One Story Issue #269: Gothataone Moeng’s “Small Wonders”

Our new issue was procured and edited by contributing editor Karen Friedman, so I’m giving her the helm to make the introductions. Take it away, Karen! — PR

In June, a friend texted me that her ninety-eight-year-old grandmother had died. Amid the family’s sadness, there was one bit of relief: New Jersey had just loosened the restrictions on gatherings and they would be allowed to have a small wake with timed entries and a socially distanced funeral service. The family felt lucky.

Rituals are a framework. Stand here. Say these words. There is comfort through the connection to those who have performed the same rites in generations before us. But what happens when tradition feels like a facsimile of the sacred or when it is simply not enough to usher in the promised peace and wholeness?

In our latest issue, “Small Wonders” by Gothataone Moeng, we are introduced to Phetso Sediba, a young Botswanan widow, who for a nearly a year has worn the same midnight-blue dress, cape, and veil every time she leaves the home she once shared with her husband, Leungo. It is a form of penance, of remembrance, but also a warning to others who believe the old superstitions about bad luck following the widow. Phetso has sought shelter in her widow’s clothes, using them as shorthand to keep others at bay while she mourns the loss of Leungo and the life she imagined they’d have together. She is an anomaly, because of her youth as well as her desire to adhere to traditions that others have let go. As Phetso nears the prescribed end of her mourning period, she struggles, unsure of what the traditions have meant and whether she is ready to meet the world without their protection.

We accepted Gothataone’s story before most of us had ever heard of Covid-19 or knew how much our lives were about to change. Still, it feels particularly well suited to a time when grief can no longer take its familiar shape, when we must rely on Zoom shivas and Livestreamed funerals. It is now, sadly, easy for us to understand how precarious our traditions actually are, how dependent on our willingness to believe in their meaning. And yet, I feel compelled to insist that this particular story ends on a note of hope—uncertain, but there. Just as Phetso waits to reenter the world, so we too will face what comes on the other side of grief.

I couldn’t be more delighted to introduce Gothataone Moeng to our One Story family and hope you love “Small Wonders” as much as we do. Please check out our Q&A for more information about how this story came into being.

One Story Issue #257: Samantha Silva’s “Leo in Venice”

Our newest issue is edited by the great Karen Friedman. Here’s her introduction. -PR

In June my eleven-year-old went to sleep-away camp for the first time. As we wound our way through rural Missouri roads in the pouring rain, I kept asking how she felt. Excited. Impatient. Maybe a little nervous. Despite heading to a place where she knew no one, she didn’t hesitate when the moment finally came to leave. She barely waited for good-bye. Not wanting to embarrass her, I scooted back to the car and drove off. But as soon as cell service returned, I called her father (only slightly hysterical) to explain my overwhelming need to go back and hug her one more time, just to make sure.

The funny thing is I’m not normally that kind of mom. I want my kids to be independent, have humble-bragged for years about my daughter entering preschool without turning back, just an arm thrown in the air as she headed to the sand table. Here she was again, confidently facing the unknown without me. This time for a week. I should have felt like I’d earned a parenting gold star. Instead, I listened to bad 80s pop and tried not to cry all the way back to St. Louis. In the Q&A for One Story issue #257, “Leo in Venice,” author Samantha Silva says, “we raise our kids to leave us, but our letting go is another thing.”

Learning what and how to let go is at the center of “Leo in Venice.” In this beautiful and heart-wrenching story, we’re introduced to Annie and her nearly grown son, Leo. Due to a chronic illness theirs is an uncommon relationship—one forged in pain, but also humor and wit and a wide acceptance of who the other person is and what they are capable of enduring. In short, it is a love story. But it is also the story of a breakup. By bringing the reader to the moment of goodbye, we witness Annie’s simultaneous support of and struggle to accept her son’s decision to leave. Set against the often mystical backdrop of Venice, a city that has long lived in their collective imaginations, Annie at last begins to see herself apart from her son.

By the end of the story we are left with the unsettling knowledge that it is our job to let our children go, and yet the impulse to hold on, to go back and ask for one more hug never goes away. It is an honor to introduce you to Samantha Silva, a gifted storyteller whose unflinching eye is tempered with compassion and levity.

Read Karen Friedman’s Q&A with Samantha Silva here.

Issue #246 Karen Brown’s “Spill the Wine”

Our new issue was acquired and edited by the laser-eyed Karen Friedman, so the pleasure of introducing it is all hers. Take it away, Ms. Friedman! — PR

“Spill the Wine” by Karen Brown, is set in a small summer community on the beaches of the Sound during the early 1970s. When sitting down to introduce this story to our readers, my first instinct was to talk about the nature of such places—how the simple act of returning each year to an unchanging spot highlights the passage of time and magnifies our own experiences, throwing into sharp relief the people we have become since we last visited.

But then I watched the recent Kavanaugh hearings and I, like many others, felt a deep sense of familiarity and rage—not simply at the events themselves, but more so at the responses from those who would ignore the power dynamics that continue to permeate our culture, the way acceptable consequences still seem defined by gender and race, rather than truth or fairness.

At fourteen the main character in “Spill the Wine,” Nancy, knows a lot already. With a mentally unstable mother and a narcissistic father, Nancy craves the security of functional parents and fantasizes about her father marrying one of their summer neighbors. During the course of a day, however, Nancy confronts the very real possibility that no one is coming to save her and that there will be no safe landing.

“Spill the Wine” is about a specific time and place, but it is also a damning portrait of how young women learn to survive in a society where there is no punishment for those who misuse others. Nancy’s coming of age feels like a prescient commentary on our current news cycle. In the end, her steadfast refusal to capitulate produces a final moment of grace that resonates far beyond the confines of her story. I hope you love this one as much as I do. For more on how Karen Brown developed this story, please check out our Q&A with her.

Issue #235: Pups by Kate Folk

This month’s story — featuring both otters and squids, along with some human beings — was found and edited by our wonderful contributing editor Karen Friedman, so I’m turning over the intro duties to her. Take it away, Karen! — PR

Of the thousands of decisions we make every day a few are good, but most are meaningless. And then there are the bad ones—the decisions that haunt us, shaping our lives in ways we can’t foresee. At our best, we face the consequences of a bad choice head-on and try to minimize its impact. At our worst, we ignore what we have done.

One Story’s latest issue, “Pups” by Kate Folk, introduces us to Roe, a woman seemingly determined to allow life to happen to her without the responsibility and culpability that comes from making decisions. While Folk provides the reader with a sense of Roe’s potential, she also casts an unblinking eye at the effects of Roe’s passivity and the way it enables her to feign intimacy, even at the cost of her own happiness. Early in the story we learn Roe is pregnant, the result of a misguided and drunken one-night stand. Roe’s unplanned pregnancy raises questions that range from the practical to the political to the downright moral.

Over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of Kate’s stories, and I am thrilled to introduce her to our readers with “Pups.” Kate has an immense talent for creating flawed but sympathetic characters. Her women, in particular, defy easy labels and expand our understanding of what it means to be truly human. I hope you love this story of motherhood, agency, and otters as much as I do.

To read an interview with Kate about the story, please visit our website.

Issue #220: Where the Bees Are Going by Andy Holt

220_coverI always get excited when I see a writer trying something unexpected on the page. Well, get ready folks–this new story if FULL of surprises. Tying the collapse of bee colonies to the loneliness of those pushed to the edges of society, “Where the Bees Are Going” by Andy Holt will make you buzzzzzzz with excitement. Since Karen Friedman took this story through its editorial paces, I’m passing the introduction reins into her hands. In the meantime, enjoy! And pass the honey. –HT

In my early 20s, I moved to New York without a job and with very little savings. My roommate, an aspiring actress and high school friend, found us a cheap one-bedroom in Fort Greene. She was my only friend in Brooklyn, which seemed fine at first – there were drinks with producers and various “industry” people to fill the hours and I was always invited along. Then she left for a month to try pilot season in L.A. Without my friend, there were no nights out. I was trying to temp, but work was slow, so I spent three weeks alone in our apartment trying and failing to write. I lived on cereal. I read. I watched our 5 channels of network television. I listened to “Blood on the Tracks” so many times I can still sing the entire album from memory. I wished I’d never left home. Mostly, though, I waited for something to change.

Almost 20 years later that feeling of overwhelming inertia, the sense of being powerless to move beyond my circumstances, came back to me as I read “Where the Bees Are Going” by Andy Holt. Through the unexpected and captivating voice of bees, Andy explores the nature of loneliness and how we survive it.

Far from mindless drones buzzing around the backyard, the insects narrating his story are survivors of collapsed hives. They long for the homes they’ve left behind, navigating what it means to be thrust out into a world where the very basis of their survival, the hive, no longer exists. In their desperation, the bees attempt to create a home. This time one based not on conformity and duty, but rather shared need. Along the way, they learn from a species all too familiar with what it means to struggle in loneliness: our own. The bees find that their survival depends on a measure of grace, sacrifice, and compassion. I hope this story captures your heart and imagination the way it captured ours. After you read it, check out our online Q&A for more on how Andy created this memorable story.

And if like me, a latent bee obsession gets reignited, take a peek at this incredible art installation in London where you can step inside a gigantic metal hive and feel a bit of what it’s like to actually be a bee.

About One Story’s newest online class and how soap operas can unlock your writing

Karen 2As a Contributing Editor at One Story for the past six years, I’ve been privileged to work with many talented writers, including Megan Mayhew Bergman and Aria Beth Sloss, whose One Story issues both went on to be included in The Best American Short Stories, Jodi Angel, whose piece was chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories, and David James Possiant, whose story was part of his debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize. Editing these authors has been a joy and taught me a great deal about the mechanics of writing and how it works. I know how to use my red pen to help bring fiction to its full potential on the page.

And yet, when it comes to my own writing I often have trouble. Besides my part-time editing job at One Story, I have two young children (ages 7 and 4). When I do manage to carve out an hour or two, the pressure to be productive can be overwhelming and I often find myself drawn away or too discouraged to continue. I suspect I’m not alone here. Whether it’s a job, an aging parent, school, or something else, there are always reasons to undercut our own writing time.

This five-day class is designed to ease the pressure we place on ourselves to be perfect, and to simply get back to having fun on the page again—through the always dramatic, often silly, totally over the top world of soap operas. While it’s easy to dismiss soaps as campy escapism, these daytime dramas tell stories that endure.

With classic soap clips as our guide, each day will contain a lesson, followed by a writing exercise designed to help you hone your skills—from building stellar openings and resonant endings to creating narrative arcs and memorable characters. As the NY Observer once declared (in an article about how literary authors such as David Sedaris and Frank McCourt were secretly watching soaps instead of working on their novels): “Writing can be dull work. The writing on soaps is everything but.”

Issue #205: Tell Us You Were Here by Anne Valente

205-cover What haunts us isn’t always supernatural. Loss and regret can float through the dark the same as any phantasm, and they both come to roost in Anne Valente’s marvelous story, “Tell Us You Were Here.” Contributing Editor Karen Friedman took this piece through from start to finish, and so I’m turning the introduction reins into her hands. We’re thrilled that Anne will be one of our Literary Debutantes at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on May 15th (get your tickets now!) for her collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books), which Matt Bell called: “a striking debut, reminiscent of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, but with a bright promise all its own.”-HT

Do you have a ghost story? I do. One night, when I was eighteen years old and crying in bed, the springs of my mattress compressed beside me and a hand touched my leg. This contact was the culmination of months of eerie activity in my room – mostly missing items suddenly reappearing and unexpected noises. Senior year had been rough. Within one week, my grandfather died and my parents announced their divorce. The ghostly hand on my leg was not menacing, but somehow caring. It freaked me out.

Our latest issue, “Tell Us You Were Here” by Anne Valente is all about ghosts and what beliefs become necessary for a person to survive. The story centers on an unlikely trio of women ghost hunters, each with her own reason for searching out proof of the unknown, each damaged in her own way. The women seek a ghost named Patience Worth, who in the early part of the 20th Century supposedly penned novels and plays through the medium (and actual historic figure) Pearl Curran.

The narrator, a non-believer and a geologist by training, has recently fled her adult life and returned home to St. Louis. She is working at a coffee shop by day and getting stoned in her parents’ basement every night. Anne expertly interweaves fact and fantasy, the narrator’s concrete knowledge of geology with a spiritual search in which proof is often elusive.

My daughter, too, looks for proof about the things she loves, but fears may not be real. Like Narnia. Or the Tooth Fairy. We’re careful to walk the line between honesty and her imagination. My practical side recognizes the flimsiness of my superstitions. But belief in a little everyday magic has made my life richer, given me strength, even been a comforting hand at a time when I needed it. So when my daughter asks, I paraphrase the old line about there being more things between heaven and earth than we can imagine. I hope, like the narrator in “Tell Us You Were Here”, that even in the face of overwhelming reason, the chance of what might be possible is enough.

For more on Anne’s historical inspiration and how her story developed, please visit our author Q&A. We hope to see you on May 15th in Brooklyn, where we’ll be celebrating Anne as one of our literary debutantes! Read an additional interview with Anne about publishing her first book here.



Issue #197: North by Aria Beth Sloss

197.coverOur new issue of One Story explores the fire and spark of the imagination, and how that drive to follow our dreams can sometimes lead us away from the ones we love. Contributing editor Karen Friedman has been a champion for “North” and so I am handing the introduction reins to her. I hope you all enjoy this remarkable story as it takes you on a trip in a balloon! Balloon!-HT

Ambition can be a tricky thing. Not enough and you wind up living in your mom’s basement. Too much and, well, you just might be a megalomaniac. How far can you dream and what would you give up to attain that dream? Despite all our technology and prosperity, for most of us, our aspirations can seem small. However, the late nineteenth century was full of men and women whose ambition was intertwined with a sense of entitlement and desire for adventure. Men, like Thomas Hamblen in our latest issue, “North” by Aria Beth Sloss, who pushed the boundaries of what was known by sheer force of will. In the story, Thomas believes he can reach the North Pole by hot air balloon. The idea takes hold and obsesses him, even as it places his sanity and much that he holds dear at risk. But “North” is not merely the story of an adventurer, it is also a love story, and Thomas’s wife, Mary, is fearless in her own right. Through their relationship we parse the distinction between wilderness and what is known, and the cost of un-tempered desire. Every time I read “North,” I’m struck by how much faith Thomas has in science and his own ability to conquer whatever challenges he encounters. Today, when doubt and sometimes a downright hostility toward science seem to be the norm, how glorious Thomas’s sense of possibility feels. I hope you will all love “North” as much as we do at One Story. After you read it, please be sure to check out our Q&A with Aria, and look here if you are interested in seeing some amazing photographs of the expedition that first inspired her.

Issue #194: Coda by Whitney Groves

cover_194I’m thrilled to announce our next issue: “Coda” by Whitney Groves. Since Contributing Editor Karen Friedman saw this story through its paces, I’m turning the introducing reins over into her capable hands. I hope you all enjoy this exciting fiction debut from a talented new voice. -HT

A father’s love is supposed to be a transcendent thing, unconditional, reliable and protective, reminiscent of a reasonably priced Subaru. The iconography of fatherhood is used to sell us everything from sodas to appliances. But as we all know, reality rarely emulates the ideal. So what happens when the paternal relationship is nothing more than a loose tether? Our latest issue, “Coda”, by debut author Whitney Groves explores one such father-daughter relationship. The main character, Vera, has spent the majority of her life knowing very little about her father – hazy memories and scraps of information provided by a reluctant mother. The story alternates between Vera’s final encounter with her father and the moments that brought Vera to a reconciliation with the man who abandoned her sixteen years earlier. “Coda” is a quiet story about what remains when a relationship falls short of even modest expectations. As an editor, I am struck by Vera’s measured response to her father. Anger would have been the easy route. Instead, Vera’s journey is one of longing mostly endured. Groves fills that longing with tension and, most surprisingly, humor. By bringing the reader close to Vera, we understand her desire at the most basic human level to be seen and validated by her father, to be loved by a man she has never known. It is an honor to introduce Whitney Groves to all of you in her first published piece of fiction. For more on how Whitney developed this beautiful and heartbreaking story please check out our author Q&A.

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: David James Poissant

PoissantOn 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 will be introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.

This week we are chatting with David James Poissant, whose debut collection The Heaven of Animals was published by Simon and Schuster in March. Jamie made his One Story debut back in 2011 with “Refund”.

As Jamie’s issue editor for “Refund”, I am thrilled to now be able to introduce his collection to all of you. The Heaven of Animals is full of stories that linger long after you have closed the book and turned off the light. Many link thematically, parsing questions about love, redemption, forgiveness, and how we navigate the big moments, both tragic and absurd (often at the same time). As fellow One Story author, Lauren Groff, says of him: “David James Poissant is one of our finest young writers, with a taut and subtle prose style, a deep knowledge of craft, and a heart so vast it encompasses whole worlds.”

Many thanks to Jamie for taking time to speak with One Story about his collection.

Where were you when you found out The Heaven of Animals was going to be published and how did you celebrate?
It’s cliché to say I remember the day like it was yesterday, but I do, I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was a teaching day, a Thursday in September, 2012. I teach fiction writing at the University of Central Florida. That semester, I had two back-to-back undergraduate advanced fiction sections, and for that class we had read Kelcey Parker’s story collection For Sale by Owner. Kelcey Skyped into the first class to discuss the collection with us, which went really well. I had fifteen minutes before the next class, so I decided to check my email. And what I found was an email from my agent, Gail Hochman. The subject line read: YOWEE ZOWEE. The email read: Call me! Good news!

You don’t get an email like that from your agent every day, so I knew what it had to be (we’d been shopping the book around all year), but I didn’t want to let myself get excited. Cautious, I stepped into the hallway. There were students everywhere hustling from one class to another, so I found a quiet corner of the building by a window and called Gail. She gave me the good news, that Millicent Bennett of Simon & Schuster wanted to acquire not just the collection but also my novel in progress. I didn’t cry the way I thought I might every time I imagined getting this news, but I started shaking, as in trembling uncontrollably. I’d been working on the collection for eight years, and it seemed impossible that the dream had finally come true, and not just with any editor, but with Millicent, an editor I’d met at Bread Loaf that summer and with whom I’d felt a deep connection. I was quiet so long, Gail asked if I was okay. “I’m shaking,” I said, and I remember Gail saying, “Oh, honey, don’t shake.”

By the time I got off the phone, I was late for class, so late I didn’t even have time to call Marla, my wife. Gail had cautioned me not to tell anyone but Marla for the next day or two, just in case, just until we were sure that it was a done deal.

I’ve been told I have a terrible poker face, which, that day, proved true. I stepped into the classroom. I don’t know what kind of look was on my face, but all of my students stared at me. They appeared concerned. One asked whether I was sick or something, and I just blurted it out, that my books were going to be published, at which point there were cheers and hugs. “But you can’t say anything!” I said. Then we Skyped with Kelcey, all of us pretending that nothing had just happened.

Later, when I would tell Kelcey about this, she’d say, “What? I would have just cancelled everything and gotten a martini.”

I wanted to wait to tell Marla in person, but I couldn’t stand it, so, after class, I called and told her over the phone. She laughed and cried, then hugged me hard when I got home. The next night, once it was official, we went out to dinner with our daughters. In some ways, I feel like we’ve been celebrating ever since.

One of the things that I’ve always admired in your writing (and I remember this from the first time I read “Refund”) is your ability to throw in the surprising detail without derailing the momentum of the story – these unexpected moments often then become intrinsic to the narrative. I’m thinking of moments like finding the alligator in “Lizard Man” or when Lily takes off her arm in “Amputee”. How often do you surprise yourself? And by that I guess I mean are these moments always part of the plan or do you stumble on them in the course of writing?
I absolutely stumble upon them in the course of the writing. I’m big on the craft philosophy of “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” When I’m writing, I seldom know the direction in which I’m headed. When I begin to feel the story drag, or when I just feel bored, I try to do something big, something startling. I didn’t know that the alligator would appear in “Lizard Man” until I wrote that scene. I didn’t know what Dan would find inside the shoebox at the end of the story until he opened it. I didn’t know that Lily was an amputee until she took off her arm. Writing, I like to surprise myself. The trick, later, in revision, is to make sense of the surprises, so that the surprises, when they happen—and here comes another craft mantra—feel surprising and inevitable.

Religion twists through many of your stories. From casual believers to doubters to fundamentalists to those who’ve run screaming away from it all. What is it about faith (or the lack of it) that interests you?
As a boy, I was brought up in the Southern Baptist Church. I’d like to say that this did some good things for me, but the experience was pretty damaging. I can’t speak to all Baptist churches, but the one in which I was raised espoused beliefs that promoted sexism, homophobia, and racism. In youth group, we were taught that the planet was only a few thousand years old. We were taught abstinence. Sex before marriage was a sin, etc. There was a huge emphasis on guilt and shame, on sin, particularly sexual sin, and on hell and what you had to do or say in order to be sure that wasn’t where you were headed. I can’t tell you the number of times, growing up, that I prayed and begged God not to send me to hell. It was, in short, a bad scene.

I went to college and stopped going to church, then fell in love with the daughter of a Methodist minister. This man didn’t talk about sin or hell. He smoked. He cursed occasionally. I went to church with the woman who would become my wife, and I saw that church, done right, could become a force for good, for social justice and helping those in need.

I still don’t call myself a Methodist and won’t until the Methodist church officially extends all rights and privileges to every member of the LGBTQ community, but my wife and I do attend a Methodist church in Orlando. I still believe in God, but I don’t believe in hell. My idea of God these days is God as Love. I’m not interested in any other kind of God.

So, all of that, in one way or another, probably informs everything that I write. I think that most Americans practice or used to practice one form of faith or another, or they at least believe in something, but this maybe doesn’t get written about as much as it could be in literary fiction. I’m happy to join that conversation in my fiction and nonfiction. I got to write about this a little in an op-ed for The New York Times last year. In response to the piece, I got hundreds of emails, which ran the gamut from people thanking me for my candor to people telling me I’m going to hell.

Currently, I’m at work on a novel that revisits Richard and Lisa, the characters at the center of “The Geometry of Despair,” one of the stories in The Heaven of Animals that deals directly with faith and faith communities. And, yes, that theme pops back up again in a big way.

Certain themes resonate throughout a number of the stories: death, loss and regret, the search for if not redemption, then forgiveness. At what point in writing did you realize you had a cohesive collection? And did you then keep parsing those same themes intentionally or are they simply where your interest was at the time?
I wish that I could say that I worked hard to shape a cohesive collection, but, really, it was a happy accident. For years, I just wrote stories, not worrying too much about whether they’d all find a home between the covers of the same book. In the end, it turned out that I’d been very much preoccupied with ideas of love and death, family and parenthood, and regret and atonement. Many of my stories surround a protagonist seeking to make amends for something he’s done and now regrets. Maybe because of my faith background, maybe because of my move from a philosophy of life preoccupied with shame and punishment toward a philosophy that celebrates forgiveness and redemption, I keep returning to these themes. I’m interested in empathy and in love. I want my readers to feel for my characters, to empathize with them, even if they’d struggle to extend empathy to such people in real life.

Speaking of those themes, you get pretty dark at times. I know you’re also a dad to two lovely and hilarious little girls. How do you find balance and do you ever struggle with bringing your work home?
Usually, I can turn it off. When I’m writing, I’m writing. When I’m teaching, I’m teaching. When I’m with my family, I’m with my family. But there are times my wife will catch me. I’ll be moody or distant, “there but not there,” you know? I’ll be stuck in the novel. But, then, one of my daughters will hug me or tell me a joke, and, when that happens, it’s hard to stay stuck for long.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutant Ball on May 22nd?
I’m very much looking forward to meeting the other debs, and to meeting Colum McCann, whose work I’ve admired for a long time. But, maybe most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing my agent and editor again. Because I live in Florida and they live in New York, I’ve met each one only once. My agent and I met and talked for about ten minutes at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006. My editor and I met and talked for a few hours at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2012. All of our other interactions have been over email or over the phone. Which is weird to think about. These two women who have changed my life and to whom I owe so much, and I’ve hardly spent any time with them. If it weren’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t even remember what they look like! I’m definitely looking forward to celebrating with them, to raising a glass, to thanking them in person for all they’ve done for me and for my family.