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.
with Clark Zlotchew
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.
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.
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
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
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
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.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
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.
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
does the word "story"
mean to you?
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
I find it almost as difficult to define as the term "poetry.”
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.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
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.
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
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
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?
Short answer: Good.
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.
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.
What are you working on now?
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.
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
American Short Stories,
Ed. Paul Negri. (Mineola, NY: Dover Thrift Editions [Fiction
Russian Short Stories,
Ed. Paul Negri. (Mineola, NY: Dover Thrift Editions [Fiction
Great Short Stories,
Ed. Milton Crane. (N.Y.: Bantam Classics, 1983)