Alastair Alexander gave us a very entertaining February 2020 talk on his personal selection of short story writers.
He started off with Poe, the well known author of dark, gothic tales and drew attention to Murders in the Rue Morgue and his Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The second choice was Maupassant, who attended military academy and was mentored by Flaubert. He knew Zola and the artists of the time, such as Cezanne and Pisarro. A number of his stories are set in the time of the Franco Prussian war. Boule de Suif is the story which made his name. He subsequently wrote more than 300 stories but suffered from depression, frequented brothels and died of syphilis. O.Henry, his third choice, was born in N. Carolina, moved to Texas, qualified as a pharmacist, worked in a bank, was accused of embezzlement and fled to Honduras. He spent 3 years in prison and coined the term “banana republic”. In his early years he wrote about the West and later moved to New York. The Gift of the Magi and Caballero’s Way, which introduced the character of the Cisco Kid were mentioned. This was followed by Kipling and his Just So Stories . Elephant Child was Alistair’s favourite. Alastair explained the origin of the title. His daughter wanted him to read the story “just so!” He noted that these stories are quite difficult for children.
Sherlock Holmes, his fifth choice, found short stories good money earners. He wrote monthly stories for the Strand magazine, studied medicine and pharmacy and practiced in Southsea, Plymouth and London. The next choice, Somerset Maugham, was shy and had a stammer. He studied medicine but did not qualify. Liza of Lambeth made his name. From his work in the intelligence service in WW1 he produced the Ashenden stories. Alistair stayed in a number of the hotels frequented by Maugham in Hong Kong, Singapore and the Far East. Stories mentioned included The Verger and Rain. Saki was number seven. He was sent to boarding school in Devon, from Burma where his father was a colonial officer. Saki became a newspaper correspondent and wrote short stories about colonists in the Pacific islands and Asia. He had a rather acid view of society. One amusing quote he offered from Saki was We all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other married couples they sometimes live apart. (The Unbearable Bassington). Saki wrote a number of animal stories such as Tobermory and Sredni Vashtar.
Herman C. Bosman, the eighth choice, taught in S. Africa and wrote short stories about Afrikaner life. He had spent time in prison for the murder of his stepbrother.
Hemingway was included, though not a particular favourite of Alistair’s. Hemingway is notable for his writing style of short sentences, with few adjectives or adverbs. Much is left to the reader’s imagination. His stories are often autobiographical, macho and about the killing of animals. His idea of a short story in six words was “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
Dahl, the well known writer of adult and children’s stories was his tenth choice. Samples of Cadbury chocolates were sent to his school hence the Charlie and Chocolate Factory story! He gave his stories to Eleanor Roosevelt when working at the Embassy in Washington. She read them to her children to great approval and subsequently helped promote them. He was a master of the twist in the tale.
Realising that all his choices were male, Alistair added a female writer the New Zealander, Katherine Mansfield to the list. She was a bohemian, rather rude about NZ, lived in Germany, and had many lovers male and female. She left NZ at 19, settled in England and was a friend of T.S. Eliot. She died young (at 34yrs) of T.B. and wrote stories about relationships with not enough plot according to Alastair.
This was an enjoyable description of the autobiographical backgrounds of the writers with interesting snippets about their lives. I am sure we all came away with someone new to read!
Alastair also mentioned his self-published stories about people who fish called Plain Tales from the Riverbank.
Other writers suggested by audience members were Colette, Alice Munro and Chekhov.
Here is the list. Why not try someone you have not read?
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Guy de Maupassant
- O. Henry
- Rudyard Kipling
- Sherlock Holmes
- William Somerset Maugham
- Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)
- Herman Charles Bosman
- Ernest Hemingway
- Roald Dahl
- Katherine Mansfield