Interview with 2011 Debutante, Susanna Daniel

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On April 29th, at our 2nd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating five 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 third installment, we had the pleasure of speaking with Susanna Daniel, author of Stiltsville, a dazzling novel that includes the excerpt she published with One Story, “Stiltsville.”

Stiltsville offers a gripping, bittersweet portrait of a marriage — and romance — that deepens over the course of three decades, set against a vivid and lush South Florida background during the years of Miami’s coming-of-age. Named one of Amazon’s Best Debuts of 2010 and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.

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

I found out that my deal was signed via email, when I was working a full-time job, so there wasn’t much to do except turn around — to people who didn’t even know I wrote — and say, “My book is going to be published by HarperCollins.” They were puzzled, but happy for me. Then my good friend, a writer who published widely before I did, told me that she’d heard the book release day termed “the calm before the calm.” No one is going to throw a party for you, she said — so you have to do it for yourself. I meekly mentioned to my husband the idea of a little soiree at the house, and he said, “Let’s have a really BIG party!” We went all out for 130 guests in my house and backyard two days before the release, and my husband gave a introduction that stirred many to tears and totally upstaged me. Then on the day the book came out, we drove to a local bookstore and took a photo of my book on the shelves.

2) You published an excerpt of Stiltsville with us in One Story. What happened from when you published in One Story to when your novel was released?

Publishing an excerpt in One Story was the best possible way to introduce my book to the world. It was such an honor at the time, and continues to be. I’ve been a direct recipient of One Story‘s commitment to its contributors and to the literary community.

3) During the editing of Stiltsville, was there any single piece of advice you received or perhaps remembered from earlier in your career that helped ease the process?

I’d taken a great many years to write Stiltsville, so the editing process was pretty smooth. My editor did call late in the process to say — in a gingerly tone — that she thought the book might be stronger with one chapter cut. This chapter was the first part of the book I’d ever written (though it fell midway through the story), and it had been anthologized and had earned me two fellowships. The fact that it was now the weakest link in a novel struck me as fantastic news, almost like a reward for the work I’d done over the years. I immediately set to work eliminating the chapter and reworking the time-line. One piece of advice I’d received early on was that a first novel should be short and tight — 300 pages or fewer. This advice is sort of strict and specific, and of course doesn’t apply to many stories, but for my book it was fitting. Cutting that weak chapter strengthened the novel as a whole and kept the book tight.

4) The landscape of South Florida is treated with such meticulous care in your novel to beautiful effect. How do you think place influences your writing?

Many readers assume that the first novel is autobiographical, and sometimes it is — but often, I think, the setting is the most autobiographical part of any story. I don’t write fantasy stories, so the place and period of my work is essentially true, even historical. Florida is my past, which gives me the distance I need to use it as a setting for fiction. Stiltsville, specifically, is a perfect setting for domestic drama: it’s an island, essentially, and when a writer places her characters on an island, something is bound to be revealed.

5) What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 29th?

I relish the opportunity to be with people who regard literature as highly as I do, of course, and also I think there might be dancing.

For more information about Susanna and Stiltsville, check out her author website.

Interview with 2011 Debutante, Jim Hanas

On April 29th, at our 2nd Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating five 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. We will post a new interview each week so that you, our wonderful readers, can get a glimpse into these writers’ lives at this exciting time in their careers and find out what it’s like to publish a first book.

This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Hanas, author of Why They Cried (Joyland eBook from ECW Press), a wonderful collection that includes the story he published with One Story, “The Cryerer.”

Jim Hanas writes a lean and powerful line that makes even absurd situations—a man who cries professionally, a talking dog that can’t really talk—seem painfully familiar. Why They Cried answers its own question—and the answer is funnier than you think.

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

There was no single celebration that I can recall. (My wife confirms this.) Like a lot of hotly anticipated moments in life, it wasn’t the punctuated instant that I’d imagined it would be. This was particularly true in my case, I think, since the book grew out of a series of discussions with Brian Joseph Davis  and Emily Schultz at Joyland. It only slowly became evident that the book was going to happen, so the glow of excitement grew over time. I didn’t work with an agent,  but I imagine that one of the more satisfying things about having one is that they absorb all this uncertainty, and then focus the end result–like a red hot laser beam–into a single, cathartic phone call. Your book has been sold! And then you celebrate. But for me, the celebration was a long, satisfying summer during which I knew I had a book coming out.

2) Your collection includes, “The Cryerer,” which you published with us in One Story. What happened from when you published in One Story to when your first book was accepted?

“The Cryerer”–my third published story–appeared in 2002(!). Since then, a lot has happened.

I embarked on a novel that nobody–including me–was happy with, and then I turned my hand back to short stories. Even when I was starting out as a newspaper writer in Memphis, I wrote short, not long. And there do seem to be two completely different types of writers. I’ve worked for a lot of publications, and I’ve seen plenty of writers who turn in stories way over their assigned word count. I have no idea what that’s like. I feel like I’m fighting for every single word. I don’t have any extra, and generating a lot of extra to fill out a novel wasn’t really successful. I’ve talked to novelists who feel freed by the novel and confined by the story, but so far I’ve felt the opposite.

The other thing that happened was that I became interested in e-books. I released [self-published] my first one–Single–in 2006, a year before the Kindle was introduced. It included “The Cryerer” and another story that is now in my collection, “Miss Tennessee.” I saw this as a way to keep my stories out there, and I designed the cover to look like the indie rock singles I collected as a music critic in the 90s. I released another one–Cassingle–in 2009 (also a compilation of previously published stories), and that’s what ultimately put me on ECW’s radar. They wanted to launch an experimental e-book imprint for short story collections with Joyland, and they came to me because I was already out there doing it.

3) Why They Cried, was produced as a Joyland eBook by ECW Press. What has your experience been like publishing in a digital platform like this?

Since I was already doing DIY e-books, working with an established press was the next logical step, and Joyland and ECW did a great job with the editing, design, and production. (The book especially looks great in the iBooks app on the iPad.) But there are still challenges when trying to get attention for an e-book-only title. Print authors have the luxury of being able to collect royalties from their (growing) e-book sales while remaining ambivalent–or even hostile–to e-books themselves. And being in print remains the dividing line for many reviewers, even when–as in my book’s case–the stories have previously appeared in respected journals like One Story, McSweeney’s, and Fence. But this is changing. I give a lot of credit to The Rumpus for not even blinking about reviewing an e-book like mine. And, of course, One Story has supported the book from the very start.

4) During the editing of, Why They Cried, was there any single piece of advice you received or perhaps remembered from earlier in your career that helped ease the process?

I’ve worked on and off as a journalist for a long time, so I’m not too squeamish about editing. Journalism, especially magazine journalism, is all about editing. (I tell people who ask advice that if they can turn things in on time and not complain about being edited, they can probably make a living as freelance writer.) And my editor, Emily, and I really saw eye to eye, so it wasn’t a very painful process.

I’ve interviewed George Saunders a few times, and he described a moment in his career that stuck with me. He said he could remember the instant (I believe he was on a bicycle) when he stopped writing the way he thought he was supposed to write and just started writing the way that came naturally to him–in that inimitable, dark, funny, vernacular, voice we’ve come to know. I don’t think I’m there yet.

5) What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 29th?

Getting out of these heels.

For more information about Why They Cried, including how to purchase the book, check out whytheycried.com. Or read more about Jim and his other works at his author website, Encyclopedia Hanasiana.

One Story is FWR’s Journal of the Week

Fiction Writers Review, an exciting online literary journal by, for, and about emerging writers, has named One Story their inaugural Journal of the Week! In addition to saying a number of very nice things about OS (we’ll try not to blush too much), the article also features a great interview with our venerable Associate Editor, Marie-Helene Bertino (now a pro) who discusses everything from OS‘s role in the literary community to time capsules to the ever revolving playlist in the OS office.

Six Degrees of Celeste Ng: Asian American Edition

Welcome to the first (and perhaps last) round of Six Degrees of a One Story author. This week, I’m proud to showcase Celeste Ng (Issue #86, “What Passes Over”). And to make things more interesting I’ll be using only Asian American writers. Here goes:

6) For a number of well considered reasons (not including convenience), I chose to begin with the venerable Lan Samantha Chang whose second novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (W.W. Norton & Co.) came out last year. Among other titles LSC holds, none might be as impressive as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which leads us to…

5) …Nam Le. Though the OS author (Issue #93, “Meeting Elise”) is technically an Asian Aussie, for the purposes of this excerise I’m willing to claim him for the good ‘ole US of A. Especially due to the fact that before his breakout hit, The Boat (Knopf),  landed ashore the international literary scene, Nam spent his days in Iowa City ruminating over love and honor and pity and pride…and writing award-winning stories…

4) …like Don Lee, whose story, “The Price of Eggs in China,” won a Pushcart Prize six years before Nam’s “Cartagena.” Yes, that Don Lee, the author of the short story collection, Yellow (W.W. Norton & Co.), and the novels, Country of Origin (same) & Wrack and Ruin (same), who served as the principal editor of Ploughshares for nearly twenty years publishing such notable writers as…

3) …OS’s own Paul Yoon (Issue #58, “Once the Shore”). Paul’s story, “And We Will Be Here,” ran in the Fall ’07 issue of  Ploughshares, and was one of many publications that led to the release of his collection, Once the Shore (Sarabande), which was a finalist for this past year’s Asian American Literary Award in fiction along with…

2) …Nami Mun’s beautifully harrowing debut novel, Miles from Nowhere (Riverhead). That very same Nami Mun who worked as an Avon Lady and criminal defense investigator, who serves on the Advisory Board of Kartika Review, and who frequents the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW). But most importantly (to this particular blog post, at least), the same Nami Mun who earned her MFA from the University of Michigan just like the one and only…

1) Celeste Ng! Winner of the Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction; TriQuarterly, Subtropics, and Kenyon Review Online contributor; Huffington Post blogger extraordinaire; and, of course, member of the One Story family.

Megan Mayhew Bergman reading at KGB Monday, 12/13

If you’re in town this Monday night, please go check out the very talented Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of “Housewifely Arts,” issue #142, as she reads at KGB as part of the “Raconteur Presents Bennington in Manhattan” reading. Other writers reading include fellow colleagues from Bennington College’s MFA Writing Seminar: Willa Carroll, Liz Arnold, Jeremy Oldfield, Robert Hansmann, Lisa Alexander, Hannah Tennant-Moore, Jennifer Acker, Alex Dawson, and the acclaimed poet/Bennington professor Timothy Liu.

The Raconteur is a bookstore in central New Jersey known for its eclectic in-store programming and literary road shows. It has been called a literary center of gravity by The New York Times, a literary landmark by Time Out New York, and a literary sanctuary by the London Guardian.

Support The Austin Batcave!



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Headed by executive director Manuel Gonzales, OS author of issue #66, “Pilot, Co-Pilot, Writer“, The Austin Batcave runs workshops and tutoring for kids in Austin Public Schools. This entirely non-profit and underfunded project provides an indispensable opportunity for these young writers. In addition, it relies on a strong network of volunteers dedicated to giving these kids the support they deserve. The Batcave is totally free for the kids, their parents, and their teachers.

“We introduce students to writing and music and art; we help them understand that writing doesn’t have to be a chore, that it can be an opportunity for them to discover their voices, tell their stories; we teach them the fundamentals of writing through creative workshops they actually enjoy and want to attend again and again”

–Manuel Gonzales

Support this vital organization and young writers in Austin! Even a small donation will go a long way to keeping The Batcave growing.

Ben Greenman on Kim Kardashian, Tiger Woods, and Chekhov

OS author Ben Greenman’s (issue #113, “The Tremulant”) latest book, Celebrity Chekhov, just out from Harper Perennial, takes classic Chekhov stories and reworks them to include a range of celebrities clouding our everyday American existence–from Oprah to Tiger to Brittney Spears. Here, OS intern Conor Mesinger asks Mr. Greenman a few questions about the project.
CM: What inspired you to augment Chekhov with current celebrities? Why
Chekhov in particular?

BG: What inspired me, initially, was the spirit of Why Not. Do you know
that spirit? It’s a benign spirit. Chekhov in particular because
there’s a kind of anonymity in his fiction. I am sure that Russian
literature scholars will appear immediately brandishing their weapons
(pens? samovars for scalding?) and say that I am an idiot for
believing this, but I have read Chekhov’s stories a number of times,
and what sticks with me are the situations, the moments where
character is revealed, and not necessarily the characters themselves.
Take a story like “The Beggar,” which I love and have always loved.
The main character is a lawyer named Skvortsov. I never remember that.
It’s partly a language barrier, and partly because Skvortsov could be
any officious man who believes he’s helping an unfortunate. So I
started thinking about his stories, and how they seem to me more
satirical than self-important, and that suggested to me that they
could survive an update, particularly one involving celebrities, which
would contort them in all kinds of strange ways. But I hoped, and
hope, that the contortion is a form of exercise rather than a form of
torture.

CM: What was your process for writing the stories? How did you choose your
characters?

BG: I read them a number of times in the original — well, the original
translation — before I wrote. Sometimes a celebrity sprang to mind
immediately. Sometimes the matches were more difficult. And sometimes
I zigged after zagging: in other words, I followed a story with an
obvious match (I gave one about a wayward husband to Tiger Woods) with
a more surreal or strange pairing (I put Jack Nicholson and Adam
Sandler at the heart of Chekhov’s Little Trilogy: “The Man in a Case,”
“Gooseberries,” “About Love”).

CM: How did it feel to reinvent these stories using modern characters with
so much baggage?

BG: Liberating and terrifying and comical and grave. And I know for a fact
that how it feels for me is not how it will feel for some readers. The
characters, the celebrities, have baggage, but they’re also oddly
empty. Or rather, they have baggage only because we put it there,
because we as a society spend so much time and energy worrying about
why Kim Kardashian is doing so many nude magazine covers (I’m guessing
it’s because she needs attention and has a great body, probably in
that order) or whether Oprah’s straight or why Alec Baldwin yelled at
his daughter in a private phone call.

CM: In your short story “The Tremulant,” you seem to investigate the role
of the speaker through the use of letters as narrative. In your new
book, how does the switch to celebrities complicate Chekhov’s own
speakers?

BG: Well, it complicates them in a related sense: “The Tremulant,” and the
whole book in which it eventually appeared (What He’s Poised to Do)
looked at letters and letter-writing as very vexed forms of personal
advertisement/articulation. How do you speak to people you care about?
Do you tell them the truth? Do you work around it? Do you disclose the
things that are truly in your heart, or is that too much exposure? Can
you bear the risk of ridicule? Those kinds of questions. In “The
Tremulant,” one of the narrator’s strategies is to write not to his
lover, but to her letters. There’s an intertextuality that creates
texture and acts as a form of armor. Celebrities, by their very
nature, operate this way as well. When you see the name “Lindsay
Lohan,” how much are you thinking of the human versus the incidents
and apparatus surrounding her? And when you hear her speak in my
stories, how do you get around to the idea that it is actually her (or
at least a version of her) speaking? There are stories like “A Lady’s
Story,” which is told in the first person by Britney Spears, that wind
the ball of yarn even tighter. What does it mean to be in her head?

CM: You’ve written both novels and story collections, one of which was entirely comprised of stories about letters. How do you decide what
material is better for each format?

BG: Generally I like playing with a series of shorter narratives that
(hopefully) add up to something huge and strange. The most traditional
novel I wrote, Please Step Back, was a struggle, in some ways, but
it was carried along by the plot, which was essentially the life story
of a legendary (fictional) funk-rock musician. There were quick
reversals and chicanes and everything else, but the plot in general
was carried forward by time — by time in the story, I mean. In this
case, with Chekhov’s stories and the celebritized versions, stories
were the only way to go, because each short work has to live within
the force field both of its plot and also of its central character.

CM: What are you working on now?

BG: There are a number of books that I’ve either started or sketched or am
dreaming about: a novel about a politician, a novel about a safety
inspector, a novel about a detective, a novel about a plagiarist, a
novel about a con man, and a novel about a conned woman. So basically
a novel. But there are always stories, too. For example, there’s a
strange one, strange in the sense that it’s kind of normal, coming out
soon in the next edition of Electric Literature. And lots of little
humor and conceptual pieces along the way.

One Story baby

Thanks to One Story reader Bleidy Ilnitsky of Pembroke Pines, Florida, for sending in this adorable pic of her OS-loving baby, Juliana.

Juliana’s favorite authors are AM Homes, Flannery O’Connor, and James Joyce. She loved Infinite Jest but describes Freedom as just “Meh.”

Share your best OS photos and we’ll post them, too!

One Story Summer Workshop: Dispelling Myths, Making Magic

The idea for One Story’s Summer Workshop for Emerging Writers was to find talented writers on the verge of their careers who were trying to figure out which next step was right for them.  We would gather them in our Can Factory for an intensive week of workshops, classes, and panels about the special stuff of writing and the not-as-special stuff of publishing.  Music would swell.  I would cry.  Balloons would be released.  If we were lucky, a little magic would occur.

Of course in the way life tends to go…all of that happened.

My assistant Michael J. Pollock and I put together a tiring week of craft lecturers and panels, then combed through the rich and varied writing portfolios of all the tremendous people who applied.  On Sunday, July 24th, we welcomed the students at a cocktail at the Can Factory and I promised them a week that would intellectually and physically tire them out so much they would spend all of Saturday sleeping. 

Every morning, I led workshop.  We made our way through the students’  stories, novel excerpts, short shorts and, in Patrick Gaughan’s case, prose poems.  I knew the week would be all green lights Monday morning during introductions.  Julia Strayer, the first to go, asked me what I meant when I said: tell everyone a little about yourself.  “What would anyone want to know?”  She said.  After I explained that any detail would do, she said “Fine,” blew the blonde bangs out of her eyes and stated, deadpan, “I like fast cars.” 

Every afternoon, a visiting writer lectured on a particular element of craft, starting with our own  Hannah Tinti, who delivered a lecture on structure.  Myla Goldberg, Terese Svoboda, Allison Amend and Ann Napolitano gave talks on character, figuring out where the story starts, dialogue and description, respectively.

Each night a different panel of professionals dispelled common myths of publishing.  The students found agents Renee Zuckerbrot, Paul Cirone and Julie Barer so warm and friendly they couldn’t believe they had previously thought agents were scary.  “They’re just people who like books, just like me,” Sarah Broderick said.

On Editors night, Johnny Temple (Akashic Books), Carla Blumenkranz (n+1), and Scott Lindenbaum and Andy Hunter (Electric Literature) spoke about publishing ideology in the wake of digital advancement.  Together, these illustrious editors dispelled the myth that New York fiction editors drive Audi convertibles, wear magic clothes pressed and washed by animated birds, and eat sandwiches made from the dreams of young writers. 

Not only did we learn about craft issues during the week, but I got to learn about the students who came from as far as England to attend the intensive.  Mackenzie Brady and Joseph Jordon, for example, are both training for the New York Marathon, and would wake at 5am every morning to run Prospect Park which is, you know, insane.

Speaking of running, the week itself took on the pace of a marathon.  We on The One Story staff had to keep ourselves energized.  I did so by excessive caffeine intake and dancing around to INXS.  Michael took what he called “gentlemen’s naps” in Prospect Park before each night’s panel.  Our amazing staff helped us every step of the way by setting up and taking down drinks and snacks for each event, and generally being a joy to be around.

On Thursday night, we enjoyed “An Evening with Sam Lipsyte,” who read hilarious excerpts from his newest novel “The Ask,” and told moderator and Managing Editor Tanya Rey a list of words his teacher Gordon Lish banned in stories: restaurant, thigh, splayed.

Themes sprung up.  For example, writers who are also rock stars or who have “screamed loudly in front of bands”: (Johnny Temple, Myla Goldberg, Sam Lipsyte), working with Gordon Lish (Sam Lipsyte, Terese Svoboda), and community.  Another theme was community.  Josh Henkin and Deborah Landau , Directors of the MFA programs at Brooklyn College and NYU, respectively, listed it as a major reason to attend an MFA program, to find people who are trying to do the same thing you are, to find “your readers.”  And the final theme was a little thing called magic.  Over and over, speakers mentioned it as the unexplainable factor in a favorite piece.  Hannah called a good resolution of a story “a magic feeling you get in the pit of your stomach.”  And, I began every workshop by saying, “Let’s make some magic, people.”

Here is where I talk about the moon.  Every evening in Brooklyn, the moon sat fat above the rooftops like it was auditioning for a movie with Cher about opera and bread.  On Friday night, we had our final reading and “family” dinner.  During dessert our hilarious intern Adina Talve-Goodman debuted a slideshow of pictures she had taken throughout the week to the song “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangster.”  As I drove home in my Hummer, eating a croissant made out of gold, I felt a hollow, buzziness in my stomach, as if I had just taken a good hill fast in my car.  It could only be one thing: a good resolution to a story.

Thank you to the talented and lovely students of our inaugural Workshop: Mackenzie, Eric, Sarah, Joseph, Brianna, Erin, Bobby, Julia, Meghan, Jude and Patrick.  Thank you to all the amazing professionals who came in to lend their expertise.  Thank you to our wonderful staff; Maribeth Batcha, Tanya Rey, Hannah Tinti, Jenni Milton, Cordelia Calvert, and Adina Talve-Goodman who helped Michael and me pull off a great show.  Thank you to Nathan at the Can Factory and Nana, our caterer with the mostest.  Thank you to Scottadito Osterio Toscana, who hosted our yummy final Italian family dinner.  And thank you to Michael J. Pollock, who never fails to crack us all up. 

I will think of all of you while I am on the beach next week with Jay-Z and the cast of Mad Men, being massaged by singing, animated blue jays.  Damn.  It does feel good to be a gangster.

For more pictures, check out our Facebook page.  I hope you will join us if and when we do this crazy intensive next year.  Bring Vitamin Water.

Until then I remain your dedicated Associate Editor,

Marie-Helene

Report on The Story Prize

Here to report on The Story Prize reading and award ceremony is Amin Ahmad, admirer of the short story and friend of One Story. You may recall Amin’s Valentines’ Day blogpost about how One Story helped spark a relationship between him and his current wife.

I was sitting right behind Daniyal Mueenuddin  in a dark Manhattan auditorium when he was announced the winner of the $20,000 Story Prize.

Mueeenuddin (author of the short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) continued to sit in his seat, either too shy or too exhausted to respond. Only when nudged by his companion did he bound onto the stage. Even then, the author was self effacing and modest—mumbling thanks to his agent and his late mother—before quickly leaving the stage.

And so the two-hour long program of readings and conversation came abruptly to an end, the largest prize in the short story world awarded almost as an afterthought. (The two runner-ups were awarded $5000 each.) As for me, I was left with many questions about the short story and its role in our lives.

Earlier that evening, Daniyal Mueenuddin had read an excerpt from his story “Saleema”, about a voluptuous young girl servant employed in the household of a rural Pakistani landlord. Mueenuddin described Saleema’s seduction by the various cooks she had worked with, ending with the line, “These experiences had not cracked her hard skin, but made her sensual, unscrupulous—and romantic.”

It was the sudden twist at the end of the sentence that made me sit up and listen.

I too, like Mueenuddin, grew up in a similar Indian household peopled by masters and servants. And I knew that the poorer our servants were, the more they tended towards extravagant gestures—an entire month’s salary spent on a violently colored sweater, the prettier maids inevitably carrying on histrionic affairs with the chauffeurs.

But I had never realized—until I heard Mueenuddin read–how reality and fantasy converge. The poorer you are, he seemed to be saying, the more you need romance.

Mueenuddin himself, during a conversation with Larry Dark, had come clean. “You can either be a pessimist or a romantic,” he’d said. “I prefer to be a romantic. Life is more fun that way.”

He was being funny, but that insight, in his writing, was hard earned. His stories captured perfectly the hard, cruel world of rural Pakistan, where people jockeyed and jostled to survive. That might have been enough for another writer, but Mueenuddin excavated even deeper, finding  hidden lives buried deep within the heads of characters like Saleema the maid.

Mueenuddin lives part-time in rural Pakistan, managing a farm he inherited from his father.  He is part of a tightly-knit feudal world;“Some of the servants in our family have been with us for fifty or sixty years,” he said. Living in Pakistan has given him so much material that he has “pages and pages” of notes for short stories. For him, life and writing are interwoven: the characters in his stories live and breathe around him.

For the other two finalists in the Story Prize competition, the relationship between reality and fantasy is more complicated.

Victoria Patterson (Drift) has set her book of short stories in Newport Beach, California. She read an excerpt from “John Wayne Loves Grandma Dot”, a story about a handsome, brain-damaged skateboarder named John Wayne. In a later conversation, Patterson said she wanted to take the iconography of Newport Beach—including the myth of tough-guy movie-star John Wayne, who lived there—and stand it on its head.  So instead of a heavy lidded, sneering cowboy, she created an outcast who lives secretly above the garage of Grandma Dot. Grandma, sensing his presence, leaves him money and beer. Their two lives are lived out at a remove; John Wayne sneaks into Grandma’s kitchen at night and makes sandwiches, smells her presence, watches her from afar. In the excerpt Paterson read, the two characters never physically touch.

In the Newport Beach that Patterson constructs, fantasy (her borrowing of a mythic movie-star moniker, the ghostly dance of the two characters) seems the only way to bridge the gap between people. When community is shattered, and individuals are left isolated and washed up, the only way to connect seems to be in the imagination. In its own way, Patterson’s is a chilling vision, as frightening as the dream-lives of brutalized Pakistani peasants.

Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned) takes fantasy to a different level. Tower read an excerpt from the title story, featuring a trio of Viking raiders. (In his rendition, the Vikings are treated as contemporary Americans; they even speak with cornpone Southern accents.) The Vikings come across a man in a field who has been raided so many times that all he has left is a stove, and his beautiful but one-armed daughter. (A previous set of Vikings, we learn, cut her arm off.)

In the dangerous dance that develops out of this comedy, one of the Vikings falls in love with the girl, who, one-armed, knows that she has little chance of getting a man. It all ends with the daughter carried off willingly, her father pushed to the ground, now completely bereft.

In conversation, Tower said that he wrote the story as a release from the rigors of writing within the confines of graduate school. As a clever joke, he yoked together the hopeless situation of a Raymond Carver short story with a bunch of cartoony Vikings. Much to his surprise, he tricked himself into caring about the characters.

And despite the loud laughs of the audience, we cared too. Tower had pulled off a literary sleigh-of-hand, transporting us into an alternate, fantastic universe; then he set us down with a bump, and it hurt.

I left the Story Prize with one comment ringing in my head. When Mueenuddin was asked how the servants and workers on his farm felt about his writing, he paused. “They’re embarrassed by it,” he said.

I understood perfectly what he meant. In a world where labor is real, brutal and hard, writing doesn’t seem like work. Sitting alone in a room and making up stories is seen as something frivolous, tainted, not respectable. It’s the reaction I get when I return to India and tell people I’m a writer.

But sitting in a room somewhere (in real, rural Pakistan, in a re-created Newport Beach, in the overheated literary atmosphere of a graduate program) is what Mueenuddin, Patterson and Tower do. They reveal, in their own ways, the hidden  intersections between reality and fantasy.

The lives we thought were so solid and real, they show us, are shot through with fantasies. Our lives, they seem to say, are really just stories that we tell ourselves. I for one, am grateful for the insight.