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Jonathan Ball: Story Collections to Return To

By 49thShelf
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Jonathan Ball is the author of the new collection The Lightning of Possible Storms. Visit him online at https://www.jonathanball.com ***** All authors suffer the curse of terrible knowledge. They know that one of the most difficult literary forms is the short story. They also know that one of the hardest things to publish is a short story collection. Wise authors thus write novels, or even poetry. The unwise among us, enamoured of our dark arts, labour in service to this horrifying master. We offer foolish love, expecting nothing in return. When it came time to write my own short story book, I sat down and made a list of all the things I liked and disliked about the short story books I had read. I loved books where the stories felt connected, as if a theme ran through the collection, but I also loved books where the stories ranged wild, with differing styles and genres. I decided to push at both extremes, running a storyline throughout my book to connect everything while making each single story as different from the others as possible. In the process of writing The Lightning of Possible Storms, I kept stacking and re-stacking my books, studying and sorting them, reading and re-reading the collections I most admired. Here are the 10 books I found myself coming back to the most during the 19 years I spent working on my book.
How I Came to Haunt My Parents
Why it's on the list ...
One of the first short story collections that I ever read that felt to me like it had the build of a novel. I pored over this book, trying to pinpoint the precise techniques that Caple used to achieve this effect. Most of the final stages of the editing process on my own book focused on trying to mimic the kind of narrative drive that this collection manages. As well, on the level of the individual stories, this book is a masterful work. Caple is one of Canada’s best prose stylists.
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There Can Never be Enough

There Can Never be Enough

New and Selected Stories of David Arnason
edition:Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
The story that first made me obsessed with metafiction is “A Girl’s Story,” collected here amongst the finest of Arnason’s stories. That story begins like this: “You’ve wondered what it would be like to be a character in a story, to sort of slip out of your ordinary self and into some other character. Well, I’m offering you the opportunity. I’ve been trying to think of a heroine for this story, and frankly, it hasn’t been going too well.” Arnason makes experimental literature fun and visceral, and I have stolen many of his tricks over the years. One of the most underrated authors in Canadian letters.
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Cape Breton is the Thought Control Center of Canada
Why it's on the list ...
If you can read the title of this book and not go buy the book immediately, then I don’t know what I could say now to make you more interested. Smith’s book is wild, utterly deranged and often hilarious, strange and absurdist, the polar opposite of everything you would expect from a book of Canadian short stories.
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Buying Cigarettes for the Dog
Why it's on the list ...
One of the most direct influences on my new book. This book takes all of the best elements of Ross’s poetry (its intermingling surrealism, humour, and sadness) and cranks them to eleven. When Book*hug suggested Ross as the editor for The Lightning of Possible Storms, I was overjoyed. One of the great things about Ross’s fiction is the way that each sentence seems to slide in a new and surprising direction.
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Big Red Baby
Why it's on the list ...
Barwin, like Ross, specializes in strange, surrealistic turns, although Barwin focuses more on crafting flash fictions. Each is a firecracker, and trying to match Barwin’s minimalism while also borrowing his breathless, barrelling pace taught me a lot about how difficult it can be to make things seem easy.
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Mother Superior
Why it's on the list ...
I meet Nawaz fifteen years ago, in a university creative writing class, where she outshined everyone. Years later, she told me that she had sent her manuscript to Freehand Books, then a new publisher. When I ran into the editor at a party, I thought I would try to put in a good word for my friend Saleema. But instead the editor started gushing to me out of nowhere about how she had just discovered this incredible new writer. Every story here is a jewel.
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Here the Dark
Excerpt

April in Snow Lake

1.

The summer I turned nineteen my girlfriend went to Italy to work as a cook for a crew that was rebuilding houses in the aftermath of the earthquake in Udine Province. She wrote me long letters on thin sheets of paper. The letters arrived two weeks after she wrote them and as I read her words I was aware that what I was reading had already passed, she had moved on to some new experience, and so I felt as if I was following her from some great distance, catching a brief glimpse of her, only to have her disappear into a future that I would hear about fourteen days later. She had met a wonderful group of people from Belgium and Holland and France. There was Paul, who was six and half feet tall and played the banjo and admired Woody Guthrie. He wore a bandana. And there was Lillian, who was German Swiss, and was teaching her French. Lillian had taken her to Venice one Sunday, on their day off, and they had stayed overnight in a tiny villa. They had shared a bed and woken in the morning and made coffee on a hotplate and then had leaned out the window of their room and watched the lovers pass by below. It is all so romantic, she wrote. When I read this I was forlorn and I wondered how I would last the rest of the summer without her. I had found a job driving a truck for the local feed company, a job that required a lot of sitting and waiting, usually in the lot of an abattoir where I had been sent to pick up several tons of meat meal. Every evening I showered and scrubbed myself in order to remove the smell of dead animals from my hair and skin.

A year earlier I had decided to become a novelist, or a writer of short stories, or a poet, though I did not truly understand poetry and was more attached to narrative crescendo. I would write in a frenzy over the weekend and show my stories to my girlfriend on Monday evening. Of course we talked about my lack of life experience and my lack of voice and my lack of worldliness. She thought that my religious background, my faith in God, how I saw the world, would be a detriment to my writing. She said that Ernest Hemingway’s father had been religious like my father was, but that Hemingway had managed quite nicely to walk away from all the baggage. I said that I had no desire to walk away. There was room for grace as well as sin in the world of novels.

One morning, before I left for work, my girlfriend telephoned from Italy. At first I didn’t know it was her because I had not expected the call, and then when I finally recognized her voice I told her that I missed her horribly and I couldn’t wait for her to come home. She said that that she knew that but she planned to travel after finishing at the work camp. She might visit Lillian in Basel and then hitchhike up to Amsterdam where Paul lived. I’ll be home at the end of the summer, she said. Then we’ll get married.

This had been our plan, to marry in the fall. It had been my idea, my wish. She would just as happily have moved in together, but I had convinced her that we should marry. She agreed. But first, she said, she wanted to spend time traveling. She was quite willing for me to join her but the offer felt too easy. She knew that I could not afford it.

Her voice on the line faded in and out, and there was a delay, so that our conversation overlapped. At times we were speaking simultaneously and then we had to repeat ourselves and this led to long silences while we waited for the other to speak, and then it started all over again. Finally I just let her talk and as I did so I was aware of the tremendous physical distance between us and that her heart seemed smaller. And then the line went dead. I sat beside the phone for half an hour but she never called back.

That week a letter arrived in which she informed me that she wasn’t sure anymore if we should get married, in fact she wasn’t clear about her love for me. She claimed that the world was a big place and that she had one life and was she ready to spend that life with me? She wasn’t sure. I knew, as I read the letter, that the words had been written before her phone call, and this fact made our conversation irrelevant. She had been talking to me on the phone, promising that she missed me, and that she would return in the autumn and we would marry, while all along she knew that this wasn’t true. The space, the geographical distance, and the gap between what she wrote and what took place after she wrote it, all of this depressed me. Why had she not told me the truth? What was she afraid of? Was there something about me that she feared?

2.

Two weeks later I quit my job driving truck at the feed mill and I rode a bus five hundred miles north to Snow Lake where I worked construction for an old friend of my father who was pouring basements. The crew worked long hours, getting up at five in the morning and working till nine or ten in the evening. The summer nights were short and the light was forever blue and then white and then briefly yellow, and again blue. We did not sleep much and this did not seem to matter. Because darkness barely existed it felt as if sleep was something that other people might require. Not us. Perhaps it was a madness to behave this way, and perhaps this is why the summer lacked a moral focus. The lack of sleep, the wild dreams when I finally did sleep, the anguished poetry I wrote to my girlfriend, my predilection for feverish musings, an inclination to save the world from sin—all of this might have been the result of a lack of sleep.

I was not a drinker, and at nights, when the men were finally free, they went to the local bar while I stayed in my motel room, or sat out on a chair on a rock and read John Steinbeck. And the Bible. The other men on the crew, mostly older than me, kept trying to drag me down to the bar for some pussy. This was their way of putting it. I told them that I was engaged to be married in the fall. Shit, they said, that’s exactly why you need to get laid. I smiled and humored them and shook my head. They went off to get drunk and find a woman, or at least to imagine that possibility, and I read. They had taken to calling me Preacher, because I had let them know that I was a Christian. That fact amused them.

On Sundays, our day off, I was lonely and so I wandered through the town. I noticed that the children on the streets and in the yards were aimless and, my nature being inclined towards industry, I decided to organize a Sunday Day Camp for youth. The ages would be 14 to 17. I didn’t want any small children. I planned to do some hiking and orienteering and I planned to tell these kids stories that were mature and I planned to save their souls. I knew that a sixteen-year-old was able to think along the lines of metaphor more easily. At the local hardware store I purchased several compasses, a filleting knife, a hatchet, and two fishing rods. I canvassed the town, knocked on doors, and asked if there were teenagers living there who might be interested in joining my Day Camp. We would meet under the shelter at the town park. Some folks said no and closed the door, others were willing to listen, and one older woman who had no children asked me in and brewed tea and we sat in her dark living room and listened to the clock tick on the mantle as she cautioned me against presumption.

The first Sunday, three kids appeared. Two sisters, Beverly and April, and a boy named Rodney. I told them a little about myself—I was nineteen, I came from a small town in the south, I liked to read, I wrote poetry and songs, and I believed in God. I asked them to tell about their lives. They looked at each other and giggled. Finally April said that she was there because her younger sister Beverly wanted to come. She shrugged. April had long dark hair that she wore in a single braid and, unlike the other two, she looked right at me when she spoke. She was seventeen. I found her very attractive and so I concentrated on Beverly and Rodney, sneaking looks at April when I thought she didn’t notice.

That afternoon I taught them how to build a lean to, and how to use the compasses, and we caught two fish and filleted them by the lake. These were all things that my father, who considered himself a bit of an outdoorsman, had taught me. We built a fire using the log cabin method and we fried the fish and ate it with our hands, right from the frying pan. Later, I played a few songs and I sang and then I told them the story of how I had become a Christian. I had asked Jesus into my heart. Everyone needs to do that, I said. Would you like to do that? I asked. They looked at me and then April said, Maybe. Someday.

That’s good, I said. Really good.

That night I went to bed imagining that I might fall in love with April, or if not that, we would walk in the park at the edge of town and hold hands. At that time in my life I was full of ego and pride and I could not imagine April liking anyone more than me, in fact I thought that if I were to be with her, I would be the gentlest and kindest person she had ever known. These were similar to the thoughts I used to have about my girlfriend who was in Udine.

I had not heard from her since the last letter, and though I had asked my parents to forward my mail, no letter had arrived. I believed at the time that she would come to regret her decision.

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Why it's on the list ...
David Bergen’s short fiction has few peers. Finally, with the publication of this book, I can stop carrying around bad photocopies of the story “Saved” (I re-read the magazine where it was originally published so much that I destroyed it).
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Black Rabbit and Other Stories

Black Rabbit and Other Stories

edition:eBook
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
The title story in this collection is one of the most finely crafted stories I have ever read, and reminds me of the best of Bruno Schulz. If I ever write a story that haunts you like Difalco’s “Black Rabbit” haunts me, my work is done.
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