Issue # 171: Still Life

In our new issue, Jason Ockert’s wild and wonderful “Still Life,” a teenager takes an art project to the extreme. Our talented contributing editor Will Allison discovered this lively tale, so I’m turning introductions, once more, into his capable hands. I leave with a note to our dear readers: No Animals Were Harmed In the Making of This Story.—HT

“Whose story is it?” A writer’s answer to this question almost always determines who his or her viewpoint character is—and in short stories, there’s usually only one viewpoint character.

But the story in our current issue, Jason Ockert’s wonderfully strange “Still Life,” is told from the viewpoints of two characters: Everett Zurn, a marginalized high-school student, and Mr. Ralph, his heartbroken art teacher.

As I read the story for the first time, its viewpoint shifting between Mr. Ralph and Everett, the writer in me couldn’t help wondering: which character would ultimately prove to be the focus of the story? I liked them both and couldn’t decide whose story I hoped it would be.

Happily, I didn’t have to choose. Through the artful intermingling of the two viewpoints in the story’s final scene, Ockert succeeds in making “Still Life” Everett’s story and Mr. Ralph’s story. In the process, he not only offers a refreshing exception to the rule that stories have only one protagonist, but he also provides a well-crafted example of what Mark Schorer might have had in mind when he observed that form is not different from meaning and is itself a gesture toward the meaning of fiction.

To read more about how Ockert conceived “Still Life” (and to learn about his thwarted desire to be a misanthrope) be sure to check out our interview with the author.

Issue #170: The Imaging Center

Our new issue, “The Imaging Center” by Erin McGraw, is a meditation on marriage and love, set in the world of medical-technicians, where people spend more time looking at CT scans and MRIs than examining their own hearts. Contributing Editor Will Allison brought this wonderful story on board, and so I’m turning the introduction reins over to him this month. Enjoy! -HT

This summer, I went down to South Carolina for my (gulp) twenty-fifth high school reunion. I was looking forward to seeing old classmates, but I admit I was relieved when one of them—let’s call her Dee Dee—didn’t show.

In ninth and tenth grade, I had a major crush on Dee Dee. You know the kind I’m talking about: I inhaled the air when she walked by. I saved her bubblegum wrappers as keepsakes. I aspired to be behind her in line at the water fountain, so that I might put my lips where hers had been. Twenty-five years later, I cringed at the prospect of seeing Dee Dee again and having to wonder if she remembered what a hopeless goob I’d been.

If you’ve ever had an embarrassing crush or two (and who hasn’t?) the story in our latest issue, Erin McGraw’s “The Imaging Center,” will leave you feeling grateful that your lovesick puppy days are a thing of the past.

At the beginning of the story, the main character, Pete Wender, is felled by a powerful crush. Problem is, Pete isn’t in high school; he’s married and middle-aged, with a career. What’s worse, his crush blossoms at a company picnic, in full view of his co-workers. Margaritas and dirty dancing are involved. It’s not pretty—and things only get uglier as the story goes on to explore, with sharp insight and crackling humor, what can happen when two grown-ups start acting like teenagers.

To read more about “The Imaging Center”—including McGraw’s thoughts on middle-aged crushes—please check out our Q&A with the author.

Issue #168: The Widow’s Cruse

Our new issue, by the talented writer Emma Donoghue, was edited by Contributing Editor Will Allison, so I am turning the reins over to him for introductions. I hope you all enjoy this Dickensian short story, with a real O.Henry twist! -HT

 When I first picked up the story in our latest issue, Emma Donoghue’s “The Widow’s Cruse,” I thought there was a typo in the title. Surely it was supposed to be curse, right? Like the story’s scheming protagonist, the lawyer Huddlestone, I was familiar with neither the word cruse (noun, a small vessel, (as a jar or pot), for holding a liquid (as water or oil)) nor the Bible story about the widow’s cruse of oil that miraculously supplies Elijah during a famine (I Kings 17:8–16). Now I know a little better.

I’m always happy to read stories that open up new worlds for me, and as a consumer mostly of contemporary fiction, I found Donoghue’s richly imagined tale of eighteenth-century New York City to be just such a story. The consensus among One Story editors is that “The Widow’s Cruse” is an old-fashioned story in the best sense of the term: it’s full of well-chosen period details and language; it’s written with a degree of ironic distance that brings to mind Jane Austen; and it includes a twist ending that would make O. Henry proud but that also feels inevitable in retrospect.

To read more about “The Widow’s Cruse”—including Emma’s thoughts on writing historical fiction—please check out our Q&A with the author.

Issue 163: You, on a Good Day

As we get ready for The Literary Debutante Ball tomorrow, One Story is also ushering in Spring with a new issue! I read this piece on the subway, and fell instantly in love with its sharp and witty voice. Here to tell us about “You, on a Good Day” by Alethea Black, is One Story Contributing Editor Will Allison, who took it through the editorial process. See you at the Ball! -HT

With apologies to Alethea Black, author of “You, on a Good Day,” which we’re proud to present in our latest issue:

You do not set the story aside simply because the second-person viewpoint usually seems to you self-conscious and contrived. You do not get impatient with the story’s unconventional structure, its refusal to unfold in scenes. You do not, at the story’s turning point, pretend you knew what was coming all along. You do not turn up your nose at the ending because it dares to be hopeful instead of stoic or dark, like the ending of a literary story is supposed to be.

You do not, you do not, you do not.

Not on this day. On this day, by the end of page one, you forget the story is written in the second person because the viewpoint is handled so deftly. On this day, you’re happy to be reading a story that breaks the usual rules, invents its own, and then plays by them fair and square. On this day, the story’s turning point—its insistent shift away from despair—strikes you as inspired, exactly the sort of thing you’d been wanting without even realizing it. And on this day, the story’s hopeful ending makes you wish more stories had hopeful endings. It gives you a nice little shiver, the thrill of emotional connection that, as a reader, you long for.

To read more about “You, on a Good Day”—including Alethea’s thoughts on the story’s second-person viewpoint and unusual structure —please check out our Q&A with the author.

Issue 158: Bad Return

Will Allison, our new contributing editor, brought “Bad Return” to the table at One Story and took it through the editorial process. We’re thrilled that he has come on board, and also thrilled to be running a piece by Aimee Bender, a writer we’ve all admired for years. Here is Will to introduce this beautiful and mysterious tale–I hope you all enjoy it as much as we did. -HT

About halfway through the story featured in our new issue, Aimee Bender’s “Bad Return,” things start to get very strange. One minute, the protagonist, Claire, is sort of taking part in a sort-of antiwar rally. The next minute, she’s watching a hundred college coeds rolling naked and having sex in the dirt while a charlatan steals their wallets. And then things really start to get strange.

I must confess, a lot of surreal stories don’t do much for me. When the rules of a fictional world go willy-nilly, it’s like tennis without a net, or listening to someone else’s dream. “Tell a dream,” the story writer Lee K. Abbott once warned me, “lose a reader.”

But Aimee didn’t lose me, not even for a second. I think one of the (many) reasons I enjoyed “Bad Return” so much is that the story never feels surrealistic simply for the sake of surrealism. Rather, Aimee’s surrealism always serves character. The strange things that happen to Claire happen to her precisely because of who she is, the choices she makes, the actions she takes, and they have a profound impact on the story’s outcome. It doesn’t hurt that the story’s stranger scenes are also quite unnerving and suspenseful.

To read more about “Bad Return”—including Aimee’s thoughts on her own literary strangeness—please check out our Q&A with the author.