Clark Zlotchew joined the U.S Naval Reserve at the age of 17 and since then has had a varied career including working in the manufacturing and educational sectors. Currently a Professor of Spanish and Spanish-American literature in New York, he has had fourteen books published in his field as well as a novel under a pseudonym.

Short Story Collections

Once Upon A Decade
(Comfort Publishing, 2011)

reviewed by Emma Young

Interview with Clark Zlotchew

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Clark Zlotchew: This question is hard to answer. The stories were written separately, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, others in the 1980s and 1990s. When I finally decided to combine them into a collection, I came to the realization that some of the reactions, events, descriptions and attitudes would seem weird or inexplicable to the 21st-Century reader. That’s what made me label them Tales of the Fifties.
    The stories that take place at sea and in Savannah, Georgia and Havana, Cuba, are based on my experiences with the Naval Reserve at sea and in those cities in the 1950s. On one of the more interesting days, I was on Shore Patrol in a bar/brothel in Havana; the story The Smell of Land is based on my observation of the activities in this bar, and my first impressions of Cuba.
Much of the story, Storm Warning, is based on actual events. I was in a storm at sea, and it looked and felt as I describe it in the story. The incident with the Savannah policeman happened exactly as described. The fight at the end is purely fictional, but from the atmosphere I found in Savannah at that time, could certainly have happened.
   Ironically, more of these stories were published in my Spanish versions -- in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and the state of Colorado-- than in my English versions. The Spanish versions were also published in magazines with greater circulation than the ones published in English.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

CZ: No, not at all. Each story was a world in itself for me, even the ones that were an offshoot of the novel. The idea for a collection came to me only when I had accumulated a certain number of stories. At that point, I wondered, why not put these together into a collection, and see if I can have them published. Then I realized I would need some unifying theme to hold them together. The idea that these stories might be ignored because they would be considered to be dated, merged with the need to find a unifying theme. These two different problems led me to call the collection Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

CZ: I fear that, as a professor of Spanish and Latin-American literature, I’ve been occupied, as far as my reading is concerned, with --logically—reading works in Spanish, and writing literary criticism about them, as well as translating poetry and fiction from Spanish into English. I’ve also written several books that teach the language at various levels, from books for beginners to one, written entirely in Spanish, that aims at helping advanced students of Spanish as well as native speakers to write that language in a literary way, understanding how to use certain literary devices to create particular effects.
   All the above is to excuse the fact that I have not written a large body of short stories. Since I had written a relatively small number of stories, I put almost all of them into this collection, leaving out one or two as not being compatible with the 17 stories that are included in the collection.
   With reference to the order in which I included the stories: I haven’t a clue, as to why I placed them in the order they mysteriously find themselves. Perhaps there is a subconscious rationale.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

CZ: I wonder if the question refers to the word “story” in the general sense, or in the specific sense of the genre labeled "short story.” In the very general sense, of course, "story” is an account of some event, whether real or imaginary. But with respect to the genre we call the short story, I find it almost as difficult to define as the term "poetry.” Almost as difficult, I have to insist. I would think that a short story is the account of an event, but an account that gives insight into an individual’s character and the way in which he/she confronts or adjusts to certain circumstances or situations. Or, on the other hand, it’s the account of events that provides a view of the human condition, or specifically of a specific character’s way of thinking, of feeling, of experiencing his/her world. It should offer the reader a new way of looking at certain events or conditions.
   But something has to actually happen while providing these insights. To be a good story, it should hold the reader’s attention from the onset until the very end. It has to entertain in one way or another. It’s often been stated that a short story should show change in a person’s character, perhaps as the result of some kind of epiphany. I don’t necessarily agree with that idea; I think it sometimes is just as interesting to show that the person’s character doesn’t change at all, in spite of the vicissitudes he/she has experienced. The lack of change tells us something about that character.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

CZ:  No, I’ve never written for a particular audience. Somehow, a story written for a specific "consumer" would seem not to reflect the writer’s worldview or his/her innermost feelings or concepts. I’m not sure how profound or how genuine that kind of story would be. In such a case, the writer would be artificially spinning a yarn he/she thinks a certain reader would like. This would be pandering. It would be too much like an advertising campaign rather than literature.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

CZ: The first thing I would want to know is if the reader enjoyed the book ; however, I would never have the nerve to ask that question. That would be putting pressure on the reader. I would hope that if the answer would be affirmative, the reader would (enthusiastically) tell me this. If a reader told me he/she enjoyed the stories, then I would ask which of the stories he/she enjoyed most and which the least, and why. I might also ask what it was that made the reader read the book in the first place.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

CZ: Ha! Short answer: Good.
   But, first let’s understand that so far there is a relatively small number of people buying the book. Then many of these people lend their book to others, obviating the need for the others to make the purchase. There can be no hordes of people, frothing at the mouth to buy the book with Black Friday-type abandon in a department store, unless some well-known and respected reviewer reads it and writes a positive review in a wide-circulation newspaper or journal.
  Otherwise, books are consigned to oblivion and doomed to sell in small numbers, only to people who have learned about it from the author and small bloggers. However, to answer your question: Knowing that people are actually buying the book, no matter how low the numbers are, is certainly rewarding to one’s self esteem. Certainly, looking at all the favorable reviews on Amazon and other Internet sites, as well as on blogs, makes me feel I’ve been able to share my thoughts and feelings with others, that I have reached others, even people I’ve never met, and that I have provided entertainment value for them, as well as some new ways of understanding the world. I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous.

TSR: What are you working on now?

CZ:  Unfortunately, in addition to my full-time job teaching at the university, and writing books in my field (I’ve had 17 books published; only 3 of them consist of my own fiction), I’ve been spending too much time trying to let people know about this collection of short stories. Because of that, I have not spent much time doing anything creative during the last year.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

CZ:  Great American Short Stories, Ed. Paul Negri. (Mineola, NY: Dover Thrift Editions [Fiction Classics]), 2002 Great Russian Short Stories, Ed. Paul Negri. (Mineola, NY: Dover Thrift Editions [Fiction Classics]), 2003. Fifty Great Short Stories, Ed. Milton Crane. (N.Y.: Bantam Classics, 1983)
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to read: back issues
competitions & giveaways

Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>