I had a chance to read my short story, Apartment 101, at a reading arranged by the Washington City Paper for its 2020 Fiction Contest winners.
I read first, sharing my fiction before an audience at the arts-friendly Eaton DC hotel and online via Facebook Live.
Standing in front of the crowd with my short story in hand, I read slowly, stressing the funny lines and looking up at the audience occasionally. A reading needs to have a bit of performance to it.
This wasn’t my first reading. I won the City Paper contest in 2017 for my short story Victory Party and read at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.
I was glad to read first because then I could sit back and enjoy the work of the other winning writers from the Fiction Issue.
Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky shared his story about an epic paintball war in DC. It’s funny, a rarity in these grim times in the nation’s capital. A journalist, he wrote it the night before the contest submission deadline.
Rhonda Green-Smith read her story of a child who learns everything she needs to know about life one morning in 1986. Her voice is DC authentic, coming from the real city beyond the monuments. This story is part of a collection that she’s working on.
Then we did a Q&A with the audience, including being asked for writing advice. I said: write what you know. Apartment 101 is based upon an apartment I lived in during the 90s. The characters and the events were all drawn from my experiences.
Thanks to City Paper for setting this up! Fiction provides a more satisfying experience than skimming a tweet. I hope that I inspired other people in the room to pick up the pen and start writing.
Three people. Three decades. One drafty apartment.
That’s the premise behind my short story Apartment 101, which was a winner in the Washington City Paper’s Fiction Issue 2020. The issue also includes two other great stories by local authors about life in Washington, DC.
The inspiration behind Apartment 101 comes from experience. During the 1990s, I lived in an apartment building at 15th and Swann. Like in the story, there was a drug dealer on the corner, a weird hoarder in the building and I got up on the roof. And it was drafty as hell.
Creative people need unstructured time. I got the idea for the story walking home from work on a rainy December evening. My brain was wandering, thinking about how many years I’ve spent walking around DC. I got to thinking about my old apartment and how much I witnessed there. Could that be a story? How could I organize it?
Once home, I immediately sat in front of my computer and started to write. I’ve written so many traditional stories that I wanted to write something with a different structure. Apartment 101 is three stories in one, with little vignettes from 1989, 1999 and 2009.
Originally, I intended to include 2019 but I ran out of space – the contest limit was 1500 words. Guidelines are good for creativity, however. The sparse word limit forced me to cut my sentences down to what was absolutely necessary.
I wrote most of it in one sitting over a couple of hours but returned to it dozens of times over the next week, making little tweaks and changes.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been in the City Paper Fiction Issue. My short story Victory Party appeared in 2017. I’ve also written several novels set in Washington, including my latest, The Swamp.
You can’t escape the news. It’s everywhere in 2018, blaring from TV sets and buzzing across iPhones. Every day, a new outrage, as America stumbles through the year, like a drunk on the edge of a subway platform.
Sure, you see the headlines emanating from Washington, DC, but what’s it like to live here?
For that, you need fiction, which can not only tell you what’s going on but make you feel it as well. Short stories allow you to inhabit the mind of another person, seeing the world through their eyes, and uncovering their terrors and anxieties, which may be different than yours.
Or they may be the same. The last City Paper Fiction Issue in 2017 featured three stories of electoral disaster, with my piece, Victory Party, the winner. Three fictional works that took you into the id of a city, uncovering its existential terror and disbelief.
That’s another thing about writing fiction: it’s therapy. Victory Party was my attempt to define our disordered reality in neat words and paragraphs.
And it was an amazing experience to see my winning short story in print all over the city. I got to do a reading, too, at Kramerbooks, which was the experience of a lifetime.
The contest is back! The City Paper is calling for submissions for their upcoming fiction issue. It’s only 2000 words – that’s nothing! You’ve probably written longer emails. The deadline is November 11.
Writing a short story about DC will help others understand what it’s like to live in a place where so much is so wrong. And it might help you, too.
In my short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper Fiction Competition, I portray a Washington shocked by the Trump victory – and one person who’s happy about the result.
Election 2016 was an event that traumatized the American psyche. I wasn’t the only person who processed this horror through fiction. A majority of the submissions to the City Paper contest concerned Trump, as I learned during a reading at Kramerbooks.
I assumed the worst was over. A horrible punch to the gut but then life in Washington would resume along the contours of previous experience. Trump would rise to the occasion and become a normal Republican like Bush.
I was wrong. Realized it during his American Carnage inauguration speech. Everything went downhill from there, a year of outrages culminating in the firing of James Comey. Now, we’ll be lucky to survive 2017 without Trump kicking off war on the Korean peninsula.
During the year, I wrote a novel – The Swamp. My fictional depiction of the Obama era seems quaint. The book presents a scenario I thought outlandish, in which a political groundswell demands that the nation’s capital be moved out of DC. Out of Washington, I called it. But this fictional future reads like a best-case scenario now.
Thinking back on my short story, Victory Party, what would my protagonist make of the past year? My ex-con Randy was happy, the Trump victory representing revenge upon the elite class, through he’s wise enough to know it won’t last. One year later, it hasn’t, and I imagine him trying to stay honorable in very dishonorable times.
We write to make sense of our times, trying to impose narrative on chaos. Washington wrote following the Trump victory. Washington continues to write as the nation unravels.
Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.
The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the 2016 Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the trauma of the election.
I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.
Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:
voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.
But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?
There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.
DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.
I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.
My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.
I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.
In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.
It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.
I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.
Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.
The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was secretly happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.
Writing & Editing
When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.
After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell.
I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats.
“Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.
After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.
The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of happiness amid the gloom:
Randy was smiling, a broad and unexpected grin that overtook his face, a few seconds of happy disbelief, a triumphal joy. It was the joy of winning, victory over these careless people and their easy lives. He knew it wouldn’t last.
To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a reading at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was the thrill of a lifetime
That’s me reading at Kramerbooks! The bookstore hosted a celebration for the City Paper’s Fiction Issue on Sunday, January 8th. I read my short story Victory Party, which won First Place in this annual competition.
It was a freezing Sunday night – and it was packed! Kramerbooks cleared out space in the middle of the store for the reading. Chairs were set up and drinks were served. The night was hosted by local author Mary Kay Zuravleff, who entertained the crowd with DC trivia between readings. I read first, then the finalists read and then we all mingled over beer and wine amid the stacks.
Kramerbooks is my local bookstore. One of the first places I ever visited in DC, this Dupont Circle bookstore/bar/cafe represents everything that’s great about living in a city. Giving a reading at Kramerbooks – it’s a dream come true!
The annual Fiction Issue sought stellar, unpublished short fiction from local writers. Submissions were judged (anonymously) by Mary Kay Zuravleff, whose latest novel Man Alive! was a 2013 Washington Post Notable Book. Stories had to be less than 1000 words long.
Set in a U Street speakeasy on election night, Victory Party is about the moment that the liberal bubble pops.
The City Paper said:
Good fiction vividly and accurately describes the world we know; great fiction upends that world. And so this story not only exposes the privileged ignorance so many had about the election but also introduces believable supporters for the opposition.
I’m a writer and photographer who has lived in DC for more than twenty years. My fiction is primarily about Washington “beyond the monuments” – the real city and its neighborhoods and people. I think my fiction has a verisimilitude that you won’t find in more commercial works that treat Washington merely as a backdrop. Instead, I write about the city that I wander and photograph on a daily basis.
If you enjoyed Victory Party, then check out my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the city’s art world. It contains the same jaded look at a gentrified city wildly out of touch with the rest of the country.
And come see me read Victory Party at Kramerbooks on Sunday, January 8 at 6:30 PM! It will be a celebration of the City Paper’s Fiction Issue!