Selected Shorts: What's Going On?

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Today’s program features three stories that explore both the physical spaces we inhabit, and how those spaces are tied to the more mysterious, emotional places in our lives. 

Ernest Hemingway once said, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”  In this program special guest Jonathan Lethem talks with SHORTS literary commentator Hannah Tinti about building stories, and the powerful minimalist tradition of Raymond Carver.

Lethem is the author of the novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, and the story collections Men and Cartoons and Kafka Americana.   His story “The Spray” has been heard on SELECTED SHORTS.

We begin with his own story, “The Empty Room,” in which an eccentric father dictates that one home in the family home must remain permanently empty, being occupied only transiently by his bemused family.  Lethem says, in the interview below, that the concept came partly from his cluttered New York City childhood, but also that the room is a metaphor for the private places everyone must have.

Listen to Hannah Tinti and Jonathan Lethem here:


“The Empty Room” is read by Tate Donovan, who’s had featured roles in the television shows “Damages” and “The O.C,” performing at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Jonathan Lethem says one of the dominant influences for writers of his generation was the American master Raymond Carver, whose minimalist prose, packing maximum emotional impact, seemed to capture, Lethem says, a particular mood in Reagan-era America. 

On this program we feature his whimsical (for Carver) “Why Don't You Dance?,” in which a man empties his whole house onto his lawn, and a young couple is drawn into a serendipitous encounter.  Hannah Tinti recounts this anecdote about the origins of the story:

Carver said that “Stories don’t come out of thin air. There is always a spark.” And for him, the spark for “Why Don’t You Dance” came from a story he’d heard out drinking with some friends, about a barmaid who’d moved her apartment onto her lawn.  He said, “There were about four or five writers in the room, and after the guy finished telling the story, someone said, “Well, who's going to write it?” 

“Why Don’t You Dance?” is from Carver’s collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. 

The reader is Corey Stoll, who has appeared on “Law and Order: L.A.,” and as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”

Our final story is Carver’s “Neighbors, ” which first appeared in his collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? It was also included in Short Cuts, Robert Altman’s film based on Carver’s work.

“Neighbors” starts with a simple premise:  a couple promising to feed the cat and water the plants for another couple who live across the hall while they are travelling.   But something happens when the first couple goes into the other apartment—they are drawn into transgressive behaviors among the possessions of other people.

Lethem says the story is classic Carver in that so much more is implied than said—the listener must fill in the gaps.

“Neighbors,” is performed by Jefferson Mays, a Tony Award-winner for the play “I Am My Own Wife.”

“The Empty Room,” by Jonathan Lethem, performed by Tate Donovan

“Why Don't You Dance?,” by Raymond Carver, performed by Corey Stoll

“Neighbors,” by Raymond Carver, performed by Jefferson Mays

The SELECTED SHORTS theme is David Peterson's “That's the Deal,” performed by the Deardorf/Peterson Group.

For additional works featured on SELECTED SHORTS, please visit

We’re interested in your response to these programs.  Please comment on this site or visit

And for more thoughts on the stories in SHORTS, check out literary commentator Hannah Tinti’s site at

Announcing the 2013 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize.  Check this link for details.