Tell It Strange
In the short story “Macerated,” the narrator walks a dicey line between two men, both of whom have mysterious pasts. Dan, her ruffian partner, may be running from the law. Ethiel, their gloomy neighbor, may be damaged by several tours in war zones. The tightly crafted scenes flow between adjoining porches, where overheard sounds and ajar doors hint at the edgy worlds in which the three characters navigate. In the background of this Florida setting, Dan is grilling a bloody steak and drinking Manhattans. The trapped squirrel in the first line becomes the central image of captivity – and connection. The narrator is longing for freedom. It’s all very strange.
Indeed, Tell It Strange was the theme of a collaborative contest held this summer by The Writer and Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. We asked contestants to riff off two lines by novelist and short story writer Annie Proulx:
“We’re all strange inside. We learn how to disguise our differences as we grow up.” –The Shipping News
“There’s something wrong with everybody, and it’s up to you to know what you can handle.” –Close Range
Author Emily Webber, of Plantation, Fla., won first place with “Macerated.” Laura Jean Schneider, of Corona, N.M., won second place for “The Young Wife,” about a voyeuristic moment by a man lonely for his wife, and Julie Reiser, of Baltimore, Md., won third place for “The Hippie Picnic,” about a spiritualist retreat that goes annoyingly psychedelic.
We hope you enjoy these strange stories and learning about the careful approaches each author took. You can read judges’ comments and interviews with all three winners on the next page. We look forward to holding more contests in which we feature fiction and essays by emerging voices in the publishing landscape. Keep writing. It’s not so strange to think you might end up in these pages.
—Alicia Anstead, Editor-in-Chief, The Writer
By Emily Webber
The night we found the squirrel trapped in the atrium, Dan couldn’t stop going on about the neighbor. “He’s the type of person you stumble across and then he ends up killing your entire family,” Dan said as he fixed the Manhattans and dropped in the cherries. He insisted on cocktail hour every night – on preparing a drink that to me screamed of grandfathers, but to him represented the New York elite. Except we were far flung from New York and no young people in Florida drank these kinds of cocktails. Here they were all about mojitos and margaritas.
“That’s a bit harsh,” I grabbed my drink. We never strayed from Manhattans and I still couldn’t help but wince after the first sip.
“His official title in the serial killer dictionary would be The Macerator,” Dan said and pulled the steaks from the fridge. “For his ability to waste away anything of substance into nothing.”
“Stop it. Who knows what’s happened to him. Give him a chance.”
Dan slapped the raw steaks on the cutting board, blood leaked into the tiny grooves like lifelines running out in every direction. From the kitchen, we heard a rustling outside in the atrium, a small area surrounded by high walls and a shorter one in the middle dividing up the spaces between the two houses, but aside from the grill it seemed empty. I wondered if Ethiel was outside next door.
“Taking in stray animals is cute and quirky…humans not so much. I don’t like how he loiters around outside at night. Who does that in front of their own home?” Dan said over my shoulder as he let me season the steaks. I liked that the salt transformed them just a little – into something sparkling and more flavorful.
“Loiters,” I said and then said the neighbor’s name. “Ethiel.” I had found myself in the habit of repeating Dan’s words back to him as response and throwing in something he wouldn’t want to hear. He rarely reacted. Our master bedroom shared a wall with Ethiel’s and at night when I couldn’t sleep, I would listen for sounds of movement and voices.
“I’ve seen you invite him on the porch when he’s standing outside. I was going to let it go but your trusting nature is going to get us hurt one day. I worry.”
I had invited Ethiel in on the porch a few times, wordlessly he would come in when I opened the door. We both seemed to respect the silence. He would sink low in the chair, elbow on the table, and head in hand. I would slide my Manhattan over to him and he would drink it in a few gulps, leaving the cherries for me. We would stare at the cracks in the concrete and watch the dark outlines of lizards on the screen.
I didn’t remind Dan that he had his own shady past. That we were in Florida because he was trying to outrun it and it wasn’t something still haunting him from when he was a stupid teenager. If I had no trust or belief in second chances, we wouldn’t be standing here. Dan was himself a second chance, possibly more, if I even knew all the things he was running from. There were debts and threats and shadows of things that I could not entirely make out. It was impossible to tell if these things had followed us down this far but likely they had.
Dan opened the door to the atrium and I heard him yell something from outside. I saw the squirrel shoot out to a corner. Dan came back in and slammed the door shut so the glass rattled.
“Quick, get the shovel.”
“What are you going to do with a shovel?”
“Can’t you just get it? That guy next door looks like he could use something for dinner.”
Ethiel was thin but he was ropy. The nights I had spent on the porch with him, I could see the veins in his arms and muscle. Sometimes it was an advantage to have people think one way of you, when you were really something else.
“Don’t hurt him,” I handed Dan the shovel. The squirrel was frantically trying to get a grip on the smooth walls and catapult himself out. “He must have fallen in off the roof.”
“Come on, I wouldn’t hurt anything. But these things have rabies or worse.” The squirrel froze at the sound of the door opening. Dan scooped him up with the shovel and launched him over the shorter wall so he was now on Ethiel’s side. “Get me the steaks, let’s get this going. And how about those skills?” Dan stuck up his hand for a high five.
“Are you kidding? You have to at least go over there and tell him.” I took the shovel back and ignored his hand.
“You can do it when you invite him on the porch later,” Dan laughed. “Seriously though, that has to stop. Tonight.”
Later when Dan passed out on the couch, I went over. The wooden gate was unlatched and slightly open. When Ethiel opened the door he had a peanut in one hand, a half smile appeared on his face.
“I saved him,” he said. “I did it – with a ladder.”
“And you fed him,” I pointed to the peanut.
“Not just. I gave him a blanket too in case he couldn’t get out. I’ve done a few tours overseas, it’s nice to do something easy and good.” Ethiel looked away.
“I want to see,” I offered my hand and he squeezed hard so I felt it in my bones.
He pulled me through the doorway. I was worried for a moment. For me and Dan. But I hoped Ethiel was The Macerator. That he would soften me, wear me away, separate me into pieces – so that I couldn’t go back to what I was – or offer me a ladder, a lifeline to something else.
Judge’s comments on “Macerated”
“The story is contained succinctly in one space, one moment. And yet an entire mysterious world is revealed. Every word counts, and the yearning, plaintive voice of the narrator allows us to feel we are inside the narrative. These elements, combined with the level of intrigue and nuanced snippets of backstory, as well as metaphor, show the author’s trust in her craft – and in the reader.”
Alicia Anstead, Editor-in-Chief
“The descriptive and poignant language gave me that ‘fly on the wall’ feeling. I could see the blood from the steak seeping into the cutting board and hear the squirrel rustling in the atrium, almost as if I were there.”
Aubrey Everett, Managing Editor
“‘Macerated’ captures what I think John Gardner was referring to when he said that writers cannot fake strangeness, those ‘darkest, most ancient, and shrewd’ parts of ourselves that make us human. In Dan’s menace, Ethiel’s past, the narrator’s own longings, and, especially, in the steaks, the writer brings primitive and powerful forces to the surface of the story, but without using a heavy hand. The writer’s touch is deft, and as a result the glimmer of hope at the end is much more resonant.”
Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty
“I like the theme of lifelines that the writer weaves throughout this story, and the mystery of how people keep each other together (or rip each other apart). All three characters are fully developed and real, despite the gaping holes the writer leaves for us – something I find particularly skillful. Much like the language and tone, ‘Macerated’ is a subtle story, but one not easily forgotten.”
Britt Gambino, Director of Communications & Events
Meet Emily Webber
Emily Webber writes in South Florida surrounded by swamps and alligators. She lives with her husband Sam and their cat Fred, who provide support when she writes in the early morning, late nights and weekends at a desk in her living room. “I can’t be in a totally silent area,” Webber says. “I like other stuff going on.” The hours she writes reflect stolen moments from her day job as a project manager at a software company. “I love my day job,” she says. “When I committed to the writing time on a daily basis – in addition to my other career – I felt like a writer. I realized I could have two career paths. Even though I have to spend a lot of my free time writing, it’s really a way for me to understand people and our world.” To develop her writing chops, Webber has been a participant at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop as well as AWP, and is a graduate of Florida Atlantic University. “Macerated” is her first published short story. We asked Webber to tell us about developing the story, her process and her writing life.
How did you discover your storyline? Did you see something? Were you pulling from an experience?
I had two things stuck in my head. My husband and I really did have a squirrel trapped in our atrium. Also, my dad and brother are both chefs, so there is always a lot of food talk in my family and this word macerated kept floating around. But the rest is all imagination. The whole concept of this contest really reflects what I like to explore in my writing – that what is underneath the surface is often very different from what we see at first glance.
Tell us about writing the story. Did it come to you all at once, or did you labor over it?
I usually labor over my longer stories and go through many drafts. However, I started writing some smaller pieces as a way to let myself be more open and free in my writing and explore ideas without committing to a longer story. While I still did go through a couple of drafts for this, it did allow me to be more focused in my writing and more carefully choose my words even from the first draft.
What is your process for revision?
I have learned to accept that there is always going to have to be much time spent on revision. I now let myself use the first draft to write myself into a story and not obsess over anything but getting it down. After the first draft, I go back and look for the heart of the story and cut and move things, focus in on scenes and get more specific with my details. I also have a trusted friend, Rachel Luria, who usually reads something after I’ve gone through several drafts. It is good to get another perspective because sometimes it is hard to tell if you have translated everything you have in your head onto the page.
What brought you to writing? How did you know you were a writer?
I’ve always been fond of telling stories and understood it as something important. My mother researched and wrote the stories of my grandparents. She spent a lot of time doing this when I was younger, so I grew up around the idea that stories meant something and that this was a way to remember, respect and honor those you loved. Fortunately, I also have a good friend who really encouraged me to put myself out there even when my work life veered away from writing. Once I started engaging with a community of writers, learning, writing every day and putting my work out there I knew I was a writer.
What inspires you as a writer?
I have lived in Florida all my life so the landscape of Florida is definitely a big part of my writing. Many people think it is just hot and flat here, but we have all kinds of cultures mixed together in this swampy landscape where all kinds of things are lurking. Also, other writers inspire me. I read a lot of contemporary poetry for inspiration. Poets such as Matthew Dickman and Terrance Hayes: They have this really beautiful, raw, sometimes funny quality to their poems. They make me want to do the same with my stories.
What’s your top tip for aspiring writers?
Put yourself out there and find a writing community to engage with. Come to writing from a non-traditional path. I don’t have an MFA, and my degree is in economics. This makes me constantly seek out opportunities to learn and connect with other writers. There are a lot of workshops, writing groups and ways to engage even without an MFA. Overall, I have found the writing community to be a very supportive one even with someone who is just starting out. And have fun with it!
Emily Webber’s required reading
by Jess Walter
For characters you can’t forget and a depiction of the messy beauty of our lives.
by Don DeLillo
As an example of stories that can help us understand and process horrific events.
by Tim Winton
For a sense of place; and it is a descriptive wonder.
by Anthony Doerr
For lyrical writing and because it makes us feel more human.
by Kent Haruf
For quiet, simple prose.
by Leonardo Padura
To represent fiction in translation that is witty, angry and also funny; it shows the toughness of life in another country.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
by Karen Russell
As a reminder to be inventive and add some magic to stories.
Pamela Painter and Lydia Davis
For short fiction that packs a punch.
“The Young Wife”
By Laura Jean Schneider
New Mexico-based writer Laura Jean Schneider lives a “rural ranch life” and uses nature to inspire her stories. She is enrolled in an MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts studying fiction and short stories, and sticks to a six-days-a-week morning writing routine.
“Physical movement encourages mental movement,” says Schneider. “Nature is gentle, brutal, adaptive, harsh but ultimately neutral and unapologetic. There’s a lot to learn from that.”
She was drawn to the Tell It Strange prompt out of her appreciation for Annie Proulx’s work. She wrote “The Young Wife” in one sitting.
“Doing a lot of internal work before you sit down to write a piece is crucial,” she says. “It might not look like you’re working, but mulling on your material is powerful and productive.”
“The Hippie Picnic”
By Julie Reiser
The act of writing is an evolving process for many writers. Julie Reiser says she started out using a yellow legal pad and pen, then upgraded to a Moleskine and has recently taken the digital leap to Evernote. The app synchs with all her tech devices and allows her to write whenever (and wherever) inspiration hits.
“Mostly, my writing process consists solely of applying a bucket of ass-glue to my chair,” says Reiser. “Once I finally manage to sit down, things happen.”
She contemplated composing her winning entry as an essay or a work of immersive journalism or as creative non-fiction, but found that putting too much thought into the pre-writing process delayed her work.
“It became very much a game of thinking about writing rather than just actually writing,” she says. “At the end of the day, that doesn’t produce pages. When I finally let go and just let the piece write itself, it came out much more cleanly and directly.”