Issue #232: A Month on Greene Street by Tom Hanks

I’ve long been guilty of inaccurate first impressions. Thankfully, I usually keep them to myself—just private little assessments I make of, say, a person I see across a room. Observations I deem both intuitive and astute. What an accurate judge of character I am! I can sum you up with a glance or, at the very most, a few seconds of watching your mannerisms, your facial expressions. That’s how sharp my receptors are.

Only, they aren’t that sharp. Sometimes I’m near the mark; quite often I’m way off. “Always trust your first impression” is advice we’ve all heard before, and it’s often true—but it slams up against “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “Don’t knock it till you try it,” and even “Proof’s in the pudding.”

Our new issue is a story called “A Month on Greene Street,” and it’s about a woman named Bette who has just moved her family into a new house. Not only does Bette rely heavily on first impressions, she also takes great stock in what she considers to be her extrasensory visions, or “pops” (as she calls them). “Pops” are little glimpses of the future Bette has now and then. Sometimes they come true; sometimes they don’t. They’re a source of comfort; they’re a source of worry. And there are quite a few of them to be had in a new home, on a new street, surrounded by new neighbors.

This story won me over the first time I read it, and upon each subsequent reading it becomes more layered, more moving, and funnier. It’s written by an author we already know to be a tremendously accomplished actor, and the fact that he’s now proving himself to be a tremendously talented writer of short stories makes me wonder what else he can do. (Levitate? Bend things with his mind?) One Story is thrilled to be giving the world its first glimpse of “A Month on Greene Street” by Tom Hanks. Be sure to check out our Q&A with the author, wherein he discusses Bette, her pops, why and how he came to write short stories, and his fondness for the good old-fashioned typewriter.

One Story Summer Conference Day 5: The End

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Olivia Liu. Enjoy! –LV

I’m sad to say that the One Story Summer Conference has come to an end. It’s a bittersweet feeling. This week has been jam-packed with excellent workshops, eye-opening craft lectures, engaging panels, and the opportunities to talk to those right in the business, from top agents to whip-smart editors to the incomparable One Story staff itself. In this immersive environment of word-lovers, we’ve made friends, recounted stories, gotten advice, and had an overall blast. Not to be cheesy here, but while I’m sad it’s over, I’m very happy it happened.

We kicked off the morning with our last workshops. I know instructors Will Allison and Patrick Ryan have enjoyed working with our conference attendees so much.

After lunch, we headed to Ann Napolitano’s craft lecture on the life of the writer. The room was impressively set up with quote after helpful quote. In the lecture, Ann broke down the seven steps for having a successful and well-balanced writing life.

Step 1: Make a plan and protect it. Writing time can be so rare and precious, it’s important to dive into it armed and ready. Some plans include waking up at 5am to write before anyone else is up, writing on your commute, binge writing (writing retreats are a great place for devoting huge chunks of time to writing), thinking about your story when you can’t actually sit down and write it (Ann Patchett plotted a book down to each scene while she was waitressing), having a specific place to write (such as your car or the café), and making a rule to write for at least 5 minutes a day. Once you choose your plan . . . tell people! You want others to hold you accountable and to respect your writing time.

Step 2: Plan your life around writing. Ann, for example, juggles only three to four things at a time and doesn’t keep overly demanding jobs.

Step 3: Find readers who care about making your book the best it can be.

Step 4: Exercise—yes, exercise! We are not just “meat sticks with minds on top.” We have to take care of our bodies too. 

Step 5: Meditate. Meditation can help you feel fresh, instead of worn down, when you sit down to write.

Step 6: Pay attention to what you pay attention to and pay attention with intention. Every person has a specifically calibrated magnetic board that pulls certain subjects to you—don’t resist them! Be eccentric! Ann told a story about she became obsessed with Flannery O’Connor but resisted the urge to write about her for a long time, as she was from the North and O’Connor was a Southern literary icon. Eventually she gave in, and O’Connor became the subject of her second book, A Good Hard Look. Ann now does not avoid writing about what interests her.

Step 7: Trust yourself as a writer. Don’t submit something too soon because you’re searching for feedback; put the work in a drawer for a week then look at it again.

All in all, this craft lecture was extremely illuminating and chock-full of practical advice. It was like a TED Talk—but better.

After the lecture, the conference attendees prepared for the evening reading. The weather was lovely, so some sat outside to work on their pieces. When they reconvened at six, they found that the reading space in the Canteen was done up beautifully with a backdrop of writing advice strung up with fairy lights and garlands of One Story issues. The reading went wonderfully. If anyone was nervous, it didn’t show. The writing was captivating, the audience attentive. We couldn’t clap hard enough. The reading was also interspersed with hilarious jokes from the One Story staff—wonderfully punny ones, may I add. We couldn’t stop laughing.

The evening came to a close with a delicious dinner catered by Runner + Stone. Six days ago they’d gathered in the same room as strangers, and now, given the laughter and animated conversation over plates of food and glasses of wine, it was clear workshoppers were leaving as friends.

 

One Story Summer Conference Day 4: Revise, Revise, (Read Aloud), and Revise

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Hannah Johnston. Enjoy! –LV

On the penultimate day of our conference, after another morning of workshops followed by lunch in the Canteen, Julie Buntin, author of the novel Marlena and an editor at Catapult, gave a craft lecture on how to successfully revise and edit as a writer. Buntin discussed her experiences as an editor working with writers and how she’s developed an understanding of the way editors edit and the way writers ought to approach the process of revision.

Buntin began her lecture with a line-edit exercise on a short excerpt from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans; a passage that was used by editor E.L. Doctorow to make a point about the value of concise writing. She worked with conference participants to find the places in the narration where there was superfluous language. 

Once they shaved the language down to the necessary elements of the excerpt, and made the prose far stronger, Buntin moved beyond line editing to talk about what writers need to do in order to revise their own work effectively. She explained that the most important thing you can do in your revision process is determine the fundamental truths of your story, and to then use those truths to hold your work to.

Buntin had the group read the short story “Spring in Fialta” by Vladimir Nabokov in preparation for the lecture. The story is about a man named Victor and his final meeting with Nina, a woman with whom he’s been on the verge of having an affair as long as they’ve known each other. Buntin acknowledged Nabokov’s ornate and over-the-top prose, but she also said that it all seems necessary to the fundamental truths of the story. For example, Nina herself is never really standing or sitting still in the narrative, and this relates to the fact that she’s never been a still or solid aspect of Victor’s life— she’s always been slightly out of frame.

Buntin also talked about her work as an editor at Catapult, and how the questions about fundamental truths have come into that work. At the beginning of her talk, she had conference participants write down something that they felt was an essential truth about their work, and at the end of the lecture she gave them a related writing exercise: write a paragraph in your story which operates as if that essential truth is no longer true or essential. The writers found this exercise very helpful, and many were able to view their work in a new lens thanks to their letting go of certain assumptions. Buntin left the workshop participants with this idea: By asking what the fundamental truths of the story are, a writer will be able to edit and revise effectively.

After a quick break and opportunity to chat with Buntin, participants made their way down to the Canteen to hear a valuable talk from One Story editors Patrick Ryan and Ann Napolitano on how to give a good public reading. Both Ryan and Napolitano admitted their initial shyness and stage fright in the beginning of their careers. They’ve had to overcome great anxiety in order to give successful readings of their work, and they gave the workshop participants a list of dos and don’ts that they’ve picked up over the years.

DON’T’S

  1. Don’t go over your time— never, never, never. Everyone, the audience and the the other writers set to give readings, will love you for it. It leaves the audience wanting more, which is way better than leaving them wanting less.
  2. Don’t read too fast. Napolitano explained that this is the most common mistake a reader can make, because people speak more quickly when they’re nervous. Reading your work too quickly prevents your audience from being able to settle into the narrative.
  3. Don’t read too quietly. One of the worst things that can happen at a reading is for an audience member to yell, “LOUDER!”
  4. Don’t choose a section that requires a lot of exposition. If you need to describe the Civil War in order to set up the passage you’re reading aloud, people will be overwhelmed with information and won’t be able to properly follow along. It should only take one sentence (or less) to set up your passage.
  5. Don’t choose a section that contains dialect, foreign language, or anything else you won’t be able to pronounce correctly or speak fluidly. Ryan went for a large portion of his life believing that chasm was pronounced with a soft ‘ch’, like the sound in cheese. In reality, chasm is pronounced with a hard ‘k’ sound, and he was once mortified after a reading when a friend told him he was pronouncing the word incorrectly.

DO’S

  1. Stay within your time. Both Napolitano and Ryan re-emphasized that this is VERY IMPORTANT.
  2. Read more slowly than you think is normal. Often, we feel like we’re speaking way too slowly when we’re actually speaking at the perfect speed to keep the audience engaged. Try to take deep breaths and beats between words and sentences in order to keep yourself from speeding up.
  3. Read at a good volume. Again, it stinks to have someone yell “louder!”
  4. Maybe, if you can, try to choose a selection that will garner a reaction from the audience. Ryan likes to select something funny or shocking, and this way he is able to tell that the audience is engaged. He also mentioned that it’s okay to go with something sad or solemn as long as you prepare yourself for deadly silence from the audience.
  5. Pretend to be a great writer. At the start of her career, Hannah Tinti, One Story co-founder, used to pretend she was the excellent public speaker Elizabeth Gilbert when she went onstage. Now, Napolitano often thinks about how Hannah herself would give a reading!
  6. Look up every once in a while. It can be awkward to make eye-contact with a specific audience member, but it always helps to look up, perhaps just above the heads of the crowd, in order to give the impression that you’re engaged with your audience.
  7. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Before the first reading she had to give since she’d bombed a public speaking gig in high school, Napolitano read aloud the passage she had prepared to her husband every day for a month. By practicing your reading, it can almost become muscle memory, and it will make it so much easier to fight your nerves when the time comes.

While Napolitano and Ryan gave this talk in anticipation of the readings that will be given by the conference attendees themselves tomorrow, they explained that these rules can and will apply to any readings that the talented writers will be giving in the future.

After a break for writing and dinner, it was time for a panel of editors to come and answer questions with Lena Valencia, One Story’s managing editor. The panel included: Katie Raissian, editor and publisher of print magazine Stonecutter Journal and an editor for Grove Atlantic; Jenny Jackson, a senior editor for Knopf and Doubleday (imprints under Penguin Random House); Brinda Ayer, managing editor for Restless Books; and Margaux Weisman, who works as an editor for Vintage Anchor and Knopf Doubleday.

The four editors discussed they look for in the manuscripts. Jackson said that debut books are especially exciting, and that the voice in the writing is most often what gets her antenna up. Weisman expanded on this, adding that even if the plot doesn’t work as well, a good style in writing will always catch her eye.

Valencia then asked the editors what they think writers can expect the differences between publishing a book with a large publishing house and a small publisher might be. As an editor at a small publisher, Grove Atlantic, Raissian was enthusiastic in explaining the benefits of her house’s size. Writers get a ton of personal attention, and the staff works very closely with them to make sure their works are published carefully. Every writer at Grove Atlantic is given the same amount of time and effort because Grove editors only buy books they’re very passionate about. Grove was the only publisher that wanted The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and now it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Passion is what drives them, and it usually pays off.

Knopf is different from other large publishers in the sense that it’s a relatively independent imprint of Penguin Random House, but they still garner big house benefits. Jackson talked about how beneficial it can be to have a large corporate connection, as they have larger budgets for advertising as well as a great deal of research on what works best in selling a book. She also felt, however, that Knopf has been able to successfully retain its identity despite its corporate parent, and that passion plays a great role in her book decisions as well.

All four of the editors went on to explain that chemistry between editors, writers, and agents is usually the biggest predictor of success. Many of them had stories about losing books that they loved because of a much larger advance offered by a competing publisher or a disagreement over an edit. While it stings to provide edits to someone only to have them work with another house, they ultimately want there to be as many great books out there as possible, and if they can contribute something positive to a good writer’s work, it’s a job well-done.

After the panel was over, conference attendees enjoyed a wine and cheese reception with the editors, and were able to ask more questions and get to know the industry better. After a long day of activity, everyone was happy to get back to their homes and hotels in order to recharge in preparation for the final day of the One Story Summer Writer’s Conference.

One Story Summer Conference Day 3: Keep Writing

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Miche Hu. Enjoy! –LV

The third day of One Story’s Summer Writers Conference began with another round of morning workshops led by Patrick Ryan and Will Allison. The afternoon craft lecture, which focused on the process of submitting work and getting out of the slush pile, was led by Hannah Tinti, One Story cofounder and author of the new novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.

Tinti discussed what to do and not to do and what to believe and not believe when putting work out into the world. She outlined some important, often overlooked details of submission formatting while also highlighting the importance of heart and honesty when writing stories. Examples from her own experiences reading slush for The Boston Review and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as transcripts of rejection letters she had received for her own work helped writers to understand some of the challenges associated with submitting work. Particularly helpful were the different resources and anthologies to read and to use as resources for finding the places to submit.

Three trusted sources for Tinti are The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and The O’Henry Prize Stories.

Tinti’s discussion of rejection letters, and their various forms, resonated with workshop writers. She broke down the differences between form rejections and more personalized rejections, and stressed that any letter that expressed interest seeing more of a writer’s work was cause for celebration. “You’re a writer if you’re writing, not if you’re published,” Hannah reminded us, echoing earlier advice from craft lecturer Myla Goldberg and the previous night’s agent panel. After the lecture, all were invited to peruse the many different literary magazines on display at the back of the room and take any home, with the knowledge that the work inside was borne out of both rejection and tenacity.

After a short break for writing and dinner, workshop writers reconvened at Community Bookstore for a reading of Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers. A One Story Debutante, Lisa Ko published “Proper Girls” in One Teen Story in 2013 (when her newly published novel was still being written—and rewritten). The novel follows the double narrative of Deming Guo and his mother, Polly. Having just returned from a week-long meditation retreat, Lisa Ko read an excerpt from the novel about last time Deming sees his mother, just before her disappearance. Deming’s observations of his mother reveal his own character traits—he remembers his mother’s hands rubbed raw and wishes for a super lotion that can grow her new skin, how she says motherfucker and he walks in step to the syllables as he practices the word.

During the Q&A, Ko and Patrick Ryan discussed how she used point-of-view to discover her characters, and her little celebrations after winning the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Both writers shared the various ways they disposed of unused pieces of their stories. Ryan does not delete anything, though he rarely revisits. Ko admitted that she will often remember certain sentences or descriptions and “pluck it from the graveyard”—the graveyard being the file where she stores her unused writing. Lisa also talked about how she perseveres through the difficult, stagnant moments by setting daily goals for herself: fifty rejections a day. “I like to aim for rejection,” she said. As the crowd listened to her novel excerpt and the tales of her struggles with the publication process, they were reminded of what often seems hidden from writers: publication is the outcome of a lot of “no.” But, as Tinti had stressed in her lecture earlier in the day, it’s not publication that makes a writer a writer—it’s the act of writing. The lesson learned on Day 3 of the Conference was simple, but not necessarily easy: keep writing.

One Story Summer Conference Day 2: No Tricks

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Olivia Liu. Enjoy!–LV

Tuesday was a stellar second day of the One Story Summer Conference. The featured Craft Lecturer was One Story Contributing Editor Karen Friedman, who gave a useful talk on how to edit your own story. The lecture was structured around four main story aspects—beginnings, characters, plot, and endings—and the lessons we can learn from soap operas. You read that right: soap operas! Sure, soap operas are not exactly high-brow literature but they do have a way of pulling you in and never letting go, something that a story should certainly do.

To edit beginnings, Karen advised writers to take a page out of Yoda’s book (yes, that Yoda). Unclear writing can make a reader angry, and, according to the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, “Anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” To avoid angering readers, writers should make clear what the setting, characters, and conflict in their work are by page 2.

As a template for character, Friedman used Jason, the golden-boy-turned-crime-boss-protégé from the soap opera General Hospital. As soon as we re-meet Jason after his amnesia, we immediately learn his appearance, actions, voice, motivation, backstory and, perhaps most intriguing of all, we learn the concept of reusing a character. General Hospital could have made the crime boss protégé a new character entirely, but Friedman pointed out that Jason would lose the layer of emotional depth the viewers gained from knowing this new villain was once a beloved son.

“Make your characters want something right away, even if it’s a glass of water.” Friedman used this bit of advice from Kurt Vonnegut to frame her segment on editing plot. She outlined the basic narrative arc of set up, escalation, climax, and resolution and emphasized that every scene should feature a narrative arc, no matter how small. One example of a scene arc she used was a clip from Guiding Light in which Reva Shayne baptizes herself as the “Slut of Springfield.”

Friedman discussed her two major “don’ts” for endings—NO TRICKS (don’t make the story “all a dream”) and Death ≠ Answer (a character’s death does not count as a story ending). Endings, she said, should resonate with readers. The reader should be thinking about the story long after it’s over. One technique to create resonant endings, Friedman said, was to slow down and focus on an object that has had some significance in the narrative. As an example, she used the ending of Jodi Angel’s “Snuff” (OS #179), which is structured around a pocketknife, and the final scene of As the World Turns, which prominently features the newly-retired Robert Hughes (Dr. Bob) slipping his nameplate into his briefcase as he leaves his office for the final time.

The lecture ended with a fun writing exercise. We each wrote two characters on two different yellow cards and one setting on a blue card. Everyone switched cards and had to craft a beginning of a story from those characters and that setting. This resulted in some fun and unexpected stories, which Friedman stressed was the point of the generative exercise: to get writers out of their comfort zone.

The group reconvened in the evening for a panel with some of the industry’s top agents: Mitch Hoffman, Dana Murphy, Duvall Osteen, and Renée Zuckerbrot, moderated by One Story Co-founder and Executive Editor Hannah Tinti. They opened the discussion by discussing an agent’s role in the life of a writer, a role that, according to Murphy, ranges from best friend to therapist. All four agents agreed that it is ultimately a business relationship, and stressed the importance of professionalism.

Because the relationship with their agent might be the most important relationship an author will forge in their career, the panelists advised conference attendees to choose carefully, with patience and deliberation. Finding agents and editors can be a lot like matchmaking, and jumping the gun on these relationships is akin to marrying the first person you meet on Tinder.

The four agents also shared projects that they were proud of. Murphy talked about her very first project, Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka, which will be published next week, and Osteen told a story about hope: her client who had a book she absolutely loved got rejected multiple times but finally got a deal after waiting and more revising.

When asked about the best way to approach an agent, they discussed the importance of doing your homework. Know who you’re talking to, they said, and be sure to follow the specific submission requirements the agents have.

After the panel, conference attendees enjoyed wine and cheese and a chance to talk to the agents one-on-one. Despite a long day of workshops, lectures, and panels, the writers were all buzzing with energy as they chatted with the agents and with one another. The crowd didn’t begin to thin until well after 9pm. “I’m tired but happy,” proclaimed one attendee, as she left for the evening with a grin on her face.

 

 

One Story Summer Conference Day 1: Write What You Know; Write What You Don’t Know

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Hannah Johnston. Enjoy!–LV

One Story’s eighth annual Summer Writers Conference is officially underway here in Brooklyn at the Old American Can Factory! Twenty-one talented writers from all over the country joined the One Story staff and interns on Sunday night to celebrate the start of the workshop for a cocktail reception in the OACF Canteen. The group made eager conversation over drinks and snacks, pausing for One Story cofounders Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha’s brief introduction to the workshop. The cofounders also introduced the Writing Advice Wall, where participants are can make note of great writing advice they hear from speakers and in workshops throughout the week, write it down on colorful slips of paper, and clip them onto the wall. Once the remarks concluded, Hannah and Maribeth led the group on a short tour of the Can Factory, and the group returned to the Canteen to mingle for the duration of the evening.

Over the course of the coming week, Patrick Ryan and Will Allison will each lead a group of attendees in intensive workshops, where each writer will have their piece discussed by their instructor and fellow writers. In addition to the workshops, there will also be readings,craft lectures, panels, and more from authors, publishing professionals, and the editorial staff of One Story.

The first official day of the conference began on Monday with a two-and-a-half-hour workshop period. Workshops often become sacred spaces, and throughout the week it won’t be surprising to see camaraderie built among writers from the same groups.

After lunch, workshop participants attended an illuminating craft lecture from Myla Goldberg, acclaimed author of the novel Bee Season. The lecture addressed the idea of “writing what you know,” for which she had workshop writers read the short story “What You Left in the Ditch” by Aimee Bender. The story is about a brief time in the life of Mary, a woman whose husband has come home from an unnamed war after losing his lips in battle.

Goldberg made a point of encouraging writers to write about things they’re afraid to write about; to write about the unfamiliar. To do this, she explained, a writer must figure out a way to relate some aspect of the unfamiliar situation to their own emotional experience. Goldberg used Bender’s story as an example, explaining that it was unlikely that Aimee Bender has ever had such a specific experience with war or trauma resulting from war, but she most likely understands what it’s like when two people are in a relationship and one of them changes while the other remains the same.

Goldberg went on to discuss the power of empathy in writing and how it is different from sympathy. In order to engender empathy, she explained, neither writer nor reader need to have have actually experienced what the characters are experiencing, but the writer needs to find a way to make that experience real and familiar. Goldberg, an excellent lecturer with engaging energy, gave workshop attendees many tidbits of useful writing advice. She talked about “telegraphing”: how authors reveal character traits to a reader using visual clues rather than explicitly spelling them out. For example, Bender’s description of Mary’s husband’s favorite chair as “neatly dusted” signals to the reader that Mary has been taking care of his things while he was away at war, and clearly cares about his wellbeing (despite acting as if she doesn’t). In analyzing Bender’s story, the group determined that Bender was able to create familiarity and universality through her lack of time- or place-specific details, and to create empathy by showing Mary’s external and internal selves through close-third-person POV.

After Myla’s energizing talk, writers made their way back to the Canteen to conclude the day with casual social time over sweets and drinks. After some relaxing chat, the group gathered together to listen to Maribeth facilitate a “getting to know the instructors” talk with Will and Patrick, who discussed their first published works and the experiences that eventually led them to become editors for One Story.

Patrick made an interesting point about balancing his work as a writer and an editor. Early in his career, he’d been worried that reading good writing would discourage him from creating his own work. The opposite proved true. “Reading really good writing doesn’t make me not want to write,” said Patrick, “it makes me want to write even more.” It often seems daunting to both write your own work and read the excellent writing of others, but Patrick and Will each said they’ve come to the conclusion that it’s beneficial to their writing to read others’ work. Will even noted that he’ll occasionally use a “kick starter book” to take a break from writing in order to reinvigorate his creative flow. As the day came to an end, a handful of useful tips hung from the Writing Advice Wall, and many workshop attendees headed out to enjoy a nice evening in Brooklyn. Stay tuned for the low-down on day two of the One Story Summer Writers Conference!

Announcing the Winners of our 2017 One Teen Story Teen Writing Contest

We are thrilled to announce the winners and runners-up of our 2017 ONE TEEN STORY Teen Writing Contest! We received hundreds of entries from teen writers across the globe, and narrowing it down was no easy feat. Each of our three winners will receive $500 and publication in a forthcoming issue of One Teen Story. Here are the winners and runners-up in each age category:

Ages 13 – 15

Winner: “Toby” by Lily Boyd

“He wanted to run, and I let him, anything for him. He took off down the street and I followed, the leather of the leash pressing into my palm. The wind whipped at my cheeks, the snow swirling around me as my lungs battered for breath.” (excerpt from “Toby”)

Runner-up: “Pretty Close to Perfect” by Jordan Fong

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Ages 16 – 17

Winner: “Bulletin Board Dragon” by Lilly Hunt

“His full name is Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre—you know, after the dude who overthrew the French monarchy—but I call him Max. He’s the size of a small human, can’t breathe fire, and is horrifically ugly, but I’m okay with that. I share those traits.”  (excerpt from “Bulletin Board Dragon”)

Runner-up: “The Dinner” by Isabel Lickey

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Ages 18 – 19

Winner: “Our New Lives” by Helen Coats

“I pulled out my sketchbook and started drawing Jeremy. He was running toward or away from something, I hadn’t decided which.” (excerpt from “Our New Lives”)

Runner-Up: “The Observations of a Big-Eared Girl” by Rebekah Anne Craggs

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Congratulations to all our participants for writing and submitting such wonderful work. It was a pleasure to read each entry!

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

 

Q&A with One Story’s 2017 Mentor of the Year: Lan Samantha Chang

At One Story, we believe that being a part of the literary community should include helping others. In that vein, each year at our Literary Debutante Ball we honor one established author with a “Mentor of the Year” award for their extraordinary support of fellow writers. This year, our Mentor of the Year is Lan Samantha Chang.

Mentoring is the kind of work that happens behind the scenes, but is vital to keep the literary world alive and kicking. It comes in all forms—from teaching, to blurbs, to recommendation letters, to late-night reads, agent advice, one-on-one conferences, career guidance and inspiration. Behind each book on the shelf is an unseen mentor, giving an author the help they need to make their work better, to keep writing when they are ready to quit, and eventually give them a boost over the publishing wall.

Lan Samantha Chang exemplifies this kind of gallant hard work, and we’ll be honoring her, along with our Literary Debutantes this Friday May 12th at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn.

In today’s post, Sam kindly took time from her busy schedule to talk with One Story about writing and teaching, the importance of being a mentor, and what she’s looking forward to the most at the big party this coming Friday.

  1. You’ve been a great supporter of emerging writers. But who were your mentors and how did they help you along the way?

I was fortunate to work with extraordinary teachers when I was starting out.  At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I studied with James Alan McPherson, Frank Conroy, and Marilynne Robinson—all famous to the world for their writing and, to their students, for their presence in the classroom.  Each of them made at least one remark about my work that I will remember forever. But the special person who has read my work the most, and whom I turn to when I want to shed a tear, is the wonderful novelist Margot Livesey, who was a visiting professor at the Workshop at that time and is now on the permanent faculty there.

After the Workshop, I had the very good fortune to receive Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote Fellowships at Stanford University, where I studied with John L’Heureux, Nancy Packer, and Elizabeth Tallent.  They were all very generous with me, and Elizabeth, who is still at the program, remains vibrantly in my mind as a writing professor who somehow, by her presence, taught me the possibilities of life.  Eavan Boland, as well, gave me unforgettable guidance about what it means to be a writer in the world.

  1. Any words of advice for our nine Debutantes as they start their literary careers?

My one bit of advice is to keep hold of that part of you that first compelled you to start writing through the vicissitudes of “career.”  A writing life and a writing career are two separate things, and it’s especially crucial to keep the first.

  1. For the past twelve years, you’ve been the director of the Iowa Writing Program. How do you find a balance between teaching and writing?

Since taking on the directorship I have published one novel, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost.  Frankly, I lost the balance for a few years there, but I am regaining it now.  I’m not sure how writing has come back to me, but I’m very grateful.  I don’t know if I have any advice about keeping balanced.  It’s a challenge and being a parent on top of it is perhaps more challenging.  I’m lucky that my partner is a wonderful, deeply understanding father and husband.

  1. Your work has appeared twice in Best American Short Stories. Can you talk a bit about what you think makes for a great piece of short fiction?

People try to find rules for short story writing, and there are none.  Greatness is indescribable—you know it when you see it.  But I do think that a great short story is both ruthless and complete.  I also think that a great short story clearly belongs to only one author. 

  1. What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on May 12th?

Discounting a couple of award ceremonies, the One Story Literary Debutante Ball will be the first bona fide New York Literary gala event I’ve flown East to attend for since I moved to Iowa.  So there’s something exciting about looking forward to the experience. I anticipate with great excitement the “coming out” of the debut writers. I’m also looking forward to seeing former students and colleagues.  I’m thrilled that Angela Flournoy will be there, and I can’t wait to see Michelle Huneven and Emily Ruskovich.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Lisa Ko

On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating nine 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 Lisa Ko, author of One Teen Story Issue #14, “Proper Girls” and the novel The Leavers.

The Leavers is a story about family and identity, spanning nearly twenty years. Eleven year-old Deming Guo lives with his mother Polly in the Bronx. One day, Polly goes to her job at the nail salon and never returns. When Deming is adopted by a suburban white couple in upstate New York, he becomes Daniel Wilkinson, beginning the arduous journey to discover not only his true self but the fate of a mother long lost.

Wynne Kontos: Where were you when you found out The Leavers was going to be published and how did you celebrate?

Lisa Ko: I lost my phone while I was on vacation. I hadn’t been able to get my voicemail or email all week because there was no reception, and when I got back to New York I checked my email and found a message from Barbara Kingsolver saying she had been trying to call me for days and to please call her immediately. It was about the PEN/Bellwether Prize, which Barbara established and funds, and which comes with a book contract with Algonquin Books. I’d submitted my manuscript months ago and promptly forgotten about it. When I called Barbara with my boyfriend’s phone, she told me I’d won. I was too jet-lagged for it to really sink in — I think I celebrated that afternoon by drinking coffee and then passing out— but the next morning I woke up at five in the morning and was like, OH MY GOD!

WK: There seemed to be a parallel between Deming’s biological mother Polly and his adoptive mother Kay when it came to the concept of “motherhood.” Both have very different journeys that lead them to being Deming’s mother. Both women are not without faults, but feel real love for the same child. Can you talk more about your exploration of motherhood and its variety of roles?

LK: Polly and Kay are both imperfect women doing the best they can. They also want the best for Deming, or what they feel is the best for him. On a more thematic level, they are inseparable from larger forces of class, race, language access, and citizenship status, and this impacts their parenting and expectations. Kay and her husband Peter can provide Deming with economic resources, but Polly can provide him with connections to culture, family, and identity. I wanted to explore the differences between the two.

WK: Deming (later Daniel) performs poorly in academics, which causes him to struggle as a child. Being a bad student is an example of how Deming’s life and family defy cultural stereotypes we see about the Asian community. Did you intend to confront these racial stereotypes?

LK: I didn’t set out to strategically write against stereotype—I just wanted to create a fully developed character. Deming’s poor academic performance is tied to the upheavals in his childhood, some uninspiring teachers, and his interests being more in art and music than in the traditional academic areas that his adoptive parents value and pressure him to pursue. I do hope my characters reflect the full diversity of Asian Americans. There are definitely plenty of Asian kids who are terrible students!

WK: Deming/Daniel also struggles with a gambling addiction. The addiction seems to come out of nowhere, though it’s obvious he is incredibly isolated without a lot of support systems. What role did the gambling addiction serve in exploring Deming/Daniel’s character?

LK: There’s a certain obsessiveness about Daniel’s character, as well as a desire for risk-taking. That, and his perfect poker face—a skill honed from having to pretend, to hide his true feelings in his new adopted family and town—make him susceptible to succeeding as a gambler. The theme of gambling is also prevalent throughout The Leavers. Chance, luck, the arbitrariness of immigration policies, and even being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time affect my characters’ lives in pivotal ways. From a storytelling point of view, Daniel’s gambling addiction is something he needs to face as part of his character’s journey. He treats others poorly because he’s not being honest to himself, and he has to learn to make decisions for himself rather than doing what others want him to do, whether it’s his parents or his friends.  

WK: In conversation with Barbara Kingsolver, you mentioned getting inspiration from the New York Times reports about women who were separated from their children and imprisoned in immigration camps. Immigration has been a growing cultural and political issue in recent years, but it has taken on new meaning after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. This just four months before the release of your debut novel about how unethical immigration practices can cause enormous harm for families and individuals. What role do you hope your novel has had and will continue to have in this growing conversation?

LK: By personalizing one fictional family’s story, I’d love for The Leavers to clear some misconceptions about undocumented immigration, as well as raise awareness about the for-profit prison system and its ties to U.S. immigration policies. These policies have been in place for years, and didn’t start with the Trump administration. There are “bed quotas” that mandate that a certain number of immigrants need to be imprisoned at any given time—during the Obama administration it was 34,040 immigrants per day. Trump would like to double it. Private prisons are profiting, big time, off of xenophobia, racism, the criminalization of immigrants, and the separation of families like Polly and Deming’s.

WK: The concept of “identity” is at the forefront of this novel in almost every way. Deming/Daniel and his mother both explore dual Chinese-American personas, the Wilkinsons learn what it means to be an individual versus a parent, even Deming’s best friend Michael uses academics to reach a new phase of adulthood. Each character in the novel is searching for their truest meaning, either because they have yet to find it or they feel it has been lost. Why is identity such an important concept for you as a writer and what does it mean to you?

LK: American culture in general has always been obsessed with identity and the right to define ourselves—self-determination, right? If we’re referring to racial and ethnic identity, I think that Asian Americans are often so invisible in media, and when we are visible, we’re often being defined by others. So to define ourselves and center our stories is to assert our own humanity in a way, and that can be critical. Polly and Deming deal with this, too: their own search for belonging is also a desire to be fully seen, understood, and to be able to define themselves on their own terms, rather than to be forced to fit the more limiting definitions that are placed upon them.

WK: What are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?

LK: Having my story “Proper Girls” published in One Teen Story was a big turning point for me during a time when it felt like nothing was going well with my writing. I’m so excited to celebrate with One Story and the other authors!

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Anne Corbitt

On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating nine 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 chatting with Anne Corbitt, author of One Story issue #129, “The Tornado Bandit”. Her debut novel, Rules for Lying, was released last September from Southeast Missouri State University Press after winning the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel.

In suburban Atlanta, Georgia, high school sophomore Langley accuses her classmate Kevin of sexual assault, which he denies. Rumors swell and the entire town forms their opinions on who’s telling the truth in the face of a stalling police investigation. The novel follows Langley, Kevin, and the people closest to them as this incident wreaks havoc on all of their lives. Rules for Lying makes us question the truth in situations, while Corbitt’s vivid prose and masterful cultivations of suspense make this small town come alive with intrigue.

Kaitlin McManus: Where were you when you found out that Rules for Lying was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Anne Corbitt: As anyone who’s sent out a manuscript will tell you, for a few months there, I got in the habit of answering any unknown number that popped up on my phone. Friends I would send to voicemail, my mom would get a text back, but if it was an area code I didn’t recognize, I’d take the call in the shower. One night, though, I missed a call from a number that Google told me meant Missouri. It was too late to call back, so I spent the night telling myself that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be, that it was almost definitely a bill collector or a limited-time offer for a timeshare.

Then I got an email from Susan Swartwout at Southeast Missouri State University Press asking to schedule a phone call. It wasn’t the call, I told myself. There was no way.

When you’ve only ever really wanted one thing, it feels impossible to imagine a future past that wanting.

So the next afternoon, when I got on the phone with Susan, I didn’t even understand what she was telling me. “We picked your book,” she said.

“For what?” I asked.

Thankfully, Susan is kind, so she didn’t groan as she explained it all again. I remember crying. I remember trying to catch my breath.

“I don’t know if you’re a drinker,” she said, once I gave her the chance to talk again. “But you should go pop a bottle of champagne.”

We got off the phone, and I immediately drove to my parents’ house. They were having a new oven installed, so there were workers everywhere, but I made them sit in the living room, and then we were all crying. We Skyped with my sister in Philadelphia, who joined us. (My family is, obviously, way awesome.) I remember what I kept saying, out loud and in my head: It’s happening. It’s actually happening.

Then we went to dinner where I ordered a giant beer and sweet potato fries. It was perfect.

KM: You employ half a dozen narrators in this novel; all so distinct and yet each of their voices is so genuine. Was any one voice your favorite? Did you struggle with a particular character?

AC: They say first novels are often autobiographical, but mine definitely (and thankfully) was not. Still, I had some threads of connection with each character. Langley, for instance, became far easier to write once I realized she loved swimming at the same time that I was learning how to (in my thirties). That was our first bond.

Kevin was the hardest to write, and, even now, I feel like I wrote him from the outside. By that I mean I wrote him as a mix of all the boys I loved in high school. It’s hard to feel as connected to someone who never loved you back.

But hands down, throughout the entire eight years I worked on this thing, Eleanor was my favorite. She still is. She is so much stronger than she thinks she is, so much wiser too. Despite the bad choices she makes (and, boy, does she make some stinkers), she seemed the most grounded to me, the most likely to come out the other side with both feet firmly planted. I’d love to think I was like her when I was fifteen (I did have a picture of Edward Furlong in my locker), but really, she is so much cooler than I’ve ever come close to being.

KM: One of the things I loved most about this novel was that we don’t know until nearly the end if Langley is telling the truth. You just push on, and tell us how all the characters are trying to get on with their lives. What challenges did this present as you were writing?

AC: From the novel’s inception, I knew I wanted to keep readers guessing. The biggest failure I could imagine was a story that came down strong and loud on either side. So I didn’t let myself “decide” the outcome. That old adage about no surprises for the writer meaning no surprises for the reader definitely cycled through my mind. If it didn’t know, I hoped that readers wouldn’t either.

That said, it was consistently challenging to write Langley’s and Kevin’s chapters without knowing the answer—especially any scenes that recalled the event. That’s where my love for murder mysteries became an asset. I’ve annotated dozens of pages of P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Tana French, trying to figure out how they write crimes and crime scenes without ruining suspense. I’m still not entirely sure how they do it, but I tried to follow their lead as much as I could.

KM: Rules for Lying takes place in suburban Atlanta, where you currently reside. What was it like writing a novel that takes place in your own backyard?

AC: I actually don’t live in suburban Atlanta. I’m a city girl, through and through. (The distinction matters in Atlanta, though to anyone else, it’s precisely as unimportant as it sounds.) And that’s why I created the fictional suburb of North Oak. I wanted a place close to me, in a region I understood, but I wasn’t ready to write my city, at least not overtly. So I tucked Fulton High School about 25 minutes from where I grew up, which felt a safe distance.

To the question of writing about the larger Metro Atlanta area, this aspect of the novel was another one I knew from the start. I love Southern literature—Faulkner, O’Connor, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Eudora Welty—but I’ve only rarely read fiction about my South, the urban/suburban South. It’s a complex, dark, beautiful, conflicting, confusing place. I can’t imagine a better setting for fiction.

And just to say it: I wasn’t ready to write Atlanta then. I think I am now.

KM: Rules for Lying examines situational and emotional truths, even while the characters search for a more literal truth. What was it like, creating this balancing act?

AC: This question is the trickiest to answer because, truly, I don’t know. Because writing a novel is hard. Like, really hard. And it also feels ridiculous and foolish most of the time. So the short answer is this: it was tough. I cried some. I got really good at staring out the window.

But that’s just writing a novel. To the more specific question on balancing truths, I have to cite my two biggest literary influences: Southern fiction and mysteries. William Gay and Tom Franklin in one ear, Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott in the other. I wanted to do both traditions proud. I wanted a story that allowed characters to interact with their histories, to reach for the lost, to feel out of place, somehow, in the world where they’ve always lived, all while crafting a plot to keep them moving, to keep them uncomfortable, to give them a forward momentum that would propel them somewhere new and strange and not innately bad but not obviously good either.

In short, I wrote a lot of crap. Then I made it better.

KM: What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?

AC: Writing fiction can be such a lonely vocation. You spend hours alone, working with characters no one else can see, constructing scenes that have never happened. Even when you emerge from your desk, you interact with such a noisy world, one that often undervalues the necessity of what you do. A good group of friends, particularly writers, can help. Other people’s books can too. A fully-stocked liquor cabinet. A dog. But nothing quite beats the high of standing in a room of people who share your passion for and belief in the written word. It’s a rare and thorough joy. It’s life-giving.

Also, I get to wear a fancy dress.