short short short stories

There is an anecdote that gets passed around about Hemingway which may or may not be true. He wrote what he (supposedly) called a six-word novel, (supposedly) on a bet. And henceforth considered the six word novel his most accomplished piece of work. And here it is: For sale: baby shoes. Never used.

For some reason this popped into my head the other day and I haven’t been able to shake it. So maybe if I write a little about it I can free myself of those six words.

My first observation / opinion: if this mini-novel had been written by a woman, it would have been dismissed as sentimental slock.

Next: A hundred different nouns could be substituted for “baby shoes” and some of them would be far more evocative. Wedding dress comes to mind, but of course that would be equally as melodramatic. For sale: wedding dress, size 22, never used. The size gives this what little punch it’s got. And yes, I know it’s eight words instead of six.

If I had the energy, I would try to come up with a long list of nouns that could be substituted for baby shoes, and see what happens. Most of them would fall flat, some would be melodramatic and/or sentimental, some would be funny, and a few might really be evocative.

For sale: AK47, never used.

For sale: typewriter, never used.

For sale, bowling ball, never used.

I think it would be far more interesting to try to make a story out of a bowling ball than out of unused baby shoes. The baby shoes have a very simple and straightforward backstory, all tragic, no complexity. The bowling ball you could a lot with.

You could go all quirky: For sale, sense of humor, never used. Or: For sale: PhD in Theoretical Physics, never used.

Any ideas for other revisions to Hemingway’s six word novel?

An open letter to Steve Jobs

Dear Steve,

You should understand first of all: I have no intention of filing for divorce. We’ve been together too long to even contemplate the horrific alternatives. However, I do think we need to see a counselor. Someone who can help us communicate, because I’m feeling ignored and disregarded.

In your current incarnation, you sit on my lap pretty much all day long. There’s a lot of heat between us, but you do your best to keep things cool while I’m working. Together we have written (over the years): one doctoral dissertation, a couple dozen academic articles, two full length academic books, numerous class plans, evaluations, recommendations; newspaper editorials and magazine articles and letters to the editor; short stories; seven novels currently in print (more than a million words, please note); two more forthcoming. You were with me every step of the way when I wrote Homestead, which won the PEN/Hemingway award. You are the keeper of my family history, my banking records, my daughter’s childhood memories, all my music, my entire calendar and all my contacts. If I had to estimate, I would guess that I have written or received a million emails in the last ten years.

You are indispensible. I am very happy to admit that. We make an excellent team. But recently I note you are distracted. Or should I say, more distracted than usual.

I am technically monogomous, but you are not and have never been. For many years this arrangement worked very well. On the rare occasion I had to call you at work, your assistants answered promptly and made sure that you understood what was needed. We functioned so well together that we never had the little hiccups that send other couples for advice. I have a neighbor who has had a partnership with a Windows computer for a long time, but even now I still hear her screaming obscenities in her frustration and anger.

You’ve come a long way, and I appreciate the effort that has gone into the advances. But your new little i-friends are so demanding you don’t have time for your loyal, long-time relationships. And it shows. For example: for three weeks now I have been calling you at work and talking to people at the technical assistance office.

By the way, the telephone number to call for technical assistance is well and truly hidden. I can’t believe you’d stoop to such tactics to avoid my calls.

I have spent at least three hours on hold. While I am on hold, there is the most horrendous music. You force me to listen to 80s big hair bands, and to add insult to injury, the quality of transmission is very poor. It fades in and out, full of static. Having to listen to this hold music is more than most people can bear.

I can’t believe you’d stoop to such tactics to get me off the phone once I’ve found the number.

That first call I spoke to a young man who was helpful, but curt. Very well, I understand you are busy. I explained the problem thus: Please tell Steve that the plug that inserts into my PowerBook G4 is frayed and breaking, and could he please bring me a new one on his way home? Specifically, I am talking about the end of the cord that plugs into the computer. The young man went away; I waited another twenty minutes listening to that horrendous noise you call easy listening. He came back, and at that moment we were cut off. I hoped he would call me back, or complete the work order on his own. A week later I gave up this childish idea and called again. Again I waited at least a half hour, and again (it’s painful to recall this) I was subjected to torture by Van Halen and Nirvana. The young woman who finally came on the line looked up the record of my earlier call, finished writing down whatever it was she needed to pass on to you, and promised that I would have the replacement part within a few days. All my doubts about our relationship disappeared this morning when I found the box propped against my door. You do still care! I opened it immediately, and stood there, shocked. You sent me the wrong cord/plug. I asked for the part that plugs into the computer, and you sent me the part that plugs into the wall.

Your new little i-friends are so demanding you don’t have any time for your loyal, long-time friends.

On the website there was no place to record this mistake or ask for a solution. With trembling hands I dialed the support number again. That was at about 3:30pm today. After a half hour on hold (nails on a blackboard? child’s play) I spoke to a polite young man who looked at the history of this problem and told me that the new part had been dispatched. Yes, I said. I received it this morning. It is the wrong part. You received the power cord? I received the power cord, but what I need is the other end of the cord. The end that plugs into the computer, that is what I need. After five minutes of discussion about the difference between the plug that fits into the computer and the plug that fits into the wall socket, he declared himself prepared to send me to dispatch where the problem could be rectified. I pointed out that dispatch had sent the part they had been told (erroneously) to send. Really, it made no sense to transfer me to dispatch. Could I speak to a supervisor? Please?

I was on hold for twenty minutes, waiting for dispatch. Finally I was connected to Jay, who was not from dispatch at all. He works in one of the Texas offices as a parts specialist. Jay was very helpful and polite. He promised to send me the right plug immediately. He did need my credit card number, in case I didn’t send the old part back. (And why would I want to hold onto a fraying, overheated plug?

I can’t believe you’d use such a weak excuse to get my credit card number. I can’t believe you NEED my credit card number. I have bought at least a dozen computers over the last fifteen years, as well as every other kind of hardware and a rich selection of software — and, most relevant of all: I have bought the extended Apple Care protection for every computer. Including your current incarnation, with the fraying plug-that-goes-into-the-computer. Steve, love of my technical life, you should know my credit card number by heart.)

It is now 4:41 and I just got off the phone with Jay. I hope you understand that I open this discussion out of affection, respect and appreciation. It is not my intention to hurt you, but please. Can we please have a return to the days when you didn’t keep me waiting for hours at a time? When I didn’t feel like one in a harem of a thousand? Your little i-friends are very cute, but do they write award-winning novels? Or novels of any kind at all. When people say to me that you only have twelve percent of your market, I always respond the same way: you can say the same of Mercedes-Benz. You are excellent, but you are also drifting away from me.

Would you like to make an appointment with a counselor, or should I?

Your affectionate partner Rosina Lippi

fatal or fatalism

Odd things going on today in my head. Some of that has to do with Book Six (why oh why did I think I could write a sixth novel in this series? and why did nobody STOP me from signing the contract?); some of it has to do with the trade paperback release of Tied to the Tracks

(tuesday)

and the sinking feeling I’ve got that there will be no marketing for this book other than what I can cobble together in my amateurish way. Which is not unexpected — every other midlist author out there is in the same boat — but it’s still discouraging.

When Homestead came out in hardcover with a teeny tiny little press, I fully expected it to sink quietly into oblivion. A novel in an unusual format about women in rural Austria a hundred years ago, doom and gloom on every page… no surprise if it didn’t even make a blip on the radar. I was still proud of it, but I didn’t have any expectations.

But in the odd way the universe has of screwing with expectations, Homestead won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I found myself flying places to talk about it. I was standing near Margaret Atwood at the Orange Prize ceremony because we both had books shortlisted. Never, ever would I have imagined such a thing happening when Homestead sold to Delphinium Press.

There was no marketing budget for Homestead. Somehow it was in the right place at the right time, the indies took it under wing, and it began to roll downhill.

A lot more energy was put into Into the Wilderness by Bantam, and it did better than I expected. It is still in print. I don’t know about the sales figures because I just refuse to look at them. I know my own weaknesses, and obsessing about numbers I can’t control is a big one. I do know one thing: it paid out the advance. I don’t know if that’s true for the other books in the series.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m standing at a kind of crossroads in my career as a novelist. Pajama Girls is in production; I’m working on Book Six. Beyond that I have no contracts. Nor am I actively looking for any at this point, because on paper I don’t look like a great bet. TTTT did modestly in hardcover. If it does better in trade paper (please dog), and if Pajama Girls does well, at that point I’d have some bargaining power — or better said, my agent would.

At this moment it could go either way. In a year’s time I might be looking at going back to the traditional workforce and writing in my spare time.

Please note: THIS IS NOT A COMPLAINT.

If you look back at the early entries in the original weblog you’ll see that I have always been keenly aware that this ride could end before I was ready to get off. I’m doing what I can to promote the work so that it has a chance of finding a readership, but there are hundreds of novelists out there doing the exact same things I am. Some of them have written better novels, or novels with a more popular theme. Some of them will do something in terms of marketing that goes viral, and then the lack of publisher support won’t be as important.

At the end of the day, I can look at the novels I’ve got out there and be satisfied. Some of them I like more than others, but I’m proud of all of them. Maybe things will start to roll and ten years from now I’ll still be going strong. Maybe not. In either case, I have no regrets.

in which I find I have more ego than I thought

Today, in between packing and running around, I checked over at Wikipedia to see if they had banished me yet, and had a look at the ‘discussion’ page. One king kind person made an argument for my notability; another scolded her soundly. Obviously, she said, finger wagging, you don’t understand the meaning of the word notability. A few publications do not notability make. We need secondary sources.

I mentioned this to a close friend who looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Secondary sources? Secondary sources? What about the article in People Magazine? What about the mention in Entertainment Weekly? What about the New York Times Book Reviews review, and the Washington Post book review, and the articles in the English papers when you were short listed for the Orange Prize?

For a minute I was very disoriented, and then I did remember those things. But you know what? I never kept records. All I remember about the little article in People is: 1) really awful photo; 2) lukewarm praise; 3) I first saw it on a ferry on my way to Vancouver Island and I laughed out loud, so that everybody moved away from me. All I remember about Entertainment Weekly: they quoted the first sentence of Into the Wilderness, which was nice. I can’t even remember if either of these short pieces mentioned my real name, or if it was just Sara Donati.

But do I have those citations? Clippings? Anything. Nope. I do have the citations for the big book reviews and some of the Orange Prize and PEN/Hemingway award stuff. I put it here for posterity, in case my forgetfulness creeps up and grabs this stuff out of my head sooner than expected:

“Orange Prize special report” Guardian Unlimited (London),
Wednesday June 6, 2001

*this special report was notable for two things: another terrible photo, and the odds against my winning were pretty bad. Like, third from the bottom (of seven finalists). However, somebody with worse odds than me won, so I have no idea what that means. I do know that two of the five judges told me afterwards that I had been a very, very close second, and that they had fought for me and almost won. And that was comfort enough for me. Although the fifty thousand pounds would have been nice, too.

“The Orange Prize Challenge”The Independent (London), May 24, 2001

*I have no distinct memories of this article at all.

The Orange Prize (Britain)
2001 shortlist: Homestead by Rosina Lippi reviewed by Dylan Evans

Homestead (review) by Brigitte Frase The New York Times Book Review May 9, 1999

“PEN/Hemingway Award 1999” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 19, 1999: 155

“Shaped by Time, Place and Family: Fictions About Farthest Austria”
Review of Homestead by Carolyn See. The Washington Post May 29, 1998

So there. Even if Wikipedia doesn’t find me notable, I do have a career.

PS: I have a longer list of book reviews some place, dog knows where; that list includes all the academic stuff as well.