Issue #251: Natalie Serber’s “Children Are Magic”

Our new issue was acquired and edited by our laser-eyed  contributing editor Will Allison. Here he is to make the introduction. — PR

The story in our latest issue, Natalie Serber’s “Children Are Magic,” chronicles a day in the life of Barrett Lee-Cooperman, a stay-at-home mom in a well-to-do California beach town. It’s a busy day. First, Barrett must get her four daughters off to school, including her youngest, River, who ends up going to preschool naked. Barrett must feed her chickens and her pig, Esmerelda, a Mother’s Day gift from her short, slight, pale, balding, OB-GYN husband, Martin. She must ascertain the owner of a racy bra she finds dangling from the pole beans in her garden. She must stop by the dry cleaners, feed store, liquor store, and a board meeting at the Homeless Garden Project. She must mediate Martin’s flirtation with Rowena, their young, blond nanny with toe cleavage. She must have sex with Martin in a position she’s not wild about. She must attend to her own needs. She must pick up River, who insists, in front of her preschool teacher, that Barrett isn’t her “real mommy.” She must welcome another pig—a guinea pig—into the family. She must host a dinner party for her cooking-group friends, some of whom she finds intimidating. At dinner, she must relive the teenage memory of being sexually assaulted by a musician in a nightclub bathroom. Then she must endure the late-night wrath of her oldest daughter, Sheila, while drunk. And those are just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, “Children Are Magic” is brimming with enough life and love and humor to fill a novel, but it never feels too full, thanks to Serber’s confident storytelling and delectable prose. I was hooked from the opening line to the last. In fact, the first time I finished this story, I immediately turned back to the beginning and dove in again, hungry to spend more time with these characters. I hope you’ll feel the same.

Announcing our 2019 Debutantes

One Story proudly presents our 2019 Debutantes:

Join us as we toast these six One Story authors who have published their first books in the past year and honor Kelly Link, our Distinguished Alum! The One Story Literary Debutante Ball will take place on Thursday, May 16th at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY.  We’ll have live music, dancing, hors d’oeuvres, and specialty cocktails. It is our most important fundraising event of the year.

Tickets for the Ball are on sale now starting at $150. $75 tickets will go on sale 4/1.

To discuss sponsorship opportunities for the One Story Literary Debutante Ball, please contact: maribeth@one-story.com.

Save the Date: Our Literary Debutante Ball is on 5/16

Our annual Literary Debutante Ball celebrates One Story authors who are publishing their first books.

This year, we’re also honoring a past One Story author who has gone on to make a significant contribution to literature and the literary community. The 2019 Distinguished Alumni is Kelly Link, who published with One Story in 2005.

Kelly Link is the author of the collections Get in Trouble (a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction), Magic for BeginnersStranger Things Happen, and Pretty Monsters. Her short stories have been published in Tin HouseA Public SpaceMcSweeney’sThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionThe Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. In 2018, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She was born in Miami, Florida, and currently lives with her husband and daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts.

We’ll be honoring Kelly along with our Literary Debutantes on Thursday, May 16th, 2019 at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn. Tickets will go on sale March 1st.

Photo by Sharona Jacobs Photography LLC

OTS #57: Brayden Mekertichian’s “Burning, in You”

Amazing things happen in Brayden Mekertichian’s “Burning, in You.” In a series of short, powerful sections, we’re swept through seven years in the life of a young woman, from the age of thirteen to the age of twenty. We’re with her when she’s high, we’re with her when she’s low, and we’re with her when she’s lower than low. And yet, somehow, there’s humor in this story. There’s bravado peppered with fear. Confusion salted with insight. It’s a portrait in mosaic of what can occur when a young person’s self-image, sense of self-worth, and tendencies towards self-indulgence collide. The gaps are enormous. The ending is mysterious. The emotional import is colossal. I admire this story as much for what it leaves out as for what it includes, and we’re delighted to honor it as one of the winners of our Teen Writing Contest.

To read an interview with the author, please visit our website.

Issue #249: Chris Vanjonack’s “Phases”

Is it bad form for a ghost to look over your shoulder while you’re typing an email? Do ghosts need therapy? How do ghosts have sex? These are the kinds of questions that rolled around in Chris Vanjonack’s head before he started writing “Phases.” Henry, the story’s narrator, had an unfortunate encounter with a lightning bolt sometime back. Now, his “life” consists of wandering the planet, walking through walls, and watching his ex-girlfriend get over him. And dating—sort of.

Henry is lonely but surrounded by other ghosts. He’s impatient but not even sure what he’s waiting for. And for all his mobility and freedom, he’s overwhelmed by limitations. As the author states in our Q&A, ghostdom, as he imagined it, became “a potent metaphor for depression, or for ennui, or loneliness, or even aging. No one can see me. I can’t make a difference. I don’t feel the way I used to. I can’t feel anything.” But don’t be misled. “Phases” is no downer. In fact, it’s charged with wit and humor, and it’s fueled by a voice packed with charm. There’s a forward lean to the earnestness in Chris Vanjonack’s writing, and it shines through in this story. We’re delighted to welcome him into the One Story family.

Announcing the Winners of our 2019 One Teen Story Teen Writing Contest

We are thrilled to announce the winners and runners-up of our 2019 One Teen Story Teen Writing Contest! We received nearly 300 entries from teen writers across the globe, and narrowing it down was no easy feat. Each winner will receive $500 and publication in a forthcoming issue of One Teen Story.

Ages 13 – 15

Winner: “Press Space to Continue” by Carlie Schwarm

“A door. A looming gateway to perilous adventures. Once going through that door, there was no telling what would happen to him.”

— Carlie Schwarm, “Press Space to Continue”

Runner-up: “Every Breath a Love Song” by Jenny Hu

Ages 16 – 17

Winner: “And the War Stopped” by Emma Caton

“But with his family in his mind and Otto’s fingers against his wrist, he doesn’t think he could ever be happier in this war.”

—Emma Caton, “And the War Stopped”

Winner: “Cicatriz” by Juliet Cushing

“Words landed and stuck, merged into feeling, took off again, formed a chain, landed, and I created a hope that we might be twins of each other’s secrets.”

—Juliet Cushing, “Cicatriz”

Runner-up: “Desensitization” by Helen Qian

Ages 18 – 19

Winner: “Free” by Kara Molnar

“Spencer wished he could do the same: suspend his life while he still danced, free to do what he loved without worrying about the inevitable ending.”

— Kara Molnar, “Free”

Runner-Up: “November” by Maia McGaw

Subscribe to One Story or One Teen Story in print or on your mobile device to read the winners’ stories throughout the year.

Our next Teen Writing Contest will take place in fall 2019.

Congratulations to the winners and runners-up!

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# 243: Rachel King’s Railing

One of the most interesting things fiction can do is allow us to climb inside the minds of individuals who might not see the world the way we do. More than any other art form, even film, fiction is transformative. And a first-person narrator can make that transformation all the more intimate and impacting.

Our new issue, “Railing” by Rachel King, allows us to climb inside the mind of a middle-aged sausage-maker who was, up till recently, a train engineer. He’s divorced, has a daughter, would love to escape his past, and longs for the future he sees coming his way—a future that will be turned around and made brighter, he hopes, by a stranger running for public office.

The story, however, isn’t political. It’s personal, reflective, and aching to expand out of its own confines—into a world that involves a little less struggle. When I asked Rachel to tell me what the story was about in just one word, the word she chose was “intimacy.” (For more on our conversation, check out our Q&A.) “Railing” is an outstanding and melancholy piece of fiction. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

OTS 53: Our New Lives by Helen Coats

When I first read Helen Coats’s “Our New Lives,” I recognized a version of myself twice over. The first recognition came because the young man in the story, Jeremy, has suffered the loss of a friend and doesn’t know how to grieve because he feels partly responsible for his friend’s demise. I experienced something similar when I was sixteen. Jeremy’s guilt is ill founded (as was mine), but he doesn’t have the means to grasp that, and he doesn’t reach out to anyone for help. He just stews and suffers. To paraphrase the author in our Q&A, his guilt actually gets in the way of his grieving. The manner in which this is handled in the story is impressive—all the more so because we’re seeing Jeremy through his sister’s eyes.

The second sense of recognition I had was in the depiction of Jeremy and Heather—younger brother and older sister. Heather wants very much to be there for Jeremy, but life (high school graduation, college) is pulling her away. The relationship they had when they were younger has to change in order to survive. That’s a perfectly normal thing, but knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. When my sister graduated from high school and left home for college, I felt one of my first pangs of looming adulthood. I felt like we were both becoming grownups—her because she was on the brink of being one, and me because, as the youngest, I was about to be the only kid left standing, so to speak, and who wants to be that? Time to grow up. It was no picnic for either one of us, suddenly being apart, but we did what people do: we evolved, and we found our new, adult relationship.

Jeremy and Heather are at the very early and painful stages of finding their new relationship in this story, and Helen Coats has written beautifully about it. I hope you enjoy “Our New Lives.” I think it’s a story that will resonate with many readers, and one that bespeaks a wonderful writing life for Helen.


Introducing 2016 Debutante: Brian Booker

AYHFWIHF Cover finalOn May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Brian Booker, author of the collection Are You Here For What I’m Here For?, forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in May 2016. Brian published “A Drowning Accident” with One Story in 2005 and we’re pleased to celebrate his debut collection at this year’s Literary Debutante Ball.

Through hypnotic and dream-like prose, the seven stories in Are You Here For What I’m Here For? grant us access to the anxieties, fears, and yearnings of a host of unforgettable minds. Spanning time and space, from the early 20th century to the present day, from a cultish school in Southern California to a convalescents home in the Caribbean, the stories straddle fantasy and reality, with dazzling descriptions of the outer world that reflect the harrowing struggles of the inner. Unrelenting in its exploration of what we can know about ourselves, Are You Here For What I’m Here For? is an enchanting journey that lingers with its reader long after the last page.

Thanks to Brian for answering a few questions for One Story about his collection and writing.

Mark Prins: Where were you when you found out Are You Here For What I’m Here For? was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Brian Booker: I was in the San Francisco airport. I had just gotten off the plane and I saw the email from Bellevue Literary Press. I was on my way to visit family in the Bay Area. So I got on the Airporter bus feeling pretty excited!

MP: One of my favorite qualities of your characters is their willingness to approach—if not physical—then certainly psychological zones of danger. From the first story (“Brace for Impact”), when our narrator is told: “‘You shouldn’t go up there, you know'”, in the basement of an eerie mansion, the protagonists repeatedly ignore explicit or implicit warnings to stay away. How do you figure out what a particular character’s danger zone might be, and then how do you get him or her to go there? 

BB: Luring a character toward the danger zone has often been my instinct in stories. I didn’t think about it as an explicit aspect of craft until I took a seminar with Charles Baxter, who talks about the value of tempting your characters toward interesting trouble, toward that one-way gate. Baxter does this in his own stories, and he made me recognize how it is done—or that it is done—in the work of other story-writers I’ve long admired, such as Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, and Paul Bowles. You read these stories over and over, hoping to absorb the methods by which they perform their magic so that you might achieve similar effects.

But the idea of directing a character towards a goal is a more “overhead” view than I would take when I’m actually writing a story, when I’m trying to inhabit the character’s experience as it is unfolding. In the case of “Brace for Impact,” the character’s danger zone is his own body, both in itself and in relation to other bodies. But the danger zone is also, paradoxically, a comfort zone—that’s why he speaks of the “vacation in a cocoon.” What you want, I think, is to goad the character into a zone in which the internal fears are externalized into a physical atmosphere and a dramatic situation. Having grown up in Bethesda, I had been in the basements of a few eerie mansions. In those situations, in adolescence, the unsupervised basement and the upstairs can feel like worlds that don’t (or shouldn’t) intersect. The character goes upstairs because the level of discomfort downstairs is so acute that he feels like he has to flee. Where to? Upstairs. But the character can’t be let off the hook so easily. Somebody has to be waiting up there.

MP: The way you write settings is beautiful. Occasionally we are treated to a full paragraph or two of luscious, atmospheric description. Do you have a method for describing places—ski lodges, apothecaries, Los Angeles?

BB: Thank you. I think it depends on the fiction you’re obsessed with. I love the way writers such as Woolf, Nabokov, and Bowles render setting with hypnagogic clarity. And the way Bolaño and Ishiguro do a kind of expressionist thing with setting.

As to method, for an earlier story (not in this collection) I remember scribbling down many details of setting at the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk in Delaware. It was useful material to have in my notebook. For stories like “Here to Watch Over Me” and “Love Trip,” which were written in Iowa City, I relied almost exclusively on memory. I remember wishing I could hop on a plane to these places and take lots of notes, but then it turned out it was better to just sit with memory. Music also played a role in both those stories, certain songs I needed to hear over and over that seemed crucial to the atmosphere. Also, let’s admit it, there is Internet ekphrasis. When you need a picture of something to augment specificity, you can have that immediately. But I wouldn’t want to over-rely on images from the Internet.

MP: In several of these stories, we’re told that our narrator may be suffering from some kind of illness that could impair his/her mental faculties—encephalitic-induced fevers, dementia, PTSD—what fascinates you about these narrators? Would you call them unreliable?

BB: I think of the unreliable narrator as someone whose evasiveness is underpinned by a shady agenda. Brilliant manipulators like Humbert Humbert fall into this category. In a softer vein, you have Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators—Stevens in The Remains of the Day or Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, who can’t look too directly at certain things in their lives, whose self-delusions are subtle and necessary; or Ryder in The Unconsoled, whose memory is failing him for reasons neither he nor the reader understands. These are narrators whose accounts of themselves, to varying degrees, have serious holes, but they are not trying to deceive. I’m interested in, and sympathetic toward, characters who are forced to compartmentalize because of shame, characters with secrets and contradictions. Illness can be a secret, it can be a source of shame, and it can also be a romance, as in Thomas Mann.

In my collection, the guy in “The Sleeping Sickness” comes closest to the evasive narrator, but he is something of an anomaly. In most of the stories the characters are trying their best to represent their experience with fidelity. The distortions caused by mental illness are perhaps of a greater degree, but not of a different kind, than the way any person’s perceptions are skewed by the exigencies of their particular subjectivity. Our perceptions, our memories, these things are so mysterious and often don’t work as we expect they should. Our minds are always playing tricks on us. I’m a big Oliver Sacks fan. For Sacks, the impairment to consciousness affords a window onto how miraculous and tenuous our mental representations are in the first place. The malfunction throws light on the hidden function.

In fiction, for me, illnesses are an agent of defamiliarization.

It’s a vein of obsession I’ve tapped into. You try to write what quickens your pulse, what leads you toward a kind of spell or enchantment that hopefully gets transacted to the reader.

MP: Back when One Story published “A Drowning Accident,” you listed Daniel Wallace’s suggestion “not to die” as the best advice you’d received so far for writing (and it seems to be working). Have you gotten any good ones since then?

BB: I heard Donald Antrim’s conversation with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm. Antrim says, “We all have our turn in the barrel,” meaning when our mind becomes an intolerable place. Silverblatt adds: “these stories address how to live under the shadow of a disorder most of us refuse to see.” I think that’s a great way to put it. Depression, like the writing life, can be isolating. It comes with terrible fear. So it’s very important to hear other writers talk about it.

And there is what the voice says to Amalfitano in 2666: “Calm is the one thing that will never let us down.”

I keep a post-it note permanently on my laptop. The gist of what it says is: be gentle, have fun, don’t worry about it.

MP: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

BB: I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with the work of the other debutantes. It’s amazing, and humbling, to be in such talented company.