Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

book by Wells Tower

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Short story collections are a tricky read. It’s difficult for one author to maintain the energy to move a collection along at the same reading pace as a novel. Frequently when reading a collection, I will put the book down every story or two, read entire other books and then go back to it when I’m strong enough to do more.

But with Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower creates so many different voices so vividly that every new story is a new journey, has a different arc, a different pace or circumstance, and varies in voice in a way that I’ve never seen in one writer before. Here is a writer who pays attention to voice in meticulous detail: how each character talks and what this says about him or her, within narration, monologues or in dialogue.

I was fortunate enough to hear a reading and Q & A with the writer while at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference last month. Tower had interviewed a man on a homeless basketball team while doing a larger story for a magazine. He  truncated two or three days of interviews into this man’s brick-face (Gabriel Garcia-Marquez spoke to the Paris Review of telling stories like his grandmother, with a “brick face,” letting the story do the work) account of his life. Tower captured not only his delivery and cadence, but the man’s character through how he talked and how plainly he stated the incredible life-changing things that happened to him.

It was this reading and Q &A that I took back to the book, and I turned my writers’ eye to the reading—this was a task, as the stories are brilliant at sucking you in and carrying you along seamlessly. The reason each of these many characters, from an aging huntsman to a teenage girl to a raiding Viking to a small boy—is so completely alive, was that each voice was utterly distinct and singular. Each voice told us more about the characters than their actions.

In “Wild America” Tower tells the story of two cousins, Jacey and Maya and, after describing their closeness through childhood, sums up their characters from Jacey’s point of view:

“Three weeks shy of sixteen, Maya had evolved into a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute, while Jacey still went round with a shiny chin and forehead and a figure like a pickle jar.” (151)

In one sentence he nails a very female mortification of puberty, teenagehood, feelings of inadequacies, cousin comparison and awkwardness. By the second page of the story, because of her strong voice, we are fully in Jacey’s smack-talking but articulate court and are ready to follow her wherever she takes us.

But not every voice is articulate or careful, because that would be too easy. We learn so much about our narrator in the halting opening lines of “Door in Your Eye.”

“My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear. I was not even through with my soup when she came out, very excited, with a stack of photographs.”(131)

We aren’t told until several pages later, about two thirds of the way through the story, that our narrator is in his early eighties. It’s his view on life, his spying on the neighbor woman whom he believes is a hooker, the manner in which he comes to conclusions and the peculiar way he puts things that brings him to life and brings us his age.

“I wanted so much to see the woman that I stayed on the porch for many hours, doing my art…I don’t know how the woman stood all the work she was doing. Men toe-ed and fro-ed along her steps all day and night, but in three days of watching, I hadn’t seen her.”(137)

But it’s not only in the voice of his narrators that Tower excels. He manages to bring a variety of characters into scenarios and bang them up against each other at high speeds. This captures, so accurately how chance gatherings work in life, how haphazard conversations can become and how everyone is not always being heard.

In “Executors of Important Energies,” Tower introduces us to a man and his father, who has Alzheimers, his stepmother who has a leaky eye which she explains, “Big Iranian bitch on my volleyball team. Stuck her finger down my eye. Seeing double now” (73)—just the use of the word “down” instead of “in” and her truncated explanation tell us so much about this woman—and Dwayne, a park chess-hustling, ex-trumpet player who lives in his car.

Dwayne’s take on hustling chess is carefully put, “Well, the game is a lucrative addiction. In my soul, I am a musician.”(79) Dwayne later explains,

“I did blow for Kenny (Loggins) on the European tour. My wife and me, we also blessed his outfit with some very beautiful backing vocals. Saw all the top destinations, stayed in fine hotels, rode all the major airlines, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic. I’m glad you brought it up. That was a happy time of life.” (81)

Dwayne’s gentle voice and his specific choice of words betray a man taking careful advantage of the very brief window in these self-absorbed people’s conversation to explain that he is much more than the chess hustler they made him out to be. This moment and this voice are an important setup to the end of the story, which I leave you to find on your own.

The careful work in Tower’s characterization, dialogue and voice made me stop in my tracks.  I find that my characters’ voices emerge from somewhere in my head, and as I revise my work I sort out inconsistencies (“that person wouldn’t say this”), and try to “listen” to them a bit further. But Everything Ravaged had me thinking about these voices in a new way, and of the many questions I hadn’t asked of my characters–reasons for their speech patterns, their history of interactions with other characters and their social backgrounds. Voice goes beyond verbal tics, it goes into the depth of character, character history, age and background, whether portraying a story in first person or in close third person or, as Tower uses in “The Leopard,” second person.

Tower has a knack for endings I haven’t seen before. So many short stories I read go to full closure, full redemption for their characters—the character changed, which is something repeated so often by writing teachers, but is not always the best place to leave a story.  Sometimes these people are never going to change, sometimes they are still on the same trajectory where we found them, or perhaps just about to step off it. Sometimes they wander around in the place in life where they are stuck and we are left to come to our own conclusions. And leaving a number of stories in different places throughout  this collection gave me more to chew on when I came away from each story. It recreated that feeling we so often get in life when friends wander out of our realm of consciousness. And we wonder…and that wondering brings them closer in our minds than perhaps an ending (happy or otherwise) or full closure would have. These characters are rattling around in my head a week after reading the collection.

I don’t want to go back to stories I’ve written and chop off the endings, because that’s not what happened here. These stories are very much complete. But Tower gives us a freedom to explore our characters’ lives in a messier, less pat way. To explore more natural patterns in conversation and in storytelling.

As to the title story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” I will need to leave it unexplored for your total enjoyment. Two accomplished writers I talked to who had read the collection asked eagerly, “Did you read the last story?” when I answered no, they both, at different times, shook their heads and said, “Read the last story…” Let’s just say it would need its own annotation and denying you the pleasure of that first unadulterated read would be criminal on my part.

Tower reminds us to listen. Maybe if we listen to people we encounter all the way, their tone and cadence will hold for us not only what area they’re from, but their upbringing, workplace, manner in which they relate to other people, insecurities and larger story. It is often how someone puts their personal monologue that tells us more than the words they are putting forth. Dialogue and narrator voice are not just something to let us know who characters are, they can carry layers of story within the larger story we tell. It is how our characters look at what is happening to them that reveals those careful slices of human-ness outside of the story.

So, when you’re out at a restaurant, a shop, at a party, or meeting new people remember to listen all the way, like the narrator of “Down Through the Valley” does as he catches an offhand conversation between two locals:

The waitress went by, and the boy called out to her. “Hey, Jenny. Your tits look happy tonight.”

“Yeah, well they’re crying on the inside,” she told him over her shoulder. (105)

Blueprints for Building Better Girls

book by Elissa Schappell

annotation by Talya Jankovits

When I finished Elissa Schappell’s “Blueprints for Building Better Girls”, I was sort of jumping up and down in my seat. I wanted to shout out loud YES! You nailed it! I know its a keeper when I feel a bit heavy in the head and my writing heart is swooning and droopy, and of course, I know for sure when that leak of envy comes out – why couldn’t I write this? And I think the reason for all my fanfare is that Schappell was able to capture the girl and the woman that every one of us can relate to in some way. It doesn’t matter whether the story is set in the 70’s the 80’s, if its in a teenage bedroom or an arty New York studio, what does matter is the finite focus on the united emotions and right of passages that most of us can relate to. At moments, I blushed or cringed, thinking Schappell must have spied on me at some point. She didn’t, she spied on girlhood and womanhood collectively.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a series of short stories that hold soft echos of each others characters or glimpses of former character selves. The first story and final story, Monsters of the Deep and I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, share the same main character, Heather, but in the first story, we see Heather young at sixteen and in I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, we see her as a mother, speaking to her seventeen year old son about something that happened to her as a young woman. Throughout the stories, we see Heather in three different stages, teenager, college student and mother, and through it all we see Heather as Heather. She feels authentic and real, as if we have in fact stayed with an actual person who morphed and grew and retained a former self. Characterization is hard to do, but staying with a character in different stories at different times in life, while incorporating both flashback and memory–that’s called expertly executing craft.

Much like our younger selves, these characters are not all likable, in fact they are so raw and honest that I don’t think “attachment” to character is relevant in such a series of stories. While reading, I felt inserted into these characters, and I was willing to see where they would take me, even if I didn’t like it, and sometimes, the characters didn’t seem to necessarily like it either. The act of growing up, of coming to age (no matter how old we are, because on some level we are always growing up, always haunted by the smallness of our youth that hovers over us the rest of our lives) isn’t pretty or necessarily enjoyable and Schappell’s ability to narrow in on any girl’s life, be it that of a college student, a high school student, or a woman trying to build a family, makes these stories real, haunting and inexplicably relatable.

I like to believe that the reason I am a poor short story writer is because I am a novelist, (one novel in the works seems to allow me that excuse at the moment). I want to write great short stories like Schappell. I want them to be successful, to stand on their own, or like Schappell, for them to also stand together. A lot of times I try to understand what it is I am not doing right in my short stories that other successful short story writers are. Looking critically at Schappell’s short stories, I tried to find tools that can help me build better short stories (no pun intended). Schappell has the ability to place you in real moments, to vividly build scene without spending too much time doing so, with a few lines revealing something both wondrous and agonizing. And of course, she knows her characters, she knows them so well that she sees them in any stage, can reveal them in any age and utilize both the characterization and the plot to work together and deliver a punch. Her stories made me hungry until the end until a last devastating line left me full but craving more. That’s how you write a short story, or in my case, how you envy one.

Olive Kittridge

book by Elizabeth Strout

annotation by Talya Jankovits

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of short stories that are all so expertly integrated that the collection can almost be read as a novel. Strout focuses on a small town in Maine, where the characters weave in and out of each others stories, much like familiar faces do in a local setting. Strout’s secret tool to her fluidity of stories is her consistent use of on character throughout them all.

Her “power character”, Olive, appears in each of the stories, sometimes as a main character, other times as only a reference or quick memory. This is the first time I have seen this done in a collection of short stories and it seemed effortless and brilliant; a tool to certainly steal. The character of Olive never seemed forced, she was believable, vulnerable and human, in fact, all the characters were which is what made Strout’s characterization so full and beautiful. Olive was so well conceived that I was almost convinced that somewhere in Maine, a large and vulnerable woman is walking around, barking at people and appearing grumpy while unknowingly causing little miracles of truth to transpire about her. Strout expertly used this woman to birth stories of other characters that just wouldn’t seem as relevant if they didn’t somehow know Olive Kitteridge. Strout masters characterization here, no one is without flaw and no one is without wonder. There is a strong sense of sincerity and honesty about the human condition that is explored through the characters. Everyone stirs the reader to some extent and on so many levels you feel like you know these people, this town.

Typically, I don’t write short stories, but after reading Olive Kittridge I felt that I must and if one is tempted to try it out, especially a writer used to novels, this is the collection to read. The tool of using the same town and the same characters, looking at them from different ages and different narratives really offers the reader a sense of unification within the collection and I felt that this is something that can make short stories approachable for novelists. And even if not, then just to read it for the sheer pleasure of being totally immersed in this town of richly developed characters.