It’s been more than 15 years since Mary Sojourner released a collection of short stories. The collection, “Delicate: Stories of Light and Desire,” was published in 2001; it chronicles 18 narratives of single middle-aged women struggling with life, death and everything in between. Since then Sojourner has published two memoirs and two novels. Now she returns to short fiction with her new collection of short pieces, “The Talker.” So what’s the difference between writing a novel and writing short stories?
“Writing a novel is like being married; writing a short story is like having a fabulous affair,” said Sojourner with a laugh.
By way of “The Talker,” Sojourner explores the lives of seemingly mundane security guards and nursing home aides, as well as casual patrons in a quiet diner. Their stories are neither grand nor explosive. Rather, the narratives are quiet, universal and deeply resonating. They are small, real-life stories of loss and abandonment.
“I’m writing about people who are just kind of crashing and stumbling around in their lives most of the time — no easy answers,” said Sojourner. “The little stories are the big stories. And the little stories are occurring globally. I’ve just been astonished my whole life by the courage of people who are scuffling and have to make do with very little. And I’ve been in that position more than a few times.”
In “Fat Jacks,” Davy, a divorced security guard copes with an ongoing custody battle for his son, Jacob, whose mother wishes to take him to California. “Sign” is about brief conversation on addiction, death, and dreams of angels on an Amtrak train as it heads toward Flagstaff. And “Up Near Pasco” follows a young woman’s journey to her family after she hears of her cousin who laid himself on train tracks and was hit.
More than Sojourner’s ability to plant us in place and land, what draws us to her characters is how compassionate, flawed and tangible they are. Perhaps this is because they were not simply drawn onto a blank canvas.
“I’ve met almost everybody in all of my short stories. I’ve hung out with them. I’ve talked with them. Some of us need to tell those true stories, and we need to tell them simple. I love that Emily Dickinson quote: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ That’s our job — or my job at least.”
And the truth in “The Talker” is that life is filled with uncertainty and unfortunate circumstances. How do we deal with pain? How do we grow from it? Do we avoid talking about death as Little Ray does in “Nautiloid” or do we let it sing to us through a Walkman as Jenn does in “Kashmir?"
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The stories in “The Talker” do not provide answers. But in leaving the questions unanswered and the stories open, Sojourner’s words stay with us, subdued and lingering as we think about our own lives and our own pain. Sojourner’s job, she said, is not to answer questions. It’s to honor story.
“I’m a classicist. It’s our job to tell the story as they come to us. Stories come to me; I don’t make them up. Stories come to me as I move through the world with all of my senses.”
Before hyperbole or technical style or perspective shifts (literary “tricks” as Sojourner calls them) comes the story. Sojourner teaches this to her students, individuals she mentors and writers she coaches, during her writing circles at Bright Side Bookshop. For Sojourner, good authors should disappear into good stories. Sometimes stories and the characters get lost when writers get too busy showing their readers how good of a writer they are.
“When I work with my students, I’m working with them from a position of honor. I honor their stories, and I’ll teach things like active sentences versus passive sentences. I’ll teach how to clean up a sentence so it just punches the reader right in the nose,” the author said. “I just don’t encourage drawing attention to one’s self as a writer.”
And this applies to all forms of storytelling. In music, television and movies, Sojourner has one bit of advice she gives all writers.
“Do the work and respect the story."
Mary Sojourner will read selections from “The Talker” Saturday, Nov. 18, at Bright Side Bookshop. For more information on the author, visit http://www.breakthroughwriting.net/