Past, Present, Perfect Tense by Richard Peck
Posted October 14, 2015on:
Past, Perfect, Present Tense is a unique collection by Richard Peck. Not only does it contain a baker’s dozen worth of masterful stories by the Newbery-winning author, but it also contains author notes about those stories and tips for aspiring writers. An engaging read at just under 200 pages, this collection is a worthy addition to the shelves of any Peck fan.
First, let’s talk about the thirteen stories. They comprise four sections: The First, The Past, The Supernatural, and The Present. One story, Peck’s first short, stands alone. Each subsequent section contains four stories each. Of the stories set in the past, I can’t pick a favorite. “Electric Summer” is a poignant tale about a farm kid who finds her twentieth-century futures at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. To my shame, “The Special Powers of Blossom Culp” is my introduction to one of Peck’s most infamous characters. How could I have missed this character when compiling my round-up of misfits or so-called bad kids? Then there’s “By Far The Worst Pupil at Long Point School,” which draws on Peck’s family history and includes a surprise twist. Of the stories set in the present, being a fan of animal stories, I enjoyed reading what is apparently Peck’s only cat story. But it’s not my favorite. Instead I’m torn between “I Go Along” and “The Three-Century Women”. Each of these stories not only offers raises questions but also take the main characters a step beyond their routine life and thereby provide quite a satisfying end. As for the four supernatural stories in the middle, I’ll leave you to discover your own favorite. J
Next, let’s talk about the author notes. Peck says that the first proves that a writer can’t have a master plan for his career. Prior to “Priscilla and the Wimps” Peck was strictly a novelist but this short, as Peck also explained in his memoir, opened up a door to other opportunities. The four stories set in the past had the most fascinating origins, three of them being as a result of call to submit to an anthology. Moreover, these three also each led to Peck writing a full-length novel. The story “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground,” which inspired the Newbery honor A Long Way from Chicago, actually began as a short story submission to a collection of a series of gun stories. The four stories based on the supernatural Peck doesn’t talk much about, because he didn’t want to give away the endings, but he does reveal that his dabbling in the genre arose in response to pleas from junior high students for horror. Both from his memoir and this collection, I learned that the Disney movie, Child of Glass, is based on a Peck novel. I sense a movie rental ahead! What stands out most about Peck’s comments regarding his four realistic stories is his observation that one never knows when a writer might be “right beside you, hunting and gathering for a future story”. To flip that around, aspiring writers also might never know when something they see happen will make a good story. 😉
Finally, let’s talk about Peck’s tips for inspiring writers. His introduction lists and explains four questions that all fiction should ask the reader. The most well-known question Peck poses is: “What if?” For my writing students, I often change this to: “Why?” What gave me most pause in this section was Peck’s assertion that, “A short story is never an answer; always a question.” His conclusion provides five helpful hints. The most established hint Peck provides is: “Nobody But A Reader Ever Become a Writer.” Sometimes I also hear the added advice to analyze books too. As a reviewer, I’ve learned far more about how “a story shapes, speaks up, and sums up” through my posts than I did my simply reading books. What stood out most to me in this section was Peck’s revelation that he takes six drafts to perfect his writings.
Although I discovered Peck as a young adult through his poems and novels, my latest encounter with him has evolved as much around his fiction as his advice. I’m enjoying the experience and hope you’ll stay with me as I continue to post content related to him. Save the dates: October 15-16!
- Teaser for Richard Peck
- Strengthening Your Writing Skills: Presentations by Richard Peck
- Review of Long Way from Chicago