I’ve wanted to be a fiction writer since I was four years old and wrote my first earnest, terrible poem. When on late nights I ruminate on how that desire has influenced the shape of my life (the smallness of my apartment), I think mostly of the kind, brilliant people who paused their journeys to offer me advice or, at times, a strongly-worded pep talk. Anything I’ve been able to achieve has been because of these helpful souls.
Several years ago I decided to begin teaching because I finally felt I had something to bestow. I wanted to help newer writers by passing along the advice I’d received, and the advice I wish I’d received.
One of the most important tools to cultivate is the ability to allow the constructive criticism of others make your work stronger. To that end, we will workshop stories with this question in mind: where do I think this writer/story is trying to go? We will tailor our critiques toward the idea of helping the writer get there. We will eschew the idea that there is one way to write fiction. We will seek out the joy in our work and the work of others and will cultivate our personal, idiosyncratic voices.
If this sounds good to you, please join us for One Story’s Spring workshop. The workshop will meet weekly on Tuesdays evenings from February 23rd to March 22nd at the One Story Inc. office in Brooklyn. For more information and to apply, please visit the website.
On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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.
Where were you when you found out By Light We Knew Our Names was the winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize? How did you celebrate?
I was at home in my living room when I received the phone call from Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books that the collection had won. I absolutely couldn’t believe it. It was Memorial Day of 2012 and I was living outside of Columbus, Ohio. Since it was a holiday, I already had plans to go into the city that day with my husband and our friend Lareese, but we made it a super-day of celebration—we went to the COSI Museum, we saw a movie, we got vegan cupcakes, and we went out for sushi.
This collection is full of stories that are somewhat horrific—disappearing children, violence against women, dissecting live octopuses—yet you write with incredible warmth. It’s such a unique balance that I’m curious, who do you consider to be your influences as a writer?
I’ve always admired Lorrie Moore’s ability to blend laugh-out-loud humor with extreme pathos—some of the funniest lines in her stories and novels are sliced right next to the saddest. Though I don’t write humor, I’ve taken to heart her talent at holding two seemingly disparate elements together in fiction. I’ve also taken a cue from the warmth in Aimee Bender’s prose, where despite the horror of some of the things her characters face, everyone seems so capable of love and so terrified of losing one another. There is such optimism for humanity in her fiction.
The title story in this collection, “By Light We Knew Our Names,” floored me. I reread it several times mouthing Wow, wow, wow as I moved through. It’s a powerhouse story about a group of young women living in the town of Willow where it seems that sexual violence against women is not only expected, but the norm. To cope, the women meet at night and punch pillows, hit trees with bats, and talk about getting out. Many of the stories in this collection contain some element of violence against women but this one in particular builds an entire world around just that. What was the seed of this story and what was your greatest challenge in writing it?
Thank you for these nice words! It definitely wasn’t an easy story to write, and as you mention, I’d touched upon violence against women in other stories. But at the time of writing this story, which was in early 2010 before many of the recent conversations about sexual violence began to happen, I felt so frustrated that what I was seeing and intuiting about gender disparity in the world wasn’t being heard. I wanted to make it so over-the-top and so blatant that it couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to set a magnifying glass to violence against women and sear it open. My greatest challenge was to avoid alienating the reader into not listening, or into dismissing these young women and their anger.
There are 13 stories in this collection. When did you realize you had a collection and how did you go about arranging the pieces?
This collection went through several revisions of weeding stories and writing new ones before I put together the final version that Dzanc accepted, and even in the editing process, I still made replacements. In terms of arrangement, I made decisions based mostly on theme, on tone, on length, and on the movement of one story to the next. For the most part, the collection progresses from adolescent narrators and protagonists to older characters reaching and experiencing adulthood. I wanted to preserve this movement across the collection while also making sure that no stories overlapped or grew repetitive, from one to the next.
What are you most looking forward to at the Ball on May 15th?
I’m beyond delighted to take part in a celebration of literature, words and debut authors with one of my favorite literary magazines of all time. One Story has been a long-time favorite since I first began writing. I’m very much looking forward to meeting the other debutantes, whose books and work I’ve read and admired from afar. I’m also really looking forward to meeting Karen Friedman after her tireless, sharp editorial work on my issue of One Story. It will be such a great celebration, and I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am to attend.
On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Celeste Ng, author of One Story issue 86 “What Passes Over.”
Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, begins, “Lydia is dead.” We then follow each of the Lees, a Chinese-American family living in Ohio, as they struggle to understand what happened to Lydia and what led to her death. A beautiful portrait of the complexities between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives, Everything I Never Told You is a family love story you won’t want to miss when it hits stores this June.
Thank you to Celeste for taking the time to sit down and discuss the seed for this story and cupcakes with me.
1. Where were you when you found out Everything I Never Told You was going to be published by Penguin Press and how did you celebrate?
I was unbelievably lucky and the book went to auction, so I knew when the bids were going to come in. I was at home when my agent called with the news, and I wish I could say I went right out and celebrated all night. But I literally hung up the phone and ran directly to my son’s preschool to pick him up (a bit late!). Honestly, having a young toddler at the time helped keep me grounded during that crazy time. I had this great news, but I also had a two-year-old in front of me demanding lunch and a nap—nothing like that to bring you back down to earth. And I couldn’t get a sitter on such short notice, so my husband and I just ended up ordering takeout and cupcakes that evening. Exciting, no?
2. The first sentence of Everything I Never Told You is: “Lydia is dead.” How did you decide to begin the book this way? What was the seed for this story?
That last sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.
The novel has its roots, very indirectly, in an anecdote my husband told me: when he was a kid, a boy he knew pushed his own little sister into a lake. She was rescued, but I started wondering what it might have been like for her to plunge underwater, what this brother-sister dynamic might have been like (both before and after), and what would have happened in her family if she hadn’t been saved. The story ultimately morphed into something quite different—in the novel, Lydia is a teenager, for one thing—but it all started with that image of a girl falling into deep water.
3. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the complex dynamic between the three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. Lydia is her parents’ favorite child, yet it seems that Nathan and Hannah not only accept that fact but are actually able to flourish because of it, almost as if they are grateful to Lydia for bearing the brunt of all expectations. Which of the three children is your favorite? Is there one in particular that you identify with?
I empathize with Lydia a great deal, having been a teenage girl once myself, and Nath’s scientific mindset is based on my own, as is his obsession in space: for a large part of my childhood, I dreamed of being an astronaut. But I have a real soft spot for Hannah. Like her, I was the (much) youngest child, and I spent a lot of time listening in on conversations, trying to piece together the lives of my elders. I collected objects that were unwanted by others but that were deeply significant, almost totems, to me. In fact, I still do. And as a kid I loved finding cozy nooks to hide in—under tables, on window seats behind the curtains, in closets. She’s probably the character I feel most akin to.
4. Throughout the book, we jump from different characters perspectives as the family grapples with Lydia’s death. I was amazed at how flawless the change in perspective flowed throughout the storyline even with flashbacks. Which perspective/storyline was the most enjoyable for you to write? Which one was the most difficult?
I really enjoyed writing the sections when Marilyn and James met—love stories are fun—and the parts that take place in 1966, when Lydia and Nath are young. It was pure joy to research the details to flesh out those worlds, like watching the news coverage of Gemini 9 and researching old cookbooks (Marilyn’s is based on my mom’s own Betty Crocker). The most difficult parts, for me, were when Marilyn and James grappled directly with their daughter’s death—especially after my son was born. Writing about parents losing a child became very emotionally difficult, almost viscerally so: sometimes I’d finish writing and need to sneak into my son’s room just to watch him sleep for a while.
5. What are you looking forward to most at the Debutante Ball on May 22nd?
Partying with old friends and meeting other writers I’ve admired from afar (including the other debutantes!). And dressing up—does anyone have enough opportunities to do that?
Our new issue, “Between Ship and Ice,” follows the strained relationship of a father and daughter, at the crossroads of both identity and adulthood. Adina Talve-Goodman, One Story’s managing editor, pulled this story from our slushpile, and acted as issue editor, so I’ll be turning the introducing reins over to her. I hope you’ll all enjoy this unique tale, set on the polar ice of Norway. Skål! -HT
When I was around ten years-old, a friend told me she wanted to have a polar bear as a pet. “It would probably eat you,” I said. We argued about whether or not she could train the polar bear to sit when she commanded, like her dog. She said she could. I said it would still be a polar bear and that her dog never really sat when she told him to. We never resolved the issue.
Perhaps it was the memory of that conversation that drew me to pull “Between Ship and Ice” by Chelsey Johnson from our submissions. More likely, it was the quiet nature of the story and the skillful shifting of points-of-view while Synneva, a seventh grade girl, and Erlend, her estranged father who has recently come out to all but his daughter, trek across Svalbard in search of polar bears. Along the way, Synneva and Erlend are on parallel tracks—discovering new lives independent and yet complicatedly bound by missing the other. The question of whether the two will find each other again looms. You can find out more about how Chelsey crafted these two unique voices and learned to speak Norwegian in her Q&A.
So, in these hot summer days, I’m happy to present this story filled with ice floes, snowmobiles, Norwegian folklore, and, yes, polar bears.
On June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball,One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’ve been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.
Douglas Watson’s debut story collection is chock-a-block with deaths, births, sea and land voyages, excursions to the library, philosophical asides, and things like wolves. People fall in and out of love, walk in and out of buildings, take two steps forward and two steps back. Futility is a theme of the book, but so is the necessity of trying. Recently, Freebird Books in Brooklyn hosted a book launch event for Watson, and as a finale, Doug sang a song he’d written for the occasion, “The Era of Not Quite,” accompanied by Anthony Tognazzini on percussion and One Story’s own Hannah Tinti on ukulele. Click below for the musical madness, then read on about cheese, secrets, and fairy tales.
How did you celebrate when you found out you had won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and your first book was going to be published?
I think I did a kind of off-kilter jig and grinned up at the tops of some skyscrapers. They didn’t seem as big as the news about my book! I’d been playing phone tag with Peter Conners, the publisher at BOA Editions, and I was on my coffee break at work when we finally got each other on the phone. I remember it all very clearly: it was a warm night, and I was working overtime copyediting a royal-wedding-themed special issue of Time magazine. I’d prefer not to measure the readership of my book against the readership of that special issue. Anyway, so I did a jig, swigged some coffee, and then walked back to the Time & Life Building and all this copy about Kate Middleton and what’s-his-name. No subject on earth interests me less than British royalty, but still, it was a very good night.
The final story in your collection, “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero”, is One Story issue #177. I know that you published this story with us only months before your book release but has anything happen in the time between your publication in One Story and the release of your book?
Gosh, so much has happened just since One Story accepted my story for publication. It’s amazingly good timing for me, having the story come out just before the book comes out. I don’t know of another literary magazine that can match One Story‘s reach. If there are other such magazines, I want them to know that I love them and look forward to working with their editors! Anyway, I’ve heard a lot of nice things from readers about the “Messenger” story. And I’m very excited to do a jig at the Debutante Ball.
Each of your stories seem to be not-quite fairy tales. When it comes to storytelling and fairy tales, do you have any favorites or influences?
The not-quite-fairy-tale thing is something I just fell into. It’s been a million years since I’ve read any of the old fairy tales. Of course I would recommend Donald Barthelme’s retelling of Snow White to any reader, even someone with no sense of humor and a dwarf allergy. But Barthelme was doing something different; he brought a completely modern, or I suppose postmodern, voice and aesthetic to an already existing tale, whereas I discovered, sort of by accident, that I simply liked writing in the style of a fairy tale, modernity and postmodernity be damned.
I think when you write a fable or fairy tale, you have the ability to at once be a bit silly and also go more directly at the big stuff, as in: “There once was a girl who was sad. Why was she sad? Well, it was because her whole family had died in a train accident. She didn’t smile for the next ten years, but then one day at the market…” Etc. I don’t know if that made any sense. By the way, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is one of my favorite books. I don’t know if one would call it a book of fairy tales or what exactly, but it is very, very good. And then there are George Saunders’ Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, but those are not exactly fairy tales either. Some of Lydia Davis’s stories have a kind of fairy-tale flatness to them. There are so many great books out there, I don’t know why we try to write new ones.
In your story “Against Specificity”, you write, “Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents.” Doug, what does Indiana represent?
To me it represents a single long, boring drive I took across the state in the spring of 2004. I was visiting a few campuses as a prospective MFA student, and the drive west on I-70 from Columbus, Ohio, where I eventually enrolled, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I mean, life can be dull, but this was taking it to another level. I grew up amid hills in Pennsylvania, and as I drove across Indiana, I got excited every time I-70 went up twelve feet in order to cross over another road. “Woo-hoo! Look at the view!” I would say. Of course, I’d started my drive in Boston and had spent entirely too many hours alone in the car by the time I got to Indiana. So I was crazy, and the country was crazy—the 2004 election season wasn’t a calm time, if I remember correctly. The four American contractors who were killed and mutilated in Fallujah—that happened during my drive, and for the first time in my life I found myself tuning in to the Rush Limbaugh radio show. Limbaugh was out sick that day or something, but his stand-in said something like, Let’s kill a thousand of them for every one American who died. So everything was horrifying, and there I was in Indiana, and I remember feeling as if pro-Bush Indianans at rest stops were squinting at my Massachusetts plates and trying to decide whether to beat me up or just beat up my car. That stuff was only in my head, of course, but to a writer, that just makes it all the more real.
Anyway, none of this has anything to do with what Indiana represents. I actually don’t know what it represents, since I’ve basically never been there. I am sure that any two Indianans will give six different answers as to what their state represents.
What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball on June 6th?
Meeting the other debutantes and eating lots of cheese—I assume there will be cheese. Also there is the matter of that jig… But for real, I’m very pleased to be able to acknowledge the great debt my writing owes to my mentor Michelle Herman, who teaches at Ohio State. I’ve had a number of great writing teachers over the years, but Michelle is the one who said what turned out to be the most important thing for me to hear at a crucial time in my development as a writer. It’s something every novice writer ought to take into consideration. I think we’ve run out of room in this Q&A, but I promise to reveal the great secret to anyone who buys a ticket to the Debutante Ball. I’ll be the guy doing a jig over by the cheese table.
If you haven’t yet read the interview with Dale Williams by Paul Morris on BOMBLOG, you’re missing out. Dale Williams‘s work has appeared at both One Story benefits and has been met each time with awe. The interview touches on Williams’s “Strugglers and Stragglers” series as well as his collaborative work with One Story author Ben Miller on his book Meanwhile, in the Dronx . . .. Morris describes Williams’s figures as ones that “broke my heart with their vulnerability.” I agree.
Tonight, One Story and The Center for Fiction present a craft lecture with Peter Straub! As a writer who transcends genre, Straub will lecture on how to write compelling fiction in any vein. Straub is a poet, short story writer, and was named the Grand Master of Horror at the 1998 World Horror Convention. One Story subscribers attend events for free! So put down your cheap scares and red food coloring and make way for the Master.
At our upcoming Literary Debutante Ball,One Story will be celebrating five of our authors who have published their first books in the past year: Robin Black (If I Loved You I Would Tell You This),Susanna Daniel(Stiltsville),Seth Fried (The Great Frustration),Jerry Gabriel (Drowned Boy) and Jim Hanas (Why They Cried). Each of these writers will be officially “announced” at our Literary Debutante Ball and escorted by a more established author and/or editor who has been a mentor to them. We hope that you will come and raise a glass on April 29th and meet our extraordinary literary debutantes!
On November 11th, Hannah Tinti’s short story “Milestones” was read by performance artist Laurie Anderson for “Selected Shorts,” presented by Symphony Space here in New York. The theme of the night was “Literary Mix Tape,” or stories written based on a piece of music. Hannah’s story, based on the Miles Davis song of the same name, was read alongside “Wunderkind” by Carson McCullers. (Not too shabby, Tinti.) The podcast is available for free through PRI’s Selected Shorts.
To listen to an interview with Hannah on “Milestones” and the relationship between One Story and storm troopers click here! Listen closely to the very end when Seffer says, “…a grand success.” Thoughts as to what he is referring to are most welcome. Congratulations, Hannah!
We’re at the beginning of day 5 of 6 for the One Story Workshop for Writers.
The workshop is designed to help emerging writers determine what will be the next phase of their writing journey. On Sunday, we welcomed 11 excited and talented students to a jam packed week, one that Associate Editor Marie-Helene Bertino promised would “tire them out intellectually and physically so they spend the full day after its conclusion sleeping.” Each morning they workshop their short stories, novel excerpts, short shorts and, in one case, prose poems with Marie-Helene.
Every afternoon they have been treated to craft lectures with different writers. Hannah Tinti kicked off the lecture series with a discussion about story structure in which she read aloud from “Cat in the Hat” and we all sat and listened like good little four year-olds before bed realizing, at last, that the little fish was right. Myla Goldberg encouraged everyone to take a walk and eavesdrop in order to build strong characters during her lecture. And yesterday One Story author Terese Svoboda (Issue #130: “Bomb Jockey”) stressed the importance of using contradictions to create energy, in her lecture on how to begin a story.
At night the tone changes as the panels of agents, MFA directors, and editors address questions of the business side of writing and publishing. The question driving the workshop has been: Are MFAs for me? I am happy to say that as someone who is always asking this question to my bank account and my writing, this workshop has been honest and illuminating.