Introduction

A few years ago, I realised that short fiction was the form I loved most. I love the immersive state of attention required when reading (or writing) a short story – how it lets you get away from yourself for a bit. That realisation coincided with me taking a job where I wouldn’t realistically have time to write novels anymore. So, I’m making it my mission to learn how to write short stories. My main method is reading loads of them – at least one a day. And so this is not necessarily a list of all-time favourites, but more about some recent discoveries. The great thing is, the list will probably be different next week.

‘Love Silk Food’ by Leone Ross

This story is a bit of a miracle. It takes place during one afternoon, near Wood Green station in London, and is about Mrs Neecy Brown, a woman in her 60s who is married to a serial cheat. Mrs Brown meets a bloke from St Elizabeth on the tube, who is visiting his grown-up daughter. I have categories for the stories I read, and this is a classic ‘encounter’ story. But Leone Ross manages to give us Mrs Brown’s entire life: her coming to England, the births of her daughters, her middle-age, and also a moment of revelation and beauty. The technical control of the third person voice – the way it slips from the storyteller into Mrs Brown’s Patois – is amazing. I love Mrs Brown so much, and every time I read the story I cry.

First published in Wasafiri 64, December 2010, and collected in Come Let Us Sing Anyway, Peepal Tree Press, 2017)

‘Goo Book’ by Keith Ridgway

When I first read the linked collection Hawthorn and Child I was so excited. I was like, ‘But, but…I didn’t know you were allowed to do this!’ In each story, there’s a depth of detail, an access to the contemporary world which is rare and almost spooky – as if the events of the story might be happening just round the corner. But there’s also a strong narrative compulsion – often involving dread. This story is about a North London thief out of his depth, and has a lot of brilliant dialogue in cars. The way he uses the connections between the stories in his linked collections – both Hawthorn and Child and A Shock – feels less contrived than the big narratives in many regular novels. He never over-exploits a single idea.

First published in The New Yorker, April 2011, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Hawthorn and Child, Granta, 2013

‘Animal Needs’ by Kevin Barry

I often give Kevin Barry’s books to pals who don’t read much. They love him, and so do I. This story, from his first collection, is absolutely mad. The central character, John Martin, a farmer and remorseful swinger whose chicken operation is under inspection, spends the day driving around town in a state of existential desperation. It’s hysterical, and features many such lines as “He didn’t know how he finished that sausage sandwich but by Jesus he finished it.” But the brilliant thing about Barry is the way he sneaks in the devastating lines, too: “You imagine the whole wife-swapping business would take four decisions but really it only takes three.” Oh God.

First published in There are Little Kingdoms, Stinging Fly, 2007

‘The Man Who Sold Braces’ by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

This story is from a linked collection called Revenge. It took me some time to get used to Ogawa’s sensibility, but then I got properly sucked in. This might be the gentlest story in the collection, and it’s basically about a man who runs a torture museum. It feels to me like Ogawa is one of those writers who has unfettered access to the depths of their imagination, which I envy. Some of her images feel plucked out of dreams (tomatoes tumbling onto a road, a tiger dying in a backyard), and the narratives seem to go where they want. I like this particular story because of the relationship between a young guy and his socially noxious uncle. I also like the central idea: that breaking stuff isn’t always bad; it depends what you break.

First published in English in University of Hawai’i Press, Volume 13, Number 1, 2001, and collected in Revenge, Harvill Secker, 2013 – now available as a Vintage Classic, 2020

‘Gomez Palacio’ by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews

I wouldn’t try to imitate Bolaño, and he’s difficult to teach because he does lot of things you’re not supposed to. But I love his short work, and the way the stories all bleed into each other. Shadowed as it is by exile, his short fiction contains a loneliness and a cinematic spareness, as in this story set in the Mexican desert, where people watch each other from hotel rooms or lay-bys. He’s often funny, too, and never fails to provide a strange, stark image. In another story in this collection, Last Evenings on Earth, a father and grown-up son eat Iguana and chilli sauce at a roadside cafe. I think about that scene all the time.

First published in Spanish in Putas asesinas, Anagrama, 2001. First published in translation in The New Yorker, July 2005 and available to subscribers to read here, and collected in Last Evenings on Earth, New Directions, 2006

‘Yours’ by Mary Robison

My good pal David Swann wins or is placed in one or another category of the Bridport Prize pretty much every year. His stories are beautiful and funny and moving, but I can’t put him in this list because we’re both a bit Northern, and therefore object to nepotism. We both love the work of Mary Robison, especially her book of tiny fragments Why Did I Ever. I think Dave recommended this 500-word story to me, which might be the best story of this length I’ve ever read. It features an evening in the life of Alison and Clark, as they carve some Hallowe’en pumpkins on the porch.
 
When you first read it, you might wonder how Robison managed to do what she did. But then you read it again, and you see that she just used the right word, every time.

First published in The New Yorker, October 1982, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, FSG, 1983. Now available from Counterpoint, 2019

‘South Congress’ by Bryan Washington

I like a career story, although the work in this story is strictly off the books. Avery and Raúl are “equal opportunity pharmacists…a dirty old man and a Guatemalan in a Corolla”, selling drugs on the streets of Houston. Washington’s linked collection Lot is firmly rooted in that city and its streets like a “tangle of dirty shoelaces”. Like many of the characters in the collection, Raúl is having a rough time – an immigrant far from home and exploited in a new country – but Washington’s stories are full of human closeness. There’s a tenderness in the working relationship between the young man learning English, and his fast-talking acquaintance, Avery.

First published in Midnight Breakfast 13, and available to read here. Collected in Lot, Riverhead Books, 2019

‘Travis, B.’ by Maile Meloy

Maile Meloy is a recent discovery for me. Technically, I’ve learned a lot from the way she controls time, but also from the emotional boldness of the stories. Sometimes, when writing a story, I feel myself pulling away from the strong emotions, always wanting to be subtle. Meloy just whacks you shamelessly with feelings, which is very refreshing. This story is about a cowboy who accidentally goes into an evening class taught by a young lawyer who doesn’t want to be there because it’s a nine-hour drive from where she lives. Meloy has another one about a lawyer called ‘Tome’ – also amazing. 

First published in The New Yorker, October 2002, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it, Riverhead, 2009/Canongate, 2010

‘The Green Zone Rabbit’ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright

While a would-be assassin, Hajjar, waits for news of his mission, an egg appears in the hutch of his pet rabbit, creating panic and paranoia.
 
For me, this story viscerally personalises the swift and dizzying ways in which a conflict can derail a life. Blasim skilfully connects Hajjar’s current predicament with his childhood under sanctions, which featured obsessive research into kissing in the animal kingdom – books read by candlelight when the electricity failed. He reads about an insect called reduvius, which kisses the mouths of sleeping humans, secreting poison in microscopic drops.

First published by The Iraqi Christ, Comma Press, 2013

‘Transmission’ by Blánaid McKinney

I was amazed by Sinéad Gleeson’s anthology The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories. It sent me off in loads of new directions: Wendy Erskine, Cathy Sweeney, Deidre Sullivan. I hadn’t encountered McKinney’s work before this story about a businessman methodically destroying his BMW on a patch of waste land in a small town. It’s located very much in concrete detail, but – like lots of stories I fall for – seems to rise carefully and gradually above reality into some sublime other zone. ‘And that was how they spent that particular evening, long and warm, doing nothing in particular, except watching a car die, and the sun go down.’

First published in Big Mouth, Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Phoenix House, 2000

‘The Girl Who Raised Pigeons’ by Edward P. Jones

One of the reasons I love short stories is because they so often replace plot with relationships. This is the story of a relationship between a young girl, Betsy-Ann, and her dad, Robert, in Washington in the late 50s, early 60s. I’ve no idea how Jones manages to get so much into these pages: the social background of the changing neighbourhood; the desolation of a father – 19 years old – finding himself alone with a baby; Betsy Ann’s growing wilfulness; and a coop full of pigeons. There’s no showing off, and yet I found myself gasping several times at the sentences. He takes a zen-like care over each moment, and really earns the sentiments of the soaring final paragraph.

In Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx

Okay, this is not a recent discovery. I read it at least once a year, for its technical deftness and the gut punch of its emotions. Sometimes I write the first line of each section on a piece of paper, trying to figure out how Proulx managed to string the decades together with such ease. The balance of scene and summary is perfect. There’s a bit where she describes how the bodies of Ennis and Jack have changed over the years – broken noses healed crooked, teeth filed down, moustaches grown, accents shifting. And it’s just so moving. I think it was the first story that ever made me cry. There’s something devastating about the clash between the lovers’ wordless feelings and so-called traditional wisdom – “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

First published in The New Yorker, October, 1997. Collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Harper Perennial, 1999