The 2019 shortlist: Emma Cline
Emma Cline is an American writer who is best-known for her novel, The Girls. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker. In ‘What Can You Do With a General’, a family gathers for Christmas in California while dark undercurrents hint at past violence and abuse.
Described as ‘a Cheever-esque, perfect story’ by judge Carys Davies, please read on for a preview of the story’s opening and to revisit our Q&A with Emma.
Please also join us again on Monday when, inspired by Emma’s status as our only American shortlistee, we take a look back at the rich heritage of the involvement of writers from the US throughout the competition’s history.
Here’s a look back at her author Q&A:
What inspired you to write the story? Is it drawn from personal experience?
The story came out of thinking about how to write, in an oblique way, about how dysfunctional families mythologize the past. What happens when some members of the family want to maintain that myth and other members don’t? My first thought, as an entry point for a story, was one of the children, but ultimately I liked the father, baffled by his adult children, baffled by his own loneliness, wanting the narcotic offered by nostalgia and unwilling to really look at his own history.
How does writing short stories differ from writing full-length fiction, and what do you enjoy about writing in the genre?
I think of the difference between a novel and a story sort of like the difference between surgery and acupuncture—one requires intense and invasive coordinated attention with life or death stakes, while the other is more about subtle currents of energy. I love writing stories. Instead of managing an entire world, stories can be more about tone and atmosphere, smaller gestures and intimations. There’s also something inherently beautiful to me in the idea that readers can finish a story in one sitting. It offers a cleaner and more private emotional experience.
How do you write? Longhand or typed? Why does your chosen method work for you?
I usually write on a computer, and read a story aloud to myself when I have a working draft. It helps me tighten the rhythm of the language—if something is off, it really makes itself known when I’m reading out loud.
Which short story collection by another author would you recommend?
I’ve loved so many story collections by so many authors: Deborah Eisenberg, Joy Williams, Rebecca Lee, Mary Gaitskill, Rebecca Curtis, John Cheever. Recently, I’ve recommended The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte. He’s the best—his sentences are insanely good and energetic, and his stories are just so truly funny.
What’s your favourite short story of all time? Who would you cast to read it?
The story I probably think of the most is Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates. I had such a powerful reaction on first reading the story, as a teenager—I was dazed, almost nauseous, and totally blown away that a story could build that kind of menace and tension. The “incident” in the story manages to be subtle and emotional, and, at the same time, dramatic as hell. Murder! It’s the most dramatic kind of incident I can imagine in a story, but it’s handled in a way that I hadn’t seen before. The cadence is so well calibrated. That last line is probably one of my favorites.
Who would you cast to read the story you have entered?
Maybe Jeff Bridges, for his affability, his vibe of a Western film star who is weary of wearing the costume.
What are you reading now?
Women Talking by Miriam Toews and Francoise Gilot’s Life With Picasso.
What Can You Do With A General
Linda was inside, on her phone—to who, this early? From the hot tub, John watched her pace in her robe and an old swimsuit in a faded tropical print that probably belonged to one of the girls. It was nice to drift a little in the water, to glide to the other side of the tub, holding his coffee above the waterline, the jets churning away. The fig tree was bare, had been for a month now, but the persimmon trees were full. The kids should bake cookies when they get here, he thought, persimmon cookies. Wasn’t that what Linda used to make, when the kids were little? Or what else—jam, maybe? All this fruit going to waste, it was disgusting. He’d get the yard guy to pick a few crates of persimmons before the kids came, so that all they’d have to do was bake them. Linda would know where to find the recipe.
The screen door banged. Linda folded her robe, climbed into the hot tub.
“Sasha’s flight’s delayed.”
“Probably won’t land until four or five.”
Holiday traffic would be a nightmare then, coming back from the airport—an hour there, then two hours back, if not more. Sasha didn’t have her license, couldn’t rent a car, not that she would think to offer.