AWP: Mission Accomplished


[The One Story booth @ the AWP Bookfair]

The AWP conference was one hot event this year.  Literally.  As if meeting three whole floors of our lovely readers, writers, and literary magazine comrades in The New York Hilton wasn’t enough excitement, a fire alarm interrupted our 100th issue reading at the Sutton South Lounge on Friday with Brock Clarke, N.M. Kelby, Paul Yoon and Ron Carlson.  Reading at the time was the unflappable N.M. Kelby, who had barely gotten to the second page of One Story Issue #54 “Jubilation, Florida” when the alarm went off and a robotic voice over the loud speaker announced an investigation was being held to the cause.  N.M. admonished those who grabbed their bags to leave, yelling, “Don’t leave! We’ve got sex in here!”  I don’t know if that makes her One Story’s most viable candidate for Fire Marshall, but it definitely makes her our most bad ass writer.  To read an account of this written by someone who thinks people who run from possible fires are cowards, go here or visit galleycat, who posted this video.  Those people who stayed were treated to the rest of her reading, and Ron Carlson’s reading from “Beanball,” One Story’s special double issue (99 and 100).  “Beanball” is a thrilling baseball murder mystery that spans two continents.  It is only a matter of time before Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are duking it out to play the main character on film, and we are thrilled to share it with our readers for our 100th issue.  I heard Ron’s reading was brilliant.  I didn’t hear it.  I was one of the cowards who ran. 

After the reading on Friday, we trekked down rainy, windy Manhattan to our warm, dry 100th issue party where we continued the fire theme and answered the question: is packing the upstairs at Pianos with hundreds of literary folks a fire hazzard?  One Story authors and friends from Tin House, Ploughshares, Post Road, Redivider, BombMississippi Review, Open City and the newly launched Luna Park and other lit mags were on hand to party with us until we drank enough to forget that issue #101 sadly won’t edit, publish and distribute itself. 

[One Story staffer Marie Bertino & One Story author, Amelia Kahaney @ One Story’s 100th issue party]

[One Story author Brock Clarke charms the locals]


[Editor, Publisher & Webmaster yuck it up]

[One Story magazine takes the mike]

There was no time to nurse hangovers on Saturday.  Ron Carlson chatted with our readers Saturday morning at a special reading and signing at the One Story table.  There, he also signed all 100 copies of our special letter press edition of “Beanball,” which was lovingly blogged about here.    

[Copies of “Beanball” and Ron’s new novel, Five Skies on sale]

[Ron Carlson throws a pitch to Josh Wolf Shenk, director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House (which put together our beautiful letter press edition of “Beanball”]

Of course it wasn’t all glamourama at AWP, there were also some serious strategic talks about food.  Our dedicated reader Jesse Hassenger and I discussed etiquette for approaching an AWP table for the sole reason of obtaining candy.  Jesse informed me that it was prudent to scout the table out first, lest you ask a table clearly marked “Latina Lesbian Novella Writers from Idaho literary magazine” what kind of stories they publish.  We decided a friendly “how’re things over here?” would suffice before helping yourself to a handful of tootsie rolls.  We loved Alimentum’s food balloons, though we found out the hard way they weren’t edible.         

[Fans stop & read short stories @ One Story Booth]

Before the fire alarm, before the hangovers, before picking pieces of mylar out of our teeth, Hannah explained to the crowd at the Sutton South Lounge why she and Maribeth began One Story five years ago.  They wanted a forum that showcased one story and one story writer at a time.  In a time when short story collections that dare to be unlinked are going the way of the dinosaur, we are more proud than ever to be fighting the fight.  Thank you for joining us.  See you next year, in Chicago.     

The Intellectual Property of Raymond Carver

Like many short story writers my age, I regard the works of Raymond Carver as the horizon toward which I trudge. Many of my “revelations” about writing happened after reading “Why don’t you dance?” and company in his first collection What we Talk About When We Talk About Love. You can read a snippet of my idolatry here, in our annotated history of the short story.

In October 17th’s New York Times, Motoko Rich explores the influence Gordon Lish’s editing had on Raymond Carver’s work, especially the much lauded What we talk about when we talk about love. In the pdf that accompanies the online article, you can read Carver’s original endings to two of the stories, side by side with how they eventually appeared, after Lish’s edits.

It is obvious when reading his original endings that his intent (at least with those stories) leaned toward a more verbose, clear resolution. Lish’s edits added the sense of dissonance, the foggy ether quality that, like it or not, Carver has been associated with throughout time. In many stories from that collection, the reader gets a sense that there is a huge body of glistening meaning there, but is left so vague as to encourage a variety of options, or none at all, depending on how you see it. A friend of mine once called Carver’s stories “disquieting,” and I have yet to think of a better description.

So, let’s take as a given that Lish edited Carver vigorously, that maybe Carver wasn’t instinctually a minimalist, a term his widow Tess Gallagher insists he never even liked associated with his work. Where does that leave us Carver-ites, who have grown to regard him as a sign post to the promised land of sparse description and evocative dialogue?

I have gone back and forth on this.

First, it would be naive to think a writer’s work goes from his or her midnight copybook to what we read in The New Yorker. Of course we know that in between the work has been scrutinized by many eyes and opinions, how many vary case by case. How important is the author’s initial intent? How important is what he or she thinks it means? When a work is published, does it then become the property of the reader, whose interpretation is all that matters? The philosophies of author’s intent and reader response is relevant when you consider that Tess Gallagher is now fighting to have Carver’s original collection republished the way Carver wanted it. And, that Knopf is trying to block this publication. If the meaning of literature is a thrill ride to which everyone gets a ticket, shouldn’t we save a seat in the front for the author?

I have concerns about reading a collection of Carver’s work the way he ntended. If the original work is published and we don’t find it to be as compelling, does it mean Carver is not as great as we thought he was? Are huge fans of Carver’s work going to even be able to make an unbiased judgement on the new work, having the old work’s rhythms and influences in our collective head? Or, is it important to know what he intended, solely so we can file it in our database we collect subconsciously about this master?

On the other side of things, it would be naive to think an editor can just edit, say, a 14-year-old amateur into the likes of Raymond Carver. If we place the editor in a god position, then we assume the writer is arbitrary. The editor becomes a vessel for genius, able to work with any matter and turn it into gold. If every editor were able to do that why would every editor not be able to, ahem, write? As my big brother would say, you can put as much perfume as you want on a pig, it’s still a pig. If the initial offering isn’t capable of withstanding vigorous editing, then you can edit all you want, it’s still a pig.

The New York Times presents the two voices in this room of Carver’s intent as editor and widow, both of whose roles contain a specific angle into the knowledge of the man. I would be fascinated to hear another voice, perhaps Tobias Wolff, who I would imagine would also have a keen insight, as he was a friend of Raymond Carver, and a fellow writer whose work has also been filed under the umbrella term “minimalist.”

Particularly when reading the side by side versions of the ending to “I Could See the Smallest Things,” I found I didn’t prefer Lish’s take, which culled a few sentences from Carver’s five paragraphs and left it at that. It strikes me (no, I have no right to say this. But, I am a reader, so here is my ticket) that the ending would probably have been more effective had another editor taken Carver’s vision and condensed it only a bit, working with what was already there.

Another interesting thought: Carver influenced a generation of young writers who have patterned their sense of what does and does not belong in a story on his example. If we find out the work that shaped us bore a heavy influence by an editor, then do we become like the generation of folk singers who patterned their writing and stage personas on an ailing Woody Guthrie, whose ticks and affectations were due to the onset of Huntington’s Disease? In that way, we are gleaning tips from a compromised and false source. And yet, that source, no matter how it was generated, exists on the page as real and true, and has withstood the test of time. So, does it matter how the stories were generated, as long as they were?

One thing these so called exposes about the Carver/Lish partnership do is subject imagination and creativity to the yard sticks of math and law. They attempt to classify a quality that is, by its nature, unclassifiable. And should be. I confess to exhaustion after endless literary analysis, likening it to dissecting a magic trick. Art is too important to cowtow to mortal rationale. Carver is one of the masters because when you read him, he makes you feel like writing is a thing you can actually do. It is only when you try it that you realize how difficult what he accomplished is.

This is an immensely tricky subject. Do I care that the Carver works I love may not have come from the direct source? How much would it matter to me if I came to find out the ending to “Why Don’t You Dance” was written by Lish, not Carver? One only has to count the number of question marks in this piece to know I have come up with no real conclusion. For many years, I preferred to stick my head in the sand and ignore the overwhelming evidence that Carver’s work was shaped dramatically by Lish, preferring to just read him and enjoy. In that way, I defer to Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the Learned Astronomer.” We can spend our entire lives charting the universe, but sometimes we do better to go outside and gaze at the stars.

Stephen King wants to SAVE THE SHORT STORY

In his introduction to the recently published 2007 Best American Short Stories, Stephen King has a lot to say about the current state of affairs surrounding the short story. After a folksy anecdote about crawling on a bookstore floor to find Tin House, and the first instance I can remember of a BASS editor using the phrase “with my ass in the air and my nose to the carpet,” (way to choke, Chabon), the crux of King’s feeling boils down to: short stories still matter, but he doesn’t want them to suck. Stevie, we are with you, you strange, wonderful Red Sox fan. Here are some excerpts from his colorful introduction…

“The American short story is alive and well. Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were actually true…let us consider what the bottom shelf does to creative writers–especially the young on…who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens to a writer when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless–because it’s what god or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because it’s such a kick to spin tales…It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience of readers-for-pure-pleasure. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse on Saturday night, and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ-When circulation-falters, the air in the room gets stale…What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky…I certainly don’t want some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness bullshit about what Bob Dylan once called ‘the true meaning of a peach.’ So, American short story alive? Check. American short story well? Sorry, no, can’t say so. Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead. Measures to be taken? I would suggest you start by reading these stories, part of a series that is still popular and discussed. They show how vital short stories can be when they are done with heart, mind and soul by people who care about them and think they still matter. They do still matter.”

Happy Birthday, Hemingway. Love, cats everywhere

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” from George Plimpton, “Interview with Ernest Hemingway,” The Paris Review 18. Spring, 1958.

Today is the birthday of sun and light and yes. Ernest Hemingway turns 108 today. Source of the stereotype that writers are mad as snakes and thousands of ill-advised beards, Papa Hemingway is also the voice in my head that complains I am not doing enough. Here, it is already noon and I haven’t yet shot a rhinoceros.

Ernest Hemingway is the patron saint of earnest small business owners who in pre-dawn hours brick-wall into the question: what should we name this bookstore? A Clean Well-Lighted Place in San Francisco (RIP), Hemingway’s Books in Canada, and The Lost Generation bookstore in cyberspace are three of many named for the bearded writer. Hemingway also lends his enigma to the annual look alike contest in Key West. But you don’t need to leave New York to visit a namesake: I have on good authority that a cat living in our very own Williamsburg is named Mr. Bumby after a character in A Moveable Feast.

Which brings us to Hemingway’s area of greatest contribution; the world of cats. A lifelong feline enthusiast, Hemingway and his wife Mary at one time owned 34 cats. The next time you are in Key West, stumble drunkenly to Hemingway’s House and Museum. There your ankles will be encircled by several of Hemingway’s feline descendants, who sport more toes than necessary and bear unforgivably literary names.

“I like to have Gertrude Stein bawl me out because it keeps one’s opinion of oneself down–way down–she liked the book very much she said–but what I wanted to hear about was what she didn’t like and why–she thinks the parts that fail are when I remember visually rather than make up…” –To F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1929

As a writer who is also a lady, I’ve been told I am not supposed to like Hemingway but I do I do I do. The rarely stocked book Ernest Hemingway On Writing, contains the best advice/musings on writing ever collected (you can keep your Letters to a Young Poet). The book is slim and hard to find; slim because Hemingway did not like to talk about writing, saying it “takes off whatever butterflies have on their wings,” hard to find because for the past 15 years I have bought every copy I’ve come across to garnish shower gifts, shove into the backpacks of beloved friends, and send to prisoners.

Over the years, Hemingway’s enigma has been shined up and exaggerated, but some facts remain consistent: he was between 7 and 8 feet tall, weighed 650 pounds and had his heart surgically replaced with a Magic 8 Ball that always read Ask Again Later.

Hemingway commonly spoke of other writers as boxing opponents. On Writing also documents some of Hemingway’s infamous opinions on other writers.

“I wouldn’t fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off…If I can live to 60 I can beat him (MAYBE). I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn’t too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupaussant and it took four of the best stories to beat him…Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls and ask the referee to stop it.”

“There are some guys nobody could ever beat like Mr. Shakespeare (The Champion) and Mr. Anonymous.”

“I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short story writer, even a great short story writer, but trying to read her after Chekov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer. Mansfield was like near-beer. It was better to drink water.”

Mansfield to Hemingway: No, you dit-n’t.

In addition to “boxing” with his fellow writers, Hemingway also seemed to have a lifelong grudge match with God, who tried to KO Hemingway several times in two wars, four marriages, two consecutive plane crashes, even resorting to a brush fire which, while it debilitated Hemingway enough that he could not personally accept his Nobel Prize, did not succeed in killing him. Ultimately, Hemingway had to do that himself.

To appropriately celebrate this glorious day, run with the bulls, book a safari, write a helpful but vaguely condescending letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow a beard or try out a “Papa Doble,” the drink Hemingway was rumored to have invented at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West: two ounces of white or light rum, the juice from two limes, the juice from half a grapefruit, Maraschino liqueur floating on the top, served over crushed ice. Or just down a quart of scotch. He liked that, too.

What a line can do

Once upon a time in art school, our teacher instructed us to create an entire drawing with a single line: no picking up the pen or pencil. I drew a tree, badly. When she came over to inspect, I told her I had no idea how to do what she wanted, that it didn’t seem possible to render anything well without several lines. Wordlessly, iconically, Mr. Miyagi-ly, she turned over a page in my notebook and drew a gumball machine; not a Norman Rockwell gumball machine, but a quivering, quirky one I could easily see greeting guests in the home of Tim Burton.

We at One Story are certainly aware of the power of the single story. These days I’ve been thinking about the kinetic potential of the single line. I have favorites that have forced entry into my head for days, sometimes years, that have on occasion colored my entire appreciation of an otherwise lukewarm story or novel. A line that makes me agonize, how did the author even think of this? Writers who excavate everyday dirt and turn over gems are few and far between. Tom Robbins, a man who squeezes the tar out of words, who has never met a noun he couldn’t change into a verb, said “The only success with which a writer might be meaningfully concerned is…whether or not, when their nouns meet their verbs, the verbs yell out, ‘Gotcha, baby!'”

I began pulling books down from my shelves so I could make a list of “gotcha” lines. Many of my favorite were dismissed after coming to find they were culminations of a dependant series of lines, or airy distillations of great ideas rather than catch-able, tangible lines, or just plain not as good as I remembered. I excluded playwrights and poets. I kept to single sentences. Here are some I came up with:

“They pause, motionless, watching each other, and for a moment she is precisely what she appears to be: a pregnant woman kneeling in a kitchen with her three-year-old son, who knows the number four.”
-from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

“She has important hair.”
-from Don DeLillo’s White Noise

“Usually we were guilty and frightened because there was something wrong with us and we didn’t know what it was, but that day we had the feeling of men who had worked.”
-from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son

“But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.”
-from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run

“She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.”
-from J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”

“She wrote to him fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamation points and inaccurate observations.”
-from J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”

“When she crept back to his bed, he was sleeping like a boy, the way men did.”
-from Lorrie Moore’s “The Jewish Hunter”

“Understand your cat is a whore and can’t help you.”
-from Lorrie Moore’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love.”

“Sucking her thumb like a child (her age nineteen last November), she lay in this good world, this new world, this world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, and there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming, Oh,’ she cried, as if in pain.”
-from Virginia Woolf’s “A Woman’s College from the Outside.”

“To express grief on skates seemed almost impossible, and Fenstad liked that.”
-from Charles Baxter’s “Fenstad’s Mother.”

As I am a wise grasshopper, I cut out that gumball machine my art teacher drew and have it hanging by my mirror. It is battered and bruised. When I forget how powerful and innovative a simple line can be, I look at it and cry. No I don’t. Normally, I am nowhere near it. But, I am happy to have it.

Do you have a line that has forced entry into your consciousness? Please share.

Later, with Rebecca Barry

When last we visited Rebecca Barry, her novel in stories Later, at theBar had just received a glowing review in The New York Times Book Review. We wondered what it is like for an author after receiving such a review. Does it influence book sales? Does it impact word of mouth and if so, how much? Upon leaving the house, do blue birds alight on her shoulders? We asked Rebecca to update us on any corresponding changes to her book sales, life, or ornithological prowess. Here, she pontificates on the impact a review makes in her own words:

“Here are my thoughts on that review, a month after the fact.

The first great thing about a review like that is the validation. I burst into tears when I read it. Then I ran across the street to the public library where my husband was working and showed him the review and he cried. I had been preparing for the worst, like we all do when we put something we love so much and have worked on for years out into the world. And when I got such a positive response from such a great publication, was more than I could have hoped for. I just sat down and said, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, to every god I could think of, plus Danielle Trussoni, who wrote the review. Then, when it was an Editor’s Pick in the Times a week later, I was pretty much over the moon.

You would think this would make any bad press that followed insignificant, but I have to admit that when, a month later, the book got a much less favorable review in the LA Times, it was still really hard and unpleasant, etc. But the interesting thing was that when I put the two reviews side by side, (naturally, I got out the NYTBR review again to make myself feel better) I realized that they both brought up a lot of the same things about the book. It’s just that one person really loved those things about the book and thought they worked, and the other person simply didn’t. So in the end, you just have to accept that not everyone is going to like your book. (Other people probably already know this already. I’m a slow learner.) I think you just make a decision about who you’re going to believe, and if it’s your mother or your friends, or the random person who writes to you saying they loved your book, or your good reviews, then you go with that rather than the cranky ones.

In terms of sales, after the review came out there was a spike in sales, and we went back to press twice in the first three weeks. Now, in the book’s sixth week since publication, the numbers are holding steady, at about half what they were that first week after the review. My impression is (and this comes from the numbers as well as talking to booksellers) that a good review will give you a good two or three weeks, and it definitely helps, but word of mouth is what really sells books. I think the same probably goes for negative press–a bad review might sting for a week or so, but word of mouth can overcome that too. If a friend tells you to read a book, you’re more likely to read it, regardless of what you’ve read about it. I also think that reviews have a cumulative affect. A good review in The New York Times makes people make a mental note about your book. Another good review in a local paper makes them think, “Ah yes, I meant to buy that book.” A reading or event, or a friend saying, “I loved that book,” might just push them over the edge. At readings a few people have come up to me and said, “I read the review in the Times/People and I’ve been meaning to get the book, but when I saw you were reading, it gave me a good excuse to actually buy it.”

The other thing I’ll say is this. Basically, my dream came true. I worked very hard for a long time on a book that I’m finally pleased with. And then I got a great review in the New York Times Book Review, which was more than I ever could have hoped for. And I was completely happy. And then a few days later I was standing in my tiny kitchen that needs renovation, trying to get the laundry together, and I realized that the thing about your dream coming true is that in a way, everything changes, and nothing does. I don’t mean this to diminish the review in any way–it was and is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me and I’m still really thankful/thrilled about it. But my life isn’t that different, and I think this is true of good reviews and bad ones. If there’s a good review, even a great one, you get a fabulous high and it pushes you into a new level of attention, and it helps to stop and enjoy the moment and be totally grateful that that happened. But you still have to do the laundry and try to keep your one year old from putting his face in the toilet. And if there’s a bad review, it hurts your feelings and makes you mad and defensive for a while, but chances are you can still do most of the things that made you happy before the review came outeat good food, enjoy your friends and family, have sex, and find a new dream and keep writing. Because for better or worse, most of us keep writing and working and making our art, no matter what people say about it, which is what makes us the valiant, courageous, hopeful idiots we are.”

Grab a free ice cream cone (courtesy Uncle Louie G’s)and hear Rebecca Barry read along with Owen King and Darin Strausse next Wednesday the 27that One Story and Park Lit’s Summer Park reading in Park Slope where we will answer, among other questions, how many times can you say the word ‘park’ in one sentence?

Petition to change the location of the cracks; Interfictions

If you’re like me, and think the characters and structure in most fiction act way too reasonably, toss a new collection of stories called “Interfictions” in your beach bag. Each story is a revelation on what narrative can do.

Consider the love story between a man and a lake, as told from the point of view of the lake, in Csilla’s Kleinheincz’s deftly observed “A Drop of Rasberry.”

Consider Leslie What’s “Post Hoc,” in which a woman mails herself to her ex-boyfriend. The boyfriend is not home, so the dutiful postman leaves a note and she ends up spending night after night in the post office, making new friends and eventually working there.

This collection is magic; one of the editors fittingly dedicates it to Kelly Link, fiction’s masterful prestidigitator. “Interfictions” is published by Interstitial Arts Foundation, who defines interstitial fiction as “work that falls in the interstices-between the cracks- of recognized commercial genres.” For those of us who prefer unconventional story telling, this is a breath of fresh air until the blessed day the cracks either get bigger or disappear.

For more information, check out Interstitial Arts dot org, or for a live rendering, attend the Interfictions reading Wednesday, June 20th at the eternally crowded KGB Bar, part of their Fantastic Fiction reading series.

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