An episode of the 1960s sitcom Bewitched perfectly describes the author-character relationship, according to Linda H. Heuring.
"Samantha the witch is writing a play, and her characters come alive and she couldn't get rid of them," Heuring said. "They were in her living room, and they wouldn't go away because she conjured them out of her subconscious. That's kind of how characters come to me."
Heuring is an award-winning fiction writer. Her debut story collection, A Woman Walked into the Bar, is our Read With Me selection for this month.
Some of her stories are inspired by what she hears. A nearby conversation gave her the idea for "Chaperone for Cousin Katie."
"I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, and a little girl was busy coloring -- about four years old -- and an older man asked if she had a boyfriend," Heuring said. "And she said 'Yes, sir, one.' And then she continued coloring, and then paused. 'I'll tell you what; I'm gonna marry him.'"
Heuring was captivated. "I thought 'Oh, my god! What is she going to be like when she grows up?'" The author then imagined this girl as a teenager preparing to elope with a young man named Calvin:
"Do your parents know?" I said, then rolled my eyes at the stupidity of my own question. Katie glared again. For someone who was getting married tonight, she wasn't cutting me much slack. Her parents didn't like Calvin, which is why the unhappy couple got me as a ride-along tonight.
My mom said Katie was boy crazy. My uncle said when Katie was little they were at church and an old man asked if she had a boyfriend. Katie just sat there doodling on her program for a second, then she said, "Yes, sir, one."
A Southern "voice" dominates Heuring's stories, and you can clearly hear it in "Little Mister." In this story, a young man thinks he can get a stud fee for a dachshund his mother adopted. The dog has no papers proving a pedigree, but that doesn't stop the protagonist from trying. The story opens in a courtroom:
My momma don't want nothing to go to waste or no one to go around without a goodly amount of loving. That's why we wasn't surprised when she bring home that little weiner dog that started all the trouble. I swear, your honor, on a whole stack of Bibles like that black one you got up there, it was that what started it all off.
"He just started speaking to me," Heuring said. "And I know writers say that all the time, but that's really how it happened."
The young man's speech sounded familiar. "I'm originally from southern Indiana, I lived in Georgia and South Carolina -- I do know that vernacular," Heuring said. "But this guy just became more and more his own character as the story progressed for me, as I was writing it."
This voice is on full display in Heuring's reading of "Little Mister." You can hear the entire story in the video clip below.
As a writer of short fiction, Heuring pushes back against a common notion that short stories are less worthy than longer works. "People tend to look at short stories as practice for the novelist," she said. "You start out and everybody writes poems in elementary school and they all rhyme, and then everybody moves to short stories in high school or early college. But when you're a real writer, you write novels -- and that is just so much bunk."
Heuring says she wrote three novels; none, she says, is as good as her short stories.
Short fiction might get short shrift in the U.S. but it's popular in Ireland, where Fish Publishing holds an annual contest for short stories and poetry. In 2012, Fish chose Heuring's story "Roommates" as the first-place winner of their International Short Story Prize. The judge was British novelist David Mitchell, who wrote Cloud Atlas and Slade House.
Heuring traveled to Ireland to accept the award and read her story. "Everyone was so excited about literature there," she said. "There was a poetry reading, and they had to get a bigger room because they had too many people coming to hear the poet."
After her reading, Heuring says a woman stopped her on the street, wanting to know more. "'Okay, so which boy ended up with the girl in this story? I bought the book but tell me anyway,'" Heuring said laughing.
Nearly all the stories in this collection previously appeared in literary journals, such as Fish Anthology and Crack the Spine. Heuring now lives in Carpentersville, Ill. Her book is published by All Nations Press.
Next month, our "Read With Me" series returns to non-fiction with David W. Berner's October Song: A Memoir of Music and the Journey of Time.
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