These twelve stories have been my guides throughout the stages of my writing life, beginning from when I first started studying short fiction as an undergraduate to my time in Columbia’s MFA program and my eight years of working as an editor of the literary annual NOON. They have made an indelible impression on me, and I’ve returned to them so often that I think of them as part of my writerly DNA. I teach them now to my own students. If they have anything else in common, it is, I think, what I look for when I read fiction: intimacy with a mind and a voice, the charge of lived or felt experience, a sense of skin in the game. They each contain a truth that only that particular writer could reveal. Looking at them altogether, I see now that they are essentially stories, in one way or another, about family, and how we are shaped by who we love.
Category: Madelaine Lucas
Madelaine Lucas is the author of the debut novel Thirst for Salt and a senior editor of the literary annual NOON. She teaches fiction at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her dog.
‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield
When my undergraduate creative writing professor assigned Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’, I was resistant to reading what seemed, on first impressions, to be a story about a frivolous, wealthy English woman preparing for a party. But this story taught me that first impressions are deceptive. Here, a single overheard conversation changes everything—a brief, fleeting moment, but significant enough to undo a life—and by the end of the story, we understand that the source of Bertha’s “bliss” up until now has been her ignorance. After that innocence is lost, it’s impossible to read the story the way you did the first time. On a second read, Bertha’s expressions of almost child-like delight are undercut by irony, and dread for what you know she will discover before the evening is over. It’s often said that the ending of a short story should feel “surprising yet inevitable”, and ‘Bliss’ provides a classic example of this at work.
First published in English Review, vol. 27, in 1918. Widely collected, including in Strange Bliss: Essential Stories, Pushkin Press, 2021. Available to read online via the the Katherine Mansfield society
‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz
My husband introduced me to this story after picking up a book of collected fiction by Delmore Schwartz on a visit to New York years ago because it had a preface by Lou Reed, who had been Schwartz’s student at Syracuse University. (Reed would later pay tribute to his mentor with the songs ‘European Son’ and ‘My House’.) Written when Schwartz was twenty-one and first published in 1937, ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ is an autobiographical short story about the subject he would continue to return to in his poetry and prose: his parent’s deeply troubled marriage. In this story, the narrator watches the events of the night of his parent’s engagement play out on screen in an old-fashioned movie theatre. His reactions—“Don’t do it!”—as if he is watching a horror film—tell you everything you need to know about the disastrous consequences of that doomed union. Reading it is like watching a car crash in slow motion, and we’re just as powerless as the narrator is to intervene. It makes me think of the lines of another poet, Mary Ruefle: “I think the sirens in The Odyssey sang The Odyssey, for there is nothing more seductive, more terrible, than the story of our own life, the one we do not want to hear and will do anything to listen to.”
First published in thePartisan Review in 1937. Collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories, New Directions, 2012; also in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014
‘So Long’ by Lucia Berlin
In ‘So Long’ the story of a couple’s relationship is framed around their years of ongoing phone calls. “I love to hear Max say hello,” it begins. “I called him when we were new lovers, adulterers… We’ve been divorced for many years.” I assign this story every time I teach and still, it never fails makes me weep. What moves me is Berlin’s portrait of the friendship that has endured after a marriage has ended, and her depiction of love as one long conversation. The seamless way Berlin moves between the narrator’s present, caring for her terminally ill sister in Mexico, and the heat of her love affair many years earlier with Max, is masterful. As with all her stories, Berlin has a gift for reflection without recrimination, and handling the darker aspects of life—like cancer, or addiction—with grace and levity.
First published in So Long: Stories 1987-1992, Black Sparrow Press, 1993. Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women: Lucia Berlin Selected Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
‘Voices Lost in the Snow’ by Mavis Gallant
I believe that all writers have a few short stories that they’re forever trying to emulate or write their own version of. Mavis Gallant’s ‘Voices Lost in the Snow’ is one of mine. The narrator, Linnet, recalls her childhood in 1930s country Montreal from the perspective of many years later, grown and living in North America. The Saturdays spent calling on friends with her father, now long dead, have become one long “whitish afternoon” in memory. “Two persons descend the street, stepping carefully,” Gallant writes. “The child, reminded every day to keep her hands still, gesticulates wildly—there is the flash of a red mitten. I will never overtake this pair. Their voices are lost in the snow.”
So many specific details from this story remain with me. That flash of a red mitten against the snow, the mother with her Russian novels, the dish of pink, green and white mint wafers offered by Georgie, Linett’s godmother, when Linnet and her father visit on one of those Saturdays. I also admire the characterization of the narrator’s younger self—an example that children in a story can still have agency and play an active role in determining the outcome of events (whether they’re aware of it or not.) “Being young, I was the last one to whom anyone owed an explanation”, she reflects, and Gallant puts the reader in the child’s position in this story by never explicitly stating that the visit to Georgie’s house is a proposition of sorts: when read closely, the subtext reveals that the father is prepared to leave his wife for the other woman, but only if the child is part of the deal. To me, this story captures the way a moment or encounter from childhood can gain significance years later with the new perspective that growing older gives us on the things we couldn’t understand when we were young. Part of that involves recognizing that are our parents not indestructible figures, but flawed, vulnerable and human.
First published in The New Yorker, April 5, 1976, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Varieties of Exile, The New York Review of Books, 2003, and The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury, 2004
‘Some Shades of Darkness Are Competing with Other Shades’ by Vi Khi Nao
“My debauched husband was a woman and I knew no one in Kansas City,” is an incredible opening line, one that catapults us directly into the heart of the narrator’s dysfunctional relationship with her girlfriend that leaves her seeking new lodgings in Kansas City, circumnavigating a near-abduction, and then returning again to her abusive ex. I was fortunate enough to be working at NOON when this piece arrived in a suite of seven autobiographical stories, each alive with Nao’s singular voice and heightened attention to language—an incredible editorial windfall. I’ve since taught this story, and yet it remains full of mystery to me—especially the mutating metaphor involving a box of chocolates, which, like much of Nao’s writing, is oblique, startling, and utterly unprecedented.
First published in NOON, 2019
‘Ghosts, Cowboys’ by Claire Vaye Watkins
For a while I’ve been interested in the idea of personal mythologies—how we’re shaped by the family lore passed down from parents or grandparents. But what happens when your personal history collides with events of larger cultural significance? Here, Watkins weaves a tapestry of fiction, historical fact, and autobiography to merge her own origin story, including her father’s involvement with Charles Manson, with the larger history of the American West, which is, of course, a history of violence.
First published in The Hopkins Review, Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 2009, and available to read here. Collected in Battleborn: Stories, Riverhead Books, 2012
‘The Nature of the Miracle’ by Diane Williams
The work of Diane Williams is unexpected, enigmatic, often fraught with tension and anxiety. But reading her stories, I also feel the sheer joy of the creative act. Perhaps that’s because as a senior editor of her literary annual NOON, I’ve had an insight into her process over the years including her belief that any remarkable language can be saved and made use of, her determination to continue to surprise or frighten herself in her writing, and the way she stitches sentences together to make something unexpected and new. Many of her stories are barely longer than a page, but her body of work is extraordinary—her collected stories span 764 pages, and since it was published, she has already produced another collection, How High? — That High, and has yet another due out this year. How to select just one? I went back to the beginning, and chose ‘The Nature of the Miracle’ from Williams’s first book, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, The World, Time, and Fate (how much I have learned from her about the way titles can bring gravity or resonance to a story!) Here, we can see the themes that have come to dominate her oeuvre—the possible collisions of sex and violence, the menace of seemingly ordinary domestic situations, and all the ways a woman might lose her grip. I also love the framing of unrequited love as a communicable disease that might pass from one woman to another by using the same shopping trolley, and the way the narrator’s disastrous circular logic repeats through the story like a refrain. It’s a masterclass in the art of brevity.
First published in This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, The World, Time, and Fate, Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Collected in The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Soho Press, 2018
‘Dog Heaven’ by Stephanie Vaughn
“Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again,” is another of my favourite opening lines, and maybe the best answer to that pesky question of narrative imperative i.e. Why is this story being told now? What follows is the narrator’s childhood memories—framed as a dead dog’s dream—of the last few months her family spent living on an army base in Fort Niagara in the before moving to another post in Oklahoma. As army brats, the narrator and her best friend Sparky are outcasts amongst the “civilian children” at school. It’s the 1980s, and their attempts to fit in by learning how to skate, wearing the right hats and gloves, and running for student government, are shadowed by the threat of nuclear war and their teacher’s pointed reminder that “in the whole history of the human species only one country had ever used the worst weapon ever invented.”
It’s Duke, that beloved long-dead dog, who gives her childhood a sense of innocence, earning a permanent place in the family mythology for his spectacular feats, including running fourteen miles through an ice storm to return home. I love a dog story, and one the things that makes Duke an unforgettable dog character is his voice, his barks translated by Vaughn into gleeful, urgent expressionist: “My name is Duke! My name is Duke! I’m your dog! I’m your dog!” People who love this story as much as I do often marvel at the fact that Vaughn has not published another book since her collection Sweet Talk in 1990. But I think of ‘Dog-Heaven’ and its note-perfect ending, and wonder if she simply said everything she wanted to say.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1, 1989 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Sweet Talk, Other Press, 2012
‘Miniatures’ by Sara Majka
I return to Sara Majka’s collection Cities I’ve Never Lived In at least once a year for their isolated landscapes and beautifully distilled truths. Like Majka’s narrator, who links these stories together, I moved around frequently when I was growing up. Reading these stories helped me understand the way transience shapes a person’s interior life, as well as the way they inhabit a place. I could have picked any story from this collection, but I am drawn to ‘Miniatures’ because of the subtle way Majka depicts a relationship between two adult siblings whose wounds share the same origins, but present in different ways.
First published in Cities I’ve Never Lived In, Graywolf Press, 2016
‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin
‘Sonny’s Blues’ reminds me of the capacity of short fiction to feel just as expansive as a novel. It tells the story of two estranged brothers, whose paths diverge after the death of their parents. While the narrator settles into family life in Harlem as a schoolteacher, the younger brother Sonny seeks a bohemian existence as a jazz musician in the Village until he is arrested for using and selling heroin. When Sonny is released from prison, they reconnect, but it’s only when the narrator agrees to watch Sonny perform that he sees his brother for who he really is for the first time. To me, the final scene of this story is one of the most moving testaments of the power of music—and art more broadly—to express what feels inexpressible, bridge seemingly impossible gulfs in understanding, and provide both an outlet and solace for our suffering.
First published in the Partisan Review, 1957, and widely collected, including in Going to Meet The Man, Dial Press, 1965, which was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1991. The story was also published as a Penguin 60 in 1995
‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson
‘Emergency’ was my introduction to Denis Johnson. It came to me via The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, narrated by Tobias Wolff, who brilliantly delivers the heart and humor of this tale. It contains one of my favorite Johnson moments: his hero Fuckhead and another orderly, Georgie, high on pills stolen from the Catholic hospital where they work, stumble through a blizzard into an open field that they mistake for a military cemetery marked with rows of anonymous, identical grave markers. From above, the enormous faces of angels come bearing down on them through the clouds, “streaked with light and full of pity.” But then they realize that the angels are only actors in a movie projected on to an outdoor cinema in front of a row of plastic chairs, abandoned by the audience in the sudden spring storm. No one captures the absurdity, terror and fragile beauty of being alive quite like Johnson. Like the characters in ‘Emergency’, the cast of his linked collection Jesus’ Son are outcasts, drifters, addicts, but Johnson allows them a full range of experience—moments of tenderness, violence, grief, and revelation.
First published in The New Yorker, September 8, 1991 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Picador, 1992, and widely anthologised, including in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014
‘Flames’ by Yūko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt
I read Yūko Tsushima’s novel in stories, Territory of Light, during the early days of the pandemic and though it was originally published in Japan in the late ‘70s, the descriptions of the narrator’s circumscribed life alone in her apartment with her young daughter after leaving her husband seemed to speak to my own sense of isolation like nothing else at that moment. In ‘Flames’, the narrator finds herself frequently encountering funerals, and is haunted by a series of deaths in her community, which reach a climax when chemical factory explodes nearby, lighting up the night in surges of sparks and color. The story is infused with a sense of grief—including the narrator’s own feelings of loss over the end of her marriage, implicit but never directly stated—but it also includes surprising moments of tenderness, as when the little girl attempts to care for her mother when she comes down with a fever, delighting in this reversal of roles. ‘Flames’, to some, might be considered a “quiet” story because not much happens—or, rather, the dramatic events in the background are not what matters here. “Quiet” tends to be used as a pejorative—one that’s been directed at my own work many times—but I have always believed in the power of quiet fiction, and ‘Flames’ is proof that plot is not what gives a story gravity or meaning.
Included in Territory of Light, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018