Elie Piha, BFR Staff

In the most recent issue of The Kenyon Review, international editor John Kinsella says that “there’s a drive, an enthusiasm, and a shout-out in Australian writing at present that demands it be heard.” Writer Michael Caleb Tasker has lived in Australia for fifteen years and, though not a native of the continent (a problematic phrase itself), he is, I believe, proof of Kinsella’s claim.

Mr. Tasker’s short story “Snowbirds”—the story that won him first place in Fiction Southeast’s 2014 Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize—was what initially caught my attention. He writes:

The women were getting louder and I watched them from the mirror. I recognized two of them, they had asked for dances and money before and I knew they wouldn’t remember us and that they would try their luck again. They saw me watching and smiled their crooked and beaten smiles. I nodded back.

I emailed Mr. Tasker to tell him how much I enjoyed his story. He promptly emailed me back, thanking me for the kind words and offered an author recommendation. I thought, then, that that was that.

A few months ago, I received the Winter issue of Ploughshares and I once again saw Tasker’s name. Following a writer who is rising through the ranks of literary journals is very satisfying, like a scientific discovery or, even, looking in a mirror and catching something new. His most recent story, “The Luckiest Man in Town,” carries the same sensitivity without sentiment, credibility without arrogance, and subtle complexities that I first noticed in “Snowbirds.”

The following interview took place over the phone on February 27, 2017.

Michael Caleb Tasker: I’m honored and yet very nervous… I’ve never been interviewed before.

Elie Piha: When I first emailed you, I think it was two years ago, I was just looking for short story contests myself and I wanted to see what the previous winners – you know – what their pieces looked like and I liked your story, “Snowbirds,” so much. That was the first piece of fan mail I ever sent out. 

Tasker: That was the first piece I ever got. Still the only piece I ever got.

(Both laugh.)

Piha: Was “Snowbirds” the first contest that you won? 

Tasker: Yeah. It’s my first and still my only that I’ve come first place in. 

Piha: Do you remember what you felt when you won that contest?

Tasker: I was really thrilled, stoked, proud. There was a moment of disbelief. Pretty basic.

Piha: From your biography on your website, it sounds like you have had a pretty interesting upbringing, moving around a lot, internationally.

Tasker: Before eighteen, I pretty much lived in Montreal, where I was born, and New Orleans. I did a lot of back and forth, and I did a couple years in Toronto and did two years in Argentina. Now I’m over in Australia.

Piha: How long have you been in Australia?

Tasker: Fifteen years. Something like that.

Piha: I was so happy to see your name on Ploughshares [2016-17 Winter issue].

Tasker: Equally as exciting as winning the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction contest—such a reputable magazine.

Piha: “The Luckiest Man in Town” seems similar to “Snowbirds” in that it’s very setting driven, like it is a New Orleans tale.

Tasker: I spent a good seven or eight years in New Orleans and it’s a pretty powerful place. Pretty influential. A heavy place, an intense place. But, with that story, I don’t think the inspiration came from the city at all. It just wound up being the setting.  I can’t say what inspired that story. I do most of my writing really early in the morning before my family wakes up. I’m kind of in a daze. No coffee or anything. Not quite sure what ends up on a page sometimes. Sometimes it’s absolute crap. This one managed to work all right. Yeah. Inspiration, hell of a question. I don’t know where that comes from. 

Piha: It’s exciting to be your first interviewer because I get to ask you all the questions that writers eventually get tired of answering.

Tasker: I just have to think of answers.

Piha: Who influences you?

Tasker: My writing owes a great deal to Steinbeck and Farley Mowat. There are other writers, other books, that mean a lot… John Cheever’s short stories, James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney, Richard Yates, Jim Thompson, Knut Hamsun, Willa Cather, Teddy Roosevelt, Dickens, Fitzgerald… I love John D. MacDonald, not long ago I read Slam the Big Door and was blown away… I could, and perhaps did, go on. But Steinbeck and Mowat are the big ones.

Piha: When did you first start writing?

Tasker: I don’t really know when I started writing. Not in any real sense. I wrote some small things as a child, in grade three or four, and again as a teen when I’d have some odd burst of creativity and write a couple of whacked out shorts. Always for my own pleasure, not for school. Somewhere in university I wrote my own smelly derivation of a novel I liked… but I don’t really know. I guess it grew slowly but surely… somewhere along the way.

Piha: The first and last lines of “The Luckiest man in Town” were about fear. Does fear influence your writing? Perhaps, a fear of failure, or even success?

Tasker: I’ve never understood that fear of success thing. I probably suffer from a fear of failure, fear of mediocrity. I’ve known people personally who’ve said they’d like to write or act or paint, but that they’re afraid of success. In terms of how fear affects my writing—in this particular story, the fear affected the character and so it drove the story. He had once been a boxer and he was always scared in the ring which kept him safe. He once ended up killing his opponent, that’s why he doesn’t box anymore. After that he’s having nightmares about his wife killing him and he becomes afraid of his wife, and when he’s afraid he becomes violent or deadly. The story, in terms of its structure, is probably closer to a crime genre piece than a so-called literary piece.

Piha: Crime genre is something you’re drawn to.

Tasker: A lot of my stories, even if they’ve ended up in literary magazines—I guess because of the way I write—they are oftentimes crime pieces, or a piece set around a crime. I read a lot of crime. Donald Westlake—

Piha: —The Parker series.

Tasker: They’re fantastic. In his book Memory, there’s no actual crime that takes place. A guy gets hit in the head with a chair and that’s the extent of the crime throughout. It’s thrilling, but there’s no actual crime and I love that. That mix of crime and literary, that’s probably where my work best exists. Not that I’m doing myself any favors. Most literary magazines don’t want anything with any crime in them and most genre magazines don’t want anything too literary.

(Both laugh).

Piha: Well, Ploughshares is no small publication.

Tasker: I still can’t believe that I’m in there.

Piha: How often to do you submit a year?

Tasker: Oh, a lot. “The Luckiest Man in Town” had four or five rejections. I’ve had other pieces that got—well, I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times they were rejected. But, you know, they ended up in pretty good places. You’re just at the subjective of what the reader likes or doesn’t like. At a certain point, you get to the logic of “Oh, well, fifteen rejections,” but just because one person doesn’t like it doesn’t mean the next person won’t. I don’t know if I answered that question. I submit a lot. 

Piha: You said you’re a morning writer.

Tasker: The last six months I’ve been really slacking. I’m ashamed of it, I haven’t done much recently. But usually that’s the only time I have. I have a four-year-old and I’m pretty busy. I would get up a 4:00 or 4:30 and that hour or two before work is usually best because you’re fresh from sleeping. You’re in just a bit of a daze so that you’re not worrying about what else you have going on in your life. 

Piha: As for your writing process. Do you first produce a whole draft, or do you get a few lines out and think about it, then maybe do some outlining?

Tasker: It’s different for every story. I’ll have a basic idea for a character of a story, or I’ll be listening to a song and some phrase or just two little words in that song will make a good title, and a story works itself around that. Generally speaking, I’ll have too many ideas. I’ll write them down and when I come to it, whether it’s a week later or a month later, I’ve done some thinking about it. I’ll write the first 200 to 600 words, usually trying to do that in one or two sittings, and that’ll turn into a 5000-word piece. Once I’ve got that first 600 words, I’ll do a bit of “What should happen here or there” and then it’s fairly organic. Many times, I’ll find out that what I’ve written in my notebook doesn’t work at all and I’ll have to take it in a new direction. As I’m working on the piece, I’ll do a bit of editing on the way. Once I finish a piece I’ll put it away for five to thirty days and work on something else and then I’ll come back to it and edit and do any rewrites that I need to do. Generally that’s how it works. What I am wondering about is novel writing. It’s easy to rewrite a not-very-good 3000-word-piece if you like the idea, but when people rewrite a 100,000-word draft, how does that rewrite work? 

Piha:  I think I’ve created a few files and titled them “Novel 1,” but it has never got past that. We’ve already talked about fear but, when it comes to sending out stories, getting published—

Tasker: Failure and rejection are just a part of it. It’s quite natural that for every story I write that’s publishable I write one to four that don’t deserve getting published. Maybe I’ve had so many rejections that I’ve just got really thick skin. Or I’ve read enough about other writers who’ve been rejected so many times. It’s just as much persistence as it is actually writing. James Lee Burke famously had one of his early novels rejected by one hundred or so publishers, and then when it got published by a small firm it went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer. I read that story, the Lost Get Back Boogie, when I was 17 years old. 

Piha: Did you read a lot growing up?

Tasker: Yes and no. My mother was a big reader and she had to pay me to read my first book when I was in grade two or so. She wanted me to actually get through something. I think it was a children’s book, Uncle Wiggily. Then my first year in Argentina, I was about 14 years old, and I think loneliness and not having any English around got me reading. When I got back to Canada I was the best-read kid in my class. 

Piha: You have a master’s degree in professional writing, correct?

Tasker: They changed the degree title half way through. They called it professional writing at first, and it was a lot of nonfiction writing and some journalism, and then they switched it to creative writing. I don’t actually know what I should call the degree, but I’m looking to get my Ph.D. in creative writing. I’m in the application process. 

Piha: Do know other writers, spend time with them, or just other artists in general?

Tasker: I’m fairly solitary. I knew some in college. I have a friend who has just written a novel and has just submitted it, but I’m not surrounded by it like I was in college. I love talking about reading, but it’s hard to find people that have anything to say about it. 

 

Postscript: Michael Caleb Tasker’s recent projects are centered around film production and screenwriting. He says, “Movies have always been a big part of my life, been a big influence. Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter are terrific), Rod Serling, I used to see Lawrence of Arabia every year on the big screen.” 

Logan Goldberg, BFR Staff

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The Academy Award for Best Picture — arguably one of the most monetarily valuable honors given anywhere in the world, a fact which is itself absurd — was recently bestowed upon the wrong film. Tens of millions of people from around the globe watched as the most famous humans, with the biggest possible stakes, royally fucked up, a fuck-up which was, even more preposterously, not rectified for minute after minute of unadulterated stupidity.

More consequential stupidity, of course, has wreaked far greater havoc than this debacle at the Oscars. Indeed, as our species struggles to cope with catastrophic and self-inflicted crises like rapid climate change, shocking wealth inequality, and the ever-mounting peril of nuclear holocaust, all that we seem able to do in response is fight over the meaningless differences in the pigmentation of our skin, over the irrelevant distinctions between which sexual organs we prefer, over the invisible borders we’ve established to divide us, and over our imaginary friends in the sky. This is not how educated and responsible adults are supposed to solve problems. On the contrary, this is how toddlers act before they get time-outs.

Moreover, the democratically elected leader of the (perhaps formerly) free world during the escalation of these existential-level crises is a stunningly inarticulate, insecurity-driven, orange reality TV star and pathological liar who has no previous political experience, who brags about sexual assault, who mocks disabled reporters, who openly advocates for the U.S. military to kill the innocent relatives of terrorists (itself an act of terrorism), who approves of torture, who calls global warming a Chinese hoax, who dislikes the freedom of religion and freedom of the press clauses in the Constitution, and who rose to power by bullying his political opponents about their appearance, accusing them of literally founding ISIS, and threatening to throw them in jail. In light of our collective choice to entrust this objectively thin-skinned and uniquely impulsive man with the nuclear codes, Earth-orbiting aliens deciding whether to save our failing planet would surely find it devoid of intelligent life and move on.

Such developments have led me to the horrific yet unshakable conclusion that humankind is essentially doomed, assuming that we don’t right the ship in the immediate future. My father, who shares many of my desperate concerns about our present state of affairs, has recently dedicated himself to doing what he can to prepare people for a much less comfortable time to come: helping found a university charged with solving global problems, securing land on the outskirts of Los Angeles to build housing for the city’s homeless residents, and so on. My conversations with him on this subject have, unsurprisingly, been fairly depressing. More than that, though, they have also burdened me with a persistent guilt about my planned direction in life, which has always been to become a novelist. After all, how could I possibly justify dedicating myself to writing, and to writing fiction, no less, with the knowledge that I could alternatively be working like him to assist my fellow Americans? And on the other hand, how could I live with myself if I chose not to write, with the knowledge that nothing else makes me feel so deeply whole inside?

This cocktail of emptiness and selfishness and confusion began to seep into my stories and poison my paragraphs, not ruining them outright, but instead giving me the vague, drunken suspicion that they were simply the single-spaced secretions of an overly inflated ego. Indeed, it wasn’t until a week ago, as I passed by one of the more ornate local churches, that this intoxicated feeling finally subsided (one of the rare occasions that a church has had such a sobering effect on me). Standing there, I remembered vividly the thoughts I’d had as a boy while reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, an almost thousand-page work of historical fiction about the construction of a cathedral in the 1100s, and, in retrospect, a bizarre book to recommend to a twelve-year-old.

Tedious as it may sound, that novel was one of the fastest reads of my life — the chapters flew by as I engulfed myself in not only another world, but also in another worldview. Even as a staunch atheist, I could feel the overwhelming awe that Follett’s characters experienced as they admired the practically anachronistic, approximately supernatural creation before them: this magnificent, colossal sanctuary and tribute to their Almighty God, rising majestically at the heart of the town, towering forty times higher than the humble dwellings in its environs, its iridescent windows illuminating a landscape of grey walls and colorless monotony, its every detail constructed with the utmost care over the course of decades and generations and hundreds of pages, this product of countless man-hours and several lost human lives, once burned to the ground only to be rebuilt yet more spectacularly, its architects undeterred, undeterrable, most of them knowing they’d die before they’d ever see their masterpiece completed, hoping against hope that it might serve as a beacon of salvation for their descendants in the next millennium. Among all my real-life encounters with beautiful cathedrals — St. Peter’s Basilica, Westminster Abbey — none have kindled within me such a profound sense of reverence for my species and its capacity to achieve the seemingly unachievable as did that mere ink-and-paper text. And frankly, it’s not even my favorite book.

In the shadow of the much less noteworthy Berkeley church, I was struck by a series of semi-spiritual epiphanies. Writing, it occurred to me then, is something incredibly pure— without sound, or pictures, or someone else to guide your words. It’s just your brain and the page staring back at you, daring you to say something no one has ever said before, shaming you when you lazily recite the ideas of others, compelling you to unearth what your true values are, and pressuring you with the prospect of posterity to do so with a stark elegance that is forever the envy of other mediums. In the end, it’s just naked words, naked arguments, and naked humanity. Perhaps this literary nudity has revealed my hidden speckle of optimism, but beneath all the dogmatic intolerance and the capitalist greed and the manufactured anger, I guess I think that we, in general, prefer to love rather than hate.

Of course, hate has gotten a gigantic head start, and its lead may in fact prove insurmountable, but we cannot lay down our arms — or our pens — just yet. To those striving every day for a better future, I say to you — and to my father especially — you’re my heroes. However, at the risk of making everyone reading this throw up, I’ll state for the first time that writers can be heroes too. No, not just journalists, although journalism is also a great passion of mine, and journalists undeniably do critical work. Instead, I mean to say that novelists, and imagineers, and fiction writers can make a genuine difference as well. There’s a reason that the Catholic Church has a long history of banning books, and it lies in the fact that, as many a writer has noted before me, ideas are incredibly dangerous, and books are nothing but ideas.

Ideas, beyond just being threatening, are really all that we have. And fittingly, I believe they’re all that we need to fix this shitty mess in which we now find ourselves. If everyone on this planet sincerely believed the notion that their god wanted them to murder their neighbors, and that the universe depended on them doing so, we’d all be dead in short order. Conversely, if everyone subscribed to a couple more rational principles — we’re all in this together, we should respect our fellow creatures, we should feed the hungry, we shouldn’t kill anyone — the Earth would soon be transformed into a virtual utopia. It is eminently clear to me that what’s missing today is empathy and understanding and tolerance, and how better to perfect these traits than by reading about places and people very different from oneself?

Ultimately, the root of my guilt about being a writer is captured by a proverb we’ve all heard more or less since birth: actions speak louder than words. But maybe it’s not sheer volume and brute force that’s required today. Maybe the key ingredient that’s been lacking all along is not swift action but quiet contemplation, not speaking loudly but listening patiently. And maybe we need a world wherein we escape from our outside influences and pour ourselves onto the page, and then show those pages to anyone willing to give them a chance. In short, we need a world that writes. We need a world that reads. And we need fiction.

Evan Bauer, BFR Editor

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Design and Illustration by Sunra Thompson, Courtesy of McSweeny’s Publishing

If you’re fortunate enough to have been one of my victims over the past few months, you’ll already be aware that I’ve been occupying my time with an incessant rampage of recommending All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews to anything with eyeballs and a pulse.

Every now and then, I’ll read a book so magnificently heartbreaking that it seems like the only logical response is to—with tears of hope in my eyes—vehemently campaign for its author’s ascendance to the presidency. And given the current political climate in the US, electing Toews president seems like just the kind of radical intervention we need. (Toews—pronounced “Taves”—is, to the detriment of my cause, Canadian, but I’m sure we can work something out.)

My infatuation with All My Puny Sorrows began (apropos to BFR Managing Editor Clare Suffern’s recent blog post) with the cover. Upon completing an internship with McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco last spring, I was given free rein to choose a stack of their titles from the bookshelves—titles I had eyed covetously each time I walked through the office. If I were to take the liberty of claiming the existence of a core tenet for some sort of underlying philosophy universal to the team at McSweeney’s, it would be that books, with all their potential to be beautiful, should invariably be just that: beautiful, in everything from content to cover design, typography to spine width, and even the type of paper used in printing. And to me, the paperback edition of All My Puny Sorrows represents the pinnacle of McSweeney’s adherence to beautiful design, so last spring, I knew exactly which book to pull off the shelf first.

The cover—designed by the brilliant Sunra Thompson—depicts a bird’s-eye view of a landscape composed of pastel oranges, purples, and metallic gold accents. Scattered throughout this landscape are tiny, stylized humans going about their various enterprises. Closer inspection reveals that this landscape transcends temporal boundaries, for each orange-skinned figure represents a character from the novel; those two boys carrying a golden kayak, those imposing men in suits and ties standing outside their cars, the two old women arm-in-arm looking out over the river—all of these human miniatures receive hands and facial features over the course of the novel.

Thompson depicts the novel’s two main characters, sisters Yolandi (striped shirt, light hair) and Elfrieda (white shirt, dark hair), multiple times on the cover. Elf is depicted in various positions with slouched posture, hiding, it seems, underneath her cascade of dark hair, and she never has anything in her hands. Yoli, by contrast, is drawn in motion, holding a grocery bag or riding a bicycle. The one instance of Yoli standing still with nothing in her hands features her in the lower left corner, arms slung straight at her sides, looking back on the title of the book and the surrounding landscape. Something about the squiggly font of the title, the scraggly branches of the purple trees dotting the landscape, these handless orange humans all enmeshed in their own toils and ruminations—it all betrays an undercurrent of melancholy and existential dread, yet simultaneously communicates an air of bewilderment. So as viewers, before even acquiring an inkling of what the novel is about, we are inclined to empathize with Yoli in the lower left corner as she looks back and tries to make sense of this beautiful, forlorn landscape and her slouched, despondent sister sitting in the center of the title. By nailing this balance between absurdity and despair, the cover serves as a visual taste-test of the most striking aspect of Toews’ fiction: her use of humor as a gateway into difficult material.

At this point, it would be useful for readers to acquire the aforementioned inkling of what this book is about, so I’ll steal from the back cover: “When Elf, a world-renowned concert pianist, attempts suicide just before an international tour, her sister Yoli must keep their family from falling apart while facing a profound question: what do you do for a loved one who truly wants to die?”

With what wisp of a plot there is revolving around a hospital bed and a family member’s sincere wish to die, it’s easy to wonder how this book could be anything but depressing. But thanks to Toews’ keen imagination and knack for self-deprecation, the novel’s frequent bouts of humor serve as a kind of old-fashioned scuba suit for readers to slip on before diving into subject matter perhaps otherwise too suffocatingly tragic.

One instance of such humor (taken from a long list in my phone of page numbers on which this book made me laugh or cry) comes at a point in the novel when Yoli is visiting Elf in the hospital, away from her kids in Toronto, and grappling with the question of whether or not to help her sister access legally assisted suicide in Switzerland. She receives a call from a man with whom she is loosely romantically involved back in Toronto. He asks if there is anything he can do for her. Yoli replies: “I asked him to drive past my apartment in Toronto and see if there were signs of life from Nora and Will and maybe he could knock on the door and ask them if they were okay and why Nora wasn’t answering her phone. Although I already knew why. It was because she had poisoned Will and dragged his body into a closet and was having unprotected sex all over the house with her fifteen-year-old Swedish dancer boyfriend and she didn’t have the time or inclination to talk to her sad old disapproving mother in the midst of it all. Consider it done, he said.”

In an interview for The Guardian, Toews said of her choice to bring so much humor into the equation: “I wanted people to not be afraid of the subject matter, to get the tone right, right off the top, and get the readers’ trust, so we could come out together in some other, less dark place.”

A natural concern with such a strategy is that the comedic moments might, in some way, diminish the legitimacy or forcefulness of a story’s sorrow. In my own writing, I know that a particular sadness can feel so precious that to juxtapose it with humor would be to fail in giving it a faithful representation. However, when done well (and it is hard to do well—thank god we have writers like Miriam Toews), moments of comic relief can, curiously, have the opposite effect. Rather than diminish it, these moments can actually amplify the reader’s experience of a story’s sadness. In reading All My Puny Sorrows, we get the sense that the characters—particularly Yoli—are utilizing humor as a defense against tragedy; by surrendering themselves to the bafflement of navigating human sorrow, they refuse to let it break them. The characters then feel more human and relatable, which makes us feel the weight of their grief all the more.

Another writer (featured in our most recent issue of BFR) who toes this line between tragedy and comedy well is Jonathan Plombon in his gloriously titled short story “Dismantling Modern Residential Architecture Inside the Patriarchal Family Structure: A Proper, Expedited Disposal Technique of a Broken Home and Its Contents, for Fathers Who Have Somewhere Better to Be and Couldn’t Give a Damn, Anyway.” Across twenty-six short (and equally gloriously) individually-titled segments, Plombon’s narrator details a childhood spent in a broken home and a subsequent encounter with a mysterious plant-woman. Unlike Toews, however, Plombon’s humor relies largely on surrealist exaggerations and clever twists on familiar phrases. In section seventeen— “Babies and Ladders Don’t Come with Instruction Manuals”—the narrator exclaims: “I wanted my mother to use me as a crutch… She never clung to my arm, but I detached mine anyway, tying it together with crutches, bars, stools, and a strange man’s shoulders.” The tone of the story is removed from the narrator’s internal strife—emotionless, almost—so somehow this image of him taking off his arm and tying it up in an absurd contraption to prop up his mother impacts the reader even more (and by “the reader,” I mean me).

So what to do with all this? Pick up a copy of All My Puny Sorrows. Pick up a copy of BFR. Let Toews and Plombon slice you open then stitch you back together. Write your own magical-realist tragicomic story about a country-bumpkin-turned-city-slicker old man who wants only to look upon his childhood farm once more but can’t, for the life of him, remember where he misplaced the cord to his rechargeable eyeballs. The world is your miserable, hysterically laughing oyster.

Clare Suffern, BFR Managing Editor 

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Illustration by Charles Ellik, Berkeley Fiction Review, Issue 16

Months before I opened Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), I admired Lynn Buckley’s cover design. On the lower third of the cover – beneath the author’s name in bold, white caps and the title’s textured, orange lettering – a Rockwell inspired scene depicts two boys and the lower half of a woman, whose red nailed fingers grip a serving plate on which squats a fat-glossed turkey. Clad in a windowpane plaid jacket, the younger boy in the lower left purses his lips and furrows his brow to suggest (I imagine) defiance, hunger, sleepiness, or any number of discomforts we have all felt at one dinner party or another while sitting ignored at the end of the table, waiting for the gnashing to commence.

In his discussion about the cover art of Freedom (2010) in Talking Covers, a website that explores the production and importance of book covers through interviews with the authors, artists, and designers, Franzen describes a successful cover as “visually arresting and true to the feel and content of the book; it should also, ideally, look like nothing else.”[1] Franzen’s conclusions speak to the complex aesthetic, thematic, and commercial functions of art in literature, related to but different from the concerns of art in galleries or museums. Just as it is to the novel (albums, textbooks, sheet music, etc.), visual art is integral to the sale and production of literary magazines, e.g. Berkeley Fiction Review.

Quite simply, good cover art and design help our journal stand out in bookstores and attract buyers. (Note to fellow small-time editors and publishers: In Talking Covers, Franzen quotes friend and novelist Donald Antrim as saying, “It’s well known in publishing that green covers never sell.”)[2] In addition to attracting buyers, art serves as a contemplative counterpoint to the stories in Berkeley Fiction Review. It allows for pause between short stories, bridges thematic elements, cultivates deeper catharsis, evokes new associations, and inspires more thoughtful analysis.

A former English major, I converted to art history after a semester of waking up in the black, leather chairs of Gardner Main Stacks, novel-of-the-midweek resting on my thighs and dry mouth pointing skylightward in a perpetual “‘O’, shit”. The anxiety of neglecting material, assigned or not, mounted until I quit reading altogether for a few months. With a countenance much like the little boy’s on the cover – uneasy, tired, obstinate – I approached The Corrections many times before I opened the alluring cover: I surfed the Internet, raided the pantry, or took a nap rather than take my place at the intellectual table and eat up Franzen’s delicious offer.

The decision to check out or buy a book and subsequently read it hinges on more than reviews and recommendations. Many, and not only picky buyers (say, people who shop around for majors until senior year), rely in part on cover art to make a selection. Good design and thought-provoking art, like Buckley’s cover for The Corrections, often inspire reading’s first step: picking up a book. I look forward to helping choose the artwork for Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review so that we may inspire readers to notice our journal among shelves full of enticing works, showcase visual artists in addition to writers, and publish a journal that provides a richer and more diverse reflection of society.

Please visit the art tab for information about submitting.

  1. Sean Manning, “Freedom,” Talking Covers, July 17, 2012, https://talkingcovers.com/2012/07/17/freedom/.
  2. Ibid.

             Nico Picciuto, BFR Staff

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I’m seated in a pub on a quiet and unwelcoming Tuesday. I carefully orient myself so I can see only the tattered papers in front of me, the beer I ordered only moments ago. The bartender serving me periodically enters and exits through a vaulted passage to expedite plates to where I suspect three or four groups are seated, each time rinsing his hands behind the bar before accommodating me and three other men seated in barstools; our unhurried feet dangle like kids’ at a picnic table.

To me this is far less interesting than my first or second pint—the pull of the tap, the scrape of the foam, the invitingly lonesome pint of Guinness half-rested on a saturated coaster. The proximity of which, in relation to the far right corner of the paper I’m writing on is disagreeably close for what I know to be my own taste and sensibility, though I didn’t even bother to consider any of this until I noticed condensation dripping from the pint, which I’d been using to moisten my index finger before flipping a page in the book that lay on my lap. Raymond Williams enduring work, Key Words—my particular word of interest: ‘behavior.’ Why do I behave the way I do?—steeped in my own vanity like the soggy coaster my Guinness stands on. Profound regret writhes inside me, nameless and confounding. Regret for the way I respond to things; regret for the solipsism I can never hope to escape. I’m twisted in my own way, like someone in need of rescue.

It occurred to me after some time that most of what I’d written on the paper in front of me was worthless; I’d stopped reading Raymond William’s who was now off describing the etymology of behavior in the 17th century, which he refers to merely as “c17,” and against my considerable effort to remain neutral, having been coached to continually take note of my mood and outward demeanor, I noticed now that this bothered me vaguely. Not just William’s denomination of the term century, that was of minor consequence, but everything I was doing—the impossible feeling of escaping my own lot in life—of somehow rearranging the dilapidated furniture in my head—was tormenting me. But now I could feel the storm clouds coming in, and that was it. I had told myself to be careful before, that I was prone to these abrupt fluctuations in temperament. This is exactly what I hoped to avoid by coming here tonight, but the besotted respite of a dark pint of Guinness on a glum little Tuesday was not the answer. Not tonight. Did I have an answer? What’s the question again?

              Please, someone remove me from this sardonic slumber, I think this in real time, one last gesture to be saved from myself, but—

 

 

Moira Peckham, BFR Editor

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              As I’ve gotten older, busier, and generally more stressed, I’ve noticed something sad about myself: I seldom read for fun anymore. When I was a growing up in the truly riveting hubbub of Morro Bay, California I would make a conscious effort to sit myself down and read a gosh darn novel or even just a few short stories every week. Eventually I didn’t even have to try because reading was the most wonderful thing I could be doing. There was nothing like getting lost in someone else’s world for a few hours and, to be honest, that’s still one of the most incredible things life can offer us. When I reached college, however, I found my time increasingly taken up by technical readings for my courses in anthropology, philosophy, or whatever I was taking that semester. And let me tell you, after a week of reading Marxist theory and critiques of cultural ecology, nothing and I mean nothing sounded less appealing than sitting down with and trying to actually understand the copy of Infinite Jest that’s currently collecting dust on my book shelf. And after several months of doggedly ignoring all the books I’d been collecting, I finally realized something: I would have to force myself to read for fun or face the reality that I would only be reading technical pieces for the rest of my life. And I was not cool with the latter option.

              The first strategy I utilized to make myself read for fun was by taking an English course. English courses are a lot of work and anyone who tells you differently is wrong and probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But in spite of the work (or maybe because of it), English courses are also unbelievably rewarding. English 27: Introduction to the Study of Fiction allowed me to read seven incredible novels that I would never have picked up otherwise (as someone who reads mostly science fiction it was a trip to actually have to sit down and read Heart of Darkness for a grade but you know what it was great). I got to read amazing books for units! And write about them, which is a reward in and of itself. It was so amazing to be able to read and critically engage with literature that I never would have looked at before. Had I not taken that English course, I wouldn’t have even discovered how much I love Thomas Pynchon. So that particular experiment in forcing myself to read non-technical writings was a complete success. But alas, the summer rolled around and with it the time in which I could take classes outside of my major came to an end, so I had to think of strategy number two.

              Strategy number two was less about clever tactical course-planning and more about brute force. Amidst the balmy days of summer, my favorite author published an 880 page hard science fiction space odyssey and I vowed to finish it that summer in addition to about five other books that were burning a hole in my bookcase. So the strategy was basically to utilize my summer months to read as many books concurrently as I possibly could. I failed. But, boy, did I try. I got through probably about seven hundred pages of literature by the time summer ended just by sheer force of will, but it took me until the end of winter break that same year to finish the space odyssey. But that winter break introduced me to strategy number three: power reading.

              My first experience with power reading was with Camus’s The Stranger. If you aren’t familiar with that particular title, all you really need to know is that The Stranger isn’t that long. Maybe 160 pages, tops. One night after Christmas, I decided to read The Stranger but given my track record with actually finishing the books I start I knew that I needed to finish it all in one sitting or I wouldn’t finish it at all. So that’s what I did. It took me two and a half hours of non-stop reading but I did it. And it felt amazing. And so, I decided to try this tactic with something a little longer over spring break. (In between winter and spring break I didn’t read a single book; it was really sad.) Over the break, I went on vacation to a place with no Internet and I attribute this in part to the fact that I finished a 660 page book in four days. I was a well-oiled reading machine. I don’t think I had ever read anything as quickly and as thoroughly in my entire life. This too, is more an exercise in brute force rather than in self-control and cleverness. As of right now, however, power reading appears to be my most successful tactic for dealing with the fact that during the school year I have less and less time and drive to read for fun.

              Other strategies I’ve not tried myself but have seen others successfully employ include but are not limited to: having a book to read on your breaks at work, reading books of short stories, reading just before bed (I have tried this and fall asleep every time but other people do not), joining a literary journal (I actually do this one but some people don’t consider work fun for some reason), read poems, attempt to substitute Netflix with books at least sometimes, and many, many more!

              And perhaps this issue isn’t as universal as I feel it must be given my complete and utter lack of interest in staring at more pages full of words after spending my week doing just that, but maybe someone somewhere is struggling with this is very same thing. And if you are, hi there. I am here for you. Reading is the best and it is possible to find time to actually finish books, it just might take more effort than you’re used to. But stick with it because one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the ability to get lost, at least for a little while, inside someone else’s reality and to learn from it.

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The staff of the Berkeley Fiction Review is pleased to announce the winners of our 20th Annual Sudden Fiction Contest!

Their work is featured in the current issue of the Berkeley Fiction Review.

Visit our Current Issue page to see a glimpse of Issue 36, attend our Release Party on Tuesday May 3rd at Caffe Mediterraneum (2475 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704), or visit our Order page to purchase your own copy today!


First Place:

“A Glass Half (Full)” by Athena Scott

Second Place:

“Green Onions” by S.C. Lewis

Third Place:

“DIY Novel” by JD Mader

Honorable Mention:

“Cherry” by Dylan Gallagher

Edward Booth, BFR Staff

I saw an orange cat yesterday, in the field out back. She strolled through the green field with sun shimmering across her fur, with a feline grace that can only belong to satisfaction. Her stride was purposeful, and soon she had walked the length of the field and vanished beyond the horizon.

Looking through my gap in the wooden fence this sight inspired envy. It was true I could never be that cat. She had a natural gift for movement, a superiority that announced itself to the world. I have nothing to compare with that. I’m no golden stallion of a retriever, nor do I have the glow of a pampered dachshund. I have no beauty or strength that would allow me to know the world as the orange cat does, but I still wish to know what it’s like.

The field outside is a place I’ve never been. I know of the outside world. Occasionally I’m allowed to glimpse it on a path chosen by my owner. Those times, though limited, are incredibly exciting. I can feel the presence of other beings. I can sense their auras. That feeling of newness, of novelty is what I desire. In those moments I’m able to touch upon a fountain of teeming life that exists beyond my boundaries — and then I catch myself. The expanse is beyond me.

I can only be who I am. A runty dog, black and white, with no distinguishing features. I sometimes bark at joggers, but they are not intimidated. It sounds more like a cough than a bark, causing confusion more than anything else.

A lot of the time it doesn’t matter. Routine is routine, and eating, sleeping, and playing is enjoyable as it ever was. Sometimes I get new food, sometimes I get different places to sleep, sometimes I get new toys, and sometimes different people bring in smells and experiences. It’s not bad I suppose. It’s just when I walk to the edge of the backyard and look through the hole in the wooden fence I can see so much more.

The orange cat moved from the field into her own lawn. Now it was time for dinner. A push of the head was all that was needed for her to slip inside, and then she was home to comfort. She had the freedom to roam, but rarely used it. It was a routine as soft and simple as marmalade. She had no need for anything else.

Vivienne Finch, BFR Staff

Finch BFR

Low tide turns this Maine beach into a marsh. When I was six, I woke up just before sunrise to go clamming here with my grandfather. We wore black rubber boots and waterproof coats because the mist was so thick it could soak through anything. Once we got to the beach, my grandfather told me to watch out for little dribbles of seawater coming up through holes in the sand. I found the clams; he dug them out with a shovel and tossed them into a big plastic bucket. I didn’t know we were going to eat them, but that evening we made clam chowder.

I didn’t end up liking the chowder, but that disappointment wasn’t nearly enough to taint how much I enjoyed the routine of finding the clams.

I haven’t been clamming since, but if I end up on a Maine beach and can think of a reason to dig up clams without eating them, I haven’t forgotten what to look for.

Ashley Lin Wong, BFR Staff

Let me tell you something about the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s what scientists call an interstellar absorption, a configuration of dust, clouds of effervescent smoke holding crystals in the air. It just so happens that those gas clouds managed to fold themselves over into something that, from 1,500 light years away, looks like a horse’s head facing right.

The Horsehead Nebula is what scientists would call a miracle. What shouldn’t be there is there. Billows of stars and light angled just so, 1,500 light years ago, that they managed, at one point in time, to resemble a horse. It probably doesn’t even look that way anymore, they say, because what we’re seeing now has been over 1,500 light years coming. Could be a penguin or a tree, but that’s for the next generation to discover.

The first time I went to see the Horsehead Nebula with my dad, I was seven years old and skinny, shivering in the wet grass and damp of the night from Dead Man’s Hill in Hines. My dad was two beers in, whistling softly as he set up the telescope.

“What’re we looking for, Dad?” I said.

He just kept whistling to himself, twisting the stand into the base.

“You want a beer?” he said, pulling a Bud from the cooler.

“Dad, I’m seven.”

“So?”

He stared at me and my silence, his eyes glistening, luminescent as the sky above our heads.

“You wanna see something amazing, Mikey?” he whispered, coming in very close. I could smell the beer and his 9 o’clock cheese sandwich on his breath. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him this excited.

“Mikey, come look at this,” he said, his eye pressed fervently to the viewfinder, his outstretched hand beckoning for me. I pulled the viewfinder down gingerly until it met my eye level, and looked in.

He wrapped his arms around me like a python and guided the telescope in my arms until the stars went from pinpoints of light to flaming orbs of energy, whole other worlds screwed into the black canvas of the sky.

It was my first glimpse of the Horsehead Nebula, and it felt like all the air had whooshed out of me, like I’d hit the ground falling.

“One day, Mikey,” my dad whispered, his hand holding the telescope steady, “one day, we’re going to find a way to get there – humans are gonna find a way to get there – and then we’re going to be first in line to see. Just you and me, away from here, in space, and we’ll never have to come back.”

“But what about Mom? And Nick? Won’t we need them too?” I said, my voice high and reedy.

My father said nothing, the pupils of his eyes swimming in the starlight.

*          *          *

When I was twelve the teacher put a picture of the Horsehead Nebula up on the overhead.

“Does anyone know what this is?” she said.

I raised my hand and said yes, said that I had seen it before.

“Really? When did you go see it?” she exclaimed, her wide rubbery love-me smile painted firmly over gleaming teeth.

I said that I had seen it with my father, when we had gone stargazing a while back.

“How lovely,” the teacher cooed, raising her voice over the class’s rising snickers. “Has anyone else ever gone stargazing?”

“You fucking pussy,” Larry DeSoto snarled at me during recess, flanked by two of his rats. “Going stargazing with your daddy? You and daddy go stargazing a lot, drink tea, and play with little teddies and pony balls?”

They all hovered over me menacingly, only scattering when Nick came out.

“See you later, dipshit,” they laughed, grabbing my nipples and twisting hard.

“You okay?” Nick asked when he saw my watery eyes. I said I was fine, that DeSoto and his gang had just roughed me up a bit. I didn’t tell him how my dad had been out of a job for weeks, had been gone for days then returned like nothing happened and that now I could hear him yelling through the walls, both my mom and dad crying every night. They always began in whispers, harsh words passed back and forth under their breath, but inevitably one of them would snap and the argument would ignite until they were practically burning the house down with their charged insults. My father started sleeping in the basement.

I never asked why, never wanted to. I started seeing him every day in the parking lot of the Polish bar on the bus ride home from school. I knew how far gone he was, but I thought life could blot out reality as long as he didn’t say it.

*          *          *

The night before he left, my dad got drunk and spread himself out like a bear on my bed.

“Dad? What the hell?” I asked when I found him there around 1 am, still clinging to the sheets.

“Don’t complain, Mikey, I’ve had a long day.”

“Right, because every day’s a struggle when you’re unemployed.”

“Shut up.” My dad rolled himself onto his side so he could look at me directly. His eyes were so red and puffy that, for a moment, I wondered if he’d been crying into my pillows.

“You know what adulthood is, Mikey. It’s not getting wiser, or more mature, or any of that shit. It’s waking up in the morning and it’s twenty years later. And you’re married to your first girlfriend with two kids, and the job at the Ford plant you got junior year of high school is the only job you’ve ever had.”

I pulled off my shoes and socks, half-attentive, waiting for him to pass out so I could sleep.

“Remember what I said, Mikey? About the moon?”

“Sure, Dad.”

“We’re going to be first in line, you and me. First in line to leave.”

I guess some seven-year-old part of me was dumb enough to think he’d actually take me with him. Wherever he ended up going, whatever would happen between him and Mom, I never believed that he would leave without me.

*          *          *

When I was sixteen, my dad pulled his truck out of our driveway and never came back.

*          *          *

The Horsehead Nebula is what some people refer to as a miracle.

I say it’s just fucking clouds of gas, people, get over it. You can make that stuff at home.

*          *          *

Let me tell you something about miracles: they don’t exist.