Introducing 2017 Debutante: Melissa Yancy

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we 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 Melissa Yancy, author of One Story issue #20 “Alas My Love, You Do Me Wrong” and the short story collection Dog Years, winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Challenging the limits of physical health and everyday anxieties, the stories in Yancy’s debut collection reveal the fears we’re afraid to admit we have and the ways in which we try to control them. A molecular geneticist juggles the inevitable reality of her son’s Duchenne muscular dystrophy while planning his birthday party, a woman who runs a facial reconstruction program reflects on her relationships as she cares for her dying dog, and a former city clerk joins a strange self-help regimen after a workplace scandal costs her her job. The nine stories in Dog Years explore the different kinds of isolation we often put ourselves through and the quiet, unsettling, humorous, and deeply human insights that come from these moments.

Monique Briones: Where were you when you found out Dog Years was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Melissa Yancy: I was six months pregnant, sitting on the exam table in my doctor’s office, so I didn’t answer the phone. Just two weeks earlier, I had received the stunning news that I’d been awarded an NEA Fellowship, and when I saw the Pennsylvania number on the phone, I thought of the Drue Heinz, and then thought no, no way, not again. I didn’t properly celebrate. I was so busy, and couldn’t enjoy a glass of champagne or my favorite foods. (That sound you hear in the background is my wife playing the world’s tiniest violin for me.) It seemed like I went right into edits while I planned for the baby’s arrival, and it’s been non-stop ever since. I did have a few moments to celebrate once the book was out in the world. Going to my alma mater and celebrating with undergraduate professors meant a lot to me. And my dad came along for the prize weekend in Pittsburgh.

MB: I’m not sure if it’s possible to discuss the book without mentioning health and wellness, and how these two are often compromised and questioned throughout Dog Years. I was fascinated by how you paired certain characters with their ailments. Could you talk about how you create your characters, particularly the sort of match or mismatch you make between their personalities and their illnesses or conditions?

MY: I think some readers found that a little on the nose—the physical illnesses too neatly mirroring psychological wounds. But I never intended injury or disease to be metaphorical. Several of the characters were inspired by real people—the girl in “Miracle Girl Grows Up,” for example, was drawn from a young woman whose cancer treatments had physically stunted her. In these stories, and in others that don’t appear in the collection, I’ve explored patient exploitation (while engaging in said exploitation). But on the surface, it looks rather writerly—the character is stunted emotionally and physically. We’re all stunted in some way, and we all die of something.

There are a couple of characters I consciously complicated. The real life fetal surgeon who inspired “Consider this Case” has a beautiful wife and three children, and I didn’t think writing about how amazing he is would make for great storytelling. I was interested in what it would be like to have this specialty—there are only a dozen or so in the nation who focus on fetal surgery—and not have children yourself, and to have a difficult relationship with the idea of parenthood. “Hounds” developed in a similar way. I feel a little guilty about that one, actually. The character Jess physically resembles her real-life counterpart, but not psychologically—the events of the story are fictional. But again, a story about people doing heroic reconstruction work on veterans isn’t great fiction. And the injured faces aren’t meant to work on a symbolic level. I wanted to play with the idea of heroes and villains, and what it means to be someone heroic in one sphere of life, but experience moral grief in another. I’m less interested in the way the inner and outer wounds match up than the way the psychology of Jess’s character mirrors that of someone who has been through war trauma.

MB: How did you choose the order of the stories?

MY: By lottery. Really, there have been so many different iterations. I heard one long-time prize series editor say to front load it with the good ones, and not put anything too experimental or challenging first. A friend told me to think of it like a party, and then order it in the way you’d want to introduce someone to these characters. I did try to start with those with the broadest appeal, and put some palate cleansers in that would break up the more layered stories. I have no idea how to order a collection.

MB: One of my favorites in the collection is “Consider This Case,” because it’s very heartfelt and also has many hilarious moments. It’s a story about a fetal surgeon getting used to his father moving in with him, and there were numerous points during which I wasn’t sure if the father was going to make me laugh or cry. Could you talk about surprise and humor in your writing, and how you balance those elements in your stories?

MY: Humor allows us to access emotion. It opens up the body. And I think even people who aren’t jokesters in their daily lives develop a sort of gallows humor when life calls for it. Look at the present moment. The jokes are non-stop, which doesn’t mean anyone thinks what’s happening is funny. Some of the most devastating short stories are superficially humorous—Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” and George Saunders’s “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” come to mind. I wish I understood the mechanics of comedy more. It’s something I’d like to study. I’m not funny, but I love witty people, and I like to give my characters a little wit.

MB: Considering your background as a fundraiser for healthcare causes, I imagine that you’re surrounded constantly by your research. What is your research process like?

MY: Yes, you’ve got it. Research is basically showing up at my office. I have so little time to write that I like to imagine I’m being efficient. And bringing both hats (secretly!) to meetings that might otherwise be too erudite or overwhelming, can make the job much more interesting. When I research things for other, non-medical stories, though, I quickly fall down the internet rabbit hole. I’ve written some really weird stuff that way.

MB: You mentioned in your first interview with One Story that the best writing advice you’ve ever received is, “if you can’t write, lower your standards.” What other lessons have you learned since then?

MY: That advice is good for getting words on the page, but then the real work begins. The truest advice is the advice no one wants to hear—especially from successful writers—about the role of luck and timing. Which is why staying in the game is so important. Once the delusion of youth wears off, you need something else to sustain you. I once heard Ron Carlson say, “The writer goes to the stubborn,” by which I think he meant, it’s the people with the most grit, not the most talent, who survive.

MB: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

MY: The as-yet unimagined ways I will make a fool of myself.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Sam Allingham

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we 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 Sam Allingham, author of One Story issue #97 “Bar Joke, Arizona” and the short story collection The Great American Songbook. Allingham’s debut showcases narrative versatility and range of emotion over the course of its nine stories. The opening two, respectively, introduce us to vivid fictionalizations of American jazz greats Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and a city barista who moves to bohemian western Massachusetts to practice polygamy. Allingham’s structural inventiveness is unyielding; one story builds off of a bar joke while another manages to sketch a negative of a character’s life by describing all of the other people in it. Love, mania, dangerous obsession, and devotion to one’s craft often blur uncomfortably, but there are otherwise few summary statements that could be made fairly about this heterogeneous collection.

Tyler Baldwin: Where were you when you found out that The Great American Songbook was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Sam Allingham: I found out at work, and my wife and I celebrated that night by going to the local bar in our neighborhood, where we’d met, and where I did a lot of the joke-collection (i.e., fieldwork) for “Bar Joke, Arizona.” Since I wrote that story almost ten years ago—it’s the oldest in the collection—it felt like things had travelled more or less full circle. That felt very satisfying.

TB: Several of the long stories in your collection start off innocuously enough, only to take a dark turn when a central character develops a mania or reveals some wholly unanticipated, grotesque aspect. I’m thinking especially of “Husbandry,” but also of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” The obsessions you invent in these stories are fascinating—for example, shooting small animals for food, and unsettlingly accurate model-building. I’m curious about how you came up with them, and if, when you began writing these stories, you were aware that they would surface.

SA: I usually start a story with some sense of the central conflict. I think of this as the initial thrust required to get the story into orbit, whether that’s the initial glimpse of the model city in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” or the mother dressing up in hunting clothes in “Husbandry.” So those two manias were present as soon as I started writing; the story’s inciting incidents wouldn’t exist without them, and they represent the central desire that drives the narrative. But as for how these ideas appeared, I’m afraid I don’t really know! I suppose the desire to build scale models of the place in which you live is really just a reflection of the writing process. I can tell you, though, that you can get a lot of narrative torque out of the tension between a monomaniacal character and a so-called “normal” one; the monomaniac forces their foil to reflect on their own desires, and to react in ways the reader might not expect.

TB: This collection is bookended by stories about several famous American Jazz musicians of yesteryear. The way you write their characters, it seems almost as if you’re a historical biographer, like you have intimate knowledge of their habits, foibles, and dispositions. What sparked your interest in fictionalizing this particular group of people, and how fictional are they?

SA: Almost entirely fictional! I did read a biography of Artie Shaw, and I listened to some interviews, but my Artie is in no way an accurate depiction of the man himself. He’s much more an homage to certain books by Thomas Bernhard than he is a real person—or, I guess, an attempt to turn a first-person rant into its own kind of music. I was interested in Shaw because of his intense hatred towards popular music, his great talent and also his sense of the insufficiency of that talent. All the other biographical stuff struck me as mostly incidental.

As for Rodgers and Hart, I did essentially no research, other than listening to their songs. I still know next to nothing about them, but the piece isn’t really about the context of their lives as much as it’s about the collaborative relationship between artists of two particular kinds: the one who finds his work fluid and easy (perhaps too easy), and the one who finds himself tortured by it. Also the relationship between music and language, composer and lyricist, fluency and neurosis.

TB: In your jazz stories, Artie Shaw and Lorenz Hart are so embittered. They end up hating not only the music industry—with the way commerce, friendship, and art strain against each other—but music itself. I’m used to authors waxing poetic and celebrating music as this higher sublimated language, but Artie longs for silence. A former music teacher and Oberlin student yourself, how do music and musicianship inform your writing?

SA: In my experience, writing that waxes poetic about music is usually extremely unsuccessful, and people who celebrate music for its communicative powers are often non-musicians! The musicians I know get intensely frustrated by the structure of music: its limitations, its repetitions and clichés. Like all artists, they’re leery of repeating themselves, trying to push through the limitations of the form and into some unexplored realm. That’s Shaw’s trouble, in the title story of my collection. He can feel the limits of his own playing, even if nobody else seems to notice, and it drives him half-crazy.

I think it’s easy to overstate the relationship between music and language. No worse critical cliché than calling someone’s prose “musical!” Of course, I pay attention to rhythm in my prose, maybe more than the average writer; I did start my musical life as a drummer—but I think a lot of the stories in the collection that are about musicians dramatize the unbridgeable differences between the two forms. Music occurs in time and space, it’s outward facing, and at its best (during certain improvisatory moments) it can feel almost unconscious. Language, on the other hand—by this I mean written language—sits outside time, in the exchange between writer and reader; it’s inward, ruminative; it has a tendency towards obsessive neurosis, extreme self-consciousness.

That being said, what unifies a song and a story is that both forms are highly structural. There’s an architecture to each, whether the audience recognizes it or not. I think being a musician taught me respect and also a certain frustration with form: chord changes, rising and falling action. It taught me that the best way to treat such a structure is to stretch it to the breaking point.

TB: While reading The Great American Songbook, I found myself unable to pin down your style or classify your stories. The collection contains one or two traditional, realist short stories, but also the likes of “Bar Joke, Arizona,” which is quite literally a bar joke that, with some narrative propulsion, becomes something entirely new and different. Is there a particular style that you’re most comfortable writing in? Which of the stories in this collection was most challenging to write, and why?

SA: For me, the joy in writing a story is figuring out the particular way it wants to work. A good story builds its own form, sort of mollusk-like; ideally, the thematic core builds outward, either from a scene or a premise or a character. I often stop after the first few pages of a story and think: what does this one need? It’s like you’re confronted with a marvelous new animal and you have to figure out how to feed it, keep it alive. So I would say that there’s no particular style I feel comfortable writing in because each animal has its own particular needs. That being said, the hardest story in the collection to write was “Stockholm Syndrome,” simply because it’s by far the longest, and because it was very difficult, emotionally, to live in Valerie’s head. She reminded me of unpleasant aspects of my own world vision.

TB: Lastly, what are you looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?

SA: I’m looking forward to reading the books by the other debutantes, and re-reading the ones I’ve already read. I don’t get out into the NYC literary world much, so I’m excited to wear a nice suit and drink cocktails and have lively conversations about literature!

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we 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.

First up is Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes, author of One Story #211, “The Elephant’s Foot.” Her novel, The Sleeping World, tells the story of Mosca, a university student in 1977 Casasrojas, Spain and her search for her younger brother who has been taken by the police and is presumed dead. We talked to Gabrielle about her research process, what it was like to publish a first novel, and her forthcoming projects.

Courtney Luk: Where were you when you found out The Sleeping World was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes: I was at home in Athens, Georgia and it was about a million degrees. My partner saw that my agent was calling and started freaking out for me. I tried to keep my cool on the phone but it was hard with all the ridiculous faces he was making. I celebrated by eating oysters with my friends and then I bought a gas stove.

Courtney Luk: How did you come up with the idea for The Sleeping World? What drew you to the specific time and place?

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes: I studied abroad in Spain in 2007 and I was really fascinated by the tensions between generations. I lived in a city, Salamanca, that had supported Franco but, due to its university, is home to many students who are much more progressive. That tension and the enforced silence around the Franco regime provided an emotional landscape to explore grief and protest.

CL: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to publish your first book?

GLF: Very difficult and daunting but very exciting. Ever since the book sold, I’ve been oscillating between being overjoyed and grateful and extremely nervous. It’s so much effort and work—by so many people—to get a book published, much more than I knew. There’s a sense of relief as well. I love the thing-ness of books and holding the first copy made me feel very present in the world.

CL: The narrative in The Sleeping World maintains an authenticity of time and culture. Can you talk a little bit about your research process?

GLF: I focused on Spanish novels and art from the time period (1970s and 80s) and after the Spanish Civil War. Textures and outfits from Almodóvar and the photographer Alberto García Alix. I trusted my gut and what I’d learned from speaking to Spaniards to shape much of the narrative and then researched to make sure such a narrative was possible—thank goodness it was! I combined certain elements from Latin American dictatorships with Spanish history, so it was important to me that the novel not be considered historical fiction and therefore have to conform to the demands of that genre. But I also wanted to make sure that the narrative respected the time period and those who lived through it.

CL: The fantastical elements of the folklore in “The Elephant’s Foot” published in One Story directly contrast the realism in The Sleeping World. How did your writing process differ between writing these two pieces?

GLF: For me there isn’t much of a difference in the writing process because I don’t really see them as separate in terms of genre. The marvelous is almost always present in my work both because of what it is capable of achieving in a literary mode and because of my own beliefs. At the beginning, The Sleeping World seems fixed to the genre of classical realism, but as the book progresses, the ghosts of the story and Spain’s past become more and more present, shaping the narrative and calling previous conceptions of reality into question.

CL: Mosca’s search for her brother demonstrates a connection that transcends physical space, or presence, and becomes one of intuition. Mosca truly believes Alexis is alive. What informed this relationship?

GLF: My brother passed away a year before I began writing the novel and Mosca’s journey mirrors my own in some ways. I needed a sort of ritual, a descent into the underworld, to survive. Writing provided that form.

CL: What are you working on now?

GLF: I’m currently working on two novels, one has a working draft and the other is still in the hair-tearing-out generating phase. My second book re-imagines Wuthering Heights from a Latina perspective and is set on a religious commune during the Great Depression. My third is set in contemporary rural Northern Wisconsin and seems to be developing into a kind of literary mystery. I like to change settings, time periods, and styles a lot—each time I switch I think that this time period/perspective will be easier, but it never is!

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

GLF: I’m so excited to meet the other authors whose work I love and to hang out with my mentor Kirstin Valdez Quade. I plan on wearing a way-too-fancy dress and dancing too much.

One Story’s 2017 Mentor of the Year: Lan Samantha Chang

One Story is thrilled to announce our 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. Past honorees have included Ann PatchettDani Shapiro, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte, and Jim Shepard.

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 to 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, on May 12th, 2017 at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn.  Sponsorship level tickets are available now. General Admission tickets will go on sale on March 20th.

Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of a collection of short fiction, Hunger, and two novels, Inheritance and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. Her work has been translated into nine languages and has been chosen twice for The Best American Short Stories. She has received creative writing fellowships from Stanford University, Princeton University, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Announcing One Story’s 2017 Literary Debutantes!

One Story proudly presents our 2017 Literary Debutantes:

SAVE THE DATE and raise a glass as we toast these nine One Story authors who have published their first books in the past year! The One Story Literary Debutante Ball will take place on Friday, May 12th at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY.  We’ll have live music, dancing, hors d’oeuvres, and specialty cocktails. It is our most important fundraising event of the year.

General Admission Tickets will be on sale March 20th. To discuss sponsorship opportunities for the One Story Literary Debutante Ball please contact: maribeth@one-story.com.

One Story at AWP 2017

In just a couple of days, the AWP conference will descend upon Washington, D.C., bringing thousands of literary magazines, MFA programs, publishers, and writers to our nation’s capitol. One Story will be there, too, and we hope that you’ll come visit us at booth #472. We’ll be selling discounted subscriptions, recent issues of One Story and One Teen Story, and custom-curated three packs of the magazine. We’ll also be registering people for our newest online class, and raffling off prizes (one of which is a Nasty Writer tee similar to the ones pictured above).

Wondering which panels & readings to go to? We’ve got some suggestions! Co-Founder Hannah Tinti will be giving a reading on Thursday from her new book, and One Story Editor in Chief Patrick Ryan will be hosting a panel on Saturday. One Story authors will also be participating in some amazing events throughout the conference—here’s a schedule (One Story Author/Editor/Contributor names in BOLD)

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9TH:

9:30-10 am:  Writing in a Time of Terror and Environmental Collapse. (Imad Rahman, Jacob Shoes-Arguello, William Wenthe, Anne Sanow, Jacqueline Kolosov) Archives, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four How do writers give shape to the experiences of war, terrorism, and the disregard for life endemic on this planet? Muriel Rukeyser believed that denying the responsiveness to the world could bring forth “the weakness that leads to mechanical aggression… turning us inward to devour our own humanity, and outward to sell and kill nature and each other.” Given global terrorism and the spoliation of the planet, the stakes in being able to respond are terribly high. Writers working in poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, will discuss their ways of meeting this challenge in their works past and present, including the difficulties they face and the sources from which they take inspiration.

10:30-11:45: Leashing the Beast: Humanizing Fictional Monsters. (Anna Sutton, Steven Sherrill, Clare Beams, Kate Bernheimer, Julia Elliott) Capital & Congress, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four Want to write fabulous fabulist fiction? Bring your beasts to the table. Panelists discuss their influences, inspiration, and how they go about creating characters who exist between human and monster, mundane and extraordinary. In addition, they explore how writing a fantastical other can open up the conversation to contemporary societal issues, all while cultivating empathy within both the writer and the reader.

12:00-1:15: Beautiful Mysteries: Science in Fiction and Poetry. (Robin Schaer, Amy Brill, Catherine Chung, Martha Southgate, Naomi Williams) Liberty Salon L, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” In search of those mysteries, poets and fiction writers mine the revelations and riddles of science to better understand the human condition. This panel will explore why botanists, astronauts, and climatologists populate the pages of modern literature; how writing advances ecological awareness; and how science is a metaphor and a lens to decode our beautiful universe.

12:00-1:15: A Field Guide for the Craft of Fiction: Finding Structure. (Michael Noll, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, Daniel José Older, LaShonda Barnett) Virginia Barber Middleton Stage, Sponsored by USC, Exhibit Halls D & E, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two When talking about narrative structure, we often focus on the macro: three acts, plot points, beginnings, and endings. But there are micro ways to think about structure while working with character, dialogue, the movement through time and space, and shifts between interiority and exterior action. Authors of literary, fantasy, and YA fiction featured in the forthcoming Field Guide for the Craft of Fiction will discuss how they developed (and stumbled upon) structure in their novels and stories

12:00-1:15: Write Your Memoir like a Novel. (Joanna Rakoff, Tova Mirvis, Dani Shapiro, Marie Mockett, Christa Parravani) Room 202A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two What happens when a novelist writes a memoir? Some of the rules change: no more making everything up. But crafting a memoir requires many of the same skills used in writing fiction. A memoir is filled with characters that need to be developed—even if one of those characters is you. Real-life events still need to be shaped into an arc. This panel, comprised of fiction writers who have written memoirs,will discuss ways to use the techniques of fiction writing to bring a memoir to life.

12:00-1:15: The Art of the Novella: Publishers and Writers On Crafting the Beautifully In-Between. (Richard Hermes, Deena Drewis, Lindsey Drager, Dennis Johnson, Josh Weil) Room 207B, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two Ian McEwan calls it the perfect form of prose fiction, but the novella is often seen as an awkward middle sibling, defined by what it isn’t. How do we know if our work isn’t merely a bloated short story or fledgling novel? What’s at stake in working in this (arguably marginalized) form? Pioneering publishers of stand-alone novellas, Melville House and Nouvella, join accomplished authors to share what they’ve learned from reading manuscripts, curating book lists, and publishing their own drafts.

3:00-4:15: But Do You Have a Novel? How and Why Short Story Writers Transition into Novelists. (Susan Perabo, David James Poissant, Caitlin Horrocks, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Amina Gautier) Capital & Congress, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four Even the most successful short story writers face this daunting question: “Is there a novel coming?” Agents and publishers contend that the market simply does not exist for story collections. Thus many story writers embark on novels in part to secure publishing contracts, and then struggle with a new form they have promised to deliver. We take on practical questions of transitioning to a new genre, and also consider the issue of navigating the professional complexities of this transition.

4:30–5:45pm: Jennifer Egan, Karen Joy Fowler, and Hannah Tinti: A Reading and Conversation, Sponsored by Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau (moderated by Ron Charles) Ballroom A, Washington Convention Center, Level Three This event will bring together three engaging contemporary female writers to read and discuss their craft. Jennifer Egan is the author of five books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. Karen Joy Fowler is the author of nine books, including We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award. Hannah Tinti is the author of three books, including The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, which will be published in 2017.

4:30-5:45: Science in Literary and Mainstream Fiction: A New Wave. (Nancy Lord, Susan Gaines, Kathleen Dean Moore, Michael Byers, Jean Hegland) Room 101, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Street Level Recent decades have seen an upsurge of novels that deal with knowledge, themes, and characters from scientific fields such as biology, ecology, chemistry, genetics, paleontology, neuroscience, and psychology. Panelists discuss the reasons for this trend, the particular craft challenges and responsibilities of writing about science in realistic fiction, and the ramifications of such fiction for public understandings of science and debates on related social and environmental issues.

4:30-5:45: Fractured Selves: Fabulism as a Platform for Minorities, Women, and the LGBT Community. (Sequoia Nagamatsu, Aubrey Hirsch, Brenda Peynado, Zach Doss, Ramona Ausubel) Room 207A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two Fabulist writers and editors define Fabulism (often used with other terms like magical realism and slipstream), illuminate individual approaches to the genre alongside brief readings, and discuss how fabulism can be a rich territory for expression, exploration, and power for minorities, women, and the LGBT community. What does it mean to write about the other from other worlds or hybrid spaces?

FRIDAY FEBRUARY 10TH:

9:00-10:15: A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges. (Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng) Room 203AB, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two A novelist’s most important job is writing a great book. But say that’s done, and the book sold. What’s next? How does one master social media and the promotional partnership with a publisher? What are the financial realities of signing a book deal or leading a “successful” novelist’s life? What are the pros and cons of teaching, starting a writing-adjacent business, or making ends meet on words alone? Our award-winning panelists offer hard-earned advice on building a sustainable career.

9:00-10:15: Strange Bedfellows: The Unholy Mingling of Politics and Art. (Andrew Altschul, Nick Flynn, V. V. Ganeshananthan, Anthony Marra) Room 202A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two If the pen is mightier than the sword, why are young writers so often told that politics and literature don’t—or shouldn’t—mix? The introduction of real-world conflicts interferes with good storytelling, the theory goes, favoring ideas over characters and the general over the concrete. How then can writers find a space to explore the matters of life and death, wealth and poverty, war and governance that affect us all? How should art respond to the terrors of modern life?

10:30-11:45: Novels and Short Stories: How a Narrative Finds Its Form. (Deb Olin Unferth, Jon Raymond, Sara Majka, J. Robert Lennon) Liberty Salon N, O, & P, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four Five Graywolf Press authors read from their new and forthcoming books and discuss the differences inherent in writing short stories and novels. Are some narratives best suited to one form or another? How does each form demand a different approach to the writing process? Does the length and shape of the narrative restrict or enhance the story being told? These authors, who range in experience from established to emerging, bring a variety of perspectives to bear on these questions and more.

12:00-1:15: Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Organizing and Structuring Story Collections. (Sian Griffiths, Benjamin Hale, Marie-Helene Bertino, Michael Martone, Julia Elliott) Archives, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four Putting together a story collection can feel like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces don’t quite fit and there is no one solution. Must the stories be interconnected or thematically connected? Can stories be linked by virtue of voice, tone, or style? How much does the marketplace influence the writer’s approach? The panel presents writers of interconnected, thematically connected, and unconnected stories to provide insight for story writers seeking to build their collections.

12:00-1:15: Raising Hell: Writing from the Extremes. (R. O. Kwon, Roxane Gay, Téa Obreht , Laura van den Berg, Catherine Chung) Room 202A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two Terrorists! Cult leaders! Violent criminals! Psychopaths! This reading presents fiction writers who have given voice to the baleful extremes of human experience. What are the joys, risks, and responsibilities of writing sinister characters whom many readers might have trouble understanding? How should fiction writers think about depicting evil? What are potential difficulties? Join the panelists as they share perspectives and read from their work.

1:30-2:45: New Writers Award 45th Anniversary Reading. (David James Poissant, Tarfia Faizullah, Ander Monson, Brad Watson, Kim Addonizio) Marquis Salon 1 & 2, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two The Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award is one of North America’s oldest, most celebrated first book prizes. Now in its forty-fifth year, the award has launched the careers of Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, and Jorie Graham, among many others. To commemorate the award, five winners from three decades read their poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The reading is followed by a Q&A

1:30-245: The Transnational Novel: Decolonizing Fiction. (Robin Hemley, Lisa Ko, Xu Xi, Evan Fallenberg, Sybil Baker) Capital & Congress, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four In a time of the largest mass migration of humans since World War II, the transnational novel seems more relevant than ever. Four authors who have written transnational novels discuss the impetus behind writing in the form and its challenges and rewards. They also discuss how to approach perspective and craft when writing as well as the attendant writing life that often accompanies it.

1:30-2:45: The World Turned Upside Down: Hamilton , An American Musical. (Judith Baumel, Jacqueline Jones LaMon, Victorio Reyes, Stephen O’Connor) Room 102B, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Street Level The smash Broadway hit Hamilton has been rightly called a game changer. Borrowing from Charles Chesnutt, Lin-Manuel Miranda uses the world turned upside down as an image for the revolution, reversal, and subversion of political and artistic norms. Here, in the capital city, which Hamilton envisioned, Martha Southgate will introduce poets, fiction writers, and playwrights who discuss what’s new and what’s old in the show—its hip-hop poetics, music/ lyric sampling, imagery, narrative, staging & more.

3:00-4:15: In Conversation: Emma Straub and Ann Patchett. Sponsored by the Center for Fiction and Write On Door County. (Emma Straub, Ann Patchett, Noreen Tomassi) Ballroom A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Three New York Times bestselling author of Modern Lovers and The Vacationers, Emma Straub is joined by Orange Prize–winner Ann Patchett (The Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto, State of Wonder, Commonwealth). Both have written extensively on family, friendships, and the tensions of adulthood. They will read from and discuss their work.

3:00-4:15: A 10th Anniversary Reading from Bull City Press. (Ross White, Anne Valente, Anders Carlson-Wee, Emilia Phillips, Tiana Clark) Room 203AB, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two For ten years, Bull City Press has focused on representing brevity in its many incarnations. Now publishing chapbooks from established and emerging writers in poetry and short prose, Bull City Press showcases unique voices and the vibrancy of compressed forms. We celebrate the first decade with a reading from recent winners of the Frost Place Chapbook Competition, contributors to Inch magazine, and authors from our chapbook series.

3:00-4:15: The Village of Your Novel. (Rebecca Smith, Carole Burns, Robin Black, Margot Livesey) Room 207B, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two Jane Austen advised that three or four families in a country village was the very thing to work on. Two hundred years since the publication of Emma, the idea of the village of your novel can help you manage a cast of characters, build tension, and create a sense of place. This international panel looks at ways writers create villages (inner city or rural) and demonstrates practical methods and exercises for leading readers into a convincing world, utilizing its spaces and playing with its rules.

4:30-5:45: A Reading and Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sponsored by the Authors Guild. (E. Ethelbert Miller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates) Ballroom A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Three Join us for this featured event with two of the most critically acclaimed thinkers of our time, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Adichie has received numerous awards and distinctions including the Orange Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Americanah, and a Macarthur Fellowship. Coates, also a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, is the National Correspondent for The Atlantic, and he won the 2015 National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Both will read from their latest work, and will participate in a discussion moderated by writer and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller.

4:30-5:45: Double Bind: Women Writers on Ambition. (Robin Romm, Pam Houston, Erika Sanchez, Claire Vaye Watkins, Hawa Allan) Room 202A, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two A woman must be ambitious in order to have a meaningful career in the arts. But ambition in women is often seen as un-feminine, egoistic, and aggressive rather than crucial to great work and identity. Until recently, no conversation has taken place to help women navigate this pervasive but unspoken double bind. On this panel, women across diverse backgrounds genres provide both stories from the trenches and practical strategies for progressing in the arts, academia, and beyond.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 11TH:

9:00-10:15: I’ll Take You There: Place in Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction. (Ethan Rutherford, Paul Yoon, Edward McPherson, francine harris) Marquis Salon 1 & 2, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two Establishing a strong sense of place in a work of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction is difficult but essential. As Dorothy Allison tells us, place is not just setting—a physical landscape—but so much more: it’s context, feeling, invitation, desire, particular language, and emotion. On this cross-genre panel, four writers will discuss the importance of place in their own work, how to put place on the page, and how to navigate the electric current between a physical landscape and an emotional one.

9:00-10:15: You’re on the Tenure Track: Congratulations! Now What? (Joe Oestreich, Erica Dawson, Caitlin Horrocks, Marcus Jackson, Joey Franklin) Salon F, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Street Level Many writers hope to one day secure a tenure-track teaching position, but few have a clear idea of what the job actually entails. What are the course load, scholarship, and service demands, and how do you balance them? How do you assemble a successful tenure file? Is it possible to switch schools mid-career? Panelists—all tenured or tenure-track and from universities of varying sizes—discuss strategies for navigating toward the tenure decision and beyond.

9:00-10:15: Half of Literature Lost: Women’s Writing and the Politics of Erasure. (Rene Steinke, Cherene Sherrard, Terese Svoboda, Elizabeth Spires) Room 204AB, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two Why does the work of so many incredibly accomplished women writers regularly praised by the American literary establishment fall into relative obscurity on their death, and their legacy seemingly vanish? Ageism, gender bias, racism, the scattering of work, difficult executors, and bad timing? Panelists discuss the writing of Josephine Jacobsen, Lola Ridge, Elsa von Freytag- Loringhoven, and Dorothy West.

9:00-10:15: The Ten-Year Novel. (Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson) Room 207B, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two Why do some novels take so long to write, and what can writers do to sustain themselves while writing a ten-year novel? This panel of female novelists will discuss why their published novels took (at least) a decade to write. Do some novels require this length of time, or was it the writer herself ? How does a book change when it’s written over a decade? Are the realities of women writers’ lives a factor? What strategies did panelists use to develop the persistence and fortitude to continue

12:00–1:15: A Tribute to Edmund White Featuring One Story Editor-in-Chief Patrick Ryan with Tom Cardamone, Alden Jones, Alexander Chee, and Alysia Abbott Room 204AB, Washington Convention Center, Level Two This panel celebrates the enduring and groundbreaking career of Edmund White, one of the most influential living gay writers. His provocative works of fiction, biography, memoir, and criticism have sparked dialogues on the nature of the self in society for decades. Five writers—peers, colleagues, and those he has mentored—come together to discuss his work, life, and his influence on American letters. Edmund White speaks following the tribute.

12:00-1:15: Writing the Abyss: Turning Grim Reality into Good Fiction. (Stephen O’Connor, Helen Benedict, Helen Phillips, Ellery Washington) Marquis Salon 1 & 2, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two How can powerful, beautiful, and/or comic fiction be made out of the darkest aspects of human experience? Novelists who have written about war, slavery, suicide, existential, and literal despair will tell how they do justice to their grim topics without overwhelming readers or becoming overwhelmed themselves. Questions considered: Is it better to render the horrific in detail or by implication? Must we give readers hope? Is there a war between beauty (or humor) and truth? Can cynicism be wisdom?

12:00-1:15: The Path to Publishing a First Story Collection. (Erin Stalcup, Robin Black, Lori Ostlund, Melissa Yancy) Liberty Salon M, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four Four authors discuss their different paths to publishing their first books. One of the panelists got an agented two-book deal with a big New York house, one got an unagented contract with a small university press, and two won contests: the Drue Heinz Prize and the Flannery O’Connor Award. They’ll share their stories, and provide resources and handouts to help audience members understand ideal and realistic possibilities, and navigate their own journeys to publication.

12:00-1:15: Immigrants/Children of Immigrants: A Nontraditional Path to a Writing Career. (Ken Chen, Monica Youn, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Juan Martinez, Irina Reyn) Liberty Salon N, O, & P, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Four Not only do you not have an uncle in publishing or see people from the neighborhood get MFAs, immigrants and children of immigrants are inculcated to opt for “safe,” “secure,” often well-paying jobs; a writing career may seem like an unimaginable luxury or a fantasy. This panel of working writers looks at both psychic and structural issues that add a special challenge for writers from immigrant families.

1:30-2:45: Girls Who Run the World: Readings of Women in the Apocalypse. (Alexander Lumans, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lucy Corin, Manuel Gonzales, Sandra Newman) Marquis Salon 7 & 8, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two To ignore the role of women in apocalyptic literature is to deny over half the world’s population their opportunity to survive, let alone thrive. In this panel, five established and emerging fiction writers give voice to female protagonists in dystopian landscapes ranging from a giant sand dune to a regional office. Through individual readings of their apocalyptic visions, these writers challenge outdated versions of women at the end of the world.

3:00-4:15: Wayfaring Stranger: Writing Away from Our Experience. (Michael Croley, Richard Bausch, Brad Watson, Anne Valente, Laura van den Berg) Marquis Salon 7 & 8, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two Fiction that goes beyond the self—the kind that strays from one’s own gender, ethnicity, class, and personal experience—may be the truest form of storytelling and our greatest act of empathy as artists. Five writers discuss and share the challenges posed both in writing and publishing wayfaring stories and the process they use to allow themselves the courage to write about what they don’t know.

3:00-4:15: I Did It My Way: Writing Who We Are. (Susan Orlean, Luis Alberto Urrea, Kevin Young, Celeste Ng, Melissa Stein) Room 204AB, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Two What is this writing voice we’re always hearing about, and do we need one? Does a unifying vision or voice just happen, or is it something we work at? And once we’ve established a style that feels like our own, how do we avoid pigeonholing ourselves? How can we counter pressures and expectations—internal, cultural, racial, gendered, genre, professional—and just write? Five respected poets and prose writers demystify, and perhaps remystify, how they stay true to themselves.

3:00-4:15: Does Size Matter? Corporate vs. Independent Publishers. (Nicholas Montemarano, Steve Almond, Fiona Maazel, Jay Neugeboren) Marquis Salon 5, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two Four writers, each of whom has published books with both corporate and independent publishers, will discuss the pros and cons of their varied publishing experiences. Is a bigger publisher always better? What are some advantages of publishing with a smaller press? To what degree is commercial bookselling at odds with artistic innovation and risk? How are independent presses filling a void left by an increasingly risk-averse boom-or-bust corporate publishing enterprise?

3:00-4:15: The Short Story as Laboratory. (Lesley Nneka Arimah, Carmen Maria Machado, Kendra Fortmeyer, Sofia Samatar, Juan Martinez) Marquis Salon 9 & 10, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two What does short fiction allow? The form is beloved by science fiction writers, who use it to test out hypothetical futures; what does it offer writers who are doing other kinds of testing, related to emotional transitions, marginality, and migration? Is the short story an inherently border form? This panel considers these questions, the challenge of putting a set of experiments into a collection, and the tension between the laboratory and the completed book.

We’ll see you all in DC!! Remember to come by our booth to say hello.

One Story Workshop Day 2: Dating Your Reader

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 7th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Michelle, Jess, Coryna and Kally 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 Kally Patz and Jess Pane. Enjoy!–HT

PatrickSocks

Planet socks worn today by editor & teacher Patrick Ryan, author of THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS

The One Story Workshop might officially be about writing, but, really, it’s all about dating. Last night, Patrick Ryan and Will Allison encouraged writers to use their romantic know-how when contacting agents and editors. (This comforted a few, but alarmed those with memories of blind dates gone terribly awry.)

Writing, as it turns out, is no different. Hannah Tinti’s craft lecture today covered how to write strong beginnings, resonant endings, and discover the layers hidden beneath the surface of our stories. It was also about how a good first page is just like a good first date. You might want to spruce up with some solid grammar, wash off any typos, and put on something a little bit different before heading out the door. Usually, it doesn’t take Hannah more than a page to know if the relationship is going anywhere. When she’s on a date with a story, she looks for five things right away:

(1) Is the writing good on a sentence level?
(2) How fast do I get sucked in?
(3) Is there something new?
(4) What is the story?
(5) Is the writer in control?

First impressions are important, but even a good start can be overshadowed by how things end. Hannah has seen it again and again: a relationship is going well, she’s enjoying the story’s company, and it ends too soon.

“I can tell when an author was just exhausted with a piece and pressed send,” Hannah said. “When you have that thought, put it in a drawer. Let the story get some air.”

She advised that authors take some time to remember why they got involved with their story in the first place. Some writers in the audience nodded, though it was unclear whether they were thinking about an old story or an old flame.

Later in the evening, One Story welcomed literary agents Sarah Burnes, Rebecca Gradinger, and Jim Rutman to the Old American Can Factory for a discussion, moderated by Hannah (who used to work at an agency herself), on when and how a writer might need an agent.

First, they covered what an agent actually does. The agent is the intermediary between the writer’s manuscript and the published book. It’s a business relationship. They deal with the contracts, figuring out when the book is ready, and how much effort needs to go into a project before they send it out to publishers. And, yes, manuscripts almost always need work before they are sent out.

All the agents on the panel stressed that the most important thing to remember when finding an agent, is to find the right one. This is the person who you want to be in a relationship with for your career. A good agent understands your work and will fight for it. It means they will find a publisher that is also passionate about the work because the publisher should also fight for the success of a book.

While what draws an agent to a particular piece of work may be personal, the agents gave some helpful hints about what questions to ask and when is it appropriate to approach an agent.

Some questions to ask when approaching an agent:

  • What is your communication style? (Yes, your agent should always call you back.)
  • Do you do editorial work? (Some agents don’t do editorial work and ask that the writer find an outside editor.)
  • Do you sell foreign rights in-house or do you use a co-agent?
  • Does your firm work with a film agent?
  • What are some deals that you’ve done recently?

When it is appropriate to approach an agent:

  1. A writer should always review the submission guidelines on the website. Your query letter should be good. Don’t write a bad one.
  2. Send something when you have something to sell. Meaning you believe you have a finished manuscript. Beginning, middle, and end.
  3. Send something when you have something you’re proud of. For example, if you know the agent will tell you it doesn’t start until pg. 30, then work on the manuscript until it starts on pg. 1.
  4. Don’t solicit more than one agent at one literary agency. But you may solicit more than one agent if they are at different agencies.
  5. If you have a story collection, the most successful story collections have stories that have been published in known literary journals and/or the collections are theme-driven with a singular idea guiding the collection.
  6. Research the agents before you submit to them–try and find an agent who represents books similar to the one you’re trying to sell.

When it comes to rejection, just keep trying. The panel also suggested taking feedback from your rejections and consider how to possibly incorporate it into the manuscript before sending it out again. Patience is the most important part of finding an agent and publisher. If an agent is offering feedback, but still saying no, it means they really thought about your work and they would like to see it out in the literary world. Maybe it just wasn’t the right fit for them. As Sarah Burnes said, “If someone leaves the door open, it is genuine.”

Several people in the audience asked questions about numbers. How many copies does a story collection actually sell? What is the difference between publishing with a small press vs. a commercial press? Tomorrow night, on our Editor Panel, we’ll be going into more details. But for further information, Hannah recommended Lincoln Michel’s article at Electric Literature “Everything You Wanted to Know About Book Sales (But Were to Afraid to Ask).” And here is the Atlantic Monthly article, “Why American Publishing Needs Indie Presses,” mentioned by Sarah Burnes. Enjoy!

 

Believe This

“You are interesting. Your imagination, your perceptions, your emotions are interesting. What is closest to you is valuable for your art. Believe this.” Those are the words carved into the tombstone of Jerome Stern, one of the greatest writing teachers I ever had. When I read this quote—which I keep over my desk—I can still hear his voice and feel his determination to inspire others.

patrickI never could have written the nine stories in my new book, The Dream Life of Astronauts (or had the courage to revisit and revise them over and over again) if it weren’t for this kind of support from people like Jerome, who not only helped my sentences get stronger on the page but showed me the importance of being a part of community that values reading and writing.

With that in mind, I’m excited to share some of my own encouragement—with YOU—in One Story’s first-ever, online Book Class: Learning from The Dream Life of Astronauts.

A book class is a private, online book club—with perks!—for both readers and writers.  Sign up today (or any time between now and August 1st) and I’ll send you a signed, first-edition copy of The Dream Life of Astronauts. In addition to the book, you’ll also gain access to a three-day, interactive class where you’ll get the chance to chat with me directly, as well as fellow readers and writers. We’ll take an intimate look at the evolution of this story collection, I’ll share my ups and downs, and I’ll also give tips that will help you start to assess your own writing, with an eye towards turning that drawer full of manuscripts into your very own book one day.

In addition, the class will feature a special, bonus story of mine called “The Real Ones,” which isn’t included in The Dream Life of Astronauts but features the same setting and atmosphere.

I hope you’ll join me. The class runs from August 4th – 7th. Sign up here, and I look forward to seeing you there!

One Story Literary Debutante Ball 2016: The Pictures!

2016Debs

Our 2016 Literary Debutantes & their mentors!

Thanks to everyone who came out to our Literary Debutante Ball in Brooklyn on May 6th. We heard inspiring speeches by Joshua Ferris and Mentor of the Year Jim Shepard, ate delicious food, mingled with publishers, editors, readers and writers, toasted with beer from Brooklyn Brewery and cocktails from Tito’s Vodka, and danced the night away with the Blue Vipers of Brooklyn and DJ Reborn. Most important, we celebrated the first books of One Story’s 2016 Literary Debutantes: Brian Booker (Are You Here for What I’m Here For?), Kim Brooks (The Houseguest), Matthew Cheney (Blood: Stories), Charles Haverty (Excommunicados), Cote Smith (Hurt People), and Naomi Williams (Landfalls). Here’s some pictures to remember that special night. Enjoy!

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Brian Booker

AYHFWIHF Cover finalOn May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 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 Brian Booker, author of the collection Are You Here For What I’m Here For?, forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in May 2016. Brian published “A Drowning Accident” with One Story in 2005 and we’re pleased to celebrate his debut collection at this year’s Literary Debutante Ball.

Through hypnotic and dream-like prose, the seven stories in Are You Here For What I’m Here For? grant us access to the anxieties, fears, and yearnings of a host of unforgettable minds. Spanning time and space, from the early 20th century to the present day, from a cultish school in Southern California to a convalescents home in the Caribbean, the stories straddle fantasy and reality, with dazzling descriptions of the outer world that reflect the harrowing struggles of the inner. Unrelenting in its exploration of what we can know about ourselves, Are You Here For What I’m Here For? is an enchanting journey that lingers with its reader long after the last page.

Thanks to Brian for answering a few questions for One Story about his collection and writing.

Mark Prins: Where were you when you found out Are You Here For What I’m Here For? was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Brian Booker: I was in the San Francisco airport. I had just gotten off the plane and I saw the email from Bellevue Literary Press. I was on my way to visit family in the Bay Area. So I got on the Airporter bus feeling pretty excited!

MP: One of my favorite qualities of your characters is their willingness to approach—if not physical—then certainly psychological zones of danger. From the first story (“Brace for Impact”), when our narrator is told: “‘You shouldn’t go up there, you know'”, in the basement of an eerie mansion, the protagonists repeatedly ignore explicit or implicit warnings to stay away. How do you figure out what a particular character’s danger zone might be, and then how do you get him or her to go there? 

BB: Luring a character toward the danger zone has often been my instinct in stories. I didn’t think about it as an explicit aspect of craft until I took a seminar with Charles Baxter, who talks about the value of tempting your characters toward interesting trouble, toward that one-way gate. Baxter does this in his own stories, and he made me recognize how it is done—or that it is done—in the work of other story-writers I’ve long admired, such as Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, and Paul Bowles. You read these stories over and over, hoping to absorb the methods by which they perform their magic so that you might achieve similar effects.

But the idea of directing a character towards a goal is a more “overhead” view than I would take when I’m actually writing a story, when I’m trying to inhabit the character’s experience as it is unfolding. In the case of “Brace for Impact,” the character’s danger zone is his own body, both in itself and in relation to other bodies. But the danger zone is also, paradoxically, a comfort zone—that’s why he speaks of the “vacation in a cocoon.” What you want, I think, is to goad the character into a zone in which the internal fears are externalized into a physical atmosphere and a dramatic situation. Having grown up in Bethesda, I had been in the basements of a few eerie mansions. In those situations, in adolescence, the unsupervised basement and the upstairs can feel like worlds that don’t (or shouldn’t) intersect. The character goes upstairs because the level of discomfort downstairs is so acute that he feels like he has to flee. Where to? Upstairs. But the character can’t be let off the hook so easily. Somebody has to be waiting up there.

MP: The way you write settings is beautiful. Occasionally we are treated to a full paragraph or two of luscious, atmospheric description. Do you have a method for describing places—ski lodges, apothecaries, Los Angeles?

BB: Thank you. I think it depends on the fiction you’re obsessed with. I love the way writers such as Woolf, Nabokov, and Bowles render setting with hypnagogic clarity. And the way Bolaño and Ishiguro do a kind of expressionist thing with setting.

As to method, for an earlier story (not in this collection) I remember scribbling down many details of setting at the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk in Delaware. It was useful material to have in my notebook. For stories like “Here to Watch Over Me” and “Love Trip,” which were written in Iowa City, I relied almost exclusively on memory. I remember wishing I could hop on a plane to these places and take lots of notes, but then it turned out it was better to just sit with memory. Music also played a role in both those stories, certain songs I needed to hear over and over that seemed crucial to the atmosphere. Also, let’s admit it, there is Internet ekphrasis. When you need a picture of something to augment specificity, you can have that immediately. But I wouldn’t want to over-rely on images from the Internet.

MP: In several of these stories, we’re told that our narrator may be suffering from some kind of illness that could impair his/her mental faculties—encephalitic-induced fevers, dementia, PTSD—what fascinates you about these narrators? Would you call them unreliable?

BB: I think of the unreliable narrator as someone whose evasiveness is underpinned by a shady agenda. Brilliant manipulators like Humbert Humbert fall into this category. In a softer vein, you have Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators—Stevens in The Remains of the Day or Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, who can’t look too directly at certain things in their lives, whose self-delusions are subtle and necessary; or Ryder in The Unconsoled, whose memory is failing him for reasons neither he nor the reader understands. These are narrators whose accounts of themselves, to varying degrees, have serious holes, but they are not trying to deceive. I’m interested in, and sympathetic toward, characters who are forced to compartmentalize because of shame, characters with secrets and contradictions. Illness can be a secret, it can be a source of shame, and it can also be a romance, as in Thomas Mann.

In my collection, the guy in “The Sleeping Sickness” comes closest to the evasive narrator, but he is something of an anomaly. In most of the stories the characters are trying their best to represent their experience with fidelity. The distortions caused by mental illness are perhaps of a greater degree, but not of a different kind, than the way any person’s perceptions are skewed by the exigencies of their particular subjectivity. Our perceptions, our memories, these things are so mysterious and often don’t work as we expect they should. Our minds are always playing tricks on us. I’m a big Oliver Sacks fan. For Sacks, the impairment to consciousness affords a window onto how miraculous and tenuous our mental representations are in the first place. The malfunction throws light on the hidden function.

In fiction, for me, illnesses are an agent of defamiliarization.

It’s a vein of obsession I’ve tapped into. You try to write what quickens your pulse, what leads you toward a kind of spell or enchantment that hopefully gets transacted to the reader.

MP: Back when One Story published “A Drowning Accident,” you listed Daniel Wallace’s suggestion “not to die” as the best advice you’d received so far for writing (and it seems to be working). Have you gotten any good ones since then?

BB: I heard Donald Antrim’s conversation with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm. Antrim says, “We all have our turn in the barrel,” meaning when our mind becomes an intolerable place. Silverblatt adds: “these stories address how to live under the shadow of a disorder most of us refuse to see.” I think that’s a great way to put it. Depression, like the writing life, can be isolating. It comes with terrible fear. So it’s very important to hear other writers talk about it.

And there is what the voice says to Amalfitano in 2666: “Calm is the one thing that will never let us down.”

I keep a post-it note permanently on my laptop. The gist of what it says is: be gentle, have fun, don’t worry about it.

MP: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

BB: I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with the work of the other debutantes. It’s amazing, and humbling, to be in such talented company.