The Story behind the Short Story
Posted by: Keir Graff
So, for the first time ever, there’s a short story in Booklist. Called “Reading Is My Business,” it’s in the May 1 issue, our Mystery Showcase, and it’s a hard-boiled tale about a boozy book reviewer named . . . Keir Graff. And it’s written by . . . yep, you guessed it, me.
What’s going on here? Was this some kind of an inside job, a no-bid contract? Well, yes. But I was as surprised as anyone at the way it came about.
What happened was this: on a gray morning in early February, as I was coming up out of the subway, I had an idea that almost made me laugh out loud. I had been reading a lot of crime fiction–well, I always read a lot of crime fiction–but I thought, “What if I took the conventions of a hard-boiled novel and applied them to something really unlikely like . . . oh, say, book reviewing?”
I banged out a draft almost in one sitting, using fictionalized versions of myself and my colleagues as characters, not even thinking about what I would do with the story when it was finished. I was just writing for fun, which, when you usually write with a more specific end in mind, is . . . well, fun.
I made myself laugh several times. Sometimes that’s a danger sign, but I showed the story to a few people and they thought it was funny, too. I showed it to Bill Ott and he liked it. I started thinking that maybe I should try to publish it. But where? It seemed a little offbeat and “inside” for the mystery magazines, and maybe a little too jokey for the literary magazines.
Bill suggested that I send it to Otto Penzler for an opinion. I’ve never met the man, but he was kind enough to reply within a couple of days. You’re a pretty funny guy, he wrote back. Will it be published? Maybe in BOOKLIST?
I told him that a 5,000-word short story would wreak havoc with our page budget. And, I was thinking to myself, Booklist doesn’t publish fiction–we only review it. But it was a nice thought. After all, who would get the jokes as well as Booklist‘s readers?
I forwarded Otto’s e-mail to Bill. A few minutes later, Bill was in my office with an encouraging look on his face.
“How long is your story?” he asked.
I told him.
He winced. Clearly we weren’t going to sacrifice 28 book reviews for my story, no matter how funny we all thought it was. But then he had another idea: what if we started it in the magazine and finished it online?
What if, indeed.
I hope you’ll read it, and I hope you’ll like it. I’m honored to have written the first fiction in Booklist‘s storied history, and I’m indebted to both Bill and Otto–and my coworkers, many of them named in the story–for their enthusiasm.
And as you read, bear in mind that this peek at the Booklist offices is entirely fictional.
Well, almost entirely.
Update: OK, this is just weird. Brilliant, but weird: a book-review procedural about Richard Price’s Lush Life. Add that to Charles Ardai’s next novel and you have a bona fide trend.