Introducing Our Debutantes: Miroslav Penkov

In our new installment of “Meet the Debutantes”, (in preparation for our Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th), we’re speaking with Miroslav Penkov, author of East of the West: A Country in Stories, a fascinating and witty collection that includes the story he published with One Story, “A Picture With Yuki.”


1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was spending the summer in Bulgaria when my agent emailed to say we’d received two offers on the book. A couple of weeks later (I was back in Arkansas by then) we received two more. We considered everything carefully and decided to go with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. What this beautiful story of triumph fails to reflect though, are the months of waiting, rejection, rewrites, more waiting, rejection and rewrites before the four offers were made.
I don’t remember celebrating in a special way. I just thanked Providence and tried to ready myself for the rewrites that my editor had explained would be necessary.

2) Your collection includes “A Picture With Yuki,” which you published in with us in April, 2011. What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and publishing East of the West: A Country in Stories?

The book came out in July, so not much happened in those two months. I spent them in Bulgaria, translating or I should probably say rewriting the stories in Bulgarian. As I had expected, the translation proved a real breeze; it did not take up the whole summer, nor did it stretch well into October; it did not depress me terribly, but brought me only joy and filled me with wondrous and positive energy.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice would you give to writers about turning a group of individual stories into a book-length manuscript?

I tell my students, and through my students I tell myself, that writing is rewriting. That’s not to say that every time I sit down I don’t hope, secretly, to write something perfect, something I wouldn’t have to change. But honestly, where’s the fun in that? How else would you get to know the people you’re creating if not by spending more time with them on the page and in your heart?
It took me, roughly, a year a half of rewriting before I could get the stories in my book to a place that made both me and my editor happy. Not a single story remained as it had been when we’d signed the contract. I threw some stories out, wrote and added new ones. But in the end, despite the pain, sweat and frustration, or actually precisely because of them – the book was the best book I could write. Even if my life depended on it (and who’s to say it didn’t?) I could not have done any better.

4)  East of the West: A Country in Stories brings to life the tumultuous history of your home country, Bulgaria. What kind of research went into this collection, and how does your own ancestry play into your work?

It’s safe to say I’ve been researching this book since August 21, 1982. And even before that. Because is there research more valuable than the research your blood has done, one century after another? I believe that blood possesses its own memory and its own voice; the kind of memory and voice that no amount of document-reading, note-taking, people-meeting can give you.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I’m looking forward to meeting Ms. Hannah Tinti and thanking her for publishing my story, for being so kind. I look forward to meeting the rest of the One Story staff, the other debutantes… If possible, I would even like to meet my editor and some other people at FSG who worked very hard on my book.

Introducing Our Debutantes: Katherine Karlin

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re interviewing each author about their debut book experiences. This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Katherine Karlin, author of Send Me Work, a captivating collection that includes the story she published with One Story, “Muscle Memory.”

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

We had a visiting author at Kansas State, Dana Johnson, whom I knew from USC where I’d done my graduate studies.  It was a very successful event, and after her reading a bunch of us went to a bar to hang out with Dana for a while.  I got home in the early evening, full of beer, food and companionship, and I lazily checked my email to find the note from my agent that Northwestern University Press would publish my short story collection.  It was a lovely end to an absolutely lovely day.

2) Your collection includes “Muscle Memory,” which you published with One Story in April, 2008. What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and publishing Send Me Work?
Quite a lot.  When One Story published “Muscle Memory” I was living in Los Angeles, working towards my PhD.  By the time Send Me Work came out I was teaching at K-State.  So I went from grad student life to faculty life, and I’d moved from Los Angeles to the town of Manhattan, Kansas.  I wrote a novel in that time, and established my relationship with my agent, Barbara Braun.  I got my first house, and I got my dog.  He’s a Kansas dog.  A rescue.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice would you give to writers about turning a group of individual stories into a book-length manuscript?
The revision process was fairly painless.  Most of these stories had been published and I got great advice along the way from some wise editors, Hannah Tinti having been the most rigorous of them all.  Northwestern thought we needed one more story to round out the collection, so I wrote a new one, “Geography,” which is the final story in Send Me Work.  I wrote it the summer that BP was spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and that disaster haunts the narrative.

My stories are not linked by character or setting, but they are linked by the theme of work, and this motif evolved naturally for me.  It is just what interests me, as a writer.  I’m not very big on romance or on domesticity.  Some of the tightest connections I’ve made in my life have been with co-workers, and I wanted to explore those close bonds in my fiction.  So the theme kind of presented itself, and I realized after writing and publishing several short stories that I had a collection.

4)  Many of the stories in Send Me Work have women doing unusual jobs (like welding in “Muscle Memory”). What kind of research went into this collection, and how do your own work experiences play into your stories?

Many of the stories are drawn from my own work experience, particularly the stories that are set in oil refineries.  I worked in a Delaware Valley refinery for several years, and I worked along the Houston Ship Channel.  Like Destiny in “Muscle Memory,” I had a job in the toolshed of a Louisiana shipyard, where I learned how to weld.  I think these experiences helped give a certain depth to the settings, the descriptions of work, and to the characterizations, even though none of these stories is autobiographical.  I also tapped the expertise of my friends.  For “The Severac Sound,” I used everything I learned over the years from Philadelphia Orchestra oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld, whom I’ve known since we were in our teens.  Jane Harris, who is a railroad engineer for New Jersey Transit, taught me a few things about the railroad.  I have pretty interesting friends.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I’m most looking forward to meeting the other writers whose work I admire, and to seeing my good friend Bonnie Nadzam, the author of LAMB, who has been a mentor to me in so many ways.  I’m proud to have her present my debut.

Introducing Our Debutantes: Megan Mayhew Bergman

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debutantes through a series of interviews on their debut book experiences.

This week features a true Debutante: Megan Mayhew Bergman‘s book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, just came out last week! It is a mesmerizing collection that includes the story she published with One Story, “Housewifely Arts.”

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I was jogging, pushing my 2-year-old in a stroller on a dirt road down by the Battenkill River. It was November and I was 8 weeks pregnant.  My agent, Julie Barer (a wonderwoman!), called me.  I was getting terrible reception, so I packed up and drove to a church parking lot and parked by an old cemetery, where Julie gave me the news of the probable deal.  I cried, probably thought about throwing up (morning sickness and extreme excitement are a lethal pair), then came home and danced with my husband in the kitchen.

2) Your collection includes “Housewifely Arts,” which you published with us in November, 2010 (it later went on to be included in Best American Short Stories). What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and publishing Birds of a Lesser Paradise?
What has happened to me?  Hmm.  No new super powers or shape shifting abilities or anything cool like that.  I had my second daughter.  We bought my husband’s childhood home from his father, painted the inside, and put up all our thriftstore-chic pieces among the existing antiques and baby gear.

Writing-wise, I started a novel and began teaching literature at Bennington College.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice
would you give to writers about turning a group of individual stories into a book-length manuscript?

The revision process was great; I like to revise.  There were enormous stacks of scribbled-on manuscripts on my desk, on the kitchen counter, in my diaper bag.  Every now and then a page would get a crayon mark or coffee spilled on it.  Dog hair is on everything I own, including edited manuscripts, and probably anything I sent back to Scribner (Sorry, guys).

Revising needs to be savage and you need to walk away with some scars and dirty manuscripts to feel like you did a good job.  You abandon yourself to it.

As for turning a group of stories into a book-length manuscript, I think you know when the material is there.  Readiness of the work itself is the first battle; coherence for a collection is the second.  Most of us have thematic obsessions, or a consistent voice/narrator—the things that link stories together for a collection are often already in place in a body of work.

4) Many of the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise hinge on the question of home, as well as animals and their place in our lives. How do your home in Vermont and your own animals play into your work?
Birds of a Lesser Paradise is my therapy session with myself.  I was going through so many changes when I was writing these stories:  marriage, fertility questions, motherhood, my working life, the first signs of aging, moving away from my family in the south to my husband’s hometown in Vermont, homesickness, and grieving (my mother-in-law passed away just two weeks after my first daughter was born).

For example, the story “Yesterday’s Whales” is me working out my urge to have children despite significant environmental concerns.  In “The Cow that Milked Herself” the husband, who is a vet, gives his wife an ultrasound with the same equipment he uses on dogs (this really happened).

My animals and town make rogue appearances in the works. I had my spaniel Betsy in mind when I wrote the father’s dog in the title story “Birds of a Lesser Paradise.”  “Night Hunting” features a Christmas party like the one we attend annually, and an abandoned orchard like the one right up the hill from our house.

I occasionally use a real problem or setting for an anchor when I begin a story, but by the time the story is finished, it’s often 5 percent reality and 95 percent imagination.  Writers get into trouble this way.  People often ask me about the veterinarians in my work – are they my husband?  For the record – no, they aren’t.  Do I steal things that come out of his mouth? Yes, totally.  There is a certain beauty and exoticism to his medical jargon, the sparkle in his eye when he talks about running his scalpel through a body to solve a problem or save a life.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I am looking forward to two things:
1.  Spending time with my date, Amy Hempel, who is kind and brilliant.  People may think we are discussing literature, but we are probably talking about how to clean dog ears or trading rescue stories.

2.  Celebrating with Karen Seligman, who edited my piece at One Story, and a few after that, and became not just a trusted editor, but a friend.

Introducing Our Debutantes: Ramona Ausubel

On April 20th, at our 3rd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will celebrate seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we thought it would be a fun idea to introduce our Debs through a series of interviews on their debut book experiences.

This week, in our first installment, we have the pleasure of speaking with Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here Except All of Us, a dazzling first novel about a small Jewish village re-imagining their world.

1) Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was on my way to New York  for the One Story Ball two years ago (this is actually my second time around as a debutante!).  My agent had sent the manuscript out a couple of days before and I had been biting my nails.  I was in the Albuquerque airport when he told me we had interest, in the Baltimore airport when he told me we had an offer and in front of Citarella on 75th and Broadway when he told me the deal was done.  I have extremely fond feelings towards those unlikely locations now.  I was with my sister and my husband when that last call came and we found the nearest bar and had a glass of champagne.  A couple of days later, I got to hear John Hodgman announce me and my book deal at the Debutante Ball.  What could be better than that?

2) In July, 2008, your story “Safe Passage” was published in One Story. What has happened to you between appearing in One Story and the debut of No One is Here Except All of Us?

Having that story in One Story changed everything for me.  I got a bunch of emails from agents and editors, which made the whole prospect of finding a home for my story collection and novel much less impossible-seeming, although the novel wasn’t nearly finished yet, so it took a while before I could make use of those contacts.  Eventually I went out to New York and met with some of the people, including an editor at Riverhead who ended up sending the collection to an agent she loved.  Happily, he loved the book and waited patiently while I finished the novel.  Fast-forward to the Citarella window.  Since then, I’ve been working on new stuff, which I hope, will eventually turn into another novel and another collection.  In non-publishing news, I had my first baby in November.

3) What was the revision process like for you? What advice would you give to writers about producing a book-length manuscript?

I think my advice (and I have to remind myself of this all the time) is to have fun.  Having a book published has been terrific and I’m so, so grateful for it, but the real imprint on my life was made by the years I spent writing the thing, not by the flash of having it enter the world.  I guess the idea is to take pleasure in the work itself rather than worrying all the time about finishing it.  No One is Here Except All of Us took eight years and seventeen drafts to complete.  Only five of those weeks were spent writing a first draft (a terrible, crazed first draft).  One percent of the time I was starting the book, one percent of the time I was finishing it and the rest of the time I was in the middle. Basically, I’m reminding myself to enjoy the middle, because that’s where you live most of the time you’re writing a book.

4)  No One is Here Except All of Us puts a magical spin on real-life events. What kind of research went into this novel, and how does your own family history play into your work?

Stories from my family provided the original seeds for the book.  I grew up with legends about my great-grandmother and her children surviving on tree bark in the wilds of Romania during WWI while her husband was a prisoner of war in Italy, where he was having the time of his life (he was reported to say later, in his thick yiddish accent, “the vether vas varm, the vimen vas varm…”).  These were the stories I had in my head, but they seemed impossible.  How could they be true?  I began writing the novel to answer that question–my job was to create a world in which such stories could be real.  For many drafts, my imagination was my only source.  Much later in the process, I did a lot of research so that I could situate my invented world within history, within the Jewish religion and within the tradition of folktales. Though I was writing fiction, I felt like I had found some kind of truth.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 20th?

I’m most looking forward to seeing lots of friends.  It’s also likely to be by far the latest I will have stayed out without my son since he was born, which will probably be weird and magnificent, in equal parts.