Tag Archives: short stories

May is Short Story Month, Part 2

I know. May is over. When I wrote out the first list a couple weeks ago, my heat was on. Now it’s hot as hell out. Supposedly, summer is the season for long, crappy novels you read on the beach. No way, I say! Read these stories instead:

“Hands,” Sherwood Anderson. The opening story of arguably the greatest American short story collection.

“Roman Fever,” Edith Wharton. Written in the mid-30’s, this story harkens back to the European Grand Tour often dramatized by both Wharton and Henry James. Beware of secrets…

“Big Two-Hearted River, parts 1&2,” Ernest Hemingway. A simple story about a guy fishing a stream, but there’s so much below the surface of the water.

“The Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck. One of my favorite stories to teach, mainly because the more puritanical students totally freak when they discover the sexual imagery. The resolution is heart-breaking.

“A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner. His most famous short story, for good reason. The collective first person viewpoint has never been used more effectively.

“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson. Despite the “trick” ending, this story deserves multiple readings. No story better deals with the dangers of slavish obedience to tradition.

“Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor. Just one story? Stupid rules…In my opinion, O’Connor is the greatest short story writer to have ever lived. She died way, way too young. Goddamn lupus. Favorite part of this classic? When the college student whips the book at Mrs. Turpin’s head.

“The Conversion of the Jews,” Philip Roth. Still no Nobel Prize for this guy? The award has become a joke. But don’t get me wrong: I’d still take one…

“’Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman,” Harlan Ellison. A well-known story, but not typically recognized for the metafictional, post-modern masterpiece that it is. Manages to skewer every short story convention, from its overly long epigraph to the three-word climax.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin. This story has no plot and no characters, but a story it is. The end never fails to give me chills. Every white, middle class fatcat who complains about his lot in life should have this story tattooed on his forehead.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates. If you ever meet a man in black who hobbles and sports a bad toupee, run…

“A Poetics for Bullies,” Stanley Elkin. One of our greatest comic voices. Sadly, not many people know it. Not many writers can so easily capture the personality of his protagonists through diction and syntax.

“A Father’s Story,” Andre Dubus. His son has garnered more fame, which is pity. Andre Sr. wrote mainly short stories, not bestselling novels. This story shows how far a father will go to protect his child.

“Everyday Use,” Alice Walker. In the 60’s, many African-Americans looked toward East Africa for cultural identity. This satire rips the movement to shreds.

“Cathedral,” Raymond Carver. There’s drinking and dope smoking and lots of strawberry pie. By the end, a blind man shows the protagonist how to “see” a cathedral. Like all of Carver’s best stories, deceptively simple.

“The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien. No greater short story about war. Period.

“Shiloh,” Bobbie Ann Mason. Poor Leroy. He hasn’t a clue as to why his marriage is falling apart. Typical dude?

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” Andrea Barrett. Historical novels are one thing, but historical short stories? Not an easy thing to do, unless you’re as brilliant as Andrea Barrett. This story mines the life and work of Gregor Mendel for metaphor. If you like reading about science and history, you will love the fictions of Barrett.

“Orientation,” Daniel Orozco. I usually hate 2nd person viewpoint, but I’ll make an exception for this masterpiece about an unknown, unnamed character that goes through the nuttiest of job orientations. When I first read it, I thought, why didn’t I think of this?

“Ysrael,” Junot Diaz. I guess the author uses a form of “Spanglish.” He incorporates Spanish words and phrases, and even though I don’t typically know the exact English counterparts, I still know exactly what he’s talking about. I have no idea how Diaz does it.

Enough. I know…what about Updike, Alexie, Bradbury…Another time. Add some of your own faves if you like!

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May is Short Story Month, Part 1

Yes, there is an official “Short Story Month.” Who would’ve thought? As the honorific is designed to do, this writer of short stories (http://www.amazon.com/Halibut-Rodeo-Mark-Lewandowski/dp/0984421939/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1305732251&sr=1-1) has been thinking of the ones I like the most, the stories that become better with multiple readings. So I made a list, roughly in chronological order. In order to narrow down the choices (millions have been published, I suppose) I’ve limited myself to American ones. That’s okay. The short story is probably the most American of the literary genres, though story lovers, obviously, shouldn’t ignore de Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, etc. I’ve also limited myself to one story per author.

So here goes:

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving. Most people know the premise of the story, even though few have read the original. That’s a shame, because it is a masterpiece of the form. It’s also a great story about food.

“The Birthmark,” Nathaniel Hawthorne. I once got in an argument about the ending of this story with a woman I was dating. I maintained that Georgiana doesn’t really die at the end, but ascends to heaven, just like Mohammed. She didn’t agree. We never went out again.

“Ligeia,” Edgar Allan Poe. Nobody manipulates the first person viewpoint better than Poe. There are typically two versions of a Poe story: the story as reported by the narrator, and the story as it actually happens. If you believe the narrator, “Ligeia” is a horror story. If you don’t, the narrator is a murderer trying desperately to cover his tracks. It’s not a horror story…

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville. This is probably my all-time favorite story. Many readers miss the point of the closing section. If you believe Bartleby prefers not to do stuff because of his experience working in the dead letter office, you are just as clueless as the befuddled narrator.

“A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett. I’m not sure if there is a better short story about a sexual awakening.

“The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin. One of the most read short stories in the English language. Short, sweet, and to the point. We now call stories like this “short shorts,’ or “flash fiction.” Surprisingly, not all readers get the irony at the end.

“The Blue Hotel,” Stephen Crane. The author didn’t write much before he died at the age of 29, but oh what a legacy. This story shows that the “Wild West” was romanticized decades before John Wayne started making movies.

“To Build a Fire,” Jack London. These days the author is held in higher regard abroad than he is at home. Funny how that works. Story shows that sometimes dogs are far smarter than men.

“Editha,” William Dean Howells. The author is known more as a critic and novelist than a short story writer, but “Editha” is a classic of anti-war literature. Every person who got caught up in post-9/11 war lust should read it. Apparently, George W didn’t.

“The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James. Like most of the author’s novels, this story is long and complex, and not much seems to happen. That’s the point. The last page is devastating.

To be continued…

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Where was I?

Oh, yeah.  “King Salmon.”  In my book, Halibut Rodeo. In my first entry about this story, posted oh so many months ago, I wrote about the my admiration of Raymond Carver, and how the short story master influenced so many of us in MFA programs during the 80s. (Many critics were none too pleased about that influence.) “King Salmon” came about because I felt the need to tell more of the Slime Line Queen’s story, since a number of early readers of my work really liked her. She’s not the protagonist, however. Instead, the story is told from the viewpoint of an ex who still lives in the Lower 48. “King Salmon” contains a story within a story. The narrator, a recovering alcoholic, tells his sponsor about his past relationship with the Slime-Line Queen, and his vain attempt to travel to Homer, Alaska to win her back. The middle part of the story is his account of that trip. He does find the Slime-Line Queen at the Salty Dawg Saloon. (The Salty Dawg Saloon is real, by the way. This past summer my brother Mike ordered t-shirts from there.) Later, the narrator ends up on Homer Spit beach to fish, where he catches a .
20 pound King Salmon.

While the rest of the story comes straight from my imagination, the catching of the fish is based on experience. Fairly early during the salmon season, I had an evening off from Seward Fisheries. John Calhoun, Sr., my gracious host for the summer, as well as mayor of Homer, took his son and I snagging on the beach. You don’t use bait for snagging, just a barbed hook. Kachemak Bay is so thick with spawning salmon you can toss a line out into the bay, snap your wrist, and hook yourself a big-ass fish. Like the narrator in the story, I did just that. We weren’t at it very long, less than an hour perhaps. After John schooled me on the technique he left me to my own devices. He had never snagged a salmon before, but assured me it could be done. I was dubious. I had never heard of this kind of fishing. But sure enough, I snagged one. I don’t know how long it took to bring in the fish, but it was at least twenty minutes. By the end the tide had come in and I was standing in water. In my mind’s eye right now I see John splashing through ankle deep water net in hand. He scooped up the fish, grinning from ear to ear, and said it was 20 pounds easy.

We took it back to his garage, gutted it, and sliced it into steaks. Over the next week, day after day before going to work to clean salmon for 12 hours a pop, I scarfed down the steaks drenched in the hollandaise sauce Hans whipped up. Did I tire of salmon? Hell no! According to Anthony Bourdain, professional chefs like to ask themselves what they’d eat for their last meal if they ever find themselves on Death Row.

Me? I want one of those salmon steaks.

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King Salmon

In the 1980’s Raymond Carver was the scourge of creative writing professors.  It’s not that they necessarily had anything against the short story master; it’s just that too many of their students tried to imitate him.  Early in his career Carver was labeled a “minimalist.”  His style is sparse and deceptively simple.  He uses few figures of speech, and very little description.  Many of his stories are “dialogue heavy.”  Critics threw him into the same camp as Hemingway, the other end of the spectrum from Lessing or Pynchon.  Writing students ate him up.  He just seemed so easy. Carver never embraced the term “minimalist.”  He wasn’t into that “tip of the iceberg thing” Hemingway went on about.  He maintained that his “simple” style was an attempt to recreate the limited viewpoint of an alcoholic.  Like their creator, many early Carver protagonists struggled with substance abuse.  They wouldn’t bother to “see” a setting, or specific details.  Their minds are too preoccupied with the daily battle with the bottle.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the typical protagonist showing his junk in a creative writing workshop wasn’t an alcoholic.  Students attempted to emulate Carver’s style for no other reason than it seemed easy.  But like modern painting, it’s not as simple as it looks.  MFA programs started churning out “cookie cutter” stories, composed by “cookie cutter” writers.  In 1989, C. Michael Curtis, then fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly, visited my fiction workshop at Wichita State and implored us not to follow suit.  (MFA programs are still accused of producing an endless stream of writers that all sound the same.)

I like to think I took Curtis’s advice to heart.  Still, I love Carver, and there are glimpses of my admiration of him in Halibut Rodeo. Stylistically, “A Man Loves His Cat” comes closest to a Carveresque story.  But I pay most conscious homage to him in “King Salmon.”  This story within a story recounts one man’s relationship with the Slime-Line Queen.  Like many of Carver’s protagonists he is a recovering alcoholic.  At the beginning, he invites his sponsor over for a meal of King Salmon.  While they’re eating, I adopt the tone Carver uses in the dinner scene in “Cathedral,” justifiably his most famous story.  After the two men devour the fish, the protagonist relates his attempt to win back the Slime-Line Queen by driving from North Dakota to Homer, Alaska, diamond ring in tow.  Like so many of Carver’s anti-heroes, he doesn’t achieve his goal.   True understanding is often just out of reach for Carver’s characters.  The Slime Line Queen becomes an almost mystical character in the book, despite her harsh past.  For many readers of the book she is a favorite character, even though she never appears as protagonist.  Maybe even for me, her creator, she’s beyond full comprehension.

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Interview with author Salvatore Buttaci

Some Things That Matter to Salvatore Buttaci:

An Interview

What does your muse look like?

When I was a teen-ager I wrote a short story called “Man with Wheels” that told my version of the literary muse who visits writers and presents them with ideas for poems and stories.  He had wheels for legs and feet, and you knew he was there because the spinning sound of his wheels matched the sound of ideas spinning in my head, trying so hard to escape to pen and notebook.  He wore a dark-blue sharkskin suit, his eyes were lunar yellow, and in his arms he carried a flower basket filled with words that obediently, at his command, assembled themselves into sentences or lines, then paragraphs or stanzas until…eureka!  before the writer’s eyes, without need of editing or revising, lay the finished story or poem.  Then the man with wheels would roll out of sight until once more he’d be needed to break through the haze of writer’s block.

Of course, the story was meant to be humorous.  To me it was as absurd as Erato, that muse lady in blue gown, from whom writers expect some inspiration.  I find the whole idea of a muse hilarious.  I rate it up there with the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.

Sometimes writers find it difficult to admit that the writing craft is a gift, something to be developed and improved over time.  They will attribute their work to a sudden burst of inspiration that, once down on paper, becomes sacrosanct and unchangeable.  I saw this often when I taught writing on the college level.  Students would write a story or nonfiction article, and despite my red-penciled suggestions, my proofreading signs, they would prefer taking the low C than aim for an A by making the work better.  It was almost as though they felt guilty about tampering with that inspired first draft.

Ding dong, the muse is dead.  She was never born.  She does not exist.  The blue gown, the diadem in her long blond hair, her svelte beauty…all of it an artist’s rendition of what literary inspiration might look like if personified.

When I think “Muse,” I remember that story of my younger days.  The man is out there someplace spinning his wheels.  In his arms he balances his word basket and waits for me to raise my hand and beckon him towards my writing space, but I leave him stranded out there, all revved up and nowhere to go.

I believe inspiration comes more easily when one is committed to writing.  It is hardly enough to write occasionally.  In fact, the more often a person writes, the more easily the writing flows.  Daily writing comes highly recommended by those bestselling authors who ply their craft hours a day, including weekends.

While there exists no writer-friendly muse, with or without wheels for feet, there are words locked inside our minds that beg for release.  I imagine they are all packed like treasures in huge wooden chests, waiting to be opened, to be set free, to fly from the castle hall in which they have been imprisoned.  Freedom via the open window or the heavy wooden castle door is attained by daily writing, the reading of books about the craft of writing, building a vocabulary, and the books of successful writers.

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?  If you write more than one, how do you balance them?

We often gravitate towards what we ourselves enjoy.  Writing has always been a passion of mine…fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry, each for different reasons.  But brevity has always been my objective.  I keep poems to a maximum length of 40 lines.  Rarely have I exceeded that length.  As for fiction, while it is true that I have written two novels, full-length plays, and short stories between 5,000 and 10,000 words, my favorite kind of writing is fiction under 1,000 words.  This is not to say flash fiction is the easiest to write because of its brevity, just as saying as much about the haiku would not be quite true.  As

I see it, the job of the flasher (pardon me, the flash-story writer) and the haikuist becomes more difficult because their goal is to fit a world of a story or emotion or imagery into a confined space of either 1,000 words or less, or 17 syllables or less.  The flash and the haiku demand that certain criteria be achieved.  Certain elements that define them must be written into them or they fail within the context of their limited space.

Flash fiction appeals to me because of the challenge it presents.  I must tell a story with a hook of a beginning, enough of an enticingly descriptive middle, and a satisfying conclusion.  Editing becomes paramount as the writer strives to reach the final draft.  All unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs need to be given the literary boot because what does not add to the flash detracts from it.  A flash is not simply words no longer than 1,000.  It is a story with the same requirements as its taller brother, the short story, and giant brother, the novel.  The flash is the iceball packed solid and hard.  The short story and the novel are snowballs, but none of the three can fall apart once the thrower sets it sailing.

In my collection of 164 short-short stories, Flashing My Shorts, I tried hard to vary the stories so that readers would encounter different characters with different motives, different situations and settings, within different genres.  My intent was to be true to myself and provide precisely the kind of book I love reading, one filled with humor, horror, crime, love, science fiction, time travel, alternate history, post-cataclysmic.  I wanted them to run the gamut so each flash would stand apart from the next one.

The same holds true for my poetry.  When I wrote A Dusting of Star Fall: Love Poems

India: Cyber-wit Publications, 2006), I included those poems I felt that readers could and would relate to.  Over the years of our marriage, I’ve written and given Sharon a small book of my love poems to commemorate her birthday, St. Valentine’s Day, and our wedding anniversary.  One day I asked if she’d mind if I shared the best of those poems in a book others as well could read.  She said yes and so did Cyber-wit Publications.

What motivates the kind of book I’ve written has been, “What would I enjoy reading?”   I can’t even conceive of writing a book I myself would not bother to read.

You ask how I balance writing poetry and writing fiction, my two main kinds of writing.  That’s a good question.  I think each involves a different mode of thinking.  With fiction I first imagine in my head…set the scene, so to speak…of what the story is about.  I see the characters, the problem to be resolved, the time and place of the action, some dialogue, and finally the resolution in what might be something you’d see in a minute YouTube video.  Next, I dream up the strongest hook I can to start the flash ball rolling.  Then in a conservation of words, I tell the story with an equal balance of narration, description, exposition, and dialogue.  Lastly, I dream up the strongest possible ending.

With poetry it’s entirely different.  I sit at the computer keyboard and screen and type out the first line or two that pop into my head from wherever the poem stuff is stored!  For example, I’ll type, “four fingertips gripped the eaves/she held on for not-so-dear life.”

And then I continue to type until the first draft is done.  I have no clue where I am heading.  It’s like a train ride into dark night. I won’t know where I am going until I get there.  Sometimes I am not happy with what I find and I highlight, then delete, the entire poem.  Sometimes I save the best line or more.  And there are those times when the poem’s first draft satisfies me enough that I don’t mess with it.

Usually I write two or three poems daily, as well as one or two flash stories.  I carry a pocket notepad where I jot down any ideas that come to me or new vocabulary I read or dialogue I hear.  In this way I keep myself stocked with the raw materials to write more and more poems and stories.

How long have you been writing?

My wife tells me, “Please don’t tell them again how you started writing!  I’m dreaming it in my sleep!”  But the truth shall set us free, so here goes.  I was nine and it was a day before Mother’s Day.  I had no money to buy my mother a gift.  I had money, but I’d spent it on green grapes and a strawberry malted, all of which cost me back in 1950 only about 40 cents.  If I hadn’t been so selfish, I could have bought her a napkin holder from Schramm’s Hardware for 30 cents and had enough left over to buy another malted.

I took a sheet of school loose-leaf paper, folded it like a greeting card, drew a heart on the front and wrote HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MA.  On the inside left page I wrote a quick poem called “To My Mother.”  On the right side, I wrote, “Love, your son Sal.”

Of course, my sisters gave me the evil eye because, unlike them, I had no gift, only a greeting card, one I didn’t even buy.  But when Mama opened my card and read my poem, she started to cry.

“Ma, what’s wrong?”  one of us kids asked.

“It’s beautiful!”

“The card?” asked Joanie, hardly believing Mama would love it more than the kerchief she bought her.

“This poem your brother wrote.”

Then Joanie and Anna read it, but it didn’t impress them much.  Anna was in the 8th grade and read so much better in school.  Joanie was in the first grade where “Roses are red, violets are blue” type poems probably outshone my attempt at poetry.

When Papa heard Mama crying, he came into the kitchen, wanting to know “What’s going on?”

“It’s beautiful!” my mother repeated, then handed the poem to him.

Papa read it aloud.  Honestly, the poem was, pardon the oxymoron, “pure crap.”  But he had tears in his eyes too.  What gives? I wondered.

My father, who had studied in the seminary back in Sicily, was well versed in the works of Dante in their original tongue.  He held the poem high in the air and waved it like a flag.  “This is better than Dante!” he said.  “Your poem is beautiful.”  I thought to myself, one more beautiful and I will eat my poem and throw up.  “Would you write a Father’s Day poem for me?”

I smiled.  “Pa, we got a whole month.”

“Go write it now,” he said.  “I can’t wait that long.”

My parents encouraged my writing from that day on.  If they caught me doing nothing, they’d ask, “You did all your homework?  You studied for that test?” And when I said yes to both, one or the other would say, “Then go write a poem or a story.  We want to hear it.”

There were times I would rather have relinquished my title back to Dante, but they kept after me.  “Got a poem?  Got a story?”  They never said, “I’m too busy to read or hear what you wrote.  Ask me later.”  My parents would actually stop what they were doing, sit down and either read my work or ask me to read it to them.

Because of their praise and belief in me, I tried to learn more and more about good writing.  On Saturdays I’d go to the library and read books of poetry or how-to-write books.  I’d keep a notebook of what writing tips I’d find and incorporate them into my own writing.  I’d keep a special notebook where I would jot down new words and their definitions.  I’d arrange them in alphabetical order.  Then I’d memorize them and use them in my story.

In high school I wrote for the school newspaper and was elected editor-in-chief of the yearbook.  At 16 I got my first essay published in the Sunday New York News.  That same year a very short poem called “Charlatan” was published in Bardic Echoes.  It went like this:

You promised to mend my broken heart.

Instead, I was treated and released.

So writing became part of me.  I wrote to please my parents and my teachers, and to assuage whatever sorrows came in my life.  When my father died in 1987, I filled three notebooks with memories of him.  I suppose it was weird of me to think somehow I could keep him alive that way, but published stories of him do bring him back to me and I get to share him with readers who never had the pleasure of his company. [For example, see “Papa’s Gold Coin” in Cup of Comfort for Fathers, published in April 2010.]

How long have I been writing?  Sixty wonderful years!

What projects are you working on at the present?

I’ve nearly completed the editing of my follow-up collection of short-short stories, which I will submit to Deb Harris for consideration.  I have a feeling she is going to love this one too!

Next I will be editing two novels, one of them called Carmelu the Sicilian; the other is called Denver-under-Dome.  The first tells the story of a Sicilian-born American movie actor and the other is an alternate-history time travel scifi.

What are some day jobs that you have held?  If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.

In 2007, I retired from nearly 30 years teaching on all levels of education.  Prior to that, I was a marketing exec for a New York City mailing list company.  In my younger days I worked in an airplane factory as a power, sensitive, and radial driller of aeronautical pistons.  I was also a questioned document examiner for a time, and part owner of a janitorial maintenance firm.

They have all impacted on my writing because I have found material in my workplace experiences to fill several books!

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?

As a boy I read the poems of Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni, poet laureate of Arkansas, back in the 1950s.  She more than any poet hooked me into writing poetry.  Later in life, in addition to a myriad list of international poets, I favored Leonard Cohen of Canada, Caesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Salvatore Quasimodo, and the old bard from Strafford-on-Avon!

As for novelists, I favored Hemingway, Dos Passos, Goldman, and Mickey Spillane.  Now some interviewers wonder why Spillane.  I tell them few could write with the ease of Spillane who told a story as though I were his only reader.  I also like Follett and Folsom.

What’s the last thing you think of before you fall asleep at night? First thing in the morning?

After kissing my love goodnight, I say my night prayers, asking God to make me a better person in the morning and to heal all those in need of His mercy.  The first thing that comes to mind in the morning is a quickly fading dream I quickly jot down in my notepad by the bed.

Who’s your best/worst critic?

My wife Sharon is my best critic.  She can hear me recite a poem or story and know exactly what’s either missing or needs to go the way of the garbage bag.  My worst critic is myself because sometimes I can’t let go of the story or poem and say to myself, “Enough already!  The damn thing’s done!”

List, in one sentence, the three questions you’d ask your favorite author over lunch.
In one sentence, answer them.

I’d ask him how much of the book was his own writing, not the editor, did having an agent help him to become successful, and how much of what you write comes from his own life.

The book had several more characters and one or two other subplots, which the editor found too cumbersome and deleted them.

After two of my books started earning money, I hired an agent to save myself the grief of promoting my work, which gave me more time to write.

Quite a bit of what I write is based on personal experiences, and that’s why I advise writers to be observant, to notice everything, record them and internalize them into their writings.

What’s your most memorable (not necessarily your favorite) childhood memory?

It was the day my father asked us if we knew how much he loved our mother.  “I’d give up my right arm for her,” he said to us.  The image of Papa with one bloody arm shook us up a little, but then he added, “because that mother of yours would give both her arms for me!”

Or now here is a really weird, but fun one…what trash item did you see that inspired you to write a story. In one of my stories I found a whole character when I saw a manikin head on a dumpster.

In my childhood the little girl next door passed away from pneumonia.  One night shortly after I saw her mother come out to the garbage can, lift the lid, and toss into it two or three dolls.  I didn’t write the story until recently and put it into my upcoming flash collection about a woman of the streets who never has time to buy her little daughter a doll.  She spends all her money on expensive perfume.  When the child develops pneumonia, she leaves the doctor with her child, and runs out to buy her that doll.  She brings it home but her daughter dies in the interim.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does that affect your writing?

Now that I am retired, I write about four hours in the morning and two at night.

I’d write more hours, but I love my wife and need to spend time with her.  If I lock myself up at the computer, she’ll forget who I am and I’ll spend the rest of my days alone.

Salvatore Buttaci can be reached by e-mail at sambpoet@yahoo.com or you can check out his blog: http://salbuttaci.blogspot.com or http://salvatorebuttaci.wordpress.com

or you can go to amazon.com, click on BOOKS and type in “Flashing My Shorts” and read the reviews.

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Breaking the Halibut: Zero Tolerance

In “Breaking the Halibut,” the second story in Halibut Rodeo, George travels from Seattle to Homer on his uncle’s fishing boat. Before the boat enters Homer harbor, the Coast Guard boards it in search of drugs. They find nothing but a single one year old marijuana cigarette in George’s jacket. On the street it would have been worth a buck or two. The United States government, in order to make an example of George, seizes the boat and fines his uncle $100,000. This, despite the fact that, at the time at least, the possession of small amounts of marijuana was legal in the state of Alaska. The government forces the uncle to fire George. Only after the intervention of the ACLU is the fine reduced to $10,000 and the boat is released. George ends up working at Seward Fisheries.

“Breaking the Halibut” is fiction, but George’s story is taken from real life. This actually happened to one unlucky bastard I met while working in Homer. All the details are the same. The joint wasn’t even his; his sister had borrowed his jacket a year before and left it in the pocket. “George” didn’t even know it was in there before the Coast Guard found it. The people of Homer were outraged. A petition went around, but it did no good. This happened in 1988, when Ronald Reagan’s “zero tolerance” law was in full swing in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of drugs from Latin America. “George’s” uncle was no drug runner, just a guy trying to make a living in some of the most dangerous fishing waters in the world. His innocence would’ve been very clear to the authorities, but hey, with all that time and effort they had to deliver something to Uncle Sugar: one marijuana cigarette. Good for you, Mr. President!

But let’s not knock zero tolerance drug laws. Because of the tightened borders, fewer and fewer drug runners were willing to deal with bulky marijuana. It’s easy to sniff out, and the pay off isn’t that great. Cocaine is far easier to transport, and fetches a far higher price. It can also be easily cut with, say, baking powder, to expand your yield. High school students don’t know the difference. Plus you can turn it into crack. Don’t worry, parents; I’m sure crack is much better for your kids than the devil’s weed.

But pot smokers, don’t you worry. Another fun side effect of zero tolerance laws: it led to really potent marijuana. You see, the “small government conservatives” who came up with zero tolerance laws know absolutely nothing about basic economics. I’m no expert either, but the concept of “supply and demand” is hardly rocket science. Sure, there was suddenly less of that Mexican gold bud that came wrapped in newspaper to pass around at Rush concerts. But it’s not like the desire to smoke it just suddenly disappeared. Can’t get it from Mexico? We’ll just grow it here! And grow it American entrepreneurs did. So many did, in fact, that good old fashioned competition improved strains dramatically. Now scientists grow the stuff in California, Kentucky, Arkansas, even Alaska, not just illiterate peasants in Mexico. The “kind bud” you can score now is far better, far stronger than anything you could get pre-zero tolerance. I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I attended a Further concert in upstate New York. One dreadlocked fellow next to me kept trying to pass his pipe in my direction (Jerry Garcia might be Dead, but his fans live on). “Dude,” he said. “It’ll set you freeeee!” I declined, knowing this new, improved pot just puts me to sleep. Apparently, that’s not the case for nearly everyone else at the show…And for this new wonderweed, they can thank Ronald Reagan, the man, the legend.

Sure, George had to pay the piper, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

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On Halibut

The halibut is a flat fish that skims the bottom of the ocean hugging the shores of Alaska and Kamchatka. But it starts off as a “normal” fish, swimming side to side like Nemo. Only once it reaches maturity does it flop over and head for cooler, darker climes. It loses its uniformity of color as its bottom (once a side) takes on a creamy whiteness, and its top turns the color of the ocean floor for camouflage, both against predator and prey. The eye on the bottom eventually migrates to the top. Even with the oldest halibut this evolutionary arrangement never looks quite right. That second, wandering eye is never perfectly aligned with the other; it looks forced, off-kilter, as if Nature hasn’t quite figured out where it should go. But the halibut is not a vain fish. It swims undetected beneath its quarry, a fattened black cod perhaps, or a spindly snow crab, and dives, but upwards, snatching its dinner, exerting the most energy it will all day. If indeed the cod hurls an insult at this Quasimodo of the fish world, his bemusement will not last long. Once inside the belly of the halibut, the cod will have its own problems. Meanwhile, his host will enjoy an after dinner snooze.

As far as predators go, well, let’s face it: after a certain age the only predators halibut have to worry about are human. The fish can grow up to eight feet long, and can tip a really big scale at 700 pounds. Snag one over a hundred pounds at Homer’s annual Halibut Derby and you got yourself a Trophy Fish. Something that big doesn’t go down without a fight, though. It might take three or four people to haul it on board, and once there it will start slamming into things. The wise captain fires at least one shot from a .22 into the halibut’s brain pain to keep its death throes from destroying the boat. After that? Hang it from a meat hook and get your picture taken, the white side towards the camera. Funny that the evolutionary turns meant to protect the halibut from its predators are ultimately useless against the sportsman’s hook. Does the halibut sigh in relief once it gets so big that no other form of marine life will mess it with it? Fat lot that does for it. Now it’ll be sought as a Trophy. And if you get one, save the cheeks for me; that’s the best part.

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The Art of Squeezing Herring

I’m one-half Polish, so herring is supposed to be in my blood. Does not every respectable Pole eat herring at New Year’s in order to ensure good luck for the following 12 months? My father does so every year. But when I was a kid, there were only two acceptable forms of fish: the kind in a can, and the kind in the form of a stick. Yes, my grandmother prepared a breaded form on Christmas Eve, but I took only one or two polite bites in order to save room for the real reason for the season: peirogi. The herring my father would eat a week later came in a jar (of all things) and was buried in what looked like creamy-milky goodness. Goodness, that is, until you took a bite and discovered an evil smelling, raw tasting fish. Disgusting.

My relationship with herring wasn’t helped by my first visit to Sweden. Hans decided to have a crawfish party for myself and Phil Deal, a friend of mine from grad school. Since crawfish (like everything else in Sweden) is ridiculously expensive, Hans augmented the feast with sour herring. He handed me the innocuous looking can and asked me to open it. I whipped out my Swiss Army knife and applied the can opener. Soon as I punctured the top I was sprayed by a substance that can only be described as Satan’s Body Wash. Sour herring is essentially fermented fish. Yeast is dumped into it before it’s canned. Nasty juices boil and bubble under the lid for years, just waiting for an idiot American to unleash hell with a $15 pocket knife. While I wiped the results of the herring shower from my hair and face, Hans doubled over in laughter. “Har, har” I said, always the good sport. I even vowed to eat the wretched stuff, only to be instructed that you should bury the fish in a mound of mashed potatoes and two pieces of really strong rye bread, anything to mask the taste that rivaled the smell in vileness. Swedes eat this voluntarily? With plenty of vodka, one Swede told me. You need something in your belly for the herring to swim in.

Many Japanese people eat herring roe, which is even worse than sour herring. In my book Halibut Rodeo I mention the Herring Line, but it’s not a job I describe in detail. It was actually the first job I did at Sew-Fish in Homer. Once the herring are caught, they are left to rot on the docks for two weeks. It’s not the flesh itself that’s prized, but the egg sacs that are sold as aphrodisiacs in Japan. Once the fish have rotted some, their bellies begin to split. This is when they’re trucked into the fish processing plant and dumped on a conveyor line. Fools like me swaddle up to the line in rain gear and Wellingtons and proceed to squeeze the bellies until one of two things happen: if it’s a female, the egg sacks, which look like a segment of yellow grapefruit, pop out of the tearing belly. These you gingerly place on an interior conveyor belt. They will eventually find themselves in the Japanese-supervised egg room. If it’s a male herring, a substance like gelatinous mayo explodes out of the belly, with bits of the repugnant goo lodging themselves in your eyes and nose. The smell? Suffice it to say that if even one drop of herring juice found its way between glove and rain coat and just gently kissed the sleeve of your flannel shirt, burning said shirt was the only viable option. If sour herring juice is Satan’s Body Wash than this shit was his highly concentrated perfume. Then why squeeze the males? Can’t you tell the difference? No, you can’t. Big Boss Man told us to squeeze every one, so that’s what we did.

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On “The Slime-Line Queen”

“The Slime-Line Queen” is the opening story of Halibut Rodeo. In some ways it serves as a type of overture to the book, introducing a number of motifs, as well as many of the characters that appear in their own stories. It was my first “Alaska” story, and the second story I wrote as a graduate student in Bob Shacoshis’ workshop at Wichita State. During that first semester of graduate school I lived in a cruddy basement apartment that was infested with crickets. My shower was a tin washtub with a drain hole punched into the bottom. The only place to sit was the bed. Most of the rest of the basement stored the landlady’s lifetime accumulation of old clothes and appliances. It was dark and damp, but the rent was only $110 a month. More importantly, hotshot fiction writer James Lee Burke lived next door.

I punched out “The Slime-Line Queen” on a cheap typewriter while scrunched over my bed. The first draft was substantially longer than what first appeared in “Writers’ Forum,” a journal from Colorado. It contained sections about the protagonist’s sexual awakening before he travels to Homer to work at Seward Fisheries. Shacoshis quite rightly pointed out that so many lengthy flashbacks about the protagonist removed the reader from the immediate story, and in no way advanced the plot. I had probably taken the whole “show, don’t tell” axiom way too literally. In my earlier stories I relied too much on dramatization to round out my characters, rather than well-chosen details. I revised the story that semester, and the version in Halibut Rodeo is pretty close to that version.

One early reader once asked me if “The Slime-Line Queen” was “real.” In some ways, yes, she is. Her physical appearance is inspired by a woman I didn’t know who worked at Seward Fisheries: a tall blond woman who always wore the same jeans and flannel shirt. My character’s personality and mannerisms was inspired by another woman I worked with. Unlike me, she lived in Alaska year round, and had been working at the plant for a number of years already. Some of the events in the story are autobiographical. The woman did live in a cabin in the woods, and I did indeed spend a sexless night with her. The details about Seward Fisheries and the slime-line are taken directly from personal experience. Many of the workers did camp out on the beach, and all the businesses I mention, including the Salty Dawg Saloon, really did exist. (During the workshop, one fellow student mocked my name choice for the bar.) In the story the relationship between the protagonist and the slime-line queen is far more serious than anything that happened between me and the woman who lived in the cabin. If I had stuck to the “truth,” the story wouldn’t have been terribly interesting. While most of the actual events of the story are made-up, the protagonist is only a slightly veiled version of me.

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On Homer: The Eagle Lady

Many of the characters and situations in Halibut Rodeo are inspired by my stay in Homer.  Like most fiction writers, I often speculate on the lives of people I see on the street, inventing identities, imagining conflicts, etc.  Such ponderings often lead to fully developed characters in my short stories.  Many of the main characters in Halibut Rodeo have their origins in this process.  Other characters live on the fringe of the book as an aspect of setting, adding shades of detail to the main action. The Eagle Lady is one such “detail.” She worked at Seward Fisheries, and even though I saw her nearly every day, I never said more than a few words to her. It was hard to tell how old she was. Nearly 70 was my guess, though she still wore heavy make up and a mass of curly red hair that might have been a wig. She was about six feet tall and walked with a severe limp. Someone told me the limp was from a career as a rodeo rider. After retirement she moved to Homer. And why the Eagle Lady? Bald eagles are nothing unusual in Homer. You see one every day in the summer. For years the Eagle Lady had been feeding the eagles in her backyard with scrapes of fish. Up until a few years ago, at least, the second largest concentration of Bald Eagles in Alaska was in the ex-rodeo rider’s backyard.

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