Christopher Meeks describes himself
as "a working writer who teaches". He has published a previous
collection of stories entitled The Middle-Aged Man & The Sea,
and he has had three original plays produced.
Months and Seasons (White Whisker Books,
The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea (White
with Christopher Meeks
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Christopher Meeks: After
college, I wrote short stories between bigger projects, which
were plays and screenplays. I’d sent a few of
my stories out to many places. In return,
I received impersonal rejections the size of a playing card. The
stories must have been rejected, I decided, because of the humor. I
thought serious fiction meant no humor. When I
took the humor out, though, the stories fell flat.
In 1997, I came upon the
Santa Barbara Review. The editors were looking for literary fiction,
particularly with humor. I sent in my short story Divining, and
received a call a few days later. They wanted to publish it, and I was
thrilled. When I had a collection-worth of published work,
that became The
Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, a book that came out in 2006.
In total, those stories had been written over the course of twenty
After a reading I did, a
woman came up asking if she and the Beverly Hills Public Library could
present my work. I was deeply flattered. She explained that actors
would read my stories. Her schedule was so filled, that
my presentation couldn’t happen for two or three years. Also the
stories couldn’t be from my present collection but from a new one. I
hadn’t planned on a new collection. An agent interested in my writing
but who wouldn’t represent The
Middle-Aged Man and the Sea had told me there was no money
in short story collections. I was already writing a novel. I told her
that I’d have
another collection in a couple of years. When she called a year later,
I started it then and wrote it over the course of six months...because
I knew the Beverly Hills Public Library could present it to a
future audience. It was for one night of glory. And it was glorious.
The actors grabbed the audience and never let them go. It was recorded,
so I hope some of it shows up on YouTube.
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
CM: I had a far
different experience writing these stories than I’d ever had before. I
had to write them consciously for a book instead of writing them
between bigger projects for journals. Time, too, was an element. They
had to be written over a few months not several years. As I started, I
wondered, too, would book reviewers like whatever I wrote as much as
the first collection? I never had had to compete with myself before, so
I now understood the pressure of a second book. I had to dismiss that
feeling quickly or I’d be frozen. The editor I’d worked with in the
first book, Nomi Isak Kleinmuntz, would surely tell me which stories
might not be ready for prime time. I trusted her deeply, and indeed,
two stories didn’t make the cut. Because each story was or would be so
fresh on my mind, I looked to make the stories diverse. I wanted to
include both men and women as protagonists, as well as protagonists of
different ages. Thus the title story is appropriate, even if the story
is about a young man who only dates women whose first name is a month
or a season, such as April or Summer.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
creating albums have a similar challenge to what I faced. Bruce
Springsteen happens to be someone whose music, often narrative
vignettes, means a lot to me, and I noted that he conceives his albums
in terms of tone and of rises and falls. Not every song he writes makes
an album, which is how his collection Tracks came to be:
pieces that didn’t fit in anywhere else. After I had enough stories for
a book, I had to consider the order.
Some of my stories are intense. I also knew that book buyers browsing
in a bookstore might see the cover, read the back, and then flip to the
first story. The first paragraph of the first story had to be
The order was important.
When I placed the story Breaking
Water, about a fashion model who wakes up after open-heart
surgery to a concerned mother and indifferent husband, at the end
I was nearly satisfied, but not completely. That’s when I thought of
ending the book with the first story of my next one, The Brightest Moon of the Century. One
of my favorite books is The
Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, a
novel told in short stories. I pictured the book as a series of stories
about a Minnesotan named Edward, from ages fourteen to forty, wanting
stability and an understanding of the opposite sex. He stumbles into
romance in high school, careens through dorm life in college, and
whirls into a tornado of love problems as a mini-mart owner in a
trailer park in Alabama. Will his love for a Latina in Los Angeles
prove to be the one?
Thus The Hand
from The Brightest Moon
of the Century ends Months
TSR: What does the word "story"
mean to you?
is something I teach to a wide variety of college students in five
different settings over the course of a year. If you create
interesting characters with a clear goal or problem and then throw
things in their way like some god toying with his or her creations, you
will make a story. Stories, too, come in a huge range. Flash fiction,
ultra-short stories, such as Bernard Cooper’s The Hurricane Ride,
Mark Strand’s Space,
or my own Catalina,
are far different in needs and structure than J.K. Rowling’s Harry
Potter series or any novel. In flash fiction, story is boiled down to a
moment that has many echoes. You sense there is more.
There is no one way to write a story, which I’m faced with every time I
start a new one. It’s not the form or genre that matters as
much as how to get your reader curious and keep him or her curious
until the end and even afterwards.
We’re on this earth for so short of a time, and it’s all so confusing,
that stories help us all. I write to understand the chaos just a little
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
not writing diary entries to show no one. We’re writing stories to
engage and entertain. For some writers, “entertainment” is a dirty
word, as if it’s about averting boredom and sucking up one’s time
before death. However, I see entertainment as about being involved,
watching and empathizing with people who are doing things under
pressure. If the entertainment is strong, such as Lorrie Moore’s
collection Birds of
America was for me—or the shows Six Feet Under and The Sopranos
were—then you’ll be carried along and see things you hadn’t considered.
As I write, I try to keep in mind what
will keep a reader going? What will he or she want to know? Might
something be a surprise or funny? I consciously consider in the end
where the turns happen in my stories. Do I have enough turns and
surprise? Is it all motivated? When I’ve taught poetry in Introduction
to Literature classes, I was reminded how poets fit so much into a
small space—as do flash fiction writers. Embrace ambiguity. Ambiguity
in its truest sense is that story titles or actions or names or things
can have two or more meanings. That gives a reader something to chew
on. Thus, my stories require a reader’s involvement, and the ambiguity
is to be filled in by the reader. In a recent interview, writer Annie
Proulx said of her short stories, “I depend on my readers to fill in
the empty spaces.” That’s it exactly.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
anything at all?
CM: What story is
your favorite? I love that question. It’s like a Rorschach test because
people see different things. That’s an advantage over a novel, where
there is only one main story. In the reviews Months and Seasons
has received so far, each story has been a favorite to someone. That
reflects what a different and odd business writing is. A writer can’t
expect to write something that is so universal, not one person will
dislike it. In one of my recent classes, a graduate student spoke at
length about how he disliked The
Great Gatsby, while others thought it was the best book
ever. I’m a fan of it. More positively, there will be someone out there
to connect with anything you write. The trick is to connect to most
So what story was your favorite?
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
CM: I'm amazed.
That’s because rejection has been so much of the short story process
for so long with literary journals, I didn’t think about books and
readers buying books.
The short story writer, as probably most of your readers intimately
know, faces many challenges. One is that literary journals receive so
much material, perhaps thanks to graduate writing programs like the one
I teach in, that most of what the editors do is reject. When I’d read
that the North Dakota Review—circulation 500—received something like
500 manuscripts a month to publish perhaps ten stories a year, the
challenge of being a short story writer sank in.
When I started out, I’d send a single story to five places at once, and
when a rejection came, I’d send that same story out somewhere else.
Once I started publishing, I didn’t send out simultaneously as much,
but up until my first book, I received about nine rejections for every
acceptance. I have yet to wow editor Howard Junker at ZYZZYVA. His
rejections come so fast, they’re in my mailbox before I’m back from the
Thus, I had the sense that ninety percent of my readers didn’t like my
work, so I was surprised when my book received so many great reviews.
Recently, I had a literary journal, Gander Press Review, request a
story. Now that was a wonderful switch. The Gander Press Review editors
put out a beautiful journal, too, much like the Clackamas Literary
Review and a few others.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
CM: I’m polishing The Brightest Moon of the Century,
which will be published on March 7 2009. For those in Los Angeles, come
that date to Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena for a reading and party. As
soon as that book is polished and ready for the printer, I’m back to my
new novel, Ten Days to
a Bad Habit, a mystery.
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
CM: I read and am now using Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories,
in my advanced Story for Animators class with the hope my students’
year-end animated shorts might have some of the depth and mystery of
many of these stories. Animators have been known to create short pieces
that come across as a single joke, but many memorable animated shorts
offer a sense of wonder.
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
I’ve started. Yates never found a lot of recognition in his lifetime,
but after his death, his reputation has been growing. Once the film
version of his novel Revolutionary Road
is released this fall or early 2009 (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and
Kate Winslet), maybe more people will find Yates’s short stories.
I’d reread Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America recently to write about it as a guest blogger.
Next up will probably be Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx, which I just bought. Her short short 55 Miles to the Gas Pump is about as near a perfect story as there is.