As Read By The Author

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Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images from Muhammad Haikal Sjukri and JR Korpa (CC0).

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Original Air Date: 
July 03, 2021

As audio producers, one of the most fun things we get to do is bring the soundscape of a novel to life — cue the monsters, the storms, the footsteps of a creature emerging slowly from the ocean. So that’s what we’re bringing you today: Great writers, epic sound design.


Until more recently, African fiction, like Africa itself, has historically been divided by the polarizing logic of colonialism. But the next generation is taking on genre fiction, including sci-fi. In "Lagoon," written by Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor, aliens land in Lagos.

A scene from the last phase of Ragnarök

Writer Neil Gaiman retells the ancient Norse myth of the Twilight of the Gods and apocalyptic end of the world in his stunning new collection, “Norse Mythology.”  We added some dark radio magic.


N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy — set in a futuristic world grappling with power, racism and oppression, with a dash of magic thrown in — is rooted in the historical moment we’re now living in.


Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder" is a story about medical ethics and self-discovery when everything seems lost. Patchett tells Anne about her own experience visiting the Amazon while researching her novel.


Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” has overturned a lot of conventional thinking. Though human characters shape the plot of this 500-page epic, the real heroes are trees.

wedding ring in the dark.

Lorrie Moore — one of the best short story writers in the world — is a master of bringing a character to life in just a few words. She spoke to Steve about bringing characters to life in her collection called “Bark.”  

Ghostly image

Kelly Link writes what she calls "slipstream fiction" — magical realist with a strong dose of weird.

A false bull

Mark Sundeen tells Anne he accepted an advance to write a travel book about bull-fighting in Spain. What he wrote instead was an over-the-top fake documentary.



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Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:01):

To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Anne Strainchamps (00:08):

The books I love most have a certain cinematic quality. The words on the page unfold in my head in full glorious sound and color. I can practically see the waves crashing on the beach, smell the salt in the air.

Anne Strainchamps (00:28):

As audio producers, one of the most fun things we get to do is bring the soundscape of a novel to life. Cue the monsters, the storms, the footsteps of a creature emerging slowly from the ocean. So that's what we're bringing you today. Great writers, epic sound design, like this.

Nnedi Okorafor (01:02):

Only two people on the beach witnessed the watery abduction of Adaora and the two men. One was a young boy. His stomach was growling, but he forgot about his hunger for the moment.

Anne Strainchamps (01:16):

Nnedi Okorafor, the great African futurist writer with a scene from her novel, Lagoon.

Nnedi Okorafor (01:26):

In the Moonlight he couldn't clearly see the creature, but as it walked out of the water, even he knew it wasn't human. All his mind would register was the word smoke. At least until the creature walked up to the quiet beach and stepped into the flickering light from one of the restaurants.

Nnedi Okorafor (01:50):

By then it had become a naked, dark skinned African woman with long black braids. She reminded the boy of a woman whose purse he'd once stolen. She'd stood there for several moments, watching the three people who came from three different directions and ended up standing right before each other.

Nnedi Okorafor (02:15):

Then the strange woman creature silently ran back to the water and dove in like Mami Wata. Rubbing his itchy head, the boy decided that he was seeing things as he often did when he grew confused. He flared his nostrils and breathed through his mouth as he tried to focus back on reality, the great booming sound rattled his brain even more, then came the wave that looked like the hand of a powerful water spirit.

Nnedi Okorafor (02:53):

The boy saw it take the three people. One who was a woman and two who were men. And just before it did, he saw one of those people throw a black bird into the air that caught itself and flew into the night.

Nnedi Okorafor (03:19):

He could not speak or even process any of this information, for he was both mute and mentally handicapped. He stared at where the three people had been and now were not. Then he smiled, saliva glistening in the left corner of his mouth, because somewhere deep in his restrained brain, he had a profound understanding that things around him were about to change forever. And he liked this idea very much.

Anne Strainchamps (03:50):

Nnedi, that's from near the beginning of your most recent book, the science fiction novel, Lagoon, give us a thumbnail sketch. What happens in the book?

Nnedi Okorafor (04:08):

Lagos means Lagoon in the language of Portuguese. And so Lagoon is very much about the city of Lagos. And so a snapshot of it would be aliens come to the city of Lagos, Nigeria, and things happen because of that.

Anne Strainchamps (04:26):

Basically all hell breaks loose?

Nnedi Okorafor (04:28):

Yeah. Well...

Anne Strainchamps (04:30):

And then the spirits and the ancestors come out to see what's going on.

Nnedi Okorafor (04:33):

Yes. All the people of Nigeria, of that area, come to meet the aliens, come to see what's going on. So when you talk about people, it's not just the human beings, we're talking about the plants, the animals, and the ancestors and spirits. So yes, yes.

Anne Strainchamps (04:49):

Now I've heard that there's a backstory here that your decision to write the book also maybe has something to do with your reaction to the science fiction movie District 9?

Nnedi Okorafor (04:57):

Oh, yes. I saw District 9, watched it with my sisters and we, the three of us, we had a very strong reaction. I had a very strong reaction to the film and...

Anne Strainchamps (05:08):

You hated it?

Nnedi Okorafor (05:10):

Well, there were parts of it that I actually loved, but there were aspects of it that I absolutely hated. And the main thing that I despise, that I detested, was the portrayal of Nigerians in the film. It was highly bigoted and problematic.

Anne Strainchamps (05:26):

In what way, for people who don't remember?

Nnedi Okorafor (05:28):

Well, Nigerians were basically portrayed as criminals, cannibals, thugs, just every single negative you can think of. And there were some basically summarily stereotyped. So there was not one Nigerian that was not problematic in the film. And it was very clear, because they were referred to as the Nigerians.

Nnedi Okorafor (05:48):

It was something that just stuck out like a sore thumb in this kind of film. And so when I saw this film, of course, it sparked a very strong reaction within me, as a Nigerian, but also it got my wheels turning.

Nnedi Okorafor (06:01):

It got me thinking about aliens. And then it got me thinking about what would happen if aliens actually landed in Nigeria? And then once I settled on that part of the country in my head, I started thinking what would be the best place for this to happen? And of course I thought Lagos.

Anne Strainchamps (06:16):

Why Lagos?

Nnedi Okorafor (06:18):

Lagos is, I like to describe it as New York on crack, everything happens there. There's so much energy, positive and negative. There's just so much, so much coming out of that city. It's a perfect place for an alien invasion to happen. Especially as a writer, because writers look for conflict. We look for excitement. We look for just life and energy and yeah, it was a perfect place to set this story.

Anne Strainchamps (06:59):

Nnedi Okorafor has won every major science fiction and fantasy award. And speaking of cinematic writing her novel, Who Fears Death about a Nigerian sorceress in post apocalyptic Africa is currently in development for HBO, with George R.R. Martin on the team. Guess he got tired of winter.

Anne Strainchamps (07:27):

For writing that jumps off the page and practically begs for sound treatment. Just ask Neil Gaiman to describe the end of the world. Here's his version of Ragnarok, The Twilight of the Norse Gods.

Neil Gaiman (07:43):

This is how we will know that the end times are upon us. It will be far from the age of the Gods, in the time of men. It will begin with the winter. This will not be a normal winter. There will be snow driving in from all directions, fierce winds, and cold, colder than you have ever imagined cold could be. An icy cold so cold your lungs will ache when you breathe. So cold that the tears in your eyes will freeze. There will be no spring to relieve it. No summer, no autumn, only winter followed by winter, followed by winter.

Neil Gaiman (08:31):

People will be hungry and they will be cold and they will be angry. Great battles will take place all across the world. Brothers will fight brothers. Fathers will kill sons. Mothers and daughters will be set against each other. Sisters will fall and battle with sisters and will watch their children murder each other in their turn.

Neil Gaiman (08:53):

Twilight will come to the world and the places where the humans live will fall into ruins, flaming briefly, then crashing down and crumbling into ash and devastation.

Neil Gaiman (09:08):

Then there will come the time of the great earthquakes, the mountains will shake and crumble. Trees will fall and any remaining places where people lived will be destroyed. The earthquakes will be so great that all bonds and shackles and fetas will be destroyed. All of them.

Neil Gaiman (09:35):

Fenrir, the great wolf, will free himself from his shackles. His mouth will gape. His upper jaw will reach the heavens. His lower jaw will touch the earth. There is nothing he cannot eat. Nothing he will not destroy. Flames come from his eyes and his nostrils where Fenrir Wolf walks flaming destruction follows.

Neil Gaiman (09:54):

There will be flooding too as the seas rise and surge onto the land. Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, huge and dangerous, will writhe in its fury closer and closer to the land. The venom from its fangs will spill into the water poisoning all the sea life.

Neil Gaiman (10:22):

The rotted corpses of fish and of whales, of seals, and sea monsters will wash in the waves. All who see the brothers, Fenrir the Wolf and the Midgard Serpent, will know death. That is the beginning of the end.

Neil Gaiman (10:46):

That's just the beginning. It gets worse, actually.

Anne Strainchamps (10:50):

Wait, that's just the beginning? I'm not sure I could take much more. Neil, you've drawn on these Norse myths a lot in your work, but they can be pretty bleak. Is there ever any silver lining?

Neil Gaiman (11:03):

When I wrote Coraline, many years ago, my children's book, I began it with a misquotation from G.K. Chesterton, although he said something similar, but the quote that Coraline begins with is that, "Fairy tales are not true. They are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated."

Anne Strainchamps (11:26):

Yeah. There's a funny moral message at the end of the Norse myths. Ragnarok is the end of the world, but there's a new beginning. The Gods have died, but the memory of them remains. You can say it's about the death of the world. It's also about the death of each of us individually, every generation dies and it's the children who will carry on.

Neil Gaiman (11:52):

Exactly. Ragnarok, for each of us, Armageddon for each of us, is very real. We're all living in the last days. We get maybe a hundred years, but the children, the children pick it up and carry on. And it's our job to give them the best world we can.

Neil Gaiman (12:10):

That is the end. But there is also what will come after the end. From the gray waters of the ocean, the green earth will arise once more, the sun will have been eaten, but the sun's daughter will shine in the place of her mother, shine with young light and new.

Neil Gaiman (12:32):

The woman and the man life, and life's yearning, will come out from inside the Ash tree that holds the worlds together. They will feed upon the dew, on the green earth, and they will make love. And from their love will spring mankind.

Anne Strainchamps (12:59):

Neil Gaiman, from his collection of Norse myths.

Anne Strainchamps (13:01):

The end of the world is a subject that comes up surprisingly often in fiction. So I don't know what it says about Steve Paulson that he enjoys imagining the end of the world, but NK Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy was made for readers like him. You could call it multi apocalyptic fiction.

Anne Strainchamps (13:50):

Jemisin won a Hugo award for each book in the series. So that's three years in a row, a first for any writer, and as a black woman in a field that used to be dominated by white men, she's also highly aware of the politics of world building.

Steve Paulson (14:08):

Can you give us a brief outline of the world that you've created?

NK Jemisin (14:13):

That's going to be fun. All right, well basically it is a world unlike our own. There is a single super continent here called The Stillness, looks a lot like our own world, except periodically every two or 300 years there is a seismic event powerful enough to kick off something that the locals call a Fifth Season that is a seismic winter or some kind of disaster related worldwide massive phenomenon that often comes paired with famine and the breakdown of society. And so on.

Steve Paulson (14:48):

So you're talking about sort of extinction level disasters that regularly happen?

NK Jemisin (14:53):

Yes. So this is a world where in some ways the apocalypse happens again and again and again. So this is a society where most of the time they're generally sort of democratic and capitalist and so on, but they have a set of rules set up, which are designed so that when bad things happen, every community breaks into its own little fiefdom and becomes authoritarian and they kick out anybody they deem useless.

Steve Paulson (15:20):

You also have sorcerers, which you call orogenes, am I saying that right?

NK Jemisin (15:25):


Steve Paulson (15:25):

Who have tremendous powers. Tell me about that. What can they do?

NK Jemisin (15:29):

Well, there's a group of people in this world who are born with the natural ability to impact seismic events with their minds.

Steve Paulson (15:39):

So they can actually trigger earthquakes or volcanoes just by thinking about it.

NK Jemisin (15:43):

They can by trigger or stop them, yes. It's really more by feeling. Everyone in this world has kind of a little, a natural ability to sense earthquakes coming. We've seen this in animals in our own world. It's just sort of a little bit of a science fiction to extrapolate that maybe we would have the ability to do that too, if the planet selected for that ability evolutionarily.

NK Jemisin (16:05):

But these people go beyond that. Not only can they sense earthquakes coming, they can stop them. They can start them if there are no earthquakes happening. And when they're powerful enough, when they've practiced their skill enough and gotten good enough at it, they can literally just reshape the entire face of the planet, which happens on page two.

Steve Paulson (16:27):

So you've created this really interesting blend of magic and science, which has a kind of an interesting history, because it's not always clear where you draw the line between magic, and I guess what we would just call physics.

NK Jemisin (16:39):

Well, that's me just kind of having fun. I've been a lifelong science fiction and fantasy fan and I've watched the endless war between science fiction fans and fantasy fans about is it magic? Is it science? What's better? And there's a couple of "laws" in science fiction, fantasy, Clark's law with...

Steve Paulson (17:02):

Arthur C. Clark?

NK Jemisin (17:03):

Yes. Yes. Thank you. Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic and a fantasy fans corollary of that has always been any sufficiently complexified magic is indistinguishable from science.

NK Jemisin (17:18):

So with these two in hand, I was like, "Let's just mix it up. I don't care if it's science or magic at the end of the day." It's basically the same thing because when the science consists of technology, that is obviously based on a science so far beyond the current people's ability to comprehend, they might as well treat it like giant magic rocks floating through the sky.

Steve Paulson (17:41):

Well, I would love to get a sense of what these orogenes can do. These people who can actually sort of move the earth with their feelings. And you have a passage in your first book, in the series, The Fifth Season, that gets at this. Could you read?

NK Jemisin (17:55):

I do. Yes.

NK Jemisin (17:59):

The proto shakes, even from here, are powerful enough to make her mouth taste of bitter old metal.

NK Jemisin (18:06):

"What?" Syenite starts to turn to Alabaster and then she stops in shock because he is on his hands and knees growling at the ground.

NK Jemisin (18:16):

An instant later, she feels it, a shock wave of raw orogeny rippling out and down through the pillars of the high road and into the loose schist of the ground.

NK Jemisin (18:27):

And before Syen even realizes what's happening, Alabaster has grabbed her in some way she's never experienced before. She feels her own connection to the earth, her own orogenic awareness, suddenly co-opted and steered by someone else. And she does not like it one bit.

NK Jemisin (18:44):

But when she tries to reclaim control of her power, it burns like friction. Alabaster has chained them together somehow, using her strength to amplify his own, and there's not a damn thing she can do about it.

NK Jemisin (18:59):

And then they are together diving into the earth in tandem, spiraling through the massive boiling well of death that is the hotspot. And before Syenite can think through this Alabaster does something else, a sharp punch.

NK Jemisin (19:16):

Something has been pierced somewhere. And once the upward pressure of the magna bubble begins to ebb, he pulls them back out of the fire and into the still shuttering earth. And she knows what to do here because these are just shakes. Not Father Earth's rage incarnate.

NK Jemisin (19:34):

Abruptly, something changes and his strength is at her disposal. It becomes easy. Easy to smooth the ripples and seal the cracks and thicken the broken strata so that a new fault does not form.

NK Jemisin (19:47):

And as the hotspot settles into just another lurking menace and the danger passes, she comes back to herself to find Alabaster, curled into a ball in front of her, a scorch like pattern of frost all around them both, which is already sublimating into vapor.

Speaker 7 (20:29):


Anne Strainchamps (20:46):

NK Jemisin, from her award-winning Broken Earth Trilogy, Sony's Tristar pictures recently bought the rights, and Jemisin herself is adapting the books for the big screen. So hopefully one day we'll be able to see, as well as hear them.

Speaker 7 (21:02):


Anne Strainchamps (21:12):

And speaking of writing that calls for lush sonic treatment, we head to the Amazon next and to a living community of trees.

Speaker 7 (21:23):


Anne Strainchamps (21:28):

I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (21:48):

We're talking with some of our favorite writers about their most unforgettable scenes and settings. I have to say, I always wanted to visit the Amazon until I read Ann Patchett's, State of Wonder, in which the jungle comes almost too vividly alive

Ann Patchett (22:04):

At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard shelled and soft sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning. Every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find.

Ann Patchett (22:46):

Marina was less comfortable in the jungle now that she couldn't see it. She felt the plant life pressing against the edges of the water, straining towards them, every root and tendril reaching.

Ann Patchett (23:00):

"This is worse than a hail storm." Dr. Swenson said spitting out a small winged beetle onto the deck, "We can do without the lights." And then she turned off the lights.

Ann Patchett (23:16):

In an instant the veil of insects lifted and Marina saw nothing as she had never seen nothing before. It was as if God himself had turned out the lights, every last one of them, and left them in the gaping darkness of his abandonment.

Anne Strainchamps (23:40):

How much time did you spend in the Amazon in order to write the book?

Ann Patchett (23:44):

I was down there for about eight or 10 days, which was about seven or nine days too long.

Anne Strainchamps (23:54):

You did not fall in love with the place?

Ann Patchett (23:58):

It was so great for a few minutes. It was just amazing, but so claustrophobic. I was actually okay when I was out on the water. Half the time we were on a boat and that was really quite lovely. When we went into the jungle, I found it very oppressive, because you can't do anything by yourself. You can't go take a walk. You can't sit outside. There's always just something that's waiting to eat you. Made me a little nuts.

Anne Strainchamps (24:37):

I don't remember who said, "Awe is an emotion that's part wonder and part terror." But Ann Patchett can definitely make you think twice about walking in a giant forest.

Anne Strainchamps (24:47):

Richard Powers, on the other hand, can make you absolutely fall in love with trees. His novel, The Overstory tops Steve's list of the best books of the decade. And if you know how much Steve reads, that's saying a lot. Here's how it begins.

Richard Powers (25:05):

First there was nothing. Then there was everything. In a park above a Western city after dusk, the air is raining messages.

Richard Powers (25:25):

A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine, its bark presses hard against her back. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies.

Richard Powers (25:42):

The tree is saying things in words before words. It says sun and water are questions, endlessly worth answering. It says a good answer must be reinvented many times from scratch. It says every piece of earth needs a new way to grip it. A thing can travel everywhere just by holding still.

Richard Powers (26:11):

The woman does exactly that. Signals rain down around her like seeds. Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the altars speak of long ago disasters, spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen. Soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Laurels insist that even death is nothing to lose sleep over.

Richard Powers (26:43):

Something in the airs scent commands the woman, close your eyes and think of a Willow. The weeping you see will be wrong. Picture an Acacia thorn, nothing in your thought will be sharp enough. What hovers right above you? What floats over your head right now? Now?

Richard Powers (27:10):

Your kind never sees us whole. You missed the half of it and more. There's always as much below ground as above. That's the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them unseen right here, creating the soil, cycling water, trading in nutrients, making weather, building atmosphere, feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

Richard Powers (27:44):

The chorus of living wood sings to the woman, if your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we'd drown you in meaning. The pine she leans against says, "Listen, there's something you need to hear."

Steve Paulson (28:09):

Wow. That is wonderful. What a great setup to the book.

Richard Powers (28:16):

Thanks for choosing it.

Steve Paulson (28:16):

Yeah. I'm guessing that most novelists who want to write about the more than human world would write about animals, because we can kind of identify with them. Why did you want to write about trees?

Richard Powers (28:29):

It's interesting that you said how much easier animal empathy identification is. Of course, that's the way we've been shaped by natural selection to be extremely sensitive to things that look like us, things about our size, things that move on our timeframe.

Richard Powers (28:47):

And that empathy is only grudgingly given outwards beyond the circle of the human. And I thought if we really want to get to this heart of why we feel so alone here, what psychologists call species loneliness, that I should take the problem directly in hand and say, what would it take for a human being, like me, to actually look at a plant, to look at a tree and say, "I will give this the sanctity that I ordinarily only give to my own kind." It's a big challenge.

Steve Paulson (29:22):

Was your goal then to create empathy for trees?

Richard Powers (29:26):

I think it was the goal of the book and I would also call it a necessary first step for whatever transformation is going to be required of us to live stably on this earth.

Richard Powers (29:37):

Originally, I thought it would be marvelous to try to write a novel where the trees themselves were the characters. That's a bit of a technical challenge.

Steve Paulson (29:46):

Yeah, well Tolkien did it, I suppose, with the Ents.

Richard Powers (29:49):

With the Ents, yeah.

Steve Paulson (29:49):

In Lord of the Rings. Was that in the back of your mind?

Richard Powers (29:52):

The Ents were a great source of inspiration for me, slow to anger, slow to act, but when they do you want them on your side.

Steve Paulson (30:00):

Right. You obviously did a ton of research for this book. It is filled with scientific details, especially about the biology of trees, how many books did you read to be able to write this novel?

Richard Powers (30:14):

I read over a hundred books and that's everything from field guides and popular treatments of trees to more scientific, more esoteric books. But it was one of the happiest periods in my life, the five years that I spent reading and writing this book.

Richard Powers (30:32):

I would say it kind of saved me in a way from my own increasing estrangement from the world of the present. I could not get enough of it. Every book that I read was like a walk in the forest.

Anne Strainchamps (30:57):

Richard Powers talking with Steve Paulson about The Overstory. We're talking about writing. You want to hear in this hour and coming up how to create a memorable character. It's all in the voice.

Anne Strainchamps (31:25):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (31:41):

Have you ever had the experience of watching a film adaptation of a novel and being startled and actually kind of disappointed by how the characters sound?

Anne Strainchamps (31:50):

They're never exactly how you heard them in your head. And that's why I'm always curious to hear writers read their own work, because I want to know how they imagine those voices, Lorrie Moore, for example, one of the best short story writers in the world, she's a master of bringing a character to life in just a few words. This is from her collection called, Bark.

Lorrie Moore (32:12):

Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it. A combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition. He said to friends, "I'm going to have my entire finger surgically removed."

Lorrie Moore (32:31):

The ring, supposedly gold though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt who knew cinched the blowsy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a happy vine.

Lorrie Moore (32:44):

"Maybe I should cut off the whole hand and send it to her." He said on the phone to his friend, Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society, "She'll understand the reference."

Lorrie Moore (32:55):

"You'll remove that ring when you're ready." Mike said now. Mike's job approving historical preservation projects on old houses left him time to take a lot of lenient parenting courses and to read all the lenient parenting books.

Lorrie Moore (33:09):

"Here's what you do for your depression. I'm not going to say lose yourself in charity work. I'm not going to say get some perspective by watching our country's news each evening. And by contemplating those worse off than yourself, I'm going to say this, stop drinking, stop smoking, eliminate coffee, sugar, dairy products, do this for three days and start everything back up again. Bam. I guarantee you, you will be so happy."

Lorrie Moore (33:38):

"I'm afraid," IRA said softly, "That the only thing that would make me happy right now is sniping the brake cables on Marilyn's car."

Steve Paulson (33:48):

That is great. One of the trademarks of your writing and something you're famous for is the way you manage to combine both funny and awful, sometimes in the same paragraph, even the same sentence, sort of looking for the humor in our anxiety, our misery. And I guess I'm wondering if that's sort of the way you often see the world on daily life or is that more of a writer sensibility?

Lorrie Moore (34:15):

I don't know. I think it's the way the world is. There's a lot of absurdity and there's a lot of funny stuff surrounding really, really hard and difficult and sad stuff. And it's just there and it's up to you, whether you want to take note of it or not, I guess it's a sensibility. But it's also a fact of life.

Steve Paulson (34:38):

Now, if we step back from your stories for a moment and just talk about the art of the short story in general, what do you think makes a really good short story?

Lorrie Moore (34:46):

Many things. I think the short story is such a limber and varied form that you can look at any number of stories that are very, very different and that can all be good.

Lorrie Moore (34:58):

So the primary thing is of course that you give the reader an experience of something, and it probably should be a psychological experience, an experience that has both intelligence and emotion in it. And the story probably should have a voice, but those are very general ideas.

Steve Paulson (35:16):

Do you think that experience is different than reading a novel?

Lorrie Moore (35:19):

Well, it's a briefer experience, obviously. It's an experience that has to happen in one sitting, a novel, you keep going back, you can read five minutes here, two hours there.

Lorrie Moore (35:32):

A story has to be read in a single sitting from beginning to end, but different stories require different things. Alice Monroe has stories that are 60 pages and it might take over an hour.

Steve Paulson (35:44):

She somehow manages to compress what almost feels like a novel...

Lorrie Moore (35:48):

Yeah, absolutely.

Steve Paulson (35:48):

Into a short story. I don't know how she does it, but...

Lorrie Moore (35:51):

Well, I think she does it by starting to write a novel. She has said that so many of her stories started out as novel. She thought they would be novels and she got to page 60 and they were done.

Steve Paulson (36:04):

You have written both short stories and novels. Do you approach them differently? Other than the fact that one is a lot longer than the other, do you think about them differently?

Lorrie Moore (36:15):

One takes years and one you hope will only take a week and usually takes months. They are very different in that way. At least for me.

Steve Paulson (36:25):

Do you have a preference writing short stories or novels?

Lorrie Moore (36:28):

I don't know. I've written more short stories than novels, but my last book before this one was a novel and I got very fond of the narrator and I was really reluctant to let her go. And she sat on my desk for years. And then when I turned it all in, knowing that there were still problems, I found I missed her so much.

Lorrie Moore (36:52):

And so that kind of intense relationship with the world of a novel, with a character in it, is something that you don't quite have with short stories.

Lorrie Moore (37:04):

Short stories, you assemble a cast of characters and then you get rid of them after 20 pages, they're gone.

Anne Strainchamps (37:21):

Lorrie Moore talking with Steve Paulson, a complete collected edition of her short stories came out in 2020.

Anne Strainchamps (37:35):

Speaking of short story writers, do you know Kelly Link? She writes what she calls slipstream fiction, magical realist with a strong dose of weird. And talk about characters with strong voices, for example.

Anne Strainchamps (37:53):

We should start by talking maybe about the first story in this collection called The Wrong Grave. Will you tell us about that one?

Kelly Link (38:01):

Sure. This is a story that I wanted to write for a long time. There's a story, a true story about the poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who buried his poetry with his long term partner. In fact, I think they were married and these were the only copies of the plums that he had, and at certain point he dug her back up in order to retrieve the poetry, which is a story that's always really stuck with me.

Kelly Link (38:27):

And I also wanted to write a story that was a fairy tale in a way about a guy who does something and encounters a supernatural being and has to get out of that sticky situation that he's gotten himself into.

Kelly Link (38:41):

And so in my story, it's a teenage boy who wants to be a poet who has done the same thing that Dante Gabriel Rossetti has done. He's buried his poetry with his dead girlfriend. And so he goes and he digs it up. And gets into trouble.

Anne Strainchamps (38:58):

It's got a great beginning. Could you read just the first paragraph of it?

Kelly Link (39:02):


Kelly Link (39:04):

All of this happened because a boy I once knew named Miles Perry decided to go into the resurrectionist business and dig up the grave of his girlfriend, Bethany Baldwin, who had been dead for not quite a year.

Kelly Link (39:15):

Miles planned to do this in order to recover the sheaf of poems he had, in what he'd felt was a beautiful and romantic gesture, put into her casket. Or possibly it had just been a really dumb thing to do. He hadn't made copies.

Kelly Link (39:27):

Miles had always been impulsive. I think you should know that right up front. He tucked the poems, handwritten, tears stained, and with cross outs under Bethany's hands, her fingers had felt like candles, fat and waxy and pleasantly cool, until you remembered that they were fingers.

Kelly Link (39:43):

And he couldn't help noticing that there was something wrong about her breasts. They seemed larger. If Bethany had known that she was going to die, would she have gone all the way with him?

Kelly Link (39:52):

One of his poems was about that, about how now they never would, how it was too late now. Carpe diem, before you run out of diem.

Anne Strainchamps (40:01):

This is both an outlandish premise. And yet somehow it seems perfectly in keeping with a teenager. It's that self absorption.

Kelly Link (40:12):

Well, these are fun characters to inhabit when you write a story because their responses are sometimes very large. Teenagers are given to dramatic gestures, and yet you sort of sympathize with them because even as an adult, you remember being a teenager and you remember having these out sized emotions.

Anne Strainchamps (40:32):

Yeah. And poor Miles thinks he's going to be a great poet. And he needs to rescue his poems for posterity. The things go rather spectacularly bad for it once he digs up his girlfriend's grave, because well, for one thing, it turns out he's dug up what seems to be the wrong girl. I wondered if you could read a bit of the section where he discovers his mistake?

Kelly Link (40:54):

Sure. I'm reading the section in which adolescent poet Miles has successfully, with the aid of a special shovel, dug up the coffin of the girl that he thinks is his girlfriend. And in fact it turns out that he's not only dug up the wrong grave, but when he gets the lid open, it turns out that the wrong dead girl in there is a little bit more lively than you might expect.

Kelly Link (41:21):

The wrong dead girl spoke first. "Knock, knock." She said. "What?" Miles said. "Knock, knock." The wrong dead girl said again. "Who's there?" Miles said. "Gloria," The wrong dead girl said, "Gloria Palnick, who are you? And what are you doing in my grave?"

Kelly Link (41:37):

"This isn't your grave," Miles said, aware that he was arguing with a dead girl and the wrong dead girl at that, "This is Bethany's grave. What are you doing in Bethany's grave?"

Kelly Link (41:47):

"Oh, no." Gloria Palnick said, "This is my grave and I get to ask the questions." A notion, crept like little dead cat feet over Miles. Possibly, he had made a dangerous and deeply embarrassing mistake.

Kelly Link (41:59):

"Poetry." He managed to say, "There was some poetry that I accidentally left in my girlfriend's casket. And there's a deadline for a poetry contest coming up. And so I really, really needed to get it back."

Kelly Link (42:11):

The dead girl stared at him. There was something about her hair that Miles didn't like. "Excuse me, but are you for real?" She said, "This sounds like one of those lame excuses, the dog ate my homework. I accidentally buried my poetry with my dead girlfriend."

Kelly Link (42:26):

"Look," Miles said, "I checked the tombstone and everything. This is supposed to be Bethany's grave, Bethany Baldwin. I'm really sorry I bothered you and everything, but this really isn't my fault."

Kelly Link (42:36):

The dead girl just stared at him thoughtfully. He wished that she would blink. She wasn't smiling anymore. Her hair lank and black, where Bethany's had been brownish and frizzy in summer, was writhing a little like snakes.

Kelly Link (42:48):

Miles thought of centipedes, inky, midnight tentacles. "Maybe I should just go away?" Miles said, "Leave you to rest in peace or whatever." I don't think sorry cuts the mustard her." Gloria Palnick said.

Kelly Link (43:01):

She barely moved her mouth when she spoke, Miles noticed, and yet her enunciation was fine. "Besides I'm sick of this place. It's boring. Maybe I'll just come along with."

Anne Strainchamps (43:15):

I can't tell who I like better, Miles or the dead girl.

Kelly Link (43:18):

I'm very fond of both of them. Miles does some very impulsive sort of thoughtless things, but I am certainly sympathetic to anybody who values poetry so highly

Speaker 13 (43:36):


Anne Strainchamps (43:39):

Kelly Link with an excerpt from her short story collection, Pretty Monsters.

Speaker 13 (44:07):


Anne Strainchamps (44:23):

Before we go, our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane wanted to throw one more piece of cinematic writing at you from a book he says is one of his favorites.

Anne Strainchamps (44:32):

It all began when Mark Sundeen accepted and advanced to write a travel book about bull fighting called Toro. He went to Mexico. He interviewed some bull fighters, but instead of the book he promised to deliver, he instead wrote a highly tongue in cheek documentary called, The Making of Toro. Narrated by a fictional author, his swashbuckling alter ego, Travis LaFrance,

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:01):

Travis LaFrance is obviously Ernest Hemingway, but then also this culture of kind of fake masculinity that came after Hemingway. That was sort of like James Michener and the men's magazines of the 60's Argosy magazine and these things were... To be manly, you had to be not only incredibly rugged and be a falconer and you could probably use a crossbow, but then you'd also be sort of sensitive and quote poetry.

Travis LaFrance (45:30):

"My art is my life and versa vice." Says Travis LaFrance, more than once in the pages of Toro coining, what will likely become the mantra of his generation.

Travis LaFrance (45:43):

He's the envy of every man who has aspired to live by a code of courage and beauty. He walks the soil, shooting tequila and bedding maidens and tempting death then writes it all down and cashes the checks.

Travis LaFrance (45:56):

And just as the artist must spread the paint and the Matador must court the bull in order to answer his creative calling, Travis LaFrance must always feel on his wrist the Lacey fingers of a daring and exotic female.

Anne Strainchamps (46:10):

Now, Travis, wouldn't be a Hemingway-esque character without being a ladies' man also. There's some women who show up in the book, one of them is Carmen, a girl bullfighter.

Travis LaFrance (46:26):

My Carmen is uncorrupted by modernity, pulsing with blood more pure and rich than those anemic American girls bottle fed with computers and career counseling. She picked up the sword. I watched how her delicate fingers gripped the handle and my imagination convulsed, disempowered by Mexican patriarchy, Carmen is drawn to the sword for the fallow erotic strength it embodies.

Anne Strainchamps (47:00):

Now the ear of the bull has a kind of mythic significance, I guess, in traditional bull fights, maybe in Hemingway's death in the afternoon also, but Travis at any rate decides that there's going to be some significance to the ear of the bull.

Travis LaFrance (47:15):

"Travis, cito." She whispers wiping the blood from her brow. Her hair is pulled back beneath the derby hat, her breast heaves beneath the suspenders of her [foreign language 00:47:27]. She stands in a heap of roses in the empty bull ring.

Travis LaFrance (47:32):

"You have known many women and I am just a girl." "Quiet, my little rabbit," says Travis LaFrance. "Soon you will return to your Homeland in El Norte and you will forget about the little girl named Carmen who fights bulls." "I shall not forget thee." "Then take this." She moans. She presses the bull's ear into his palm, "Today, it is warm and filled with blood like my heart."

Anne Strainchamps (48:03):

Any chance we're going to see Travis on the big screen at some point?

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:08):

Don't have any offers, but you know, he's certainly willing to negotiate.

Anne Strainchamps (48:13):

He seems like somebody with some life left in him.

Travis LaFrance (48:20):

The desert night is as still and quiet as a freshly killed carcass. Not a light, not a sound, not even a noise. Somewhere south of here across La Frontera, a Mexican owl hoots. Ask not for whom the owl hoots, Travis, it hoots for thee.

Anne Strainchamps (48:54):

Mark Sundeen's, The Making of Toro, a book we should all pray never becomes a movie.

Anne Strainchamps (49:36):

We've heard a lot of writing in this hour and you can't possibly have written down all the titles and authors. So don't worry, we've got you covered. There's a book list on our website at And to say goodbye, here's NK Jemisin.

NK Jemisin (49:58):

This is what you must remember. The ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before after all. People die, old orders pass, new societies are born.

NK Jemisin (50:14):

When we say the world is ended, it's usually a lie because the planet is just fine, but this is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends, for the last time.

Anne Strainchamps (50:34):

A huge round of applause please for sound designer and technical director, Joe Hardtke, who makes words and writing come alive every week. Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour with help from Shannon Henry Kleiber, Mark Riechers, Angelo Bautista, and our executive producer, Steve Paulson, I'm Anne Strainchamps. Join us again next time on To The Best Of Our Knowledge.

Speaker 13 (50:55):


Last modified: 
March 03, 2023