One Story Issue #280: Alice McDermott’s “Post”

Near the beginning of the lockdown in New York City, I thought about all the lonely people who suddenly were having to confront a whole new kind of loneliness. I also thought about all the couples living in all those apartments who were having to redefine their notions of cohabitating. Perhaps most often—and this might sound strange, but it was a pretty strange time—I thought about those cohabitating couples who’d been on the verge of breaking up when the lockdown began, and how any plans to break up had to be shelved (along with all the rest of one’s plans), and what that must have looked like when added to the other stress, worry, and general discontent that comes with a pandemic. Ticking time bombs! I thought. Huge fights! Murders! I could foresee the day Netflix would run dry and was, perhaps, pre-seeding my desire for other people’s drama.

Leave it to Alice McDermott to imagine a lockdown scenario of compassion—of love, even—between two people who have already drifted apart yet have chosen to lock down together. Mira and Adam are recent exes living in Brooklyn when the pandemic turns life on its head. While social distancing, by necessity, is driving so many people apart, they manage, temporarily, to come back together—not as a couple, not as anything romantic, but as a kind of two-person care unit. One of the many things I love about this story is that it’s about a pair of exes, yet it contains not a single argument about their shared past, not a single zinger, not even a single regret. It’s a love story about ex-lovers who are not attempting to reconcile. In the canon of great stories about exes, “Post” deserves an honored position. One Story is proud to present to you this brilliant new piece of fiction by the one and only Alice McDermott.

Please visit our website to read an interview with the author about “Post.”

One Story Issue #279: Christine Vines’s “The Tower of Amber Lane”

A lot of wonderful fiction has come from writers examining post-traumatic stress disorder. Katie Rogin’s novel Life During Wartime and Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment come to mind. So do Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels (which, while diving deeply into addiction, all have their roots in sexual abuse). The subject matter can be discomforting and even painful, but good fiction, as Raymond Carver said, “is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another.” And that’s what good fiction about trauma and post-trauma does: it brings the terror to the reader in a way that transcends observation and becomes something much more intimate.

Christine Vines’ “The Tower of Amber Lane” is good fiction that brings difficult news. One of the many things I admire about this story is that, within a fairly short amount of narrative time, it renders the lead-up to the trauma and then, while taking a brief step over much of the event itself, settles into the immediate post-traumatic period. There’s a boldness at work here, a willingness to dive deep into the hours and the very minutes following a harrowing night in the life of Lissa, a college student who’s living on the edge of campus and trying to climb out of the fellow-college-student dating pool. The point of view is close, the voice is intimate, and the effect is beyond chilling. This story is fearlessly fearful—and perhaps all the more so because the reader is right there with Lissa as she struggles to make the right decisions in a world that doesn’t always share her definition of what’s right.

The first time I read “The Tower of Amber Lane,” I started off deep in an armchair and ended up on the edge of the cushion, my hands white-knuckled as I held the pages. Christine Vines has written a story about, as she puts it, “navigating safety in intimate encounters.” Safety, as Lissa learns, is a relative term, and trying to navigate it can be terrifying. One Story is proud to be publishing this powerful work of fiction by an emerging writer of great talent.

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

Issue #278: Kristen Leigh Schwarz’s “Signs and Symptoms”

Every story has a spark that set it smoking in the writer’s mind, and the spark that set off our new issue, “Signs and Symptoms,” was a news article about a physicist’s attempting to open a portal into a parallel universe. Author Kristen Leigh Schwarz read that article and couldn’t help but wonder, How might that go?

How it goes for barista Marvin is that a series of bizarre and troubling phenomena first are reported in the news and then begin to occur in his place of work. The parallel universe, it seems, is vacuuming things out of this world at an alarming rate. Marvin and his boyfriend, Reg, have to think fast: Should they call for help? Run for their lives? Go to a casino and play nickel slots until this world and everything in it have been sucked into the void?

I love “Signs and Symptoms” because it manages to be so many things at once. It’s weird, fantastical, a little frightening, extremely funny, and romantic. Yes, this apocalyptic yarn is romantic! Kristen Leigh Schwarz has pulled off a kind of magic trick with this highly original story that is simultaneously down to Earth and out of this world. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

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

One Story Issue #277: ‘Pemi Aguda’s “Breastmilk”

Our new issue was acquired and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m handing over the intro mic so that he can make the introductions. Take it away, Will! — PR

’Pemi Aguda’s “Breastmilk” takes place in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria and the third largest city in Africa. As soon as Aduke’s husband, Timi, returns home from a business trip to the capital city Abuja, he confesses to committing adultery with his ex-girlfriend. But Timi is otherwise a good man—a rare Nigerian husband who eschews sexist gender roles—and Aduke promptly pardons him. They have passionate forgiveness sex, and thirty-eight weeks later, their first child, Fikayo, is born.

That’s where the trouble begins. Aduke finds herself unable to produce breastmilk, and she comes to believe the problem stems from her unresolved regret about letting Timi off the hook so easily. On top of that, Aduke fears she has betrayed the feminist values she inherited from her proud, activist mother. “Women suffer enough,” her mother says. “Don’t add man problem on top. Keep your shoes beside the door.”

I was drawn to “Breastmilk” by the raw honesty of Aduke’s voice and by the story’s vivid rendering of the early days of parenthood. Aduke’s fear is one that all parents will recognize—the fear of failing one’s newborn child. But for Aduke, that fear is compounded by her body’s refusal to comply with the demands of motherhood. It’s a fraught, heart-wrenching situation that Ms. Aguda explores with tremendous depth of feeling in pitch-perfect prose. We’re excited to be showcasing Ms. Aguda’s work in our pages, and we hope you find Aduke’s story as compelling as we did.

To read an interview with ‘Pemi Aguda about “Breastmilk,” please visit our website.

One Teen Story Issue #66: Elane Kim’s “Smorzando”

As 2020 was nearing its close, we received more than 450 entrees for One Teen Story’s Teen Writing Contest—the most we’ve ever received. They came in from teen writers ranging in age from 13-19, and we grouped them into three categories: 13-15, 16-17, and 18-19. Our goal, as always, was to pick a winner and runner-up in each category, and our team of dedicated contest readers set the process in motion by diving into one of our favorite shared activities: reading. It was heartening, indeed, to discover that not only had the teens been writing during a tumultuous year, but they’d also produced some powerful, moving stories.

We’re pleased to present to you the winner of our 13-15 age category: Elane Kim, who has written a quietly moving story called “Smorzando.”

“Smorzando” is about two sisters, Amy and Maya, who have lost their mother, live with their grandmother, and share a passion for playing the piano. As is often the case in stories about siblings, there is rivalry: Amy is more dedicated (at first); Maya is more talented. The fact that Maya is the younger of the two sisters isn’t lost on Amy, who does her best to tolerate her sister’s immaturity while struggling to accept that, no matter how immature she is, Maya will always be the better pianist. Add to this Amy’s desire, as the older sister, to help keep alive the memories they share of their mother, whom they both dearly miss.

Elane Kim has written a tender and utterly convincing story about these two girls at a challenging juncture of their lives. We hope you enjoy “Smorzando” as much as we did.

One Story Issue #276: Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s “Extinction”

When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to be over anytime soon, and social distancing turned into lockdown, and lockdown turned into finding new ways to live and stay creative and sane, we at One Story began to anticipate the pandemic-related submissions we were bound to receive. As they started to come in, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone was going to write a story about how weird we all became. What I mean is, consciously or not, we all had to reinvent our notions of interaction and intimacy. We all had to find new ways to lend emotional support, and we all had to find new ways to receive emotional support.

It wasn’t a smooth process, by any means. We were living in a world of constantly changing information, trying to cope with a global health crisis that immediately and bizarrely had become political. And as the spring of 2020 edged toward summer, everything became more challenging, more unsettling, more of a mirror held up to our faces, showing us ourselves in stark relief.

I’ve been a fan of Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing for a long time, so I’m particularly thrilled to be presenting “Extinction” to you. This, in many ways, is the story I was wondering if someone was going to write: a story about how our world was (and still is) upended, and how it changed us not just in obvious ways but in subtle ways we might not even have been aware of. How do we make the best of things when a better version of our world is rapidly receding from our view, when distancing becomes isolation, and when we can’t trust ourselves to make the best choices? “Extinction” puts its finger on the pulse of our current lives. It’s both a story for our times and a story with staying power.

One Story Issue #275: Don Lee’s “Reenactments”

Don Lee’s “Reenactments” takes us to El Paso, Texas, where a Hollywood shoot-’em-up—a “pretty standard narco/border thriller,” as the narrator describes it—is being filmed. The on-location challenges include barking dogs, blistering heat, and fake, sugary blood that attracts fire ants. But the biggest challenge for Alain Kweon (an actor from Hawaii whose agent has convinced him to go by the professional name Alan Kwan) is a script filled with racial stereotypes, and the director who wrote it. Alain’s character, Mano Silencioso, has but a single line in the film. That line make no sense to Alain and, worse, the director wants him to deliver it in what a fellow cast member calls “the old I-rike-flied-lice accent.” It’s the biggest role of Alain’s career thus far, so he has to make a choice: dignity, or potential success in the industry?

This story knocked my socks off for a number of reasons. For one thing, it transported me onto a film set fraught with problems (I’ve got my own problems, but they don’t involve lying on the ground for hours in full sun while bugs eat through fake blood to get at my skin). For another, Alain’s conflict is palpable—and all the more so because the story is told in his voice. The main reason I fell in love with “Reenactments,” however, is because it’s so masterfully told. Don Lee is a writer who knows how to cut to the heart of difficult subject matter in an extremely honest, realistic, and entertaining way. I was leaning forward in my chair as I neared the end, hungry to find out what was going to happen.

One Story is delighted to be putting “Reenactments” into your hands. If you aren’t yet familiar with Don Lee’s writing, a wonderful discovery awaits you. And if you have a secret dream to become a villain in a shoot-’em-up, you might want to keep that dream to yourself (or, at the very least, make sure you have some say in both the script and the ingredients for the fake blood).

To read an interview with Don Lee about “Reenactments,” please visit our website.

One Story Issue #274: Anthony Varallo’s “Hey, Me”

Our new issue was procured and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m passing the mic over to him to make the introductions. Heeeerrrrre’s Will! — PR

The first thing that struck me about Anthony Varallo’s “Hey, Me” was the disarmingly honest and funny voice of his protagonist. Amy is a struggling college student whose professor has suggested that she jumpstart her incomplete English paper by recording voice memos. The story takes the unusual form of two such memos, recorded by Amy over the course of a few days as she procrastinates writing her paper and instead ruminates on her feelings about topics such as college life, authenticity, friendship, and toast. (Yes, Amy is a bit digressive.)

But mostly Amy’s feelings are focused on her professor, a new mother Amy yearns to connect with on a deeper level. At first Amy’s obsession with her professor seems quite sweet and innocent, but her monologue takes an unexpected turn when Amy reveals that she has stalked her professor multiple times, secretly following her around campus. I couldn’t help anticipating a dark outcome, but at the same time, I wondered how Mr. Varallo would pull off an ending that remained true to Amy’s character. (He didn’t disappoint.)

During my ten years at One Story, I’ve had the pleasure of editing some unforgettable voice-driven stories. Two that come to mind are Bonnie Jo Campbell’s hard-bitten “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” which we published back in 2015, and last year’s luminous “Fate and Ruin,” by Mary Grimm. I’m thrilled to be introducing another story worthy of that group, and I hope you enjoy having Amy bare her soul into your ears as much as I did.

One Story Issue #273: Stephen Fishbach’s “To Sharks”

Our new issue was procured and edited by contributing editor Will Allison, so I’m handing the rudder to Will to steer us toward it. Here’s his intro! — PR

Two months ago, while introducing a story involving the former San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, my colleague Patrick Ryan used this space to confess his ignorance of sports in general and baseball in particular. “I had no idea Tim Lincecum was a real person who used to pitch for the San Francisco Giants,” he wrote. “I didn’t even know there were San Francisco Giants.”

Now it’s my turn: Though I do know of the TV show Survivor, I have never watched an episode—despite the fact that it’s been around for 30+ seasons, despite the fact that it has come to define the reality TV genre, despite the fact that some of my friends are fans. It’s a gap in my cultural literacy that I just haven’t gotten around to filling, perhaps because I’m often watching baseball instead.

So when this month’s story crossed my desk, I was mostly clueless but intrigued. “To Sharks” follows the misadventures of Kent Duvall, a former contestant on a fictional reality TV show called Endure. Furthermore, the story’s author, Stephen Fishbach, competed in two seasons of Survivor

Since his last appearance on the show, in 2015, it turns out Mr. Fishbach has dedicated himself to the art of writing fiction. By contrast, his protagonist has struggled to move on from his brief time in the limelight. Twelve years after winning $100,000 on Endure, Kent finds himself out of shape, unemployed, and still clinging to his long-ago fifteen minutes of fame, but he gets to relive his former glory when he is invited to a charity event where worshipful, diehard fans mix and mingle with former reality TV contestants. Kent sees the event as a chance to jumpstart his life, and he angles to land a job working for a wealthy fellow Endure alum. Suffice it to say, things do not go as planned, and the ensuing events are as hilarious as they are sad.

Kent Duvall is a character I won’t soon forget, and I was also fascinated by the reality-TV fan subculture depicted in “To Sharks,” a world that Mr. Fishbach renders with ironic distance but also with insight and genuine compassion. We’re excited to be kicking off 2021 with his first published story, and we hope you enjoy it too.

One Story Issue #272: Dantiel W. Moniz’s “Necessary Bodies”

Billie, the main character in Dantiel W. Moniz’s story “Necessary Bodies,” has a secret: she’s pregnant. This is primarily a secret she’s keeping from her mother, Colette, who’s about to turn fifty, has two grown children, and—so far—no grandchildren. To Colette’s thinking, if one can make babies, one should make babies.

But to Billie’s thinking, a prospective parent should ask herself some very important questions before bringing a child into the world, one of which is, Will I be a good parent?

That alone makes “Necessary Bodies” a bold and challenging story, because while most everyone hopes they would rise to the occasion of child-rearing if presented with it, not everyone does. (If everyone did, think of all the great novels sprung from unhappy childhoods we’d be deprived of.) Dantiel W. Moniz says in our Q&A that she’s a writer who doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable or undesirable feelings, and the result of that is writing that feels refreshingly—and comfortably—real. This story, our last in a very rocky and challenging year, is a pre-pandemic joy to read. I’m delighted to introduce you to it and to this dynamic, emerging author.