Book Fight!

Tough love for literature


Winter of Wayback: 1894

This week we’ve set the Wayback Machine to 1894: We’re reading a Kate Chopin story, “The Story of an Hour,” which was originally published in December 1894, in Vogue magazine, as “The Dream of an Hour.” Considering its very short length, the story has a surprising number of plot twists, including one that may have been tacked on to appease the story’s publishers.

We also talk about a variety of other things going on in 1894, including a whole lot of labor unrest. The 1890s are sometimes referred to as “the gay 90s,” and the decade generally marks the beginning of America’s progressive era, but in dipping into the events of the year we have to conclude that 1894 was neither gay nor particularly progressive. We talk about the Pullman strikes, an even more violent labor uprising in Italy, and an anarchist in Paris who killed one, and injured twenty, when he lit a bomb in a train-station cafe.

You can read the full text of Emile Henry’s interrogation, and his courtroom defense, via the archives at Here’s a link to a 2009 BBC article considering whether Henry was the first modern terrorist.

We also talk this week about George W. Johnson, one of the first widely popular African American recording artists, whose name is still unfamiliar to most. You can listen to “The Laughing Song” and (the unfortunately titled) “The Whistling Coon” via

As always, we’d love to hear what you think. You can send us an email, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment right here on the site. Also, don’t forget: We’re still in the thick of our annual fund drive, so if you haven’t already, please check out our Indiegogo campaign and give us a little bit of your hard-earned cash.

You can stream the episode right here on our site, by clicking on the little player thingy below. Or download the mp3 file. Or, visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another installment. While you’re there, leave us a rating and a review, which will help us reach new listeners.


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Thanks for listening! And come on back next week!

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Winter of Wayback: 1941

This week we’re reading Kay Boyle’s short story “Defeat,” which won an O’Henry award in 1941. If you’re a subscriber to the New Yorker, you can read the story here, in their online archives. If not, you’ll have to find it in one of her story collections (we read it in a library copy of Thirty Stories, which seems to be out of print these days).

In addition to the story, we talk about a number of 1941’s big events, including the first televised broadcast of the Mummers parade in Philadelphia, an alien encounter that was almost certainly real, the time-traveling hipster, an attempt to create a new Western state called “Jefferson,” and the world’s longest coma. Spoiler alert: that last one is a real goddamned bummer.

Also, Tom does some live research on Wallis Simpson, who the Mummers spoofed for her “dental troubles,” and whose life is worthy of at least a full episode of some other podcast.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another installment. we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, tell your friends. And give us some damn money!


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Winter of Wayback: 1982

Astute listeners will note that there’s supposed to be a book episode this week. Unfortunately, that episode was eaten up by a technical snafu. Fortunately, we had our second Winter of Wayback episode ready to go, and here it is!

But before we get into the details of this week’s episode, let us give you the link to our Indiegogo page, where you can donate a very small portion of your hard earned money to help us meet our annual fundraising goal. We bring you this show every week, for free, so this is your chance to give a little something back. Plus we’ve got some great donor giveaways for you, including a three-pack of bonus holiday episodes for $35, which is, frankly, a pretty amazing bargain. If that’s a bit steep — and, hey, we’re both poor writers, we get it — for only $15 we’ll write you a blurb and read it on the air. And honestly, even five or ten bucks will help. Check out all the details here.

OK, so this week we’re visiting 1982, the year of Tom’s birth, to read a story called “Dancing Ducks and Talking Anus,” by James Ferry. The story appeared in the 1982 Best American Short Stories anthology, selected by John Gardner, after which the author was basically never heard from again. In fact, some internet sleuthing led us to believe this was Ferry’s only published story. Then we ran across Troy Tradup, a writer and publisher who loved this story so much he’d spent nearly 30 years tracking down its author. We caught up with Tradup over email, and he filled us in on as much of Ferry’s story as he’s been able to assemble (see full interview, below).

Tradup eventually acquired the rights to the story and made it available as a 99-cent ebook, which you can purchase through the website of his company, Tough Times Publishing.

We’re also talking this week about all things 1982, including the Commodore 64, which was first introduced that year and became the best-selling computer of all time. More relevant to our show, both of us owned them as children. We also talk about the 1982 World’s Fair, held in Knoxville, Tennessee. Check out this ad for the fair, which we swear is a real thing:

As is our custom on these Winter of Wayback episodes, we’ve got some quick Beatles-related news, and Philadelphia-related news, including this pretty incredible video, of some idiots in Kensington who got their hands on a camcorder:

Also! Here’s the cover of Ringo Starr’s Stop and Smell the Roses, the album which apparently got him dropped by his label in 1982.


And here’s a picture of Bryan Ferry, formerly of Roxy Music and presently of your dreams:


Finally, we talk this week about “Lawn Chair Larry,” a truck driver who in 1982 piloted a Sears lawn chair over Los Angeles with the help of helium balloons, his girlfriend, Miller Lite, and moxie. Larry’s story is pretty funny, until it eventually takes a tragic turn. Careful listeners might hear Mike choke up a little at the tail end of the episode, as he recounts the later details of Larry’s life. On a cheerier note, here’s a newsreel from Larry’s flight:

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or visit us in the iTunes store, where you can subscribe (for free!) and never miss another installment. we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, tell your friends. And give us some damn money!


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Full interview with Troy Tradup:

Book Fight: What is it that you love so much about this story?

Troy Tradup: A toughie right off the bat! I think I was initially struck, back in 1982, by the aggressiveness of the writing – that title, that startling opening sentence – and by the unrelenting darkness of the story. I was a young writer myself at the time, and something about Ferry’s prose just spoke to me. I wanted my own writing to be that brave, that confident, that startling.

Over time, I grew to better understand all of the layers Ferry had managed to build into the piece, and its overriding themes of troubled assimilation in a changing (or perhaps irrevocably changed) America. The returning Vietnam vet who can’t quite find his place, the Native American watching his culture fade, the sad woman unable to assert her own feminist power and so instead a victim to a bad relationship – there’s some major stuff going on in this story!

Ultimately, though, what’s most thrilling and lasting about “Dancing Ducks” for me is its gorgeous dark language and its overwhelming sadness for all three characters and the world they’ve inherited.

BF: In your Goodreads review, you said you spent 30 years trying to track down the author. I’d love to know more about that. Where did you even begin? How did you go about trying to locate him? Did you ever come close to finding him? Do you have any sense of how he managed to write this one story then just disappear?

TT: In the early days, I haunted libraries and bookstores looking for any other mention of James Ferry anywhere. Later I moved on to the internet and Google, and eventually – almost by accident – stumbled upon a comment by one of James’s friends on some random blog posting saying that James had died unexpectedly in 1999. That friend – Mary Donovan – helped me track down James’s brother Bill, and that allowed me to start the ball rolling on publishing the new e-book.

I go into more detail in the afterword I wrote for the e-book of “Dancing Ducks,” which includes biographical material about James and some beautiful thoughts from two of James’s friends (one being Mary Donovan) about their time together in a graduate writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

As for “Dancing Ducks” being something of a one-hit wonder, I do know that James left behind a number of other manuscripts, including at least part of a novel. At some point in the near future, I’m going to discuss with Bill the prospect of getting those materials properly catalogued and perhaps placed with a university or commercial agent. I’m not sure exactly what’s there, but I certainly have hopes for more stories like this one!

BF: Can you describe the process of acquiring the rights to the story? I’d like to think it would be relatively simple, but everything I know about publishing tells me it almost certainly wasn’t.

TT: In this case, once I’d connected with James’s brother Bill, the acquisition process was pretty simple. You’re right, though, it typically is not.

I think Bill was both flattered and flummoxed that someone was fanatic enough to have pursued his brother’s story across thirty years. I made it clear that this was strictly a passion project, and I think it really pleased him to know that James’s story would once again be available to readers.

BF: Is there anything else you learned about James Ferry that maybe you haven’t covered above?

TT: You asked before about this apparently being James’s only published story. I’ve since located another one – a very esoteric combination story/essay called “A Note on the Type” that was published in the journal Fourth Genre shortly after James’s death. That issue of Fourth Genre also contained a fascinating piece by novelist Bret Lott about James Ferry. Lott was a mentor to Ferry, and writes about the surreal experience of having his own novel chosen as an Oprah book at virtually the same time he was trying to process James’s death.

The other interesting thing I learned about James Ferry is how humble he apparently was. He had the huge success of “Dancing Ducks” being chosen for the Best Short Stories anthology and basically never told anyone, not even his closest friends. I wish I would have known him in person; he sounds like a pretty cool dude.

BF: Are you working on resurrecting any other lost fiction for Tough Times? Are there any other white whales like James Ferry?

TT: I started Tough Times back in 2010 to publish my own novel, The Forsaken Boy. That proved quite a spectacular success, so I broadened my mission to publish out-of-print horror, beginning with Michael McDowell’s serial novel Blackwater last year and continuing with a couple of titles this year. The chance to publish “Dancing Ducks” obviously moved Tough Times outside the realm of horror, and I’ve since explored several other non-horror titles I’d like to acquire, but negotiations can take a while.

There are several fantastic publishers right now dealing with exactly the sorts of material that attracts me – most notably the powerhouse boys over at Valancourt Books – so the majority of my “white whale” titles are either already in process elsewhere or hopelessly tied up (at least for now) in one sort of legal chaos or another.

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Winter of Wayback: 1977

This week we’re kicking off our new seasonal series, The Winter of Wayback, in which we’ll choose a year, read a prize-winning story or essay from that year, and discuss the year’s pop cultural offerings–movies, music, books, whatever might help us put the story into cultural context (or just entertain our listeners, and us). For the inaugural week we’ve traveled back to 1977, the year of Mike’s birth, to read a story by Ella Leffland called “Last Courtesies” (the story was originally published in Harper’s, and was one of two stories to win an O. Henry Award for 1977).

We also talk about 1977’s rich–and quite diverse–musical offerings, which include albums by Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac, Television, Styx, Foreigner, The Sex Pistols, Jimmy Buffett, and many, many more. For a sense of the year in music, you can check out Robert Christgau’s Pazz and Jop Critics Poll from the Village Voice (scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to Christgau’s explanatory essay).

After winning the O’Henry, Leffland went on to publish several well-reviewed books, though she’s far from a household name, even in literary circles. Many reviewers talk about her “traditional,” even “old-fashioned” style, and she’s been described by some as a “writer’s writer.”

One thing we’re interested in as we jump back to years past is to what degree our story picks reflect the times in which they’re published. At first we didn’t think this story would, but in the end we conclude that Leffland’s piece does, in fact, reflect many of the anxieties of 1977.

Speaking of 1977’s anxieties, here’s a link to the documentary NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, which is a pretty great peek into that year’s music and cultural scene in New York: CBGBs, Studio 54, Afrika Bambaata, and the summer blackout.

As always, we’d love to get your feedback on what we talked about. You can email us, hit us up on Twitter, or just leave a comment here on the site. If you like the show, please consider writing us an iTunes review, and spread the word to your literature-loving friends. You can stream the episode right here on our site, download the mp3 file, or subscribe (for free) and never miss another installment.

Thanks for listening!


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