Shann Ray won the Bakeless Prize for his book of short stories, American Masculine, a collection that is most welcome on our Best Fiction of 2011 list: “Almost every story is set under the great blue steel dome of the Montana sky. Almost every story follows a hard man who cannot understand where hardness should end. Almost every story watches as a lonely woman attempts to love such a man without understanding the anger, the hurt and the loneliness beneath the iron. Think Hemingway or Jim Harrison.”
Discover more of the best short story collections of 2011.
Here, Ray discusses the challenges of getting short stories published, his careers in basketball and psychology, and why he loves to read.
So you won the Bakeless Prize?
It’s one of those subtle beauties of society that short story books come to publication…everything’s stacked against them so hard, those books and those books of poems, the dark horses that are so beautiful, we kinda want them, even if we act like we don’t want them…
When I started working on short stories, it was a very, very long time ago, the first one was 18 years ago. It took seven years of rejections before one was taken in a magazine, and it came in form-letter acceptance. I was so used to form-letter rejections that I didn’t realize it was an acceptance. Then I thought, maybe I should look at that again…
So 12 years later this book got published…all those stories went through their own track of rejections along the way, multiple rejections, to come to a nice magazine, all these beautiful magazines around country…
When [the Bakeless announcement] happened, it was still so shocking. I was getting notes from all over, agents and publishers saying, “We can’t sell short stories.” I was still not thinking that it [publishing a book] is not going to happen when I found out I was a finalist at Bakeless. When it actually happened, my wife and I literally cried in the kitchen and our daughters danced around us.
You played college basketball and are a psychologist…how did you get started writing?
Well, I always loved the idea of writing, but didn’t yet love the immense discipline, you know how real love has a real deep discipline to it. See from distance, looking back, I didn’t read enough. Back then, 22 years ago, what changed me was my wife. My wife said, “Why don’t we go back and read the 10 most influential books in each other’s life?”
I was playing professional basketball in Germany, and we both loved reading in general, so we did that thing on 10 books. Seven books on my list were all boys’ dog books, you know, and all those things. That tells you what my list was like. My wife’s list was unreal, and I never went back: Tale of Two Cities, Les Misérables, Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, Candide by Voltaire. It was over after that.
Then I took the track to psychology, and I was reading a lot of philosophy, psych, social justice things, life went toward psychology. I still loved fiction and reading classics.
How does your background in psychology affect your writing? You write from so many views—men, women, older, younger, etc.?
A lot...My nonfiction book, Forgiveness and Power in an Age of Atrocity is out this month, actually has inside it the story “Three from Montana” as a factual story. I love that mix, a total mash-up, you can write something poetically, a short story, and it can be the real thing…
I like all three things… so sometimes just standalone stories, poems, pieces of nonfiction to me are one. I think about basketball or psych, and I think about how people relate. Pscyh has been a complete gift, I’m honored to work with people I’ve worked with, to know that people really face some incredible, grave issues, atrocities at time, difficulties of family, painful, painful, situations.
Most come to atonement...I definitely have seen this atonement in them, of some way of dealing with the complexities and confusion and chaos and disorder. I’ve always admired fiction that does that, that finds a way to both reveal the darkness and the light or the possibility of people.
Can you tell us a bit more about your new nonfiction book?
Forgiveness and Power basically takes the idea of all the ways, from individuals up to nations, that we commit atrocities against ourselves and others. It is possible that ultimate forgiveness changes the heart of ultimate violence. All stories are a mixture of science and art, there is a lot of personal narrative, poetry and the forgiveness research I’ve been involved in the last 17 to 20 years, movements in places like South Africa, Rwanda, Kosovo in response to atrocities and movements of ultimate forgiveness inside ultimate violence.
It’s kinda neat. I never pictured myself doing this—you don’t know when you’re young, at 22, all my dreams were basketball. And when that died, it was like a knife wound…But I was always a decent student, I was going to Pepperdine, and they offered to pay for my master’s degree, probably for my work done with the homeless in Santa Monica. But I found people here and there to help me move forward into graduate studies. At that time, I was still afraid of reading so I didn’t go into literature because that would’ve meant reading massive books per week. But now I read massive books all the time.