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?"
"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"...)