Issue #254: John Rolfe Gardiner’s “Freak Corner”

In the summer of 1991, I was a year out of graduate school, living in Virginia, painting houses, and working in an independent bookstore. The stock was mostly new books and, upstairs, some used books, and on slow days I would peruse the shelves and read the first pages of novels. I came across a book called Unknown Soldiers, published in 1977 and written by a writer named John Rolfe Gardiner. The first page held my interest, so I carried it back to my spot behind the register. By the end of the second chapter, I knew I was going to finish the book and wanted to own it, so I rang up the sale on the cash register, put my money in the drawer, and continued reading.

A couple of hours later, I was well into the novel when the bell over the front door jangled, and when I glanced up, the author of the very book I was holding walked into the store. I looked at him, looked at book’s author photo, looked at him again. I said, “This is you, isn’t it?” He seemed somewhat sheepish and confirmed that it was, indeed, him, and I—as star-struck as if I were meeting a beloved movie star—began to heap praise on this novel that he’d written fourteen years earlier. We talked for just a few minutes, and at my request, he signed the book. As I write this introduction, twenty-seven years later, that same book is sitting on a shelf a few feet away from my desk, along with all of his other books.

One Story is immensely honored to be publishing a new short story by John Rolfe Gardiner: a writer of profound abilities and agilities; a writer who has proven himself to be a master of the novel, the novella, and the short story over the course of the last four decades; a writer who remains at the top of his game to this day and who deserves to be widely read. “Freak Corner,” a story set in 1953 about a deaf girl, a cross-dresser, and a young man trying to figure out why the world reacts to them both the way it does, echoes much of our current landscape. We fear and vilify the unfamiliar now as much as we ever did. As the author says in our Q&A, “the path to reform is by way of familiarity.”

One Story 2019 Literary Debutante Ball: The Pictures!

Thank you to everyone who came out on May 16th to Roulette in Brooklyn for our annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball! We had a great night celebrating One Story Alum Kelly Link and six One Story authors who have published their debut books in the past year:

After our debs walked down the aisle with their mentors, honoree Kelly Link gave an amazing speech full of advice for these debut writers, and everyone else. You can read it over at LitHub.

Want to see some pictures of the event? Here’s a link to an album. We’ve also put a slideshow below. Photo Credit: Aslan Chalom.

We love you all, supporters, writers & readers! Until next year….

Issue #253: Lillian Li’s “Coach Ray”

Back when I was at Granta, I had the pleasure of being the first person ever to publish Lillian Li. Later, I was thrilled to finally hold in my hands her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, and I was thrilled when more of her work landed on my desk at One Story. Our omni-wonderful managing editor Lena Valencia worked on the story with Lillian, and their mutual enthusiasm for this deceptively quiet (and tense) piece of writing turned it into our brilliant new issue. Here’s Lena to introduce you to “Coach Ray.” — PR

On the annual St. Joe’s Prep cross-country team retreat at a Vermont summer camp, Coach Raymond Dockett is intent on helping the newest member, Oliver, see his potential as a runner. But it seems that Oliver doesn’t need Coach Ray’s assistance. In fact, Oliver seems to be doing everything he can to thwart Coach Ray’s attempts to help him. And the more Oliver resists Coach Ray’s help, the angrier Coach Ray gets.

There is no triumph of the underdog in this sports narrative, no good-hearted coach leading a scrappy nobody to victory. Instead, “Coach Ray” deals with something far more complicated: the power dynamics of mentorship. In writing this story, Lillian Li wanted to “look at how people abuse their power without realizing it.” As I found myself drawn deeper into the struggle between Coach Ray and Oliver, it became less and less clear who I should be rooting for.

“Coach Ray” is a disconcerting portrait of a flawed character. It’s also funny and formally inventive. It will make you laugh, and it will make you cringe in the best way. It’s morally ambiguous: regardless of who makes it to the finish line first, there are no easy answers as to who wins at the end. I’m thrilled to introduce you to Lillian Li’s “Coach Ray.”

To read an interview with Lillian Li, please visit our website.

Goodbye, My Darling…

The One Story Literary Debutante Ball is on Thursday, May 4th. This is our most important fundraiser of the year! All proceeds from ticket sales and donations that night help keep our doors open and support our mission: to celebrate the art form of the short story and support the authors who write them, through publication, education, community and mentorship.

This year, playing off the “Kill your darlings” adage, we’ve asked authors to choose a piece of text that has been cut from their work and annotate it with a handwritten goodbye note, in the form of a “Dear John” letter. We’ve been amazed at the creative ways that writers have taken to this challenge, sharing hilarious and moving anecdotes and all the different ways they’ve learned to say “Goodbye, Darling.”

These Darlings will be framed and available for sale at our Debutante Ball on Thursday, May 16th. Now YOU can own a piece of writing by one of your favorite writers that NO ONE ELSE has! All proceeds are tax-deductible and support your favorite non-profit literary organization.


Special thanks to all the authors who contributed pages to Goodbye, My Darling, including: Andrew Sean Greer, Meg Wolitzer, Jim Shepard, Karen Shepard, Ann Patchett, Darin Strauss, Nathan Englander, Kelly Link, Myla Goldberg, Hannah Tinti, Ann Napolitano, Patrick Ryan, Helen Ellis, Mira Jacob, Marie-Helene Bertino, Daniel Wallace, Tommy Orange and Kate Gray.

Pictured above: Darlings by Meg Wolitzer, Hannah Tinti, and Marie-Helene Bertino.

Introducing 2019 Debutante Jake Wolff

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Jake Wolff, author of One Story #164, “The History of Living Forever” and the novel The History of Living Forever (FSG).

On the first day of his senior year of high school, precocious chemistry student Conrad Aybinder learns that Sammy Tampari, his favorite teacher and first love, has died of a rumored overdose. Soon he discovers that Sammy had secrets besides their relationship—most notably, a lifelong quest to construct the elixir of life. If Conrad can figure out the recipe, he has a chance at both saving his dying father and understanding a lover who, it seems, he never really knew. The problem is, Sammy wasn’t the only one searching…

Nina Sabak:  Where were you when you found out The History of Living Forever was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Jake Wolff: I was at home on a Monday night. I knew the people at Farrar, Straus were meeting that day to make a final decision on the novel, but when 5:00 pm arrived and I hadn’t heard from my agent, I assumed I was in for another long night of tossing and turning. Then around 9:00 pm, I realized he’d been trying to reach me for over an hour. I called him back in a panic, and he gave me the great news. Afterward, my wife and I just sat on the bed in a state of happy disbelief. She was crying. I was stunned.

I remember saying, “I don’t know what to do now. What should I do?” 

And she said, “Call your mom.” 

So I called my mom.

NS: The story you published with One Story, issue #164, shares a title with the novel and is echoed in the first case history, “Ge Hong Reflects on the Discovery of Mercury.” In the Q&A for that issue, you noted that you’re working on what became this book: a novel that “explores the same ideas…but in a contemporary setting.” What was your idea of what that novel might be, and how was it different from the book you ultimately wrote? 

JW: This question has led me to an answer I actually find surprising, which is that my vision for the novel back then is relatively close to how it turned out. I’m surprised because it feels like we did so many heavy rounds of edits, and we did—removing characters, reconfiguring plot lines, cutting lots and lots of backstory (poor backstory…always the first to go). But the core vision and basic shape of the novel stayed true. I see this as a testament to my editor, Jenna Johnson, who helped me find ways to clarify and sharpen without disrupting the spirit of the book. A lot of editors I spoke to, for example, wanted to cut the Case Histories. And I get it: the Case Histories are weird. But Jenna understood how much the history matters, and even how much the weirdness itself matters, to a subject like immortality. 

I will say that maybe in 2012 I saw the book more purely as the narrator Conrad’s story, who is on this scientific quest to save his father. As it evolved, I realized it was really just as much about Conrad’s teacher, Sammy, and the life he lived before his death in the novel’s first chapter. I realized that Conrad sees the book as a chance to tell Sammy’s story as much as his own. 

NS: Did the story prompt the research, or did the research turn into the story? Put another way: which came first, the elixir or the people you imagine searching?

JW: For me, it’s always research first. In this case, the history came first—understanding the “elixir of life” as an idea, one that has a historical, cultural, scientific lineage. I was researching the history of living forever long before there was a History of Living Forever or a Conrad who would tell it. I’ve always understood that character as a small part of a long continuum; he’s never existed for me just on his own.

My research for the elixir of life that Conrad spends the novel constructing—based on Sammy’s journals—happened more organically and more concurrently with the writing. There were some ingredients that I thought would be more important based on their historical importance, but Sammy’s life and interests began to dictate certain directions for his research. I also did some first-hand research by sampling various products claiming to be elixirs of life, which helped me access Sammy’s mindset and understand the risks he was taking. You haven’t lived until you’ve ordered an “elixir of life potion” from an Australian alchemist (only $70!). 

NS: You didn’t drink the elixir, did you?

JW: I did drink the Australian elixir. It came in a soda bottle wrapped in tinfoil, and it mostly tasted like saltwater. I also drank a snail mucous elixir, a gold nanoparticle elixir, and a deer velvet elixir. And I took a caterpillar fungus pill. The only really gross one was the deer velvet, which tasted like apple juice mixed with blood. 

NS: What led you to set this particular tale—or at least a major portion of it—in the place you’re from? 

JW: The book required such an extraordinary amount of research—both historical and scientific—that I suppose I was inclined to make my life a little easier when it came to Conrad’s home. I love Maine, and I know it really well despite not having lived there in some time. It was nice having one aspect of the book where I could just close my eyes and find an image. I particularly like the contrast between northern and southern Maine, so I had fun bouncing Conrad back and forth between those two poles. I don’t think any of this was a conscious decision, by the way, but it still feels true.   

NS: Because the elixir is impossible and therefore can’t actually disappoint, it can reflect its searchers’ hopes back to them. For Conrad, it’s one last Hail Mary to save his father. For Sammy, it’s a way to quiet the question he’s been asking himself his entire life (what’s wrong with me?). For the New York Society of Numismatics…well, that’s probably an entirely separate book. You, though in a far less credulous way, have conducted your own kind of search. Why do we keep looking for this particular supernatural answer when both the quest and the prize can backfire so badly?

JW: I think what’s interesting to me is that there are actually surprisingly few people who have searched for immortality, at least in any serious way. We talk about immortality a lot—in philosophy, in religion, in all forms of art. We like the ethical, spiritual, and moral questions surrounding the idea of living forever. But to take two characters from my book, there really aren’t that many Radkins or Bogdis out there, today or historically. That was part of the fun of those characters, for me. They exist in a state of lonely exasperation. They’re saying, “Why are people getting so uptight if I commit a few bad deeds? I’m trying to save us all from dying!”  

NS: Which fact or character detail do you most regret having to cut from the final book? 

JW: In chapter two, I had this one sentence of backstory where I mentioned that Sammy was once mugged in an alley by a woman holding a hand grenade. For some reason I find this idea very funny. The sentence had nothing to do with anything, so we cut it very early in revision. But whenever I read that paragraph I think, “Aww, this is where the lady with a grenade used to be.”    

NS: What are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?

JW: If I have to pick one, I would say reuniting with my mentor, Judith Claire Mitchell, who was my MFA advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s the kindest, most brilliant teacher, and she was the first person to make me believe I could actually do this job. I haven’t seen her in many years, so the chance to send her the invitation was really special for me. We’re also both big introverts, so we’ve been joking about how wonderful it is that we have this opportunity to see each other—and also how horrified we are that it’s going to be at a party.

Nina Sabak earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. A native of West Virginia, she now works in publishing in New York City. Her stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Bartleby Snopes, and elsewhere.

Introducing 2019 Debutante Brad Felver

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Brad Felver, author of One Story #218, “Queen Elizabeth” and the short story collection The Dogs of Detroit (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Each of the fourteen stories in Brad Felver’s The Dogs of Detroit jumps off the page ready to fight scrappy. In “Throwing Leather,” brothers Charley and Jack spar in boxing gloves to test their masculinity; in “Praemonitus, Praemunitus,” a father signs his son Jared up for Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons to support Jared’s dream of becoming a cage fighter; in “How to Throw a Punch,” the narrator must prepare for a fistfight against his stubborn coworker at the end of their shift. Characters wrestle and draw blood, but the worst pain isn’t something you can grab by the neck and kick in the gut—the violence and brutality in this collection hurt precisely because of what will stay long after cuts and bruises heal: grief, sorrow, and second chances at better lives that slipped by unnoticed.

Monique Laban: Where were you when you found out The Dogs of Detroit was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Brad Felver: I had just picked up our two boys from school and the sitter. My wife had a late meeting, and so it was just the three of us. We were playing in the backyard when I saw that I had a message on my phone from an unknown number in Pittsburgh. I just assumed someone was trying to steal my identity. But I listened to the message, and it was from Ed Ochester telling me my manuscript had won the Drue Heinz, and I just kind of stood there in shock. I was so glad to have my kids there with me at that moment but also glad that I couldn’t explain it to them because I didn’t have the words.

ML: Many of the stories in this collection involve physical violence as a coping mechanism, as a survival tactic, as a rite of passage, as a way to establish superiority, or as some combination of them all. What I find so interesting about violence in The Dogs of Detroit is that you don’t shy away from the gore and cruelty of it, nor do you glorify it, and yet I felt a strange catharsis from reading these depictions of violence. Could you talk about how you approach violence in your stories and what makes it so ripe for exploration?

BF: I’ve been able to talk about violence a lot while out promoting this book, for which I’m grateful. I think it needs to be talked about candidly. I always start by sheepishly telling people that, despite these stories, I don’t have a violent bone in my body. And I’m always afraid that writing about violence will be seen as accidentally condoning it. I’m certainly not.

One task I aimed for in many of these stories was to humanize characters with violent impulses. When people behave violently, it appears to outsiders as some crude, mindless reaction, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s not so clean as that. For them, it’s a release valve, a product of accumulation. And this means that it’s really a physical manifestation of something else—anger, grief, helplessness, and a thousand other things that people endure in an unfair world. It’s easy to be horrified by these violent outbursts, and I hope the reader is, but I hope it’s the violence itself, not the violent characters, that truly horrifies them. So, there’s an entrapment technique at play here, too: if I can convince readers to care about a character who reacts violently, I’ve suddenly forced them into a sort of complicity, and the character becomes much more than his basest instincts.

ML: I’m fascinated by all the mean kids in this collection! In “Unicorn Stew,” Bev insults Walter by calling him a “God-lover” and steals his ten-speed bicycle; in “Out of the Bronx,” Roman describes his mother as a “car with a dead battery” and enacts a master plan to set all the rats in their building’s alley on fire. Many of the adult characters, if not outright stated within the stories, often seem like older versions of these children, and it’s clear that their early experiences with this bad behavior shaped them. Could you discuss writing kids in your stories and what you enjoy about writing characters within these formative, experimental years?

BF: There was a lot of casual violence in the neighborhood when I was a kid, and it’s obviously stuck with me. This was back in the 80s and early 90s, and our society just shrugged it off as boys being boys. In some ways, this book is a response to that mentality, which we’re finally starting to see as criminal. I didn’t realize it so clearly as I was writing these stories, of course, but that’s how it usually goes. From the standpoint of story, there’s a real potency to child characters. It’s bad enough to see an adult behaving badly; it’s far worse to see a child imitating that bad behavior.

ML: I found The Dogs of Detroit refreshing as a short story collection in part because of how wildly the length of each story could vary. “Queen Elizabeth” is twenty-three pages long while “Stones We Throw” takes up two pages. How do you know when a story is done?

BF: Short answer: I don’t. I try to trust my gut on these things, but it’s still hard. No matter how many stories I write, each one is its own world. Usually, though, I suspect I’ve found the right form and focus for a story when I’m drawn to re-reading it over and over, especially the ending. If the story moves me on a purely intellectual level, something is probably lacking; but if it moves me on an emotional level, which I think is the real currency of fiction, then I suspect I’m about there. For “Queen Elizabeth,” it took me 23 pages to get there, but occasionally, I stumble into it quicker. I wrote “Stones We Throw” in a single sitting, under an hour, which never really happens for me.

ML: In your One Story interview for “Queen Elizabeth” (Issue #218), you mention that you’re “utterly terrified about going romantic,” and part of this terror comes from us being “ill-equipped to articulate” being in love. Could you speak more about the challenges, terrors, and limitations you face in your writing, and how you work through them?

BF: One thing I learned by writing that story is that I would prefer being seen as sentimental than cynical. Sincerity is really important to me. And I do still feel ill-equipped to write about love, but that’s exactly why I need to keep at it. It’s a writer’s job to articulate the things that don’t want to be articulated. In fact, the seeds of “Queen Elizabeth” grew out of my inability to do so. I’m very lucky to have married my best friend, and I just needed to write about that tremendous good fortune. So I started writing about how it felt to be so tethered to another person. It was fiction, but it felt true. The story turned into something else, as stories always do, but the truth, which I guess I’ve never admitted until now, is that it really started as a love letter to my wife.

In answer to your bigger question of how to work through the challenges—I guess the answer is that I just love the work of writing. And when you love the work, I think you develop a sort of faith, and that faith nourishes you when things aren’t going so well, which is a lot of the time. The work of writing is very often both the problem and its only viable solution.

ML: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

BF: Talking to other writers for one thing, especially the other debs. I actually just met Lydia last night at her wonderful reading in Ann Arbor, and I got to gush about “Safety,” which I just loved. It never gets old meeting other writers and telling them how much you admire their work. Also hanging out with my agent and my mentor, and with the whole One Story crew—they’ve all just been so good to me, and they’ll all be in one place! Also, NYC in the spring!

Monique Laban is a writer from New York. She attended the 2017 VONA: Voices of Our Nations Arts workshop and will attend the 2019 Tin House Summer Workshop. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming from Electric Literature and Catapult

Introducing 2019 Debutante Bryan Washington

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Bryan Washington, author of One Story #230, “Bayou” and the short story collection Lot (Riverhead).

Predominantly told in the voice of a first-generation American youth, Bryan Washington’s Lot is a coming-of-age collection that centralizes narratives around family, sexuality, poverty, intimacy, and identity. These thirteen short stories ambitiously portray the complexities within immigrant-based communities and Washington becomes our tour guide, skillfully ushering us into the lives of Black and Latinx folks in Houston and its adjacent cities. From the collection’s first story to its last, we encounter romantic relationships, infidelities, and vocal individuals who allow for these energetic neighborhoods to come alive with each turn of the page. 

Kukuwa Ashun: Where were you when you found out Lot was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Bryan Washington: I was wrapping up a lesson plan at work, just before a long weekend. I may or may or not have partied throughout it.

KA: These stories rely heavily on setting, specifically in Houston and its surrounding cities. What inspired you to draw attention to your hometown in your debut collection?

BW: It definitely wasn’t a didactic effort, or even especially initially intentional: at some point, I realized that all of the stories were set in some hub or another of the city. Then my agent, editor, and I worked towards heightening the specificity throughout the drafting process. But I’m generally pretty taken with the locality of any piece — it’s always interesting to think about how a character’s structural, geographic, and physical limitations (or benefits) affect their arc.

KA: How did you decide which narratives deserved to be told from a third-person or a first-person point of view? 

BW: The short answer’s that the third-person is hard for me (too much power). So I don’t do it very often.

KA: I remember hearing you read “Waugh” on The New Yorker‘s podcast a few months ago and thinking about the emphasis on escapism. This concept pops up in multiple short stories. Why was it important to narrate how different characters chose to “escape” certain situations within their communities?

BW: It’s just a way of navigating or dealing with whatever cards you’re dealt. The overwhelming majority of us don’t have much of a say in our larger situations, so while the “escapist” methods some of the characters turn to might seem more far-field or extreme to some readers, the luxury of getting to hang out on your sofa and binge Netflix or whatever for however many hours might seem just as dubious to them. Different poisons.

KA: Many of these stories share an unnamed protagonist whose name isn’t revealed until the final story, “Elgin.” Was it intentional to keep his identity under wraps until the collection’s closing pages? Can you talk about why you made this decision?

BW: A friend and mentor of mine made the suggestion, and then I tried it and it worked. So we kept it in. But I’m always interested in the rift (or the lack thereof) between our identities as they’re perceived, and our given personas, or our internalized notions of ourselves—and what’s super-interesting to me is when those facets of our lives converge on one another. I think there are more than a few instances of given names (whether first or secondhand) and adopted names collapsing on one another across the book.

KA: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball?

BW: I’ve never been to a ball. So I guess I’ll tell you afterwards.

Kukuwa Ashun is an MFA candidate at New York University.  

Issue #252: Katherine Hubbard’s “Wash & Fold”

Greetings, readers! Our new issue is about—well, it’s hard to say what it’s about without spoiling some of the most wonderful things in store for you, so I’ll try to tap-dance through this delicately: “Wash & Fold” is about what happens when two strangers come together in a laundromat, encounter an unusual situation that has nothing to do with either of them, and do something about it that changes them both.

When I read “Wash & Fold,” I’m filled with admiration for the writing, the technique, the humor, the precise observations of humans and human interaction. But I’m also happily caught up in the narrative tug that carries this delightful tale from beginning to end. In our Q&A, Katherine Hubbard tells us that she found herself using “a storyteller’s voice” when writing the early drafts, and while that might sound like an obvious thing for a writer to use, it isn’t, and it allowed her to step into and out of various characters’ points of view so fluidly that the reading experience is buoyant from beginning to end.

We’re very happy to be putting a story by Katherine Hubbard into your hands, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Introducing 2019 Debutante Erin Somers

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Erin Somers, author of One Teen Story #20, “Astronauts in Love” and the novel  Stay Up with Hugo Best (Scribner).

When aspiring comedian June Bloom runs into her idol and former boss, the famous late-night host Hugo Best, she gets the chance to live her fantasy—Hugo invites June to his house for the long Memorial Day weekend. Hugo is an older, powerful man and June is a young, broke woman trying to make it in a tough industry. What do they owe each other? What do they have a right to expect? Stay Up with Hugo Best is a deft exploration of fame, desire, and what we demand from people—those we know, those we’re related to, and those we don’t know but feel like we do.

Hayleigh Santra: Where were you when you found out Stay Up with Hugo Best was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Erin Somers: I was at the gym when my agent called, just like I’d always imagined. I got off the treadmill to take the call and walked out into the hallway outside the racquetball courts. I listened to my agent tell me an editor had made an offer while I watched some guys playing racquetball. I remember thinking, “How can you be playing racquetball at a time like this?”

As for celebration, my husband ran out for champagne. Beyond that I didn’t allow anything. I’m wary of getting what I wish for, but in a monkey’s paw way. Where the wish is technically granted, but the results are mangled and ironic, a punishment for my hubris. So I don’t over-celebrate until I see how it all shakes out. I send someone fleet footed for good booze, I drink it quickly before the gods can notice, and I get back to work.

HS: The novel is a meditation on desire, both realized and unrealized. Hugo Best presumably got everything he ever wanted—a long-running late-night show, celebrity status, money—but his need for others’ approval never subsides. June also gets her fantasy—a weekend with her idol—and yet it doesn’t feel as she thought it would. So often we think we know what we want, only to discover that it doesn’t have the effect on us that we imagined. What interested you about exploring this aspect of desire?

ES: Almost nothing can live up to our hopes for it. What could possibly live up? Not getting what you want feels terrible. But getting what you want also feels terrible. Why? It should feel good! But it doesn’t. But why? Probably because it doesn’t match the elaborate fantasy we create in our heads about how things will go and how they will feel.

I find that disconnect to be really rich. I’m attuned to it’s tragicomic potential, in fiction and in life. If I’m at an elegant occasion, a nice wedding, say, I’m looking around for the detail that’s going to undercut the whole evening, its gravitas, its specialness. The thing that’s going to make the bride sad later. The blue recycling bin fully visible in the corner or whatever. The DJ who drinks too much and says something inappropriate. I feel deflation acutely. I’m highly disappoint-able. I can’t help it—I keep hoping!

HS: There is an obvious power imbalance between the famous, rich Hugo Best and the young, aspiring June Bloom. Yet, they could make a compromise — June could give Hugo sex and uncomplicated adoration, and Hugo could help make June’s career. This is a topic that people are especially attuned to right now, as it’s come to light that many powerful men in the entertainment business have harassed or assaulted younger women and used their money and fame to get away with their behavior. Why did you want to explore this type of relationship?

ES: This type of relationship is everywhere. More than is even acknowledged, especially in creative fields. Older men help young women with their careers in exchange for sexual attention. I wanted to write about it because I saw it happening constantly and we haven’t gotten the young woman’s perspective on it much in literature. What we usually get is an exquisite prose stylist (male) writing about a professor and/or writer (male) having an affair with a young woman. And the young woman is just a device to show what a mess this dude is or set him on the right path or explode his life. Fine. Some of those books are good. But that’s a boring premise in 2019 and I’m sick of reading about it. Much more interesting to hear from the young woman at this point, explore her complicity, let her have flaws, etc.

HS: June and Hugo are constantly cracking jokes, and Stay Up with Hugo Best is rife with insider knowledge about comedy. Why did you decide to use comedy as the backdrop? Can you talk about your research process?

ES: I chose comedy as the backdrop because I thought I could write the jokes. I wanted to try. It seemed fun and like a formal challenge, too—I had never written standup before. Plus the industry is rife with bad behavior and big egos, and full of interesting characters. It’s also a hard industry for women. There has still never been a woman host on a network late night show. That’s wild. What’s going on there? I look at James Corden and I think, no woman on the planet could do better than this? Things have improved a little on cable, but I remember when they were looking for Jon Stewart’s replacement on the Daily Show and they were trying to make the argument that no qualified woman wanted the job. Okay guys, sure.

To research it, I read books about late night and memoirs by comedians. I watched a lot of late night and listened to old standup to get a feel for Hugo’s voice. I talked to a former head writer for a long running late night show who had started as an audience page and worked his way up and he very generously described every job he had in detail. I did tons more, maybe too much, but it never felt like work because it was mostly listening to funny people talk.

HS: The story takes place over the course of one Memorial Day weekend — four days. I love books that have specific, short timeframes, and I’m always fascinated with how the author manages to create and maintain the tension necessary for a novel. Can you talk a bit about this choice? Was that always how the novel was structured? What were the challenges and advantages in writing about one weekend?

ES: Comic novels in particular work well with short timelines, especially the sub-genre I think of as “an idiot flailing around.” The novels I looked to when I was writing it—Lucky Jim, Cassandra at the Wedding, Desperate Characters, Straight Man, Who is Rich, Goodbye Columbus—have short timelines.

As a first time novelist, I tried to make things as easy on myself as possible. That was the logic behind many of my choices: what will make this project less daunting? Why make things harder? Writing a novel is already hard. By setting it over a long weekend, I wouldn’t have to worry about finding an ending—it ended when the weekend ended. Four days meant four sections. Every section began in the morning and ended at night because that’s how time works.

The challenge was how to keep it interesting when the structure precludes anything “big” from happening. It could only ever be a small story. But when I got all the characters talking I found they were all trying to seduce each other and also, on some level, hated each other. That escalating push-pull seemed enough to sustain it.

HS: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball?

ES: I’m hoping to see some grinding.

Hayleigh Santra is an MFA candidate at The New School. 

Introducing 2019 Debutante Lydia Fitzpatrick

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Lydia Fitzpatrick, author of One Story Issue #207, “Safety”  and the novel Lights All Night Long (Penguin Press).

Lights All Night Long follows a Russian exchange student, Ilya, to a small town in Louisiana. If navigating a new country with an entirely different culture were not difficult enough, Ilya remains haunted by what he has left behind. His older brother, Vladimir, remains in prison for a crime Ilya does not believe he committed. Consumed by the weight of his past, Ilya embarks upon a quest to vindicate his brother along with the help of his host sister, Sadie, who has a complicated history of her own.

Natalie Whalen: Where were you when you found out Lights All Night Long was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

LF: I was at home, crouched in the one corner of our yard where I get cell service. My daughters were inside, peering through the windows at me, wondering why I was acting so strange. That night, I went out to dinner with my mother-in-law to celebrate—my husband was out of town, and she, sweetly, had come to help me out with the girls—so the two of us went on a date and ordered too much food and drank too many French 75s.

NW: You wrote in your author’s note that Ilya, the protagonist of Lights All Night Long, was originally supposed to be a minor character. Clearly, the novel ended up very different from how you originally intended it. What was the novel originally supposed to focus on, and when did you decide to take the novel in such a different direction?

LF: When I was in grad school, I wrote a short story in which Sadie was the protagonist. The story was published, but I had this lingering feeling of not being done with it, so I began writing more about Sadie and her world. I began the novel over and over, with different versions of Sadie—in some of those early drafts she’s pregnant, and in others the perspective alternates between her and her mother and J.T.—but each of these beginnings petered out around the hundred-page mark. Then I wrote a scene in which Sadie meets Ilya, a Russian exchange student. I’d intended for their interaction to be brief, for Ilya to throw into relief Sadie’s sense of being an outsider, but once he entered the story, that was it. He took it over pretty instantly.

NW: What really stands out for me in Lights is the tenderness with which you treat your characters. While they are quite nuanced, I understood as a reader how much you cared for each of them. I found this to be particularly true with Ilya’s brother Vladimir, who is written in such a way that allows us to reckon with his morality right alongside Ilya. How did you come up with his character, and do you find it important for yourself as a writer to love each of your characters?

LF: I do—or, if not to love each and every character (because of course there are some who are hard to love), then to find an emotional point of contact with each character, something that helps you understand their motivations and desires even if you don’t share them. That said, with Vladimir it was pure love. Vladimir has this spark, this joy for life that contrasts so sharply with the risky choices he seems intent on making—and I think he emerged initially from some sort of wish fulfillment. I’d like to be more impulsive, more like Vladimir in that sense, but as I developed his character, and the world he inhabits, that impulsiveness began to pull him in dark directions.

NW: Lights is timely in so many unexpected ways, in terms of its exploration of narcotic addiction and life in contemporary Russia, both of which seem to constantly be in the news these days. “Safety,” your 2015 One Story piece, was similarly relevant to contemporary goings-on with its subject matter of a school shooting. Can you talk a little bit about writing fiction inspired by the news cycle?

LF: I wrote “Safety” in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I was a new mom then, and naïve enough to think that having a child meant I could also protect that child, like that was a promise I could honor, but of course it’s not, and the story came out of that realization.  

With Lights All Night Long, the inspiration didn’t really come from the news cycle—my mom’s a Russian historian, and when I was young, we hosted two Russian students who eventually became the inspiration for Ilya. Also, I started the novel over six years ago, when Russia wasn’t looming nearly as large in the public consciousness. The opioid epidemic was in the headlines, though, with heartbreaking regularity, and in my research I also came across krokodil, which is a horrifically deadly home-made heroin that first appeared in Russia in the early 2000s. I think that it’s easy to be myopic about the opioid epidemic, to think of it as an American problem, but it’s bigger than our border. Russia’s opioid epidemic is every bit as serious as ours, and the devastation of krokodil is a sort of terrible synthesis of that point.  

NW: Lights is a murder mystery, but I feel that where the novel really shines is its treatment of connections between people and places and its investigation of morality in relation to these two things. Is this something that you feel that you uncovered through writing Lights?

LF: Definitely. Writing Lights was a process of discovery, and I came away from it with a reinforced sense of our universal humanity. Sadie is from Louisiana, and Ilya is from a town in Russia’s northwest—worlds that seem, on the surface, incredibly disparate—and yet their traumas and burdens and desires and dreams have a lot in common.

NW: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the Literary Debutante Ball?

LF: Meeting the whole One Story team!

Natalie Whalen is a writer and student living in New York City.