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'For A Little While' Author On The Art Of The Short Story


The life of author Rick Bass is quite a story. He grew up in Houston and became a petroleum geologist. He would write on his lunch breaks. And then, in 1987, he moved to rural Montana and became an environmental activist. Since then, he's written dozens of books - nonfiction, novels, short stories - and won many awards. His new short story collection is called "For A Little While." It's a mix of old and new stories. Rick Bass says a short story is the best way to deal with the fast pace of life right now.

RICK BASS: The short story is a beautiful reservoir that you enter. You learn something, and you get out. It fits our brain. It's a unique package, a lozenge, a lens that helps us process all kinds of information. The classic short story form with that elegant, tapered shape - it's not formulaic. It's organic, and it fits who we are as a species.

MCEVERS: Like Rick Bass, many of his characters are off the grid and surrounded by nature. And many of them are incredibly lonely, and so I asked him if loneliness is the price of living so close to the wild.

BASS: I don't think it's the woods that make them lonely. You know, it's just the atoms bouncing around faster and faster. We're being called upon to respond, respond, respond - less downtime, less leisure time, less thinking time, less - no processing time. And when you're tired, you don't have energy for passion. When you're tired or overwhelmed, you don't have the resources to dream a big life, live a big life, and that can present itself in the form of loneliness - like, gee, I wish I had a community where I could just have a meal and sit down and talk for a while. Or I wish I had time to hang out more with my kids, or I wish; I wish; I wish. I think, again, it comes back to a question of time, really. I think time is the - kind of the factor here, and the loneliness - again, not landscape or externalities.

MCEVERS: It's interesting you talk about that because, you know, your stories are very languid, you know? They move at their own pace. Do you feel that they've gotten more so as you've sort of sensed this yearning and need for more time and space?

BASS: I would suspect so. That wouldn't surprise me. What I'm hungering for as a reader is the visuals, the reminders that the world is a beautiful place, and I'm just trying to bring, you know, almost a painterly illumination on sentences, on objects, on subjects. And so there is going to be more attention to the brushwork. And I think we're so hungry to have our five senses engaged-slash-re-engaged, that that's the best way to do it - is with sentences. And the stories will take care of themselves from those sentences.

MCEVERS: There's this one story. It's called "Pagans."

BASS: Sure.

MCEVERS: First, can you just describe what's happening in that story and tell us where it's set?

BASS: It's set in Texas on the Gulf Coast in the 1970s, a time of great cultural and sociologic change. The two boys and the girl - they're just navigating adolescence. They're navigating the interesting interface between friendship and romantic love, skipping school and going off and mucking around on the bayou in this really rich, fertile, lush environment that's got a lot of toxins in it from ship channel plumes and so forth. And...

MCEVERS: Yeah. I mean, they're basically playing with these pieces of machinery that have been sunk in the river. The river, you say, is poisoned. They've built kind of an altar out of kind of a pile of garbage, you know? And yet, to them, it is beautiful. I'm wondering if you could read a passage. You have the book, right?

BASS: I do, yeah. I'd be happy to.

MCEVERS: To set this up, the character's looking back. It's at the very end of the story.

BASS: (Reading) He wonders sometimes if there are not the ghost or husks of their other lives living still far back in the past or far below or even further out into the future still together and still consorting other lives birth from that strange reservoir of joy and sweetness and utter newness. And if there are, how does he access that - through memory, through imagination? Even now, he marvels at how wise they were then and at all the paths they did not take.

MCEVERS: The passage is so interesting. You know, it almost sounds like you're talking directly to the reader and this idea that there's another version of this story, and it's being lived out now.

BASS: Yeah, yeah.

MCEVERS: That, to me, seems like what must be the joy of writing - is that you get to think up those versions.

BASS: You're totally on it. And I would not have thought of it myself consciously, but it comes back to this idea of scale and time. You know, as a geologist, one of the mystifying and challenging things about mapping is, you know, unconformities, these vast stretches of settlement deposition that have been re-eroded, washed away. So you'll have an old formation, then the middle formation will be gone. then you'll have a younger formation on top of it. And there'll just be this missing chunk of, you know, 200 million years or something that - and you might find a few fossils down in another formation. And you might have a fault in truth that lifts up older rock up above younger rock. But there's a lot of stuff that happens that we never know about, yeah, you know, under the ground.

MCEVERS: And the fun is filling in the blanks.

BASS: It really is, yeah, and trying to connect dots from just a very few clues.

MCEVERS: Well, Rick Bass, thank you so much for your time today.

BASS: Thank you, Kelly. I appreciate it.

MCEVERS: That's Rick Bass. He's the author of "For A Little While," a new collection of stories new and old. It's out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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