13 March 2012

an intriguing interview

Read the interview:

» Ask the Author: Sherri H. Hoffman

This is a nice follow-up to the publication of my story, Blue, by PANK Magazine. Plus it was a fun interview. Seriously. Talking about sea turtles, blowing things up, Lassie, hangovers, and the perpetually cool senior at my high school, Brad Darrington.

My thanks to the editors and staff at PANK for such a fabulous publishing experience. What a great mag.

~ sherri

21 February 2012

reading in bed

"Read Rock Springs by Richard Ford," my advisor tells me. "These stories are some of the very best." I read them late at night in bed, read until my eyes burn and the words swim on the page. It takes me a week because I read every story twice.

Ford does something in his stories that I can describe with a childhood memory. I am with my sister in the back of my father's blue Dart. We are in a downtown area surrounded by tall buildings. I have no idea which city or how old I am. The car is the same one in which my sister and I and one of our cousins got busted for sliding down the windshield on our little fannies, from roof to hood. It is also the car in which we accidentally broke a bunch of root beer bottles in the rear footwell, and then my sister fell into the glass and cut open her knee so that she needed stitches, although that memory is vague and could be wrong.

It is also not the memory for Richard Ford's stories. Here it is.

From the backseat of my father's car, I look across the street. Perhaps we are stopped at a light. Perhaps parked on the curb, waiting for someone. I cannot recall if either of my parents are there, only my sister. She is 16 months younger than me, which makes her subject to both my adoration and torment, although most of the family stories from our early childhood are about her trickery, how she could provoke me into trouble in order to get whatever she wanted—a cookie, Raggedy Ann doll, attention. What can I say? I had a short temper, and she was smart enough to use it to her advantage.

Across the street, a man stands on the corner, holding a cane. I have no recollection of whether he is old or young, tall or short, fine or poor. Only of the cane in one hand and, on his head, a hat such as other men are wearing on the streets of the city. I have enough time to peer at him, the man and his cane across the street from the wide, sticky-vinyl backseat of our blue Dart. There are no seat belts inside to secure us. We could have been hanging out the window, my sister and I, gawking at any passerby.

The moment of importance, however, is just that—a moment. Some pigeons break upward from the sidewalk near the man with the cane. An abrupt clatter of wings, the man turns his head, and I, watching him, turn with him, seeing what he sees.

That is the moment. In that instant, I am transported across the street to stand inside his shoes as if I am there with him, taking in his startled breath, grasping onto the cane with my hand, birds thrashing up from my feet.

As quickly as I understand the shift, it reverts back, and I am just a gangly-legged, tantrum-prone girl, skin sticking to the blue vinyl bench seat in the back of my father's blue Dart along with my pesky sister.

Did I make it up? Imagine it? Is it merely a child's fantasy? Does it matter?

That shift of perspective—the ability to look at someone and experience "being" them—is an exercise in empathy. It's what makes rich characters of depth live and breathe on the page. As a child, it may have been just a game. As a writer, it is a craft-worthy goal.

Ford's stories make that shift for me. Throughout his stories, I am drawn into the characters, breathe their air, feel the Wyoming night, Montana sun, or the Bitterroot river water on my face. Ache with their despair, confusion, and love. I case the parking lot of a Ramada Inn, understand how a man becomes a desperate criminal, drive a runaway through the night to Great Falls, hear my father crying—or dream it. Shoot a white snow goose.

Feel the curve of a cane in my hand. Witness the rise of birds.

That's a good story, isn't it?

~ sherri

The Darkling Thrush
By Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
    The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

16 January 2012

new fiction: Blue

You can read my story, Blue, in the latest issue of PANK Magazine.

It's interesting timing for this particular story to come out as I return today from my winter MFA residency. I wrote it last June during the summer residency at Pacific University in response to the craft talks by the fiction faculty: Kellie Wells on turning metaphor into reality; Jack Driscoll on loving your characters; Mary Helen Stefaniak on the power of "once"; David Long on meaningful sentences; and others. I did fall short—couldn't figure out how to employ Jess Walter's suggestion of the 2nd person narrative switch. Maybe next time.

Some additional backstory on the writing process is that the main character, Mayfair, comes from a piece I wrote years ago in a Writers@Work workshop with Phyllis Barber. Even though that particular story didn't came together at the time, Mayfair has remained with me.

The bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building occurred during a time when my personal life was in complete collapse. I recall picking up the newspaper in a hospital kitchen and being so struck by the enormity of loss and moved by the survivors' stories, including stories of some of the children who survived. That has also remained with me.

In her craft talk at the most recent MFA residency, Pam Houston said people always wanted to know if her stories were true. I have to think that's kind of a trick question for a writer. Everything I write is grounded in truth in some way. The truth could be a porcupine on the freeway that I nearly hit driving drunk and too fast on I-80 from Park City in the middle of the night after the W@W conference. Or the news story that made me weep when I could not access my feelings about ending up in yet another treatment center. Or the startling beauty of a robin's song, defiant in the darkness before a summer sunrise.

Or maybe they're all just stories.


Everything on the earth bristled, the bramble
pricked and the green thread
nibbled away, the petal fell, falling
until the only flower was the falling itself.
Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
from stone,
and in those functionings plays out
the unrealized ambitions of the foam.

- by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)