Monday, March 4, 2024

Author Elizabeth Bruce discusses the characters in her new collection, Universally Adored & Other One Dollar Stories

I grew up in a small town on the Gulf coast of Texas, though I haven't lived there for over 50 years. I left a week after I graduated from high school and went off to college in Colorado. I’ve spent my entire adult life either in the urban centers on the front range of Colorado or in NE Washington, DC, with a one-year layover in New York City.

However, most of my characters are regular, “analog” folks who live in small communities.

People ask me why I don’t write more about my own urban adult life. And my answer is that I kind of do. I couch my insights into the human condition in my forthright, plain-spoken characters who embody a resilience I’ve found everywhere—in the people who shaped me growing up, who have befriended me in adulthood, with whom I’ve worked or collaborated—

individuals with whom I have found such a profound community.

So many people I know—be they friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, fellow artists, etc.—have faced real hardships in life.

Indeed, I’ve tended to live and work in places where people are “strivers.” They’re survivors. They’ve gone through hard times of sorrow, of affliction, deprivation, war, or violence. Maybe they’ve come here from somewhere else—another country, another region of the U.S.—or maybe they’re trying to get away, but mostly they’re striving for a better material reality, a better inner reality, some measure of equilibrium. They’re the models for my characters. While my characters don’t always succeed, mostly they soldier on. And I find that heroic. My fiction is an homage to their grit.

The reality is, I'm not an academic. I don’t have an advanced degree. While I have a sweet little BA in English from a great liberal arts college, and a ton of lifelong learning, I don’t belong to, nor do I write about “the academy.”

There’s a very insightful analysis that emerged in recent years by British author David Goodhart about “anywhere” people and “somewhere” people.” “Anywhere” people have skill sets and social capital that enable them to live anywhere and make a good living. “Somewhere” people, on the other hand, have livelihoods that are not so transportable and for whom place is a palpable and essential ingredient of their lives. For whom family, friends, community institutions, and the land itself weave together the meaningful tapestry of their lives. They live local lives.

There’s a fabulous museum in Baltimore, the American Visionary Art Museum, that describes itself as “America’s official national museum, education center, and repository for self-taught and intuitive artistry.” One of its first goals is “to expand the definition of a worthwhile life.”

I love that—expanding the definition of a worthwhile life.

Those are the lives I write about. My characters are not particularly hip or prosperous. They’re not the cerebral, “logocentric,” often alienated or cynical “anywhere” characters of much of contemporary Western literary fiction.

But I love them all. I relate to them all.

I read a beautiful commentary 30+ years ago by a woman writer in a series of interviews in the Washington Post. This writer wrote about how, once she’s conjured her characters into existence, she feels a deep commitment to finish telling their stories. It’s like a moral obligation, and I completely agree.

There’s this thing that happens when a reader is totally immersed in a story. They call it “narrative transportation.” This happens at a very deep level for writers themselves. It’s a magical, sometimes painful, but always deeply empathetic experience, even with unsympathetic characters. As a former character actor, I find it so much like the actor’s process of embodying a character.

In fact, speaking of theatre, there’s a great play your readers might know by the early 20th century Italian playwright, Luigi Pirandello, entitled “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in which characters whose authors had not finished telling their stories, barge into a rehearsal with a bunch of actors and demand that they finish acting out their narratives. I completely understand their urgency!

So that’s who I dedicate my writing to—my own characters in search of an author. They’re who’s in my new collection, Universally Adored & Other One Dollar Stories, in which every story begins with the words “one dollar” and pivots in some way around the meaning of a dollar.

There’s a ladies’ room attendant escaping an abusive husband, a stable owner and her alcoholic father, an urban street vendor of ice-cold water and a laid off ammo factory worker. There’s a street jazz musician, a color-obsessed artist, a germaphobe bartender, a migrant farmworker girl, and an odd-job bibliophile. There’s a jaded humanitarian doctor, an older brother in charge of his neurodivergent younger brother, a vagabond healer, and some middle schoolers, single mothers, and more. And there’s a subset of characters embroiled—voluntarily or not—in the underground economy: a drug mule, a soon-to-be conscripted-into-prostitution young girl, an ex-con, and a wrongfully convicted lifer.

The collection was just released by Vine Leaves Press. Your readers can find out about it or purchase a copy here or learn more about me or my other work at

Thanks so much for this opportunity to share a bit about my work.

Elizabeth Bruce’s debut story collection, Universally Adored & Other One Dollar Stories, is forthcoming in January 2024 from the Athens, Greece-based Vine Leaves Press. Her debut novel, And Silent Left the Place, won Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s Fiction Award, ForeWord Magazine’s Bronze Fiction Prize, and was one of two finalists for the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction. Bruce has published prose in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Sweden, Romania, India, South Korea, Malawi, Yemen, and The Philippines, including in FireWords Quarterly, Pure Slush, takahē magazine, The Ilanot Review, Spadina Literary Review, Inklette, Lines & Stars, and others, as well as in such anthologies from Paycock Press’ Gargoyle series, Weasel Press’ How Well You Walk through Madness: An Anthology of Beat, Vine Leaves Literary Journal: A Collection of Vignettes from Across the Globe; Madville Publishing’s Muddy Backroads, Two Thirds North, multiple Gargoyle anthologies, and Washington Writers’ Publishing House’s This Is What America Looks Like. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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About the book:

In Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories, Elizabeth Bruce gives readers 33 ways of looking at a dollar. Her empathetic, humorous, and disarming embrace of plain-spoken people searching for a way out, charms and provokes. These are bittersweet stories of resilience and defiance.

In “Universally Adored,” a color-obsessed artist draws a facsimile of a dollar—a masterpiece universally adored—to win her girlfriend back. While checking for spare change in the laundry, in “Bald Tires” a Tennessee housewife with a malcontent husband finds an unused condom in his Sunday trousers. In “The Forgiveness Man,” a runaway teen with a newborn follows a vagabond healer absolving the bedraggled godless through hugs of forgiveness. And in “Magic Fingers, a ladies’ room attendant tracked down by her abusive ex finds refuge in a cheap motel with a 1970s era bed massager.

Riffing on the intimate object of a dollar, Bruce’s humane short fictions—from a great mashed potato war to the grass Jesus walked on—ring with the exquisite voices of characters in analog worlds.

Advance Praise:

“Elizabeth Bruce’s stories have that rare quality of feeling as though they have always existed, the way the best stories always do. In a lesser writer’s hands, the conceit of beginning each story with ‘one dollar’ might seem like a gimmick, but here they echo Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ and I found myself eager for what came next, curious to see how each new story amplifies the previous story while also diverging from it, often in dramatically different points of view and styles. These are exquisite short stories that give me hope.” –John McNally, author of The Book of Ralph and The Fear of Everything (USA)

“This collection contains inventiveness, voice, and vivid characters grappling with life and love, pouring forth on each new page. Together the stories weave a remarkable tapestry around a theme with a shockingly familiar starting point. By the end, we see in how the author guides our attention, new ways of seeing ourselves and the constellations of our closest relationships. It’s breathtaking.” –David A. Taylor, author of Success: Stories and Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (USA)

“I’ve been eagerly awaiting this collection of one of a kind short-shorts from the author of And Silent Left the Place. Keen-eyed and with a great gift for stand-out narratives at whose heart is a profound appreciation of the particular, Bruce takes us on a magical realist journey through the lives of ordinary people whose lives turn on a dollar. A gifted storyteller, Bruce is at her best here. The stories sing with ingenuity and keep us in her spell. Just how far can one dollar take a person? You’d be amazed.” –Naomi Ayala, author of Calling Home: Praise Songs & Incantations (USA) Winner, Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy of Environmental Justice Award

“Elizabeth Bruce’s stories shine a light on the conflicts–big and small–that we face in life and our struggles to resolve them. She writes thoughtfully and elegantly about the pain and beauty of being alive.” –Eric Stover, author of The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in The Hague (USA)

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