as well as essays, “Berger considers the story and essay in one breath, both as a form of struggle to model the unsayable,” while “for Sontag the two are entirely separate, although the struggle persists in both.”

Or, as Berger puts it in highlighting another aspect of the difference in their perspectives, “You say you want to be carried away by the story. I want the story to stop things being carried away into oblivion, into indifference.” The many tributes already paid to him, especially by influential creators formed in part by the influence of his work, indicate that Berger’s legacy hardly finds itself now on the brink of an indifferent oblivion. Now that his long life has reached the end of its final chapter, well, perhaps we can begin to read, and to tell, his story.

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Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? – The New York Times

Is it a good thing for a novel to stimulate our emotions? Montaigne, Brecht and others thought not.

Source: Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? – The New York Times

The devil is in the detail. Talking about moments when excruciating gallstone pains made him believe he was soon to die, Montaigne remarks: “When I looked upon death as the end of my life, universally, then I looked upon it with indifference. Wholesale, I could master it: Retail, it savaged me; the tears of a manservant, the distributing of my wardrobe, the known touch of a hand, a routine word of comfort discomforted me and made me weep.”

It is the details that attach us to life and arouse our emotions. “A hound, a horse, a book, a wineglass and whatnot,” Montaigne observes, all “had their role in my loss.” Reasoning and accumulated wisdom, he goes on, may give us some insight into human grief, but it is the small things, picked up by ears and eyes — “organs which can be stirred by inessentials only” — that will really have an impact. So we might be aware of, but not greatly moved by, the plight of Syrian refugees until the photograph of a dead child face down in the sand triggers our emotions and has us bursting into tears.

Having made these observations, Montaigne embarks on what might best be described as a creative writing lesson in reverse. Literature, he points out, is adept at exploiting this aspect of our psychology; it focuses on evocative inessentials to stimulate our emotional response. Generally unmoved by the human condition, we nevertheless “disturb our souls with fictional laments.” It hardly even matters that they are invented: “The plaints of Dido and Ariadne in Virgil and Catullus arouse the feelings of the very people who do not believe in them.”

And he asks a question that no one asks these days: “Is it right for the arts to serve our natural weakness and to let them profit from our inborn animal-stupidity?” Aside from its astute selection of moving detail, art is constantly in the business of manipulating our emotions, as if this were an end in itself. This, after all, was Plato’s objection to the arts and every kind of artistic effect — that it was manipulative and potentially mendacious. Or simply a waste: “How often,” Montaigne asks, “do we encumber our spirits with yellow bile or sadness by means of such shadows?”

If we apply these ideas to narrative fiction as it is today, what do we find? First, the idea that a book, or film for that matter, stimulates extreme emotions is constantly deployed as a promotional tool. Terrifying, hair-raising, profoundly upsetting, painfully tender, heartbreaking, devastating, shocking, are all standard fare in dust-jacket blurbs and newspaper reviews; it is as if the reader were an ectoplasm in need of powerful injections of adrenaline. Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive. “You will be on the edge of your seat.” “Your heart will be thumping.” “Your pulse will be racing.” Aristotle’s response to Plato, that arousing emotion could be positive so long as the emotion was clarified, cathartically contained and understood, is rarely invoked. At best there is the implication that arousing emotions fosters sympathy, perhaps even empathy, with fictional characters and that such sympathy then breaks down our prejudices and hence is socially useful. So readers will frequently be invited to contemplate the sufferings of threatened minorities or discriminated-against ethnic groups, or the predicament of those who are young, helpless and preferably attractive. But this is an alibi and we all know it; what matters is stimulating emotion to sell books.

Similarly, creative writing courses, as far as I am able to judge, are obsessed with technique — how to arrive at that powerful detail, how to give it prominence, how to grab the reader, not why we want to grab the reader or to what end. Traditional literature courses used to reflect on the way detail was used inside a novel’s overall vision. The present zeitgeist invites us only to contemplate how the trigger can be pulled, not where the bullet is going, because the purpose of creative writing courses — especially when the fees are high — is to teach the would-be writer how to produce a publishable narrative, not a “good,” let alone a “responsible” narrative.

Montaigne is hardly alone in criticizing an overeasy excitement of the sentiments. In recent times, Bertolt Brecht objected to the stimulation of emotional identification with fictional characters, and Muriel Spark argued strongly against arousing compassion in novels; it allowed readers, she complained, to “feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled by the emotions they have been induced to feel.” She advocated satire and ridicule instead as more effective tools of social criticism.

Samuel Beckett entirely rejected the idea of narrative as a vehicle for arousing emotion. Again and again he blocks any sympathy for his characters, drawing attention to their fictional status, making their suffering grotesque and comic rather than endearing. Yet even he understands how naturally narrative moves in this direction, admitting that in the final analysis even the struggle to avoid arousing emotions will confer a kind of pathos on the author.

But does it actually matter? Why not let novels stimulate emotions all they will and readers buy into them as intensely as they wish? The hell with it. What on earth could be wrong with that?

Montaigne’s comments on the evocative power of detail are not isolated. He lived in an age of division and dogmatism; the religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots lasted almost 40 years and caused countless deaths. In 1572 the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre alone saw thousands of Huguenots killed by their Catholic enemies. Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas. He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that “we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.” To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back. Certainly, had he been alive today, he would have seen a continuity not just between violent fiction and real violence, war films and war, but also more generally between a culture that has turned the stimulation of emotion into a major industry and a society torn apart by heated conflicts of all kinds.

No civilization has ever produced as much narrative as our own, and with so little collective control. Thousands upon thousands of stories and novels are published worldwide every month. Not to mention TV series and films. There is intense competition: competition to get published, competition to win prizes, competition to reach a national audience, competition to reach an international audience. Of course there are various cards to play in that competition: wit, creativity, ideology, comedy, savviness; but the factor most frequently stressed, the one no one can do without, is emotional impact. When was the last time you heard a novel praised because it invited the reader to a higher level of intellectual engagement with complex issues? Or because it retreated from spicy detail to offer a balanced view of life overall? Or because its characters managed to handle potentially dangerous conflicts without arriving at a destructive showdown? Often as we read it seems that all the energy and creativity of the writer has been channeled into conjuring up those piquant, lurid or simply shocking details that will unleash the reader’s emotions.

How can we suppose that this state of affairs, this constant rush for the most disturbing, the most poignant, the most emphatic, the most terrifying, has no effect on the way we respond to the dramas of our lives? As I write this morning, three months after Brexit, two months after the Republican Convention nominated Donald Trump, following a summer that has seen scores of deaths from terrorism and with Aleppo still under relentless bombing, all I hear around me is violent, overheated, highly emotional rhetoric, ferocious discrediting of all adversaries, poignant details of the lives of unlucky victims, horror for the future and, beneath it all, a complacent excitement about our own capacity for feeling life intensely.

***
Tim Parks’s most recent book is “The Novel: A Survival Skill.”

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“Holly’s Corner,” part 13

[Writer’s note: What began as a writing prompt — photo and first paragraph — has become at least the start of a story. I will endeavor to add short sections to it, at lest as long as there is some interest. It might be a little rough in parts, but that’s because it is coming “hot off the press,” which could be part of the fun of it. In the meantime, you are free to jump off from any part of this story thus far and write your own version. Click Holly’s Corner below to get Parts 1 – 12.]

by David E. Booker

“Tricia’s mom suspected my father of sleeping with a neighbor lady and one day while Dad and the woman were away, she broke into the woman’s house looking for evidence. She didn’t find any, but she found this recipe. According to the story Tricia’s mom told me once, this recipe was out on the counter and just for spite, she stole it. She didn’t even know what it was. She was just angry and looking for some way to let this woman know that if she was going to steal from her, she was going to steal from this neighbor lady.”

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly's Corner.

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly’s Corner.

“Does this neighbor lady have a name?”

Rachel shook her head. “She does, but I don’t remember it. ‘Neighbor lady’ was all my step-mom ever called her. I guess that’s all that stuck. Is it important?”

I shrugged. “Better to know than not.”

She smiled. “You sound like my dad, except he wasn’t saying it about knowledge, if you know what I mean.”

“Is your dad still living?”

Rachel shook her head. “He died in the arms of another woman, you might say.”
“Another woman he was have an affair with?”

“You could say that. Except this woman was a man … in woman’s clothing. He was one of those shemales, I guess they’re called. Disgusting is what they are. This one even had the gall to come to the funeral. Best fucking dressed bitch at the viewing. Had men slobbering after her until somebody pointed out the bump in the front of the skirt.”

“I bet that was you,” I said.

Rachel blushed slightly. It took the edge off her indignation and made her appear almost childlike – as if she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t have, and while embarrassed, not fully repentant.

“Sure caused a titter or two at Dad’s send off.” She then started giggling. It was almost infectious. Even I smiled, but resisted the urge to join along.

“Would this transsexual have anything to do with the recipe?”

“Fuck no.”

I raised a hand. “Just thought I’d ask.”

“Though the bitch did try to get a piece of the pie, if you will, after Daddy died, claiming that he’d promised this he-thing several thousand dollars toward some final surgery.”

I wasn’t sure where to go. This still seemed more like some intra-family feud, and not one that would put food on my table.

“I think a family councilor would help you all better than a private cop.”
Rachel stared at me, and then nodded. “You’re probably right.” She gathered up her purse and her money, and then stood up from the booth. “Thank you for your time.”

She turned and marched out the front door of The Time Warp Tea Room. In the background, on the big TV screen, a black-and-white western played. A man dressed in a white hat and light-colored clothes was facing down a group of dark-dressed, black-hatted guys.

Bang, bang, you’re broke.

#

“A string of fools does not a strand of pearls make.”

I looked up from one of my bills and saw Father Brown standing across the desk from me. He had moved so quietly, I had not heard him.

“Some Bible passage I missed?” I asked.

Brown chuckled briefly. It was almost more of a snort. “I dare say not.”
“Not even ‘The Bible according to Father Brown’?”

“To do such a thing would be blasphemy.”

“Many of your brethren, especially on TV on Sunday mornings would disagree.”

“Barbarians and charlatans.”

“And for a modest donation, you, too, can receive this soiled section of cloth that I have put to my forehead as I prayed to God over your situation. He has shown me the truth and for only a few dollars more—”

“They wouldn’t use the word ‘soiled’ or the phrase ‘for only a few dollars more,” Brown said. “They wouldn’t be so crass.”

“But the intent would be just the same,” I said. “For a few dollars more, take you to the point of taking a few dollars more.”

“You are a cynical man,” Brown said. “I shall pray for the deliverance of your immortal soul.”

“While you’re at it, pray from some daily bread. If I don’t find paying work soon, your God may get his soul back sooner than he planned.”

“God is never surprised,” Brown said.

“Pity him.”

Brown smiled, and then shook his head. “If you don’t believe, then why’d you take me in?”

“Maybe I’m hedging my bets. Or maybe I like pissing off my neighbors.”

“I shall leave you to your ponderings.”

“And my immortal soul?”

“I shall leave you with that, too. At least for now.”

I thought about asking if it had any market value, but wasn’t sure I was ready to make any Faustian bargains with something I didn’t think I had.

Then my cell phone buzzed in its holster and I didn’t have to think about it any longer. “Gumshoe Detective Agency. We pound the pavement so you don’t have to.”

“You think you’re funny with that line? ‘We pound the pavement so you don’t have to.’” The guy’s falsetto wasn’t too grating, but I didn’t care of the mocking tone that went along with it. “I outa come over there and knock your block off.”

I hadn’t heard that phrase in a while. Nobody ever dictated that threats had to original. They might be more fun if they were.

“Come on over,” I said. “I’ll wait.”

There was silence on the wavelength. I don’t think he was expecting that. Maybe that was the reason he hung up … and then called back. I didn’t bother with my opening spiel. I already knew how he felt about that.

“You’re a real piece of work, you know that, refusing to take my wife’s case.”

“Which wife is that?” I was only half-joking. I didn’t know if Rachel was married and I didn’t know if Tricia was, either. Neither one had said and I hadn’t asked.

“Rachel, you jackass.”

“Whoever you are, if you are the husband, I think you should look after your wife, because she’ll probably have one hell of a headache. And tempting as it was to take the money she was flashing around like loose feathers from a down comforter, I try not to take money from drunk people wanting to hire me. They usually sober up and regret it.”

“She’s sobering up now, and she still wants you to take the case.” Then he said in a lower voice, “And if you don’t, I won’t hear the end of it.”

It may be sexist to say I felt sorry for the man when I heard him say it, but I did. I had spent a little time with Rachel and I could see how he might not hear the end of it. I took his address and told him I would be there in thirty minutes.

He hung up without saying thanks and that annoyed me. Manners have disappeared from the face of civility, leaving this unkempt mess of rules and political correctness. You fart in public now and you don’t say excuse me. Instead you fart and then you condescendingly sneer at anyone who looks your way as if to say, “How do you like me now, baby?”

(To be continued.)

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Writing tip Wednesday: “Libraries, reading, daydreaming”

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

A lecture explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens

By Neil Gaiman

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

See also: Can reading make you happier?

Neil_Gaiman 96dpi_4x3_4c copyIt’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

• This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

See also: Can reading make you happier?

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