In the debut episode of the Ursa Short Fiction podcast, distributed in partnership with Lit Hub Radio, co-hosts Deesha Philyaw (acclaimed author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies) and Dawnie Walton (acclaimed author of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev) talk about the authors and stories who inspired their own writing, and talk about Ursa’s mission to spotlight short fiction from underrepresented voices.
Deesha on why she loves to write short fiction:
“I was drawn to short fiction because that was the first form of writing that I was formally taught. I took this flash fiction writing workshop at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts twenty-something years ago. I was taking that class, but I thought you had to write a novel in order to be a real writer, right? […] And I still haven’t finished a novel, but despite that mindset, the short story form just kept tugging at me as a writer. And one thing is that I can more easily disguise the dissatisfaction I had in my life in short fiction, more so than I could. And so, I thought of them as these little stories of discontent.”
Dawnie on how writing a novel is different from short story:
“I struggle so much with writing short fiction, and I think it’s because every word choice counts so much. There’s so much pressure on every line. And I feel like with novel writing, there’s room for a little bit more of riffing, a little bit more, not everything has to be so perfect, but I really admire the beauty and the poetry of short fiction and the efficiency of it. It gives me the tingles.”
Deesha on how J. California Cooper influenced her work:
“[Cooper] was a devout Christian, and so she was dealing with similar things that I deal with, but in a different way, because she wasn’t going to be writing about two women having sex in a celebratory way. So, she was very devout, her religion was very important to her. So, we aren’t coming at these stories the same way or these themes in the same way, but that knowing she had this deep knowing of Black women and love for Black women, and you can see that in the stories, and that intimacy… It’s just unmatched.”
Dawnie and Deesha on the lack of representation in publishing:
Deesha: “I mean, and we know that’s how publishing works, they publish what they know has worked before, which doesn’t lend itself to being a gateway to new voices and to new forms, and to subversion.”
Dawnie: “And just thinking about all those voices and the lack of venues. I mean, of course, there are many literary journals, there’s many digital publications that absolutely publish short fiction, but I think that there’s definitely space for more focus on underrepresented communities.”
Authors and Books Mentioned in This Episode
- Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
- How to Sit, by Tyrese Coleman
- The World Doesn’t Require You, by Rion Amilcar Scott
- Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer
- The work of J. California Cooper
- The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor
- 12 Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis
- The Travelers, by Regina Porter
- Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat
- You Are Free, by Danzy Senna
- The Office of Historical Corrections and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans
- The work of Edward P.Jones
- I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat, by Christopher Gonzalez
- Milk Blood Heat, by Dantiel W. Moniz
Writing from Dawnie and Deesha
- Introducing Ursa: A Letter from Co-Founder and Editorial Director Dawnie Walton
- A Love Letter to Short Stories, by Deesha Philyaw
- The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton
- The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw
The Art and Craft of Short Fiction
- “43 of the Most Iconic Short Stories in the English Language” Literary Hub
- “I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either” Elizabeth McCracken at Electric Literature
- “28 Stories You Can Read Online for Black History Month” Chicago Review of Books
- “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story” Lincoln Michel for Literary Hub
- The Genius of Toni Morrison’s Only Short Story by Zadie Smith at The New Yorker
- Interview with J California Cooper at Mosaic Magazine
- “The Short Stories and All-Too-Short life of Diane Oliver” by Michael Gonzales for Bitter Southerner
Interconnected Short Stories
- If You Liked Olive Kitteridge, Try These…
- The Long and the Short of It: Linked Story Collections Bridging the Divide by Sonya Chang for The Millions
Dawnie Walton: So, Deesha Philyaw.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes, Dawnie Walton.
Dawnie Walton: I’m so excited to be here with you today. Why are we here? What are we doing? What are we talking about today?
Deesha Philyaw: We’re here because we love short fiction.
Dawnie Walton: It’s magical, isn’t it?
Deesha Philyaw: Yes. And it’s a nice cheat for people like me who can’t finish novels, honestly. I’m just going to keep it 100.
Dawnie Walton: I will say it has been a nice reading cheat for me during the pandemic, when my attention span has been the size of like a little piece of sand.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes.
Dawnie Walton: And being able to dive fully into a world, and come out on the other end in a very satisfying way has been a joy of this past year.
Deesha Philyaw: Yeah. I think for me, I was drawn to short fiction because that was the first form of writing that I was formally taught. I took this flash fiction writing workshop at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts twenty-something years ago. I was taking that class, but I thought you had to write a novel in order to be a real writer, right? I needed to write The Final Revival of Opal & Nev to be a real writer. And I still haven’t finished a novel, but despite that mindset, the short story form just kept tugging at me as a writer. And one thing is that I can more easily disguise the dissatisfaction I had in my life in short fiction, more so than I could. And so, I thought of them as these little stories of discontent, so…
Dawnie Walton: Okay, y’all, for everyone listening, if you don’t know who Deesha Philyaw is, I don’t know where you’ve been in the past year. She is the author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which has won numerous awards: The PEN/Faulkner, The Story Prize, the LA Times Book Prize, the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. And The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was probably one of the most satisfying books that I read…
Deesha Philyaw: Oh, thank you.
Dawnie Walton: … in the past year. And I recognize so much of our shared hometown, Jacksonville, Florida, in those stories, from the references to Publix potato salad, to the price of blue crabs. And the living in Northern cities, and missing the weather at home and really hating the snow was something that resonated for me. And your book is being adapted for television by HBO Max, which is super exciting, congratulations!
Deesha Philyaw: Thank you, so exciting. I’m really looking forward to that. It’s an opportunity to jump back into these stories, but through a different platform, moving forward in time and back in time, that kind of expansiveness that you don’t get in a short story. So, that’s a unique opportunity that I’m excited about.
I want to tell people who you are, too. So, Dawnie Walton, I am so thrilled to be here with you. Dawnie is author of the novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, which Publishers Weekly called a spectacular debut in a starred review. The novel has been named one of 2021’s most anticipated books by Essence, Vogue, The Oprah Magazine, Elle, The Independent, Lit Hub, Pop Sugar, The Millions, and Hypebae.
Dawnie’s work as a fiction writer and journalist explores identity, place, and the influence of pop culture. Dawnie is a MacDowell Fellow, a Tin House Scholar, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s worked as an executive-level editor for magazine and media brands, including Essence, Entertainment Weekly, Getty Images and Life. And Dawnie is my homegirl, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, and she currently lives in Brooklyn, and I am just excited to be here talking with you about short stories and Ursa.
Dawnie Walton: Me as well…. Duuuuuuval! Anytime I talk to you, we have to do the call.
Deesha Philyaw: That’s so weird. I’m so weird doing this. I love it when you do it, though, because you sound cute doing it. Mine sounds weird.
Dawnie Walton: It’s so interesting that we talk about short fiction being somewhat quicker to write. I actually find it the opposite, Deesha. I struggle so much with writing short fiction, and I think it’s because every word choice counts so much. There’s so much pressure on every line. And I feel like with novel writing, there’s room for a little bit more of riffing, a little bit more, not everything has to be so perfect, but I really admire the beauty and the poetry of short fiction and the efficiency of it. It gives me the tingles.
Deesha Philyaw: Yeah.
Dawnie Walton: And speaking of the tingles, your short story collection, you had quite a journey in getting The Secret Lives with Church Ladies published.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes. I got to this collection as a detour from trying to write a novel, that form still stymies me, and my agent said, not, you know, to your point, it’s not so much that short stories are easier, but my agent saw me working on short stories successfully. And she said, well, maybe you could build a collection around this theme of Black women, sex, and the Black church. You can always come back to the novel.
And so, what a wonderful detour this has been. So from the outset, my agent, even as she was encouraging me to write the collection, she’s like, They’re really hard sells, though. Publishers don’t want collections, they want novels. And I’ve been talking to friends of mine who had the same experience, either with publishers directly, or with agents, saying, “You’re an amazing writer, these stories are great, but come back when you have a novel.”
So, I’m thankful that I have an agent who doesn’t think small like that, and just really believes in me and my work, and is like, even if it was going to be a hard sell, let’s do it, you know? So, I love that she was encouraging in that way. And so, I went in feeling like they were kind of low stakes for me with this collection, because my expectations have been managed that it was going to be a hard sell. I did not expect that it would garner me like a big fat book deal if it did get picked up. And I was fully prepared to self-publish it, right? I think self-publishing is a great way to get your work out there.
But I wanted to try the traditional route first. And so, my agent pitched, and she pitched the big names that we all know and love, and it was passed on, and pretty quickly. And included on that pitch list was West Virginia University Press. And the year, maybe some months before we were ready to pitch, because I hadn’t yet gotten three stories sold… That was the other thing my agent said that made it sound very doable.
She liked the stories that I was writing, she saw this theme emerging, and she said, “If you can publish three of these stories, we can go to market on the strength of three published stories, and pitch a partial manuscript.” That felt more doable than “finish this novel that I had started a decade ago.” And you know, I’m like a Girl Scout — like, give me homework. So that was homework.
While I was working on getting those three stories sold, she had met the director of West Virginia University Press through some networking of her own, and mentioned the premise of the collection. And even then, Derek Krissoff was excited about it. So, when it came time to actually pitch, he expressed interest, and their offer was the only offer I received on my collection.
Dawnie Walton: Deesha, that’s unbelievable.
Deesha Philyaw: And it’s not because something… I mean, it’s a different book than the…The book that came out is not the book I turned in, but it wasn’t like massive editing such that there was a lot of work that I had to do, or anything like that. Because it’s a university press, I had two peer reviews, and they were very positive, there were some things that needed to be tweaked and clarified, I had a phenomenal editor. But structurally, the collection, what you see now is pretty much what we sent out, but nobody was feeling it.
Dawnie Walton: Wow! To think that it was a possibility that your book would not have been in the world. I mean, of course, you would’ve self-published, but still, I have to think about all the voices that are out there. And especially voices from Black folks, Brown folks, all kinds of people who have a hard time—we have a hard time with gatekeepers, anyway.
And then to just discount the form out of hand, is something that is incredibly frustrating. As a Black reader, reading your stories was so meaningful to me, to see a kind of woman, a kind of experience that I had never seen before in fiction, and that’s hugely exciting.
Deesha Philyaw: And you know, I think, Dawnie, that that’s part of it. I think they’re editors and publishers in their taste, and they’re looking at the market. But readers like what readers like. And that’s been so affirming for me, to hear people say, and in fairness, it’s not like publishers are the only one saying that about the form, because a lot of readers preface their feedback to me by saying, “I usually don’t like short stories,” or, “I’ve never read a short story collection before,” or “I don’t like short stories, but…” So, there’s something to that. But the readers gave it a chance. And I think that’s what all of us ever want with our stories, in any form in our writing: Give it a chance, instead of the tried and true.
I mean, and we know that’s how publishing works, they publish what they know has worked before, which doesn’t lend itself to being a gateway to new voices and to new forms, and to subversion, and to—I took this workshop this weekend—disrupting realism, and all of those different things. But when it happens, it’s wonderful.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah, yeah. And just thinking about all those voices and the lack of venues. I mean, of course, there are many literary journals, there’s many digital publications that absolutely publish short fiction, but I think that there’s definitely space for more focus on underrepresented communities. And this is where Ursa comes in.
So, Ursa is a new podcast and a new company dedicated to celebrating original short fiction from underrepresented voices. So, there are many words in there that I’m excited about. One, is original. I love finding new writers. And on that note, what kind of writers are you really excited about these days?
Deesha Philyaw: There’s so many, that’s the thing, like for an underrepresented form, there’s some masterful work.
Dawnie Walton: Oh my gosh.
Deesha Philyaw: And so, I think our list could be twice as long. But off the top of my head, when I thought about this question, of course, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People. Brilliant. I’ve never read anything like it before, and when I first heard of it, it was an article, I think in The Guardian, and it was like “Black nerds get their stories,” or something like that. And yes, it is, and so it’s a treasure for us Black geeks, but it’s so smart and unexpected and funny…
Dawnie Walton: So funny.
Deesha Philyaw: … just funny, and then it hits you in the heart, and then you’re laughing at things that maybe you shouldn’t be laughing at, and there’s satire, and you combine satire and short stories, like, I’m in love.
Dawnie Walton: One of my favorite short stories of all time is the epistolary story in Heads of The Colored People, between the two…
Deesha Philyaw: “Belles Letres”!
Dawnie Walton: Girl, whoo! The way they were sling the credentials like weapons, like…
Deesha Philyaw: Well, they started off slinging their credentials, and then they got straight Duval, they really did. It showed the range of us.
Dawnie Walton: Yes. So, for those who haven’t read it, and we highly recommend that you do: It’s a series, it’s back and forth letters between two Black mothers. Their daughters are in private school, and it sort of starts off very kind of passive aggressive, kind of polite disagreement, and then it escalates very—like, in a very funny way toward the end, and it is just like, I mean, I was gasping and laughing while reading that story.
Deesha Philyaw: I think I tweeted Nafissa when I was reading it, in the moment, because I had to take sides, I can’t remember which mom I sided with, but I was like Team So-and-So’s mom. But it really was like nothing I’d read before, and I loved what she did, taking on that notion so many times, we are the only Black girl in different spaces.
And so, here you have the only two Black girls, and instead of them being friends and it being all love, these mothers are at odds. And I just thought, it was wonderful, and especially Black mothers, I love when they get to be messy and not perfect.
Dawnie Walton: Love that.
Deesha Philyaw: Should I continue?
Dawnie Walton: Yes, please do.
Deesha Philyaw: Tyrese Coleman’s collection, How to Sit, is fantastic on a number of levels, but it’s this hybrid, and I think she says something like it’s fiction and nonfiction stories. So, its memoir comprised of fiction and nonfiction, and you don’t know what’s fiction and what’s nonfiction, which is fantastic. And she’s just a tremendous writer. And it’s a slim little edition, but I love those that are like it’s little, but it like packs a wallop, like an emotional wallop. And Tyrese deals with mothers and daughters as well. And so, I find a lot to relate to in her stories.
Dawnie Walton: And I just have to say, I had the pleasure of meeting both Nafissa and Tyrese at Tin House. And Heads of the Colored People wasn’t out yet, and I don’t think How to Sit was out quite yet either. And so, to get to commune with them just before those collections came out was so amazing, and they’re wonderful writers, love them both.
Deesha Philyaw: Yeah. And then satire again, I love satire. Rion Amilcar Scott, The World Doesn’t Require You. So, it’s a collection of short stories and then this amazing novella at the end. Have you read this collection?
Dawnie Walton: I have not read that one yet, but it’s been on my list for a while.
Deesha Philyaw: So, I would even say read the novella first, it might be my favorite part. It’s last, but it’s this brilliant—again, there’s playing with form, it’s hermit crab story, in that you’ve got emails, you’ve got traditional narrative, and you’ve got college syllabus.
Dawnie Walton: Oh, I love that. You know I love that.
Deesha Philyaw: Oh, so I will give just a little teaser, which is that one of the professors is teaching a class called Studies in Loneliness. So, it’s fantastic satire. But the rest of the stories, and this ties to his previous book, this imagined city in Maryland called Cross River. And he’s created a whole origin story, and things that happen in Cross River, all the stories take place in Cross River. It’s just brilliant satire about this imaginary place where Black people live.
Dawnie Walton: Oh, wow!
Deesha Philyaw: And then probably the collection that made me fall in love with short stories, was ZZ Packer’s…
Dawnie Walton: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Deesha Philyaw: …Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Dawnie Walton: Yes, ma’am.
Deesha Philyaw: There are whole scenes from that book that I can picture to this day. Yeah, very, very satisfying.
Dawnie Walton: The Girl Scout story is the one that I immediately think of.
Deesha Philyaw: Mine is the…What was the…? There was the deacon one, where the deacon is being inappropriate with her.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah.
Deesha Philyaw: That’s a different…That’s not the Girl Scout story.
Dawnie Walton: I think that’s a different one. Yeah, but it’s just jam-packed, it’s just like, all hits.
Deesha Philyaw: Right, it was like the—who has an album that has no misses, that like ZZ’S collection. Not a single…It’s like the B sides are A sides.
Dawnie Walton: Yes, exactly.
Deesha Philyaw: And then we got to go to our foremothers, our literary foremothers, like J. California Cooper, and her collections of stories. And that’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten on my collection — people have likened the stories to hers. And Yona Harvey in reviewing the book said that these are the stories that Black women told over the backyard fence, and that the granddaughters of J. California Cooper, need these stories. And I was like, that’s it, I don’t care what anybody else says about my book, that was high, high praise.
And she was a devout Christian, and so she was dealing with similar things that I deal with, but in a different way, because she wasn’t going to be writing about two women having sex in a celebratory way. So, she was very devout, her religion was very important to her. So, we aren’t coming at these stories the same way or these themes in the same way. But that knowing, like she had this deep knowing of Black women and love for Black women, and you can see that in the stories, and that intimacy…
Dawnie Walton: Beautiful.
Deesha Philyaw: It’s just unmatched, I think. And then the last one on my list, blueprint, like Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place, which is a novel, but it’s actually divided into seven connected stories. So, technically you could say, it is a short story collection, but again, that celebration of Black women, and inhabiting their own world.
And that’s what I was trying to do in my collection: This is our world, these are the secrets that we say only to ourselves, or to each other, and that same kind of intimacy and insular world—insular in a good way—that’s what I recall from having read this book, even as a teenager. But it’s certainly one that you come back to again and again.
Dawnie Walton: Can I tell you? Can I tell you that I just read that for the first time about three weeks ago, The Women of Brewster Place?
Deesha Philyaw: What’d you think?
Dawnie Walton: I was blown away by it, and I did not know that it was interconnected stories. I had no idea, I had thought all this time that it was a novel. And of course, I remember when I was a kid, watching the series, the mini-series, that had Oprah, and Lynn Whitfield, and I think Robin Givens was in it. It was like everybody was in it.
But I didn’t remember, certainly the darker moment toward the end of that book, and it is just so full and rich. And to your point, I think lots of books are actually marketed as novels, but they’re really story collections. I mean, I’m thinking of Ayana Mathis’s 12 Tribes of Hattie, is actually for me a short story collection. And Regina Porter’s The Travelers, which came out a couple of years ago. Also, a story collection, but marketed as novels.
So, that’s a great, great list, and I’m going to add to it a bit. One of my favorite writers in any form, novel, memoir, short fiction is Edwidge Danticat. For her tender and lush, and heartbreaking and beautiful depiction of the Haitian and Haitian-American experience. Her collection, Claire of The Sea Light, I think is probably my favorite. Her most recent is Everything Inside, but Claire of The Sea Light does have that connection, it has connection points between some of the stories, and I always find that really, really satisfying, it really is, it is.
Danzy Senna is a writer, I think she’s based out in California, but she writes really hilariously about bougie, artsy, Bohemian Black folks, biracial folks. She has done that and written about the Brooklyn kind of person, and she’s written about the California kind of person. And her collection, You Are Free, is one that I really, really loved. I love to laugh, so there are satirical moments in it, but also like some real emotion in there as well. And I always loved that mix. I have to talk about Danielle Evans.
Deesha Philyaw: Absolutely.
Dawnie Walton: I mean, how brilliant is she?
Deesha Philyaw: The Office of Historical Corrections, I was on a podcast, and we did a whole book club, just myself and the host, on The Stacks Podcast, just about that collection. We just went story by story, and unpacked it. There’s so much there, absolutely.
Dawnie Walton: And her first one, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, that is one that I’ve returned to a few times, the opening story of that, “Virgins,” is so good, and relatable to me as like, summertime with your friends, and getting into some kind of trouble, and all of those things. I admire her so much as a writer, and then she reviewed my book for the Washington Post, which was just like… I mean, that was the most flattering thing, and don’t tell anybody, but it was my favorite review of the book that I read. So, I have to shout her out.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes.
Dawnie Walton: Edward P. Jones, I mean…
Deesha Philyaw: That’s a fantastic… yeah, his collections.
Dawnie Walton: For stories, that center place, and in the case of Edward P. Jones, his Washington DC, Lost in The City is a wonderful collection. I taught a couple of stories out of that book. He’s best known for The Known World, which won I believe it was the Pulitzer, but All Aunt Hagar’s Children, I think it was called. Yeah. Also just really, really brilliant, world building, just incredible, incredible.
And then in terms of like new voices, Christopher Gonzalez is the fiction editor of Barrelhouse. And I read a piece of his, this is the only story of his that I’ve read. But he has a collection called, I’m Not Hungry, But I Could Eat.
Deesha Philyaw: Okay, that cover is amazing. Have you seen it?
Dawnie Walton: I have seen it. It’s so good. And that title, the humor in that title, really gets at something that I love to read. And the piece that I read of his, I think it was on Catapult. I love talking about pop culture, I love writing about pop culture, and its influence on us as people. And he wrote a short story about The Bachelor, which I would say…
Deesha Philyaw: Oh, I have to check that out, because Chris is hilarious.
Dawnie Walton: He’s so funny.
Deesha Philyaw: I got to check that one out.
Dawnie Walton: Oh my gosh, yes. And we have to shout out our fellow Jacksonville writer.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah, do you want to do the honors?
Deesha Philyaw: Dantiel W. Moniz. She said the W’s there for a reason, so we’ve got to say the W.
Dawnie Walton: Yes, it is.
Deesha Philyaw: And our Baby D’s collection is Milk Blood Heat. What a great title.
Dawnie Walton: So great.
Deesha Philyaw: I read the first story, which I believe is the title story. And I remember reading that in the bathtub, and I put book down, and I texted her, and I was like, Whoa! That’s all I could just say, it was like whoa! I was not ready, not ready for that story at all. And then the collection as a whole is just beautiful, and of course, I love the Jacksonville in it, but these meditations on girlhood, and Black womanhood, and something that Dantiel says often in interviews, like there’s more than one way to be Black. And she explores all of them. But then there’s some really wonderful takes on relationships, when they’ve run their course. And the messiness of them, and she just does that so beautifully.
Dawnie Walton: Yeah, on a craft level, it’s just spectacular. And again, I also remember reading that first story. And the very first line…I’m a fan of first lines in fiction. And it just comes at you with a pow, I won’t say what it is, but it involves a knife, and two best friends, and it’s just the way she so carefully chooses each word, there’s such violence in the line, but it’s also very sort of stated in a nonchalant way, that just immediately sets the tone for this story.
Deesha Philyaw: Yeah.
Dawnie Walton: Beautiful, beautiful.
We’re just beginning to dig into what’s happening in short fiction right now. And we are so excited to make Ursa a place where we can celebrate writers and stories we think you ought to know about and where you can read and listen to that beautiful storytelling for yourself.
Deesha Philyaw: Yes. So here’s how Ursa is going to work: Every other week during Season One, we’re going to bring you new episodes. We’ll have author interviews, book club discussions, conversations about the craft of storytelling and the business of publishing, and also audio stories from some amazing writers. You’ll get the first one in your podcast feed very soon.
Dawnie Walton: But we can’t do any of this without your support. We’ve created the Ursa Membership to help fund our show and build a new home for short fiction. You can join us by becoming a paid subscriber in Apple Podcasts, or by going to Ursastory.com/join. In addition to supporting the show, you’ll also get access to exclusive bonus episodes for members.
We’re looking forward to it. Thanks again, and we’ll see you soon.
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