What I Read and Wrote and Did in 2021

I published two new stories in 2021: “Muhammad Ali’s Ballpoint Pen” in Kelp Journal, and “The Pot” over at Jellyfish Review (which also nominated it for a Pushcart Prize). My story “God” (which first appeared in BOMB Magazine) was reprinted over at Greg Olear’s Sunday Pages, and my story “Joan of Arc” (which first appeared in The Adroit Journal) was reprinted in the Angel Tears book Nicolas Cage. My story “The Book” (from Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day) was read live in London by actress MyAnna Buring as part of the WordTheatre Missing You show, and “The Cape” (from Tales of Falling and Flying) appeared again on the Selected Shorts podcast, as read by Tony Yazbeck. I got a nice mention from Albert Liau over at Craft Literary in his essay “Art of the Opening: Move Fast and Make Things Happen“, and my story “The Tunnel” popped up on a list of favorite short horror stories put together by Sam Reader at Tornightfire.com. I did a reading (via Zoom) at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and placed four stories which will appear in early 2022: “The Wheelbarrow” in The Sewanee Review, “Bear” at Craft Literary, “The Ship on the Horizon” at Air/Light, and “Dandelions” in the upcoming anthology Small Odysseys: Selected Shorts Presents 35 New Stories (which will be out on March 15). (There will also be an all-day (480-minute!) performance of those 35 stories (plus music, dance, and film inspired by them) at Symphony Space in New York on March 26, 2022. Tickets will be free at the door the day of the show.)

Life-wise, not a whole lot happened. I sat in my house a lot. I watched a lot more horror movies (my favorite from 2021, by far, was The Night House), then got heavily into The Expanse and then, when that dried up, Babylon 5, which I hadn’t watched when it was on in the 90s because it looked so stupid, but which turned out to be one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. The writing is tremendous—they routinely turn ridiculous-seeming premises inside-out to arrive at unexpectedly profound and truly wrenching emotional conclusions (which is really my main interest as a writer). I’m so sad I’m almost done with the series (I’m currently 88 of 110 episodes in); I even bought a Vorlon ambassador t-shirt off the internet (don’t tell anybody).

What else? Rachel and I traveled across the country to go to a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard, where we ate 90 lbs of delicious lobster salad. We watched Succession like everyone else in the world, and then promptly forgot all about it. I am still doing my daily exercises which I started a year and a half ago when I hurt my back; nothing hurts anymore and I’m getting really good at pull-ups. I had a great monthly sock subscription which brought me much joy, but at the end of the year the company went out of business, so I am currently navigating the grieving process. Here is my favorite picture I took this year:

On the teaching front, I continued to run my usual short story workshops, both privately and at UCLA Extension. I had current and past students accepted into MFA programs at UC Irvine, UC Riverside, NYU, CalArts, UNM, and SIUC, while others published stories in Freeman’s, Wigleaf, Maudlin House, Atticus Review, Faultline, Apex, Prismatica, Down & Out, and Narrative Magazine, among others. I also mentored another two high school student writers through The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. I’m very thankful to all my students; I don’t know how I would have gotten through the pandemic without them (knock wood!).

Reading-wise, it was an excellent year. I went on a haunted house jag and read about 20 haunted house novels I hadn’t read before. I enjoyed The Elementals by Michael McDowell, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, The Cipher by Kathe Koja, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R.A. Dick, The House on Abigail Lane by Kealan Patrick Burke, Slade House by David Mitchell, and The Good House by Tananarive Due; but my favorites were The Uninvited by Dorothy McCardle (I’ve always loved the 1944 movie but somehow it never even occurred to me it was based on a book before I suddenly found out), the creepy-as-hell Marigold by Sara Gran (available only in podcast form on Audible), and—especially—the complete Blackwater novellas by Michael McDowell, which is really much more than a simple (or even complex) haunted house novel—it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life, and easily the most fun I’ve had reading in years. I really can’t say enough about it—it’s like a Depression-era small town Alabama family saga version of Twin Peaks; no FBI and no diner, but possible river monsters instead. The new version from Valancourt even includes an introduction by Nathan Ballingrud, one of my favorite living writers. Pick it up, people! You won’t be disappointed. (There’s also a fantastic audio version available.)

Some other favorites of the year: the Vernon Subutex trilogy by Virginie Despentes, Body by Harry Crews, the mysterious and delightful Duplex by Kathryn Davis, The History of Bones by John Lurie (an extremely funny and very sad book about trying to stay true to your art in the face of tremendous opposition (from both within and without)), The Immaculate Void by Brian Hodge (a terrifying cosmic horror novel which I read three times (or rather, listened to, as it’s only available on audio)), A Riot of Goldfish by Kanoko Okamoto, P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorized Biography by Frances Donaldson (Wodehouse’s life was mostly boring (all he ever did was write), except for one noteworthy exception (in which he was accused of treachery and sedition during the war)), Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (probably the most informative book I read this year), Hardcore by Mik Grantham, When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck, Essays and Fictions by Brad Phillips (which is kinda like if Tao Lin and Brian Evenson got together to write a collection of Henry Miller stories), The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez, When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom (I suspect I read this when I was little because it felt eerily familiar, though it might just have been That Kind of Book), The Trees by Percival Everett, Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, The History of America in My Lifetime by Brooks Sterritt, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch, and The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (the Great Viking Novel).

I read two great books related to stand-up comedy: the harrowing Running the Light by Sam Tallent, and the hilarious faux-memoir Based on a True Story by Norm MacDonald (RIP); two books by Donald Westlake (The Hook and The Ax); two by S.A. Cosby (Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears); two by Sjowall & Wahloo (The Locked Room and The Abominable Man); two by Stephen Graham Jones (Night of the Mannequin and My Heart is a Chainsaw (I can still see the town from this book so clearly in my mind)); and Three by Yuri Herrera

My favorite story collections I read this year were Antisocieties by Michael Cisco (extremely creepy and mentally bothersome!), The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, and Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (which I’d been meaning to read for 35 years (felt good to finally tick that one off)). My single favorite story I read this year was “The Match” by Jeffrey Ford, which you can find in his wonderful collection Big Dark Hole. I also loved “The Wind” by Lauren Groff, which you can read here (you should probably have your Kleenex ready), “Flotsam” by Deborah Eisenberg, “Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart” by Sam Miller, “How Soon Until We’re Deadly” by Kevin Moffett, “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff, “Seven” by Edwidge Danticat, and “56-0” by T.C. Boyle.

I also had the pleasure of blurbing 9 books I loved this year: Here is a Game We Could Play by Jenny Bitner, Love Stories & Other Love Stories by Justin Brouckaert, Daughters of the State by Leigh Chadwick, Scales of the Ouroboros by Mark Jednaszewski, Turmeric & Sugar by Anna Vangala Jones, Body High by Jon Lindsey, Family Solstice by Kate Maruyama, How the Moon Works by Matt Rowan, and last but by no means least, The Nothing That Is by the brilliant Kyle Winkler.

And finally, to close things out, The Worst Book I Read This Year was Peter Benchley’s Jaws, which was made even worse by the fact that halfway through I suddenly realized I’d read and hated it just as much only two years ago! Apparently I had then banished it from my mind until the ongoing misery brought back the repressed memory. Anyway… stick with the movie! Would be my recommendation. The book doesn’t even have Quint’s great speech about the sinking of the Indianapolis in it! It’s like a donut with no hole. A terrible donut. A terrible, boring, stupid, tasteless donut that I have now somehow eaten twice.

Anyway, here’s to 2022! I bought a new mug to see me through:

Spotlight on “The Tunnel”

I was delighted to find “The Tunnel” (from Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day) mentioned in this article about short horror stories by Sam Reader over at TorNightfire.com. The list also includes the story “Fingers” by Rachael Heng, which appeared in last year’s Tiny Nightmares anthology, which also featured my story “Pictures of Heaven.” The list as a whole is a good one, too—can’t go wrong with Brian Evenson, The Twilight Zone, or Lisa Tuttle’s recently re-issued Nest of Nightmares! And I am officially adding Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ghost Variations to my TBR list.

Small Odysseys from Selected Shorts

I have a story called “Dandelions” coming out next March in Small Odysseys, the first-ever anthology from Selected Shorts. In celebration of their 35th Anniversary, Small Odysseys will present 35 original stories from writers who have been featured on Selected Shorts, including Aimee Bender, Michael Cunningham, Edwidge Danticat, Lauren Groff, Etgar Keret, Victor LaValle, myself, and many more. Edited by Hannah Tinti, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman. Now available to pre-order.

The 35 stories in this volume will also be honored in a full-day event at the time of publication, performed live at Symphony Space in New York and streamed in real time all over the globe.

“The Book” at WordTheatre in London

If you’re in London this weekend, my story “The Book” (from Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day) will be performed at WordTheatre as part of their MISSING YOU program, alongside stories by Ben Okri, Kevin Brockmeier, Ann Beattie, Brian Doyle, John Edgar Wideman, and Allan Gurganus. Readers will include Olivia Williams, Harriet Walter, Rhashan Stone, Damien Molony, Lesley Nicol, Guy Paul, and MyAnna Buring (who will be reading “The Book”). Tickets available here.

Joan of Arc and Nicolas Cage

My friends over at Angel Tears joined up with my friends over at The Nicolas Cage Fan Club and put out this book, NICOLAS CAGE, which includes (among other things) my story “Joan of Arc” (which first appeared in The Adroit Journal) — don’t ask me what Joan of Arc has to do with Nicolas Cage (my personal theory is the link works somehow via GHOST RIDER) but it’s a really cool book that also includes NC’s full filmography on the inside flaps so you can check them all off as you see them! Pick up a copy from the Angel Tears Website if you see fit 🔥💀🔥

“The Cape” on Selected Shorts

My story “The Cape” is on the Selected Shorts podcast again, as read by actor Tony Yazbeck, so I figured this would be a good time to point out that anyone interested in that story can find it in my 2017 collection Tales of Falling and Flying, which also includes three other stories that have appeared on Selected Shorts: “The Dodo,” “The Monster,” and “The Man, the Restaurant, and the Eiffel Tower.” (My stories “The TV” and “The Book,” which have also been on the show, can be found in my 2011 collection Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, and “The Vatican” can be read online at Electric Literature.) Speaking of Selected Shorts, I’m just now putting the finishing touches on a new story that will appear in a special Selected Shorts Anthology that will be out next year from Algonquin Books! More on that as it develops…

In other news, I really enjoyed reading “Art of the Opening: Move Fast and Make Things Happen” by Albert Liau over at Craft Literary. It talks about some of my stories, as well as some by Barry Yourgrau, which is delightful to see, as his work was such a big influence on me before I even started writing. I remember picking up his book A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane back in 1999 and saying Wow, I’m so glad someone is finally doing this right! What a trip all these years later to find my stories discussed side by side with his.

What I Read and Wrote and Did in 2020

What did I do in 2020? Who the hell knows! I spent a couple months of it flat on my back with a slipped disc, and then a couple more months of it doing physical therapy every day (I’m fine now, thanks). Beyond that, I mostly watched a lot of movies. At some point (& for some reason) I decided to see every horror movie that came out in 2020; I don’t know if I actually accomplished that, but I definitely watched at least 100 of them. My favorite by far was the Australian Relic, which was perfect, one of the best haunted house movies I’ve ever seen. I also enjoyed Sputnik, Swallow (which was not properly represented by its trailer), the Korean telephone-as-time-travel-device movie The Call (which was kind of amazing (until the final 10 seconds)), Promising Young Woman, After Midnight, VFW (wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but…), Sea Fever (my kind of ending!), Gretel & Hansel (visually, at least), The Deeper You Dig, The Assistant (not sure it’s a horror movie, but I’m counting it), Platform (though I had questions), The Dark and the Wicked, and the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. I didn’t think much of The Hunt itself but Betty Gilpin was incredible in it, and I thought Freaky and Spontaneous were both really charming. My least favorite 2020 horror movie was the Hollywood remake of the The Invisible Man, which I found to be idiotic and infuriating garbage. So there you go! That was pretty much my year. I also loved the entire 7 UP documentary series (RIP Michael Apted), but that’s not exactly horror, unless you deem life itself to be horror, which is certainly your prerogative IN THESE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES.

Reading-wise, I had an off-year. I couldn’t concentrate, mostly I guess because of the overwhelming fear of death. (Hence the horror movies.) But I did read, I think, around 75 books? It got a little harder to calculate than usual because I also finally gave myself permission to stop reading books I didn’t like… which led to me abandoning more novels than I actually finished. Which felt great! Why did I wait so long? And why do people write so many novels?? (Anyway I didn’t count the ones I didn’t finish.)

Some of my favorite books I read this year were: All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer (which made a weird Kermit Roosevelt one-two punch after The River of Doubt, which I read in 2019), The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott, Aventine by Lee Killough (perfect little film noir-esque SF stories about murders in a futuristic Palm Springs-like artist colony), The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney (also one of the best covers I’ve ever seen), The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography by Charles White (EYES EMOJI GOES HERE), Sleepovers by Ashley Bryant Phillips, Serotonin by Michel Houllebecq (his worst book so far but still so much gleefully malicious fun), Heavy by Kiese Laymon, A Good Fall by Ha Jin, The Night Visitor and Other Stories by B. Traven, Foe by Iain Reid (maybe even better than I’m Thinking of Ending Things), The Throat by Peter Straub, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories by Sholem Aleichem, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose (which I still think about all the time), Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami, The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard (can’t believe nobody told me to read this book decades ago??), The Nix by Nathan Hill (the book as a whole was just okay, but the chapter about Pwnage’s in-game walk to the sea was the best thing I read all year, just marvelous), Gilded Needles by Michael McDowell, How Far She Went by Mary Hood, When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes by Lawrence Block, and the spectacular new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley.

I also had the pleasure of blurbing seven books I really loved this year: Babel by Gabriel Blackwell, Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty, Death, Desire, and Other Destinations by Tara Isabel Zambrano, Road Seven by Keith Rosson, The Reincarnations by Nathan Elias, There is a Man by Pete Hsu (one of my old students!), and Zero Zone by Scott O’Connor. Check ’em out!

Storywise, my favorite discoveries of the year were: “Her Favorite Story” by Mark Richard (one of the best stories I’ve ever read), “The Seventh Man” by Haruki Murakami (a single brilliant image), “Flying to Byzantium” by Lisa Tuttle, “A Friend of Kafka” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Firelight” by Tobias Wolff, “Broken Stairways, Walls of Time” by Lee Killough, “The Pink Cloud” by Alireza Mahmoudi Iranmehr, “Who Invented the Jump Shot” by John Edgar Wideman, “Previous Condition” by James Baldwin, “Lonesome Road Blues” by Mary Hood, “Desertion” by Clifford Simak (which makes a nice pairing with “Shape” by Robert Sheckley), “The Strange High House in the Mist” by H.P. Lovecraft, “Honeymoon” by Leonard Michaels, “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, and “When the Priest is Not at Home” by B. Traven (which has exactly the kind of sparse & timeless mythological power I’m always looking for but so rarely find).

Writing-wise, what can I say? I wrote a lot but didn’t publish much. I had a new story called “God” in Bomb Magazine (which has since been nominated for The Best Small Fictions), and one called “Pictures of Heaven” in the Tiny Nightmares anthology. My story “Death and the Lady” (from Tales of Falling and Flying) was reprinted in an anthology called Devil’s Ways, and “The Man, the Restaurant, and the Eiffel Tower” (also from Tales of Falling and Flying) appeared on the Selected Shorts podcast again (as read by actress Stana Katic). I had three stories (“God,” “Mystery (The Third Man),” and “The Friend with the Knife in His Back“) translated into Chinese and published in the journal 外国文艺 (Foreign Literature and Art), which was an incredible honor. I was interviewed by Tommy Dean for his blog about flash fiction. I read a story every day on Instagram Live through the first three months of the pandemic, mentored two high school writers as part of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, taught my usual Short Story I & II classes at UCLA Extension, ran some private workshops, taught a class called “Writing Modern Fables & Fairytales” at The Los Angeles Writer’s Grotto, and did a bunch of readings and appearances, including (live) at The Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore’s Grand Re-Opening Celebration in San Diego, and (via Zoom) at College Place High School in Washington State, Orani National High School in The Philippines, Alice Cai’s Student Novel Writing Class at Buzz Online, and at the Adroit Journal 10th Anniversary Party. I also appeared (voice only!) on the OtherPpl Podcast‘s Holiday Spectacular (Episode #686).

As a teacher, I had past or current students accepted into writing programs at NYU, Rutgers, the American Film Institute, and Clarion, and another who was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship to Brazil (!). Others published stories in The Los Angeles Review, Augur Magazine, Atticus Review, The Paris Review, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Southwest Review, New England Review, Speculative City, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Craft Literary, among others, and were nominated for Pushcart Prizes and inclusion in The Best Small Fictions. (For some reason their accomplishments make me prouder than my own, even though I didn’t do anything? Kind of a neat trick…)

Anyway, here’s hoping 2021 will be a better year… for everybody… in every way. (Except those who are impeached and/or sent to prison for treason & sedition & suchlike.)

Oh! One last thing! My favorite albums of the year were Gillian Welch’s sublime Boots No.2: Volumes One, Two, and Three, and the gloriously infectious Lapse of Luxury by Brian Wright & the SneakUps. (As well, of course, as the usual Danzig II: Lucifuge (the gift that forever keeps giving.))