From the Booking Desk:
The crime fiction short story is one with a very long history and just about every major mystery convention still presents awards in the Short category. BOLO Books has not really covered very many short stories, so I was excited when the opportunity to interview award-winning short-story writer, Barb Goffman arose. Please help me welcome Barb to BOLO Books. I have no doubt that her comments will have everyone wanting to try to make time for some new short story reading.
BOLOBooks: Tell us what it was like to win the Macavity Award for your short story, “The Lord is My Shamus” at this year’s Bouchercon in Albany.
Barb Goffman: It was a deer-in-the-headlights moment. My friends had begun calling me the Susan Lucci of the short-story world because I’d been nominated for so many awards but had never won. After a while, I’d begun to think I’d never win any award, so hearing my name called was stunning. Winning also was quite emotional. My dad had always been a huge supporter of mine, so I was so happy I got to finally call him and say that I’d won. He died quite unexpectedly in November, so it means more that I can say that I had the chance to share this win with him in September. Moreover, the happiness friends, family, and other writers have shown me, the wonderful things they’ve said, have really touched me and made me so grateful to be part of a writing community filled with people happy to share in their colleagues’ success.
BOLOBooks: Short Stories seem so much more difficult to write than longer works. What draws you to the genre?
Barb Goffman: I don’t find short stories more difficult to write than novellas or novels. They simply require a different skill set. (I’ve written a novel so I do know of what I speak.) I like being able to get a story idea and turn it into a finished product in a short period of time—sometimes just a couple of days (usually longer). I like creating new characters regularly. I like that I can get my stories published by going directly to publishers without needing an agent to act as a go-between. I’m a former daily newspaper reporter. I’m trained to start and finish projects quickly. It’s a pace I enjoy.
BOLOBooks: Have you ever had an idea for a story that you ultimately had to abandon because you realized that it was going to need a larger word count to properly tell it?
Barb Goffman: No, thank goodness. When I start writing, I generally have an idea of where I’m going and how long the story will need to be. I’ve had stories that I’ve thought could have been expanded into novels, with more twists, deeper characterization, subplots, the whole works. I’m thinking particularly of “Suffer the Little Children,” which was published last March in my short-story collection, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even. But I’m happy with the story as is (about 7,000 words long) because I created the world and characters that I wanted to and I told the tale I devised.
BOLOBooks: What other short story writers do you look to for inspiration? Both contemporary and historically.
Barb Goffman: There are so many authors whose work I appreciate. I hate to name names because inevitably I’ll leave someone out. So let me start by stating this is a short, incomplete list, off the top of my head. (You’ll note these authors are all contemporary, which is what I enjoy reading most.)
- Art Taylor – Art is a friend of mine, but even if he weren’t, he’d still be on this list. He has such a grasp of the craft of writing short. Fully realized characters. Interesting plots. Unexpected twists. Lovely writing.
- David Dean – You want an author who knows how to set a mood? Look no further than David Dean.
- Margaret Maron – I haven’t read many short stories by Margaret, but she had one from early in her career that really stuck with me and helped me grow. (Which one, you ask? I wish I could remember the story’s name. Arg.)
- Lynne Heitman – Here’s an author known for her novels, but I came to know her through her short story in Boston Noir, which blew me away. I can’t find any information indicating that she’s written other short stories. She should.
- Brendan DuBois – He weaves key elements into his stories so seamlessly, I have craft envy.
- Jan Burke – no list of writers I admire can be complete without Jan Burke because she is the author whose stories I studied when I began teaching myself how to write short stories.
BOLOBooks: How, if at all, is writing a mystery short story different from writing the other styles of short stories?
Barb Goffman: All good stories, whether mystery or in another genre, should have the same basic elements: strong plot, strong characters, and strong setting. Some genres might have additional requirements, but at the core, a very good story needs those three elements. (To me, a strong plot and character can be enough with an okay setting, but the best stories have all three.) As such, writing a mystery short story shouldn’t be that different from writing stories in any other genre.
I’ve written one story that isn’t a crime story, and I approached it in the same manner as all my other stories. I plotted. I sought to create rich characters. I did research to get the details right. The only impact the lack of crime/mystery had was in the plotting. I needed to ensure that the story had a beginning, middle, and end with a twist and everything else without hanging it all on a crime. With some thinking, that wasn’t difficult to do.
BOLOBooks: Why do you feel that the short story has been losing some of its popularity over the years? There seem to be fewer and fewer venues for short story publication and consumption, but historically it was a much more popular format. Any thoughts?
Barb Goffman: It doesn’t make sense to me. People are so busy, you would think that they would be more interested in short stories, not less. I’ve discussed this matter with two friends. One said she was forced to read short stories in high school and had concluded that she didn’t like them. That was, I’m happy to say, until she read my short-story collection. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed it and realized that her aversion to short stories had stemmed from the particular literary stories she’d had to read as a teenager for school. Now she realizes that genre short stories can be a lot of fun, and she was looking forward to reading short stories by all her favorite novelists. If this friend’s experience is representative of the larger reading population, short stories might be suffering from the lingering aftertaste of required reading.
Another friend who reads my stories is regularly telling me that she wants me to write a book, that she loves my characters and wants to be able to sink her teeth into a longer work with them. I think a lot of readers feel this way. They want to fall in love with a character and setting, etc., and don’t want the equivalent of a literary one-night stand; they want a relationship. Of course, sometimes the best experiences are fleeting. Perhaps a great short story is equivalent to that amazing first kiss. Do you want to savor that moment or spend time slogging through a marriage that might not work out?
BOLOBooks: Your first short story was based on a true incident involving the loss of your ring at a mystery convention. How often do you find that you draw on real life in generating story ideas?
Barb Goffman: Basic story plots: sometimes. Parts of stories: very often. I think it would be difficult for an author to not have something from real life—her own or someone else’s—show up in her work, intentionally or not. I just looked over my list of published stories. More than half of them were influenced by real life in some way. Sometimes characters were created with someone in mind. Sometimes plots or plot points stemmed from an incident I read about, or even something that happened to me. One of my new stories in my story collection, “Evil Little Girl,” was completely fiction, but I based the setting on a summer camp I attended as a child, and the story title came from something an adult said to me when I was nine years old. (Harsh, don’t you think?)
BOLOBooks: Edgar Allen Poe was a master of the short story format and is also often credited with creating the detective genre. Are you a fan?
Barb Goffman: Embarrassing to admit, but I haven’t read any Poe since high school (or was it junior high?), and the only story of his I remember any detail about is “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Perhaps I was too young to read it when I did (seventh grade, I think) because it really scared me and left me without any desire to read more of Poe’s works. Perhaps I should remedy that …
BOLOBooks: Does your love of short works extend to film shorts as well? They seem to be another often overlooked format even though the Academy Awards continue to celebrate and honor them.
Barb Goffman: I go to the movies infrequently, perhaps three times a year on average. And I’ve never seen any short films. I wouldn’t even know where to find them. That said, a good tale is a good tale, and there’s no reason the short-film medium can’t convey a good story.
BOLOBooks: If forced to choose only one format for all your future reading, which would you choose: Hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, or e-book? And why?
Barb Goffman: This is too hard of a question. On one hand, I want to say trade paperback because I have more than 400 unread books in my house and most of them are trade paperbacks and I hate waste. But on the other hand, I recently got a Kindle Paperwhite, and I love it. I love reading in bed with the light off. I love that I can get any book I want in an instant. And, probably, I’m enamored by it simply because it’s my newest toy. So … I choose e-book for any book I don’t already own. How’s that?
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. This has been fun!
BOLO Books: Thank you as well Barb. I have made it a New Year’s resolution to read more short fiction this year. Your book is at the top of the list. Thanks for stopping by.