This episode of “Writers” moves from the topic of racial reconciliation, to the writing of place, to individual writing styles and the elegance and solitude of writing. These three masters talk about bad reviews, how they came to be writers, and the nature of the short story. The program packs a wallop when they start discussing how they hone their ideas and present them so completely in such a short format. In fact, Steve Yarbrough says, "I've always felt that stores were, not by accumulation like novels do, but by exclusion. Or that in another sense, the story has to suggest more than is actually on the page. And I think that's the magic." Mary Ward Brown adds, "They fascinate me because they tell so much. They cay if they're good, tell so much in such a little space." Then master Alistair MacLeod sums it up," I think when I'm writing that I'm in a glass bowl and there's always stuff pressing its nose against the glass bowl trying to get in. And it's saying I'm the description of the dinner. I'm worth 22 pages. I'm worth 4 pages. I say, 'No, no.. You're only worth one sentence.' Some will say, 'I'm the villain. I'm the person who's going to kill the dog. I want two pages.' 'No, no, I say, you get two paragraphs.'" Toward the end of the program, the authors ask each other questions and discuss each other's work. Alistair MacLeod powerfully describes how he writes his final sentences. They are the lighthouses to which he journeys.
According to Eudora Welty, the short story should be “like a string pulled taut.” These pieces of prose range in style, but they all capture a decisive moment or a single event with poetic precision. From the precipitating incident to the climax, the short story doesn’t waste a word on unnecessary subplots or tangents. Nor does it resolve everything. Instead, the short story leaves room for imagination. In 10,000 words, or less, the short story shines a light on a less spectacular aspect of life and with poetic precision, unifies the elements of character, setting, plot and theme.
Because of their recurrent theme of racial reconciliation, we taped this program at the Medgar Evers home in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was the first field secretary for the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and his assassination helped to propel the passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964. On the evening of June 12, 1963, when the slaying occurred, Eudora Welty was at her typewriter just a few miles away, working on a novel. She wrote a powerful, fictional account from the killer’s point of view. She said that this story “pushed its way up” and she found she had to write it. A few lines from this story open the program.
Alistair MacLeod has been named one of the 200 best writers in English in the last 50 years, and he recently won the Dublin Literary IMPAC Award. From Windsor, Ontario, Canada, he is retired from the University of Windsor, where he taught creative writing and 19th century British literature. MacLeod was raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the site of many of his short stories. He is regularly proclaimed as one of the living masters of the short story.
If Eudora Welty has an heir in her mastery of the southern short story, it’s Mary Ward Brown, from Marion Junction, Alabama. After a career as a wife and mother, Mrs. Brown published her first collection of short stories in 1987. This book was “Tongues of Flames,” and it won the 1987 PEN/Hemingway Award. She has spent most of her life on her farm in Alabama's Black Belt, the region where her short stories are set.
Steve Yarbrough was raised in Indianola and currently teaches creative writing at the University of California Fresno. He has published several collections of short stories as well as several novels. His settings are frequently the Mississippi delta. Yarbrough has been the Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi and has won the Mississippi Authors Award and the California Book Award.
All three authors write about ethnic and race relations and abandonment of rural life. They all are masters of place, a strong characteristic in southern writing.
For more information about Medgar Evers: