how lil' jimmie beat the big c

I am the Meryl Streep of Short Fiction! (Yeah, right.)

Joe Award.jpg

I’m so behind on social media that I completely missed a podcast back in October where a writer being interviewed referred to me as “The Meryl Streep of Short Fiction.” The claim is hilarious, and I have thoughts.

The podcast is Wrong Place, Write Crime, run by the crime fiction author Frank Zafiro. The person interviewed in Episode 17 is the Texas-born, North Carolina-based writer Eryk Pruitt, whom I know of but have never met. The podcast runs nearly an hour, and I come up around the 11-minute mark, when Zafiro starts asking Pruitt about “Knockout,” a short story of his that was a finalist for the Derringer Award in 2015.

At the risk of going inside baseball, the Derringer Awards are awarded each year by the Short Mystery Fiction Society to short stories in that genre. A lot of mystery organizations award a short story prize, but the Derringers are the only ones focused exclusively on short mystery stories, the only ones read blind (where the first round of judges are not told the name of the author whose story they’re reading), and the only prize awarded to stories in four different categories, based on length.

To cut to the chase, in 2015 one of my stories won the Derringer for flash fiction (i.e, a story that’s no more than 1,000 words). I have been fond of saying that the story was 684 words long, and that it’s weird to win something for so little work. When people ask about it, I tell them I’m currently at work on a 684-word novel.

But okay. In the podcast, Zafiro asks Pruitt who won the award that year, and Pruitt mentions me, and goes on to say, 

“…[D’Agnese] apparently wins like all the time—he’s like the Meryl Streep…So basically I got beat by the Meryl Streep of short fiction… And Joseph, if you’re listening, I just called you Meryl Streep. Your move."

Well, that’s just a hoot on so many levels. Authors as obscure as me live for awesome blurbs like that, and so my first “move” was to immediately get some business cards printed up using my brand-new sobriquet.

This is known as the Typewriter Card,  available here .

This is known as the Typewriter Card, available here.

Not just any old business cards. Fancy-ass, letterpress business cards by Hoban Press (whom I love) printed on 110-pound Neenah Cotton stock, thank you very much. Because I’m not just the winner of some obscure literary award. I’m the fucking Meryl Streep of Short Fiction.

Hoban Press  master Evan Calkins hard at work printing my new business cards.

Hoban Press master Evan Calkins hard at work printing my new business cards.

I have to thank Eryk and Frank for making my day, but I should probably point out that in the realm of short mystery fiction, I’m pretty much a newb. It’s true I’ve been a Derringer finalist three times, but I’ve only won once.

When you look at writing awards in total, I can very modestly say that I’ve won only three others—an award from the Humane Society for a piece of science journalism I wrote ages ago, and two others for children’s writing.

I list all the awards on my website because that’s what you do, but in truth, my short mystery fiction output is nowhere near as huge as multiple Derringer winners like Robert Lopresti, John M. Floyd, or Art Taylor, to name only a few biggies in this field. I actually made a study of short fiction output for a talk I did once. All of us currently working in the mystery field probably have a long way to go to beat the late Edward D. Hoch, who wrote 900 short stories, mostly mysteries, in his lifetime. 

But who’s counting? [he says, slinking off to a corner.]

If you like the Wrong Place, Write Crime podcast, I encourage you to check out the work of Zafiro, a former police officer who himself has a massive body of fiction, and Pruitt, who in addition to writing books and short stories is also a screenwriter, filmmaker, and radio show host. In fact, the bulk of this interview focuses on Pruitt’s recent true-crime podcast series, The Long Dance, in which he investigates a long-unsolved pair of murders in the Durham, NC, area. I’m listening to it now, and it’s amazing stuff. So amazing, Meryl Streep should do the movie.

By the way, if you can think of someone who really deserves the title of The Meryl Streep of Short Fiction, or Short Mystery Fiction, for that matter, let me know in the comments below.

  • My thanks to artist Jon Arge for the hilarious art of me above.

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Boucherpants, and the Speech I Didn't Give

Thanks from a grateful author.

Thanks from a grateful author.

A few hours before Denise and I were supposed to hop in the car and drive to Raleigh, NC, for Bouchercon, I found myself yelling downstairs, “Where the hell are my Boucherpants?"

I had a particular pair in mind for the con, you see. I was supposed to have tossed them in the laundry the night before, only I didn’t, so now I’d be packing without them.

Denise thought the line so funny that, for the rest of the week, we privately referred to the con itself as Boucherpants, which in our alternate universe was named after its illustrious namesake, Anthony Boucherpants.

I was in a good mood. Only a day before, the new Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology had pubbed. As readers here know, I have a story in that collection, “Harm and Hammer,” which pubbed November 2014 in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. To top it off, on the second night of the con, I’d be receiving a Derringer medal for a 2014 flash fiction story, “How Lil’ Jimmie Beat the Big C.” I got in the car feeling eager and proud.

But somehow, two days into my very first Boucherpants, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and not a little terrified. On the four-hour ride over, Denise happened to ask, “What do you hope to get out of this weekend?” I knew I wanted to pick up my medal, see what there was to see, meet whoever I could, and have fun. Beyond that, I didn’t have much else on my personal agenda.

As a kid, I used to be fairly shy, timid, even. But I don’t really think of myself that way any more. Years of journalism work, book talks and signings, have largely erased my fear of socializing and public speaking. But on the ground in Raleigh, I regressed. I didn’t know how to get up the nerve to introduce myself to people, let alone carry on a decent conversation. I kept critically judging every word that left my mouth. What an idiot. How could I have just said that? I suspect that the closer you are to the thing you love—in this case, the mystery community—the more vulnerable you become.

Then came the awards Thursday night. I hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech because I’d heard through the grapevine that there typically wasn’t time for such things. And really, how much of a speech was I going to make? Uttering even a few hundred words on behalf of a 684-word flash fiction story seemed indulgent. But come Thursday, every single author who won an award gave an acceptance speech, even those who weren’t in attendance.

The Derringers were announced at the very end of the opening ceremonies. By then, the crowd had been promised some tasty Carolina BBQ. Tender, delicious meat was waiting in the wings...

As I watched those speeches, my heart sank. I thought about jotting down some notes, but I know myself well enough to know that I needed time to polish those words. I could extemporize, but I risked making a fool of myself. I couldn’t do it. The crowd looked larger than any I'd ever addressed, not to mention ravenous. In the end, I accepted my medal and sailed wordlessly off the dais. Presenter Art Taylor nimbly covered for me. (Bless you, Art.) Denise filmed the whole thing. Watch.

Only later did I realize that what needed to be said was altogether brief. If I had spoken, I might have said this:

Thank you to my editors at Shotgun Honey.

Thanks to my colleagues at the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

I'm very grateful.

I could go on, but I won’t, because I live in North Carolina, and I respect barbecue way too much.

By Sunday, I had calmed down and managed to meet quite a few people at the bar. No doubt we’ll meet again at some future con, where I resolve to be more sociable and to wear my lucky pants.

I won a Derringer Award!?

We left town after the memorial service and we've been at the beach, fairly unplugged. This morning early I learned that my story for Shotgun Honey, "How Lil' Jimmie Beat the Big C," won the Derringer Award for Flash Fiction. More info and links later when I can get to my computer. 

Thanks to the Derringer group, its judges, and my editors at Shotgun Honey. I'm very touched.

For Your Bouchercon Consideration

The Bouchercon ballots went out Saturday, and it occurs to me that I ought to mention which works of mine are eligible for the Anthony Awards. And yes, I feel icky announcing this to the world, but I’ve seen other authors do it, so why not work with me here for a sec?

Three of my 2014 pieces are eligible for the short story category:

  • "Harm and Hammer," October 2014, Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine - This is the crime story of a lonely young woman who obsessively teaches herself how to play a blacksmith's anvil as a musical instrument, with tragic results.
  • "How Lil’ Jimmie Beat the Big C," May 12, 2014, Shotgun Honey - This is the piece about the incarcerated cancer patient that was just chosen as a Derringer finalist this past weekend. Profanity alert.
  • “Nighthawks,"  April 2014, Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine - My crime story that tries to explain what’s going on in the classic Edward Hopper painting of the same same.

You’ll find free PDFs of all these stories at this link.

Theoretically my novel, THE MARSHAL OF THE BORGO, should be eligible for the novel or paperback original categories because it pubbed in 2014, but it’s self-pubbed; Anthony Award rules are vague on the matter. If anyone knows for certain if it’s eligible, kindly let me know.

For that matter, if you have a story, book, nonfiction/critical work that is elegible this year, kindly leave a comment below or shoot me a note via my contact page, if you prefer to be more discreet. A handful of us authors from the Asheville area are all going to the conference, and we’re looking for great books and stories to nominate. Help us do our job.

There. I’m done. That wasn’t so bad, now, was it?

The Story Behind My Derringer Finalist Story

I've been tied up with family stuff or I would have announced this sooner. We were at lunch yesterday when I got the word that one of my short stories had been chosen as a finalist for  the Derringer Award for Best Flash Fiction. The Derringers, you’ll recall, are one of the top prizes for short mystery fiction. This is the second year in a row that one of my pieces was singled out for this honor. The full announcement is here. Members of the Derringer group will read all finalist stories this month, and the winners will be announced March 31, 2015. 

Regular readers will probably remember the story, How Lil’ Jimmie Beat the Big C, which first appeared on the Shotgun Honey noir ‘zine back in May 2014. It’s the story of an incarcerated man’s visit to an oncology center for a chemotherapy session. It’s short, fewer than 700 words, violent, and chock full of profanity. That warning aside, the story’s free to read online, so please do check it out if you’d like.

And yes, the story was inspired by what I saw on several of my visits with Denise’s mom to her chemo sessions or doctor’s appointments last year. Every time I went, and I mean every time, I’d spot heavily armed corrections officers marching shackled prisoners to their appointments. If you stop to think about it, it makes sense. Prisoners are human. They get cancer like everyone else. It’s just that their doctor’s visits necessitate traveling in chains and being accompanied by guards.

I could go on about how everything you experience in life, good or bad, becomes fodder for your fiction—but I figure I’ve said enough.

I’m proud to be a Derringer finalist again, and equally proud to be part of what looks like a trio of successes this year for Shotgun Honey. They’re a great site; if you enjoy reading or writing short noir pieces, you really out to check them out.