Monday, November 16, 2009


We interrupt our regularly scheduled chat today--because it's time for Quarry!

HANK: OKAY--wait. We'll chat. What's the best short story you've ever read?

HALLIE: Mine is "All that you love will be carried away." It's a very un-Stephen-Kingy short story by Stephen King that was published in The New Yorker.

King wrote the story when he was recovering from that terrible car accident that nearly killed him and left him crippled. In the story, I see the author facing the decision of whether to keep living...and writing.

JAN: Bernice Bobs her Hair, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also, I devoured two volumes of shorts stories by Somerset Maugham but can’t remember one by name. They were all terrific.

HANK: Well, we all might have some new candidates soon--and they may come from Quarry. (And see below for a CONTEST! to win a free book!)

Quarry is the seventh collection of crime stories by New England authors from Level Best Books. Level Best is the result of a decision by northshore writer Susan Oleksiw to use the medium of the short story to take a “snapshot” of New England mystery writer’s minds. Were there things unique to our culture, our history, our geography, that influenced the way our writers saw the world, particularly, the world of crime?

Oleksiw invited two other writers, Skye Alexander and Kate Flora, to join her as editors. The result was an eleven story collection, Undertow, published in 2003. Level Best Books published Ruth McCarty's very first short mystery in their first anthology, Undertow. Ruth became a partner and editor with the publication of Seasmoke in 2006.

Kate told me they love titles that have double meaning, like last year's Deadfall (which, with the cover, also became a pun). They’re also looking for something that reflects New England character or geography...thus Quarry...which, of course,also suggests prey.

Susan says--We picked Undertow for the first book, thinking about the dangerous undercurrents in a beautiful day at the beach. We liked the double image of beauty and danger. The next title, Riptide, followed this pattern. By the third, we decided to stick with wind/landscape images that seemed true of New England--the landscape that was both inviting and ominous. We considered and discarded the idea of a single name carried from year to year, and decided to make each volume unique in both title and content.

HANK: SO! Tell us about Quarry!

KATE FLORA: The project was so much fun, and it was so satisfying to sit on the editorial side of the table, discovering exciting work by established authors and introducing readers to work by undiscovered authors, that the editors decided to do it again. Seven years and one editor change later, we’re still doing it.

SUSAN OLEKSIW: Quarry grew out of an attempt to offer a publishing venue to New England writers of short crime fiction. More and more people are turning to writing short fiction, but the venues are fewer and fewer. Even the ezines don't seem to last very long. We've lasted seven years and given a lot of good writers their start, promoted short fiction, which holds a special place in crime fiction, thanks to Poe, and shown what writers with no office and no services except a telephone can accomplish.

JRW: What makes Quarry special?

KATE: We like to think that each of our collections is special, and unique. What is different about Quarry is that, judging from the quality and number of our submissions, we seem to have “arrived” as an established regional publisher.

As editors, there will always be particular stories in each collection which are our individual favorites. Sometimes a collection will tend to have more dark stories, some are lighter. This year, we’ve got a beautifully balanced collection of strong stories that richly represent the region’s diversity. The stories in Quarry run from the downeast lobtermen practicing a Nigerian-type scam on a guy from away to a policeman turned marginal detective in rusting Connecticut city. Whether they explore the way hardscrabble small town life can turn neighbor against neighbor or suburban workers turning to a self-styled guru for ways to magically improve their lives, these stories probe the secrets of the heart and the dimensions of courage. These are stories that linger in the imagination long after the book covers are closed.

JRW: How difficult is the selection process?

KATE: The selection process is always difficult. In order to keep the books affordable, we have very tight space limitations, and are always forced to reject stories we would like to include. This was by far our hardest year. Our process is to each make a list of our top stories. Then we sit down and compare lists, trying to find the right balance of short, medium, and long, of stories lighter or darker in tone, of stories that represent the diversity of the region and include, as much as possible, writers from all the New England states. This year, our “yes” lists were each twice the size of the book we could publish.

It is terribly painful to send rejection letters to writers whose stories we admire, to writers who are our friends, to writers whose stories are “almost there” but not yet ready for publication.

SUSAN: Every year is challenging, but this year was especially difficult. We have length limitations, and we had to turn down some wonderful stories. Usually we can filter out a lot of the submissions as just not ready for public view, but that wasn't so this year. We have a lot of good stories that are sometimes not quite in the genre--more ghost or paranormal, for example--but this year everything was so good that we found ourselves turning down things we really liked.

JRW: What have you learned about short story writing from reading the submissions?

SUSAN: New England writers have quirky, unique imaginations, and they use the landscape well.

KATE: Oh, a zillion things. I’ve learned how important voice is in a short story. How sometimes three or four writers will submit stories that have essentially the same plot, but one will stand out because the writing grabs me, or the character’s voice is so distinctive. I’ve learned that, at least in arena of the crime story, plot logic matters just as it does in a crime novel. If the cops are cartoons, or the cleverly plotted murder would instantly be discerned by a competent detective, if the police procedure is crummy without being deliberately crummy—all of these things are turn-offs for me as an editor.

I’ve learned how one of the best ways to tell if a story works is if it leaves me with a small sigh of contentment at the end, a frisson of surprise at the author’s twist, or an indelible character or situation in my mind.

JRW: Stories from your anthologies have had some wild success…tell us about that ?

RUTH: Our favorite story, of course, is about Mark Ammon’s “The Catch.” This is a story that was submitted to us the year before we published it. We didn’t feel it was quite ready to go, nor that it had enough mystery, so we sent it back to Mark suggesting he rewrite and resubmit. According to Mark, he did what many of us do with rejections, he stuck it in a drawer. But sometime in the middle of the year, I ran into him and asked about the story and whether we’d be seeing it again, so he took it out, reworked it, and sent it to us again. It went on to win the Robert L. Fish Award that year for best story by a first time writer, and was nominated for an Edgar for best crime story. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

KATE: Our stories have been nominated for Agathas and Macavities, and won several Derringer Awards, including Ruth McCarty’s this year at Bouchercon for “No Flowers for Stacy.”

JRW: Whoo hoo Ruth! And now: because you cannot wait to read Quarry, we’re going to present a few excerpts from some of the wonderful short stories included in this year’s anthology (including mine..).

Oh, wait—you mean we’re out of time for today?

Well—then come back tomorrow for a special preview of Quarry!

If you can’t wait and want to buy it right now—for yourself or a lovely holiday gift—just click here!
Any questions for the Level Best gang? Or--what's your favorite short story? Do you read them?
**(Hank's note: I'll draw from the fave short story submissions for 2 copies of QUARRY--U.S. and Canada only, please!)
(And coming up this week: tomorrow, previews of short stories! Wednesday--a visit from Canada. Thursday, one of your favorite and funniest authors ever. Friday, a new guy in town who needs your help--and Saturday, his amazing true confessions. And Sunday--well, we might have some photos from CrimeBake!)


  1. I started out writing short stories, but they were too hard, so I shifted to novels. I admire anyone who can write short well.

  2. Wow, Hank, thanks so much for featuring Quarry on your blog! It has been such a privilege to publish so many writers' fine stories. Readers often ask me if I have a favorite. After publishing more than 140 stories, I have a couple dozen favorites.

    I'm looking forward to hearing how your readers respond to your clever story. Talk about twists...

    Also so pleased that we've been able to publish several of the talented JRW writers, including Hallie and Roberta. And we were...puff puff with pride...Rosemary's first crime fiction publisher.

  3. I was tempted to hold on to that check Kate, and to frame it! (But alas common sense prevailed.) Writing that story was one of the hardest things I've done. It's a totally different skill set and I have tremendous admiration for people who can tell a whole story in 5,000 words or less.. For that reason, my story "Growing Up is For Losers" remains one of my favorites,but I'd have to say The Tell-Tale Heart. It's by a minor author you may have heard of..

  4. Congrats Kate, Susan and Ruth on another wonderful collection! I could tell you guys have arrived as I heard lots of Crime Bake attendees either celebrate their inclusion in Quarry or bemoan the fact that they weren't accepted. And we did admire the lobster aprons you ladies wore this weekend!

    Hank asked us to list our favorite short story ever--I had a lot of trouble coming up with one... but maybe my favorite collection is from Jhumpa Lahiri... The Interpreter of Maladies. I'm also a huge fan of Ellen Gilchrist's linked stories. You can see by those choices that I really prefer a novel--hate to be disrupted from characters I've just met when the story ends quickly.

  5. Thanks for the coverage for Quarry. I've had stories in several of the anthologies including Quarry and it's great fun as a small town librarian to introduce patrons to my work as well as that of a bunch of talented New Englanders.

  6. Stephen King has a short story in last week's New Yorker. And a good one, too. Very King-ish.

    As an English major, I always head for the literary side of the house and love Hemingway's short stories. "The Snows of Kilamanjaro" is my favorite, and my favorite line is in the little preface: "No one has explained what the leoprd was seeking at that altitude."

    Ro, you were there. Any clues about the leopard?

    I keep an "idea" file for short stories, usually newspaper clippings.


  7. Judy C--you have a wonderful story in the collection! It's called "Bad Trip."

    What's your favorite line? Or--what's your favorite story about that story?

  8. I've written newspaper and spotlight articles when my editor gave me a word count. No problem. Why then, does the idea of writing a short story (fiction-wise) send my heart into a frenzy. Possibly because writing short stories is an act of discipline in itself. Kudos, ladies!

  9. Hank,

    Thanks so much for featuring us on JRW. We're pretty proud to have published Hallie, Roberta, Rosemary and Hank!!!

    One of my favorite short stories is "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin. I've copied a link below.


  10. I agree with Terry - started out with a short story and COULD NOT make it work. So I wrote a novel instead. I keep thinking I'll spend a month or two soon writing one.

    The Level Best editors keep raising the bar on themselves. Congratulations!

  11. Berek, I can't tell who you are from your profile! (Very mysterious..)

    Tell us about your story!

  12. I started out writing short stories and couldn't make a single one work. Then after I wrote my first novel, I went back to them, figuring, now I really understood stories. I still could not make a short story work. So I'm in awe of those Quarry authors who can....

  13. Hank, favorite line from "Bad Trip."

    “You wait right there, white boy, like you have Gorilla Glue on those pitiful shoes.”

  14. As one of the many rejectees from this year's anthology (I've only made it into one in seven years of trying: Riptide), I want to go on record to say that Hank's story in Quarry, which I read on the train this morning, absolutely rocks! It's great on many fronts. Nice job, Hank.


  15. Jan, I hope you're feeling much better now. It's a shame you missed Crime Bake. Everyone enjoyed the mystery entertainment at the banquet, including my husband who said it was great.

  16. I'm convinced that writing a short story requires a certain mindset. Once you are in that zone, everything around you becomes a potential short story. For Roberta, I know a few short storyists who are writing collections of related stories, so that you don't get the disconnect you mentioned.

    My favorite is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited" with "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" by Sherman Alexie a close second.

    BTW, as a southerner, I'm happy to see Ellen Gilchrist and Kate Chopin mentioned here.

  17. Edith..thank you so much. Ah. Thank you.

    Yeah, it's very different writing for me. Third person, not funny.
    I'd love to chat with you about it in person some time.

    I must admit to being happy with the title "On The House."

    Thank you!

    And really, one of the fascinating things about the anthology is that the stories are so different from each other. (Must have had a great group of editors..)

    Which makes me wonder, editors--how difficult is it to make sure you have a spectrum of stories? Short, long, funny, creepy, not all about similar crimes...

  18. The people in my house are proud to say we have now had stories in 4of these wonderful anthologies and let me tell you, they make terrific holiday gifts!

    Also, several of the folks who once felt obligated to buy a copy -- now look forward to the next edition because they're hooked on the great variety in these crime stories.

  19. Hank...the nice thing about a panel of editors is that we tend to like different things. Susan tends to go for more literary stories and is more tolerant of really dark. I'm hooked by "voice." And Ruth tends to like things on the cozier end of the spectrum. As for how we do the mix...people send what they write, and somehow, when we're done choosing, the mix feels right. Some collections are certainly darker than others.

    And Edith sent us a story a few years back that wasn't a mystery, but was a truly beautiful story. It made me wish we were just doing a literary collection.

    This year, we had enough stories on our "yes" lists to fill two anthologies. Alas...we can only afford to publish one.

  20. I love short stories. I'll have to check out Quarry.

    As for favorites, two of the best I've ever read are Jim and Mary G by James Sallis and a relatively new favorite, 20th Century Ghost by Joe Hill.


  21. My favorite short story is "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl. Here's a link:

    I'm thrilled to have stories in three of the Level Best Anthologies. Thank you, Susan and Kate and Ruth.