Stories That Matter: A Guest Post by Nancy Zafris

Series editor of
the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Nancy Zafris visits Alaska this
week; her appearances include a reading in Homer on Thursday, April 4, followed
by a 49 Writers Crosscurrents event on Friday, April 5, and a 49 Writers workshop April 6 & 7. Her most recent book, The Home Jar (Switchgrass
Books), a collection of short stories, will be published in April 2013. This post originally ran in the
University of Georgia Press blog.

Sometimes a stray comment warms your soul. I got to have breakfast with my
18-year old son the other day and in between what pre-workout drink he should
use and what freshmen classes he liked, he was paused by a brain burp: out came
the remark that his favorite short stories were “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”
and “The Dead.” Then he went back to the pre-workout drink discussion.

My son wasn’t praising these two classics by Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce
as an underhanded way to disparage the contemporary short story. Nor was he
pretending that if a 70-page manuscript titled “The Dead” arrived in his slush
pile, he would immediately recognize its genius and publish it. He was simply
responding as a reader to something beautiful that had moved him a year
earlier, and continued to.

I believe in the short story and its lasting impact. I believe it is an art
form. And I believe that the real thing is rare and valuable. That my son would
be attracted not only to the real thing but also to stories that are
essentially quiet and modest (I remember him complaining last year that “The
Dead” opened painfully slow) hit me hard and underscored my mission as series
editor of The Flannery
O’Connor Award for Short Fiction
. I want to find literature, real literature,
in whatever packaging it comes in.

A prevailing belief in publishing seems to be that great literature won’t sell
unless it hooks into a zeitgeist that is already yearning for those very topics
it delivers. Most agents and publishers read a manuscript not only for its
quality but also for its marketability. The University
of Georgia Press
has given me the
great gift of concerning myself about one thing: quality.

In 2008, my first year as series editor, I chose Geoffrey Becker and Lori
Ostlund. I was quickly enchanted by the premises of Becker’s stories in Black Elvis: a
black celebrity impersonator of Elvis; a lovelorn man who gives fake art tours
in Florence, Italy;
a real-deal artist who has to earn money by painting cows and fences into
western-motif paintings rendered by a wildly popular hack. All expertly crafted
with angst-threaded humor, Becker’s stories never faltered under the weight of
their high concepts but charged ahead with an addictive story propulsion. When
I later learned that the wonderful title story had previously won an O. Henry
Award, I have to admit to being thankful for the promised sales and good
reviews on the horizon.

I was on an airplane when I read co-winner Ostlund’s magnificent collection, The Bigness of
the World
. I started passing some of her sentences over to my husband to
read. And I remember quite distinctly thinking to myself, well, this won’t sell
because the sentences are so long and it’s so intelligent. And then I consoled
myself with the fact that it was great literature and would be a beautiful book
that wouldn’t go out of print. Then something quite wonderful happened after its
publication. The Bigness of the World won all kinds of awards,
including the California Book Prize for First Fiction, the Edmund White Award,
an O. Henry Award, and a Best American short story award.

The collections I’ve chosen since then have been fairly varied. None of the
collections have been a novel in stories but a few have had recurring
characters: Melinda Moustakis’s Bear Down,
Bear North
 and Linda Grover’s Dance Boots scatter
recurring characters throughout their stories. Both collections build the
additional framework of place and culture (Alaska,
Ojibwe Nation) and so these recurrences vitally score a world that bores under
your skin. The rough living of Moustakis’s Alaskan homesteaders provides the
perfect conduit to a matching psyche. This dazzling collection led to a
National Book Foundation “5 Under 35”
award. Grover’s older Native American characters have been harshly robbed of
their education, yet they refuse to have their stories stripped from them. The
wise, humane tales in Dance Boots were rewarded with another major
achievement: the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize.

Neither author had published many stories before (a story from the collection
placed after winning has garnered Moustakis another accolade, still
unannounced)—unlike the amazing Amina Gautier whose youth is belied by the
several dozen story publications under her belt before her first book, At-Risk, won the
Flannery O’Connor. I literally put down this manuscript after one paragraph and
thought, This writer has got it—“it” being that intangible narrative authority
you instantly know when you encounter it but which is difficult to articulate.
Gautier’s opening paragraph had the confidence and flow of someone saying “once
upon a time” to a circle of eager children. Like them, I scooted forward to
listen to the compelling stories of adolescents “at risk” in very different

Jessica Treadway’s winning narratives in Please Come
Back To Me
 reminded me of Joyce’s Dubliners. The invisible hand
of the master guides the reader as modest, polished scenes accumulate into
something powerful and haunting—not shockingly larger than life but exactly as
large as life and exactly as devastating. With exquisite subtlety, Treadway
takes on the whole idea of memory, how even the tiniest prismatic distortion
turns genuine into faux and causes anguished reappraisal.

Who is this person? my preliminary judge wrote about last year’s winning
collection, Love,
in Theory
. I feel like could be reading Andrea Barrett? Am I? No,
he was not. He was reading E.J. Levy. Levy’s book is so smart and so funny and
so pithy that I found myself laughing and writing down sentences. There was no
way to ignore writing like this. Thematically, its co-winner couldn’t have been
more different. I went from Levy’s highly educated, self-aware characters to
Hugh Sheehy’s serial killers in The Invisibles.
True, a little blood was spilled on the page, but what drew me in (and even
spooked me) was the way in which these unbalancing distresses were recollected
in tranquility, as if the tales themselves were blanketed in snow. There was
such great compassion and insight, as well as points of view I didn’t expect,
from characters who usually go unnoticed in this world.

The 2012
 are Jackie Gorman for The Viewing Room and Tom
Kealey for Thieves I’ve Known. Their collections will be published in fall
2013. Gorman’s collection follows a hospital chaplain in a morgue. Despite the
inherently tragic premise, the book is neither gloomy nor hopeless; it is
perhaps the most philosophical and spiritual of the collections I’ve chosen.
Kealey’s book has a recurring type of character: children. These children come
from hard places, and I turned the pages with some trepidation. It is a great
writer who resists the worst thing that can happen when it could be made to
happen so easily. And so the stories lead toward their surprises.

After 30 years, the Flannery O’Connor short story series is still going strong
and, if all the recent awards are any indication, a bright future lies ahead
for the press and for the short story itself. It isn’t that these awards prove
the merit of the stories. I know that they have merit. Anyone who reads them
knows they have merit. It is more or less along the lines of my son’s remark to
me at breakfast. The stories matter.

Be sure to join us on First Friday, April 5, 7:00 pm, when visiting author Nancy Zafris participates in a Crosscurrents
on-stage conversation with
Fairbanks author Frank Soos 
at the
Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. On Saturday, April 6 and Sunday,
April 7
Nancy will teach a nine-hour workshop on Short
Story Structure and Brainstorming (register here). This
is a rare opportunity to work with a renowned educator who receives glowing
reviews for her sessions at the annual Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.

2 thoughts on “Stories That Matter: A Guest Post by Nancy Zafris”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wonderful post — and a good source of to-read-nexts! We're so lucky to have Nancy Zafris visiting. Thanks again, 49 Writers and anyone else who supported this.

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