The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work

The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work

Edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi, with an introduction by Richard Russo

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The Story Behind the Story is not only a collection of wide-ranging, entertaining, and challenging fiction; it takes readers to the writer’s desk. Each contributor has written a short essay describing the challenges the story presented and how the writer addressed them. The editors’ goal was to encourage the contributors to answer the kinds of questions other writers might ask, and to discuss how the stories both fulfill and transcend their authors’ original designs.

The stories range from the comic (Robert Cohen’s “The Varieties of Romantic Experience” and Stephen Dobyns’ “Part of the Story”) to the more somber (Robert Boswell’s “A Walk in Winter,” Susan Neville’s “Night Train”), from the realistic (Andrea Barrett’s “Out Here” and Antonya Nelson’s “Strike Anywhere”) to the decidedly unconventional (Kevin McIlvoy’s “The People Who Own Pianos,” David Shields’ “A Brief Survey of Ideal Desire,” Pablo Medina’s “Mortality” and Michael Martone’s “The Moon Over Wapakonetka”). The short essays accompanying them are at least as diverse, illustrating persuasively that there are as many different ways to approach writing fiction as there are stories to tell.

Peter Turchi says, “Originally, Andrea Barrett and I sent the writers a list of questions we hoped they’d answer, and we each wrote essays we thought would serve as models for ‘the story behind the story.’ But then we got Robert Boswell’s beautiful essay, which offers no direct ‘explanation’ of his story, but is illuminating in its own way; we got Pablo Medina’s playful essay; Kevin McIlvoy’s admission that the story he gave us is really, to his mind, a song; and Stephen Dobyns’ amazing explanation of how, one week in an Idaho hotel, he decided to make himself a short story writer. At that point we gave up on the idea that the essays would look anything like ours, or that they would fit any sort of template.”

Richard Russo’s introduction begins by addressing a myth:

Writing has always been a romantic profession, linked in the popular imagination to drinking and myriad other forms of hard living, most of which are preferable to work, or at least the kind of work the majority of people are stuck doing over a lifetime… While writing novels and stories for a living isn’t the scam that many people imagine, still, compared to the kind of work that puts bread and beer on the table without enriching the soul, it’s pretty close. People who are not writers sense this, and they wonder if we’d mind sharing our secrets. They’ve got a zillion questions for us, but most of what they want to know boils down to this: did we learn this stuff, or were we born this way? Which is another way of asking whether we’re basically the same as they are, or a different order of being…The unsatisfactory truth of the matter—and most readers suspect this—is that we’re both the same and different. The book you hold in your hand will help explain why and how this is so, and provide a window on the creative process.

All the contributors have donated 100% of their royalties to scholarships for writers.

From Publishers Weekly:

This rich anthology, which offers shrewd insight into writers’ approaches—thereby sating our desires for their secrets while validating our own eccentric quirks—reassures all lovers of good writing that there is no one correct way to craft a good tale. The contributors, all recent faculty members at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers in Swannanoa, N.C., offer model short stories followed by informal mini-essays on how they came to fruition. Antonya Nelson credits the seedling of “Strike Anywhere” to a student; Jim Shepard owes much of the title story from his new collection, “Love and Hydrogen,” to a flurry of research; while Tracy Daugherty cagily tips his hat to both imagination and autobiography, admitting only of his story, “City Codes,” “it’s all true except for the parts I made up.” Writers’ experiences couldn’t be more different, with Robert Cohen “cackling” his way through the feverish high-speed ride of composing “The Varieties of Romantic Experience,” while Ehud Havazelet took years to pen “Pillar of Fire.” By sharing their stories as well as their struggles, their risk-taking and rule-breaking (Charles Baxter claims to have “violated most of the narrative norms” he tries to instill in his own students), these authors remind us that writing is a messy, fascinating and highly individualized process. This collection is a treasure trove of literary encouragement and wisdom.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

From Booklist:

The writers speak both with authority and with vulnerability about their struggles, fragile moments of inspiration, and the help that they, too, receive from other writers. Perhaps most affecting is the authors’ deep, affectionate faith in the stories that defy common writing wisdom: “Any writing workshop would hammer it to bits,” Charles Baxter says of his selection. Intimate and instructive, this is a collection for anyone who cares about contemporary short fiction.

Gillian Engberg

Copyright © American Library Association.

Table of Contents

Antonya Nelson, “Strike Anywhere”

Margot Livesey, “The Flowers of the Forest”

David Shields, “A Brief Survey of Ideal Desire”

Charles Baxter, “The Old Fascist in Retirement”

Robert Cohen, “The Varieties of Romantic Experience”

Tracy Daugherty, “City Codes”

Karen Brennan, “Sacha’s Dog”

Christopher McIlroy, “Ice-T”

Joan Silber, “My Shape”

Judith Grossman, “I’m Not Through”

Wilton Barnhardt, “Mrs. Dimbleby”

Ehud Havazelet, “Pillar of Fire”

Stephen Dobyns, “Part of the Story”

C.J. Hribal, “Morton and Lilly, Dredge and Fill”

David Haynes, “That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas”

Andrea Barrett, “Out Here”

Pablo Medina, “Mortality”

Susan Neville, “Night Train”

Steven Schwartz, “Stranger”

Kevin McIlvoy, ”The People Who Own Pianos”

Debra Spark, “Maria Elena”

Chuck Wachtel, “The Annunciation”

Michael Martone, “The Moon Over Wapakonetka”

Jim Shepard, “Love and Hydrogen”

Peter Turchi, “Night, Truck, Two Lights Burning”

Robert Boswell, “A Walk in Winter”

Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers

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