The Masters Review Blog

Sep 23

Interview with the Winner: Alan Sincic

On Monday, we published Alan Sincic’s “The Slapjack,” selected by Dan Chaon as the third place finalist in our inaugural Novel Excerpt Contest. Today, we’re pleased to share with you this interview with the winner, in which we discuss the remarkable voice of the excerpt, the writer’s background in drama, and more!

In Dan Chaon’s intro for your excerpt, he remarks that it was the voice which won him over–“the unique and surprising vernacular, the grinning energy of the prose, the enthusiastic sense of scene and detail.” Every reader who read the excerpt during our contest noted the voice, too. It is remarkably unique, frenetic and memorable. Where did this voice come from? 

First of all, thank you to the readers and to Dan for the words of praise. The writers I most admire take delight in the tunefulness of everyday speech—a touchstone for me as well. If you think of a word-for-word transcription as the “official melody,” then I guess you could say I’m a bit like a jazz musician who riffs along, up and down the melody line, diverging just enough to generate something new, but not so much that you forget the tune that anchors it all.

But there’s more. If what we call “voice” is the vessel that conveys the tale, then you can’t ignore the way the container shapes the content, including the imagery. We sometimes talk about imagery as if each image were a separate cell, crisp and complete, little set pieces flashed up onto a screen for silent viewing. Certainly it’s possible to write with an emphasis on the image alone (I’ll leave it to the scholars to list the ways), but I’ve always been partial to writers who embed the image in the body of a speech, as if it emerged—like the knots and the whorls in the grain of the wood—from out of a living thing. A conversation or debate or declamation. A scolding or a summons or a bit of banter in a circle of friends.

Think about it. If you’re a painter, you render the image with a stroke of the brush. If you’re a writer, what do you have to work with? Syllables. The right combination of syllables to conjure up an image. There was a time—back in the day of the bison on the wall of the cave—when every word was an utterance. The words ride the breath. You sing the story. But then a funny thing happened. Somebody came up with a way to shoot the words directly into the brain of the onlooker. The written word ushers in the era of the silent reader, and from that point on the two modes of story-telling proceed apace, converging or diverging depending on the venue and the market and the taste of the age.

Call me a primitive. I move my lips when I read. And when I write. If the cadence calls for a stress on the final two syllables, and I find that the lovely image I’ve concocted out of half a dozen words is simply not going to fit, I set out in search of a more distilled way of speaking.

Exactly how you find a rhythm that fits the meaning is a bit of a mystery. The words themselves do some of the work for you. When you consider that every word in common currency has already been—like a pebble in the bed of a stream—shaped by a billion collisions with a billion other words—you can understand why the gemologists call their little machine for the polishing of stones a tumbler. Into the barrel you drop the rough-cut—the geode or the chunk or the scree—stir in a bit of grit, and set the whole thing spinning. So it is in every spoken moment. The word refines the word it neighbors. They rub shoulders.

This came up when we discussed the copy edits. You noted that I used “a” rather than “an” on a number of occasions. Certainly the “an” is grammatically correct, but I wrote “a” in keeping with the Southern dialect I grew up hearing as a child. I then built the line with that particular stress in mind—when you say the lines out loud, the word “an” tends to glue itself to the word that follows, i.e., the words run together. When you use the “a” you get a break between the words that throws the stress onto the key word (undertaker, elbow, exit, arms-length, eight-legged) and, at the same time, keeps the rhythm crisp.

Am I cheating? Absolutely. Did Shakespeare take liberties with the words that flavor his plays? Until we uncover a tape recording in a tomb somewhere, we’ll never know, but I’m willing to bet he shaped the language of the day to suit his own purposes. The motto that I go by echoes the speech we used to give, as American actors at the opening of a play by a Synge or a Yeats: We’re not going to pretend that the Irish accent we adopt here is completely accurate. Our only hope is that it’s plausible, that it’s consistent, and that it preserves the spell we’re trying to cast. Call it a work if you want, sure, but we prefer the word play.

The communal POV works so well for the conflict in these chapters. Was that a decision that came to you early on? 

Absolutely. The very first line of the entire novel manuscript, back about a billion years ago, seemed to spring up of its own accord: Barnett that son of a bitch. The lament of the locals about this intruder, this nobody who, again and again, tricks and outwits and enriches himself at their expense. Picture a teller of tales in a circle of tale-tellers, all eager to be heard, all together in the here and the now. He plays to the audience with an eye for the vivid event that will win him a hearing. He shapes the tale in the moment of telling, and in so doing, bears witness, not as a journalist or a commentator but—like the fella who imitates the walk and the talk of the fool he mocks—a performer in his own right. He holds court. Hence the diction (the rural south), the range of reference (the world of the Good Old Boys), the quick pivot from moment to moment, the snapshot imagery, the ratta-tat-tat of the rhythm.

As a practical matter (hard to wedge a Greek Chorus into a novel) think of the “we” as this (unnamed) individual who speaks for the tribe, to the tribe, and with the voice of the tribe. A voice of authority earned, not from any special claim on the truth, but from the certainty that comes from a consensus of feeling. In a sense, this is the opposite of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” His job is to magnify what the tribe already believes to be true, and to present it in such a way that the truth of it reverberates right down to the ribs.

The rhythm and syntax of your prose is very stylized and particular. Is this typical of your style, or something unique you’ve brought to The Slapjack?

I’d say—broadly speaking—the style is recognizable across the board. Because I think of a story as a piece of sheet music for the voice to play, it’s no surprise I favor First Person, communal First Person (the narrator as “we”), and Limited Omniscient. Even when I speak in the guise of the omniscient Almighty, I tend to avoid the sober tone we associate with the “God voice.” In my short stories “The Smile Contest” and “The End Of The World” I ask: What happens if we give the god an attitude? His own distinctive idiom? Consider also the way the teller shapes the tale. That’s always intrigued me—the detail that draws them, the hunger that spurs them, the delusion that leads them astray. And how does the imagery carry the imprint of the speaker who serves it up? As the author you can simply ghost the image up onto the page, but I’d rather hear it from out the mouth of the character, from out the depths so to speak, like a fisherman feels a tug on the line, gives it a yank, pulls up onto the surface the catch of the day. Think of how the narrator, on the fly, refers to the tribe—we who bear the cross, who smack the chiggers, who slap ourselves on the ear and the wrist and the ankle.

The novel differs from many of my stories in that it offers up a world more or less recognizable as the one we all share. A narrator who, as the voice of the tribe, takes the kind of liberties you’d expect from a raconteur. Partnered with him? An omniscient narrator who serves up the dreams and the fantasies of the major players, but otherwise remains within the bounds of the real.

A handful of stories, going back to my days as a performer, are what you might call hyper-real. Played for comic effect, and with a satirical edge, they feature characters who navigate the world of the normal with a recklessness borne of desperation (“My New Car,” “Dear Mr. Gottlieb,” “Bob Sanders”). In other stories a rational protagonist confronts an irrational world (“Congratulations,” “How To Catch The Ball,” “Random Sample”). In still others the actors operate within a universe familiar but—just beneath the surface—fundamentally absurd (“Porter Must Be Stopped,” “The Babe”).

GB is quite the showman. Did your background in theatre influence how you’ve crafted his character? Is there a difference in how you approach drama vs. prose?

You learn pretty quickly as an actor or director that the best dialogue is less like a chat and more like a duel: characters that contend with one another in the here and now for something of great value. But things get even more interesting when you look at the nonverbal behavior that conveys character onstage. In rehearsal the actor takes the “sheet music” the playwright gives him and then—with some guidance from the director—proceeds to play it. He gets to experiment with the choreography of action and reaction as the scene unfolds, looking for different angles of attack, deciding how, for example, he’d receive the cup of coffee offered him as he rises from a drunken nap (I once played a debauched professor in a production of Bus Stop). Do his hands shake? Does he conceal the shaking or does he flaunt it? Is he distracted by it or intently focused on it? Does the cup rattle or do we merely see the tremor of the liquid inside? And how do the others react—is he conscious of them watching him? Does he execute some practiced trick to steady himself—bent up into a ball like Rodin’s The Thinker, the arms folded double as if to warm himself, a single finger sprouting out to, just barely, hook the handle?

The goal, of course, is to find the single act (however subtle) that contains within itself everything we need to know about the character at that particular moment. It’s in this search for the convincing gesture that the stage and the page seem to intersect: insofar as I have to imagine (even act out) the behavior of my characters before I can capture them in words, the acting, even though it doesn’t necessarily make me a better writer, leads me to ask the questions every good fiction writer should be asking, moment by moment, as he daydreams his way down the page.

How influenced are you by fairy tales, folklore and romantic epics? GB himself seems to be a great deal. 

A folktale. I think you’re on to something here. Every character in The Slapjack dreams of someday doing something grand. This is why they surrender—in spite of themselves—to these grandiose visions that GB advances. He’s the enchanter. But to give the miracle a proper glow, folk and fairy tales depend upon a backdrop of the humdrum and the everyday—the hovel out of which the seed and the beanstalk and the giant spring. It’s in the contrast between what he has and what he wants—between what all of them have and what they want—that gives the tale of GB its “legendary” flavor. It’s also at the heart of the love story that runs throughout the novel. The majesty of his imagination. That’s what Maggie—in the midst of all the squalor—loves about GB. Buoyed up by the language of the barker and the busker and the preacher, radio jingles and Biblical prophesies and snippets of wisdom from Seneca and Sir Galahad and Hopalong Cassidy, he’s like a Macy’s Day Parade float sailing out over a slum.

What else can you tell us about the novel?

I want to thank the team at First Pages Prize (especially Clydette de Groot for her support and Lizzie Harwood for her advice) – it was a great experience working with them last year. And to my favorite beta reader, Megan Granger-Drawec: you’re the best.

About the novel:

A pair of outsiders, each with a secret past, collide in the heartland of Depression-era Florida. Maggie the bitter beauty, hobbled by a childhood brush with polio. Barnett (GB), the barefoot boy runaway. Maggie converts a derelict Feed ‘n Seed into a diner, stirs up a circle of suitors, and sets out to battle any person fool enough to offer her a hand. GB commandeers a cow pasture and a billboard blown over in a hurricane to conjure up, out of nothing, The Piney Vista Drive-In. She taunts him at every turn but secretly favors him. He scrambles and grifts and bids on whatever piece of property might, somehow, magnify him in her eyes.

Back and forth they go as the years roll by, Maggie fierce in defense of that heart of hers, GB pawing like a bear at the door of love. The ridiculous duel (sledgehammer the weapon of choice) between GB and Joe. The accidental stabbing, Maggie stricken, GB nursing her back to the very border of a kiss but no, off he goes, the idiot, to buy her—such a gallant gesture—the deed to the Slapjack Diner. A gift. An insult. And now it’s a game. Who can prove themselves the prouder? The fake letters. The imaginary suitor. The confrontation. The confession. The promise of—come tomorrow, you wait he says, says he, you make ready now for—is it love?

Love it is, but the very day he buys a ring, the secret he’s carried and the scar he’s hidden come back to pay him a visit. As a boy in a backwoods lumber camp, he stole from the till. They caught him, beat him, scored his back with a hot poker. Out for revenge, he waylaid the work boss and accidentally killed him. Fled the scene. Hopped a boxcar south. The man’s partner now appears with an invitation to parley, GB offers up a blackmail payment, but the man robs him, pistol-whips him, and leaves him for dead. In a hideout deep in the woods, GB mends, but when he finally appears—a month later and no explanation—Maggie rages. Betrayed again. It’s over between them.

The seasons pass. The harvest ripens. In one last bid to win her over, GB engineers an elaborate scam involving a hurricane, a dare-devil high-diver, and rumors of a spectacular suicide that gathers in the whole of the town to witness the tender, the fierce, the final collision of these two most unlikely of lovers.

The Slapjack would appeal to those who appreciate the immersive history and musical language of Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. My hope is that readers who love their evocation of place will warm to The Slapjack as well—a snapshot of America that mingles the authentic landscape, rich in quotidian detail, with a secret dreamscape just beneath the surface.

Interviewed by Cole Meyer

Sep 22

2022 Flash Fiction Contest Finalists!

And the winners are…! Kim Chinquee has chosen “Out, Brief Candle” by Hannah Roberts as the grand prize winner of the 2022 Flash Fiction Contest! Congratulations to Hannah, and our other finalists, and a heartfelt THANK YOU! to all of our terrific submitters. Check back near the end of the year to read this year’s finalists on our site.

Winner

Out, Brief Candle” by Hannah Roberts

Second Place

The Physiology of Arriving” by Michele Wong

Third Place

My Sister Versus Tomatoes” by Kate Barss

Honorable Mention

Sealskin” by Haley Kennedy

Sep 20

September Book Review: Tell Us When To Go by Emil DeAndreis

In our final book review of September, reviewer Suzy Eynon dives into Emil DeAndreis’s Tell Us When To Go, out today from Flexible Press. Eynon writes, “DeAndreis is aware of the power of and suggestions made by language, evidenced by the nuanced characters and their grappling with class, friendship, and failure.” Dig into the full review at the link below.


Tell Us When To Go begins with Isaac Moss reflecting on the time his good friend and sometimes roommate, Cole Gallegos, asked him to join in running away following the latter’s decision to drop out of college. The book explores their friendship which is rooted in a shared experience: the two are college baseball teammates who bond over a love of music. Cole is destined for major league greatness, while Isaac is happy to warm the bench and bide his time until after college, when he hopes for a career that doesn’t come. Both come from towns outside of the city they aspire to inhabit, though Cole’s reluctance to fulfill societal expectations of young success in the city is more apparent. DeAndreis breaks their journey into seven sections so the narrative precedes from the invitation to run away to their new lives in San Francisco during 2010-2011 as they navigate unemployment and a changing landscape, with interspersed reflection on the pasts that led to this point.

Read more.

Sep 19

New Voices: “The Slapjack” by Alan Sincic

We are thrilled to share the third place finalist from our 2021 Novel Excerpt Contest, “The Slapjack” by Alan Sincic, selected by Dan Chaon. “This excerpt is something of a wild card since it starts at chapter 5,” Dan says, “and as a reader I felt somewhat unsettled, dropped into the middle of things. And yet the voice won me over—the unique and surprising vernacular, the grinning energy of the prose, the enthusiastic sense of scene and detail. I don’t know whether I yet know what this book is about, but based on these pages I’m willing to keep reading!” Read on below.

We figured a massacre, what with Barnett a boy and Joe, tipsy as he was, taller by a head. Or we figured maybe, what with Joe so deep in the cups, a draw. Or maybe, just maybe, GB had the moxie to humble Joe. The gods intervene, the badger wins, Joe (the arrogant shit) humbled by a local boy.

A Citizen True

The days they rambled on. Barnett moved—if you could call it that, for a kid with naught but a lungful of air for luggage—from Maggie’s anteroom to the shed out back. Set up shop under the shade of an oak at the edge of the road. Flea market from out the bed of a wheelbarrow. Set out from there to conquer the land.

By the end of the season it was clear. GB a boy no more. He took to wearing shoes, for one, and a cap of a kind you see in the movies, khaki with a saucer brim and a drawstring of leather like a Mountie. And the smell of soap. And the shoes, shiny brogans of a kind a banker would wear, squeak in every step, crispy togs he wheedled off a undertaker the town over in exchange for a plaster of Paris phrenological bust from out the attic of an abandoned house.

For the shoes we mocked him.

“Boy been to the blacksmith I see.”

“Somebody shod the mule.”

“Now iffen he takes up lame, we gotta shoot him, no?”

There he was, a day later, the boot bin of Roe’s Army and Navy, poking through the dollar singles—jodhpurs and clodhoppers and patent leather regimental spats, Pershing boots and Russets and Webster Rubber Co. gymnasium sneakers. Found him a set of hobnail trenchers with gutta-percha toes. Not a pair, no, but near enough to serve—the one a tan with a crackly hide and the other, umber with a finish like the pit of the peach.

So there you have it. In full regalia the day he declared himself to Maggie. At the close of day he came, clunk up the steps of the Slapjack, the boots and the cap and now a tidy shirt, white, with buttons and a collar like a citizen true. Even the trousers a cut above. Sure, sure, the same leggings he lifted off a scarecrow the year before, and the rope for the belt, sure, but the tip of the hemp he burned, sealed with a pinch of tar, whammed a silver dollar into place so’s to feign the look of a buckle. Such a shock to see a glint of culture in the wild like that. The hen that lays the Fabergé egg. The clock in the belly of the gator.

Figured to catch her alone, in the still of the air, breath of Pine-Sol blooming up over the sweat of the day, up over the hiss of the mop and the slush of the bucket and the counter clear, and mum the radio, empty the till, upended even the chairs, skyward the legs, salute to the fall of the sun.

To continue reading “The Slapjack” click here.

Sep 16

Litmag Roadmap: Illinois

Onward! We continue on our trek across the country in search of outstanding literary venues. This month, we turn to Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, home to Chicago and The Bean, and many excellent literary reviews!

Nicknamed “the Prairie State,” Illinois is home to established writers’ conferences, notable literary journals, and Chicago’s active literary scene. In this next stop on our litmag road trip, we’ll sightsee a few publishers of fiction. BYODD (Bring Your Own Deep-Dish).

After Hours Press

After Hours is a semi-annual literary magazine that launched in 2000. The magazine has published work from Chicago-area writers such as David Hernandez, Norbert Blei, Rane Arroyo, and Stuart Dybek. After Hours accepts work from writers and artists living in and around Chicago, as well as Chicago expatriates. (As their website notes: Once a Chicagoan, always a Chicagoan.)

Another Chicago Magazine

Established in 1977, Another Chicago Magazine believes that everything is political. To that end, the magazine is partial to writing that “confronts injustice and inequality, though not in didactic or polemical ways.” Another Chicago Magazine publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, reviews, translations, and art from creators based in Chicago and other parts of the world.

Arcturus

Arcturus is an online literary magazine presented by the Chicago Review of Books. Founded in 2016, the magazine is inspired by Chicago’s early modernist literary magazines. Arcturus has no restrictions on the content they publish, although they’re passionate about bringing new perspectives forward: “new ideas, new voices, new worlds, new challenges, new ways of seeing.”

Chicago Review

Chicago Review began in 1946. The magazine typically publishes two single issues per year and a double issue with a special feature section. The editors welcome poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism.

Chicago Quarterly Review​​

The Chicago Quarterly Review is a nonprofit literary journal that has published emerging and established writers since 1994, including work chosen for Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. The journal publishes fiction, as well as personal essays, poetry, translations, photographs, and artwork.

Contrary

Founded in 2003 at the University of Chicago, Contrary is an independent magazine that publishes four times per year. The magazine is based on the South Side of Chicago and publishes writers from near and afar. Contrary publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Euphony Journal

Euphony is a student-run, semiannual literary journal founded in 2000 at the University of Chicago. The journal publishes established and emerging writers of poetry and prose. Euphony publishes online throughout the year and releases two annual print issues.

Flyleaf Journal

Flyleaf publishes one short story and illustration per month in digital and print formats. The journal believes that “great stories can be both entertaining and profound, leaving a lasting impression on readers long after they put the story down.” Flyleaf is open to all styles and genres, with the exception of erotica.

Oyez Review

Oyez Review is the annual literary magazine of Roosevelt University. Founded in 1965, the magazine publishes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and art. Previous contributors include Charles Bukowski, Dorothy Chan, Sam Pink, Tyehimba Jess, and Vi Khi Nao.

Soiled

Soiled is part literary journal, part design magazine. The independent, artist-led project is produced by Joseph Altshuler, Hollen Reischer, Matthew Harlan, and Mariel Tishma, and it is published Could Be Architecture, a Chicago-based design practice. Soiled believes that “by intensifying the fictive and storytelling potential in architecture, we might engage a broader public in architectural ideas from discourse to action.”

TriQuarterly

TriQuarterly is the literary magazine of Northwestern University. The magazine is edited by graduate students in the Litowitz Creative Writing Program and the MFA in Prose and Poetry in the School of Professional Studies. TriQuarterly publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and publishes twice annually.

by Rebecca Paredes

Sep 15

September Book Review: How We Disappear by Tara Lynn Masih

In How We Disappear by Tara Lynn Masih, out earlier this week from Press 53, Masih is “working with the same type of silences” as maps, according to reviewer Irene Lee. Masih’s third book, How We Disappear crosses borders, explores landscapes, and engages with a long and rich history of folklore, oral tradition and magical practices. Read the full review at the link below.


The mapmaker’s hand is always visible. The sketch of the person outlined in the drawings, marking the mapmaker’s own journey, to connect the reader to the land the way the mapmaker saw it. “Come with me,” the map whispers. How We Disappear, is a book composed of short stories and a novella written by Tara Lynn Masih. Published by Press 53 in September 2022, this is Masih’s third book, and it could just as well be described as a sketched map. Maps don’t need words for meaning to shine through. All you need is a key. Masih is working with the same type of silences that maps do.

Read more.

Sep 14

From the Archives: “Instruments” by Zana Previti — Discussed by Benjamin Van Voorhis

Way back in the summer of 2014, we published Zana Previti’s “Instruments” in New Voices, the story of a young woman obsessed with a professional hockey player desperate to castrate himself. It’s also, believe it or not, a meditation on love, loneliness, and what we owe to each other. Let’s dive in.  

Detail as Data

I sometimes find it useful to think of a story as a stream of data, specifically: a dynamic sequence of information made up of details about the characters and the world they inhabit. In this mode, how and when that information is conveyed matters just as much as what information is conveyed. This is ultimately what we mean when we talk about story structure and pace, and “Instruments” is a masterclass in both.

One reason it’s useful to think of fiction in terms of data/information is that it’s demystifying. We start to move away from this sort of nebulous thing called “craft,” and instead put a spotlight on how to practicably build story elements from the ground up, using these elements with intention to direct readers’ attention and emotion the way a culvert channels water. With every successful move, you further readers’ understanding of—and therefore feelings about—the characters and their developing situations.

The first piece of information we get in “Instruments,” for example, is the following: “Gosso drives the Zamboni and sells surgical instruments from a JanSport backpack.” It’s a sentence with plenty of verve (specificity of detail, clear and concise construction, the excellent name “Gosso”), but its chief power is in how we receive the information it’s doling out. In learning that Gosso drives a Zamboni, we’re actually getting a three-for-one deal—in addition to the obvious, we also learn we’re in an ice rink, and that (by going with “the Zamboni” as opposed to “a Zamboni) it’s a singular location, probably one with which the narrator is familiar. The next half of the sentence, too, does a lot of work on a subtextual level, fleshing out Gosso as a supremely shady guy.

But what’s fascinating about this opening from an informational standpoint is that we don’t actually learn anything about the narrator—except that Gosso predates her—until the second paragraph. Even then, all we know is that Gosso is distrustful of her, maybe that she doesn’t quite belong in this space. We get a couple more hints throughout the next two paragraphs—she watches hockey games, knows the players well, has a tumultuous relationship with one of them—but mostly we’re in the dark about who she is and where she’s from and what she thinks is important. By the end of the fourth paragraph we realize, probably unconsciously, that actually we’ve been learning about the narrator the whole time, with every sentence, that above all else she’s an observer. And this realization, or culmination, whatever you want to call it, leads us right into paragraph five, where we learn she isn’t just an observer but a stalker. The narrator then pivots into self-examination. Because of the setup in those first four paragraphs, the reveal of her status as stalker feels both surprising and exactly right, like something we’ve known all along.

It’s also worth taking a look at exactly how Previti handles this reveal on a line level. In paragraph four, she tells us that Bobby Cannon is “the man I’ve been involved with intimately, on and off with only occasional lapses, for the past fifteen years.” On a first read, it’s easy to take at face value, and we’re likely intended to. Then we get the first sentence of the next paragraph: “When I say Bobby and I have been involved intimately . . . it is true.” The reason this works so well is because it’s information we already have. Instinctively, your brain is going, “Wait, I already knew that. Why are you telling me this again?” We’re suspicious right off the bat, because it’s obvious this narrator is on the defensive. Why should she need to specify it’s true, as if we already assume it to be false? She equivocates, then we learn why. So, not only is this narrator unreliable, but, as we glean from this and the next paragraph, she’s self-aware, reflexive, devious and genuine at the same time. That’s a compelling combination.

Before zooming out, let’s take a breather at the end of this opening section. Take stock of the information we actually have vis-à-vis our POV character. She’s a stalker, but she’s also particularly observant of details outside the realm of her stalkee. She’s protective of said stalkee, too, causing beef with Gosso over Bobby having purchased some surgical equipment. She’s self-aware enough to know she’s nuts, and even what kind of nuts she is, but she’s also kind of meek, unsure of herself in some ways. “When I do something wrong, I regret it. I stand to the side; if there is a cart coming down the supermarket aisle, I let it through and look at my shoes.” Even this quick note right before that, in the middle of the sixth paragraph—“I don’t know”—casts doubt on her not only as a narrator, but as a human being. We’re probably judging her for her stalkery habits, but it’s hard not to feel for her at the same time.

By definition, synthesizing all this information as a reader creates both questions and expectations. Some questions I had at this point: Why does Gosso sell surgical equipment? How is the surgical equipment going to come into play? Does Bobby ever actually interact with the narrator? How is their relationship going to play out? You’ll notice that all these questions also come with implicit assumptions, for instance that the piece is in fact going to address the surgical instruments and that Bobby’s relationship with the narrator will be key going forward. As a writer, it’s worth constantly asking yourself the same questions a reader might ask in order to evaluate that reader’s probable expectations. And from there decide whether (and when, and why) to subvert or fulfill those expectations.

Pace/Structure

OK, zoom out. Enhance. This piece, roughly 3,760 words in total, is separated into sixteen sections, which means each section is, on average, 235-ish words, assuming they’re of equal length, which they aren’t. Either way, pretty short. These sections are chock full of dialogue, for the most part, which leaves plenty of white space. Each paragraph break is a breath, each page break is a place for the reader’s brain to kind of reset, generate new questions and judgments and expectations. The story’s top action is one scene during which not much happens. In fact, it’s really just a single conversation, followed by one (undescribed, horrifying) action, all interspersed with flashbacks.

These are big, structural decisions, and have a lot to do with the overall pace of the story. Liberal white space and page breaks mean the reader’s eye moves more quickly. Flashbacks that interrupt the top action slow the reader down. It’s a kind of balancing act to make sure that we both stay engaged and come away with a thorough understanding of the characters. So on a structural level, we can think of pace as a matter of how much, i.e. how chunky your paragraphs are, how often you jump through time and space, how much your characters say to one another. Finding the right pace for a given scene/story, as we can see with “Instruments,” is often a matter of knowing how to speed things up when they’re moving too slowly (more dialogue, a paragraph/page break), or vice versa (flashback, more sensory detail).

Of the sixteen sections, six are in the present tense. Three additional sections—the second, the fourth, and the sixth—are in the past, but take place only the night before the top action, and are more or less part of the same conversation, and therefore the same scene. In fact, section three is the first time we’re actually grounded in the present moment. So why break up the timeline this way, instead of telling it chronologically from the moment our narrator finds Bobby in the locker room?

The obvious effect is one of disorientation. After having encountered the pattern of flipping between the past and present, every time we find ourselves in the locker room our first question is inevitably going to be, “OK, when are we again?” We can read this as a reflection of both characters. Bobby, obviously, is in a state of flux, prepared to commit an act of irreversible self-harm in order to assuage the emotional turmoil of his imploding marriage. But the narrator, too, is discovering herself in this moment, having finally come face-to-face with her object of fixation, trying to figure herself out and define her actual relationship to this guy she knows “much better (I say this with certainty) than he knew himself.” Of course her experience of the moment is going to be fraught, probably more so than she would want us to believe, split by indecision and contradiction. Thus, we get this temporal back-and-forth, ping-ponging between moments only a few hours apart.

So here’s a way to think about structure: as a reflection of a character’s psyche. If you have to tell a story in a specific sequence (which you do, because that’s how time works), why not tell it in a way that holds a mirror to your character’s inner mental/emotional state? A focused, linear narrative might reflect a similarly focused and linear way of thinking, for example. When the narrator of “Instruments” tells us, “Once focused, I cannot shift my gaze. I cannot forget. I cannot be distracted,” don’t be fooled. The fractured structure tells a different story.

Flashing Back

Which, after all that, leaves seven sections not grounded in the “scene” of the story, and it’s here that we return to the framework of fiction as sequential data. Sure, these sections contribute to the fractured nature of the piece, but they too are ordered (probably) intentionally to lead us to a given conclusion. The flashback sections are placed as follows: (1) the intro, (5) a description of narrator’s distance and Bobby’s affair after his incident with the hamstring, (8) some comments on narrator’s craziness, (10) a woman dying as a result of Gosso selling surgical instruments, (12) further exploration of the affair, narrator lamenting her distance, unable to help Bobby, (13) an explanation, finally, of why Gosso sells these surgical instruments, and (15) the first time the narrator saw Bobby.

Laid out this way, we begin to see a kind of interstitial arc that culminates in the present moment. First, there’s the narrator’s focus on her inability to help Bobby, for obvious reasons—she doesn’t know him, so her help wouldn’t be wanted. He cheats, then lies about it, deliberately undercutting his marriage and thus punishing himself for being injured, for being too old, for being, in his eyes, a failure. We come back to this idea with Gosso, notably unpunished for gross moral negligence, but himself the instrument of punishment when the team suffers a particularly humiliating loss. Emotionally, the effect is one of steep decline. We feel Bobby’s despair and the narrator’s helplessness, and gradually we come to understand how Bobby got here, that he once felt as though he belonged somewhere, and then he didn’t, because of his race, because his body failed him, because of the passage of time and his own self-sabotage.

Then we arrive at section fifteen. The missing piece of data to this point has been the reason our narrator has been following Bobby all these years. You can sort of accept the explanation that she’s simply crazy, fixated, at least at first. But we as readers know it’s not the whole story. Crucially, the narrator doesn’t know this. She sees herself as doomed, mentally broken, a total outcast. But still remembers the first time she saw Bobby:

Instead of pulling his backpack from the car, he unbuckled his baby sister. He stood on the sidewalk in front of the school, talking to her in her ear. It was the end of August, and sunny, and the baby was laughing. The bell rang inside the school, and the young man threw his little sister into the air. She squealed with happiness, and when he caught her she stared at him, open-mouthed with delight. Bobby threw her again, and, when he safely caught her, he said to her, so happily, “You’re my sister!”

A problem that often comes up with first-person narrators is the withholding of information. If the narrator knows something the reader doesn’t know, only to reveal it later, it runs the risk of feeling like a cheap twist. The hand of the writer becomes apparent. Here, the narrator doesn’t know why she’s obsessed with Bobby, and by the end of section fifteen, she still doesn’t know. But we do. She’s longing for a kind of singular, intimate, familial connection she’s never known, and the absolute purity of the moment has driven her to try to capture it with the person who created the moment in the first place, to hold onto the memory by any means necessary.

It’s vital that this is sequentially the last of our flashback sections, because now we can see the parallels between the narrator and Bobby—he’s spent the last years of his life becoming more like her, driving himself into a state of isolation, and she’s watched this person who provided her a glimpse of familial happiness slip away. She’s used him for fifteen years as an instrument of human connection, and now he’s using her as an instrument of self-destruction.

Flashbacks provide a more obvious window into a character’s internal life than pure structure, but of course the sequence of information still does a lot of work. Ultimately, what a character focuses on or remembers is who they are. However, as its most effective that focus still needs to reveal something about the top action of the story, here not only about the narrator’s relationship with Bobby but about punishment/emotional distance. These flashbacks are signposts guiding us toward the heart of the story, not always advancing us forward but telling us we’re on the right track.

Two Things at Once

The last decently-sized paragraph ends like this:

All in the air is the smell of him. I think it is a good smell. I think it is the smell leftover from when we all traveled in tribes, the smell of each other. And then sometimes when someone was hurt, when someone had to be expelled from the tribe, when someone was left behind, she sat alone, in the forest or desert or canyon, and remembered this smell. It is a very real smell. The smell of us.

The beauty and heartbreakingness of this concept, especially in concert with the information we’ve gathered from section 15, is it’s bringing these characters together and driving them apart at the same time. In the act of castration, the narrator and Bobby are working toward a goal as a single unit, but it’s not a goal the narrator ever wanted, a move that both denigrates what drew her to Bobby in the first place and brings him down to her level. They’re part of the same tribe, but they’ve both been abandoned, too hurt to carry on.

Now we’ve left the realm of data; we’re learning contradictory pieces of information. How can these characters simultaneously be part of the same tribe and completely alone, belonging nowhere? But they are. The story is able in its final moments to both reach out and pull away, and that ability to be two opposing things at once is what makes it great. People are full of these contradictions—they reach out, pull away, and hold on all at the same time. Fiction needs to do the same. It hurts—but we do it.

by Benjamin Van Voorhis

Sep 13

September Book Review: Is That All There Is by Marcelle Heath

In our second book review of September, reviewer Mark Daniel Taylor digs into Marcelle Heath’s new collection, Is That All There Is? out today from Awst Press. “What really marks the collection as a whole,” Taylor writes, is this feeling of beauty and elegance amongst both the day-to-day and the tragic.” Read the full review at the link below.

Published by Awst Press, the stories in Marcelle Heath’s new short story collection Is That All There Is? come in three distinct flavors.

The first of these are the dream-like narratives of stories like “The Bluff,” where a woman named Mattie recalls the ghostly visage of a young girl and her terrier on the edge of a grassy cliff, or “Origin,” where a woman brushes her boss’ daughter’s hair only to find a small owl living it. These stories are unbound by any single time or location, and a single sentence might propel us through an adolescence or a life-long feud with a family member. But while they might seem strange or even confusing at first, they gradually begin to make sense in the context of the larger collection.

Read more.

Sep 12

New Voices: “Red State” by Allie Torgan

The Masters Review is proud to share the honorable mention in our debut Novel Excerpt Contest, “Red State” by Allie Torgan. In “Red State,” find Jill and Kat on a Friday night in Fall, 1989, deep in Texas. High school football. What could be more important? The historical present that drives Torgan’s prose in “Red State” grabs hold of you immediately and won’t let go. Jump in below.

We’ll learn next week that today Ashley was on day three of celery and rice cakes. That she took a laxative yesterday, a water pill today, and she passed four of five measurements this afternoon. Everything but thighs. Tonight, Ashley Thorson will dance but she will faint on the field mid-high-kick and paramedics will carry her off. She’ll be the first girl I know who is hospitalized for an eating disorder. Disordered eating we’ll call it one day. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Jill

November 1989

It’s in our blood like the Republican party and Jesus Christ. Football. It’s life here; plasma fueling veins, throbbing arteries, pounding hearts. You can feel the pulse in this flat Texas town tonight.

An away game; a Friday night. We advance like warriors.

Wildcats. Vikings. Cougars. Lions and Tigers and Bears oh my.

I’m 11, in the backseat of my dad’s Suburban heading west on I-20. My dad says it’s a straight shot for 40 miles and then we’ll see the lights, beacons from the interstate, they’ll lead us like prey to Tiger territory.

We’ll tailgate first. Kick-off’s at 7pm.

From my side of town, the “good” side, pink-cheeked families caravan in shoe-polished Suburbans, minivanned chariots. Kids are decked out in Wildcat hats, Wildcat shirts, Wildcat windbreakers. College-educated fathers with flasks, perfumed mothers, coolers rattling in the way-back.

Tony’s Pizzeria has changed their billboard. “Slice the Tigers.” Donna’s Christian Gifts has a banner up too. “Pray for the Wildcats.” Even the gas station got in on it. “Get Pumped Wildcats.”

Gas is 96 cents a gallon.

Ted Bundy is dead. George Bush Senior’s in charge. Two years ago, Baby Jessica fell in a well not so far from here. The Berlin Wall will come down next week, but tonight, there is no rest of the world. Just here, the road to glory. I-20.

Crush the Tigers. Whip them. Beat them.

“Slaughter the Tigers!!!” is written in shoe polish on the back window. My sister Wendy’s curly-cute handwriting is hard to read; a cursive bubble font with extra loopy g’s.

Still, my mom, more rah-rah, less murder, has said twice that she doesn’t want the word “slaughter” on our car. It’s “trashy,” she tells my dad.

“Let’s hope no one from PETA shows up.” That’s me. I’m the second youngest kid in the whole seventh grade and am holding my sister Wendy’s jean jacket in the backseat. She’s at the high school and will take the cheer bus to away games, we’re stopping there first to drop her jacket off.

My dad chuckles. He laughs at all of my jokes and my mom rolls her eyes, says “you two.” My dad turns up the Oak Ridge Boys. It’s ‘Elvira’ and when they get to the part with the bass singer he and I sing along.

Giddy up oom poppa omm poppa mow mow.

From the East Side, the “white trash” part, rednecks and bubbas take the onramp by Frank’s Liquor in jacked-up pickup trucks with naked lady decals and confederate flags, bumper stickers that say stuff like “I’d rather be Hunting” and “The Buck stops here.” The truck in front of us has pit bulls and teenagers in the bed. They are lit, frothing; meaty fists air pounding, shouting anti-Tiger vulgarities, slurs about the Tigers way worse than “slaughter.” They hurl empty beer cans on the highway.

My mom shakes her head.

My dad says, “Don’t mess with Texas.”

To continue reading “Red State” click here.

Sep 9

September Book Review: The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West

In The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West, out this week from Park Row, readers follow Sara King on a journey from Chicago to Memphis in the 1960s. Sara was first introduced in West’s debut novel, Save Ruby King, to which The Two Lives of Sara is a prequel. Our reviewer Mrudhula M writes that The Two Lives of Sara is “a novel of found family, of joy and heartbreak, and of fear to hope again.” Read the full review below.


In The Two Lives of Sara, Catherine Adel West relates the powerful story of a young single mother in Memphis while threading through Black history and freedom. The novel weaves through grief and oppression in a sharp and elegant way, graceful as it shows the life in 1960s Memphis, a time when the city was still segregated. Sara, the book’s narrator, is a young Black woman, keeping inside her a painful past and carrying her child with her to a new state, for a new life.

West doesn’t mince words, showing life in the 1960s with all the ugly parts, and interlacing beautiful parts of the story between the pain. It is a novel of found family, of joy and heartbreak, and of fear to hope again. Sara finds a home for herself in The Scarlet Poplar, a boardinghouse in Memphis. There, she cares for the boarders,, still hiding the past she tried to run away from in Chicago.

Read more.

Sep 6

New Voices: “The Same Country” by Carole Burns

Cassandra Trent returns home to small town Connecticut after a breakup to work for the local newspaper in Carole Burns’s excerpt from The Same Country. Cassie’s return is fraught with difficulty; Newfield is where her childhood friend Joe was killed, where his memory comes to life, accompanying Cassie in her car on her drive into work. Shortly after she moves home, Cassie discovers she’s not the only one who’s returned: her best friend Aggie, and Joe’s sister Jess have also come home. These chapters from The Same Country demonstrate a remarkable eye for tension, as Cassie’s return is soon overshadowed by what happens in nearby Bridgeton. Look for The Same Country next year from Legend Press.


Occasionally in these small cities and towns that stretch along Long Island Sound, just occasionally, you can tell you’re near the sea. If you’re far enough from the highway and the malls, the sky above the warm, dark asphalt of a Stop & Shop in Bridgeton will tint a clear, pale blue; the air in the fresh-cut grassiness of a baseball field in Newfield take on the slightest hint of a salty breeze.

1.

On my first morning back in Newfield, I drove to Aggie’s old house again, drawn like a woman to her secret lover’s grave, as if this were the sole purpose of returning to live in my hometown. It was Joe who compelled me to go—not Aggie—Joe who appeared to me that morning as just a flash, my waking dream, his face wavering near mine as I stirred, closer to me than he ever was in life. I heard him, next, as I made coffee alone, his voice rumbling into the still empty rooms of my still empty condo, disappearing into my gasp. Why had I thought Aggie might haunt me here? Aggie wasn’t dead.

And now Joe was sitting next to me in my car and talking, talking as I drove down the leafy streets of Newfield, revisiting old haunts—the Palace movie theatre, the Friendly’s where we used to linger for hours—then turning to head toward Aggie’s. The houses became smaller, older, closer to the road, as we approached the city line with Bridgeton, yet I barely noticed with Joe beside me, animated, though I couldn’t hear him this time, the same way I couldn’t remember what we all talked about twenty years ago at late-night diners, at our lockers, on Aggie’s back porch no matter the time or weather, night after night that I couldn’t remember. And maybe that’s why his words weren’t coming through, just his lips moving, his head nodding and tilting, his quick smile between words, his swerving shoulders as he swivelled to glance at Aggie then back at me, though Aggie wasn’t there either.

We were just a few blocks away from the house. So quick! This clutch of streets that led from our little town of Newfield to the more urban Bridgeton had seemed to me like an entrance to another world back then. I passed her road in hope of first finding the feminist bookstore and café where we’d sometimes browse the shelves and sip lattes like we were college students, or, across the street, the tiny gallery that once held an exhibition of portraits made from old radio parts—art, we learned. I braced myself for this world—once so alluring, so sophisticated—to look small, dowdy. This was just Connecticut, after all. I crossed the city line into Bridgeton.

The neighborhood had changed drastically. Lawns were untended, houses had not been painted in years, the blinds and curtains in windows were tattered and faded. Here was the Connecticut divide, sharper than I’d remembered. The shell of a car lay strewn in rusting pieces in someone’s yard. At a light, I spotted the short block of shops where the Readers’ Feast used to be. It was now a pizza joint. The gallery? A “checks cashed” store. A couple of teenaged boys swaggered by in high tops and baseball caps worn backwards and looked my way as if I didn’t belong. Rich and poor, this divide. Also white and black. I avoided their gaze and the light changed and I pulled into the old gallery’s parking lot to turn around and head back to Aggie’s. “But I used to live here!” I said to no one, to Joe, though it wasn’t even true.

And Joe had disappeared.

To continue reading “The Same Country” click here.

 

Sep 1

Now Reading Chapbooks for 2022!

From today until the end of the year, The Masters Review is reading chapbooks for our 2022 Chapbook Open, with the winning chapbook selected by Kim Fu! Check out more info on our inaugural winner, Masterplans by Nick Almeida, with more coming soon about last year’s winner, Love at the End of the World by Lindy Biller. Full submission details available on our contest page and down below.

Open Through Dec. 31st!
submit

Each fall, The Masters Review holds an open call for chapbooks. We want to publish your collections of flash, your mini novellas, your 40 page short stories. We want to publish your braided essays, your eclectic brainchildren, your experiments. However you want to tell your story, we want to read it. (As long as it’s between 25-45 double-spaced pages.) The submission window will be open for the final four months of the year, and The Masters Review staff will select a small shortlist of our favorites to pass along to a Kim Fu, author of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, who will select the winning manuscript.

The winning writer will be awarded $3000, manuscript publication, and 75 contributor copies. We’re seeking to celebrate bold, original voices within a single, cohesive manuscript of 25 to 45 pages. We’re interested in collections of short fiction, essays, flash fiction, novellas/novelettes, longform fiction or essays, and any combination thereof, provided the manuscripts are complete (no excerpts, chapters, works-in-progress, or other incomplete work). We are NOT interested in poetry. (We’re sure your poetry is fantastic, but we’re not qualified to judge its merit!)

The Masters Review staff will select a shortlist of 5-10 chapbooks to pass along to our guest judge, who will select the winning manuscript. Our judge will provide a brief introduction for the manuscript upon publication. The published manuscript will be available for sale as a physical copy and distributed digitally through our newsletter. Last year’s winning book, Love at the End of the World by Lindy Biller, selected by Matt Bell, will be published next spring. Digital and print copies will be available.

Guidelines:

  • Winner receives $3000, manuscript publication, and 75 contributor copies
  • Second and third place finalists will be acknowledged on our website
  • Manuscripts should be between 25-45 pages (not including front/back matter) with each story beginning on a new page
  • Manuscripts should be double-spaced and paginated
  • Manuscripts should include a Table of Contents (if necessary) and an acknowledgements page listing any previously published material within the manuscript
  • Manuscripts may contain some previously published work, but the published work cannot have appeared in any other chapbook or full-length collections
  • Self-published chapbooks are previously published and therefore ineligible
  • No poetry chapbooks, please (we will consider chapbooks which contain some prose poetry)
  • Electronic submissions only
  • Single author manuscripts only
  • International English submissions allowed (No translations)
  • Simultaneous and multiple submissions allowed (Please withdraw submissions if they are accepted elsewhere.)
  • Emerging writers only; writers with book-length work published or under contract with a major press are ineligible. (We are interested in offering a larger platform to new writers. Authors with short story collections are free to submit unpublished work, as are writers with books published by indie presses.)
  • Entry fee: $25
  • Deadline: December 31, 2022
  • Individual stories or essays within the manuscript may be considered for publication in our New Voices series
  • We are not requiring blind submissions for this contest
  • Editorial letters for up to 3 individual pieces within the manuscript may be requested
  • A significant portion of the editorial letter fees go to our feedback editor, according to the rates established by the EFA
  • Friends, family and associates of the final judge are not eligible for this award
  • Please e-mail contact at mastersreview.com with questions

We don’t have any preferences topically or in terms of style. We’re simply looking for the best. We don’t define, nor are we interested in, stories identified by their genre. We do, however, consider ourselves a publication that focuses on literary fiction. Dazzle us, take chances, and be bold.

Judging

Kim Fu is the author of, most recently, the story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, which received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Foreword, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and Quill & Quire. Fu’s first novel, For Today I Am a Boy, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, as well as a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards. Fu’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Hazlitt, and the TLS. She lives in Seattle.


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