Stuck in the Middle:
Writing That Holds You In Suspense
*Book Analysis by Chris Rice Cooper and Scripted Interview with Editors David Bell & Molly McCaffrey
On May 9, 2016 Main Street Rag Publishing (http://mainstreetragbookstore.com) released its anthology Stuck in the Middle: Writing That Holds You In Suspense, edited by married couple and literary team David Bell (www.davidbellnovels.com) and Molly McCaffrey (www.mollymccaffrey.com).
The anthology consists of short stories, poems and non-fiction on being “stuck in the middle” which is defined by Bell and McCaffrey in the Introduction:
When we hear the world suspense associated with books or movies, we likely have certain vivid associations and expectations. Maybe we think of Janet Leigh stepping into the shower with Anthony Perkins peeping through a hole in the wall. Or maybe we think of Jodie Foster entering Buffalo Bill’s house wearing her weird night vision goggles.
But we wanted to push the notion of suspense into some different directions here. Sure, these stories and essays and poems contain their fair share of dangerous situations. A guy who owes money to a vicious criminal (“Righteous Rita” by James Breeden). A family who may nor may not be planning to gun down a Neo-Nazi (“The Idea Of Assassination. Toronto 1973” by J.J. Steinfeld). A family that struggles to forgive the person involved in their daughter’s death. (“Blame Game” by Jessica Levine.)
J.J. Steinfeld Jessica Levine
We hope most of you never find yourself experiencing anything like that. But let’s admit it – we all end up in sticky situations. We all come to forks in the road. We all face turning points. We all find ourselves suspended between possibilities, unsure of what to do next.
We’ve all been stuck in the middle.
Stuck In the Middle consists of an Introduction, Contributors Page, and is s divided into three sections: Fiction, Poetry, and Non-Fiction.
Vivan Shipley’s poem “Perennial”, consisting of 20 stanzas and ending in a couplet, is a compelling blockbuster about a woman who learns that her neighbor was a Nazi guard. Each stanza has its own punch – she compares her gardening to her neighbor’s gardening, she compares his method of feeding his pet falcon to his method of turning Jewish lives to ash in Dachau. She also remembers those lives whose were murdered, which include her own family members, and in the end she gives them a voice while at the same time demanding justice.
The commemorative mass grave dedicated to the unknown dead at Dachau
In the 11th and part of the 12th stanza she mentions Miklos Radnoti, not by name, and his widow Fanni Gyarmati:
Taking a widow
to find notebooks in her husband’s breastpocket, giving
her poems she could dry in sun, to soothe her, would
you say how ink, if not his breathwords, has been saved?
By Nancy Shires
A mountain lion
escaped a zoo,
the news reports,
and though we are
some miles away
lion sightings multiply.
Half-seeking an adventure,
we set forth to find
Where ball fields end,
thick woods begin.
Space between the branches
grows as leaves spin down
like red and orange confetti.
Surely we could spot
at the forest edge.
Step by step
to a weathered shac.
where once they boiled
the sap they tapped
from celebrating maples.
A twig snaps.
Their photographs along with their contact information are at the very end of this specific feature, right after the scripted interview with editors David Bell and Molly McCaffrey.
Scripted Interview with David Bell & Molly McCaffrey
How did you two meet?
We met in college, at the beginning of our junior year. We both lived on the fifth floor of Read Hall at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. It was a very social floor with somewhere around two hundred people living on it, and almost everyone knew each other after a while. It was an X-shaped building with six floors and four wings—two wings for women and two wings for men—but you could cross into another wing in the middle of the X. Not only did we meet each other on that floor, we also met many other people we are still friends with today. It was probably the best social experience of our college careers.
Could you please describe to me in as much detail as possible the steps into making STUCK IN THE MIDDLE come into being – from the moment the idea was first conceived in the brain until final book form?
We met the publisher of Main Street Rag, Scott Douglass, after he published one of Molly’s stories—“The Other Man”—in a Main Street Rag anthology called XX Eccentric in 2009.
After that anthology came out, Scott asked the two of us to edit an anthology for Main Street Rag (MSR). We agreed and edited an MSR anthology over the next year about travel and commuting called Commutability, which came out in 2010.
Not long after that, Scott asked if Molly would submit a book of stories for his fiction editor, Craig Renfro, to consider for publication since Dave had already signed a contract with Penguin for his next novel, Cemetery Girl.
Craig accepted Molly’s book, How to Survive Graduate School & Other Disasters, and it was published in 2011.
A few years later, Molly submitted another book for publication with MSR—a memoir called You Belong to Us—and Scott’s nonfiction editor, Beth Browne, accepted that book for publication as well.
The memoir came out in 2015, and before it came out, Scott asked if the two of us would edit another anthology for him, this one on the topic of suspense. We agreed, and the book—Stuck in the Middle—came out in 2016.
As far as the steps involved in putting that kind of book together, the first thing that happened was that Scott put an ad in The Writer’s Chronicle and on his website and Facebook page, requesting submissions for the 2016 anthologies.
Scott publishes several anthologies every year—all of them with different guest editors who Scott invites, like us—and there were six anthologies that year. The ads explained what writers should submit for consideration: poems, stories, and essays no longer than a certain length and not published in the previous five years.
The writers then submitted their work via email, and the two of us read the submissions for the suspense anthology and divided them into three piles—yes, no, and maybe.
After that process was complete, we decided that we had enough pieces in the yes pile—about forty or so pieces—that we did not need to take any work from the maybe pile.
We then submitted the list of accepted pieces to Scott, and he had a contract sent to each writer. The contracts were returned with the final piece and the author’s bios.
We then compiled all of the pieces and the bios into a desktop publishing file, designed the book, edited the book with each individual writer’s cooperation, and sent the finished product to Scott for approval.
This whole process took about a year from start to finish, and we did all this while we were both working on other projects—Dave was also writing his eighth novel, Since She Went Away, and Molly was working on her first young adult novel.
Once Scott approved our work on Stuck in the Middle, he printed and bound the books and mailed them out to those who ordered them—as well as to each person who appears in the book. And now the book is available for future orders on his website:
Were there any portions of the book that were compelling to you? And if so what portions?
We found every single story, poem, and essay in the book to be compelling in some way or, more often than not, in many ways.
The three prize winners—(fiction story) “Righteous Rita” by James Breeden, (poem) “Lucky” by Gwen Hart, and (non-fiction piece) “Blue Balls” by Eric Goodman—were obviously the pieces that we thought were the absolute best.
Eric Goodman Gwen Hart
By James Breeden
for M. Rudolph
The old farmhouse faced east, and when Kralick first moved in, plastic sheeting covered the glass over the modest picture window. He tore it off; the view was worth the draft. The house was small—two bedrooms, one bath—and nestled in a knoll rounded by years of plowing. The rent was low. Now, in summer, rows of tall corn lined the fields and encircled the house. A two track led from the county road to the small apron of gravel between the house and the decrepit barn.
Kralick considered it a necessity to see who was driving up to the house, and his dog let him know when someone was on the way. Moses the dog was dead now, and Kralick happened to be standing at the picture window, watching a Cooper’s hawk cruise the barn. A sports car raced up the two track, dust barrels muscling up and dissipating behind it. He cussed when he recognized the car.
He stepped to the screen door as the car skidded to a stop in front of it.
Tripp smiled, nodded at him from behind the steering wheel, and turned off the ignition. “Well, well, Mark‑o, how they hangin’?” Tripp’s oil‑black hair was slicked back. He wore a white sport shirt tucked into his blue jeans with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, revealing deeply tanned arms.
“Not too good, considering what your boys did to me last week.”
Tripp walked up and opened the screen door. Its metallic grating caused Kralick to tense, biting down with a grimace he hoped Tripp didn’t notice. He stumbled back, off balance, favoring his sore knee as Tripp passed in front of him.
“Whoa, now Mark. Take it easy. It’s just me, come to pay a visit.” Tripp cocked a smile at him. “Gonna offer me a brewski?”
Tripp’s musk-scented cologne hit his nose like rancid butter. Kralick said,“You know where it is.” He walked to the couch and sat down, stretching his legs out on the coffee table. He heard the fridge open and close and the pop of a pulled tab.
Tripp strolled in and seated himself in the easy chair across from him. “Had to go up to DeKalb. Thought I’d pay a visit. See how you’re doin’.”
Kralick shrugged. They had been friends for six years and business associates for half that time. At one point, early in their friendship, they had talked on their cells almost daily. They followed Chicago sports teams and both liked to place bets, but it wasn’t like that anymore.
“You owe me forty-two K. Forty-two point five to be precise.” Tripp took a swallow from the beer. “Whatta you have for me?”
“Have for you?” Kralick sat up, swinging his legs off the coffee table and feeling a twinge shoot up from his knee. “It hasn’t been a good week. You see, I’ve been busted up. Got a fucked‑up knee. Got these fucking cuts and bruises all over the front of my body, including my dick. My back’s burned, my ass’s burned, I’m burned, and you wanna know what I got for you? Shit.”
“Come now. It’s been a week.”
“I gotta a grand.”
“A grand. A fucking grand?” Tripp set the beer down by his foot and leaned forward.
“How long do you think I’m gonna wait for my money? I got business, boy. I need my money.”
by Gwen Hart
There’s a reason you can’t bear
to watch her on the screen,
the long-legged girl you beg
not to do it, not to open the door, answer
the phone, pull back the curtain, roll down
the window. She’s the part of you that can’t resist
any sharp, shiny thing on the sidewalk,
the part that lives to investigate strange noises
in the garage, the one who tells you
this time will be different. Her problem is
she’s lucky. She miraculously survived
the first time around, walked away woozy
but whole, started a new life in another city,
and she feels stronger, smarter, safer
now that the sequel is here. She spends a lot
of time polishing her nails, washing her hair,
undressing slowly in front of the mirror. And here
comes the danger, ta da!, appearing behind her
with a ski mask or machete, revving up
the chainsaw or the engine, headlights
bearing down on her. All mouth and lungs,
she has a talent for screaming, tongue
red and soft and just begging
to be plucked out. When the creature
lunges, it lunges after you, who are driven
by this stunned girl, this bimbo
of the brain, who’s too beautiful,
too stupid, to run. Pick me,
she screams, love me, murder me,
and you’d like to smack her silly, make her
pack her bags, walk the plank,
but without her you know you’d never
work again, not even a two-bit part in a third- rate
movie and the half-price theater
on a Wednesday night at midnight
with a wino asleep in the front row.
You need her, this impossible
hussy who’ll live long enough
to let you die again and again in new
settings, at odd angles, with different men.
by Eric Goodman
We were sixteen, but she was born in April, a month before I was. And she would be a senior in September, while I was only a junior. So when we met at our parents’ beach club and quickly became girlfriend and boyfriend, I expected great things, especially when after only a week, she left me feel her up under her bikini top. We’d walk four beaches down, slip through the fence that marked the beach club boundaries, spread a blanket, and make out. She had small, well, maybe medium-sized breasts—they were the first I’d seen bare, so I had nothing to compare them to—with dark brown nipples that seemed too large for her breasts. (But what did I know?)
I learned to tongue them, to slurp them, to tease them erect until they became bumpy little birds’ beaks trying to take off. She’d get squirmy and whisper my name and seem not to mind when I placed my hand against her bikini bottom. Soon she’d be grinding her pubis against the boney knob where my hand met my wrist and I could feel her getting WET! through the thin cloth, but as soon as I tried to slip my finger underneath (once I succeeded, feeling with a thrill I could not describe except as Good, Good, Very Good! what it felt like to touch a pubic hair not my own, and that, that I thought but wasn’t sure was the tip of her vagina, her pussy, her wet cunt), she’d push my hand away and say, “No, Jimmy, I can’t.”
But if she couldn’t, she seemed to want to. As July crept towards August and the tan on my back grew towards burnt umber, she began letting me slide my hand under her bikini bottom, though she never let me remove it. Sometimes it felt as if my wrist were cracking, but if I bent it just right and she arched her pelvis, I could slip my middle finger inside her, slide it in and out and in and out. She’d moan even more than before and press through the front of my trunks against the most insistent hard-on Breezy Point had ever known, a hard-on I relieved once and sometimes twice a day onto the truly unbelievable tits of Miss April 1969 behind the locked door of my bedroom, but which here on the beach Lisa would touch only through my suit and seemed to have no idea what to do with.
One overcast August afternoon, after I’d kissed her breasts for hours while moving my finger in and out of the wet chute of her vagina, she moved her hand from the outside of my Speedo, where it had played concertos against my erection as if it really were the skin flute my cousin Bobby called it, inside that very same Speedo, where it became only the second person’s hand (this left out the probability that my mother or older sister, when changing my diaper had touched me there, but thank God I couldn’t recall that) to touch my penis.
We also found the last story—“Amputation” by Georgina Kleinhelter—about a woman who gives birth to conjoined twins to be especially haunting and provocative.
By Georgina Kleinhelter
Two years ago, I took my daughter into a hospital and paid a surgeon to cut her in half. One half lived. The other didn’t. The little tombstone in the German Town Cemetery said that half was three years old. It said her name was Angela. My husband would tell me that wasn’t true. He said things like “that’s not at all what happened.” And “I don’t know where you go this idea into your head.” He said he was trying to be strong for both of us, to be supportive of me, but that I was making it difficult for him with my looney fantasies. Looney like Looney Tunes. My daughter used to watch them. Half of my daughter still did.
And we also found the first poem—“Epistle of James” by the recently deceased James Reiss—to be a timely and brilliant meditation on mankind’s unfortunate tendency towards violence, especially as it relates to religion.
Epistle of James
By James Reiss
Both Allah & Yahweh instruct us
that killing each other has fucked us.
From the day we were brought forth, half-crazy,
to our latest smart bombs – oopsy-daisy!—
both Muhammad & Moses insisted
it’s foolish, it’s useless, it’s twisted
to worship the sword. What a hassle
it is to react like an asshole.
We Muslims & Jews deserve better.
It’s time to write both groups a letter:
When the Koran & Bible were written,
dear friends, both our people were smitten.
They smote & they stones & they strangled
whenever their mindset got mangled
& their peacenik diplomacy foozled.
Whenever no-goodniks bamboozled
each other, they reached for a cutlass
Until, armless & legless & buttless,
they managed to capture a city,
which ended up totally shitty
with all of its corpses, its rubble,
its hope3s that were pricked like a bubble.
Just think of our forebears, dear cronies:
what a passel of wackos, baloneys
who stood amid downed plinths & pillars
& bragged, Look at us, we are killers!
Now it’s time to wise up, Jews & Muslims.
We know how to wage war & crush limbs.
We’ve taken crash courses in trashing
civilians. What nations are clashing
because we repeat what our group did
for centuries. Friends, we’re so stupid
we won’t use our head to protect us
from Stone Age behavior that’s wrecked up.
We won’t let plain horse sense instruct us
that killing each other has fucked us.
It’s time to start kissing, not killing.
My friends, pucker up & get willing.
Peace go with ye all, dudes & dames,
right away. Very truly yours, James.
But honestly we could offer the same kind of praise for every piece in the book. That’s why we chose them. Because we love them all.
Can you go into detail about the cover photo by C. David Jones? (Jones Photo left).
When we agreed to edit an anthology about suspense, we made the conscious decision not to seek only pieces that would fall into the genre of suspense. We wanted suspenseful stories, poems, and essays, but not necessarily just those that would be considered thrillers, mystery, or horror.
Honestly, as we say in the introduction of Stuck in the Middle, we think all good writing is suspenseful. Despite the fact that we didn’t want this to be a book that was limited to one genre, we thought it would be fun to play with the notion of genre on the cover.
We wanted a cover that re-created the look of the old pulp fiction of the twentieth century, and we asked our friend C. David Jones to create something in that vein. David is a brilliant artist who has been painting figures for years, so we knew he could create something we’d like.
By the time we started working with David—about halfway through the year that we worked on the book—we had come up with a name for the book, Stuck in the Middle, which is a play on the Latin phrase in medias res, meaning “in the middle of things,” which is, of course, where all good stories should begin.
We told David all of this and that we wanted an image of a woman somehow stuck in a bad situation. David ran with this idea and put the woman on the side of a rocky hill next to a speeding car with a license plate that read “HRD PLC”—stuck between a rock and a hard place, if you will.
He also added a clown and a joker card on the far side of the hill, which you can see on the back cover, to allude to the great Stealers Wheel song, “Stuck in the Middle,” from 1972.
David also added another element: he put a cell phone in the young woman’s hand to give the artwork a post-modern edge and called it “No Service.” We were thrilled when David showed us the artwork and we learned how much fun he’d had expanding our original idea, and we both think the final product is wonderful.
In fact, the original artwork is appropriately hanging on the wall of our bar, where David Jones has spent time with us on more than one occasion.
Courtney A Butler
Carol V Davis
https://www.facebook.com/GwendolynAHart (in order for link to work must copy and past)
Sandra Sidman Larson
Kelcey Parker Ervick
Sarah Brown Weitzman