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To Thrill a Mockingbird: Stories Are a Writer’s Engine

Book cover for Flowering, by Tom Bentley

Every morning for the past week or so, a mockingbird has risen with winged purpose to the top of the telephone pole nearest our house. From there, he releases an unbridled enthusiasm of trills, tweets and thrilling cascades of notable notes, seemingly of endless variation. I have read that a mockingbird can sing more than 400 different songs; I like to think that my mockingbird is Sinatra in feathers—400 songs is just a morning’s work, and the evening calls for 400 more.

But what I really like to think is that the mockingbird is unleashing a torrent of stories, rapid-fire, almost like a stand-up comedian. They are all colorful and antic: “Hey, do you remember the time I dated a bluejay? That ended so badly that every time I see a bird dressed in blue I head south for the winter.” And that story is then followed by a quick tale of why warblers make the best therapists and on.

Stories are fascinating; well-told, they pull a listener forward, with a “And then what happened? No way!” or “Don’t tell me anymore, that’s too sad. But did she die?” When a story clicks, all the elements—place, plot, character, mood—coalesce into a miniature world, a world where you feel the light breezes, and cower from the heavy storms.

Can My Tales Carry a Tune?
I have a collection of short stories that is going to be released by a small publisher, AuthorMike Ink, either late this year or in early 2012. Working with the company’s editor over the past couple of months has been interesting, because many of the stories are older pieces, written in the 80s and 90s. Revisiting them is like perching on a telephone pole from quite a ways off—the writer that sang those stories isn’t quite the writer I know now, though many a turn of phrase still fits in the ear. There are some new pieces in there too, but the bulk of them are from some time back.

What’s been particularly intriguing in the edit was that for a couple of stories I was requested to make modest-yet-significant changes to the endings. I had considered those stories fixed, but in working on them again, I see they are more like songs: stretching a note, slowing the cadence, pushing the melody—a change in rhythm is a change in meaning. Most gratifying is that I think the editor made good suggestions and that the work has been improved.

Anyway, that’s the working cover for the book up above. I had a number of the stories in full on the site, but I’ve removed all but one, which will serve as a teaser for the publication. I left that one because it won the National Steinbeck Center’s 1999 Short Story contest (and a thousand bucks)—they already paid for it, so it’s free to you. (And yeah, it’s got a couple of holes in it—the newly edited version is better.)

I understand that the male mockingbird sings his springtime stories to attract a mate; if my girlfriend asks, tell her I’m only doing the book to please my mother.

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10 thoughts on “To Thrill a Mockingbird: Stories Are a Writer’s Engine

  1. Tom, I’m diggin’ the working cover for Flowering. Congratulations, and I’m happy for you that the editor knew his/her stuff. I’m looking forward to getting my copy of the collection when it’s hot off the press.

    And if you’re trying to please your mother with your springtime story-singing, she must be a cool, open-minded person—because “All That Glitters” gets a little steamy and blasphemous.

    (Good stuff, that.)

  2. Annie, I’ll book you for 1,000 pre-purchase copies. Thanking you in advance.

    As for the steamy blasphemy, that’s just what those people did in the story—you can’t really control your characters, you know. Lucky for me, my mom can’t see that well these days, so she’ll probably skip it.

  3. Congratulations! I love the cover too. And I already know the inside will be fantabulous.

    By the way, I was recently reading a book called Sex Lives of Cannibals by a guy who moved from the US to a tiny island in the South Pacific. It was OK, but I kept thinking, I bet Tom’s story of living in Micronesia would be MUCH better. Hope that will be your next project. I bet you’d knock his book out of the library.

    (No pressure or anything).

  4. Jodi, you are too kind—I’ve read Sex Lives of Cannibals (and some other of Troost’s books) and thought it was hilarious. It is so DEAD ON accurate about living on those tiny Pacific islands. Many of the peculiar incidents he writes about happened to me and my girlfriend, as well as oddball variants. I don’t know if I can top that. But there are some things cooking now that might give me a chance to write about another overseas adventure…

  5. Congratulations Tom! I have a copy of your title story somewhere around here. You showed up for my art exhibition in SF so I can finally reciprocate and buy a copy of your book when it’s published. It better be autographed…

  6. Why Melani, what in blazes are you doing snooping over here? A guy just can’t get away with anything! But of course I will autograph your copy (though I hope you don’t mind if I sign it “Rex the Wonder Dog”).

    Good to hear from you!

  7. Will you sign mine “Wex the Donder Rog” ?

    I hope there will be an enormous unrestrained release party when the time comes. I hope it won’t be at my house.

  8. Joel, I will sign yours in a nice chipotle sauce, using my primitive knuckles to add calligraphic flourishes.

    As for the release party, I’m doing the pre-release party this weekend: I’ll be releasing a long “uhhhhhhh” after I finish the final proofing, which is happening today and tomorrow (this late spring rain here keeps a boy inside and reluctantly working).

  9. Just read “All That Glitters” and look forward to reading the rest in your new book. Today Poe would be on Prozac, don’t you think? I wonder how he would write if he were.

  10. Funny you bring that up, Megan, because two days ago I read an article about the speculation that Van Gogh suffered from a medical condition that caused him to see the world as he painted it, and that Bach was deranged.

    I fear that the Prozacked Poe wouldn’t be interested in pits nor pendulums, but perhaps in quiet gardening. Our loss.

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