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Short Takes: Richard Russo On 2010's Best Stories

It won't be long now before Three-Minute Fiction returns to Weekend All Things Considered.

In the meantime, we asked Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo to discuss some his favorite stories from this year's anthology, Best American Short Stories.

Russo, who edited the collection, offered these examples from lesser-known writers who -- unlike a few others in the collection -- aren't household names.

"But they will be," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish.

"Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," by Rebecca Makkai  (Ploughshares)

Chicago-based writer Rebecca Makkai brings this story about a college professor questioning her marriage, her place at her university, and whether or not she's a racist (she accuses a quiet Korean-American student of needing to speak more in class, thinking the student wasn't encouraged to speak in her native land).

The tension is kicked off when we learn Alex, who teaches Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," accidentally shot and killed an actual albatross. "To her personal horror, and professional embarrassment," a chipper alumni magazine makes her question how she appears to others.

"It's a story about how deeply we need for others to see us as we see ourselves, even as day to day, we're making mistakes in the way we view others," Russo says.

"Least Resistance" by Wayne Harrison (The Atlantic)

Before he pursued writing, UCLA professor Wayne Harrison worked as a mechanic after high school -- and so does the narrator of his story "Least Resistance."

Harrison's narrator, Justin, however, is having an affair with his boss, Nick Campbell, who himself serves as a surrogate father-figure to Justin.

"The two people that he cares most about in the world" Russo explains, are Nick and Nick's wife, Mary Ann.

"I was drawn to it, I think, because of how straightforwardly Wayne Harrison sets up the conflict at the beginning," he says.  "You understand right from the start that he has to betray one of them, and possibly both of them, and perhaps himself in the bargain."

"The suspense in this story is remarkable," Russo says, "because the conflict is so clear and because we realize everything is on the line."

"All Boy" by Lori Ostlund (New England Review)

While many of the stories in this year's collection are love stories, one story that's more an out-of-love story is called "All Boy" by University of North Carolina Kenan Visiting Writer Lori Ostlund.  It tells the story of a complicated marriage between two Midwestern parents, viewed through the eyes of their precocious young son, Harold.

"That's the brilliant part of this story," Russo says. "Not everyone writes well from a child's point of view."

Harold's father, we learn, is likely gay. Though his mother knows and is willing to remain married, Harold is the quiet observer of some veiled, passive-aggressive dinner conversation.

Russo says Ostlund writes without being condescending to Harold, but instead recapturing the innocence of childhood.

"The job that she does locating herself in the tale of a really smart kid -- who, yet, does not understand what his parents are doing or the language with which they're talking about -- it's just heartbreaking and wonderful."

"My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened With the Lion Tamer," by Brendan Mathews (Cincinnati Review)

In one of the collection's more whimsical stories, Bard College at Simon's Rock professor Brendan Mathews tells the story of a clown who's in love with a trapeze artist -- who's in love with a lion tamer.

The fairy-tale quality of the story, Russo says, "is enhanced by the fact that none of the characters in this story have names.  They are what they do."

Normally, short stories are snapshots. But Mathews, Russo says, managed to create an entire circus-like world.

"It's really a tour-de-force performance by a young writer," he says.

What Makes A Good Short Story?

Russo has his own advice for writers tackling short fiction.

"A short story is something that I think can be intuited and envisioned and held in your mind almost at once," he says.

That means beginning, middle and end.

"It will, of course -- if it's a really good story -- surprise you," he adds.

And it's the daily act of sitting down to write that makes a true writer, Russo says. "Writers are people who put pen to paper every day."

In his introduction to the book, Russo writes that one thing he's most proud of about the collection he edited is that it's "blessedly free of the narcissism of the age."

"We were able to find a group of 20 wonderful stories for this collection that engage with the world in the way that a story teller should -- by focusing outward on that world," he says.

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