Blog Stop Book Tour featuring Susan Woodring

This is my first time hosting an author on a blog tour (thank you, Mary Lewis from Blog Stop Book Tours, for arranging this!), and I’m so excited to welcome Susan Woodring, author of the brilliant short story collection, Springtime on Mars (reviewed HERE). I mentioned to Susan that Books on the Brain focuses on book clubs, and she suggested she write about why a short story collection is a great choice for a book club. Here’s what she came up with!

Coming into This Planet Again and Again: The Case for Short Story Collections
By Susan Woodring

“A story collection?” The woman, drifting amid a crowd of authors and book fair browsers, gives me a look of uncertainty: wrinkled brow, a moment’s hesitation. I touch the cover of my book, channeling words of comfort to it like a mother speaking to a distressed child. It is my child, my baby, caught now under the glare of this stranger’s scrutiny. Then, brightening, the woman says, “Say, don’t you also have a novel?”

As a novelist-turned-short-story-writer, I face this kind of thing all the time. Most people prefer non-fiction, but if they are going to read fiction, let it be a novel. They want to get cozy with a group of characters, live with those characters for a bit, follow them across a stretch of narrative time, all the while hoping for some happiness—or at least resolution—at the end. They want reading fiction to be a full-blown relationship, not a date; a home, not a glitzy hotel. They want to settle in, hunker down, and read.

I don’t blame them. I love novels. There’s nothing like moving into a fictitious world, getting to know its inhabitants, making friends, staying for dinner. Even better: I love it when a novel is so good, I come to the end with reluctance; I want it to go on and on. I completely understand the attraction. Yet, there are days when a girl needs a night out on the town. She needs a romp, no strings attached. To be dazzled, drawn close, given a glimpse of the funny, the ironic, the poignant, the wild. A girl needs a short story.

I wonder why fiction-readers often shy away from short story collections. You would think, with how limited everyone’s time is these days, a person would be thrilled to depart on a literary adventure that she or he can begin and complete in thirty minutes’ time. If coming to the end of a novel is satisfying, then wouldn’t a short story collection—with ten or more endings—be even more satisfying? Why wouldn’t a reader who finds joy and companionship with a few characters over the course of three hundred pages be all the richer for a series of quick but intimate encounters with dozens of characters?

The short-story form, I suppose, has a reputation for being hyper-literary. There are a fair number of scholarly journals out there publishing rather dry, pointedly confusing and—dare I say it?—boring stories. It is true that the short story is the purest, most artful form of fiction. While some writers do blatantly misuse the form, only wanting to show how smart they are—how elite—most short story writers simply love the art of short fiction. Short stories are, at their best, quirky, humorous, searching, true, and smart. The short story is able to crystallize a single, breath-catching moment in a character’s life—a moment that will, for that character, change everything. You can liken a well-written short story to a brilliant gem held under a light, the writer turning it just so until it glints brilliantly for a breath-taking instant. These extraordinary glimmers of truth, depth, and nuance flash again and again in a good collection.

I think a short story collection is the perfect choice for book clubs. For starters, there’s the obvious advantage of each story’s being self-contained. If you’re not smitten with a story in the first few pages, if it’s about dogs and you loathe dogs or if something about the narrative voice or the central character irritates you, fine. Move on to the next. The beauty of a short story collection is its variety; you’re almost guaranteed to find something you’ll like. Even the most eclectic mix of individuals can find something to love in a book of stories. More: a collection of short stories written by the same author is the best of both worlds. Sure, there’s the variety, but there’s also a common thread running through the stories. A collection of stories contains recurrent themes, situations, and life-questions. Each story offers a new way of seeing a common theme or motif. This makes for a lively, insightful, and challenging book talk. Also, a short story collection can be as comforting as a novel since you’re in the hands of the same author throughout. The scenery might change, and the people are different, but it’s a familiar voice speaking the story to you; you can be assured this writer will guide you through this story just as skillfully and as faithfully as he or she guided you through the last.

I don’t know if I’m able to convince the doubting woman at the book fair or how much success I’ll find in my mission to turn the world into short-story readers. As a novelist and a short-story writer, though, I can say which is the hardest to write, which demands the most from me in terms of talent, restraint, and insight. When you write a novel, you reinvent the world. When you write a short story collection, you reinvent the world ten times over. Reading a short story collection, then, is as big, as triumphant, as satisfying as coming into this planet again and again, each time seeing something new.

Susan’s Bio (from her website): Susan Yergler Woodring, an award-winning short story writer and novelist, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. She also lived in California, Alabama, Illinois, and Indiana as a child. Upon graduating from Western Carolina University, she spent a year teaching in Vologda, Russia before moving to the foothills of North Carolina to teach middle school. Susan is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte. She is the author of one novel, The Traveling Disease. Her short fiction has earned many honors, including the 2006 Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction Award and the 2006 Isotope Editor’s Prize. Her work has appeared in Quick Fiction, Yemassee, Ballyhoo Stories, Slower Traffic Keep Right, The William and Mary Review, Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South (Press 53). Susan currently lives, writes, and home-schools her two children in Drexel, North Carolina.

Susan Woodring’s website can be found HERE

Susan has agreed to give away a copy of her book to one lucky winner. Leave a comment HERE by midnight PST, Friday, June 6th. Thank you, Susan! Wishing you all the best of luck with your short story collection, Springtime on Mars!

Review and Giveaway: Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring

When my kids were very small, I would find myself with little snippets of time, perhaps while waiting at the pediatrician’s office, or watching a toddler gymnastics class, or while the kids were napping.  I found I could read short stories in a single sitting, and there was something really satisfying about that, unlike a novel, where it might be days until my next opportunity to sit down with my book, and I would need to go back and reread to figure out where I was. 

Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring is a short story collection filled with intensely personal domestic situations of quiet desperation.   There are 11 stories, set in the 1950’s until the present day, loosely connected by recurrent themes of science and technology, marriage and relationships, love and loss.  

Charming, deceptively simple, and utterly American, many of these tales depict the country at the brink of change and huge scientific advances. Others show the struggle between faith in God and faith in science.  Ranging from the introduction of the television into our living rooms, to the Kennedy assassination, to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Springtime on Mars holds up a mirror and shows us not only who we were, but who we are. 

In Zenith, 1954, Reverend Joe and his wife Marianne, pregnant with twins, are given a welcoming gift by their congregation: 

I knew Frank did not hold to the elders’ decision to gift us with a television set, a worthless diversion that not only inspired rampant idleness, but also one that was relatively new- the whole thing could turn out to be nothing more than a Hollywood fad.” 

Woodring breathes life into her characters so quickly- within a few short paragraphs you fully grasp who they are.  In the story Inertia, Lizzie’s mother sends her to the basement for a jar of preserves and some beans.  She’s reluctant to go, and when she gets there, we understand why:  

“The shelves on the far wall held my grandmother’s canning efforts:  tomatoes, okra, peppers, and preserves: strawberry, pear, and rhubarb-strawberry.   There were empty spaces now, as there always were this late in summer, but since my grandmother had passed away last winter, the holes were unsettling.  My mother had promised to keep the garden up, but she’d tended only to her bees…” 

Later, Lizzie’s father attempts to explain her mother’s grief over her grandmother to Lizzie this way: 

“He assured me my mother’s need to tend to them {the bees} would pass, the same as people’s need to watch the skies for news from other worlds.  He taught math at the junior college and this seemed to give him an insight into why people believed what they believed.  It’s all, he said, an irrational desire to control the uncontrollable.  I wanted him to think I had a scientific mind like his, so I nodded and told him I understood, though I didn’t.” 

I was perhaps most touched and completely caught off guard by the story Beautiful, in which a father is staying in a hotel, apart from his family, on an extended business trip.  His wife and daughters come down for a visit, but there are huge walls of silence and misunderstanding.  He realizes his 13 year old didn’t want to make the trip; she seems embarrassed and unsure of how to act around her dad.  He then remembers how it used to be: 

“When she was little, though, she used to cup his face in her hands and draw it very close to her own.  Listen, she would say.  There’s a crisis on planet Gimbel and we have to go there now. “ 

Throughout that story, I was rooting for the dad so much.  I kept thinking,  Do something!  You’re going to lose your family!  The relief I felt when he finally took some action to connect with his kids is hard to describe.  I got so choked up and was surprised at how much it affected me. 

Susan Woodring has a unique voice and a disarming style.  Many short story collections are woefully uneven, but that is not the case here.   I found real moments of charm and humor in every single story.  I enjoyed this book so much and enthusiastically recommend it. 

The author has generously agreed to provide a copy of Springtime on Mars to one lucky commenter.  Please leave a comment here and a winner will be selected on June 6th, the date of Susan Woodring’s Books on the Brain stop on her blog tour.  On that date I will post a beautiful essay Susan has written on why a short story collection is a great choice for a book club. 

Susan Woodring’s website can be found HERE 

Here are excellent discussion questions for Springtime on Mars: 

Book Club Discussion Questions compiled by Ashley Roberts, March 2008.

1.   Though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, what were your expectations before reading the book? Did the stories meet these expectations or were you surprised?

2.   Susan Woodring plays with family dynamics. What do these different types of families have in common? How are they different?  

3.  Why do you think “Springtime on Mars” is the book’s namesake? Does this story accurately represent the rest of the stories? 

4.  In “Birds of Illinois,” what do the birds symbolize? The meat? 

5.  Six of the eleven stories are written in the first person. Do you think these stories would be diminished in any way if we didn’t have the thoughts of the leading characters?  

6.  Woodring plays with different fears in “Inertia.” What fears are present? Are the characters fearful of different things? Does fear appear in other stories? 

7.  Compare Jean and Harold’s relationship in “Morning Again” to Gladys and Andy’s. How would you describe their understanding of their roles in their respective relationships? 

8.  In “Love Falling,” there’s a lot of tension in the house. What is the breaking point for Julie? Why does she ultimately decide to leave? 

9.  Woodring describes the weather with much detail. Why do you think this is, and can you draw any connections between the weather and the temperament of the story?  

10.   What do you think Woodring is implying in her observations of belief systems: religious, political, and extraterrestrial? 

11.   Russia makes a frequent appearance in the stories. What do you think it symbolizes? 

12.   The parent/child relationship is often very strained in the stories. What do you think Woodring is trying show the reader?  

13.  When Shannon urges Jean to take the triangle IQ test in “Morning Again,” she responds, “I’ve raised three children.” What do you think this implies about Jean’s values? Shannon’s? 

14.  All of the characters are unique. Is there one in particular you most empathize with? Why or how?