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Christopher Meeks

Website: ChrisMeeks.com

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.

Short story collections

Months and Seasons (White Whisker Books, 2008) 

Reviewed by Stevan Allred

The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea (White Whisker Books, 2006) 

Interview with Christopher Meeks

The Short Review: 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 years.
    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?

CM: Musicians 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 particularly good.
     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 and Seasons.

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

DH: “Story” 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 more.

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

CM: We’re 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
collection, 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 people. 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 post office. 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.