Tiny Books: Triptychs IN MINIATURE


By Meghan McNamara 

"Superman on the Roof."

"Superman on the Roof."

Last night I read a whole book in one sitting. It took me 45 minutes. When I was done, I couldn’t stop thinking about the family—the father’s cruelty towards his children, the mother’s complicity, how little resolution I was left with in the end. I thought about the author, and how the dedication suggested that at least some of this book is based on his life, on the death of his own sibling, perhaps. 

Lex Williford’s novella-in-flash, "Superman on the Roof" (Rose Metal Press, 2017), is a single narrative, told in ten self-contained stories, nearly every chapter the same line repeated—“after our kid brother Jesse died”—and another memory. Related from the perspective of the eldest sibling, Travis, "Superman on the Roof" is a captivating glimpse into one family’s loss of their youngest member, Jesse, from a rare blood disease. 

Amidst the backdrop of 1960s Texas, the language is stoic, and at times stilted, the tenor decidedly southern gothic. Travis describes his brother’s body in technical detail—“spotted with yellow-blue bruises on his chicken-bone knees and elbows and shins, his belly white and round and thumping hard as a honeydew melon”—a kind of affection seeping between the lines: “Hearing him laugh, Maddie and Nate and I joined him, still warm from our beds,” he says. “Maddie punching us hard whenever we bumped or splashed him, three rowdy kids and one sick kid all crowded into a three-tubed vinyl pool from FedMart.” 

Unsentimental and poignant in the same stroke, Williford explores the wicked side of grief, how poverty colors loss, and the way death needles its way into the human identity, forever reshaping the lives it influences. The characters are evocative, their collective loss the provocateur for their own cruelty, towards one another and themselves. “It was only right and fair that my father should turn against me,” Travis says. “And all I could do—my father’s eldest son, the one who’d killed his youngest—was to stand silent over the years as my mother and father’s grief and rage twisted itself like tanged thorns into switches, belts and boards.”  


Less linear, but no less ambitious, Alex McElroy’s "Daddy Issues" (The Cupboard Pamphlet, Vol. 30, 2017) is a five-story collection that distorts the boundaries of voice, character, and form. The first story, “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart,” is conveyed exactly as the name suggests—in flowchart form—a brilliant vehicle by which, in the space of just 16 pages, the narrator covers the accidental death of his son at his brother’s careless hand, his long concealed infidelity, and the guilt that weaves its way through both these truths. 

An excerpt from “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart."

An excerpt from “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart."

Akin to Jennifer Egan’s chapter in PowerPoint (featured in her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Visit from the Goon Squad"), the flowchart allows for—and in many ways creates—levity, permitting readers to navigate the complex landscape of a father’s mourning and still come out the other end laughing at the dark comedy contained within it.  

McElroy’s stories vary in both form and approach, veering towards the downright experimental, as is the case with the title story in the book. Told through a series of choppy, vignette-like paragraphs, “Daddy Issues” serves as a sort of thesis for the collection, reflecting on the relationships between fathers and their children, on the intricacies and sometimes the banalities of being a parent, and also just of life. 

“Anthony Henson’s son screamed in the night. He did not know how to raise his son by himself—but to whom, he wondered at night, lying in bed beside his son and massaging his neck and chest, to whom should he apologize?” reads one paragraph.

“Jorge Menendez sprays poison on rocks for nine hours every day,” reads another.  

A week later, and several pages into my next enterprise, I am still considering these strangle little graphs, still reflecting on what I should think McElroy is attempting to convey. 


I’d be remiss to discuss tiny books without the context of their modern origins: the poetry chapbook. Bryan Borland’s latest collection, "Tourist" (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018) is easily one of the most timely I’ve read in recent months. 

Penned during the book tour for his second full-length poetry collection, "DIG" (Stillhouse Press, 2016), "Tourist" is a haunting snapshot in time, and Borland, the cultural observer. Capturing both urban and rural portraits of the United States during the 2016 election cycle, the poetry in this collection is largely inspired by his experiences on the road, and his need to write so palpable; it’s as though the words can’t leave him fast enough. 

 
Poem "Indiana" from "Tourist."

Poem "Indiana" from "Tourist."

 

Borland wrote “Indiana” after his reading was moved off campus for promoting “gay poetry.” Breathtakingly spare, yet ripe with the painful irony of too little progress, the source text for this erasure is one of Borland’s own, “Flawed Families in Biblical Times,” which first appeared in his collection, "My Life As Adam" (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010). It was one of the poems he selected to read that evening.  

His contemporary poetry—as it has in the past, for his relationships—examines the United States’ flagrant intolerance, largely embodied by the likes of candidate Donald Trump and the “Make America Great Again” movement, and explores the fragility of human life. “Chelsea Bomb,” the poem Borland wrote after the a pressure cooker bomb exploded in a New York City dumpster just blocks from him, is one of the most chilling in the collection, the final lines an evocative reminder of the very real, very tangible fears of our time. 

you will worry
through the night
 even when I call you
from a speeding car
even when
you know I’m safe
you are full of fear
my backpack is full of books

— excerpted from "Chelsea Bomb," Tourist


Taken together, these three small books comprise fewer pages than most full-length prose titles. They are spare in their language, yet dynamic in their undertaking. They steal my breath and my heart. They are only a small slice of the beauty contained in the world of modern literature, and yet, in the landscape of economy—which, in the era of instant gratification, we seem so often to be moving deeper into—they demand so little and give so much in return. Do your brain a favor and pick up a tiny book. I promise, you won’t only finish it—you’ll be rushing back for more. 


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Meghan McNamara a graduate of George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program. She serves as the Director of Media and Communications for Stillhouse Press. 

Tattoos & Nostalgia: Designing Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely

by Alex Walsh

I’m not saying that cover design for a novel is easy, but there is certainly an extra level of difficulty when it comes to creating a cover for a collection of short stories. Matthew Fogarty's Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely, which will be published by Stillhouse Press in September, contains such a variety of vivid, weird, and beautifully unique stories that to simply represent one story on the cover would have an injustice to the collection as a whole. While a drawing of a mermaid and a robot may give you some sense of what lies within, it does not fully illustrate the incredible range of Fogarty’s work. What about dinosaurs in space? What about Bigfoot working as a temp? What about zombies and cowboys, and a man who accidentally hangs himself on a copper wire? What about André the Giant?

An early iteration of the "tattoo" concept created by Walsh.

An early iteration of the "tattoo" concept created by Walsh.

With Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely , my goal was to capture the whole of the collection, without giving away what it's really about. I wanted to allude to the presence of mythology and science fiction mixed with stories of great depth and realism, to greet the reader by saying, “In the pages of this book, you are going to see a lot of strange things and meet many interesting characters along the way. Come on in.”

Early in the editing process, conversations with Matt led me in the direction of creating a tattoo-like cover—something bold with vivid color, heavy in meaning and closely associated with memory. From there, I made a few sketches and designs that never came to fruition. Some were gritty, some were too complex, and some were overly cartoonish, but the real sticking point was that none captured the presence of nostalgia in the book. That was until we landed on the idea of the temporary tattoo, something people associate with childhood. Temporary tattoos represent a time in life when we’re most likely to drift into a world of make-believe, when we can erase our mistakes and are allowed countless "do-overs." But temporary tattoos are also associated with the weighty notion of the permanent tattoo, a very real and deeply meaningful adult concept. To us, this seemed to align perfectly with the tone of the book.

The Final Result:  Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely: 38 Stories and a Novella , Stillhouse Press, 2016

The Final Result: Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely: 38 Stories and a Novella, Stillhouse Press, 2016

I then looked at how temporary tattoos come packaged: each fit tightly together on a single sheet of paper. It seemed like a viable way to feature all (or most) of the Maybe Mermaids characters on the cover, each placed closely against the others to make an almost-solid, almost-patterned image. Matthew and I selected 18 characters and objects from the stories, and I drew out each one. In order to keep things simple, all were inked with very little detail. This allowed the images to blanket the entire area of the cover without distracting from the title and secondary text. Then I selected bright, eye-catching colors, which I felt embodied the richness and energy of the book, and the cover became what it is today.

In a single glance, the reader may pick out a mermaid, a guitar, the Pope’s hat, a dog, a yeti, or an astronaut. They may ask questions about these creatures: What is a jet and an old Plymouth doing together on book? Who is this robot? What's Elvis got to do with anything? Each image comes together as part of one large tableau that suggests a new world filled with adventure and mystery, but also feels familiar.


Alex Walsh is a book designer for Stillhouse Press and Copy Editor for Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art.  He is also a student at GMU, where he is seeking his MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction.

James Thomas to Mason MFA: “Get In, Get Out”

By Brittany Kerfoot

James Thomas, editor of the Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction volumes of very short stories, was on campus March 24 sharing his advice with George Mason University MFA students on the form of flash fiction and several readings from his newest addition to the short fiction family, Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton 2014) which hits shelves April 13.

Thomas, who completed his own MFA with Bowling Green State University in Ohio, opened the workshop with a reading from “A Fable," a story from the inaugural edition of Sudden Fiction (Gibbs Smith 1983); “The young man was clean shaven and neatly dressed,” Thomas read, the description a stark contrast to Thomas’ own thick, graying beard, gold necklace, and brown suede vest and T-shirt. His demeanor was laid-back and he was immediately approachable, frequently cracking jokes and encouraging conversation within the group.

As the afternoon moved on, Thomas proved to be a wealth of knowledge, detailing the appeal of short fiction (or “subway fiction,” as he put it): “People can get to know a character and even see that character change in a short amount of time, like during a subway ride." And with readers’ attention spans seemingly getting shorter and shorter, micro-fiction is increasingly growing in popularity. For those looking to try their hand at writing a very short story, Thomas advised that “flash fiction relies heavily on tension and metaphor. You can have a story without a conflict, but you can’t have a story without tension.”

Thomas read several stories from other volumes he has edited, all with an apparent shared theme: suicide and death. “We are as interested in sex and death in fiction as we are in life,” he said. “It’s something we’re both obsessed with and something we fear.”

Flash Fiction International , Ed. James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill (W.W. Norton 2014)

Flash Fiction International, Ed. James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill (W.W. Norton 2014)

When asked what advice he would impart upon aspiring writers, he had several shades of wisdom, including perhaps the most painfully obvious one for any young writer: “Chain yourself to your chair, because almost anything can tempt you away from writing.” Thomas warned about the importance of perseverance and, as most writers can attest, the necessity of revision: “It’s all about going there, doing it, and revision, revision, revision. If you feel you’ve got it on the first draft, you don’t.”

After a quick break for a bit to eat and a smoke, Thomas’ more formal reading began. Following a short introduction from friend and fellow writer Alan Cheuse, Thomas read from his newest collection, which he co-edited with Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill. One of the stories he read detailed an insomniac who can’t sleep even after he commits suicide, while another, “The Light Eater” followed a woman who eats light bulbs to summon home her lost lover. Most of the pieces contained elements of magical realism, a genre that seems to be making a popular comeback, perhaps especially with the short form.

Thomas concluded the reading, quite appropriately, with a quote from Raymond Carver’s wise advice for short story writers: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”

Go on, indeed.


Brittany is a third year fiction candidate in George Mason University's Master of Fine Arts program, where she also teaches English Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing. Her work has previously appeared in Paper Tape Magazine, Driftwood Press, Four Ties Review, and Cactus Heart Press. She resides in Washington, D.C. with her fiancé and their many pets.