The siege of Sarajevo began in April, 1992 and lasted nearly four years, during which the citizens of that war-torn city lived in terror and suffered every possible kind of deprivation. Thousands were starved, raped, killed by snipers or wounded in bomb attacks. Like the mass murders in Srebrenica and death camps like Omarska, the siege of Sarajevo became a symbol of the Bosnian war and dominated the world news cycle. But how did the civilians caught in the crossfire live day to day? How did they continue on when surrounded by so much death? These are just some of the questions that author James Winter takes on in our new issue, “A Very Small Flame.” Written from the point of view of Pasha, a Muslim grocer trying to protect his family, “A Very Small Flame” uses a unique format to tell its story, presenting lists of words and memories to record the facts of history. As a reader I was caught up in the drama of Pasha’s life but also held by his refusal to fall into despair, even when bearing witness to the darkest of atrocities. Read our Q&A with James Winter to find out more about the research that went into “A Very Small Flame,” and how this thriving, cosmopolitan city went from hosting the Olympics in 1984 to being a battlefield just eight years later. It is a history lesson everyone should know, and a story worth telling—how to face such horror with an unflinching eye, and without losing love or faith in humanity.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Vincent Price’s classic horror film House of Wax on late night TV. In the climactic scene, the young heroine discovers that the museum’s wax figurines are made from real corpses, including her best friend, who has been transformed into Joan of Arc. Trapped between a young Charles Bronson (Igor) and Vincent Price (the museum curator), she beats Vincent Price’s face, which falls apart, revealing a monster hidden behind a wax mask. I was reminded of the movie the first time I picked up our marvelously strange new issue, “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle. Not only because of the wax museum setting, but because both stories center around identity and false appearances. The teenaged heroines of “Fear Itself”—Kara, Ruthie & Olive—are best friends, but find themselves grating against their assigned categories (the ugly one, the caretaker, the prude). The girls’ internal frustrations bubble to the surface on a class trip to a presidential wax museum, and soon overflow. Jealousy, love, courage and hate all come into play as these three friends search for ways to find new ground, eventually standing together against the forces of darkness (and in this case, also bad boyfriends). Check out our Q&A with Katie Coyle to find out more about the inspiration behind this sharply written, astonishingly bizarre and simply fun short story, then click the video below to see a clip from House of Wax. Despite all of the movie’s campiness and bad-acting, the moment where Vincent Price’s face falls apart still resonates with a creepy magic. What’s really behind the masks our friends and family wear each day? What’s behind our own?
Our new issue, “Claire, the Whole World” is another debut—the first fiction published by Jonathan Durbin. As we prepare for this year’s Literary Debutante Ball, which is all about writers helping other writers, let’s take a moment and raise a glass to this talented first-timer. May this pub be the first of many! And now, I’ll turn the reins over to Contributing Editor Will Allison, who discovered and shepherded this marvelous tale of love and Los Angeles. —HT
How high a price are you willing to pay for fame? Would you spend years underemployed, piling up credit card debt, just to give yourself a tiny shot at an acting career? How would you know when to call it quits? And in the end, what’s more important, your dreams or your happiness? These are the questions Jonathan Durbin takes up in his first published story, “Claire, the Whole World,” which appears in the latest issue of One Story. In swirling, confident prose, Durbin weighs the price of success for two aspiring actors in Los Angeles, where fame is ever present but usually out of reach. The story opens with a TV commercial starring the narrator’s girlfriend, Claire—one of three such commercials that comes to haunt the narrator as he seeks footing in the shifting landscape of their relationship. The story’s landscape shifts as well, from the Mojave Desert to Malibu to the Hollywood Hills, each locale providing new challenges as the narrator and Claire try to reconcile their ambitions with the realities of show business. Featuring a cameo by Meg Ryan (not to mention another, more fearsome inhabitant of Hollywood), “Claire, the Whole World” marks the debut of a compelling voice in American fiction. Be sure to check out our Q&A with the author to find out how this story was influenced by Bill Murray, Kurt Cobain, and a stranger’s disparaging remark about salad.
When it comes to jealousy, Shakespeare probably said it best: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Just like poor tragic Othello, nothing settles into our souls or breaks us apart more completely than doubt, an emotion that takes center stage in the lyrical and gripping new issue of One Story, “Owl.” Set near Bonners Ferry at the turn of the last century, Emily Ruskovich’s “Owl” is a mystery wrapped in a love triangle wrapped in an historical thriller. A husband cares for his wife, shot in a hunting accident by a group of local boys. But lingering in the air is a puzzle he cannot solve—what was she doing in the woods that night? No matter how he tries, he can’t shake his feelings of suspicion, until they lead to a hunt of his own, and a confrontation that reveals a long-held secret. Be sure to read Emily Ruskovich’s Q&A with us, which explores the connection between her story and Peter Pan—as well as how she developed the distinctive voice for this unforgettable narrator. And next time the green-eyed monster starts to haunt you, remember: Iago may have whispered those famous words to Othello, but it was Othello who clung to them and let them eat away at his heart.
I am not a ballerina. I’ve never had that kind of grace. But I love going to see dancers perform. They have a different kind of relationship with their bodies than the rest of us—a harmony of mind and muscle, spirit and bone. But what happens off-stage, when the tights are off? In our new issue, “Astonish Me,” talented author Maggie Shipstead holds back the curtain to see. Loosely inspired by dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in 1974, “Astonish Me” explores the high cost of love and freedom in the beautiful and cut-throat world of professional ballet. Be sure to read Maggie Shipstead’s Q&A with us to find out more about the inspiration behind this extraordinary story, which details the sacrifices, both emotional and physical, that dancers make in search of perfection. Like any athlete, ballerinas push themselves to the edge, then retire before they’ve hit middle-age—when other professionals (particularly writers) are just hitting their stride. So the next time you see a performance of The Nutcracker, be sure to clap extra hard for those snowflakes in the chorus. With each pirouette they are giving their all, even as their moment in the spotlight melts away.
In the summer of 1996, a few months after I finished my MFA at Ohio State, I got the luckiest break of my writing career: I landed an editorial job at Story, the fabled literary magazine that prided itself on discovering great new writers, from J. D. Salinger and Carson McCullers in the 1930s and 1940s to Junot Díaz and our own Hannah Tinti in the 1990s.
I say it was the luckiest break of my career because even though I’d been writing fiction for eight years, editing stories taught me how to write them much better. My job at Story also gave me insight into what I could expect when the day came that I’d be working with an editor myself.
In putting together One Story’s first online course, Become Your Own Best Editor, I thought a behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process—using actual marked-up manuscripts—would be as instructive for other writers as it was for me. And I had the perfect story in mind: Laura Spence-Ash’s debut, “The Remains” (issue #188). Laura was great to work with, a writer who was open to feedback and who improved upon our suggestions, making her story even better than we envisioned.
In addition to drafts of “The Remains,” the ten-day course (March 21-30) will include daily online lectures, assignments, and a message board where you can share ideas and manuscripts with other writers who are committed to becoming better editors of their own work. To find out more about this course, go here. Deadline to sign up is March 21st. I hope you’ll join us!
One Story works hard to support emerging writers, so it is a special thrill to present a debut author in our pages: Laura Spence-Ash! Contributing editor Will Allison will do the proper introductions for this unique and moving story. For now, let’s all raise a glass to a promising new writer, and the start of a successful career. —HT
In our latest issue, we’re excited to present Laura Spence-Ash’s first published story, “The Remains.” I’m a sucker for mystery, and this story had me from the start: “Sergeant Bill Marshall was the one who found her white bones in a fetal position, nestled inside a tweed coat and a red woolen hat.” The “her” in question is Sophie Constantine, who, we learn, lived a quiet, solitary life in a bustling Queens neighborhood. The cause of Sophie’s death is revealed soon enough, but “The Remains” is more concerned with the bigger question of who she was. Spence-Ash tells the story in five sections, each from the perspective of a different character who knew Sophie or was in some way touched by her death: the police officer who found her skeleton, her next-door neighbor, her tailor’s daughter, her former boss, and her ex-husband. Over the course of these five mini-stories, a nuanced and moving mosaic of Sophie emerges. It’s a story about death, yes, but it’s more a story about life: how we exist, beyond the grave, in memory, and how our lives affect the lives of others, often in ways we’ll never know. Be sure to check out our Q&A with Laura Spence-Ash to learn about the real-world inspiration behind her debut story, how long it took her to write it (my fellow slow writers, you will be comforted), and more.
A man leaves Chicago on a train heading for Cleveland at 60 miles per hour. Another man leaves Cleveland heading for Chicago on a train going 85 miles per hour. How long before the two trains cross paths? This standard math question is something we all eventually face in grade school. To solve it, determine the distance (308 miles), the relative rate of the two trains (60 + 85=145), and use the formula Distance ÷ Rate=Time. But what if some of the elements of this equation changed? What if the two people traveling weren’t strangers, but a man and woman who are in love? What if the distance wasn’t 308 miles, but the years since one of them has passed away? What if the child solving this problem learns not math—but how to live a fuller life? All of these questions come into play in our new issue, B.J. Novak’s “A Good Problem to Have.” This short piece begins as a mad-cap lark, when the aged author of our famous train problem arrives and demands compensation from a fourth grade class. But as he settles in and tells his tale, the students soon learn that the truth behind this equation isn’t arithmetic—it’s a love story and life lesson hidden within the numbers. Be sure to read Contributing Editor Will Allison’s Q&A with B.J. Novak about the inspiration behind this sharply-written, funny, curious and moving story. And check out B.J.’s story collection, One More Thing, when it hits bookstores next month. In the meantime, take out a piece of scrap paper and start crunching those numbers. (The answer is: two hours and twelve minutes. The other answer is: make every second count.)
Who is your favorite Bond villain? Whenever I ask this question, people have their answer ready, as if they have been considering it for years. Some pick the classics from Ian Fleming’s universe, such as Goldfinger (“No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”), Jaws (mouth of metal) or Oddjob (deadly bowler hat). Some are fans of Mr. Big (“Names are for tombstones, baby!”), Rosa Klebb (killer shoes) or Ernst Stavro Blofeld (stroker of the white cat—later sent up by Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil). In many ways, these “bad guys” are more memorable than the men who have stepped in and out of the role of the hero. But what would happen if “real life” entered into this fictional world of dastardly plans? What if, for example, Dr. Evil got Alzheimer’s? That is the question Jen Fawkes asks in her highly imaginative, satirical and moving story, “Mastermind.” Set in a volcano—a VOLCANO, people!—our new issue is narrated by Carl, the right-hand man and care-giver of an evil menace who is slowly losing his mind. Be sure to read our Q&A with Jen Fawkes to find out more about the inspiration behind this gripping story of fathers, sons, memory and heart-break. And now—back to the volcano! Will Carl be able to keep his boss’s illness hidden from the rest of their evil organization? Or at least hidden long enough to blow up Mt. Rushmore? You’ll have to read “Mastermind” to find out.
Just as the cold weather sets in, our new story takes us on a trip to the islands. “Marlinspike,” by Tom Paine explores love, loss, and the connections we make while healing. Contributing Editor Will Allison saw this story through from start to finish, and so I’m passing the microphone into his capable hands. Enjoy!-HT
I’ve long been a fan of Tom Paine’s work—not the Tom Paine who wrote Common Sense back in 1776 but rather the O. Henry and Pushcart Prize–winning author of the story collection Scar Vegas—so I was thrilled when Tom sent us the story in our latest issue, “Marlinspike.”
Set on the Carribbean island of St. John, “Marlinspike” is about the extraordinary friendship between a grown man, Phineas, and a ten-year-old girl, Julia—a relationship that immediately reminded me of Seymour Glass and Sybil Carpenter in J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”
“Marlinspike” opens as Phineas, a med-school-dropout-turned-dive-instructor, is abandoned by his fiancée, also named Julia, on their wedding day. The problem is that Phineas won’t grow up. As Phineas’s sister tells him, “You can do everything, but your heart’s in nothing.”
Phineas is preparing to throw his homemade wedding cake into the sea when he meets a young girl, Julia, who’s visiting St. John with her father, a recently widowed eye surgeon from Savannah. Neither have come to terms with Julia’s mother’s death.
Unsupervised on the island, Julia attaches herself to Phineas—two damaged souls with time on their hands. The friendship that develops between them is sweet, unpredictable, and charming—but also full of danger: rocky cliffs, windswept seas, Carribbean wasps, a five-foot barracuda. It’s hard to imagine, given how reckless and injured they are, that things won’t turn out badly for Phineas and Julia.
I hope you find “Marlinspike” as memorable and moving as we did. And be sure to check out our Q&A with Tom Paine to learn about his years in St. John, the inspiration behind “Marlinspike,” and what Tom thinks of Kenny Chesney.