This year was a bit slow on the publishing front, but I did have two short stories get out there in the world. The first was a post-apocalyptic tale about unlimited power over finite resources, good intentions, and robots, appearing in Haven Speculative’s June issue. Read “Touch of Ruin” here.
The second is a more personal story about grief, loss, and brotherhood, and it won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival Short Story contest in September. This was a bit of a milestone for me, and I was touched and honored the story won the contest. Read “A Winter Bloom” here.
Aside from those two publications, this year has been another one chock full of rejection. So it goes, right, Kurt? However, I did finish my next novel, titled American Spirits, and I’m seeking representation for this one. If you know any agents who might be interested, send them my way.
My Favorite stories of 2023
This time of year, I see a lot of favorite lists getting passed around, and I thought it was high time to do that myself. After all, I’m nothing if not a fan of other storytellers’ work.
In no particular order, here are my favorites of 2023:
The Ferryman by Justin Cronin
I’ve been a Justin Cronin fan since The Passage came out. His apocalyptic trilogy was one of the only series in my life that I A). read as each installment was released and B). loved with all my heart. I recognized in him a kind of literary straddling. I hate to use these labels, but I saw he was writing genre fiction that bridged into literary fiction, or vice versa, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do: take an approach of speculative world creation and write something that was legitimately artistic.
I think The Ferryman continues that legacy for Cronin. In The Ferryman, there’s something of a marriage of Cronin’s two writerly selves. It’s speculative in nature, but it’s about grounded characters who read authentically. The conflicts and issues they face are real and relatable, and the action and suspense requires suspension of disbelief.
Through hundreds of pages, Cronin steeps us in an imagined world that is at once alluring and horrifying, a new kind of dystopia that is believable. And then Cronin pulls another magic trick, and I found it utterly magnificent.
I wrote more about it here.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Having never read anything by Sequoia Nagamatsu, I didn’t know what to expect, but the pitch was alluring: an apocalyptic tale told in a structure akin to Cloud Atlas. Generally speaking, I appreciate any fiction that takes risks with structure or form, and HHWGITD does both.
The keys to the success in this one were, while it experiments with telling a huge story through interconnected pieces—a kind of literary mosaic—it maintains its accessibility in the storytelling, and it both knows its heart and willingly puts it on display again and again.
HHWGITD is an apocalypse of humanity told in the most humane terms. It’s both humble and ambitious, but it never pretends to be something it isn’t. There are no action sequences or destructions of big set pieces. HHWGITD is a collection of quiet, intimate tales that, when linked together, give us the epic story of how humanity faces its greatest challenge. It tells that story by giving us individuals facing their own greatest challenges. It’s a beautiful book I’m going to remember fondly for a long time.
The Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton
This one was not what I was expecting, but it surprised me in the best way. It’s a story about a climate apocalypse, but it’s more specifically a story about a character’s life as she navigates the catastrophic evolutions of her world, both in her environment and her personal relationships. For good measure, throw in a dash of magic realism for some beautiful spectacles in sparkling prose.
There is something worthwhile in the abstract of The Light Pirate, but its core story is undeniably physical. What do you do when your home is slowly eroded and washed away? Do you seek refuge inland? What if anywhere you could go is suffering from its own weathering? The Light Pirate is a story not about leaving home but whether home can leave you, or maybe more specifically whether it can be taken. It’s about the endurance and perseverance of humanity in the midst of a terrible destruction that we’ve wrought. My hope is this one won’t be prophetic, but if it is, it heartens me to see this as a thought experiment that, amid the suffering, we might salvage some beauty and joy.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
I’m a sucker for nonlinear storytelling, and I found this one heartachingly beautiful. Set in a future where climate change has ravaged animal life on earth, an enigmatic narrator follows the last migration of the arctic terns from pole to pole. I recognize that pitch sounds a bit tame, but going any deeper would spoil some moving revelations that unravel in a satisfying way. This one is dripping with emotion and sentiment, and while it takes some logical liberties that suggest a sheen of magic realism is at play without really diving into that, it’s a perfectly poetic rumination on the nature of life and death as well as its meaning.
Aside from the captivating tale it tells, McConaghy strikes me as a writer who could make anything interesting. Her prose is beautiful and unconstrained, a style that made me feel like she was both perfectly in control and riding the currents wherever they took her.
The Last of Us
When Craig Mazin finished Chernobyl for HBO, he had full license to do anything he wanted. He chose to adapt The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic video game that tells the story of a man escorting a child across a zombie-ravaged United States with hopes that she can save the world. When I played the game, it burrowed into my heart in its first moments, and I frankly haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or its sequel in the years since I’ve played them.
Video-game-to-film adaptations have a long history of failure, but this one, with the respect and care it deserved from a filmmaker who actually loved the source material, is very good. I even wrote about how important it is that this one is good.
Everything in the series is granted top notch creative and production energy, even conjuring an award-worthy performance from Nick Offerman (whom I love but, let’s be honest, wasn’t in a lot of Oscar conversations until this spot). It doesn’t require you to at all be familiar with the games, and in a way, I think it invites you to watch without prior knowledge. The series handles the story incredibly well, making slight alterations that make sense and expanding on pieces that perhaps weren’t given their due in the games. It’s a bit light on the action and violence, leaning toward the less is more so that, when those traumatizing moments hit, they hit hard. So, if fragging zombies and hostile thugs is more your jam, you might prefer the games. Even so, The Last of Us tells a mature, deeply affecting story, and I love that I get to share it with more people who maybe don’t have the thumb dexterity I do.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s works is simply a masterpiece. As I said above, I’m a sucker for nonlinear storytelling, and this one works in such a way that its nonlinearity grants us knowledge of what’s going to happen, but that only increases the dread factor. What’s more, we get to focus on the meaning of it all instead of the twists and turns, and that’s where I feel nonlinear storytelling shines, highlighting ideas through retrospect and reflection instead of dwelling on pure linear and visceral experience.
And boy, this one is not any less visceral for its nonlinearity.
Flanagan’s stuff is just in its own realm. In horror, he might be considered slow-burn material, but I’m not sure Flanagan views himself as a spinner of horror tales. I think he tells dark fantasy stories, and that gives him more room to explore character through quiet and intimate moments, to invest in long periods of time where nothing scary happens but everything is coated in a tinge of the weird or uncanny.
I’ve enjoyed everything he’s done, though if I had my druthers, I’d nitpick things here and there. For my money, this one is absolutely perfect, a crowning achievement in a career that doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
The Bear is a show that works a simple magic trick over and over, and it never loses its appeal. The conflict is almost always straightforward, the stakes not exactly dire (no one’s life is at stake, and if our hero fails, the world wouldn’t even notice), but the characters are so easy to invest in and the tension is dialed up to eleven. Like The Fall of the House of Usher, I think dread plays a role in this one. Unlike a lot of dramas that turn characters toward conflict at every opportunity, The Bear doesn’t do that. It handles conflict in such a way that it sits and builds and sits and builds until it’s clear the boiler’s gonna go; it’s just a matter of when. And when it does, we see the lives of characters we care about explode into a beautiful disaster.
This isn’t a show that will keep you guessing what’s going to happen. It doesn’t particularly care about suspense. Even so, it keeps you on the edge of your seat through good old-fashioned storytelling with compelling, relatable characters and damn fine writing. The Bear just might be the most well-written show on TV right now, maybe the best I’ve ever seen.
I read the book years ago, and released in 2021-2022, I finally got to the series this year. I would be remiss if I omitted it from this list. I think the series does a phenomenal job, and while it makes some significant deviations from the book, the changes seem respectful to the book’s spirit. In another world, it’s the story Emily St. John Mandel might have told.
Again, nonlinear storytelling is on full display here, and just like in the book, the pulled-apart-and-stitched-together structure carries with it an emotional narrative, but here, in this format, it’s an allegory for trauma. That new thematic purpose makes the treatment transcend. I think it took several episodes to convince me, but in the end, I loved it.
A Million Miles Away
I saw several movies that I liked well enough this year, but A Million Miles Away is the only one I cared enough about to want to recommend. Following Jose Hernandez as he rises from a migrant farmworker to an astronaut, the film does something really interesting. Like The Bear, it doesn’t continually indulge in conflict escalation, but where it differs from that show and The Fall of the House of User is, instead of running on an engine fueled by dread and tension, it runs on hope. We know what’s going to happen in A Million Miles Away. The story is about what Jose had to go through to get there, and the film works to endear us so that we want to see Jose succeed so that, when the film gives us what we want, when it fulfills our hope, it is ultimately satisfying and beautiful. Perhaps we feel precisely what Jose felt, and maybe if we can feel what he felt in the fulfillment of his dreams, we can empathize with him as a human being, and if we can empathize with him as a human being, maybe we can treat him like one…
So much of our storytelling works to manipulate the dials of empathy so that we feel sorrow, but this film does it through joy.
I think we all could use more of that. I know I certainly could.
Until Next Year
I’m writing to you now from a new apartment outside of Washington, D.C. where we’ve had snow flurries a few times already. I’m going into my hoodie drawer in my dresser daily. We’ve broken out the jackets and now the coats. I have plans for a stew in the slow cooker. I can’t deny it anymore, GRRM. Winter is here.
Looking back on this year, I think it’s been a good one, even if it hasn’t been particularly noteworthy for me. I have hope next year will be a good one, too. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be setting some goals and including some content to give you a better idea what to expect from these Substack things. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get some good news over the holidays and will be able to share it with you. One thing about being a fiction writer is you’re always waiting for good news and you never know when it will come.
In the meantime, please follow me on Threads, Instagram, Facebook, and Bluesky if you haven’t already. I’ll probably be quiet for the next few weeks, but I might send out a silly thought here or there.
I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!