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Philip Shirley

Website: PhilipShirley.com

Born in Alabama, now living in Mississippi, Philip Shirley's territorial literary roots and style illustrate a deep, personal passion for the South. He is a public speaker, CEO of an ad agency, and is currently working on a novel. Previous publications include Four Odd and Endings, both early volumes of poetry.

Short story collections

Oh Don't You Cry For Me (Jefferson Press, April 2008) 

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

Interview with Philip Shirley

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

Philip Shirley: These stories were among some dozen or so I wrote from 2004 to 2006, plus one written in 2007 after the book was accepted for publication. I submitted a dozen stories as a manuscript to the Jefferson Prize in 2006, and it caught the eye of the publisher when it was submitted by the judges amongst a stack of the top 15. I didn't win the prize, but the publisher and his editor asked to publish this book too, after the winner came out. In the end, we decided to cut three stories from the original manuscript, so I needed to add 10,000 words to get back to the word count we wanted. I sat down with a few scraps of notes for two stories and in about a month forged them into an 11,000 word story that became the last and longest story of the collection.

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

PS: I wish I could say yes, but the truth is that the collection came together later when these characters began to line up and tell me they had one thing in common--although they had problems (my wife would say, "Honey, these people have issues."), they didn't give a damn about our pity, or care for anyone's help. That single theme is what ties the stories together, though the landscape is familiar in some of them and fairly contained regionally. All are set in Alabama or Mississippi in the Southern United States, but they include rural and urban settings, rich and poor, smart folks and not-so-smart characters. That's a long way around to get to the real answer, which is no.

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

PS: I threw them into the air and used them in the order they came down. Okay, not really. That's just how I graded papers as a grad student. But I thought about it. In the end I tried to put my favorites up front and at the end, hoping at least those would get read. I also wanted to start with something short so the casual bookstore browser might see the story was only a few pages and find it might fit their busy lifestyle to have something they could read in small bites. I had a great editor, Henry Oehmig, who helped move a story or two around to juxtapose a couple of stories where the pace was different. We tried four or five different orders before we settled on this one.

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

PS:  I love to ask someone I'm getting to know, What's your story? So I suppose "story" to me means something that is a significant enough event that you believe it defines you as a person. If you define who you are by some important event (getting married, moving from one place to another, having children, a job, losing a friend), then the telling of how that moment in time unfolds is a story. Some of my stories happen in an hour, others span years, but they share a single-minded objective: let me experience something I might not otherwise know, whether it's an occurrence, a place, a feeling or an interesting person.

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

PS: Always. I never forget that someone is listening. And it's always a close friend who is that mental "reader" you ask about. I have several non-writer friends that I read stories to. Some aren't really great readers. I don't ask them for a literary critique, but I listen to their questions carefully. When they ask me to explain something I thought I had told them clearly, then I know I have failed to tell the story effectively. That guides my re-writing. Which I do constantly. Often after my work has been published.

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

PS: Yes, would you bother to spend your money and time on a second book of mine? That's the real test, isn't it?

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

PS: A mixture of exhilaration and fright perhaps. I love books, and think everyone else should covet them the same as I, so I certainly don't want to disappoint anyone who invests their hard-earned money and time in my book.

TSR: What are you working on now?

PS: I'm co-writing a book with David Magee on the romance that Americans have with the Louisville Slugger baseball bat. Sweet Spot: 125 years of Baseball and the Louisville Slugger is a cultural study, a peek into the business side, and a look at how a sport can be impacted by the players' bond to one of the tools of the trade. The manuscript is due in November for release by Triumph Books, a Random House imprint, in May 2009. Once in awhile I sneak a little time on a novel that's about half finished, and I'm editing a completed novel manuscript one last time before circulating it to find it a home.

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

PS: I've been on a real classics kick lately. I just finished rereading several stories from my copy of The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, which I bought in 1966 when I was only 13. It's always been a favorite book and a close friend over the years. I bought it as part of a book club of some kind. A writer friend in Alabama is writing stories based on certain famous short stories and her work sent me back to read The Cask of Amontillado. Of course, I couldn't stop there so I read another dozen stories or so. That experience made me think of other old "friends," so I slid The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor off the shelf and ran my finger down the table of contents until I found A Good Man is Hard to Find. From there I jumped around to whatever caught my eye. After a few days with O'Connor, I had to compare her with another favorite, Eudora Welty, since I live in the same town where Miss Eudora lived until she died not long ago. I found a copy of her Selected Stories wedged between something more recent on my short story shelf, maybe Tom Franklin and a new anthology. Anyway, all three of those books are still in a pile on the corner of my desk, ready to go back in my library until some urge to feel small strikes me again.