Issue #229: Goodnight Nobody by Sarah Hall

Dear Reader,

Meet Jem, an eleven-year-old girl who is leaning forward toward adulthood with all her might. She has, as the author describes it in our Q&A, “an elastic, skipping-ahead brain” that doesn’t necessarily want to focus on the little brother she’s often charged with watching, but would much rather be investigating the bloody incident that has taken place down the street—an incident that’s left one person dead and put another person in jail. (Her brain would also like to be watching Thundercats, but that’s not an option at present.)

Sarah Hall, the author of “Goodnight Nobody,” is one of the most careful writers I know. Her word choices, narrative pacing, and sentence rhythm are the result, I suspect, of a great deal of hard, obsessive work. And yet none of that calls attention to itself. The nuts, bolts, and machinery are all hidden away, and her work is a pleasurable breeze to read. One of the great achievements of this particular story is the fact that its voice is so intimately attached to Jem, it feels as if it’s written in the first-person. I find “Goodnight Nobody” to be an addictive read, and I hope you do too.

If, by chance, you haven’t encountered Sarah Hall’s work before (she now has two story collections and five novels under her belt), I’m all the happier to be introducing you to her. Her new story collection is called Madame Zero. She’s a treasure, and we’re honored to have her in the One Story family.

Issue #228: The Third Birdhouse by John Biguenet

One of the many things I admire about our new issue is the way it sweeps through time with the subtly of a light breeze. The narrative voice is subtle, as well — subdued, even, and remarkably commanding. Contributing Editor Will Allison brings us “The Third Birdhouse,” so the honor of introducing if is his. — PR

In one of the Old Testament’s more unsettling tales, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The devout Abraham takes Isaac to a mountaintop, builds an altar, and binds his son to it. Just as Abraham raises his knife, though, an angel intervenes. “Now I know you fear God,” the angel says, “because you have not withheld from me your only son.” Abraham ends up killing a ram instead, and as a reward for his obedience, God blesses Abraham’s family.

Things don’t work out quite so well for Abraham in “The Third Birdhouse,” John Biguenet’s contemporary retelling of Isaac’s life: it’s not okay in twentieth-century Brooklyn to try to murder your son with a hatchet, even if you think God told you to. But things do work out for the narrator, who—like the biblical Isaac—goes on to lead a long and prosperous life, with twin sons of his own.

The question is what kind of dad this modern Isaac will be, given the poor role model of Abraham. Isaac’s big test comes when his younger son, Jacob, swindles his twin brother out of his inheritance, just like in the Bible. How will Isaac respond? Raise the hatchet? Bury the hatchet? Hatch a compromise? His solution surprised me, and it’s one I’m still grappling with, which is partly why I love this story: like all good literature, it challenges the reader, posing questions rather than answering them.

John Biguenet, on the other hand, was more than happy to answer our questions. Be sure to check out his author interview to learn how birdhouses found their way into this retelling of Isaac’s story and to get John’s distinctive take on the reading habits of Donald Trump.

OTS #50: Guts by Gnesis Villar

As you may know, at the beginning of this year One Teen Story became a quarterly magazine focused solely on the writing of teens. Along with how wonderful it is to work with young, emerging writers, I’m excited that we’ll now be putting their stories into the hands of over 10,000 readers (which is a huge circulation increase from what OTS was able to boast of in the past). To start us off on this new venture, we present you with “Guts,” a story written by Gnesis Villar. “Guts” is several things at once: it’s a story about courage and self-respect, it’s an endearing portrait of a friendship between two teenaged girls, and it’s a chilling tale of a dangerous world that looks a lot like ours. Read what Gnesis has to say about how the story came about in our Q&A. She’s a remarkable talent. I feel certain we’ll be reading more of her work, and I envy readers who get to experience “Guts” for the first time.

Issue #227: What Is Behind by Tomiko Breland

We at One Story aren’t in the habit of publishing stories that directly relate to current events—not because that’s our policy, but because such stories usually take a long time to dream up, percolate, and write. When Tomiko Breland’s “What Is Behind” came to us, we were captivated by the writing, first and foremost, and we were blown away by its immediate grasp of an ongoing, tragic, and very widespread current event: the plight of the Syrian refugees. The story follows nine people, inviting the reader into each of their heads as they emerge from hiding and make a run for safety. It’s a remarkable piece of political fiction—in no small part because its emotional impact is not just the result of the subject matter, but of the way it’s rendered. To read more about how the story came into existence, take a look at our Q&A with Tomiko Breland, where she reveals why the form she wrote in was the only one that allowed her to do justice to her characters.

Issue #226: Prairie Fire, 1899 by Mike Alberti

When I was growing up in Florida, we would have tornados now and then. They were long and skinny, or fat and stubby, descending out of storm clouds to crack like a whip over our town, or poking down like the nose of a dog nudging a sand castle. The scariest thing about them—even scarier than their unpredictability—was their strength.

I was reminded of those tornados when I first read Mike Alberti’s “Prairie Fire, 1899.” There are no tornados in this story, but, as the title suggests, there is a fire. A wide, merciless fire. And, as we all know, fires are merciless not because they don’t want to show mercy; they’re merciless because they’re single-minded. They only want one thing: to burn.

The new issue of One Story is about the meeting of that fire and a mining community on the American frontier at the turn of the century. It has a classic, almost formal voice, and a narrator that moves from person to person with the ease of a spark carried on a breeze. In our Q&A, Mike Alberti describes it as “a sort of fable about the West.” It’s a remarkable, large-hearted short story with great staying power. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Issue #225: An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes by Lucas Schaefer

When “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes,” by Lucas Schaefer, showed up at the office and I gave it an initial read, I spent the first few pages having to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction and not an actual oral history. Once I wrapped my head around that, I became drawn in by one of the biggest casts of characters I’ve ever encountered in a short story—each voice distinctive, each character a building block in the recreation of a historic (fictitious) event: the legendary 1974 battle between Holly Hendrix and Terry Tucker. The story is as compelling as it is funny, as infused with personality as it is charged with spot-on observations about the way we regard gender, power, and ambition. We’re delighted to be ushering it into the world, and we’re even more delighted that this is the first publication by a talent we are most certainly going to be hearing more from in the future: Lucas Schaefer.

To learn more about why Lucas chose to write a fictional oral history instead of a more traditional short story—and to hear what he has to say about the joys and challenges of that form—check out our online Q&A with the author. We make it standard practice to conclude our Q&As by asking authors to share the best piece of writing advice they’ve ever received. Lucas’s answer is both a charmer and heartbreaker!

Issue #224: Optimistic People by Chris Drangle

There are many layers to Chris Drangle’s “Optimistic People,” including the layer of earth one of the characters is buried under as the story opens. Contributing Editor Will Allison lassoed this twisted, hair-raising work of fiction, so I’m happy to let him make the introductions. Enjoy!-PR

This month we’re excited to bring you one of the most shocking, suspenseful short stories ever to cross One Story’s submission desk: “Optimistic People,” by Chris Drangle. Set in rural Virginia, “Optimistic People” is the tale of two teenagers on their first date. Warren and Soleil have plans to meet up in the woods to watch the sunset. Warren is well meaning but dim; as Soleil puts it, “There was a thin line between being good and being a moron, and he straddled it.” Soleil is the new, weird girl in town, her parents having fled Washington D.C. to escape a congressional staff assistant turned stalker.

The teens’ plans go awry when Soleil runs out of gas en route to the meetup. Meanwhile, Warren stumbles upon two men burying a mysterious something in the woods. Minutes later, we meet friendly, disheveled Tom, whose prayers are answered when Warren unearths the pine box in which Tom has been buried alive.

I’m guessing you’ve never encountered a character quite like Tom. (If there’s such a thing as your typical buried-alive guy, this guy is definitely not it.) I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more, but you should know that a man being buried alive is not this story’s most chilling plot twist. That comes later, and it unfolds in a fictional slow motion that will have you turning pages with a delicious sense of dread.

Chris Drangle is still new on the literary scene, having published just a handful of stories, but we look forward to seeing a lot more of his work. You can get to know him in our online Q&A, where Chris discusses techniques of suspense, his fondness for story titles, and the importance of figuring out why the junebug collapses.

Issue #223: In the Neighborhood by Jess Rafalko

223_coverTwenty years ago, I loaded everything I owned into a truck and moved from a quiet place in the woods to the middle of New York City. It took nearly a year before I understood how to navigate the different subway lines, got used to Indian, Ethiopian, and Egyptian food (the three staples in my neighborhood), and learned how to sleep through the sirens outside my window at night. There is a feeling of disorientation that comes with moving to a completely new landscape, especially when it coincides with a great emotional change, as it does for the characters in Jess Rafalko’s marvelous short story, “In the Neighborhood.” Angela and Hank are a married couple who’ve moved from the flat-lands of Nebraska to the mountains of Vermont. They’ve unpacked and settled into new jobs, but the path of their journey is still strewn with wreckage. Hank is avoiding his grief and soldiering forward, while Angela has fallen into a well of guilt, anger, and sadness. Then, one day, a bear appears. The animal opens their mailbox, looking for food, and the scratches it leaves begin to tear down the walls that have built up between this husband and wife, who discover that moving to a new state may change the view from your window, but it will never change what’s in your heart. I hope you’ll all enjoy this story as much as our staff here at One Story did. And be sure to read Jess Rafalko’s Q&A with us, where she talks about work, love, loss, and the tornado that inspired this wonderfully moving story.

Issue #222: The Quality of Your Life by Min Jin Lee

222_coverWhen we’re young, we tend to be idealistic. Everything is new and exciting—especially when it comes to love. A heart that has never been broken before is easier to give away. We do it without knowing the danger. We offer it with both hands. This kind of blind, joyous affection is beautifully captured in our new issue, Min Jin Lee’s “The Quality of Your Life.” Set in Korea in 1932, the story follows Sunja, a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Her days are filled with hard work and shopping at the daily market for the boarding house run by her mother. And then, in an instant, everything changes. Sunja crosses paths with an older man named Hansu, who travels for business between Korea and Japan. Soon the blossoming relationship between these two characters becomes as complicated and fraught as the relationship between those two nations. Sunja struggles to maintain her identity, just as her fellow Koreans work against the historical ties that bind them to Japan. This theme continues in Min Jin Lee’s forthcoming novel, Pachinko. Find out more in our Q&A, and then continue on Sunja’s epic journey, where she never gives up fighting for the people she loves.

Issue #221: Staff Picks
by George Singleton

221_coverOur new issue, George Singleton’s “Staff Picks,” centers around an RV and all the dreams that motor homes represent–the possibility of changing your life, hitting the open road, seeing the world, while at the same time keeping creature comforts close. I fell for Staff, the librarian hero of this tall tale, and cheered as she attempts to break free from her job and her broken heart. Contributing Editor Will Allison brought this unpredictable love story to our pages, so I’m turning the introduction reins over to him. Enjoy!-HT

There’s an old show business saying: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” You could argue that this is even more true in literary fiction, where characters die all the time, but precious few stories offer much in the way of laughs. If you feel the same, then the story in our new issue, George Singleton’s “Staff Picks,” is for you.

Like many of Singleton’s stories, the premise of “Staff Picks” sounds like the setup for an elaborate and possibly off-color joke: What happens when a South Carolina woman with “resting bitch face” takes on eighteen locals in a hands-on endurance competition to win an RV?

Rest assured, the resulting story is funny. But as with all of Singleton’s work, it’s no joke. The author’s favorite bit of writing advice? Comedy is serious. “On the page,” he says in our author interview, “it’s not slapstick. It’s what Aristotle pointed to when he wrote about catharsis, and what Mr. Beckett meant when he espoused how there’s nothing funnier than human misery.”

In “Staff Picks,” the human misery begins with Staff Puckett, who, through no fault of her own, has the sort of deadpan visage that makes it look like she wants to vaporize you. Suffocating in her small-town life as a library archivist, Staff sees a possible escape in the brand-new Winnebago being offered as a prize to whichever contestant can remain in physical contact with the vehicle the longest.

What Staff doesn’t bargain for is fellow contestant Landry Harmon, a doughy, chatty, low-level pro bowler with whom she has more in common than she knows. Throw in a swindling jeweler, an insecure poker player, some goofy radio deejays, the periodic table of elements, British fine china, and a lightning storm, and you have the makings of a classic George Singleton tale that we’re tickled to present in the pages of One Story.