Q&S with Barb Modrack


by Andrea King Collier

Barb Mordrack is a journalist and talented short story writer. She will be joining us at A Rally of Writers on April 8, 2017. She has been writing and finding her way through the world of short fiction for years. We asked her about being a part of a community of writers and how she finds her footing in short story.

Q: You have been a part of the Lansing area community of writers for a long time. What do you think being connected in this way does for a writer? And specifically what do you think it has done for you?

A: There is nothing like being connected to other writers. Years ago the best way was to be in a writing group or club, or to go to conference. Those are still great. When I am on my way to a writing conference I get the same feeling of excitement I suspect a nerdy teenager feels on the way to ComicCom. I know I will be among people who “get” me, even if they don’t know me well. It provides a feeling of relief that, wow, I’m not crazy. This is valid.

One great improvement to writing communities is the number of Facebook groups dedicated to what you are interested in. They provide information, inspiration and a feeling of community in between the live events.

I first encountered the Lansing writing scene in the 1970s as a student at MSU. I had a class with the legendary writing teacher Virgil Scott, who kept us spellbound with stories about his former student Tom  McGuane, who at one time lived at his house; as well as in-the-know anecdotes about Ernest Hemingway. Another teacher, Jim Cash, in his pre-Top Gun days, would spend hours drinking coffee and writing in the MSU Union, where I had my student job. At that time he had sold a few scripts to Mod Squad and we were pretty convinced he was the real deal, and he was a great teacher. I remember the night in class he cut off his own tie and threw a pie in his own face. Maybe he did that every term, I don’t know. But it was memorable.

Q: How have short stories styles changed over the last few years?

A: Short story styles are constantly changing and evolving. I’ve noticed a lot of first person in among the more recent stories I’ve seen, which is nothing new but seems to be a trend; I read a story just recently that changed genders of a principle character, sometimes in the same sentence. It was intentional and was pertinent to the story’s premise.

Stories with the soft ending, which emerged in the ‘70s, are still showing up, though I have noticed plenty of structured stories also, with an actual (gasp!) plot.

Genre stories seem to emerge all of the time. I’m a member of a submissions Facebook page and I frequently click on a link and then have to look up a definition for the genre mentioned. Horror, fantasy and dystopia still appear to be a thing. But there are calls for such styles as “alternative” and “steampunk,” which I can’t help anyone with, but I mention because the amount of styles and trends seems to multiply daily.

Styles will vary a lot by genre; I try to be open to different styles, but personally I like to have a few things remain: It must be a story! And I need to be able to know what is going on without working too hard.

 Q: What starts a story for you? A character? A setting? A question?

 A: My most successful stories have usually started with a flash of recognition. By successful, I mean stories I actually start AND finish. Here is an example: One day I saw an older man walking slowly toward a small white car parked on the shoulder of I-96. I was eastbound, he was on westbound, so I only saw him for a matter of seconds.  But very quickly I envisioned a series of events and characters that might have led to that moment. The bare bones of that story appeared to me in an instant. It did not take an instant to write. But I was able to write it knowing quite a lot about where it started and where it was heading. That happens a lot. I will hear a snatch of conversation; or see two people interacting even if I can’t hear them, and the beginning and end that encompasses that moment can appear. It doesn’t mean I know everything about a story when I begin to write. But that is often what propels me to the page.

 Q: What’s the market like for publishing short stories in 2017?

Ah, what can you say about the short story market? Its demise has been discussed for years and years. But here we are, and it is still holding, though constantly evolving. It is both difficult, yet plentiful. Paying markets continue to be tough sells, but they are out there. But the e-zine market continues to grow, and the literary market it still intact, even if publications come and go.

One of the best routes to success and a possibility of payment are the literary contests, of which there are many. Most contests come with a nice first prize purse, though they also usually come with an entry fee. But it is also the way to be sure to be read; the entry fees usually also come with a subscription to the publication and are essentially a “fundraiser” for the publication sponsoring.

No one is getting rich off contest entry fees, and I look at them as contributions to the arts. The biggest benefit of a writing contest is that it puts you in a smaller reading pool than a general submission pile. I go through spurts when I enter a lot of contests and have had some success. A bonus of a contest is of course, winning, but also honorable mentions, which can provide a great sustaining boost.

Q: What short story writers inspire you?

My early inspiration was Ernest Hemingway who fascinated me by way he did not tell you everything, yet he told you everything. Through the years I read Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, and many others, and tried to absorb whatever it was they were doing that moved me.

 A truly life changing inspiration came to me when I read Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell. She rescued me from a very long hiatus and stall in my writing. When her book “American Salvage” came in out in 2009 (to fantastic acclaim) I was totally engaged in her subject matter, the rural inarticulates. But mostly I was motivated by her ability to take her subject matter from the Michigan landscape and make it wonderful. Plus, she is accessible. You can go see her at readings within driving distance, follow her on Facebook, actually talk to her. She could be about the coolest person on the planet. But she also got me writing again when I had almost given up. Don’t give up!

Andrea King Collier
Freelance Journalist and Writer
For A Rally of Writers 2017