Interview: Jim Kelly on “The Man I Love”

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Tell us a bit about “The Man I Love.”

“The Man I Love” is a big-hearted ghost story in conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre’s gloomy existentialist play No Exit, which it seeks to refute.  It takes place in a mysterious bar that opens “only on Mondays, fifty-two times a year.” It’s about longing and loyalty. Also it’s short – just a bit longer than flash fiction.

James Patrick KellyWhat was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Years ago I helped start a statewide flash fiction competition here in NH.  At a “Three Minute Fiction Slam” ten contestants read a three minute story in front of a panel of judges, who give instant feedback about what they’ve just heard.  After all have read, the judges declare a winner.  The Slam competition runs from January to March and has been going on for a decade.  I judge some of the regional Slams scattered around our little state.  Then comes the finals where the regional winners compete for a cash prize.  Typically 80-90 writers compete and hundreds of audience members cheer them on!

Last year I started teaching a free two night workshop on the art and craft of writing and presenting a three minute story.  My goal was to help writers prepare for competition.  On the first night we talked about how to write for a Slam and on the second the workshoppers read their stories and I gave them the kind of feedback I’d give at an actual Slam.  I wrote a draft of “The Man I Love” to demonstrate to the workshop what a three minute story might look like.  The only problem was that my draft was about a thousand words long and a three minute story can’t be much more than six hundred.  No problem! I gave the workshoppers the thousand word draft and told them to hack four hundred words out of it.  I was not surprised that what remained was pretty pathetic, which is to say that “The Man I Love” failed as a three minute story.  But I knew that I’d captured a moment of true feeling and I realized that my narrator needed more to do. So I filled in obvious omissions and when I was done, I had this sweet short story of nineteen hundred words. And as soon as I finished it, I knew I was sending it to F&SF, which is the magazine which launched my career many, many (but don’t ask) decades ago! Alas, for career purposes, I’ve found it necessary to spread my stories around, but I always return to F&SF.  In fact, I’ve been fortunate to sell to every editor since Ed Ferman.  So I’ve got serious history with this magazine and I’m proud to be back!

Was “The Man I Love” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I think the most personal part of this story for me is how much the song, “The Man I Love,” means to me.  I admit that I get emotional pretty much every time I hear this classic torch song.  As mentioned in the story, there have been many, many versions and the hardest part of the writing of the story was to find a way to quote as much of the achingly sad lyrics as possible without getting F&SF in copyright trouble.  But the story captures some of what I feel when I listen to this song, especially in its last lines. When I read it for the first time at a convention, I’m not ashamed to say that I was choked up at the end.

Why do you write?

What a question!  I guess I write mostly to explore what I think about this complex world and all the great and awful people in it.  But I am also always thinking of readers, although not necessarily specific ones. So I might write a story especially for readers who – say — don’t believe that a woman can be a starship captain. Or that AI can achieve personhood.  Or, in this case, that ghosts might ponder their existential dilemma.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I have been very much influenced by the cohort of writers who started publishing about when I did: Connie Willis, John Kessel, Lucius Shepard, Karen Joy Fowler, Bruce Sterling and Nancy Kress.  That’s just six; I could name six more without breaking a sweat!  We grew up in this genre reading and critiquing and, yes, learning from each other. Of the sf writers who came before me, I always cite Damon Knight, Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Robert Heinlein.  But recently I’ve been rereading the great Cordwainer Smith, a master short story writer who I first encountered as tween, and I realize he has been whispering to me for my entire career.

What are you working on now?

Just now I am briefly between projects and have been throwing myself into promoting King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats, my short novel that was published by Subterranean Press in February.  Maybe you think this isn’t writing, but while I am convinced that we are living in a new Golden Age of Short Fiction, it is also the case that there are more great stories being published than anyone has time to read!  To be a writer today, you must not only write well but also help readers find your best work.  To that end, I’ve been giving the audiobook version of my novella away for free. It’s narrated by my Grammy-and-Audie-award-winning friend, Stefan Rudnicki.  If you’d like a listen, here’s the link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/cdgq95qzahuwsc3/King%20of%20the%20Dogs%20download.mp3?dl=0

Like I said, it’s totally free but if you wanted to give something back, why not stop by my website and telling me what you thought?  For that matter, I’d love to hear your reactions to “The Man I Love.” I promise to write back!

“The Man I Love” appears in the March/April 2020 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc2020-29.htm

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here: https://weightlessbooks.com/authors/elizabeth-hand-authors/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-march-april-2020/

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats): https://weightlessbooks.com/format/the-magazine-of-fantasy-and-science-fiction-6-issue-subscription/

Amazon US (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

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