Why It’s a Vital Time for Short Stories

In a publishing climate built to sell novels, short fiction is an endangered species. Zach Williams, author of Beautiful Days, explains why you might be reading more short stories than you realise
Published: 15 June 2024

At least once every year, a debut short-story collection comes along and gets under my skin. Last year, it was Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare, by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, and the year before that, it was Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma. All these months later, despite reading thousands of pages since, I can still remember plot details from individual stories in those books.

In 2024, that collection is Beautiful Days, by Zach Williams—a subtle and speculative barn-burner that fans of Stephen King and Ling Ma will devour. Like the short fiction of Brian Evenson, the stories in Beautiful Days are about the horrors of encountering something completely unknowable in the course of everyday life, whether it’s the mind-warping experience of parenthood or the echo-chamber effect of the Internet and social media.

It opens with “Trial Run,” in which a Manhattan office drone is trapped in a skyscraper during a snowstorm that may or may not be real, with two coworkers who may or may not mean him harm. In “Neighbors,” which went viral in The New Yorker earlier this year, a San Francisco man tries to perform a wellness check on his next-door neighbor, only to stumble upon a scene he can’t rationally explain.

In “Wood Sorrel House,” new parents find themselves in an Edenic setting to raise their child but can’t remember how they got there. These stories wade into uncanny waters gradually, but others—like “Return to Crashaw,” featuring tourists who visit mysterious megaliths in the desert—embrace their pulp inspirations from line one.

Despite Stephen King’s You Like It Darker sitting on top of the New York Times bestseller list right now, some people in the American publishing industry see short stories as an endangered species—or at least as a genre that’s becoming harder and harder to sell. “I was writing for myself,” Williams tells Esquire. “I wasn’t thinking about the marketability of what I was writing. I was just thinking of what I could write best—and what I could finish.”

Williams grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, earned his MFA at NYU, and now teaches fiction writing at Stanford University. Over Zoom last month, we spoke about writing short stories in an industry built to sell novels, getting fired from a Hollywood job for reading books under his desk, and why you might be reading more short stories than you realize. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: When did reading and writing first come into your life?

ZACH WILLIAMS: Video games were big for me in that regard. Myst and Riven were so immersive that I read the [spin-off] novels. Tim Schafer [game director of Grim Fandango] was also a really important writer for me. But I loved going to the library as a kid and reading Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—and all those Time Life supernatural mystery books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster.

When I tried writing short stories in my early twenties, I think I just fundamentally didn’t have anything to write about, so when I graduated college, I moved out to L.A. and got an internship at Beacon Pictures. I got fired because all the interns showed up at this party one night where we weren’t supposed to be. After that, I worked as an assistant to the post-production coordinator on this Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony movie called El Cantante, and then I was the fifth assistant in Jerry Bruckheimer’s office during the Pirates of the Caribbean shoot—until I got fired for reading books under my desk when there wasn’t anything to do.

I got the sense that I wasn’t in the right place, so I taught middle and high school for twelve years. It was a lot like Mr. Holland’s Opus, where it was supposed to be this brief interlude while I figured out how to be a writer, but I did it for a long time and could only write in fits and starts. Once I got married and we had our first son, I finally felt like I’d been around long enough to write stories with a sense of urgency.

What drew you to short stories as opposed to novels?

In middle school, the only book I would ever reread was The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. The idea of a novel-in-stories was really fascinating to me. A lot of my undergraduate creative-writing classes were focused on short stories just by virtue of the workshop format. For me, short stories have this very direct relationship with the subconscious. One idea that’s really exciting for a writer is usually enough to get a short story off the ground. Even the stories in this collection that I worked on for years, they all originated with one spark. I wrote two stories in [Beautiful Days], “Red Light” and “Neighbors,” right after these nights of terrible insomnia, where I was just lying in bed for hours and the ideas just erupted from my subconscious. They didn’t need to become sprawling projects.

Publishing a short story in The New Yorker is a holy grail for a lot of writers. What was that like for you?

It was a wild experience to have that be my first time in print. At NYU’s [MFA program], they have this agent meet-and-greet at the end of the year, and mine was virtual because of the pandemic. I wound up having a call with Claudia [Ballard at William Morris Endeavor], and she asked to see one of my stories after I gave her my elevator pitch for the collection. I sent her “Wood Sorrel House,” and she said right away, “I want to send this story to The New Yorker.” I signed with Claudia that summer, and then the editorial process at The New Yorker was unbelievable. Working with Deborah [Treisman] and her fact checkers and copy editors was a real education. They found all of these things in the story that I had lost the ability to see myself.

It must be hard to fact-check a story like “Wood Sorrel House,” which is set in another reality.

My favorite thing that came out of fact-checking “Wood Sorrel House”—I still think about it with such gratitude—is that outside the cottage in that story, there’s one of those turtle-shaped sandboxes. We have so much overlap in our background; is that a familiar thing from your childhood, too?

Yes, we had one in our backyard.

Perfect. So I had written that it was made by Playskool because that’s what I remembered, but no, they were made by Little Tikes. The fact checker discovered this, and I was so thrilled to get that correction.

Which story in this collection was the hardest to write and revise?

“Lucca Castle” was really difficult, and the other two that come to mind are “Ghost Image” and “Return to Crashaw.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I started things without knowing how long they were going to be. Every single story was a learning process for me. There is very little in this book that I did on purpose, because I was trying to write intuitively.

Why open the collection with “Trial Run” and close with “Return to Crashaw”?

There were times when I would try to think of this book like an album. I thought about how the stories sounded together in a musical way. “Return to Crashaw” just felt like an ending in the sound of the sentences and the language—and the way that there’s music on that last page. There’s also a sort of warmth to that story for me, whereas “Trial Run” is the total opposite. It’s dark and scary and claustrophobic and paranoid. I’ve always had “Trial Run” up front because there’s something about walking into that building in the snowstorm that felt like the start of something, in the same way that the music at the end of “Return to Crashaw” felt like an ending to me.

How can the short story make a case for itself in 2024? Big Five publishers have disinvested in short stories as a genre, and it seems like readers prefer novels.

So many of the best books I’ve read recently have been short-story collections or novels-in-stories. Jamil Jan Kochai’s collection from 2022, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, has one of the all-time great short stories about video games in it. There’s also Out There, by Kate Folk; Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma; After the Sun, by Jonas Eika. Jonathan Escoffery’s book If I Survive You is fascinating to me, because it’s somewhere between a collection of linked stories and a novel. Cuddy, by Benjamin Myers, is told in four sections over the span of many centuries, around the building of this cathedral where St. Cuthbert’s body is buried. Other huge books for me in this regard are Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan.

My point is that some of the most exciting work I’ve seen in recent years comes from people who are working in shorter forms to different ends. A lot of them are technically short-story collections, but they don’t really make aesthetic sense without one another. My sense of these books is that the stories were written very intentionally to be part of one work, and I think that makes so much sense in our present moment. I could say something banal about attention spans, but it’s more than that. There’s something about the form of short stories and life on the Internet, scrolling and clicking, and the basic hypertextual experience of navigating the Internet. A book can contain many different worlds, too, without staying too long in one place.

It’s a vital time for the form. It’s equipped to do something that the big novel can’t, and there are a lot of writers doing really good work. But I’m not that smart about the necessities of the marketplace. I don’t know enough about how publishing works.

I think you’ve hit on something really interesting about the marketplace, though, which is that publishers are sometimes packaging (or maybe even disguising) short-story collections as novels-in-stories—and marketing long short stories as short novels!—in the hope that they’ll sell more copies.

I hadn’t quite connected those dots, but yeah, you’re right. There are a lot of books people are reading that contain these other forms.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is often celebrated as the greatest novel of the century so far, but it’s essentially a collection of very long linked stories.

That’s true. I just read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories for the first time a few years ago. The stories are all really different, but there’s this one repeating character who’s a dark and powerful figure. To me, there’s something really special and unique about the ability of a book that contains disparate things to link them in a way that strikes more than one note. When I was writing this book, I wanted to be aggressive about the variety of ideas that appeared in it. I wanted to just throw ideas out recklessly rather than take one thing and use it as the basis for a longer project just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. I wanted it to be a little riotous. A lot of my favorite collections of stories—or as you said, novels that contain a lot of little worlds—are doing that.

Why call this collection Beautiful Days?

The title comes from the story “Wood Sorrel House,” where the last line is “There will be beautiful days.” I had a different experience writing the book than people do reading it, because when I look at that story again, I feel like there’s a lot of prettiness in that story—the pastoral aspect of it with the lake and the forest and the mountains, and then also the bond between parent and child. There’s a lot of darkness in that story, but there’s some beauty in it, too.

I knew that I was writing a book with a lot of darkness in it, and one that was cynical in places. I started writing the stories when I was living in New York, so maybe there’s some of that big-city claustrophobia or paranoia, especially in “Trial Run.” I also think some of it comes from life on the Internet and being constantly glued to our devices, where my phone feels like a portal to a darker reality.

But all of these characters are trying to figure something out. They feel like they desperately need answers to big questions and they can’t get them, but they’re going to try—and in the trying, I think there’s a lot of hopefulness and redemption. These impenetrable mysteries are how the basic conditions of life feel to me. That’s what speculative fiction can do: help you set your sights more clearly on questions that are concrete in your life.

Originally published on Esquire US

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