The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 2, No. 2

Letter to the Reader

by Nan Talese

Short of putting one's hand in a fire, stories are our most effective teachers. From adventures read to us as children, which impress their lessons on our young minds, and legends passed down from one generation to the next, to the tales played out in newsprint, stories allow us to experience more events and emotions than we could ever live. We are fortunate to be living in an era of remarkable creativity and diversity in storytelling. Short stories are now sophisticated enough to accommodate a dazzling array of voices and techniques. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the literary virtuoso who can mesmerize us with finely calibrated language and careful observation in a story that hardly seems to be about anything--until its ambiguous meaning is revealed in a devastatingly subtle final epiphany. While I enjoy and admire these works, I have found myself yearning for the kinds of stories that use the full range of a writer's resources in the service of storytelling.
      The first time Francis Ford Coppola and I crossed paths was, fittingly enough, in pursuit of story: his wife Eleanor's. It was a quiet spring day in the late '70s and I was curled up reading a manuscript when I received a telephone call from Fred Roos of American Zoetrope, who said Robert Towne (that master of screenwriting) suggested I read what were essentially aide-mémoire written by Eleanor Coppola. She had jotted them down when she was taking still shots of the filming of Apocalypse Now. Francis had read them and thought they were more than just "notes," as Eleanor called them. Within the hour Eleanor rang the bell, I ran down the stairs (with what I now confess was the full intention of giving them a glance and returning to my manuscript), and there was the petite Eleanor with an enormous pile of pages and the most modest aura that could not help but intrigue.
      Taking the box, I planned to return to my reading after riffling the pages of notes. But what I found was true story, told in the detail of a natural observer, with sensitivity and the most poignant insight. The drama of that now famous filming was all there in what as a book would be called Notes and as a documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. There in those pages was all the discipline of pure tale-telling and its discovery for me was as thrilling as the discovery of a new voice always is.
      In the year and a half Zoetrope: All-Story has existed, a new vitality and respect has been brought to this kind of story, and Zoetrope: All-Story's impact in the literary world has been even greater than our original expectations. Fresh new talents are finding a place where their work can be showcased. Recently, Melissa Bank's deliciously droll Zoetrope: All-Story commission, "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," launched a publishing frenzy that ended in a heated auction and a sizable book contract for the author. As a publisher, I can assure you there is no surer sign of a magazine's influence than that.
      For me, it has been a delight to be involved in this marvelous enterprise--which is indeed a tribute to Francis's vision. What gives me the most satisfaction, though, is knowing that when the new issue of Zoetrope: All-Story arrives, readers can once again expect to be captivated by the prose, the adventure, and the brilliance of that ancient art, storytelling.