August 2008

Monthly Wrap: Field Trip

by Susan Henderson on August 8, 2008

In fourth grade, my class took a train ride to New York City. We were going to see the Statue of Liberty, but my goal was to get lost from the group. You did this, too, right? Trying to lose the group and then see if you can find them again?

I was sitting on the train with the girls who planned to get lost with me. Mrs. Bryson, who always sat close to me, was waiting to stop the fun. The moment we started whispering, she split up our group of girls and sent me and my friend Donna to another seat.

I don’t know which of us noticed first, but Donna and I immediately looked at each other. She was about to crack up, and so was I. Because the woman sitting across from us may have looked normal at first in her Annie Hall suit and the silk scarf around her neck. Hair was covering half her face, sure, and it was a little stringy. But, see, there was something else. I had to look again to be sure.

Under the stringy hair, she had one very small and wrinkled eye. And when she turned toward the window, just enough hair moved so we could see her face was burned right off. All that was left looked like pink tree bark. We were taking it in, it was building within us, when out of her pocket, this lady pulled a package of M&M’s. She tore it open and poured some into her hand. Then she spoke. “Would you like some, girls?”

I don’t know who ran faster. Probably Donna. I was always better at the bar hang than the 50-yard dash. We ran the length of the train until we got to the cafeteria car. No one could have stopped us from laughing.

Donna, panting, said, “I dare you to go back and ask for an M&M.”

I can tell you that we did go back. Because Mrs. Bryson pulled us back through the cars, and she was so angry her hands were hot. She told us to apologize. So we did. And I took the dare. That was the worst, most burned-tasting M&M I ever ate.

We had no opportunity to get lost in New York because Mrs. Bryson held our hands the whole time and didn’t take us up to Liberty’s crown because there were too many stairs. When we got back to my elementary on a yellow school bus that evening, I looked for my parents among those waving to greet us, but they weren’t there. I panicked so much, I forgot my name and phone number and just sobbed at the back of the bus until Mrs. Bryson called home for me. I could still taste the M&M, and I felt small, every bit of me.


What I read this month: Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (Ho-ly man!!!!!); Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (I’m only halfway and definitely enjoying it, but find I’m not reaching for the book when I have free time); Gabrielle Zevin, Elsewhere (I read this to my kids, and we were all riveted, yet not really sure if we liked it, if that makes sense).


Ooh, can’t finish the wrap without bragging that I got to spend last weekend with my friend, Aurelio. Here we are in the LitPark hidden office. I know it looks like he’s not having fun, but we had a great, great day.

And here he is with his very awesome Chuck and my very awesome Steve.


Thanks to everyone who played at LitPark this month, and to my guests, James Spring and Amy Wallen of DimeStories. Thanks also to everyone who linked here: The Publishing Spot, Holding My Breath for the Next Thing to Come Along, Bliggidy Blog, Side Dish, Katrina Denza, Vonnegut’s Asshole, ModernityBlog, Books and Magazines Blog, The Chucklehut, and Suzan Woodruff. I appreciate those links!

See you first Monday of next month!



by Susan Henderson on August 6, 2008

For all you NPR junkies and short story lovers, get ready for DimeStories! To tell you what it’s about and how it began, please meet my friends and the hosts of the show: Amy Wallen, a bestselling author who has been described as “Eudora Welty on speed,” and James Spring, who has, among other talents, the ability to laugh me out of every bad mood. (Including when I’m on-the-air!)


Amy Wallen: Susan has given us this space to chat about our national public radio feature, DimeStories, which will premier the end of this hot month of August. I’m Amy Wallen, co-host with James Spring. And, DimeStories are compelling narratives that measure just three-minutes long. Whether fiction or factual, the best DimeStories are visceral – they incline the listener to laugh, or to cry, or to think.

James Spring: And it all began with my motorcycle.

Amy Wallen: Motorcycle? There were no motorcycles, James.

James Spring: I distinctly remember my KTM 525 EXC being the whole reason this gig got going. It was all me.

Amy: Maybe you’re referring to the sound of your voice reading prose. It is somewhat reminiscent of a glass muffler. But really, it was all me. DimeStories had a different beginning than what you seem to recall. Here’s the true story of my life before you and your microphone showed up:

James: [eye rolling gesture]

Amy: Four years ago, an organization called San Diego Writers, Ink asked me to host an open mic. Prose only. They’d heard me grumble about the open mic readings where anything goes. You know the ones—where there’s inevitably a reader who gets up on stage and reads for close to 45 minutes and you want to drink roach piss they are so bad, but you have to wait it out because your friend is reading next, that is, if this narcissistic memoirist will ever give up the mic.

James: I’m a memoirist.

Amy: Sorry about that. I mean, sorry about what I just said. Anyway, I told San Diego Writers, Ink yes, I’d host an open mic under one condition: a time-limit. Only 3 minutes.

James: Tell how you came up with that idea of 3 minutes, so we can get to the part about my motorcycle.

Amy: I’m a writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute

James: William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaantje, Marilynne Robinson? You hang with those big time folks? Pulitzer Prize winners and National book award fellows? Are you sure they don’t have you confused with another more literary Amy? Maybe they think you’re Amy Hempel.

Amy: No, she’s there too. I think it’s a diversity thing—

James: You’re their token redneck.

Amy: Anyway…they do a student reading every summer where each student has only 3 minutes. I thought it was brilliant, so I stole the idea.

James: Don’t you steal all your ideas? You’re like a writer pickpocket.

Amy: Whatever. This isn’t about my life of crime.

James: Apparently it is all about you though.

Amy: This is about how I became known as the Time Dominatrix.

James: Please don’t torture us with that visual of you in your leathers.

Amy: Everyone balked at the 3 minutes.

James: I didn’t balk at the 3 minutes. I have always kept my readings under three minutes at all the DimeStories Live events.

Amy: That’s right, you figured out a better way to get more than your fair share of the spotlight. You showed up with your fancy microphone that no one’s allowed to touch, along with that roll of hunter-vest orange tape to keep the cords in place. You told everyone something about how you were going to do an NPR show about us. You thought you were becoming a radio star.

James: I was already a radio star. At least I had all the equipment, but I got my break on This American Life, and I got friendly with Jay Allison producer of This I Believe, and that’s where my motorcycle comes in.

Amy: No motorcycle yet. But for the last 4 years, every month in San Diego I’ve been hosting the prose-only Open Mic on the first Friday of the month—DimeStories Live. In the beginning, probably for the first year, maybe even two, I had to inflict several lashings with my cat-o-nine tails before folks believed that I meant it about the 3 minutes. Or maybe writers are just sadists. But soon everyone came to realize it benefited us all.

James: You mean, you had everyone scared into submission.

Amy: Whatever it takes. The pieces were tight, the evening fast paced, strong writers found their voices. And a special bonus, the bad readers are off the stage in 3 minutes.

James: Maybe you should have an even shorter time limit for bad writers.

Amy: Now that you’re a radio star, you’re such a writing snob. Three minutes is just enough time to get a complete story in. Don’t believe it? It happens every month over and over in San Diego.

James: I’m going to talk about my motorcycle now.

Amy: No. I have more. DimeStories Open Mic became so popular that last year we produced a compilation Best of CD.

James: That’s when my motorcycle showed up!

Amy: Jay Allison, This I Believe host and producer from Atlantic Public Media, heard a few pieces off the CD and he suggested we do a radio show.

James: That’s supposed to be my line. This isn’t all about you, you know.

Amy: Okay, you’d had a few pieces on NPR and had been schmoozing with the likes of Jay Allison and Ira Glass. You were always sending out some email about some NPR show you were going to be on. “Listen on this day…” Blah, blah, blah.

James: This is why nobody likes you. You’re lucky I offered to let you be famous with me.

Amy: If it weren’t for my timer and my disciplined hostessing of the open mic, DimeStories would never exist. You’d be limping around asking folks if they’d like a free copy of your memoir about being a stripper in Guatemala. Or was it a gaucho in Bolivia?

James: You talk big for someone with so little to say. One little LA Times bestseller and suddenly you’re like… Truman Capote. But with a more grating voice. That book ruined you.

Amy: MoonPies and Movie Stars, which just came out in paperback in June, by the way. But none of that matters, we’re radio stars now. We never have to write another word.

James: I’ve been doing public radio for three years now, which is, of course, very, very sexy, And it’s as decadent as you’d imagine. I think it was Robert Siegel who summed up the whole NPR party vibe in two words. “hookers” and “heroin.”

Amy: You’ve done This American Life, Stories from The Heart of the Land—little shows like that. You’re like a rap star.

James: I’m like MC NPR.

Amy: Give ‘em the motorcycle story…

James: Finally. Last winter I rode motorcycles in Baja with Jay Allison and he heard the CD compilation from our live events in San Diego, and he said, “this would make a great radio show.”

Amy: That was it? You were excited to tell THAT story.

James: What?

Amy: That’s the least compelling story I’ve ever heard.

James: What do you want? It’s the story of how you got invited to be on the radio. You weren’t going to be invited any other way.

Amy: I’m certain that it’s because of my deep resonating voice that I’m co-hosting. Or maybe it’s just the way I look on radio.

James: You can wear your leathers on radio. It’s safe for our eyes.

Amy: Well, I will definitely bring my timer and whip and make sure the pieces we select for the radio show don’t go over 3 minute limit. That’s why I like what we are doing—inspired by This I Believe pieces, DimeStories will be 3-minute stories inside a 1-minute candy-coated co-hosting.

James: These capsules of story will be used in various ways—when a program manger needs to fill a small time slot after All Things Considered, say, or MarketPlace.

Amy: Maybe This American Life is working on a show with the theme Eyebrow Threading, and we just happen to have the perfect piece.

James: What are you going to buy with all the money from the public radio gig? I’d like to buy a hyena.

Amy: Hyenas are good pets—if you don’t like upholstery. Me, I’m going to pay someone to write another novel for me so that I can quit thinking the first one was fluke.

James: People inside my head have been asking about the Oscars, for public radio, and what I would wear, and if I would have to attend with you, or my wife, or if, maybe I could bring hookers. What will you wear?

Amy: I’m going to wear my leathers, of course.

James: Where will you put your Public Radio Oscar trophy?

Amy: I believe on public radio it’s NOT an Oscar, James. It’s called an Elmo.

James: Speaking of… I hold in my left hand an envelope from Mr. Jay Allison. I bet it’s our first check.

Amy: Or a signing bonus.

James: It’s a letter. And it says, “James & Amy, we were able to get enough funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to greenlight the first two shows. We’ll have just enough money to pay writers, and for some studio time and production…”



Amy: What does that mean?

James: I think it means that we don’t get paid.

Amy: Wow.

James: I heard they treated the Muppets the same way.

Amy: Figures. You’re just like Kermit.

James: And you’re like Miss-

Amy: -Don’t even think it.

The first season of DimeStories is in production, with stories by Lydia Davis, Jack Handey, Susan Henderson, Elizabeth Crane, Richard Rodriguez, Emil Wilson, Meredith Resnick, Katharine Weber, and more… For info about submission guidelines, the radio show, and the live traveling showcase events, visit


P.S. A shout out to Denis, owner of the KGB Bar, for hosting the NYC DimeStories reading!



JAMES R. SPRING has lived much of his adult life in Latin America. From slumming as a charter boat captain, to running contraband across borders, his careers have taken him to some of the most remote pockets on the planet. He has contributed to This American Life, heard on National Public Radio, and has been featured in radio expeditions for Atlantic Public Media on NPR. His radio assignments have ranged from ’embedding’ with the Minutemen at the border, to covering the Baja 1000 off-road race – to motorcycling solo through Mexico’s Sierra Madre where he recorded his experiences with Tarahumara drug traffickers. He previously served as a foreign correspondent for Cox Newspapers. He resides in San Diego.

AMY WALLEN has received rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times for her best-selling novel, MoonPies and Movie Stars, which reached #10 on the bestseller list. Amy is a writer-in-residence at NYSTate Summer Writers Institute, and she also lectures and teaches creative writing across the country, including the University of California, San Diego Extension, as well as private workshops. In addition to writing book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, Amy is the host of DimeStories Live, a popular monthly prose open-mic night and showcase reading series. Her third novel will be published by Hyperion.


Question of the Month: Memorable Trips

by Susan Henderson on August 4, 2008

Tell me about a memorable trip you took. It can be a ride to work on the city bus or a trip to another country to spread someone’s ashes. The trick is it had to set you on a new path or transform you in some way.


Wednesday, come back to meet the hosts of the new NPR feature, DimeStories, and hear how a trip on a motorcycle created this opportunity.


For those of you attending the Backspace conference, I’ll be there Thursday, August 7th, on a short story panel with Jessica, Amy, Charis, and Jon. Stop by and introduce yourself!


Last week was maybe the worst I’ve had in a year, just one of those times you bottom out and lose your belief in everything. I don’t know about you, but I find that good things are constantly sitting right in front of me if I’ll just open my eyes to them. And here, in the middle of my funk, I found a long lost roommate and probably the nicest and most protective person I’ve ever known. Completely turned my week around. So here’s to my dear friend, Chuck! If you click the link, you’ll see he’s in fine company, but scroll all the way to the bottom to see the best of the bunch.