Where do the stories come from?
Where do my ideas for contemporary short stories come from? I sometimes think that I’m a bit like a magpie—maybe even a thieving magpie—in that I’m attracted to things that catch my eye (or my ear). Many of the stories in both The Lost Heifetz and Other Stories and The Inquisition and Other Stories were inspired by little things like an overheard snippet of conversation or a brief sighting of a person or a couple.
Those snippets of cell phone conversation that we’ve all overheard in the supermarket are usually without context—generally we’ve no idea who the conversation is between or what it’s really about, and that’s what makes them interesting—one can inject one’s imagination into them and spin a tale out of practically nothing. There are also those “Do you want broccoli or green beans for dinner?” types of conversation, but as much as I like my veggies, those provide little food for thought, as it were, and I haven’t yet written a story about broccoli. Hmm…but come to think of it…
And then there are those fleeting glimpses of people. Maybe it’s a person, or maybe even a dog, striding purposefully by. Where did they come from, where are they going to, and why are they going there, wherever “there” is? The story-telling possibilities are endless. And how many times have we all caught a glimpse of a couple sitting together on a park bench or at a coffee shop or restaurant. It only takes a moment to sense whether one or both of them don’t want to be there; and can one tell if they are friends, siblings, husband and wife, or an adulterous couple having a clandestine rendezvous? But it doesn’t really matter: they and their reasons for being there are yours for the taking.
Perhaps most compelling of all is the chance encounter with a mysterious stranger who, like the ancient mariner, has a story to tell. It is one of the oldest narrative devices in literature and is as relevant to contemporary short stories as it was in the past. The narrator recounts the meeting, the incredible story he is told, and how his life is changed forever by it; and, of course, he never sees the stranger again. That happens often enough in fiction and if one is extremely lucky that encounter may actually happen in real life. And so it was for me many years ago when I lived in New York and ran into an old gentleman in a record store on 72nd and Broadway. That encounter was the inspiration for my story The Lost Heifetz, the first story in the collection The Lost Heifetz and Other Stories. The opening of that story can be found as an excerpt on the book’s website www.thelostheifetz.com. The conversation between the narrator and the old man (with a contribution from an irritating shop assistant) is almost exactly verbatim the one I actually had. In the story, the mysterious stranger recounts attending a violin recital in Vienna before the war in the company of his good friend Max Aldinger. For narrative purposes, Max Aldinger, a famous violinist, is a fictional character but in the real-life encounter the stranger told me that he was with his good friend Mischa Elman. Classical music enthusiasts will recognize the name: Elman was one of the truly great violinists of the C20th, up there with Jascha Heifetz himself (who was a classmate of Elman’s at the St. Petersburg Conservatory). The encounter blew me away and I knew that one day I would turn it into a short story—and that was long before I had started writing. And needless to say, I never saw the old man again and to this day I have no idea who he was.
I think I can say that it was that encounter that started me on my
(second) career as a writer.