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.

Issue #179: Snuff

179-cover_Page_01 (2)Our next issue, “Snuff,” is a part of Jodi Angel’s new collection of stories, You Only Get Letters from Jail, which has just been released by Tin House Books. We’ve been fans of Jodi’s work since we read her first book, The History of Vegas, and are thrilled to welcome her to our pages. I’ll now turn the introducing reins over to Contributing Editor Karen Friedman, who took this story from first to final draft. Be sure to check out Jodi’s Q&A with us on how she wrote this extraordinary tale of brothers, sisters, and growing up.-HT   

Here’s a confession: I’ve been sweating this introduction for weeks. In some ways I feel like I’m bringing home a boyfriend, who maybe looks a little tougher than my usual type. You know, visible tattoos and combat boots, the kind of guy that can hold his own in a bar fight. After working with Jodi Angel on Snuff for the past few months, I’d almost forgotten how violent the subject matter can seem to someone who hasn’t read the story yet. I imagine my mother wrinkling up her nose as I explain what a snuff film is and want to reassure her (and all of you) that here the violence is not an end unto itself. There’s so much more making this story great.

Don’t get me wrong. There are graphic passages. Not only related to what the main character, Shane, has seen, but also what he and his sister, Charlotte, are doing on a deserted country road. Jodi’s language is nearly clinical in these spots, with nothing in excess, nothing gratuitous. By the cadence and rhythm of her sentences, she compels the reader forward, even if we fear things will end badly. More than her flawless technique, however, is the way Jodi’s portrayal of this brother and sister obscures the violence, and brings the entire piece to a different level.

We root for Shane and Charlotte as they struggle with secrets that are never quite revealed to one another. They accept what is still unknown in each other because there is no other choice. The strength of their bond in all its messiness is what initially drew me to Snuff and is what keeps me engaged every time I reread it. Shane and Charlotte are the heart of this story, and I hope you love being with them as much as I have.

For more on how Jodi crafted this story, check out our Q&A.

Issue #174: Break Me In and Out

Our new issue, “Break Me In and Out” by Kindall Gray,  won us over with its plucky heroine Toby, her fascinating neighbor and friend Edilio, and wild and beautiful descriptions of monitor lizards and border-crossings. It was discovered and curated by One Story editor Karen Friedman, so I am turning the introductions over to her. I hope the setting of Phoenix, AZ will keep everyone warm in these cold winter days.-HT

I live in a small town with a large immigrant population – which is to say, a large Hispanic immigrant population. Our public elementary school has a majority of ESL learners and simultaneous translation devices for parents attending school events. We have two Mexican markets, but when I want them, I can get fresh tomatillos and plantains at my usual grocery store. Diversity is one of those nice, liberal ideas that I grew up embracing and one of many reasons my husband and I chose to move to our town. However, when I’m honest, I have to admit that I don’t actually know any of my immigrant neighbors. They live quite literally on the other side of the railroad tracks that bisect my town. As a white Anglo-American, it is easy not to see what I don’t want to and to pretend immigration is an amorphous blob of political interests. It is easy to talk about exploitation of the day laborers who stand outside our 7-11 hoping for a job or who live in a single-family home with three other families, without any real idea of what those things mean.

The first time I read Kindall Gray’s “Break Me In and Out” I was taken in by the simple humanity of her story. It’s not so much a story about immigration, but rather about life on the margins and the way a person learns to navigate such a life. With subtlety and compassion, Gray takes us behind the politics to show a relationship between an illegal immigrant, Edilio, and his young neighbor, Toby. Edilio’s faith and empathy, the way he shares his food and stories with someone who is more vulnerable than he is, speak to a side of life rarely glimpsed by most of us. The legalities of how Edilio came to live next door to Toby matter so much less than what he leaves her with. For more on how Gray created these surprising and real characters, check out our author Q&A.

Issue #155: Refund

Our new issue, “Refund” was curated and edited by One Story contributing editor Karen Friedman, and so I am passing the blog-reins into her steady and talented hands. I hope you all enjoy this wonderful tale about the complicated role of parenting a gifted child.-HT

Both of my children look like my husband, my son in particular. (Although, at only 7 weeks-old, who knows how long this will last.) The thing is, increasingly I find myself fixating on the color of his eyes. Right now they are blue like my own – the same shade as my father’s and my grandfather’s eyes. Rationally speaking, I know it’s a little meaningless nothing, and yet, it feels like an important tether. An outward signal of other characteristics we might share. Of ownership. Of belonging.

“Refund” by David James Poissant explores some similar territory. Upon discovering that his son, Josh, has been selected to join the gifted class, the main character, Sam, struggles with his desire for his son to be “normal” instead, to be like him. While the outside world unquestioningly values the label “gifted”, Sam is dismayed. It delineates so starkly the differences between father and son – differences that Sam fears will ultimately take his child from him.

The beauty in Poissant’s story lies in his exploration of the intricate web of pride, love, and blame that accompanies raising a child and hoping to do the best for him, even when it’s not clear how or what that might be, even when it might be the worst alternative for a parent. For more information about how the story was developed, read our Q&A with the author.

As for my son’s eyes, if they turn mostly brown like my daughter’s, I’ll get over it. But both of them better love books.