Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Amelia Kahaney

BHOn 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’re discussing first books with Amelia Kahaney, whose YA novel The Brokenhearted was published by HarperTeen in October and called “an action-packed, adventure-laced debut” by Publishers Weekly. Amelia made her One Story debut back in 2007 with “Fire Season.”

The Brokenhearted is an engrossing novel with a solid core of noble heart. Anthem Fleet, ballerina-turned-vigilante is a heroine for the ages–one who defies the life that society has given her in order to be with, and then save, the one she loves. By the end of the book, Anthem has become even more than that, though, and is well on her way to becoming a symbol of rebellion for a society on the cusp of riotous change. “Go ahead and try” says author Adele Griffin “to predict the hairpin turns and steep reverses as you race through this sharply–conceived urban odyssey.”

Our thanks to Amelia Kahaney for speaking with us about first books, voice, and the image that inspired her to write The Brokenhearted.

The Brokenhearted is a story about a young ballerina vigilante in a quasi-dystopic society who is sort-of-accidentally given superpowers. The imagery is bizarre, gorgeous, and unique; what was the first image or idea that came to you and inspired The Brokenhearted? 

I knew I wanted to write a superhero story set in a city with a vast divide between rich and poor, and the Occupy movement popped up just when I most needed inspiration in building the world of the book. The original call to arms from Adbusters that sparked the first Occupy protest absolutely floored me in its emotional power, and I had it hanging above my desk for months as I wrote the first draft. occupyI love the juxtaposition of soft and hard, of art, commerce, and revolution. The fragile strength of the dancer on top of the brute aggression of the Wall Street bull, all surrounded by tear gas and masked protestors, epitomized the world as a place of good and evil, as a place that needs saving. The simplicity of the image (and of course the ballet component) worked with the aesthetic of the superhero story I was trying to build, and the girl on the bull guided me whenever I lost my way in the first draft.

You’ve written for both a YA and an adult audience. In The Brokenhearted and “Fire Season,” your One Story issue, you have the ability to balance two very distinctive voices. Is there a difference in your approach for each? 

A short story may start with a sledgehammer, but the drafting process always ends with the painstaking use of toothpick-sized tools to whittle it into the final product. In contrast, the novels I’ve been writing feel more like throwing plot grenades at the page and then sculpting the wreckage into shapes that make sense.

The challenge of creating movement on the page is the same for both, but short stories require more ruthlessness and economy, more precise emotional calibration, whereas the young adult novels I’ve been working on are looser in their form but demand a ton of action that all has to make emotional sense. The novels also have to be written quite quickly to meet the publisher’s deadlines. So my approach has been different for sure, and the voice in the Brokenhearted books has by necessity been a less interior, less idiosyncratic narration than I’ve ever used in a short story, as I’m more concerned in these books with finding a consistency of tone that allows me to nail the action and pacing.

Your story “Fire Season” was published as Issue #98 in One Story. What has happened in your life between the publication of “Fire Season” and the publication of The Brokenhearted? How did you celebrate when you found out that The Brokenhearted had been accepted for publication?

The Brokenhearted sold to HarperTeen on April 20, 2012 – the day of the One Story Debutante Ball. So after some screaming, calling my mom, hugging my husband and trying to explain to my then-four-year-old what had just happened, I floated down to the Invisible Dog and made merry. It seemed a great coincidence to be surrounded by my first literary champions on the day I was embraced by a set of new champions at Harper.

As far as what has happened between the two publications, I couldn’t really tell you. The highlight may have been having and raising a baby, who is now almost six years old. I also ghostwrote three tween novels, got and lost and got some jobs, visited Maine and Puerto Rico, learned to cook paella, and acquired crow’s feet. All the usual things have happened. On the writing front, the main thing that happened is I learned to write young adult novels and to manage the anxiety of deadlines.

The Brokenhearted has been optioned by New Line–what has that process been like for you? What are some of your hopes for The Brokenhearted as a movie? 

My only hope for the movie is that it actually gets made! The optioning process had nothing whatsoever to do with me, except that I received a lovely phone call with the news and then made a few even more lovely calls of my own to family members to share it with them. Not having anything to do with the film makes it that much more fun to think about – there’s absolutely nothing about it that I can screw up, which is such a relief.

I’m so excited to read The Invisible, the second and final book in the Brokenhearted series. When writing The Brokenhearted, did you already know how the story would end in The Invisible? Can you tell me more about the process of writing a series? 

I figured out around draft two of The Brokenhearted that I’d been unconsciously laying the groundwork for an enormous revelation in the second book that would change everything we thought we knew about the main character and her family. (Cue the ominous music here.) Knowing I was building toward this enormous twist, which is revealed in all its bonkers glory toward the end of the second book, was probably the thing that sustained me during the difficult marathon months of writing book two.

The process of writing a series, in my case at least, is that the first book developed reasonably slowly, but the second book had a hard delivery date assigned by the publisher, and that date was not terribly flexible. By the time I had my outline approved by my editor for book two, I only had eight months to get the book from outline to finished, copyedited manuscript. Subtract two months for the time the editor or proofreader had the manuscript, and we’re down to about six months of writing time. Subtract a month of procrastination, and now we are close to the truth, which is that I wrote and edited Book Two in five months, give or take a couple of weeks. At some point during the writing process, I had to just accept that this was the timeframe I had and that I could only do so much at the sentence level because I had to focus as much as possible on the action of the book making sense. The first book took maybe a year and a half all told, so for the second book, I shrunk my writing time to a third of what it had been.

It was a difficult six months that was eased somewhat when a friend sent me Death In The Fifth Position, a catty, hilarious whodunit about a string of murders in a ballet company that Gore Vidal wrote under the pseudonym Edgar Box. Vidal claimed to have written this absolute gem of a book in eight days, and he became my spirit guide while I finished The Invisible. I liked to imagine him laughing bitchily at me in the final weeks, telling me that I ought to have written three books for all the time it was taking me to finish this one.

What are you most looking forward to about the Literary Debutante Ball? (And will you be arriving in ballerina regalia, with or without a super-powered heart?) 

Like any debutante, I care about one thing above all else when I go to a ball: gossip. I look forward to schmoozing with the literary folks I only see a few times a year or on Twitter, and to hanging with my agent, my editor, and the formidable posse of glamour and glitz that is the Brooklyn College MFA alumni. With any luck, there will be literary mini-scandals and prognostications a-plenty to keep all of us entertained.

As for attire, I have the misfortune not to be built like a ballet dancer and so a tutu-esque ensemble of any kind is out of the question. I am considering a black floral headpiece to jazz things up. And thank you for giving me this opportunity to set the record straight: I never go anywhere without a super-powered heart.

One Story Workshop Day 5: In Which We Showed and Told

oa-can-factory.signThis past Friday, the last day of our fabulous One Story Workshop, began at the lovely Center for Fiction in Manhattan and ended at One Story’s home, the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn.

In the morning, we partook in delicious pastry treats (bacon scones. Really.) We discussed tips and tricks for the upcoming reading. The last workshops with Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison were held, pictures were taken, and metaphorical yearbooks were signed. The Center brimmed with a sense of finality, but also, as the One Story Workshop often ends, with a new hope. The writers, teachers, editors and interns alike shared a sense of writerly rejuvenation. Especially after a delicious lunch of salads and wraps.

As everyone collectively enjoyed their newfound enthusiasm and revitalized determination, Hannah Tinti, founder and Editor-in-Chief of One Story, gave a craft lecture about getting “out of the slushpile.”

Oftentimes in these small writerly spaces, a lot of focus is placed on internal process–the way writing travels from head and heart to hand and page–rather than what to do with a piece once it exists on paper. Between the evening panels that host editors, agents, and social media gurus, the reading given by an emerging writer and this craft lecture, I feel like this workshop in particular is geared toward (corny metaphor coming up. You ready? Alright:) helping fledgeling writers not only find their wings, but also learn where to fly and how to safely land.

At the craft lecture, Hannah discussed how to not only prepare your work for submissions (12 pt. font, Times New Roman, Double-spaced, Page Numbers, etc.), but then how to find the best match for your work, whether you’re looking for an agent, a literary magazine, or a small press or major publisher. She then gave examples of cover letters, tips on keeping track of submissions, and even shared some of her own personal rejection letters, as well as what to do when you get accepted–essentially walking our students through the entire process of publishing their work, step by step. “I wish I’d known even one-tenth of that when I started sending out my work,” one student gushed afterwards, and indeed we all left feeling surprisingly upbeat, and full of the information we needed to find a place for our writing in the world.

Then, off to the Can Factory we went! We led the workshop students all the way from the city to the One Story office in Brooklyn, showing off everyone’s desks, our many whiteboard schedules, and the beautifully framed words from our Debutante Ball. (Of which there are still some for sale. Just saying.)

After collective oohs and ahhs over the office space, we traveled onward to The Cantine, the  restaurant in the Can Factory, where each workshop student read a three-minute piece of their writing. Everyone gave truly beautiful readings, peppered in between with Michael’s tried and true scarecrow and whale jokes. We took more group selfies and enjoyed marvelous cheeses and a delicious dinner afterward, where the writers congratulated each other on a job well done.

While giving remarks about the workshop experience, teacher Marie Helene-Bertino read “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur. The poem is about a father listening to his daughter at work on her typewriter. He wishes her luck on her literary journey at first, but then grapples through the memory of a struggling bird, with the meaning of such a journey and the weight of the stakes that she has chosen. The poem ends with the lines:

“It is always a matter, my darling
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.”

When teacher Will Allison got up to speak, he said, “I always leave the week feeling like I haven’t been writing as much as I should.” He continued to explain that the workshop and especially his students continually inspire him and remind him of how he wants his writing life to be.

When Hannah gave a short closing speech, she told the writers that by being a part of the One Story workshop, they had become part of our community. “I consider each one of you part of the One Story family,” she said.

It is always a matter of life or death, and writing is a journey with enormous stakes. Family, though, is the support that makes those drastic stakes worthwhile, and makes the process, from the hand to the page and onward, a celebration of life.

Introducing 2013 Debutante: Claire Vaye Watkins

WatkinsOn 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’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.

This week we’re talking to Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the collection Battleborn, which recently won the 2013 Story Prize, and was published by Riverhead Books. Battleborn aso includes the story Claire published with One Story—“Man-O-War”.

The 10 stories in Battleborn explore the past and present of the American West, specifically Nevada, where Watkins spent much of her childhood and adolescence. As Antonya Nelson said in The New York Times: “Readers will be taken into the hardship of a pitiless place and emerge on the other side — wiser, warier and weathered like the landscape.”

1)     How did your celebrate when you found out that your first book, Battleborn, was going to be published?

I can’t really remember. The auction for Battleborn took a few days, so by the time the whole thing shook out and I had an official publisher, I’d been on something of a bender for some time. It was quite demanding.

2)    You published a story, “Man O’ War”, with One Story in 2010. What happened between the time of the One Story publication and the time of your book’s release?

“Man-O-War” came out in September of 2010, and I sent my agent the complete collection at the end of September. Riverhead Books bought the collection about a month later, around Halloween. (I remember this because I was shopping at a thrift store for a Halloween costume when I got the call from my agent that started that happy, taxing bender.) Between then and the book’s publication in August 2012 I got a tenure-track job, moved to Pennsylvania from Ohio where I’d been doing my MFA. I started teaching at Bucknell University, traveling back to Nevada whenever I could for research on this novel I’m writing and to generally replenish the well. I did some traveling in advance of the book’s release, out West, on the East Coast and very briefly in Europe. Mostly I just sat at home in Pennsylvania reading and wondering if there was something I should be doing.

3)     You’ve talked a bit about a project you’re working on that offers writing classes to kids in rural Nevada. Can you talk a bit more about the inspiration and vision of this project?

The idea for the Mojave School came to me when I was teaching high school students at a creative writing summer camp. The students there would say things like, “I never knew it was okay to want to be a writer,” and their epiphanies reminded me of my own, which visited me as a teenager attending Shakespeare camp at the Utah Shakespearean Company. In retrospect, I saw that that experience was seriously vital for me as a writer because it was the first time I met a bunch of other kids and adults who’d dedicated their lives to books and art. But I’d gone to Shakespeare camp on scholarship, and the camp where I was teaching years later cost just under $2,000. I thought it was such a bummer that no one from my hometown, Pahrump, Nevada, would get to come to a camp like the one where I was teaching. I was saying all this to my then-boyfriend, Derek Palacio, and he said very slyly, “Gee, someone should do something about that…” And so we decided we would.

4)     What advice would you give young writers who are working on their first book? 

When I was an ambitious young MFA student I sometimes felt frustrated that Ohio State’s MFA program didn’t seem to do much to “professionalize” us, meaning teach us about the publishing world and how to work it so our books got published. We spent just 1 day a year talking with editors or alums about “how to get published.” Now that I have a book out it’s completely clear why our time was structured this way: because all the publishing savvy and insider connections in the world can’t make you a better writer. I know this is easy to say from my vantage point, but trust me: constantly worrying about getting published is wasted energy and a drain on your very soul. I’m now tremendously glad I was educated the way I was, encouraged to obsess only about the writing, the writing, the writing, and not about who would buy it or how. So I’d advise new writers to spend 364 days a year on writing the best damn thing they possibly can, and maybe 1 worrying about how to get it out there.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Debutante Ball?

The outfits!

Will You Come to the Dance with Me?

Please join us for a One Teen Story launch party and fundraiser on September 18, 2012 at Littlefield in Brooklyn. We’ll be celebrating our new magazine with a 21+ homecoming dance featuring drinks, a DJ, and a homecoming court including some of today’s top young adult authors: Matt de la Pena, Adele Griffin, Emmy Laybourne, Rebecca Stead, Martin Wilson, and Gayle Forman, author of One Teen Story’s inaugural issue, “The Deadline.”

As for the King and Queen, well that can be you! All ticket buyers will be entered into a royalty drawing, as will anyone who supports us by shopping at the school store, buying a cookie at the bake sale, having a photo taken, or donating a small amount. Doors open at 8:00pm. The King and Queen will be crowned at 10:00.

This event is a Bookend Event of The Brooklyn Book Festival. Tickets for the dance are a $25 donation and are on sale now online at Littlefield’s website. Get your tickets now, before they sell out!

One Story Workshop, day 4: Characters, Cats, Community

A colossal event of epic proportions hit New York today. It wasn’t zombies. It wasn’t The Derecho. It was the penultimate day of the One Story Workshop, and it was marvelous.

We began the day with delicious bagels, then proceeded to workshop. As seems to be the theme throughout the week, the authors in workshop were verbosely happy with the readings and advice they received.

Overheard at lunch: “I just want to go to my hotel now and write.” It was agreed by all surrounding that this sort of optimistic drive is the best possible feeling that a workshop can give.

After consuming heaps of falafel, we trekked onwards and upwards for Myla Goldberg’s craft lecture: “How To Fake It: Creating Characters That Don’t Seem Made Up.” Myla had asked us to read Aimee Bender’s odd, beautiful story, “What You Left In The Ditch” so we could discuss the elements at work. Myla, with wit, and wild vocal inflections, stressed the difference between creating a likeable character and an empathetic character, noting that the latter is more interesting. “It is your job as a writer,” she told us, with the tone of a manifesto, “to inhabit every single character you invent.”

Other gems of advice culled from the Q/A session included:

-Subtlety is a muscle that you develop over time.

-The more scenes you write, the more you get a sense of what a scene is.

-It’s okay to know that you need to fix something and not fix it right away.

-Write until you get stuck. Then go back and make corrections.

-Read your work out loud.

-Trust yourself. Follow your character around and be open to things.

After the lecture, we took a writing break, a wine-cheese break, and met again for the evening event: a reading by Joshua Henkin, director of the Brooklyn College MFA and author of Swimming Across The Hudson, Matrimony, and, most recently, The World Without You. Josh was introduced by Marie-Helene Bertino (his former student and one of our workshop leaders) before he read two excerpts from his most recent book. The novel tells the story of the first time a family has been together since a son was killed in Iraq. Heartbreak, comedy, and delicate hybrids of the two ensue as the family members’ habits and beliefs slam into each other.

Josh’s manner was open and honest—his presence allowed a sense of openness rare in post-reading Q/A. “We both create our stories,” he told us, somberly, “and are created by them.” While we basked in the sageness of his widsom, he cracked a joke. The discussion ranged from too-beautiful sentences to bad soap operas (hint: any plotline can become one, but no plotline has to be one) to showing other people our work. “When I first started,” he confided to us, “I couldn’t write a paragraph without showing my cat. I didn’t even have a cat.”

As the workshop hurtles toward its close, there’s a palpable sense of satisfaction in the Center For Fiction. We’ve heard great advice from marvelous people—people who live in the literary world that so many of us are climbing toward. It’s been inspiring, while also being a uniquely accessible experience. We’ve formed a literary community. It deepens in every workshop and during every meal, and strengthens with every craft lecture, panel and reading. In applying to this workshop, we have followed our passion, and with each day of attendance, we are learning together how to make a life out of it.