Short stories, big inspiration

by Amy Kingsley

Mark Watson describes his favorite authors the same way a visually impaired octogenarian might explain his spectacle collection.

He puts on Vonnegut when he wants to bring absurdities into sharper focus. Louisianan Tim Gatreaux reveals brilliance in the lives of regular folk. And Dan Gerber, “an obscure writer,” provides the frame through which Watson envisions his own capabilities.

“[Gerber] is a writer from Michigan that no one knows about,” Watson says. “When I read his books my eyes just opened. I thought, “This is how you tell a story.'”

Watson and Sheryl Monks operate Press 53, a small publishing house in Winston-Salem that specializes in short fiction. Watson turned to publishing after 10 years as an aspiring Nashville songwriter; Monks is a writer herself who lives in the small town of Hamptonville. Like most writers, the two of them can talk for hours about the power of literature.

“Early on we set some ground rules,” Watson says. “If it’s something that doesn’t move us then it doesn’t move us. We won’t publish it.”

Fortunately for the company, Watson and Monks have found plenty of work that moves them. Their two-and-a-half-year-old imprint has already released 20 volumes of short fiction, literary nonfiction and reissues.

“We each specialize in different aspects of publishing,” Monks says. “But the writing is the place where we come together.”

She means philosophically. Since Press 53 gave up its Lewisville office earlier this year, Monks and Watson have been working out of their respective homes, communicating via e-mail and instant messages.

Despite the miles between them, they stay on the same page, especially when it comes to short fiction.

“The short story writer today is being forced commercially to write novels,” Watson says. “The big houses will usually say, “We’ll publish your short stories, but you have to give us a novel.'”

Watson thinks the short story’s unpopularity is a direct result of people’s perceptions.

“The name “short story’ implies to people that they’re going to be shortchanged,” he says.

Monks chimes in.

“With short stories and poems it’s so much harder to market,” she says. “You have to explain to people that it’s not a partial novel, it’s a short story.”

So what is a short story? And what makes it mechanically different than a novel?

Well, there’s the obvious. Short stories include pieces of fiction up to about 10,000 words in length. Novels average between 55,000 and 100,000 words. Anything in between usually gets tagged a “novella.”

“I truly believe the short story is the highest art form there is for writers,” Monks says. “You have to really concentrate a single problem within a small group of characters. In my opinion it’s the most difficult form of writing, and our deepest love is for the short story.”

The friendship between Monks and Watson, which dates back to 1999, has already exceeded short story parameters. In fact, the two could be filling in the second volume of a saga that started when Watson was an adult student at Salem College and Monks was a rising junior.

“Every time we got together,” Watson says, “we always seemed to strike up good conversations about writing.”

It was Watson’s idea to start a series of parlor readings – like parties, but with authors – to organize a series of weekend retreats and to hire Monks, who holds an MFA from Queens College in Charlotte, to facilitate.

It was also Watson’s idea to start Press 53, which he named after his lucky number. The first book he printed was a collection of his short stories.

“When I saw Kevin’s book I was really impressed,” Monks says. “I was really envious and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?’ Then my husband said, “I’m sure he needs help, why don’t you call him and see?'”

So far Press 53 has released books by John Ehle, Quinn Dalton, Al Sim, Curtis Smith and almost a dozen others. They’re sponsoring a short-story adaptation contest in conjunction with Riverrun Film Festival.

And there are more volumes to come. Several have passed writerly inspection and sit in various stages of production.

“We want to find not just a great story but a great person to work with,” Watson says. “So far we’ve been really lucky with that.”

“It’s so cliché,” Monks says, “but I really think our press has a family dynamic to it. But that’s so trite, don’t even write that.”

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