Russell Bittner has published many stories in print and on the web. He appears to have successfully made the transition from the world of television and Internet transmission to writing short stories, ie. from for-profit to non-profit.


Short Story Collections

Stories in the Key of C Minor
(Faraway Publishing, 2009)

reviewed by Jason Makansi

Interview with Russell Bittner

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

Russell Bittner: I’ve been at work on these stories–-and dozens of other short stories and novellas–-since 2002. All but one had been previously published on the Web or in print, but Stories in the Key of C. Minor is my first collection in book-form. It came about only because Daniel Sawyer, of Faraway Journal, accepted my novella Something Special for serialization on his Website–-and then accepted several other stories for a collection he published through Lulu.

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

RB: Yes and no. Like any emerging writer, I can dream. The conventional wisdom says that you first get a novel published, and only then attempt to get anything else published. My first foray into serious writing (other than pieces I’d scribbled in college or along the way) involved a four-act play. I submitted it to eighteen different companies. It went nowhere. I wrote a few stories, but spent most of my time on poetry. I had a great deal of luck, early on, with my poetry–-and so, that’s where I’ve spent most of my writing time. Besides, I’ve always taken to heart the words of François Mauriac: "A great novelist is first of all a great poet." I don’t think I’m either, unfortunately, but I keep working at it. The finished novel sits in a box in ms form–-as do most of my stories. The ones that made it to this collection are Daniel’s choice.

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

RB: Daniel chose the stories. I suggested the order. I don’t know what criteria he used except "readability." I was more pragmatic. I figured we should start out with something bite-sized (Fright Night) and leave the novella for last. If a potential reader were kind enough to indulge me for a few minutes, I figured I’d better keep my spiel short and sweet. I’ve spent my entire professional career in sales. To be quite frank, I’m a piss-poor salesman–-one of the worst I’ve ever come across. I present what I’ve got to sell in as few words as possible and let the buyer decide whether he or she is interested. If not, no problem. I move on with no regrets–-and hope I haven’t dropped a neutron bomb in the process.
   The writer in me, however, has always been more interested in the stories people have to tell than in what I might have to sell. As a result, I don’t mind listening. You’d be amazed what you’ll hear if you give people the slightest chance. They’re just waiting for the opportunity to open up and release. By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that editors and publishers are overwhelmed with submissions these days. A lot of folks are out of work. And yet, they’re not finished. They’ve got a story to tell–-even if it’s only their own. The problem is one of competition for attention. That, and the fact that story-telling is as much a craft as an art–-and that the craft takes time, study and effort to develop, and lots of reading others’ work.

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

RB: The same thing it meant to Aristotle: a beginning, a middle and an end. It means plot and characterization in equal doses. It means an attention to language, a sympathy for the reader’s eye and ear, an attention to white space and punctuation as necessary resting places and clear road signs. It does not mean experimentation or mental masturbation. Those things are better left behind in creative writing classes or on the jade way to an MFA. People have scant leisure time and very limited attention spans. We’re all bombarded by distractions, obligations, the mess and press of life. My first priority is my kiddoes, of which I have two. They represent, among other things, hungry mouths I have to feed. They respect what my son calls my "passion," but they understandably respect even more my ability to feed them.
   One of the most moving things I’ve ever heard is a piece commissioned by "The Next Big Thing" (of WNYC radio) written by Michael Greenberg, a Brooklyn-born newspaper columnist with the Times Literary Supplement, titled "Home Alone," and accompanied by the cellist, Erik Friedlander. In it, he talks about the disruption (to his writing life) of time spent with his young son over a couple of days while his wife is away showing off the new baby. He also mentions a similar 20 hours spent in hell by Nathaniel Hawthorn with his son.
   I don’t mind admitting to you that my own son was the direct inspiration for Fright Night, and that I used him again as the narrator of my story In the Animal Kingdom (albeit, fifteen years into the future). That story, by the way, was largely autobiographical. We used to listen to the story of Squanto every Thanksgiving; we used to celebrate, as most families do, with a huge spread; wine was a significant part of that spread–-and of the “spread” that followed; and the sharply reduced circumstances of Thanksgiving dinners thereafter, absent one member, were more of fact than of fiction.
   For those readers who are prepared to lend me any credibility at this point, the wonderful audio experience of Greenberg’s piece can be found at the bottom of WNYC’s page at http://www.wnyc.org/shows/tnbt/episodes/2004/04/09. (I hope this doesn’t constitute a copyright infringement, by the way!)

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

RB:  Because I lived with the doubt that my work would be published elsewhere than on the Web and in a few less-than-selective literary journals (I don’t have an MFA), I've always written with my children in mind. Since the separation and eventual divorce from my wife, I’ve worn the notion of failure like a bad habit. I wanted my children to know, one day, that my life wasn’t a total waste. This sounds maudlin, and I apologize. However, like most things maudlin, it’s also true. This short collection of stories could be the last I ever get published; I’ve got the proverbial two-inch-thick rejection folder; and I could lose my job any day. At this point, at my age, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t find another. Willy Loman isn’t just a literary figure for me; he’s my constant haunt.

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

RB: Yes–-after a heartfelt "thank-you": Have you read the stories of Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, E. A. Poe, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor–or of Robert Olen Butler, Lorrie Moore and T.C. Boyle in our day? These are some of the masters that come most immediately to mind.

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

RB: I’ll let you know when and if it happens. To date, I’m the only one I know of–-and it doesn’t feel very good.

TSR: What are you working on now?

RB: To borrow a line from Berthold Brecht: on my next mistake.

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

RB: Jorge Luis Borges (Complete Stories); Raymond Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love); Mary Gaitskill (Because They Wanted To).
 
                     
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