A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Short Story Long does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Margot's most recent book novel, Long Story Short.
Release no. XVI:
Short Story Long by Margot Leitman
On an unseasonably warm November Sunday afternoon, Margot had me meet her in Central Park, right next to a pack of oaks. When I offered her a coffee (I had picked up two on the way), she just shook her head, looked down, and back at the tree she was next to. She gave it two pats, looked up its trunk and then back at me and said, softly, to me, to the wind in front of her mouth, to anyone, “This’ll make a good book one day.” “Just one?” I said, joking, uncomfortable. She opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again, and then closed it, and then opened it one more time: “I’ll take the coffee.”
Below are excerpts of our conversation.
Today I'm with Margot Leitman, a story-teller extraordinaire, a writer, a comedian, a teacher—and now, a novelist. In the follow-up to her memoir (Gawky: Tales of An Extra Long Awkward Phase) and a story-telling guide (Long Story Short), Margot has now put a novel out into the world, Short Story Long. When someone comedically-inclined crafts fiction, I'm sometimes skeptical. Will they sacrifice pathos for laughos? Will they put aside arc for the sake of farce? Will they...you know, something or other bad. Not the case with Margot. Short Story Long is a book weightier than most, both literally and figuratively (it's long (has a lot of pages), and deep). Dawn Dooley over at the Times called it a "profound metaphor, exhausted to the point of desperation". Even more opaquely, Florencio Skaggs at the Chronicle said it "resonated into coalescence, dipping down before it palimpsested". What'd you think when you read these reviews?
Well, to be honest, I wasn't expecting any reviews. Short Story Long is so heavy and large I didn't think anyone would take the time to read the whole thing and then review it. I thought of it more as decoration, you know, like a coffee table book, but so intimidating that no one would ever open it. In regards to Dooley's comment of it being "exhausted to the point of desperation," I take that as a compliment. Anyone who has climbed Mount Everest surely has felt "exhausted to the point of desperation." That guy who chopped off his arm while trapped in the desert who then got to be portrayed by James Franco in the movie of his arm chopping experience also must have felt "exhausted to the point of desperation." So bring on the reviews!
I think anyone played by James Franco ends up feeling exhausted to the point of desperation, but hey, maybe I'm just desperate to the point of jealousy. (I can also speak to the book's strength as a coffee table accessory—not one ring has appeared on its cover even after the sweatiest of iced coffees have been left for the afternoon!)
Despite the book's length, what we have is just a very tight, simple; you were being titularly honest, as they say. This is really a story you expect your friend to tell you while awaiting the rest of your brunch party to show up. The main character goes to pick up her dry cleaning and then...well, I won't ruin it. Or maybe I should? Maybe you should?
I'd be happy to. The main character, Agatha, based on myself, goes to pick up her dry cleaning. She thinks she dropped off a few blouses and a formal dress. But then, she doesn't double check what she is taking home...and it's someone else's clothes! Can you imagine anything more complicated? She goes home with a pants suit, a wedding gown and a blazer!!! Now what? Agatha's back is really against the wall. And in addition to all that her manicure is chipping. She wants to go get a manicure, but now she doesn't have time because of the whole dry cleaning debacle. Not to mention that her dog needs a walk.
The conflicts are thick and intermingled, which happens to be exactly how I like my conflicts. The book gave me a pretty bad case of bruxism. Your expansion of the life's mundane into what might formally be called "literature" is Proustian, but how you do it is certainly not. We take a plunge straight into character (and just one), falling so fast we almost forget the faces of the world, the facades of it. Amazing. Amuse-bouche. This is the modern woman, peeled away until we really have the modern woman. How did you get agents to read a book 1,400 pages in length?
Yes, I considered having more than one character, but I decided to focus it all on Agatha. She is just so fascinating. She's a woman. A dog-owner. A person whose blouses are lost at the dry cleaners. She really is incredibly complex. And when I wrote the 1400 page manuscript, which we are both forgetting to mention, is printed on 16 by 28 inch paper, I actually did not have trouble getting agents to read the whole thing. My secret? I got them hooked in the first sentence. "Agatha Willis was having trouble locating her dry-cleaning receipt." Who in their right mind would be able to put a book down after that opener? Also, it takes so much energy to lift my book up in the first place, I don't think anyone would be able to put it back down without assistance. Which is annoying to have to call for. So I think really the agents felt like, "Well, I've taken the time to lift this, I might as well read it for a while."
Sometimes I read the first nine words of a book and I just scream to the ceiling, What the goddamn is this book about? Not the case here.
An amazing strategy, and one that's passed onto the readers: the book-as-handcuff. Some nights I wanted to stop reading but couldn't get the book off of me until I used it to fall asleep and then woke up with more energy.
Who were your inspirations? Who do you hope to inspire?
May I also suggest working out with the book? Many are into this "Crossfit" phase, but Short Story Long will surely be the next workout craze. Sure, one can get benefits from doing sit ups. But try doing sit ups with my book on your stomach? It will double the intensity.
To answer your questions, I am inspired by the people who write the copy on the signs hanging in my dry cleaners. Who are these people? Who did they love? The signs look like they are from the 1970's. Who did theses copywriters love? Who loved them? Did they love to eat black licorice as much as the character Agatha does?
I hope to inspire people with no talent. It's hard to go through life without talent. Hopefully those people will relate to Agatha's struggles and find their calling. Or not. But at least they'll get a good workout reading my book and that's something, right?
I did enjoy the undertones urging physical fitness in the book as well (of course, in a very body-positive light). Along with the lost-dry-cleaning-as-distorted-modern-identity metaphor, we have a great message that might do well across a variety of mediums. Have you ever considered making Short Story Long into a story for The Moth Storyslam (readers may know Margot Leitman received an unheard of score of 10 in that contest)?
The problem with turning this masterpiece into a story for the Moth is their damned five minute time limit. I don't think I could tell this tale in less than three hours. Maybe due to my book's critical appeal and mainstream success, I could ask the Moth to lengthen their time limit to three hour stories. I'm sure that wouldn't be too complicated. So each live Moth show, with ten storytellers, telling three hour tales would be a 30 hour show. So just over 1 day really. I think most people would be happy to watch that as long as their were snacks provided and a couple of bathroom breaks.
Marathons are in, everyone knows that.
We're almost out of time, so I'll ask one final question—one about the ending, if you don't mind. With a book like yours, working on so many levels, the ending is often just a way to end a philosophical journey. In yours however, it completely flips your thesis on its head. Had you decided what would happen from the very beginning?
The ending was very raw for me to write as it was based on personal experience. Yes, I had decided the ending from the day I started writing the book. SPOILER ALERT. Agatha did not notice that the dry cleaning she picked up that fateful day, the "wrong order," was actually hers that she had dropped off a long while ago. When she couldn't find her receipt on page one of the novel, the dry cleaners looked up her order via phone number. When the dry cleaners handed her back her order, the WRONG order, that order was still under Agatha's number. So when that additional order turns out to ALSO be Agatha's own clothing, just from a past drop off, everything up is down. Agatha must realize that the truth was looking her in the eye all along, she just refused to see it for what it was. Sometimes what we want doesn't come in the package we want but it's still exactly what we need. Agatha both wins and loses in the end. But where are her blouses? Who cares? She got something different (a blazer) and that's okay.
And then again, aren't we all just refusing to see like for what it is? Aren't we all one blouse away from self-actualization? Thanks for your time Margot, and your words.