Q&A with our 2014 Mentor of the Year: Colum McCann

columMcCannAt 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 Colum McCann.

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.

Colum McCann exemplifies this kind of gallant hard work, and we’ll be honoring him, along with our Literary Debutantes, Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn.

In today’s post, Colum kindly took time from his busy schedule to talk with One Story about writing and teaching, the importance of being a mentor, and what he’s looking forward to the most at the big party this Thursday night.

  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 remember getting to meet of one of my heroes, Benedict Kiely, in Dublin when I was about sixteen years old.   He was a  friend of my father’s, and my first mentor.  He wrote me a beautiful note about some pretty awful stories that I had written.  I remember, years later, drinking with him in the pubs of Donnybrook.  He was an incredible raconteur.

And then for years I have had a correspondence with John Berger who sort of took me under his wing at a very early stage.  He once sent me 12 pages of notes about a novel of mine, Dancer.  There were many other mentors and spectacular acts of generosity all down the line.

Also, there were so many great teachers from my early years in Dublin, both at the primary and secondary school level.  All those songs and stories and poems.

Ultimately, however, I’d have to say that it was my father, Sean McCann, who was my primary mentor.

  1. Besides being an active member of various literary organizations such as PEN, and a founder of Narrative 4, which promotes empathy through the exchange of stories, you also teach writing at Hunter College’s MFA program. How does community work and teaching others fit into your literary life? And is it difficult to keep the balance with your own creative work?

Vonnegut says we should be continually jumping off of cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.  That’s how I feel about teaching and being involved with all these non-profits.  It keeps me on the edge.  It propels me forward.  It forces me to learn new things.  And my students keep me current in many ways also.  I see so many things through their eyes.  I don’t really find any tension there between my teaching and my creative work.  I like both immensely.  I think they compliment one another.  It’s just that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  I could do with another eight hours.

  1. You’ve recently published your 8th book, TransAtlantic. But could you share what it was like to publish your first book, Fishing the Sloe-Black River? What was the most surprising thing about becoming a published author for the first time?

I remember I went to London when Fishing the Sloe-Black River came out. I thought it was going to be a big deal.  I wore my torn black overcoat and a ridiculous beret.  I wandered around the publishing house, waiting for them to make a big fuss.  Nobody gave a tupenny bit.  I was distraught.  I stuffed my beret in the coat pocket and walked around, sulking.  But at the end of the day — just when I was about to give up on any pretense of celebration — my editor introduced me to Edna O’Brien who happened to be in the offices that day.  She was amazing.  She invited me to come read with her that very evening in a shop in Hammersmith.  It was my first ever reading.  An incredible experience.  Of course I read too long and didn’t have a clue, really, but it was unforgettable to read with Edna, another one of my heroes, one of the world’s great writers.

  1. Any words of advice for our 7 Debutantes as they start their literary careers?

My favourite quote from Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

  1. What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on May 22nd?

It’s a real honour to be seen as a mentor, but mostly I’m looking forward to hanging out with some of my students, and meeting the debutantes.

Introducing 2014 Literary Debutante: Molly Antopol

UNAMERICANS1On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Molly Antopol, author of One Story issue #132, “The Quietest Man.”

The voices that populate Molly Antopol’s remarkable debut collection, The UnAmericans, are both foreign and familiar. Foreign in the sense that they span across the globe and time, from Communist-era Prague to modern-day Brooklyn; familiar in the sense that they feel lived in, fully embodied, told in the intimate, compassionate manner that the best family tales are. The stories share echoes with many great masters of the form from the past – Paley, Malamud, Bellow – but Molly also forges her own unique path through the tangles of history. As Jesmyn Ward, who selected Molly as one of 2013’s 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honorees, said, “This book isn’t simply powerful and important—it’s necessary.” We definitely agree.

Thanks to Molly for taking the time to answer a few questions about her work and the writing life for One Story.

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

I was in New York doing book stuff, and that day was hanging out with my good friend Stuart Nadler. His new novel, Wise Men, had come out that day, and we were toasting to that when I got the call about my book. Over the years there had been many other times when Stuart and I had catastrophied about our writing and stressed over when we’d finally finish our books, so it was a wonderful thing to get to celebrate our two books coming into the world at the same time.

2. Your One Story “The Quietest Man” came out in March 2010. What has happened since then? How has your writing changed and what has remained the same?

Right now I’m working on essays, and on a novel, The After Party, which is set in the U.S and Israel. When I was working on my collection, I felt like I was pouring everything I had into whatever story I was writing—and so there was something intensely gratifying about starting fresh with a new setting, time period and cast of characters to research and explore, getting to see the world from a completely different vantage each time. I worried about what it would feel like to be in the heads of the same characters for as many years as it takes me to write a novel, but so far—at least in this early stage—it’s been pretty enjoyable to wake up and think about the same people every day.

3. You mentioned back then in your interview with One Story that, “I love the feeling of trying to understand what it would have been like to live in another place or during a different time,” and you do such a lovely, seamless job of inhabiting a great variety of voices in your collection. What story or voice was the most challenging to write? Which did you enjoy the most?

Thank you! To be honest, all of the stories were hard. Every one of them took at least a year to write—and the book itself took a decade. It was really important to me to try to write convincingly from the perspectives of women and men, young and old, American, Israeli and European. While I don’t have any stories in the book about women living in San Francisco and teaching creative writing, I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I obsessed over and questioned during the years I was writing them. Interestingly, the hardest story to write was the one most closely related to my own life, “A Difficult Phase.” Like my narrator, I’d also once dated an older man who had a child and a complicated backstory—and it was only years later, when I was back in the town where we used to live, that I started thinking about the dynamics of that triangular relationship, and the complicated repercussions my leaving must have had on his son.

I really enjoyed writing “Retrospective.” That was the last story I worked on for the collection, and because it was a longer piece, I gave myself more room to breathe and try some technical things I hadn’t yet attempted in the book. And it was a lot of fun learning more about the underground art movement in Russia and the museum world of Jerusalem—in addition to an insane amount of time in the archives (my favorite nerdy pastime), I got grants to travel to Eastern Europe and Israel for it, and ended up talking a lot with former dissident artists and museum curators. 

4. Your book’s title carries echoes of McCarthy’s infamous crusade in the 1950’s and many of the stories take as their subjects characters that are often identified with an outsider status – Communists, dissidents, immigrants. What drew you to these cultures and periods in history? What do you hope modern readers learn from them?

Many of these stories were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. I didn’t know my grandfather well—he died when I was six—but a little more than a decade ago my family gained access to his FBI files. The reports followed him across the years and across the country. In the files, I was able to see exactly what the FBI was looking for, but nothing else. They showed nothing of the angst that led him to quit the Party, and how painful it was for him to learn of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin—for him to realize that the cause he’d dedicated his life to was corrupt. And they didn’t reveal what being surveilled might actually have felt like for his children—what being watched does to a family psychologically and emotionally. Those were questions I found myself exploring in the book.

It’s interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history of the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The moment I finished reading it, I began writing The UnAmericans.

5. When did you know that you had a collection on your hands and what was the revision process like for you? Do you have any advice for writers currently working on a book manuscript?

In the beginning, I thought a lot about the difference between writing individual stories and putting together a collection—I was concerned that the stories weren’t related to one another in a neat enough way. In addition to the McCarthy-era stories, others are set in Eastern Europe, where my family’s originally from and where I’ve spend a good deal of time myself; while others take place in Israel, where I live a few months every year and used to live full-time, working at an Israeli-Palestinian human rights group and with new immigrants from Russia and Chechnya. I was about halfway through writing the book when I realized my stories all explored, in some way or another, the triangle between Cold War-era East European politics, Jewish American liberalism and the effect they had on contemporary Israel. But that was totally subconscious. And it was only once all the stories were finished that I discovered they weren’t linked by setting or character but by a question I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking myself: What are the complicated—and sometimes devastating—effects that one person’s quest to improve the world have on the people closest to them?

In terms of writing advice, I heard Philip Roth speak once and he said something that really stuck with me: never let people read your early drafts unless you’re certain they’re on your side.

6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

Meeting the other writers being honored that night. And trying out some new dance moves.

Gratitude for AWP and the Best Small Press Award

Our prize! We got to give an acceptance speech and everything!

Our prize! We got to give an acceptance speech and everything!

In our first year of publishing One Story, Hannah Tinti and I decided to take our first few issues of One Story to the AWP Conference in Baltimore. We took a standing lamp with the One Story logo stenciled on the lampshade and a few back issues, and drove to the conference in my very old car. In a small hotel ballroom, we met writers, readers, our publishing peers, and the amazing folks at CLMP who help lit mags like us do everything better.

We attended the conference every year after that and each time we did we felt refreshed about the state of publishing, enthusiastic about our wild idea of letting just one short story stand on its own, and proud of how much we do on a shoestring budget. Last week in Seattle, over 10 years after that first AWP, we were honored with the Best Small Press Award. We are so grateful for AWP for recognizing the work that we do, and for the work they do in bringing writers, writing programs, and publishers together.

We’re a small staff of mostly volunteers so recognition like this means a lot to us. So, thank you to everyone who has supported us over the years, from those of you who just stopped by the booth at AWP to share some writing advice and chat, to our subscribers, to our readers, writers, and supporters. And of course thanks to our fellow nominees, The Cincinnati Review and Creative Nonfiction, and all of the other small publishers and presses for continuing on the journey with us.

We’ll see you all next year in Minneapolis!

 

Announcing One Story’s 2014 Mentor of the Year: Colum McCann!

columMcCannOne Story is thrilled to announce our 2014 Mentor of the Year: Colum McCann.

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. Past honorees have included Ann Patchett, Dani Shapiro, and Dan Chaon.

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.

Colum McCann exemplifies this kind of gallant hard work, and we’ll be honoring him, along with our Literary Debutantes, on May 22nd, 2014 at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn.  Tickets for the Ball will go on sale on April 10th.

Colum McCann was born in Ireland in 1965. He is the author of two collections of stories and six novels, including Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic. He has been the recipient of many international honors, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children. He teaches at the MFA program in Hunter College.

Q&A with our 2013 Mentor of the Year: Dan Chaon

At One Story, we believe that being a part of the literary community is all about mentorship–turning around and offering a helping hand to the ones behind you. This Thursday, June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be honoring Dan Chaon as our 2013 Mentor of the year. Click below to see a great short film on Dan Chaon and his work, then read our Q&A with Dan about his writing experience, and how his own mentors taught him to be a better writer and teacher.

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

There are a lot. I had a number of great teachers–Tobias Wolff and Doug Unger in grad school, Reginald Gibbons and Sheila Schwartz in undergrad, and also some really wonderful teachers in high school and middle school.

I have to single out two in particular. I’ve written at length about my relationship with the late Sheila Schwartz, who started out as my undergrad writing teacher and, later, became my wife. She was the love of my life in so many ways, but she was also such an important mentor, really insightful and encouraging but also tough. I think the way she helped me to set high expectations is central to my own teaching. You need someone who believes in you, but who believes in the best part of you, the part that you maybe haven’t attained yet.

I also want to mention my seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Christy, who continued to be my mentor all through high school. He was one of those rare souls who treated kids like their ideas were serious. He introduced me to the world of literary magazines, and ingrained a respect for the process of revision into me, and really helped me to understand the idea that writing is all about work ethic. When some friends and I came up with the idea to create a journal that was published out of our small Nebraska town, he took us at face value, and was able to find funding to make that happen. He had us writing to nationally known writers asking them to submit work for our first issue–and a few of them actually did. I wrote to Ray Bradbury, and had a correspondence with Bradbury, who was another life-changing mentor for me.

I’m obviously not doing any of these people justice, and I’d need to write an essay about each one. In any case, there’s an essay about Sheila here, and an essay about Bradbury here. I’ll try to do essays on all the others at some point.

2. Any words of advice for our 7 Debutantes as they start their literary careers?

The best advice I got–and the hardest to follow: “Don’t be too attached to results.”

3. How do you find a balance between teaching and writing?

It’s ridiculously difficult, because they are both utterly consuming tasks. You have to sacrifice some things to do both, and I’ve chosen to cut back on sleep and socializing. And I haven’t stopped smoking, like I should have a long time ago.

So I’m tired and isolated and smelly, but I do write a lot of words and comment on a lot of student manuscripts.

4. Your first two books were award-winning collections of stories (Fitting Ends, Among the Missing). Now, after publishing two great novels (You Remind Me of Me, Await Your Reply), you’ve come back to the short story form with Stay Awake. What made you decide to return to short stories? And how are they different from working on novels?

I never really stopped writing stories. The pieces in Stay Awake were written between 2002-2012, usually during fallow periods when I was supposed to be working on novels. The fact is, though I like working on novels, the short story is my first love and I find myself starting and working on new ones (mostly unfinished fragments) all the time. It’s a different kind of energy from the novel, a different kind of relationship with the material. To me, a story is a snapshot or a painting, full of mystery outside its borders. It’s like looking out a window of a train and seeing a scene that moves you and compels you but you won’t ever be able to know all the background and details. Novels are a lot of things, but they don’t usually allow for that kind of unsettling, concentrated glimpse into a world.

5. What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th?

I’ve heard that Zach Galifianakis will be there. Is this true?

One Story & the 2012 Pushcart Prizes!

Hey One Story readers! The 2012 Pushcart Prize Anthology has just been published, and we are thrilled to have so many One Story authors in the mix! Two of our stories won 2012 Pushcart Prizes: “Nephilim” by L. Annette Binder (OS issue #141) and “Number Stations” by Smith Henderson (issue #136). And two other One Story writers, Anna Solomon (issue #73, “What is Alaska Like?”) and Celeste Ng (issue #86, “What Passes Over”), have new stories in the anthology as well. But that’s not all: OS author Ben Stroud (issue #119, “Eraser”) received a special mention, as did our former associate editor Marie-Helene Bertino for her story “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph.” We’d like to congratulate all our writers, and if you want to check out the 2012 Pushcart anthology, you can get your copy here!

PEN 2011 Writing Awards Announced

writing

Last week the PEN American Center announced its 2011 awards. We’re so excited that the winners included three members of the One Story community.

Susanna Daniel (“Stiltsville” #134) was one of two winners of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize (worth $25,000) for an excellent debut work of fiction for her novel Stiltsville. Smith Henderson, author of One Story issue #136 “Number Stations,”  won The Emerging Writers Award, a new prize which honors a writer who has been published in a literary journal, but has not yet published a book-length work. Former One Story contributing editor Elliot Holt, nominated by Guernica magazine, was named the runner up for this award.

We’d like to thank PEN for their continued extraordinary support of writers at all stages in their careers. We congratulate Susanna, Smith, and Elliot, and all of this year’s winners and runners up who will be honored at the 2011 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on October 12, 2011, at CUNY Graduate Center’s Proshansky Auditorium in New York City.

You can see the full list of winners and runners up here. We hope you’ll join us in October to toast them all.

One Story Author Valerie Trueblood makes Frank O’Connor Award Shortlist!

marryorburnCongratulations to OS author Valerie Trueblood (#35 “The Magic Pebble), whose short story collection Marry or Burn has been shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award! She and five other authors (among them Yiyun Li, Edna O’Brien, and Colm Tóibín) have been recognized this year for the prize, which will award the winner €35,000 along with great literary acclaim. We’re wishing Valerie all the best, and looking forward to when the prize is announced on September 18. Until then, here’s what Alannah Hopkin, Irish writer and judge of the contest, had to say about Valerie’s work:

“[For Trueblood], it was the complexity of her stories – really good short stories often tell two stories at the same time and she does that very well. She has a very distinctive voice.”

Other critics echo this praise—Publisher’s Weekly gave Marry or Burn a starred review for its “bracing honesty and elegant turns of phrase,” and Booklist noted it as “unique and thought-provoking…[with] well-drawn characters.”

You can watch a book trailer for Marry or Burn below. Check out more of Valerie’s writing here. Read all about this year’s Frank O’Connor shortlist here. Good luck, Valerie!