Sabbath Night - Comparable to Other Falco Writing?

Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha is far from Ed Falco’s first book, in fact it’s his third collection of short stories alone, to go along with a poetry chapbook, two standard novels, a hypertext novel, a collection of short fictions, and other assorted individually published works.  So how does it fit in with his other work?  If you've decided to check out his work based on anything that’s been written or podcasted here this week, does the rest of his work fit the descriptions you’ve seen?

At least so far as the standard fiction goes, it very nicely fits what you’ve seen this past week.  Especially the short fiction, as Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha is a collection of New and Selected Stories, and the selections come from his past two collections – Plato at Scratch Daniel’s (University of Arkansas Press, 1990), and Acid (Notre Dame University Press, 1996).

Not that I’d go so far as to say that Falco has a specific formula, but many of his stories do approach similar themes and do so in similar ways.  Maybe I actually am just trying to convince myself that his short fiction doesn’t follow a formula, but if I do allow myself to agree with any who would state such, I may come away from such an agreement with even more appreciation for his work.  To be able to follow a formula over a dozen times within a single collection and have each work hold up both on its own, and within the collection is pretty damn impressive.

While there is frequently violence, or at a minimum disturbances, in Falco’s short fiction, it is rare that the violence is the focus of the story.  The violence is not even always the impetus that moves his main character forward, instead it is frequently an underlying violence, or tucked away behind the actions of the main characters.  It’s almost as if Falco is writing his stories while his local news report is on behind him, sneaking its way into his work.

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Interview with Ed Falco

The following is an interview with Ed Falco, author of Winter in Florida, Plato at Scratch Daniel’s, Acid, Sea Island, A Dream with Demons, a prose poem chapbook , and many plays.  He is the recipient of many a literary award and teaches at Virginia Tech.  Much more information can be gleamed from his website and blog,



Hello Ed, thank you very much for taking some time from your schedule to respond to some questions today.


You're welcome, Dan.  I have to warn you, though, it's been a crazy busy day and it's late, so this will be a laid-back interview.  I hope you don't mind.


[No problem, Ed.  Fine with me.]  How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a writer?  How did you come about realizing it?


I started writing poems at age 17 to––what else?––impress a girl.  Guess I shouldn't tell you her name, huh?  We were both on the literary magazine staff, as I recall.  Good memories . . .  The poems, though, were terrible.  Bad imitations of e.e. cummings.  I published one in the magazine, and I still blush at its startling badness when I come across it.


[You still have your high school magazines around?  So . . .] you published three books in 2005 – what was more exciting, this fact, or the publishing of your first two books within a couple of months of each other back in 1990?


I guess getting out those first two books was a big deal.  I thought I never was going to get a book published.  I had come close to publishing a book again and again, through competitions, with commercial presses, but something always went wrong.  I was near forty before Arkansas took Plato, and then Soho took the novel a few months later.


[Actually, Ed, you were 40 when that first book came out, which is really kind of old for a first book.  But since then] you’ve published with publishers of various sizes – both independent and university affiliated, not to mention hypertext.  What sort of differences have you seen between the various publishers who have taken on your work?

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Feb 09, 2006

Publisher's comments

I’ve been a short story guy from way back and first became a fan of Ed Falco’s when we published one of his stories, “The Gift,” in The Missouri Review in the mid-eighties. This is a classic, by the way, one I think could stand to be in every anthology of American fiction there is. Over the years we published several more of his stories, and I began looking for his work in other magazines.  He has a voice that you trust as a reader, and a skilled, artful way of telling layered stories that are about something important. His stories are filled with plot and believable characters who are often so clearly realized you feel as though you know them. Often these characters have some dark flaw—either of basic personality or arising out of circumstance—that they must face, if not overcome, in order to protect their family, especially their children, from some real physical or emotional catastrophe that arises with sudden unexpectedness—a brush with outside evil—or from their own private demons that have been buried in the past. They ask moral questions, force risky moral choices, and in many ways are very traditional pieces, but with a distinctly contemporary edge, with a tension that can build to a razor edge in a flash, without a lot of commotion. Some of these turn out well enough, some become cautionary tales. All of them are emotionally complex, tinged with ironic or unexpected consequences.

 For a long time, Fred and I have wanted to publish a story collection. But they’re difficult to do successfully for a commercial publisher because the sales are so often not what you would hope they’d be. For whatever reasons—I have a few ideas, but they’re only theories—people don’t tend to buy story collections. There are, of course, exceptions every year, but the exceptions are so unpredictable. Still, we both admire the form and love reading stories ourselves. And part of our mission at Unbridled—as its been everywhere, really—is to support the best voices we can find, over the long haul whenever possible, and to publish work that we believe has a chance to last


I absolutely love Ed Falco’s writing—it has everything I look for in fiction. He has a large body of work but he hasn’t reached a broader audience that I think he deserves. We decided that if we ever were going to do a story collection, this one was it. We decided to make it a selected works because he has such a large opus that, for whatever reasons, hasn’t yet reached that large audience and we wanted to make a statement—we wanted to tell people that, hey, here’s a guy who is one of the very best practitioners of the short story form, and has been for years, and now you have this chance to read him, perhaps see what you’ve missed. I’m very proud, and Ed should be proud, that every story in this collection stands on its own. There are no fill ins. We were very careful about making sure that every story we included paid off.

Greg Michalson

Feb 08, 2006

From Ed Falco

I think it might be worthwhile to talk a bit about what exactly it is we mean by “literary fiction.” Ed Champion asked me, in the podcast interview, if I considered myself a literary writer, and I said that I did. Completely. I certainly aspire to being a writer of literary fiction. That answer was easy for me, because I think all good writers, all really good writers, are literary writers. In David Milofsky’s otherwise generous piece on the Litblog Coop, titled “Bloggers nudge literary fiction to the presses,” he defines literary fiction as “those books that champion style above content.” Since I’ve heard so many good and complimentary things about David Milofsky, I’m going to guess that was just a hurried definition tossed off for a newspaper piece––because it’s just not right. Can you imagine saying that about any good writer? “She’s a really good writer. I love the way she emphasizes style over content!” I can’t. For me, that would always be a weakness in the writing. Great stylists––a James Joyce, a William Faulkner, a Gertrude Stein––make the language their signature. Their voice is so particular that you recognize it immediately. Hemingway was a great stylist. My old teacher, Ray Carver, was a stylist. None of these writers emphasized style over content. Rather, style and content merge, so that meaning arises out of how things are said as well as what is said. Purple writing emphasizes style over content. In good writing, in literary writing, style and content happen simultaneously.

I’m comfortable calling any fiction that struggles to honestly explore its subjects literary. It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that a book can be a huge commercial success and still be literary? All of J.D. Salinger’s writing comes immediately to mind. How many million copies of Catcher in the Rye have been sold by now? And the remainder bins are full of crassly commercial efforts that haven’t sold well at all. The opposite of literary fiction is not commercial fiction, but bad commercial fiction, books that are interested in exploiting their subjects rather than exploring them, exploiting them for sales or fame or self-aggrandizement or (and one current book seems like a good example of this) all three.

I think we need to guard against literary writing being defined as esoteric or effete. Literary writing, for me, is just another way of saying serious writing, of saying good writing.

Feb 07, 2006

Endings and Openings

Here Ed and I pick back up in our conversation of Falco's short stories, talking about the endings of his stories and the openings of them, particularly the very first sentences.

Scott: Another thing that I like about Falco is his skill in just plain storytelling. He really knows how to work a plot and, maybe most importantly, his endings are usually very satisfying.

Ed: I agree. We discussed "The Revenant" earlier and that ending really worked for me. My feeling about an ending of a story is that it should finalize what has been developed along the way but that it should also raise some kind of question. That's an interesting thing about short stories, you have a character that's going to exist for maybe 10-30 pages and if the character's to have any kind of dimension or life, I think that what happens after the story is as important as what happens during the story. What do you think?

Scott: Yeah, I agree. The ending is a big challenge. A lot of writers, they write a real nice story where the characters are interesting and the plot is nice and everything's working, and then the ending is like this chance for them, like you got me this far, now make the story your own. And that's hard, especially if, like Falco, you're working in realism, it's hard to keep finding interesting plots and new ways to finish them. I think in this collection, Falco is working some territory that's been worked before, but I think he's finding fresh ways to approach the material.

Speaking of endings, one of the stories I enjoyed was "Smugglers," and I bring it up in the context of endings because this story sort of doesn't have one. To summarize, it's these two young adult kids and they're off in England. So there's a young man who's the protagonist and he's with his girlfriend in this motel-type place, and basically they're going to swallow some condoms filled with cocaine and smuggle it into France. It's the girlfriend's idea, she's done this many times before, and you get a sense that the protagonist feels like he needs to do this in order to impress her, but also to prove something to himself as well. So the meat of the story is really him making this decision to smuggle the drugs. And the thing is that even though the story makes the trip to France sound very dangerous--the condom could rip in his stomach and kill him, they might get stopped at the border--even though this sounds like a very tense situation, and you really want to know if they're going to make it, we never actually see it. Falco ends the story before they even board the plane.

Ed: Right, like a lot of the other stories, for instance, "Instruments of Piece" that we were discussing earlier, it's about the decision.

Scott: Exactly. Despite the fact that this part of the plot doesn't come through, it's really about the decision, and so the story works, it's satisfying.

Ed: I think Falco works best when he's exposing these dilemmas, these levels of choices. He goes ahead and leads you along and sets up the atmosphere and then about three pages in he starts to kick in what the characters need and the motivation. Very often he sets the scene first and it's a very vivid depiction. It's something that's interesting, that he's as concerned about the atmosphere as he is about the characters and plotting.

Scott: That's a good point. He does like to throw you into a very real environment right at the beginning. When I interviewed him he as talking about this Frank O'Connor short story that he really likes, and he said that no matter how many times he's read it--and he's read it a lot--he's never failed to be taken in by the plot. And that's something about Falco's stories, they really grab you and get you ensnared in the world and the plot. Damned if he doesn't have everything set right in the first paragraph, which is something that's hard to do, but he does it well.

Ed: There's something that's very blunt about his first sentences that's very interesting. Like in "Tulsa Snow: he writes "She said you have no character, I see right through you." The early beginnings of these stories really jab you in.

Scott: Yeah, it's something that's very bold. He's not afraid to be blunt, he's not afraid to toss you right in. I like it, especially because there are a lot of authors that I think would consider that sort of vulgar, to be so concerned with plot and grabbing you from that first instant. They would think it's below them to be so concerned with these things. But Falco recognizes that importance of these strong openings and what they can do for a story. And it works. When I read it, I don't feel like Falco is straining.

Ed: It's an interesting combination, because these openings can be blunt, but there it coexists with this Cheeveresque very classy kind of stylistic kind of language. For example, here's the opening of "Radon." "In the summer of 1988, when my older sister turned 16 and started dating a 34-year-old Amway salesman, my father discovered we had unacceptable levels of radon trapped in our house." This sentence just sort of takes me back to those great short stories of the 1930s and '40s, but you don't see it so much today. And then right after a very mannered sentence like that, he'll hit you with something blunt that just sends the thing another way.

Scott: Right, and just look how good that sentence was at setting up the situation. You have the year and the season, you know that this character is young with a sister who's getting in over her head with a creepy guy, you have some intimations about the father, and then there's this bit about the radon that you're not quite sure where it's going, but it seems like a major plot point to watch and like something that's going to have some metaphorical resonance at the story goes on. All that in a very succinct, elegant first sentence. It's going to get you involved, get you asking questions right away.

Ed: That's the thing. They read as very mannered, but the level of information is very large, and I'm suggesting that a lot of short story writers working today, there's some kind of stigma against this. Not that there's not value in more convoluted stories--we're big fans of people like David Foster Wallace--but Falco is certainly making the other kind of narrative look very good.

Feb 06, 2006

Discussing Falco

Last week, Ed and I had a conversation about Edward Falco's Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. We taped it, so during Falco week we're going to be posting excerpts. Here's the first installment.

Ed: Okay, let's get started. Story number one, "The Instruments of Peace."

Scott: So this is the one with the father, and he has his daughter, and they're off on some kind of ranch or something, and the bad kid comes to live with them for the summer.

Ed: Kid on the wrong side of the tracks

Scott: There you go. And the father, he's employing him, he's a stable-boy or something like that. And so, of course, he gets involved with the young daughter, who's just about to go off to college, just about that age, this is the summer before she leaves for college. And so the kid's kind of into trouble and there are some people who want to get him and the father has a choice: is he going to let these guys fuck up this kid or is he going to warn him so that he can get out of there? So it's a big moral dilemma for the father.

Ed: Well, that's the thing I liked about this one, the ethical dilemma and the code of honor. The guy who's telling the story is the father, and you're never quite certain which way he's going to go. It's a matter of honor in collision with trust. How often do you trust your fellow human being? That's a theme that walks hand in hand with the story of the kid and the daughter.

Scott: Yeah, it's kind of like the father is the older person, so he's supposed to act in a certain way, but he has this spiteful element because his daughter, this pure girl he has an image of has been sullied by the kid. So he knows he's not supposed to be spiteful against this kid, but he sort of wants to be, after what's happened to his daughter. So what do you think of the ending? In the ending he decides to warn the kid only to find out that the kid has already taken care of these people and he's about to leave on his own. So what do you think about that?

Ed: I think it goes back to the ethical dilemma of trusting someone else. The lynchpin of the story deal with how one's own sense of honor often interferes with one's ability to interact with people. And with this, where the father thinks the kid is innocent and actually finding that he's involved with something else entirely.

Scott: The sense of honor was blinding him?

Ed: Yeah. It's almost as if Falco is suggesting that as we grow older we take on this sense of honor, but at the same time it prevents up from being able to pinpoint how exactly people are.

Scott: And that's related to the fact that he has a daughter.

Ed: Yeah, and also he doesn't realize that his daughter is going to be like any other human being, she can be corrupted, etc.

Scott: So was this a satisfying ending?

Ed: Yeah, I felt it was. Even though you sort of could see it coming, at the same time I was satisfied because it's really more about this guy's change. And in fact, this is a theme throughout Falco, overcoming these blinders and being aware to all the shit that's going on.

Scott: Yeah, and another thing that Falco does story after story and that's being done here, is the thing about the father having a certain idea about the world, his own world, and he's forced to reevaluate it all by this guy who comes in. That happens story after story and it's kind of where a lot of the dynamism of Falco's stories comes from.

Ed: Yes, it also happens in the story "The Revenant," which is my favorite story here. It's so dead-on in it's depiction, and--

Scott: Well, it's depiction on what? What did it get right for you?

Ed: I think it got right the level of guilt that the character was carrying along with him.

Scott: So you want to break this down a little bit for everyone out there?

Ed: Yeah, yeah, so "The Revenant," it's the one that starts with the guy taking his daughter to the concert.

Scott: Exactly, in fact, let me read the first sentence because it's a great first sentence and it's indicative of how well Falco can open a story. "First, a teenage girl flashed me at a Marilyn Manson concert." There you go. If that doesn't draw you in . . .

Ed: Yeah, well, if you're a manly man like us [laughter]. Flashing is definitely going to make me start reading a story. Anyway, so it's a middle aged man escorting his teenaged daughter to the concert, so again we're dealing with the strange sort of protectiveness. She's 14 years old after all, so it seems like more parents would have trusted chaperones or something.

Scott: Yeah, so getting back to the flashing young lady. Not too far into the story, you being to wonder if she even existed, which has to do with the protagonist and his guilt.

Ed: Yeah. He has this relationship with his wife that isn't satisfactory from a sexual standpoint, and he experienced some bad shit in Vietnam.

Scott: Especially with regard to a young Vietnamese woman. Somewhat the same age as this girl he sees

Ed: Yeah, so the guy is sort of carrying around this guilt and the flashing scene at the concert brings it all forward, sort of stuns him. So in the middle of the night he decided to take off, something triggered by the concert. So he goes off and checks himself in a hotel and decides to order up a prostitute for himself. And despite the noirish sounding atmosphere here, it's actually a very moving sort of predicament because of the way the Falco just gradually reveals the guilt that this guy feels. So anyway, he freezes up when the escort's there and starts constantly apologizing for something, which speaks to his level of guilt. And it's also about his status of a Vietnam vet, which is something that's going to become more applicable in the near future, the idea of veterans carrying around guilt. He can't necessarily talk about things that hurt him, and this story shows in skillful detail what the lifelong effects of covering this stuff up is and failing to deal with it. In any other hands, I would be more aware of the stereotypical nature of the plot, but in Falco's hands it works. I guess because the mechanism of the story, he tells it so it's fresh.

Scott: And even though this is very prototypically masculine stuff here, with the war and the prostitute and whatnot, Falco still makes it very emotional and very honest.

Ed: Sometimes there's a certain sort of stigma to writing about this stuff, that people think you're not going to explain the feelings, but Falco's stories, even though they have very masculine overtones, they still cut very deep.

Scott: One more thing that's interesting. In the end of the story the protagonist recons with the fact that he imagined the girl who flashed him. And that's interesting because that's the whole instigating incident that gets the story moving. The thing that gets him off on this guilt-ridden quest actually came from him personally, which is a little different from lots of Falco's other stories where there's something that draws the protagonist out of his safe world, but it usually comes from without. It's that old friend who's into stuff, or the seductive woman, or whatever. But not in "The Revenant;" there it's the opposite.

Ed: This is indicative of what really made the story work for me. The level of not being sure what's in his mind and what's real and playing with that line. It really pushed the story above and beyond.

LBC Podcast #3: Edward Falco

Lbcfalco Nominator: Scott Esposito

Nominee: Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha, Edward Falco

Subjects Discussed: Definitive grit in rural settings, disturbing characters, sex and death, decorum in fiction, what's not talked about in fiction, manhood vs. multicultralism, Catholicism, the influence of personal background, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, World War II, realism vs. postmodernism, hypertext fiction, compulsions, experimental fiction, literary vs. commercial fiction, and writing in longhand vs. writing on computer.

Backup Link:  (MP3)

(A co-production of the LBC and The Bat Segundo Show)