Today marks the last day of June Is Audiobook Month (JIAM) and I’m honored to host the final post for the Summer Shorts ’14 project. Today’s short story — freely available to listen to in its entirety today only — is
“Virtue of the Month” by Kathleen Founds: a poignant exploration of grief, suicide, and choices, read by Xe Sands:
“Other boyfriends left when I emphasized a point by throwing a bowl of salad out the window, or slapped them in the face for crunching too loudly on Saltines. But my meds are better-adjusted now. And Ben is more accepting, or less observant, than any other man I’ve loved.”
The Summer Shorts ’14 project is brought to you by Spoken Freely and is a month-long celebration of the art of audiobook narration, a “Thank you!” to listeners, and an opportunity to give back to the community. You can find out more about the project at the end of this post or by stopping by the Spoken Freely page of the Going Public blog but as a reminder, the purchase of the Summer Shorts ’14 compilation from Tantor Media not only gives you 20 bonus tracks but all proceeds will benefit ProLiteracy, the largest adult literacy and basic education membership organization in the nation and a group that advocates on behalf of adult learners and the programs that serve them, provides training and professional development, and publishes materials used in adult literacy and basic education instruction.
Before we get to the recording of “Virtue of the Month,” I had the chance to talk with Xe Sands and Troy Palmer (author and creator of online publisher Little Fiction) about their work, the appeal of short fiction and online fiction, and hearing or reading fiction aloud.
Troy, you’re the brains behind the online publisher Little Fiction. Why did you create it and what does it bring to the literary community?
TP: I created Little Fiction mainly because I wanted to work with other writers and I wanted to do so in a way that allowed me to stay creative when I wasn’t writing. As for what Little Fiction brings to the literary community, I think part of it is that creativity — there’s quite a bit of attention paid to the visual aesthetic with our story covers and wallpapers. But I think we’re also just part of a growing online community that has shaken up the staid tradition of printed literary journals. For writers, there will always be something wonderful about seeing your name and your work in print, but there’s an immediacy with the online / digital format — thanks to social media — that lets writers know that they’re work is actually being read. And that’s pretty wonderful, too.
XS: I love the immediacy and access of it. As a reader, yes, there is something compelling about getting a literary journal in the mail and taking a quiet moment (yes, I really do have them…er, very occasionally) to sift through it, absorb it, etc. But there is something equally compelling about Little Fiction – it offers the same experience, but in a medium that I can stumble upon when I’m *not* able to take a quiet moment…when I’m doing what I’m almost always doing when not recording: working and reading online…and coming across a new Little Fiction or WhiskeyPaper or other online source of new work is like the most blessed of forced breaks – I can’t *not* read what I find, which forces me to slow down for a moment, step outside whatever the hell is happening in my world right at that moment, and into the world the author has created. So thank you, Troy :)
TP: Always glad to be a part of that experience for people. And that’s the beauty of online — it’s as instantly gratifying for the reader, as well.
XS: It also often allows a reader to directly interact or share their appreciation with an author…that just doesn’t exist with print publications, not in the same way.
What makes Little Fiction a sustainable publishing model or is it more of a labor of love and what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in creating it?
TP: It’s definitely a labour of love, there’s no question about that. But I think the model has elements to it that make it sustainable. I have a low overhead which allows me to give the stories away for free — and I think free will always have a certain amount of sustainability to it. Free also equates freedom. I’m not beholden to investors who are focused on their ROI or a grant system that doesn’t have my audience’s best interest in mind. The content comes first and as long as that’s there, again, there’s a certain amount of sustainability with killer content.
But I don’t see LF staying the way it is forever. There will always be an emphasis on creating great content and giving some of it away for free, but adaptability is an absolute must for anyone trying to carve their own path these days.
XS: I find myself really REALLY hoping you find a way to sustain it…I could pretend this is for your welfare, but really it’s a selfish desire to continue to have access to amazing stories that just aren’t told elsewhere, to authors that I can’t find elsewhere – at least not when they are starting out. Well, OK, and I don’t want Troy to starve either…
All that’s to say that I’d be willing to pay for the service…but just how to monetize that? I can see that that would be tricky thing. We (online content consumers) tend to get weird about paying for online content – something that, while I’m guilty of it, I can’t really understand. I mean, do we think it just appears there by magic? It’s work…sure love and creative passion and all that too, but it’s also work. And, well, authors and Troy deserve to eat :)
TP: How to monetize is the million dollar question. I’m not at all convinced that the subscription model works (see Byliner’s recent woes). But you know, if I got into this for money that would be the wrong reason for so many reasons. And however LF evolves, there will always be free content.
What do you look for when reviewing submissions for Little Fiction and what are the steps to publication once you’ve accepted a piece?
XS: Oooo…I’m very much looking forward to Troy’s answer to that one…
TP: Ha! Thanks, Xe. The two biggest things I look for are character and conflict — without those I don’t think you have much of a story. On a more subjective level, I look for stories that move me. And I like writing that takes chances, that isn’t afraid to devastate a reader or break someone’s heart. I typically find, with most art forms, the stuff that initially challenges us is the stuff that is most likely to stick with us for longer.
XS: Can I just steal Troy’s answer for one of mine? Pretty please? Because that’s basically why I like the LF pieces and how I choose what I choose to record on my own time, just because I want to. And why I chose the piece I did for Summer Shorts.
TP: No surprise we’re definitely on the same page there ;)
Once a piece has been accepted it’s a pretty simple process. I give some editing comments in the month leading up to publication, and start designing some cover options. Typically, it’s a pretty quick editing process, with most of the stories we accept being fairly well-crafted when they come to us. With the covers, I reach out to the authors at the start of the process and usually just send over the one I like best.
XS: I love that you create the covers to go along with the stories…it adds a nifty dimension while also acting as excellent branding for LF…and hopefully, provides a creative outlet for you in the bargain.
TP: Thanks (again). The covers are definitely a thing that helps set us apart and gave us some personality out of the gate. And of course there’s the branding (my background is in advertising — glad to see I didn’t waste all those years).
Xe, looking at the pieces you’ve recorded for the Going Public project (many of them from Little Fiction authors), I’d say you’re a fan of small press lit fic and flash or micro-fiction. What’s the appeal?
XS: Honestly? I think it’s because there’s a freedom and freshness that comes through. First, there’s no huge arc to build, so there’s usually no fluffy bits, no world-building aside from what the author can accomplish organically within the meat of the story. And while I enjoy all those “fluffy bits” when reading a full-length novel…I’ll confess to also like zeroing on the parts that matter to me. Hey, I’m a selfish reader! I’ll admit it.
Also, the writers just go for it…I mean, there’s not gentleness or couching or worry over content – they just WRITE IT. At least that’s how it feels. it also doesn’t tend to read like a piece that’s been edited and worked over and polished (all of which i absolutely NEED in a novel)…it has a rawness to it…OMG! It’s like a dress created by a fashion designer: that first one, that raw one with string hanging off and seams showing that might not actually stand up to a washing? THAT’S the one that’s oozing with passion and promise – and that’s how well-executed micro-fiction hits me – it’s that gorgeous first run that came straight out. That said, I acknowledge that I have absolutely no idea how writers do what they do, and maybe the pieces I’ve most loved have been agonized over and rewritten and were actually months in the making…I mean only praise when I say that they have a freshness and immediacy that makes them read as if they were thrown out there whole.
Troy, you’re an author as well. In fact, one of my favorite recordings from Xe’s Going Public project is your “I Thought About the Ways You Might Have Died” from Listerature Vol. 2. Is there unique value in hearing your work read aloud?
TP: Oh, wow. Thanks. There’s definitely a unique value in hearing your work read — not just aloud — but by someone who knows the craft and who is dedicated to the craft. It’s amazing and humbling. I often find, with the stories of ours that Xe has read, that I use the same phrase to promote them — that she’s breathed life into the story and its characters — but it’s because that’s what it is.
XS: Thank you, Troy. That’s…beautiful and humbling. And I concur with Kelli – “I thought About the Ways You Might Have Died” remains one of my favorite pieces as well. It’s stuck with me all this time…that ending, man. Dear lord. And it works, not because you’ve intentionally tried to make me feel something, but because it’s just such an honest outpouring of how that moment might feel – as if we’ve been allowed to see the author’s thoughts in that moment, without them knowing, without them prettying them up for us. It’s haunting.
TP: I’ve been to a number of readings and far too often it just feels like someone reading from a sheet of paper. I believe that once you get behind a mic, you’re no longer just a writer — you’re a performer. And that to me is where the unique value comes from — hearing your story performed.
XS: That is actually why I tend to shy away from listening to poets read their work aloud. Often, they seem to be fixated on the rhythm of the piece as written - which is totally appropriate – they worked hard to create it, and the rhythm on the page is part of what makes/breaks a poem. But when that fixation carries into the reading, I find the intent and impact is lost when they read it aloud. Then again, I can be a lone horse out there on the prairie on that one.
But I have to assume it’s weird to hear your work interpreted by someone else – is it? As a performer, I have to say that the most nerve-wracking moment is often waiting to hear what an author thinks of what I’ve done with their words.
TP: For sure, it’s always a little strange hearing someone else put a voice to your work, but it’s exciting, too, to see how someone else views a piece, or a character, or a line of dialogue. I’ve also learned by this time in my life / career that you have to let go and let other people bring their take and their expertise to the table, so I’m pretty comfortable handing my work over to another person.
Xe, the recording you chose for Summer Shorts ’14 is “Virtue of the Month” by Kathleen Founds. What drew you to this piece?
XS: Dude, did you read/hear that opening paragraph? She basically had me at “This is my mother, Olivia Freedman. She hung herself from a rafter when I was eight years old.” Messy, poignant, bound to be conflicted…in other words, perfect for me :)
And I stand by my earlier request to copy what Troy said… “I look for stories that move me. And I like writing that takes chances, that isn’t afraid to devastate a reader or break someone’s heart. I typically find, with most art forms, the stuff that initially challenges us is the stuff that is most likely to stick with us for longer.” —yes, THAT. That.
I’ll add that Founds builds an amazing arc in a very short space…this has to be one of the most complete bits of extremely short fiction that I’ve read. From that launch point, there is an exploration of depression, relationships, parental responsibility, perception vs. reality, marriage, denial, conflict, resolution, etc. Hell, it’s even got math! Using a relatively mundane setting and experience – clearing out your parent’s house after they have passed, Founds then branches into the surreal with psychological visitations, explorations of the “equation of suicide,” and this woman’s desperate need to not be like her mother.
TP: That story that had me hooked from the first line. You made a great choice.
Xe, many of the flash/micro fiction pieces you pick to record pack a pretty hefty emotional punch. Does that pose any issues while recording and what do you do to make sure you’re delivering the emotional content of the story?
Wow. That’s a great question. I feel those are the easiest to tap into, and sometimes the hardest to deliver without “over” delivering. When I first started narrating, without realizing it, I think I felt this need to lead the listener – like that god-awful upswell of music that makes you cry at the end of a film, almost against your will. But when the content is there, when the author has adeptly constructed an emotional hook, something that tugs at you, or pierces you…something that slips under your skin when you’re paying attention to something else, all I need do is be present with the author’s words and just tell the story. TELL THE STORY. That’s all I’m there to do. The story carries itself. Over the past few years, I’ve been working with a pretty amazing mentor who has called me out on using voice to lead, to force a reaction…which has helped me to let go of the need to control the reaction and just let it come out all by its lonesome…because it will, if I get out of the way and stop trying to matter to the listener…because I don’t.
“Virtue of the Month” by Kathleen Founds
Originally published in The Sun Magazine, and included in the forthcoming When Mystical Creatures Attack! from University of Iowa Press. Copyright 2014, Kathleen Founds. Recorded with permission.
Xe Sands is an award-winning narrator known for her authentic characterizations and intimate delivery. She has more than a decade of experience bringing stories to life through narration, performance, and visual art, including recordings of Wonderland, by Stacey D’Erasmo, The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro, and Survival Lessons, by Alice Hoffman. Sands has also been recognized for her engaging romance narrations, and was named Most Impressive Narrator Discovery for titles such as Catch of the Day, by Kristan Higgins, and On Thin Ice, by Anne Stuart.
Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s Summer Shorts ’14 entry over at Every Day I Write the Book, which includes an interview with author Susanna Daniel and narrator Karen White.
About the project
The audiobook community is giving back! Spoken Freely, a group of more than 40 professional narrators, has teamed with Going Public and Tantor Media to celebrate June is Audiobook Month (JIAM) by offering Summer Shorts ’14,an audio collection of poetry, short stories and essays. All proceeds from sales of the collection will go to ProLiteracy, a national literacy outreach and advocacy organization.
Throughout June 2014, 1-2 stories, poems and essays will be released online each day via Going Public,as well as on various author and book blogs. As a “Thank you!” to listeners, pieces will be available for free online listening on their day of release. As a bonus for those who purchase the full collection from Tantor Media in support ofProLiteracy, there are over 20 additional tracks only available via the compilation download. Full release schedule can be found on the Spoken Freely page of the Going Public blog.
ProLiteracy, the largest adult literacy and basic education membership organization in the nation, advocates on behalf of adult learners and the programs that serve them, provides training and professional development, and publishes materials used in adult literacy and basic education instruction. ProLiteracy has 1,000 member programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and works with 52 nongovernmental organizations in 34 developing countries. Its publishing division, New Readers Press(NRP), has for more than 40 years provided educators with the instructional tools they need to teach adult students and older teens literacy skills for functioning in the world today. Materials are available in a variety of media, including the flagship publication, the weekly news source News for You, which delivers articles online with audio. Proceeds from sales of NRP materials support literacy programs in the U.S. and worldwide.
Summer Shorts ’14 is made possible by the efforts of the Spoken Freely narrators and many others who donated their time and energy to bring it to fruition. Post-production, marketing support, and publication provided by Tantor Media. Graphic design provided by f power design. Project coordination and executive production provided by Xe Sands. Non-profit partnership coordination provided by Karen White.