Getting published in the New Yorker is a high honor for any author, and that’s particularly true for literary fiction. This week a Johnson State College professor achieved that honor with his story “The Apartment,” published in the Aug. 31 issue of the magazine.
Jensen Beach’s short story about a woman remembering a former lover is both sparse and highly emotive. The author sets the tale — and the entire forthcoming collection, Swallowed by the Cold — in Sweden, where he lived for six years.
The story begins as a woman glances at a name she recognizes taped to a call box at the apartment complex where she lives and is immediately reminded of a former lover with the same surname. That seemingly innocuous moment leads to a night of solitary reflection too much alcohol and an awkward encounter with a woman she believes may be the now grown-up daughter of the man she slept with years ago.
Beach says getting the email that his story was accepted into The New Yorker “was just a dream come true for me.”
“My agent has been sending stories to The New Yorker for, I think, a couple years and we've never gotten a yes before,” says Jensen.
Beach's tone is both sparse and direct, yet simultaneously portrays a strong sense of emotion.
“I think in some ways probably the style did grow to kind of reflect an overall tone or mood that I wanted to achieve,” says Beach. “I don't know how deliberate it was from the onset; more something that developed organically as I was writing the stories in the book over the last few years.”
Beach says the Swedish culture certainly influenced parts of the story and the collection. His wife is Swedish and two of his children were born there, so he speaks Swedish during the home and says it’s definitely a part of his family's cultural identity.
“But for me as an American moving to Sweden when I did, in my early twenties, you know the immigrant experience is always one of otherness or outsider-ness, but I had the kind of the strange experience of looking Swedish and being able to speak Swedish, but not being Swedish.”
Beach says in some ways the book “was an attempt on my part to kind of explore that Swedish identity a little bit more.”
As the story unfolds the main character Louise polishes off a bottle of wine, and half of another one before she turns to scotch. Beach writes of her downing a glass of scotch: “she emptied her glass, winced, searched the burn of the scotch in her throat for pleasure.”
“I was trying to kind of get into Louise's head as an alcoholic,” says Beach. “What that might be like for her and what the sort of emotional or physical experience for her would be of drinking the scotch, but I do think that that sense of pleasure and pain might reflect some of her situation in life and her unhappy marriage, her strange relationship with her son.”
The main character Louise shows up in some of the other stories in the book as well, says Beach, and it’s very much a part of her character, that sense of doing things that are painful but finding a little bit of pleasure in them.
Beach says that as a writer he relies a fair amount on what doesn’t appear in the story to reveal characterization.
“I think there’s a lot of power in the subtext of a good short story, what’s not said, or what’s lurking just underneath the surface,” says Jensen.
He says he didn't know what was going to happen in the story until started to happen while he was writing
“I write to discover those actions or the gestures or the kind of subtleties that develop, either between characters or as a result of one character's actions,” he says.
Beach's advice to his students in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Johnson State College?
“We talk a lot about this notion of surprise or about inevitability in a story, and kind of finding that perfect balance between the two of not really knowing where a story is going to go but uncovering its own potential and the potential that the characters and the setting and the situation offer,” says Beach.
As for the rest of the stories in the collection, Swallowed by the Cold, Beach says they link in various ways both direct and subtle.
“In terms of style or tone, I think generally most of the stories do you have this kind of quiet remove,” he says. “There's certainly no heavy-plotted huge excitement or like car crashes or gunshots or anything.”
Instead Beach's writing slowly builds to such a dramatic tension as he explores a sense of place and characters.
The short story “The Apartment” is in the Aug.31 issue of The New Yorker. The entire collection, Swallowed by the Cold, will be published next year.