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Kodi Scheer: Of Camels and Concision

ScheerKodi Scheer teaches writing at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MFA. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Chicago Tribune, the Iowa Review, and Quarterly West. Her debut Kindle Single, "When a Camel Breaks Your Heart," is available exclusively on Amazon.

When I tell people I write short stories, I'm often greeted by puzzled looks. Usually they say one of two things:

"Like for children? You write children's books?"

or:

"Oh, you're a journalist. That's great."

Neither assumption is true. Short stories, alas, just aren't on most people's radars. Or maybe the genre was blocked out during adolescence. Remember back in middle school, when you were forced to read short fiction and had to analyze the conflict: Was it man vs. nature, man vs. man, or man vs. self?

Don't worry, this isn't a quiz. I hope you can set aside all anxiety that you may have felt during middle-school English (or Language Arts, as it was called at my school). Instead, think about the magic you experienced before that pre-quiz dread. Remember the thrill of James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (who doesn't want to be a daring pilot?) or the chills you got from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (who will draw the slip with the black spot)? How about Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," in which the hunter becomes the hunted?

As a freshman in high school, I loved Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt." In this futuristic story, written in 1950, the children's nursery is a virtual reality room. To their parents' dismay, the kids can imagine any reality they choose, including an African savannah, complete with majestic (and menacing) lions. I won't spoil it for you. In college, I read Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," in which a traveling salesman turns into a cockroach.

Given these influences, it's no surprise that I've written a short story in which a young man transforms into a camel. As a result, his long-term girlfriend has to contend with the animal and their unraveling relationship—against the backdrop of the American invasion of Iraq. "When a Camel Breaks Your Heart" is now available as a Kindle Single, and I couldn't be more thrilled about Amazon's efforts to revive short fiction in digital form.

Other publishers and readers are rediscovering the short story as well. In fact, modern master George Saunders' new collection, Tenth of December, has hit the bestseller lists, and the New York Times Magazine hailed it as "the best book you'll read this year." High praise indeed for the humble story.

Kodi Scheer

(p.s. Extra credit for any commenters who can identify the conflict type in "When a Camel Breaks Your Heart"...)

Guest Blogger: Sebastian Junger on the Kindle Single, "A World Made of Blood"

A World Made of BloodSebastian Junger is the author of the best-sellers War, The Perfect Storm, Fire, A Death in Belmont, and the Kindle Single, A World Made of Blood.

In 2000, I went to Sierra Leone for Vanity Fair to write about the illicit diamond trade, and I intentionally picked a quiet time during a cease-fire between the government and the Revolutionary United Front. But this was my first assignment in Africa, and I didn’t realize how fast things can change there. Almost overnight, the RUF launched attacks across the country and overran at least one United Nations base, taking hundreds of international troops prisoner. I was up-country with a photographer—a good friend named Teun Voeten—and we were evacuated along with other foreign nationals by British Special Air Service (SAS) troops on Chinook helicopters. Most of the evacuees continued to London, but Teun and I stayed in Freetown to cover the war.

One day I took a taxi out to the front lines—which were constantly shifting—and found myself in an increasingly precarious situation with a bunch of young fighters known as Kamajors. They were fighting alongside regular soldiers but were barely under government control. After a while I realized that this was not going to end well, and I hitched a ride out of there with several Sierra Leonean soldiers and a couple of Western reporters. I thought I was home free, but half an hour outside of town, a dozen heavily armed fighters stepped out of the jungle and surrounded our jeep. That was when the screaming and the gun cocking began. That was when I realized that I had never known real fear.

No one jumped out of the jeep to take photos; no one did anything but sit there mutely and wait. I don’t know what the other men were thinking, but I was pretty sure we were all going to be killed. I may have been completely wrong—West African fighters can be pretty histrionic—but they can be pretty nihilistic as well. (Two Western journalists—American Kurt Schork and Spaniard Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora—were killed on that same road just a couple of weeks later.) The guys who stopped us were from a criminal gang called the Westside Boys. They were loosely affiliated with the rebels and lived in the jungle outside Freetown. In the end, they didn’t kill us; they let us go and we returned to Freetown, shaken but alive. Later I heard that the Westside Boys had tried to fight a contingent of British SAS forces and were wiped out almost to a man.

Many years later, I decided to write a short story that would start from my own experiences and then take them a step further. I wanted to horrify myself with the possibilities; I wanted to crank things up and see how I would react. I’m not a brave person; I think my reactions are very close to those of most people. I wrote this story hoping that others would think about what it means to be scared, and to be brave, and to have the power to take a human life. It’s the ultimate power, and yet it’s so very poorly understood.

Richard Powers on "Genie"

Guest post by National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and MacArthur Fellow Richard Powers. Powers is the author of Generosity, The Echo Maker, Gain and the new Kindle Single "Genie", a work of speculative fiction.

GenieThe idea for "Genie" came to me when I was staring down into the abyss—specifically, the Abyss Pool in Yellowstone National Park. Anyone who ever stood above this deep, clear, steaming hot spring with its shocking, psychedelic highlights has experienced the place’s otherworldly pull. The pool’s wild azures and mustards are the traces of ancient hyperthermophilic organisms—creatures that can live at temperatures that until recently were considered way too hot for life. Trying to wrap my head around what I was looking at—a multi-billion-year-old solution to surviving the extreme conditions of the infant Earth—I felt bombarded with messages from another, very different planet.

I was completing a novel at the time, the story of an avant-garde composer looking for a way to spread his unheard music through the world before he died. The genomes of the Abyss’s extremophiles and the scores of my fictional composer twisted around each other in my head—long strings of encoded information, patterns trying to perform themselves and propagate in a hostile place. By the time I finished the long drive from Wyoming back to my home in Illinois, the genie was out of the bottle, and I had my story.

"Aftermirth": The Absurdity of Death

Guest post by Hillary Jordan, author of the Kindle Single "Aftermirth" and the best-selling books When She Woke and Mudbound.

AftermirthAs with many of my stories, "Aftermirth" was sparked by something I read somewhere. In this case: “Number of women last year struck by lightning and electrocuted by their underwire bras: 2.”

Tell me you didn’t just laugh. I certainly did, when I saw that statistic some ten to fifteen years ago in the Harper’s Index. I mean, it’s funny, right? But it’s also awful, and I hadn’t even stopped chortling before shame crept in, that I was capable of finding humor in the bizarre deaths of these two unknown, busty women.

That’s when the little bell in my head—the one that tinkles in the presence of a promising story idea—went off. My reaction can’t have been that unusual, I thought. In fact, I bet most people who’d read that had laughed, with varying degrees of sheepishness, just like I had. Most people, but certainly not the family members of those two unfortunate women. To them, it wouldn’t have been funny at all, and the amusement of the rest of us would have been insupportable.

I tried to envision a particular family member of a particular woman and to imagine what this person would be like as a result of losing a loved one in such a horribly funny way, but I drew a blank. I didn’t know it then, but some stories need to simmer; sometimes (as with my second novel) for a decade or more. They hang around like forlorn ghosts, plaintively murmuring, “Write me. Come on, you know you want to.” This story was like that. It kept niggling at me, and I kept coming back to it, trying to find a way in.

And then one day when I was on an airplane, bored and restless, a young man started speaking in my head: a comedian who’d lost his large-breasted wife in this horribly funny way, and with her, his sense of humor. I started writing from his point of view, and the more I wrote the more I fell in love with him, this guy who’d adored his wife and been devastated by her death. I wanted to marry him, but that wasn’t possible, so I did the next best thing: I created a storyline where he might come out on the other side of his grief and be funny again, and happy.

A friend of mine who’s in her 70s said, after reading the story, “It is hilarious, and ridiculous—this idea that we will die one day, that we will just stop being.” In the face of that unavoidable enormity, what else can we do but laugh?

Author John Rector Introduces His New Kindle Single, Lost Things

Lost ThingsThis fictional post by bestselling author John Rector, introduces readers to his new Kindle Single Lost Things released on July 10, 2012. Lost Things is a taut, suspenseful tale of secrets, lies, and murder that builds to a shattering, surprising climax.

Peter set his coffee cup on the table and opened the paper. He flipped to the metro section and scanned the headlines. When he found what he was looking for, he leaned back in his chair and began to read.

Unidentified Man Found Beaten to Death in Warehouse District
By Jack Zekry

Park City – The body of a man was found early Sunday morning near the intersection of 27th and Capitol in the warehouse district.

The man, believed to be between 30 and 40 years old, was found badly beaten and without identification. No missing persons report matching the man's description had been filed with the police said Trevor Hillman, Park County deputy coroner.

"We've contacted surrounding police agencies," Hillman said. "Right now, our main goal is to identify him and locate his family."

James and Edna Bellington, who own and operate a packing supply business on 27th street, discovered the body sometime before 8:30 A.M. They called 911 but the unidentified man was already deceased when emergency responders arrived.

Hillman said autopsy findings indicate the man died no more than six to eight hours prior to the body's discovery.

After the body was discovered, officials searched the surrounding area and interviewed possible witnesses in the hopes of shining a light on the events leading to the unidentified man’s death.

“We believe he was living at the Park County homeless shelter,” said Detective Michael Rustin. “He looks to be a victim of street violence among the city’s homeless population.”

The increase in violent crime in the warehouse district has been an ongoing issue for businesses and residents. All attempts to stop the trend have failed due in part to the recent closure of Rain Tree Psychiatric Hospital.

“There are too many people living on the streets right now, and overcrowding has become a serious issue,” said Cara Vaughn, director of the Park County Homeless Shelter. “We just don’t have the funding or the space to accommodate everyone, and we end up turning people away. We don’t have a choice.”

The man was found wearing a blue down jacket and black pants, said Rustin. There were no visible scars or tattoos.

“As long as the shelters remain underfunded, we’re going to see more and more instances like this one,” said Vaughn. “Unfortunately, there’s only so much we can do.”

Anyone with information about this case is asked to call the Park County Police Department at 555-555-5555.

JohnRectorWhen he finished the article, Peter tossed the paper on the table and reached for his coffee cup. He could hear the traffic moving outside his window, and the sound made him smile. It meant the police were finally gone, and the street was open again. It also meant Evan had been right.

Everything was going to be fine.

Peter lifted his cup. There was a faded bloodstain on the side of his hand, and he tried to rub it away. It didn’t help, but that was fine. In a few days the stain would be gone, and no one would ever know.

After all, it was a new day.

Find out what happens to Peter in Lost Things, the new Kindle Single by John Rector. Rector is also the bestselling author of The Grove, The Cold Kiss, and the International Thriller Award nominated Already Gone.

Guest Blogger: Buzz Bissinger on Why He Wrote "Friday Night Lights"

After Friday Night LightsH.G. “Buzz” Bissinger is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the best-selling Friday Night Lights. He is also a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a columnist for The Daily Beast.

Several months ago, Boobie Miles called me and said: “I’m getting old, Buzz. These old bones. I’m gettin’ old.”

I worried when he said that--the resignation in his voice. How could he not forever be the kid I’d first met when I was reporting Friday Night Lights, back in 1988, running in that stadium in West Texas,  an eighteen-year-old with the wind at his back?

Now he was forty-one and facing his mortality, just as I was facing mine.

                                 *  *  *

What could have been? The question became moot on that tragic August day in 1988 at Jones Stadium, in Lubbock,  when he blew out his knee and the promise of his career with it. 

So when I heard Boobie’s voice those months ago, I wondered whether he would ever truly make peace with what happened to him. We all have faced that moment of clarity in which you realize you’ll never be what you imagined. We normally face it in middle age.

But Boobie has been facing the question of what-if since he was eighteen. Sometimes he feels used by me, and at those times he hates Friday Night Lights. Just as I sometimes hate it for how it trapped us both in a story that forever defined us too young.

But for all of its tragedy, life can also be wonderfully serendipitous. It was in the ashes of Boobie’s injury that he and I found each other. He needed someone in his life after his beloved uncle died; I became that person.

I never imagined this would happen--my Sundays as a child in New York spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my parents, staring at paintings I did not understand but pretended I did; his Sundays in West Texas tied to a dresser and beaten with a belt until he was dumped into a foster home.

                                                                    *  *  *

Boobie helps me to see that lasting love can come from anywhere.

Never when I was first writing Friday Night Lights did I think I would say to him what I said the other day,  what we say to each other at the end of nearly every conversation we’ve had over the years:

“I love you, Boobie.”

“I love you, too. Buzz.” 

After Friday Night Lights is the story of how we came to those words.

--Buzz Bissinger

How Beloved Wise Guy John Corey Became a Series Regular

Guest post by New York Times best-selling suspense author Nelson DeMille.  NelsonDeMille

Back in 1997, I wrote a book titled Plum Island that featured a character named John Corey. Corey was NYPD homicide, though when we first meet him, he’s sitting on the back porch of a borrowed house that overlooks the water on the east end of Long Island, convalescing from wounds he’d received in the line of duty.

Corey is thinking about life, and one of his thoughts is, “It occurred to me that the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.” And thus was born the wisecracking but wise about-to-be-ex-cop.

I had never done a series character, and Corey was supposed to retire from the NYPD and retire from my life after I finished the book. But once it was published, I started getting hundreds of letters from readers asking if I was going to do another John Corey book.

Well, I wasn’t, but John Corey looked like he could pay the rent for me. The problem was, I’d retired Corey on a medical disability, which is almost as stupid as authors who kill off their main character.

The solution was to get Corey a job as a contract agent with the Federal Joint Terrorist Task Force (which I renamed the “Anti-Terrorist Task Force” in my books) and put him to work in the city he knew and loved, but this time chasing terrorists.

Thus began the TheBookCaseCorey series: The Lion’s Game, Night Fall, Wild Fire, and The Lion. Corey will be back in October in The Panther, still paying my rent.

I learn from my fan letters. Many of them asked if I’d go back in time and show John Corey when he was a city detective. I’m not a fan of prequels, but finally the idea started to sound good.

But before I jumped into that idea with a full novel, I decided to write a short story and see how it played with readers—and with me. The result is The Book Case, a good-length short story showing an earlier John Corey before he got plugged by the bad guys and wound up on that back porch looking at the sea.

It was a challenge to do an earlier version of my successful Corey character, but also fun. And we get to see that the wiseass we know and love in the novels was always a wiseass. But we always suspected that.

Guest Blogger: Robert B. Reich About Authoring "Beyond Outrage"

Guest post by Robert B. Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and current professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

I've written Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix them because we have to get beyond anger and cynicism in order to take back our economy and reclaim our democracy.

Beyond Outrage by Robert B. ReichWealth is more concentrated at the very top than it's been in 80 years, and large corporations and Wall Street are more powerful. The rich have reduced their tax rates lower than they've been since the 1920s. There's no money left for our public schools, public highways, public transit systems, public pipelines, public libraries, and public universities.

The regressive right is replacing the idea of the public good with a social Darwinism that gives the rich even more tax breaks, lets big corporations and Wall Street run rampant, cuts public services to the poor, and makes life as risky as possible for everyone else: survival of the fittest.

We're allowing this to happen because Americans are so angry and frustrated--so vulnerable to loss of job and healthcare and home--that we're easy prey for demagogues offering simple answers and ready scapegoats.

They blame our problems on undocumented immigrants, labor unions, public employees, the poor, or anyone who's different - gays, Hispanics, blacks.

They refuse to engage in real debate. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, for example, accuses me of being a communist because I call for public investment in schools and infrastructure, but he doesn't have the guts to debate me.

They merely repeat their big lies that the rich need more tax breaks, that economic growth trickles down from the top, that regulation is bad, that government is our enemy.

And they want us to become cynical about the possibility of changing anything. That way, they win hands down.

Don't believe them.

Three times over the last century we've taken back our economy and reclaimed our democracy--during the progressive era at the start of the 20th century, in the Depression decade of the 1930s, and in the civil rights and women's rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is time to do so again.

American professor, economist, and commentator Robert B. Reich served in the administrations of presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. His exclusive Kindle Single, Beyond Outrage, was released on April 17, 2012.

Guest Blogger: Barry Malzberg on Kurt Vonnegut's Kindle Single, "Basic Training"

Basic TrainingThirteen years before the publication of Cat's Cradle, a 27-year-old Kurt Vonnegut wrote the dark, devilish novella, Basic Training, under the pseudonym of Mark Harvey--that foreshadows the novelist's powerfully anti-authoritarian world view. Never before published, it appears for the first time as an exclusive Kindle Single.

Here, writer Barry Malzberg describes its genesis:

This novella is a find, a work of anti-mythology disguised as a family memoir. Vonnegut doubtless intended it for Colliers or The Saturday Evening Post, the slick magazines which represented the apogee of the market and Vonnegut’s own desire in the late 1940s and early 50s. The work failed to sell and lay in Vonnegut’s trunk for 60 years. Here it is now, fresh and gleaming, fierce in its observation and as deadpan a demolition of the American authoritarian myth as anything he later produced. Everything old is new again.

Vonnegut was about 30 when he wrote this novella. In a long filmed interview with Eric Solstein in 1999 for Solstein’s documentary Trout, Vonnegut said “I was making a hundred a week and GE was paying for our health insurance, our pensions. One day a check came [for a short story] from The Saturday Evening Post for $700. I said to my wife, ‘This is very interesting.’”

The story seems autobiographical—too deliberate to be fully invented. The details are too precise and Kurt Vonnegut, his wife Jane and his daughter Nanny, Courtesy of Nanny Vonnegutthe insanity of the “General” who stands at its center too scattered and yet deliberate. Mark Vonnegut, the author’s son, confirms this, noting that “The pseudonym under which Basic Training was written is probably a conflation of my name and Harvey Cox, my mother’s father. It was great fun to read Kurt’s early version of his take on the military and heroism. There’s fantastic language throughout and a very mature voice for someone not quite thirty. The women and the General were, if anything, more fully drawn and human than characters in later [novels].” Another letter, from Vonnegut’s daughter Nanny confirms the personal nature of this story. The adolescent Kurt spent a summer on a farm near Indianapolis where Vonnegut grew up, administered rather brutally by a family friend who called himself the “Captain”. There was even quite a difficult stallion on the farm. And further like the protagonist of Basic Training, Vonnegut enjoyed playing the piano as a young man.

The lunacy of the “General” (Vonnegut obviously felt a promotion was in order) lays over the events of this story as thoroughly and convincingly as the madness of Campbell or Rosewater in Vonnegut’s later novels. Hope, the object of the hapless protagonist’s adoration in Basic Training is an embryonic Montana Wildhack, Billy Pilgrim’s sidekick in Slaughterhouse-Five. All of Vonnegut’s central concerns—the madness of Kings, the improbability of existence, the contingent and transient nature of all known experience except the purest of love—are clearly demonstrated and enacted through these 20,000 words. Vonnegut’s work suggests that flight is the only humane manner of dealing with madness… but where does one flee? The General is everywhere, and the General seems to almost every outsider he encounters so utterly “reasonable”.

At the heart of this novella, as at the heart of all Vonnegut’s work, is a simple and terrible acceptance. Heigh-ho. So it goes. Onward. The General has a secret and that secret, revealed at last, can be traced through another fifty years of Vonnegut’s writing to capture us yet again today and tomorrow.

—Barry Malzberg

Photo: Kurt Vonnegut, his wife Jane and his daughter Nanny, courtesy of Nanny Vonnegut.

Guest Blogger: Margaret Atwood on her Kindle Single, "I'm Starved for You"

I'm Starved for YouMargaret Atwood is the author of the internationally best-selling novel The Handmaid’s Tale as well as forty other books of fiction and nonfiction. Atwood was awarded the Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin.

“I saw a public librarian today reshelving Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She moved it from Science Fiction to Current Events.” This quip—of unknown origin—has been all over Twitter lately. Is it a joke? An urban legend? A scrap of reportage? Who can tell?

But right now, at the time of Rick Santorum’s musings on how to restrain women and Rush Limbaugh’s anti-birth-control rant and slutfest, The Handmaid’s Tale tweet is resonating. How does it feel to be so prescient, people ask? Do I have the second sight? A crystal ball? The ability to read the stars? How soon will The Handmaid’s Tale change from novel to recipe?

The future is like the afterlife: no one can actually go there and return. So I can’t predict the future; it just looks like that sometimes. I don’t stargaze: I read the newspapers. And the magazines. And the blogs. They don’t tell me the future, either, but from them I can gather bits and pieces that might be fitted together into something fictional, but plausible.

I’ve just published a long/short story, I’m Starved for You, via Byliner—in itself a sign of the times, because this is the first story I’ve published as an original in e-form. Is this a straw in the wind? Let’s hope so. The magazine publication of short fiction—which flourished from the thirties through the sixties—has been drying up for a long time. Now the Internet, by providing destinations where such pieces are welcome, is opening up the market for short stories again.

I’m Starved for You is set in a near future that may be even closer to us than the one envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its world is an expansion of present-day mega-prisons, rationalized to provide full employment by having prisoners and civilians take turns in the cells. To duplicate its setting, the town of Consilience and its central prison, Positron, all you’d need is some walls and a lot of surveillance: all the equipment needed is already with us.

There’s one feature of any future that a writer has to take into account: the role of our digital technologies. These determine who knows what about whom, and they also determine who wants to control what, and how. All around us, the cyber wars are being waged—between governments and rebels, between security systems and hackers—so in Consilience you can have a phone, but you can’t dial the outside world. We are probably the most spied-upon generation in history, and the future world of Consilience is no exception.

And now the thing you really want to know: what do they read in Consilience? Because, above all else, any self-respecting controlled society wants to control your mind.

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that, for obvious reasons, the citizens of Consilience don’t have access to the Internet.

The good news is that you do. Or you wouldn’t be reading this.

--Margaret Atwood