Tag Archives: fiction

Unintended Consequences: A Collection of Short Stories by chemistry capstone students

Great chemistry: Creative Writing collaborates across disciplines

Photo of the preface to Unintended Consequences: A Collection of Short Stories. Professor Heeyoung Tai explains the purpose of the assignment: to get students to think through "not just the benefits that scientific advance would bring, but the other possible unintended consequences that they would need to address and consider at the same time."

Hurray for successful collaboration across disciplines! Check out this wonderful book of short stories, or “fictional essays,” written by chemistry capstone students to help them think about ethical dilemmas in science. As the preface by Prof. Heeyoung Tai says, imaginative writing enabled students to “see the future—not just the benefits that scientific advances would bring, but the possible unintended consequences that they would need to address and consider at the same time.”

The Creative Writing program was delighted to assist Heeyoung Tai and her chemistry capstone class with the project. Thanks to Professor Tai, who had the idea to develop the assignment and invited us to participate. Thanks also to my colleague in Spanish, Iñaki Pradanos, who introduced me to the idea of assigning fictional essays to think through real-world issues in our co-taught Urban Futures class last fall. Much gratitude to the terrific fiction writer and Miami MFA graduate Justin Chandler, who visited Heeyoung Tai’s capstone and got chemistry students thinking like fiction writers.

Hey chemistry students: your stories are scary and fascinating! We look forward to more creative collaborations across disciplines in future.

Cathy Wagner, Creative Writing Program Director

Miami CW’s First Event of 2016: Darrin Doyle

This past Monday evening, the Creative Writing Program kicked off this semester’s reading series with author Darrin Doyle. His most recent book, titled The Dark Will End the Dark (published in February 2015), is a collection of short stories that explore the human body and reason. Miami University professor Dr. Joseph Bates introduced Doyle; the two have been friends since they were in graduate school at University of Cincinnati together.

“You can just imagine what it was like to have these suckers coming at you in a workshop,” joked Bates, referring to Doyle’s work, which can often turn dark and disturbing.

Doyle first read a short story from Dark, entitled “Foot,” followed by a few different stories he is currently working on, entitled “Dangling Joe,” “Party Town,” “Possibilities and Considerations,” and “Perfect Sandwich.” “We always ask our students to share what they’re working on, so I think it’s only fair we do the same,” explained Doyle, who is currently a professor at Central Michigan University.

Author Darrin Doyle sits with and signs books for Miami University students after the reading.

Author Darrin Doyle sits with and signs books for Miami University students after the reading.

The pieces that Doyle read all explored different themes. “Foot” is a grisly fable-like tale of a mother’s devotion to her child. “Dangling Joe” is a satire of American society and media, while “Party Town” might resonate deeply with certain residents of Oxford. “Possibilities and Considerations” is an experiment in format that gives a wry, and at some times satirical, insight into life. “Perfect Sandwich” is the story of a man’s desperation to be good enough.

The audience, engaged and enthusiastic throughout the entirety of the reading, supplied no shortage of questions for Doyle, asking about his strategy for writing, influences for different works, and advice on writing a novel. “I’ve written, in the last year, about 23 of these short stories,” said Doyle, referring to his as-of-yet-unpublished works. “It’s weird when you start noticing [recurring] themes.”

When asked what his influences were while writing The Dark Will End the Dark, Doyle said, “Franz Kafka and Flannery O’Connor are two of my biggest influences. Their characters might have a physical ailment, [but] their souls are grotesque… Fairy tales, folk tales, and fables have always had their hold on me… I like the feeling of the surreal that’s grounded in reality.”

As for advice on writing, Doyle says, “It’s great when you’re inspired by an idea… but then you’ve got to sit down and write. One sentence leads to another, and hopefully you surprise yourself a bit.”

Katherine Karlin’s ‘Send Me Work’: A Review

I first stumbled across Katherine Karlin’s work in the Winter 2015 edition of The Cincinnati Review.  The story, “We Are the Polites,” is told from the point of view of the youngest daughter of five children born to a large, famous Greek family.  Her name is Honey, all of her other siblings have normal, “non-stripper” names, and they lead clean-shaven, non-stripper lives.  Not that Honey is a stripper (she’s not); Honey is an uninteresting accountant whose life pales in comparison to those of her theatrical siblings.  

You’re probably thinking sad story, I’ve read it all before.  But you haven’t.  Not the way Karlin tells it.  Through Honey’s eyes, everything is alight with quotidian beauty—the small things are her bread and butter, and Karlin lives in those descriptions.  Here is a passage, one of many from “We Are the Polites,” that converted me to Karlin:

In the winter, the sun slides from my apartment by two in the afternoon.  I live in the second-story of a cottage in Somerville, a vantage point from which I can watch the neighborhood change.  That
check-cashing place is now a dress shop, and the Chinese takeout turned into a tapas bar.  The beige paint on the living room wall is frizzled like pencil shavings.  The hot water knocks…These familiar defects are comfortable to me, like the battered wok hanging on the wall or the smell of diesel from the street.  Stick your head out the kitchen window and look sharp to the left: You’ll see a sliver of the Charles.  I like that.”

You may say, “but you’re supposed to be writing about Send Me Work.”  I’m getting there.  The point I have been trying to make is this: how often is it that a short piece you read in just another literary review audibly takes your breath away?  Karlin gets comfortable with the awkward in-betweens that often accompany lofty career expectations.  Honey is just one example of one of Karlin’s characters in a period of transition.  

Send Me Work, Karlin’s 2011 debut short story collection, tells of women in the workplace, often aspiring to become masters of their respective crafts, and many times ultimately failing but realizing something about perseverance along the way.  The stories are the painful yet intricately rendered tipping points that Karlin’s women must face.  Karlin’s stories are heavily inspired by her own experiences, which makes sense when considering the strongest areas of her stories: rich descriptions and realistic dialogue.Send Me Work

Three stories are central to the development of themes in the collection: The Severac Sound, Muscle Memory, and Send Me Work.  This trifecta appears early in the collection, one after another, more reminiscent of sneak attacks than gut punches.

In The Severac Sound, Rachel lingers as a lady in waiting of sorts—she’s the perpetual second chair oboist in a respected symphony orchestra.  Second to Peter, and second in the eyes of their cancer-riddled instructor.  Nothing trumpets the persistent horrors of the stereotypical, overshadowing male figure like the opening line, “Water sprang from the fat penis of a bronze cherub and splashed in a turquoise pool glittering with pennies.”  In the opening scene, Rachel is admiring the fountain in the lobby of her hotel, but the moment is ruined when she realizes the statue reminds her of Peter.  She imagines her aloof colleague as the cherub, “urinating on her hand.”  Karlin uses such subtle moments of humor and elegant detail to avoid reducing her characters to sorry puppets used and pounded into dust by the misogynist societies in which they work.  In the end, instead of realizing dreams or shriveling into crumpled wads of self-pity, Karlin’s women find something to hold onto, the equivalent of a secret that keeps their spirits alive and their nihilism at bay.  I can’t really give much more away without spoiling the ending, but just know that Karlin consistently establishes and undercuts traditional feminist tropes to give her character Harriet a newfound sense of autonomy.

The impetus for The Severac Sound began with Karlin’s experience.  One of Karlin’s good friends was a professional oboist, and she actually travelled with his orchestra on tour across Europe and the US, carrying luggage and doing laundry for them.  She knows the tediousness of readying a reed before rehearsal because she’s seen the process dozens of times.  The story is so strong due to Karlin’s immersion in the subject matter.

Muscle Memory, perhaps Karlin’s most widely read short story to date, is the story of Destiny, a young New Orleans woman whose father died in Hurricane Katrina.  Her father was a welder, and Destiny, in order to learn the craft and support her mother, tries to earn the respect of a welder at the shipyard where she works.  Karlin, drawing upon firsthand experience as a woman working the shipyards, once learned how to weld from the men she worked with.  Augustine, a washed up, bitter character who once recorded a hit record as a one hit wonder, takes it upon himself to school Destiny in not only welding but in his musical heritage, a journey of discovery that parallels the development of Destiny’s education as a welder.

Send Me Work, the title story, is perhaps the most heartbreaking of them all.  It’s the story of Harriet, a failed standup comedienne who was recently fired from her temp job as an accountant and kicked out of her apartment.  Izzy, her longtime best friend, works as a circus clown, and he meets up with her in New York every year.  The moments leading up to this year’s meeting are freighted with Harriet’s memories of past adventures.  And when the two meet again, Harriet holds onto the new memories for dear life:

She would need to memorize all of this: the singing, the taste of tangerine and the seed he spit on the pavement, the fog his breath made.  Someday she would need it.  Holding his arm she glanced up to see, on top of the buildings, the black silhouettes of water towers, staved and coopered and quaint.  She shivered.

The two have an exchange about a radio segment in which listeners call in with popular song lyrics they’ve misheard.  The title takes its name from a misinterpreted Bruce Springsteen lyric from “Drive All Night,” a song from his 1980 album The River.  (This also made the Springsteen fan in me scream with joy like nothing else I’ve ever read before, but that is beside the point.)  Harriet explains to Izzy:

It starts out, ‘I wish God would send me word, send me something I’m afraid to lose.’  And this dude [who called in] always heard it, ‘I wish God would send me work, send me something I’m afraid to do.’”

The misheard lyric, in addition to its function within the story, could be construed as a commentary on Karlin’s writing philosophy.  She writes from experience, meaning that she picks out scenarios or events from her life and transforms them into short stories.  Karlin, and perhaps all creative writers, wait for those little moments worthy of remembering, each one a challenge laden with potential and begging to captured.

Carly Plank

Creative Writing MA 2017


MU Press Novella Winner Lawrence Coates to Visit Miami

Lawrence Coates is the author of Camp Olvido, the winner of the Miami University Press 2015 Novella Prize. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University. MU Press intern and senior Creative Writing major Annabel Brooks recently chatted on the phone with Coates to learn more about his novella and his writing process in anticipation of Camp Olvido’s October 27th release.

So Camp Olvido is out the 27th. Could you provide a brief plot summary in your own wordslawrencecoatesphoto for those of us anticipating the release?

Let’s see, Camp Olvido is a story set in the labor camps of central California during the Depression. It follows a man named Esteban who is a bootlegger who takes liquor and wine to the camps at night to sell to the workers. He runs across a sick child at one camp and gradually, through a series of decisions that he hasn’t really thought through, gets more and more entangled in trying to get help for this child, ending up in an act of violence. Then, he has to face the consequences of what has transpired through his own actions that he mostly took in bad faith.

I know that you’ve spend a good part of your life in California. Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration behind the novella?

I have spent a lot of my life in California and I do consider myself a Californian even though I’ve been living in Ohio for more than 10 years at this point. It’s where I was born, it’s where I grew up and it’s where I still have family. I wrote a novel called The Garden of the World that’s set in the late 20s and did a lot of research on some of the Latino characters in that novel. After I finished The Garden of the World I felt that there was more to write about that community. Around the same time I read a book called Decade of Betrayal, a nonfiction book that discussed how during the Depression, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans were frequently treated as a scapegoat for the economic troubles the country was going through, especially in California. Many of them were forcibly deported, including some American citizens, and this struck me very hard to know that that level of injustice had happened in our country that’s never really been acknowledged. So I wanted to write a story that was set in the context of these Latino farmworkers during the Depression.

One of the things about the date of the book is that it’s before the Dust Bowl happened and the reason that’s important is that the Dust Bowl is what brought us John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. This would have been in the same region as where some the Grapes of Wrath takes place but it would’ve been before that migration from Oklahoma to California when there were some white workers in the fields but mostly there were Latinos. So in a way, the book fills in a gap in the history of California as represented by literature that people who just read the Grapes of Wrath might overlook. I have also worked as a volunteer teacher of the English language to immigrant workers in California. I’ve also done some freelance journalism in Mexico. I have connections with the people I’m writing about. And I speak Spanish fluently.

On your website I read the article you wrote for the Chicago Tribune. I thought it was very interesting because of, well its connection to Camp Olvido obviously, but also because of the way that it connects to the current political climate revolving around the US-Mexico borderlands. With the GOP debates and the upcoming presidential election, I was wondering how you connect our current political climate with your discourse concerning the US-Mexico borderlands in your article and also with Camp Olvido? How do all of these things connect?

First off, when I was doing that article, it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it is today. There weren’t the same kinds of narcotraficantes and the same kind of drug smuggling around that there is today. I mean I was traveling around in a Volkswagen bus and we were staying in hotels in Juarez, which is a pretty dangerous place these days as I understand. So it was not nearly as dire of a time for the border as it is now.

I hope that my book helps provide the gift of empathy for people who could be seen as Other. I hope that my book simply allows people to, and I think a lot of good literature does this, imagine themselves in lives different than their own and that that largeness of spirit that can come from reading good literature might help inform the debates. Some of the rhetoric I hear about immigration today treats people as Other. Instead of what philosopher Martin Buber called an ‘I Thou’ relationship with another human being you can get into something close to an ‘I It’ relationship and I hope that my book, even though it’s set 80 years ago, has some impact in helping to create empathy for people whose experiences are different than the experiences that I’m depicting.

In relation to that, I think that the cover of the novella is really compelling. I was doing research about Matt Black, the photographer, and his involvement with the Economic Hardship project as well as his tour of the United States where he photographs those impoverished areas that are often underrepresented. I wanted to ask: what do you think the cover photo is trying to evoke in relation to the story of Camp Olvido?

Believe me, I was really happy when the Press found Matt Black’s photographs. The photograph is of the road disappearing into the distance and it’s mysterious because you don’t know where the road’s going. The last image of the book is the image of Esteban taking the mother and child on the road and heading toward Malaga Park. I ended it there with some ambiguity, as you’re not sure if they’re going to get there safely. You’re not sure if Esteban is doing this as an act of atonement or once more acting in bad faith. You’re not sure whether it’s possible for him to even gain atonement given what he’s been involved with up to that point.

There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity in the novella and that’s intentional. I could have written a different kind of story, a sin and redemption story. I didn’t write that story. I think if you have somebody who has been complicit in a corrupt, exploitative system then writing a redemption story for that character is far too simple and easy. The photograph with the road disappearing into that desert-like landscape expresses something about the way the ending of the book disappears into a distance in which you can’t tell what’s at the end. I just thought it was a brilliant choice for the cover. The Press has been great, the cover design is just one part of how supportive they’ve been; the editing I’ve received has really improved the manuscript I originally turned in. So grateful.

That’s great to hear! I just have a few more ‘fun’ questions—firstly, what’s your writing process and do you have any particular quirks/routines?
I write on a manual typewriter; I suppose that’s quirky. I write on a manual typewriter so I never lose a word. If I need to make corrections I cross it out on the manuscript page but I still have itunnamed there in case what I cross out ends up being better. I also frequently make big sketches in an 11”x17” sketchbook, I’m not very good as a visual artist but I like sketching things out. So by the time I’ve finished a book I’ll have one, two, maybe even three sketchbooks filled with little notes, little arcs that describe parts of the narrative, maybe figures against the landscape. So that’s part of my process. I have never been able to work from an outline but I do like to have a sense of the season of a book. If I understand the season of the book, how it begins and ends, then that lets me have some kind of notion of the overall shape while leaving myself free to make daily discoveries.

Do you have any advice for young creative writing students? What do you like to tell your own students to inspire them to continue or begin writing?

Well, that’s a good question. I think that, and I’m getting some of this from reading Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners, students don’t necessarily think about telling a story enough. I think that rather than concentrating on the meaning of a story if you just tell a good story the meaning will be there. I’d tell people to trust in the sovereign power of story and then the meaning and your own personal sensibilities and your view of the world will be there. If you concentrate on the more abstract qualities you might fail to tell a good story. Privilege telling a story. That’s what we are after all as writers; we’re storytellers.

Do you have anything coming up next?

I am working on something now. It won’t be coming out anytime soon because it’s long and ambitious. You know one of the things you find out, and I’m not complaining about this, but having a book come out (I had two books come out this fall) is very time consuming. So I spent a lot of time over the past few months copyediting and doing pre-publicity work. I’m doing quite a bit of book tour stuff right now, I’m going to California and I’ll be in Detroit later this month. I’ll be in Cleveland and of course I’ll be in Oxford. I’m traveling around quite a bit so I haven’t had the time to just sit back down at my desk and settle into my new work. So there’s been an hiatus in my writing right now, which is regrettable but like I said I’m not complaining because anybody who complains about having a book come out needs their head examined, that’s what we reach for. So I do have something I’m working on but it will be a good long time before it comes out.

Last question, do you have anything you’re currently reading? What’s on your bedside table?

I’m reading a book of short stories by Kyle Minor right now called Praying Drunk. I’ve got a novella on my bedside table now by Daniel Torday called The Sensualist. One of the other great presses in the country that specializes in novellas besides Miami is a press in California called Nouvella, so I’ve been reading some novellas coming out of that press. And since you asked, I’m going to read next The Narrow Road to Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Those are three books that I’m engaged with right now even though one of them I haven’t even started.

I feel like that happens all the time, I always have five or six books on my bedside table.

So many books, so little time. That’s just my life.
Don’t miss Lawrence Coates when he visits the MU Bookstore Nov. 4th to read from Camp Olvido at 7:30pm.


Camp Olvido will be available for purchase on Amazon, through the Miami University Press website, at the Miami University Bookstore and at participating bookstores.