Eugene Cross' work was listed among the 100 Distinguished Stories in the "2010 Best American Short Stories" collection. He received scholarships from the Chautauqua Writers' Festival and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as well as a fellowship from the 2012 Sewanee Writers' Conference.
Narrative Magazine named him one of the "20 Best New Writers" and his story, "Harvesters," was deemed a "Top Five Story of 2009-2010."
And to think – he almost became a doctor.
"I actually started as pre-med – my mom's a doctor – and then I realized that I was in no way, shape, or form qualified or ever going to be a doctor, and I just kind of stumbled upon writing and instantly fell in love," Cross said of his time studying at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received his MFA.
The now 31-year-old sold his first book, "Fires of Our Choosing," in 2009, but the short story collection wasn't published until March 2012 because it was printed through an independent publisher.
"What I like most about it is that in any given collection you can have eight to 12 to 15 different protagonists and scenarios and sets of conflicts, and you really have to make, in each individual story, those things work together. But it's this idea that you can go a lot of different places and meet a lot of different characters in one book," the author explained.
"I also like the length. I think it was Edgar Allan Poe that said, ‘The short story should be able to be read in one sitting.' "
Being from Erie, Cross found himself inspired by his hometown and by Pittsburgh, setting his stories in that region to give them a sense of identity.
"Erie in particular has faced certain challenges. There was a time where we had a pretty high rate of businesses leaving and corporations leaving…. I just like the resiliency of the characters and the people in that area of the country. The same thing with Pittsburgh, the way it reinvented itself after all the steel mills closed. It just kind of changed its identity and bounced back," he observed.
"All of (the characters) in one way or another face a big conflict in their lives or in the stories. Some of them, rather than take responsibility for their own failings, kind of tend to blame the world around them. One of the themes in the collection is accountability and I wanted a title that sort of reflected that."
One of the elements that make Cross' often dark and tense stories compelling is the fact that he isn't afraid to put his characters "up against a wall" to see if they can fight their way out.
"We learn what we're made of when conflict arises, not when things are going well…The best stories are the ones that contain conflict and then you see how your characters respond," he emphasized.
Cross hopes that readers find a personal connection to his characters and scenarios. As Scranton faces many of the same economic challenges as his hometown, the city seems like the perfect place to share his work. He will appear at New Visions Studio and Gallery on Sept. 8 as the featured reader at the monthly Writers' Showcase.
"I'm looking forward to meeting the other writers and the audience," he said. "The best part of a reading is you get immediate feedback, which you don't get as a writer because you spend so much time alone in a room working in isolation."
The current Chicago resident teaches in the fiction department at Columbia College, where he encourages other students to follow their own path to the written word while being able to handle rejection and wisdom he previously gained in the classroom.
"I teach them something a teacher of mine once told me, that doubt is a good indicator of talent because if you have doubt when you finish a piece of work, it encourages you to keep working on it…If you do doubt yourself, don't let that hinder you. Just keep trying to get better."
Writers' Showcase featuring Eugene Cross, Sat., Sept. 8, 7 p.m., New Visions Studio and Gallery (201 Vine St., Scranton). Free. Info: www.newvisionsstudio.com.