Flavorwire Exclusive: Ramona Ausubel on Her Favorite Short Story

The short story can be a magical thing. It’s a breath, a moment, a captured mood — or an entire teeming world packed into a few pages. Maybe, if it’s really great, it’s both. The only trouble with short stories is that not enough people read them. So, in a series to celebrate Short Story Month (and help you add to your reading list), Flavorwire is asking some contemporary masters of the form to talk about the short stories they love. In this installment, Ramona Ausubel, whose incredible collection A Guide to Being Born was one of our favorite May releases, recommends a particular favorite.

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Ausubel: As a writer and reader both, I love short stories for the risks and tests of form possible. It’s a chance for playfulness — an attribute as high on my list as almost any other, which is why “What We Wanted to Do,” by Ron Carlson, is a favorite. It begins, “What we wanted to do was spill boiling oil onto the heads of our enemies as they attempted to bang down the gates of our village, but, as everyone knows, we had some problems, primarily technical problems, that prevented us from doing what we wanted to do the way we hoped to do it.” There are Visigoths and Megagoths, a cauldron two-years in the making, a lot of lukewarm oil, and finally, nothing to show for it but a grease-stain on the village steps. It’s really a story about a small-time bureaucrat who made an important miscalculation in a plan beyond his abilities. We see guys like him all the time. He’s pathetic, but he’s trying. He is pleading for another chance, and you know what, it wasn’t all bad. “The Visigoths, about two dozen, did penetrate the city and rape and plunder for several hours, but there was no pillaging.