Synopses & Reviews
Exploring the idea that truth lies in life's extremes, the stories in Yes, Yes, Cherries are primarily about girls and women who are outsiders or who find themselves in unusual circumstances. Many of them are trying to find a place where they belong, whether in a romantic relationship, a job, or a family. In this quest they embark on a variety of adventures: falling in love with an older, married neighbor; attending a party at the home of a boyfriend's ex-wife; having affairs with married landlords; and receiving guidance from drunken therapists. The stories ask whom we love and why, how we search for love, hold onto it, lose it, and find it sometimes at the last moment and in the most unlikely places. Quirky, hilarious, and deeply human, these stories display a knowing affection for human strangeness.
"Mary Otis sees things from the odd angle, which is the literary one. It makes her stories true-to-life, funny, brave, and amazing." Lorrie Moore, author of Birds of America and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
"An assured collection, linked occasionally by character but always by Otis's remarkable voice, her gift for the luminous detail, the surprising turn, the transcendent finish." Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
"Yes, Yes, Cherries skates through the margins of American dreaming, its great poignancy balanced on heartbreaking absurdities. Mary Otis offers a dead-on candor spliced through with perceptual leaps, her realism glinting with near-psychotropic sparks. An irresistible collection, Yes, Yes, Cherries beautifully enacts the poetry of bewilderment." Nancy Reisman, author of The First Desire and House Fires
"The characters in these stories...show us what it means to be human. That's all a reader asks of any story. That is, of course, everything. Mary Otis writes stories that radiate intelligence, compassion, and humor." Ellen Slezak, author of Last Year's Jesus and All These Girls
Mary Otis sees things from the odd angle, which is the literary one. It makes her stories true-to-life, funny, brave, and amazing.”
Lorrie Moore, author of Birds of America and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
"Shame, spurned love and seething desire run through the sometimes-connected stories in Otis's adroit debut collection."
"These are invisible people in pockets of the city that go under-chronicled . . . What ties them all together is Otis' strong voice, which is jittery and electric, unsettling like the Santa Ana winds . . . bringing the same eye for detail from one story to the next."
Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Yes, Yes, Cherries offers an intriguing batch of imperfect characters and unstable conditions. Otis has a sharp eye for peoples habits. She knows how to draw flawed relationships. And under her guidance, hearing about the agony of lust and love never gets old."
"In a collection of powerful short stories, Mary Otis shines light on how and why we fall in love . . . intimate stories of vastly different characters . . . Otis entertains with her remarkable observations about one of lifes great mysteries."
"Otis does a fine job recreating the contradictory impulses of reason and feeling. Her sharp, lively prose affectionately pinches the sallow cheeks of her many Allisons and maintains a tautness of rhythm that speaks to her ability as a sentence-crafter."
Small Spiral Notebook
"The characters in these stories whether a teacher who teaches time incorrectly, a policeman-philosopher at the scene of an accident, or a young girl who wears a frosted blond wig and knocks on her neighbors door to sell 'what you need to buy'show us what it means to be human. Thats all a reader asks of any story. That is, of course, everything. Mary Otis writes stories that radiate intelligence, compassion, and humor."
Ellen Slezak, author of Last Years Jesus and All These Girls
An assured collection, linked occasionally by character but always by Otiss remarkable voice, her gift for the luminous detail, the surprising turn, the transcendent finish.”
Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
Yes, Yes, Cherries skates through the margins of American dreaming, its great poignancy balanced on heartbreaking absurdities. Mary Otis offers a dead-on candor spliced through with perceptual leaps, her realism glinting with near-psychotropic sparks. An irresistable collection, Yes, Yes, Cherries beautifully enacts the poetry of bewilderment.”
Nancy Reisman, author of The First Desire and House Fires
"Yes, Yes, Cherries offers an intriguing batch of imperfect characters and unstable conditions. Otis has a sharp eye for people's habits. She knows how to draw flawed relationships. And under her guidance, hearing about the agony of lust and love never gets old. Of course, it's always more fun when it's happening to someone else." John Burgman, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Exploring the idea that truth lies in lifes extremes, Mary Otiss elegantly crafted debut collection combines the hilarious with the tragic. These partially linked stories follow the strange and comic adventures of girls and women united by sexual longing and misplaced passions: falling in love with an older landlord, a young librarian, or a married neighbor; getting fired for teaching time incorrectly; and receiving guidance from a drunk therapist. Quirky and funny, yet deeply human, the stories in Yes, Yes, Cherries seek answers to the questions of whom we love and why, how we search for love, lose it, or find it sometimes at the last moment and in the most unlikely places.
Quirky and hilarious, yet deeply human, the stories in Yes, Yes, Cherries contain an affection for human strangeness while exploring the idea that truth tends more often to lie in the extremes and along the outer edges than it does at the center of things.
About the Author
Mary Otis's work has been published in Best New American Voices, Tin House, the Los Angeles Times, Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Berkeley Literary Journal, and Santa Monica Review. She was a runner-up in Zoetrope, Poets and Writers magazine, and Swink short story contests, and her short story "Pilgrim Girl" received a 2004 Pushcart Prize honorable mention. Originally from the Boston area, she lives in Los Angeles.
How does your urban environment affect your stories? Could they be set anywhere else, or is Los Angeles intrinsically entwined in these stories?
I witness a remarkable number of strange, comic, beautiful, and sad incidents in Los Angeles on a daily basis. And it does affect my writing. I walk a lot and drive even more and am constantly struck by what I see and hear, or what Im left to imagine. Last week, while walking my dog one afternoon, I came upon a nude pregnant woman being photographed in the street, I saw a man dressed as Spider Man coming out of a bar, and I overheard a woman patiently saying to a child, All the fish have died. For a sprawling, open city, there is so much about it that is hidden or a mystery to me, and it endlessly compels me. That said, I think many of my stories primarily depend upon a kind of emotional geography. In a number of the stories, the characters are looking for a place where they belong, whether it be in a relationship, a family, or a job. Many are dealing with some kind of loss amid the fantastical circus of life, which cranks on, regardless. I think this kind of thing is possible anywhere, and especially possibly in Los Angeles.
Are you a parent? You depict the accumulation of small guilts and the causal effects of parenting in a knowing way.
I am not a parent at this point, but I am pulled to write about children, particularly about their strange secrecies, bizarre worries, and intense desires. Writing from a childs point of view offers me the opportunity to access a kind of clear channel radio to the subconscious. With children, there is that immediacy, the lack of a filter, and there are extremely high stakes (even if the stakes are forgotten five minutes later.) The writer Penelope Fitzgerald once said, I like to bring in children because they introduce a different scale of judgment, probably based on the one we taught them but which we never intended to be taken literally. I find that very funny and true.
How do you get into the heads of your characters ─ is first-person narration a helpful method for this?
Im not precisely sure how I get into the heads of my characters. I think they tend to get into my head first. And I dont usually choose them (not consciously anyway). I always have to understand something about a character, even if theyre not exactly a model citizen. I once heard that you cant trust what you dont understand, and I need to feel some click of inner appreciation or empathy toward a character in order to trust myself to write that character.
I think first-person narration is helpful for melting that line between a character and the writer who created him. However, most of the stories in my collection are in third person. Someone recently told me that my point of view in the stories is a very close third, thats almost like first person ─ as if the narrator of the stories is standing only slightly behind the main character. If thats true, then perhaps theyre told from a third-person point of view that feels more like first.
What is your writing process?
My writing process has to do with being captured by something to the extent that I become somewhat obsessed about it. Thats how I know I really want to write about it. I buy index cards 500 at a time, and I keep these index cards in a few places around my house. Whenever something pulls me I usually jot it on a card and hide it in a box or envelope. I dont open the box or envelope for a while ─ there is usually a gathering time ─ for most stories. In the past Ive been surprised to take out a handful of cards only to find the same phrase written four or five times on different cards. Its usually just a small phrase that has to do with a specific detail like how a woman used her hands. Sometimes its a phrase that I keep hearing, which is not unlike being unable to get a song out of your head, except you havent heard the melody yet.
Do you add or subtract much to a story from the first draft?
I usually write pretty slowly and fairly intensively on the first draft, line by line. I dont tend to write the entire story out from start to finish in a hurry and then do numerous different drafts. However, once I get that first draft as far as I can take it, I do go back and cut and edit quite a bit and add new pages. And I pretty much edit the story every day as I go along. It helps me pick up the thread before I start writing something new.
What is it about the short story form that satisfies you?
I once heard something like a short story delivers large truths in tight places, and Im drawn to that task. I think that when a story works there is something magical that happens. If youre lucky, it seems to me that a story starts working on deeper, unconscious levels that werent apparent to you when you first started to write it. I find that a story will usually have a certain kind of emotional urgency that pulls you to write it. Its a scary, compelling feeling, like trying to run down a balance beam.
Was there a teacher or editor who had a profound influence on your writing?
Yes, the writer and teacher Jim Krusoe. I learned so much from the way he thinks and how he teaches. He has an almost supernatural power to locate what a story wants to be about. Thats a real gift. He also has the ability to pinpoint the potential strengths of each student and foster them in a truly caring way. Hes also incredibly funny and unpretentious. I have been lucky to study with him.
Lee Montgomery, who is my editor, published one of my first stories, as well as later stories, and she has been very important to my growth as a writer. She is both graceful and insightful in her editing, and her encouragement has meant the world to me. Id still be working on the collection if she hadnt urged me to complete it and send it to her.
What is it about Allison that kept you revisiting her?
Allison is out there in the world, and shes trying. I feel that life acts strongly upon her, and sometimes, in reaction, she makes some odd or unusual choices. But with great passion. I liked being able to travel along with a character who, when shes a teenager, goes dead in the arms due to extreme sensitivity ─ a character who will later grow up to be so distracted by life that she accidentally teaches time wrong to children. She is at ends a fair amount and sometimes fails at the situation at hand. But she doesnt usually stay where she landed, and sometimes ends up in a better or at least more interesting place. She seems to me to be the sort of character who falls upward in some strange sense, even if that only has to do with her view of the world.
Have any of your stories/characters taken you somewhere completely unexpected?
Yes, in fact most stories surprise me at different points. Sometimes its having a character take a turn I wouldnt have expected or say something I didnt see coming. I hope for these things, or feel that I need to be available for the possibility of them happening. Otherwise, Im not sure a story could really breathe if I had everything all figured out ahead of time. I remember one time writing a story where two people were going to run away together and I could NOT get one of them to show up at the end when it was time to leave. Needless to say, the story ended on quite a different note. Still, Im glad that I thought it was going to happen, since it pulled me through to the end of the story.
Your stories often feature an expert who ends up just as fallible as the rest of us. What do you think about our relationship with experts?
Well, experts can be deeply flawed. I also think its human to idolize experts, or to tend not to want to see their flaws (until sometimes its too late!) as in the case of Allisons drunk therapist.
To rotate this question slightly, I also noticed after Id written the stories and had some distance from them that there are a number of characters in the stories who, while experts or professionals in a certain area, actually seem to offer themselves in a unexpected way that has nothing to do with their work. For example, there is the policeman in Stones who, after Allisons car crash, offers her comfort in his comment People just make mistakes. Thats what people do. The dentist and his hygienist in Welcome to Yosemite also come to mind. While they are there to perform a service, they appear to Allison as the only people who might actually understand her. And I dont think thats just the dentist gas talking. The truck driver in "Five-Minute Hearts" also strikes me as someone who steps in in an unexpected way. These characters seem to offer unexpected small graces in moments of grief or defeat. I am glad they showed up. For me, they pay respect to the idea that a person who crosses your path during the day has the possibility of completely changing how you see things.
What do you identify as the emotional and intellectual challenges in your stories?
The emotional challenge is to head fully toward something that mainly scares me, frightens me, or gives me great joy. Ive been surprised to find that the emotion that yanked me into a story in the first place has the ability to crack open another emotion ─ usually one that I wasnt expecting. Finding something hilarious that on the face of it seemed tragic comes to mind. My intellectual challenge is to try to learn something I dont know (or learn something new about something I do know) and share it in a way so that readers can deeply connect with it. Thats my hope, anyway.
January 17, 2007