Introducing 2016 Debutante: Matthew Cheney

Blood coverOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story 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 chatting with Matthew Cheney, author of One Story issue #81 “Blood” and Blood: Stories, the winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. The stories in this beautiful collection weave together the uncanny with the deeply human. Instead of a dollhouse, a girl builds an asylum for her toys; neighbors, both plagued by grief, come across a phonograph that seems to play voices of the dead. These eloquent stories embody what it means to grieve, what it means to love, and what it means to hope.

Melissa Bean: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Matthew Cheney: The day I found out I won the Hudson Prize and thus would have a book published was one of the longest days of my life. Diane Goettel, the executive editor at Black Lawrence Press, lives in Hong Kong, and had sent an email to me during her night/my morning asking if there was a convenient time for her to call me to discuss my manuscript. I immediately suspected something was up, because why would she want to call me on the phone to talk about my manuscript? But by the time I got the email, Diane was asleep and I was on my way to work. I don’t remember doing anything that day except running endless scenarios through my mind about what she could possibly want to call me about. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t want to think, “I’m finally, after all these years, going to have a book of my own,” and then have her call and say, “We’ve got these lovely Black Lawrence Press coasters and would like to send you one as thanks for submitting your weird little manuscript to the Hudson Prize competition, which, by the way, you didn’t even come close to winning.”

Of course, as we all now know, what she wanted to call and tell me was that I won and would be having a book published.

I didn’t have time to celebrate immediately, but soon enough my mothers took me out to eat at one of our favorite local restaurants, and that was all the celebration I needed.

MB: What has happened in your life since the publication of the story “Blood” (issue 81) in One Story?

MC: When “Blood” was published in the fall of 2006, I was teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire and, in my copious spare time, finishing my masters degree thesis at Dartmouth College and also looking for a new job, since I felt like I’d been working at a boarding school long enough. The next year, I was working at a day school in New Jersey and my father died. I’m an only child and my parents were divorced, so that meant I inherited his business: a gun shop. I quit my job in New Jersey and moved back to New Hampshire to sell off the shop. Thus, I had a federal firearms license for a couple of years. To stay sane, I taught some courses at the local university, and discovered I actually liked teaching at the college level, so once all the guns and stuff of the estate were taken care of, I paid off my father’s debts and used what was left of those ill-gotten gains to keep myself solvent while working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where I’m now completing my third year and studying the intersections of modernism, postcolonialism, and queer theory.

MB: You include a quote with the story “Expositions”, “This dream…is itself action, reality, and an effective menace to all established order; it renders possible what it dreams about” (Gilles Deleuze). It helps inform the reading of the story as it descends into dreamlike twists and turns. However, I felt that this quote resonated with the collection as a whole, where characters’ dreams, memories, and past fears continue to exert tangible influence over their lives once the event itself has passed. How do you balance the tension between past and present in these stories?

MC: The past as dream has been a more and more important idea to me as I’ve grown older (I turned 40 this year), because now I have lots of memories that are fragmentary, vague, uncertain. I devoured piles of Philip K. Dick books when I was younger, and now I sometimes feel like I’m living in one of those books—for instance, the experience of having somebody tell me that he and I were friends when we were in 7th grade, and I have absolutely no memory of him whatsoever, though I fully believe his memory is correct because of various corroborating details. That experience could be a missing scene from PKD’s great story “The Electric Ant” (which would also suggest that I am not a person, but an android, despite my own conviction that I am human).

The truth is, my younger self feels like somebody else when I think about him, and he also feels a lot like somebody in a dream, and also my memory of my experiences is so filled with holes that I don’t trust it. And yet I also experience a continuous sense of self, an experience that continues to amaze and bewilder me.

Ultimately, thinking about my past self is not so much like remembering a dream, but more like remembering a story that I read. You know how if you think of stories you read some time ago, often what you remember are a few details, a few images, a few feelings, but the story as a whole slips away from you, becomes more like flashbulbed snapshots than a coherent motion picture… (Is this how it feels for other people? I don’t know. I say “you” but I mean “me”.) I suppose it all results from the fact that I’ve spent my life reading and writing stories, and thus the reading and writing of stories makes up much of the content of that life. There are things from Chekhov stories I read 20 years ago that are now as vivid and “real” to me as my memories of many of the things I was actually doing 20 years ago. All of that enters into my fiction, because fiction is in many ways an ideal form to explore such ideas and feelings—in so many ways, our understanding of a story is a kind of memory: a memory of the words we’ve just read. Similarly, I often feel like my memory of my self is no more real than the memory of words I’ve read.

I should say, though, that despite all that, “Expositions” came about for a different reason. I have a contrarian streak, and I often like to try to write in ways that violate supposed rules. There’s a longstanding, and quite sensible, rule that says you should never end a story with the narrator revealing that it was all just a dream. Saying “It was all a dream!” at the end messes with readers’ suspension of disbelief and it feels like a cheap, cheaty way to end a story if you don’t have a good conclusion. But I wondered if it were possible to write a story from that premise to begin with, to do it with purpose. (Going back to Philip K. Dick, Ubik accomplishes something similar to what I was thinking about.) After all, and as the story itself points out, when you’re actually dreaming it doesn’t (usually) feel like dreaming: it feels important and immediate, like life. The same with stories. A lot of metafiction plays with the fact that stories aren’t “real”, and I’ve sometimes been drawn to such metafiction, but I also think it’s kind of thumpingly obvious, like an illusionist who says, “Folks, it’s not that I actually have magic powers. I’m tricking you.” (But again, done artfully, this is marvelous, as Penn & Teller have demonstrated.) “Expositions” is a kind of metafiction, I suppose, but instead of making the breaking of the proverbial fourth wall its big concern, it starts from the premise that we all know there’s no fourth wall there to begin with.

The ultimate effect is similar to that in other pieces in the book, such as “Lacuna”, where there is a story underneath it all that gets obscured by the narrator’s verbiage, until at the very end, having run out of words, the narrator must reveal the truth of why he’s been writing what he has. Thus there is a kind of subconscious to the story, an understory. “Expositions” is a bit different because the story’s subconscious is never overtly revealed — in “Lacuna” the understory is at least as important as the surface, they’re sort of in dialogue, whereas “Expositions” makes the argument that maybe sometimes the immediate surface itself has value, substance, and power, and that in the end, the understory is not what we really need. I suppose in that sense “Expositions” is an argument in favor of psychological repression, while “Lacuna” is a story about working through what you want to repress.

MB: Your stories also have a wonderful ability to blend the mythic and the real seamlessly—how do you balance these elements?

MC: Accident and instinct. I follow language and image a lot. I don’t actually set out to write a story that’s surreal or fantastical, nor do I set out to write a story that’s about consensus reality. Once I find the tone of a story, then the rest follows. Sometimes, my original intentions are ruined.

Here’s an example: The first story in the book, “How to Play with Dolls”, began as a variation on the last sentence of the first paragraph. I wrote a sentence in a notebook, a sentence that had just come to me one day from, apparently, nowhere: “She had always wanted an asylum for her dolls.” Later, I was at a writers’ conference in Nairobi and needed something short for an evening reading. I remembered that sentence and I sat down at a restaurant and wrote the rest of the story, eventually adjusting the sentence to be about specific characters and situations. I thought it would be a realistic tale of a disturbed girl and her dollhouse. But I was in a restaurant in a city I didn’t know with people I’d just met for the first time. Everything was unfamiliar, and it was exciting but also a little bit terrifying. I felt estranged from reality, estranged even from language, and so what came out was something that was far different from what I’d initially thought I was going to write. Thankfully, at that point I was experienced enough as a writer to trust that feeling and not try to force the story to conform to my initial conception. Often, writing well simply means following the sentences where they lead you, which is something we all resist when we’re not sure the sentences are going where we think they should. We want to control, when really we should listen, because listening to our sentences is a way to listen to our selves.

MB: On that note, what inspires your stories?

MC: Daydreams and nightmares created by anxieties, fears, and desires.

I don’t write fiction for the sake of therapy, per se, but I am prone to anxiety and I have an active imagination, so it’s often the case that a story starts from one of my weird anxiety fantasies. The clearest example of this is one of the new stories in the book, “Thin”, which feels the most autobiographical of any of the stories to me, because even though none of the characters’ situations are anything like my own or those of people I know, the ways that Charles fantasizes is very much my own. So if I start thinking about all of the horrible things that can, for instance, happen to my teeth … well, I end up with thoughts not too different from Charles’s, and Charles’s fate is one that I imagined first for myself in a particularly anxious moment. Having given it to Charles allows me to then go on and have other thoughts, terrors, hopes, dreams, etc. for myself. (Similarly, “How Far to Englishman’s Bay” is all about my anxieties about growing old, getting fat, and traveling in Maine. They’re separate anxieties for me, but take all those things and stick them together and thus a story is born.)

Obviously, too, a lot of my inspiration comes from other writers — it would probably be fair to say my stories are awfully writerly. I became a writer because I wanted to do what the writers I admired did. Franz Kafka is everywhere throughout the book, as is, less obviously, Virginia Woolf. I wanted to be a playwright for a number of years, and I hear echoes of Christopher Durang, Mac Wellman, and Suzan-Lori Parks throughout the book’s pages: with Durang, the echoes are tonal, especially in “Getting a Date for Amelia” and “A Map of the Everywhere”; with Wellman the echoes are of his delight with vernacular language; with Parks it’s in the structure. (I recently re-read her “Elements of Style” essay from The America Play and Other Works for the first time in at least 15 years and realized just how deeply it affected my sense of what writers can and should do — I used to read that essay over and over again when I was in my late teens and early twenties.) “Where’s the Rest of Me” took the form it did because I happened to be reading Guy Davenport’s stories at the time I wrote it. “Blood” takes some of its approach, particularly the descriptions of violence, from the work of Paul Bowles. “The Last Elegy” owes some of its rhythms to Jean Rhys. “Lacuna” is about Poe. “In Exile” contains traces of Samuel Beckett and Ursula Le Guin. “The Lake” got written because for whatever reason one day I asked myself, “What would’ve happened if Ray Bradbury and James Joyce collaborated on a story?” — though the finished story itself isn’t quite that, that inspiration is still obvious. (I’m afraid I find Joyce much more interesting than Bradbury, so his influence took over.)

MB: What does writing about LGBT experiences and relationships mean to you?

MC: On the one hand, it’s just the material of my life—I’m a queer writer with mothers married to each other and a bunch of friends who are every sort of not-or-not-entirely-heterosexual there is and/or who are transgender or genderqueer. That’s my world (plus various token unimpeachably cisgender hetero folks). In that sense, it’s no more remarkable that my stories often include lgbtq experiences and relationships than it is that John Updike’s stories often don’t.

On another hand, it means everything to me because I owe my life to the lgbtq writers I read throughout many difficult, or at least confused, years. To be aware of queerness is, for me, very much tied to being aware of certain ways of writing. Paul Monette and Sarah Schulman and Samuel Delany and David Greenspan and—well, the list goes on and on, but writers made me see queerness as something that is complex, profound, weird, wonderful even when it is so often, yes, terrifying because it is outside social and sexual norms. And of course, I’m of the generation that hit puberty just as the AIDS crisis was hitting the general public’s consciousness. My sexual awareness could not be separated from a political awareness. This is what happens to anybody who suddenly realizes “I am the them people talk about, not the us.

When I was in college, I did some stuff with ACT UP in New York, and their motto “Silence = Death” is one of the guiding principals of my writing. So while the lgbtq content of my writing is there because such experiences and people are the experiences and people of my life (warts and all), it’s also a political choice on my part to write about such material in the way I do, because this is me saying no, I will not consent to the silence that kills us. (Along with “Silence = Death”, my other favorite slogan from my formative years is that of Queer Nation: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”)

MB: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

MC: A great friend of mine who is a metalsmith and jeweler has told me she’s going to make me a tiara. I don’t know if she’ll actually have time, but if she does, I’ll wear it. I’m not really one for fashion (I really have no fashion sense), and I often feel awkward at parties, and I’m the worst dancer you’ll ever meet, but if I have a tiara, I will be one fierce debutante!

 

 

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Charles Haverty

Haverty_webOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story 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 chatting with Charles Haverty, author of One Story issue #202 “Storm Windows” and Excommunicados, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. In his award-winning debut collection, Charles Haverty explores the ways in which people can be excommunicados—from a lapsed Jew who devours all-you-can-eat crawfish to an alcoholic son and his absentee father. Within each story are unexpected moments of honesty that illuminate the ways in which feeling like an excommunicado and an outsider make us human.

Adina Applebaum: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Charles Haverty: I was at my desk, going through the final page proof of “Storm Windows” for One Story. It was January and snowing, and my wife was in San Francisco. Our car had been in an accident (I’ll spare us all the details) and I got a call from an insurance adjuster informing me that he was declaring it a total loss. Midway through the conversation, the caller ID showed a call from the University of Iowa Press. I took it and was told that my collection had won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and would be published in the fall. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh awayeth. I called the insurance guy back, contacted some people who’d had lots to do with the writing of those stories, and later, after salvaging license plates, registration, and whatnot from the wrecked car, I went to dinner with my friend Lara.

AA: The South plays a prominent role in several of your stories, but I see that you grew up in Queens. Is the South a place of special meaning for you, or just a place of interest? How did it come to be the setting for so much of your work?

CH: This is a complicated question. I was born in Queens (where my father was born and raised) but grew up on Long Island and in the suburbs of Chicago. My mother was born in St. Louis, and I had relatives who lived on a farm in Hickory Ridge, Arkansas, and I spent a healthy amount of my childhood in both places. When my wife and I got married, her parents were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and we drove down there frequently. So it was more or less impossible not to set at least one story there. Another answer is that I’m someone who’s always been moved to tears by Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”), and the ending of Absalom, Absalom!, where Shreve asks Quentin, “Why do you hate the South?” and Quentin says (“quickly, at once, immediately . . . panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark”), “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” I could go on and on here, but it’s probably a mistake to think too hard about questions like this.

AA: One of my favorite stories in the book was “Whan That Aprill.” It struck me because there’s something a bit more dystopian about it, a world slightly more mythical than the other stories in the collection. Can you talk about your writing process for this piece?

CH: “Whan That Aprill” might be the earliest story in the book and took the longest time to write. It began, I think, with the image of the abandoned Ferris wheel and led to an accretion of images—the strawberries, the doll’s head, the broken bits of porcelain—but over time I found it all so dark that I had to put it away. I didn’t quite understand what the story was about. After the events of September 11, 2001, this came more into focus, and the atmosphere of those days bled into those pages. I finished a draft, put it away for a couple years, and spent the better part of a summer rewriting it. I’ve always felt variously uneasy about this story, so it’s gratifying to hear that you liked it. It also happens to be my wife’s favorite.

AA: Three of the stories in the collection are clearly linked, and I had a fun and interesting time imagining how the others might fit into a narrative about Lionel— one that he imagined, maybe, or one that he doesn’t know about. Can you talk more about the format of this collection, and why you chose to include those three linked pieces among the stand-alone stories? 

CH: Overall, I was shooting for variety of subject matter, setting, point of view, tense, age, gender, etc., and hoped that those Lionel stories, placed where they are, might give the collection a sort of spine or sense of progression. You know that Jesuit business, “Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man”? Those three stories let me play out that notion by following Lionel’s progress from his Catholic school boyhood through middle age. The simpler truth is that it’s always fun to write about Lionel. He allows me the freedom to live a sort of alternative life on paper in a way the specific demands of other stories might not. (“Storm Windows” is a Lionel story, and even as we speak, I’m working on another.) So your imaginings about his imaginings are quite on the mark.

AA: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

CH: I’m a very shy person (which might be one of the reasons I write), but I welcome the chance to meet and thank Will Allison and Hannah Tinti—and, of course, you.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Naomi Williams

Landfalls coverOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story 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.

First up is Naomi Williams, author of One Story issue #131 “Snow Men” and Landfalls from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Landfalls is a kaleidoscope tale of the ill-fated expedition of the ships Boussole and Astrolabe, which set sail from France in 1785 in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe and map the unknown parts of the world. The voices that populate the novel speak from locations visited along the journey—from the ports left behind, settlements visited, and journeys by dogsled across continents, and each chapter creates a new world, driven by individual desires and conflicts but all reflected in the larger story of the exploratory endeavor. Williams’ masterful narration pulls us into the individual lives affected by the voyage, but the expedition itself remains the central character as those lives intersect and diverge across the globe, and we arrive at the final page with sense that we, too, have gone on a great journey and are still yet a long way from home.

Torrey Crim: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Naomi J. Williams: Hm. I’m not sure when that moment was. I do remember where I was when I learned my agent, Nicole Aragi, had agreed to take me on. It was early morning, and I was checking e-mail over my tea, which is what I always do first thing after I wake up, and there was her “yes” e-mail. My husband had just left for work, but I ran to the garage and he was still there, so I told him, and then we both cried a little. The book then went to auction, and that was very heady in its way, but I relayed the decision to go with FSG over the phone, and then I’m pretty sure the rest of my day went as originally planned—bugging my oldest child, a high school senior then, about college applications, and my younger one about homework, then enjoying a dinner that my husband probably made. Perhaps I had an extra glass of wine that night.

A few weeks later, though, before I’d seen a dime for the book, I did celebrate by shutting down my small private tutoring business. I was a good tutor, and fond of most of my students, but whereas I’ve always loved teaching classes, especially college classes, I never really enjoyed one-on-one tutoring, which often involved trying to cajole a few sentences out of children who didn’t like to write and didn’t want to be there. Once I knew the book was coming out, the tutoring became intolerable. That was a good day, when I sent out my “Dear Parents: I have some good news and some bad news….” e-mail.

TC: Landfalls is a dense collection of experiences all influenced by the Lapérouse expedition; crew members, scientists, family members left behind, inhabitants of the places the expedition visited. What was the first seed of this story for you? How did you decide to tell the story this way, from all angles?

NW: The idea for this book came from an old map that my husband gave me many years ago. It was supposedly an 18th-century map of San Francisco Bay but turned out to be a map from the Lapérouse expedition of a bay in Alaska. (That bay is the setting of “Snow Men,” the story that appeared in One Story in 2010.) I started Googling the expedition, which I’d never heard of before. The idea for the structure of the book—a series of stories or chapters, each set in a different part of the expedition and told by a different narrator or group of narrators—sort of came to me in a flash, either that first day or shortly thereafter. I’d always liked nautical fiction and stories about explorers, but I didn’t want to write another story that centered around the great white captain and his exploits. I wanted to mess that up a little bit and include voices we don’t usually hear.

TC: One of my favorite chapters is “Dispatches,” which follows Barthélemy de Lesseps as he crosses Russia. He’s cut off from the knowledge of what his former crew-mates are going through even as he makes a perilous journey of his own; we’re able to see the story as a whole, even though he can’t. It seems that some of the pleasure of historical fiction is that the reader always knows a little more than the character; for instance, that the French Revolution is brewing while the explorers are away from home. What drew you to this particular voyage and this particular historical moment?

NW: It was pure chance that drew me to this particular voyage, as I describe above, but I think it fascinated me right away—and continued to fascinate me for the decade I spent working on the book—in part because for its time, the expedition was quite progressive. It wasn’t about claiming land for France or about extracting gold or about missionizing people in faraway places. While the ships were charged with looking for economic opportunities for France, its primary goals were scientific and cartographic. A delegation of scientists and artists accompanied the expedition. Even the chaplains were also naturalists. It was also very high-tech for its time. And yet those Enlightenment ideals and idealism and advances didn’t really protect them in the end. I was really interested in exploring that. I’m so glad you liked “Dispatches,” by the way. I’m quite fond of that chapter myself.

TC: Can you talk about how research influenced the writing of this book? Did you find that research opened up how you thought about the novel or did it create unforeseen roadblocks?

NW: I love doing research. I have a lot of faith in the creative possibilities that open up when you combine artistic curiosity with scholarship. I veered from the historical record as little as I could—not because I thought that was my “job” as a writer of historical fiction, but because that was the challenge I set myself; it was just more fun that way. I never saw the research requirements as roadblocks. On the contrary, when I felt a little stuck in a particular story or chapter, I often found that doing more research would suggest something that lit the way forward. Of course, one can do too much research. I often had to tell myself to just stop already and start writing. Enough fussing about with what people ate in the 18thcentury or how they dressed or the obscure backstory of someone who never even makes an appearance in the novel! So yeah, in that sense it could present a roadblock. Because researching was always easier and more fun than writing.

TC: “Snow Men” was published in One Story in 2010, and the story makes up a chapter of Landfalls. Did you already know where it stood in the novel? How did having that story published change your writing life?

NW: “Snow Men” was the third piece from the book to find its way into print (the other two had appeared in “American Short Fiction” and “A Public Space”). I already knew where it would be in the book, but it had been a difficult story to write, and I was aware of some risks I was taking by adopting the point of view of a young native Alaskan girl. She’s one of the few characters in the novel who is entirely fictional, yet I felt a great obligation to her to get her as “right” as possible. So the piece’s appearance in One Story was an enormous shot in the arm.

TC: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

NW: Oh, I love parties and I love dressing up. My life in a laid-back Northern California college town affords me relatively few opportunities to do either. But contrary to the usual stereotype about introverted writers who find other people exhausting, I love being around people—new friends, old friends, the works. I can’t wait.

One Story’s 2016 Mentor of the Year: Jim Shepard

Jim_ShepardOne Story is thrilled to announce our 2016 Mentor of the Year: Jim Shepard.

At One Story, we believe that being a part of the literary community should include helping others. In that vein, each year at our Literary Debutante Ball we honor one established author with a “Mentor of the Year” award for their extraordinary support of fellow writers. Past honorees have included Ann Patchett,Dani Shapiro, Cornelius Eady, and Toi Derricotte.

Mentoring is the kind of work that happens behind the scenes, but is vital to keep the literary world alive and kicking. It comes in all forms—from teaching, to blurbs, to recommendation letters, to late-night reads, agent advice, one-on-one conferences, career guidance and inspiration. Behind each book on the shelf is an unseen mentor, giving an author the help they need to make their work better, to keep writing when they are ready to quit, and eventually give them a boost over the publishing wall.

Jim Shepard exemplifies this kind of gallant hard work, and we’ll be honoring him, along with our Literary Debutantes, on May 6th, 2016  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 April 1st.

Jim Shepard has written seven novels, most recently The Book of Aron (2015), and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of The Story Prize. His previous novel, Project X, won the Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, One Story, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, Playboy, and Electric Literature, and five of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories, two for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and one for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Williams College.

Announcing One Story’s 2016 Literary Debutantes!

classicchicagodebutantes-9One Story is thrilled to announce our 2016 Literary Debutantes: 

SAVE THE DATE and raise a glass as we toast these six 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 6th 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. VIP Tickets are available now. General Admission Tickets will be on sale April 1st. To discuss sponsorship opportunities for the One Story Literary Debutante Ball please contact: maribeth@one-story.com.

About One Story’s next online class, and why character is its focus

PR May 2015 AltWhen I was sixteen, I had a wonderful English teacher who recognized my passion for writing and encouraged me to pursue it. On my portable Olivia, I would bang out a story about life on a submarine during World War II. I would bang out “chapters” of a detective “novel” set in the year 2750. I would bang out the “status report” of a fly assigned to follow a moose around Canada and report back to the other flies. “You have a good ear for sentence rhythm,” my teacher told me. “But why are you writing about this stuff?”

“What should I write about?” I asked.

“Go to the mall,” she said. “Take a notebook and a pen, and watch people, and listen to them, and write about them. Don’t worry about writing stories. Write vignettes.” (She had to explain to me what a vignette was.) “Just try to capture what they’re like.”

And that’s what I did. Some of those vignettes were half a page long; some were three pages. Some had dialogue (overheard); some had thoughts (imagined). They were plot-less, story-less. I wrote as many as twenty a week and showed each one to her, and she read them all and said, “Keep going.”

I had no way of knowing then that she was helping shape me into the writer I would be for the rest of my life: a writer who puts character above all other aspects of fiction writing, a writer who follows his characters and listens to them and collaborates with them as a means of creating short stories and novels.

For years, I’ve wanted to teach a class that focuses on character and how that one aspect of fiction writing is not only the spine of a story but the connective tissue that runs through every other aspect: setting, description, dialogue, point of view, even plot. And now it’s happening.

Please join me for From Character to Story: A Craft Intensive from October 1st-8th.

Through online lectures, exercises, videos, and message discussion boards, I’ll walk you through the tools in your fiction writing toolbox and show you how character is the secret to making the most out of them. At the end of the week, you’ll feel more confident about your ability to get into, explore, and finish short stories—all through the lens of character.

This online class will meet on your schedule. Each day, the next class will be automatically uploaded. You can log in any time to access the materials. Have a question? Jump into the discussion boards and I’ll post an answer to the group. You’ll also be able to share you work with fellow students and connect with writers across the globe. If you fall behind, no worries; all the class materials will be available to you for an additional week for you to catch up.

I hope you’ll take part in a fun and enlightening week that promises to breathe new life into you, your characters, and your writing process. The deadline to register is October 1st.

One Story Workshop Day Five: Last Day of Camp

flowers. (448x640)Our final recap is brought to you by Tony Wei-Ling. Thanks to all of the interns for their stellar work this week! We couldn’t have done the workshop without you. -HT

And so One Story’s Summer Workshop for Writers draws to its grand finale!

In the morning, Will Allison and Patrick Ryan taught their last workshops, giving editorial feedback to each student and answering any lingering questions they might have.

After lunch, our writers sat down for a nuts-and-bolts industry talk from One Story Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti, who discussed different ways to get out of the “slush pile”: the giant mess of unsolicited manuscripts that come through the doors of any magazine or literary agency.

Hannah began with simple presentation tips – how to make your submission fit industry standards and be kinder on the reader’s eyes and laptop. (The topic of writing cover letters made everyone anxious, but Hannah calmed us by walking us through a basic template.)

“Don’t overthink it,” she said. “The bio especially. Keep it simple and short. The first read, whether it’s for an agent or a magazine or a press, is almost certainly done by an assistant, an intern, or a volunteer. They are the first hurdle you must get over. So thank them for their time, and be courteous.”

More complicated, but less stressful, was Hannah’s advice on researching and submitting work strategically. “You want to find a place that publishes writing like your own, a magazine that matches your aesthetic. Most places – especially small presses – have a strong point-of-view.” The same went for agents: submit to people who represent writers you admire, authors you’d be comfortable “being in a line-up” with. Hannah didn’t just recommend doing research beforehand, but outlined how to do so, emphasizing the AWP conference and yearly anthologies as the best way to get to know the field.

That evening, everyone gathered one last time at the Can Factory for a (slightly nervous) cocktail hour before our student reading. But the nerves disappeared once each writer took the podium, or rather stage. Who knew introverted writers could be such good performers? Each student took on a different readerly voice and pace as they presented their work, which ranged from whimsical poetry to experimental short fiction to Borgesian existential horror.

Hannah broke up the reading with a brief tribute to her former teacher E. L. Doctorow, a literary giant who passed away this week. Then, to close out the evening, she was joined by instructors Will and Patrick, and together they sang/spoke a group campfire version of “Eye of the Tiger” on Hannah’s ukulele. When dinner arrived (gnocchi with fresh peas and mint, and casarecce with tomato, chard, and anchovies), we refilled our drinks and relaxed for a few final hours with new friends.

Goodbyes were difficult, and lingering. Many promised to meet up again, and to exchange manuscripts over coffee or drinks. It many ways it felt like the last day of camp. Everyone was tired but full of new experiences and new friendships.  “This isn’t goodbye for real!” people said as they hugged, “I’ll see you very soon.”

That’s it for the 2015 One Story Writers Workshop. We’ll see you next year!

 

One Story Workshop Day 4: Calvin Baker & the Writer’s Obsession

Calvin.Baker.OneStoryToday’s recap of our summer workshop is brought to you by Tony Wei-Ling.Enjoy!-HT

The fourth day of One Story’s Workshop for Writers was a marathon. We started our day with double workshop sessions with Will Allison and Patrick Ryan, followed by a meditative craft lecture on obsession and finding the themes in our own writing from Author/One Story Assistant Editor/Workshop Coordinator, Ann Napolitano.

Earlier in the week, Ann had asked all of the students to take a picture with their cell phones. During class, she projected each of these photos on a screen, and had the students use them as stepping off points for writing exercises. Together the group discussed how these pictures could unearth themes in their writing, by revealing what each author was “obsessed” with. Ann shared how over time in her own writing (of both successful and unsuccessful novels) she’s learned to pay attention to her obsessions and use them to guide her work.

“Some things are societal obsessions,” she told us. “Things trending on Twitter or among your friends and family, or in the literary world. We feel like we have to keep up with all of those trendy books, movies, shows, and you can fill up your life doing that.”  But that won’t feed our writing, Ann said. In fact what we should do instead is pay attention to what keeps us personally obsessed, what draws our eye and our attention. “Notice the patterns,” she said. “Notice what you notice.”

After a break spent exploring the neighborhood’s parks and pie shops, our writers reconvened at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore, where One Story author Calvin Baker  read from his new novel, Grace, and spent time answering questions about his writing process. (Meanwhile, the bookstore’s cat, Tiny, prowled the cheese plate.)

Calvin emphasized the trust a writer needs to have in her senses, her instincts, and her inspirations, and remembered a moment of pure creative energy that sparked the idea for his first novel (Naming the New World) upon a hilltop in rural Kenya. He stressed the need to travel and explore the world, and the importance of finding your own voice on the page. Together with One Story’s Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti, Calvin also discussed influences on his work, from the Bible to ancient mythology and philosophy.

“As a young writer, I decided to make a personal canon for myself,” he said. “And I recommend that to all writers: make the canon your own.”

Hannah agreed, and encouraged everyone in the audience to curate their own personal canon, choosing the authors that they love and the books they need to inspire their writing. She  added that she creates a reference bookshelf for each project she works on. “I’ve seen Hannah’s bookshelves, and they go up to the ceiling,” Calvin laughed.

Stay tuned for a recap of the last day of our summer workshop, including our group dinner and student reading!

One Story Workshop Day 3: From 1st Draft to the Editor’s Inbox

One Story's Adina Talve-Goodman introduces One Story author Seth Fried

Adina introduces One Story author Seth Fried

The third day of One Story’s summer workshop for writers began with morning sessions of Will Allison’s and Patrick Ryan’s workshops. Halfway through the week, everyone seems to be benefiting from the intensive edits. “People want you to improve,” said one of Will’s students after her story was critiqued. “Nothing was missed. Everyone was super helpful!” Will gave credit to his dutiful students. “Everyone is reading very deeply,” he said.

In Patrick’s room, the two students being workshopped were talking animatedly after everyone else had gone to lunch. “I rewrote the first half of my story in my brain in the time between my workshop and yours,” one of the students said to the other, laughing. “It was like Tetris pieces coming together.” The other student agreed. “I want to go home right now and start redrafting,” she said.

After the writers ate lunch, they sat down for One Story author Seth Fried’s craft lecture, “Getting through the First Draft.” Seth is the author of One Story’s 124th issue, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and his speech focused on generating new writing material. He stressed the importance of writing even if you think that what you’re writing isn’t good. “The first draft is always shit,” Seth said, quoting Hemingway. He added that your “inner critic” is bad for generating work, and if you focus too much on what you’re writing, the content will end up being forced instead of fluid.

To get us all started, Seth assigned a writing exercise: write 200 words, right then, without thinking. The workshop participants said that the exercise was freeing, and that it was nice to write in longhand instead of typing. Seth also mentioned three great resources for generating fiction: John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.

Once the writers had their afternoon break, One Story’s Managing Editor, Adina Talve-Goodman, spoke with three other editors in our nightly panel. The editors were Julie Buntin, author of One Teen Story’s “Phenomenon” and Associate Editor of Catapult; Jonathan Lee, editor of A Public Space; and Lincoln Michel, Online Editor of Electric Literature and coeditor of Gigantic.

All four editors agreed that there was a certain thrill in publishing debut authors, and that mentioning that you’ve never been published doesn’t hurt your cover letter! They also stressed the importance of submitting your work to a magazine that fits. Don’t just send your story to whoever will take it—do some research and send your story to the magazines that will appreciate it the most. Lincoln said that the story was more meaningful if the author was attached to the magazine somehow, and Adina stressed the importance of not giving up. It’s all about getting the right story into the right hands.

We only have one more day of workshop before the final reading on Friday. Stay tuned for an event at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore with another One Story author, Calvin Baker, and Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti!

One Story Workshop Day Two: A Guiding Light for the Rewrite

soap-operaOur daily update from One Story’s Summer Workshop for Writers continues! Today’s episode is brought to you by intern Tony Wei-Ling. Enjoy! -HT

Soap operas are maybe the furthest thing from the literary short story we can think of –low-brow, long-form, and commercial. But today, after intensive morning workshops with editors Will Allison and Patrick Ryan, followed by a healthy lunch, our students sat down for a craft lecture with One Story Contributing Editor Karen Friedman to discuss how soap operas can relate to the editing process.

With clips from Dallas, Guiding Light, and General Hospital, Karen walked us through how to revise our opening pages, and what vital info needs to be dropped in the opening paragraphs.

“As writers, we sometimes do ‘throat-clearing’ while we’re figuring out how to get from the first line to the rest of the story,” Karen said. “But openings need to quickly establish the main characters, where they are situated, and what the emotional situation is. If you don’t do those things in the first two pages, you’re missing your best chance to get out of the slush pile.”

Using clips that covered amnesia, evil twins, and ‘it was all a dream!’ surprise endings, Karen showed us how to approach rewrites with a big-picture plan, so that “editing” doesn’t just mean fiddling with the details. Everyone’s favorite clip was by far “The Slut of Springfield”–from a famous 1980s episode of Guiding Light–that Karen used to show “movement” within a scene. Reva and Josh are the characters. Some background: Reva and Josh were in love, but Reva married Josh’s father. Josh was so mad he got into a car accident and is now in a wheelchair. This scene happens at the end of a party. Josh starts off berating Reva, but she turns the tables on him.

It’s no wonder that Kim Zimmer, the actress who played Reva, won an Emmy for this scene!

In the evening the drama continued, as we enjoyed cocktails and cupcakes and chatted with three talented literary agents. One Story Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti moderated the official panel, beginning with the question that we all wanted to know but were too nervous to ask: “What the hell is a literary agent?” Our guests – Sarah Burnes, Jim Rutman, and Samantha Shea – had different answers. Primarily working as the intermediary between writers and publishing houses, literary agents play many roles, from finding and editing manuscripts, deciding when a book is ready for submission, finding the right editor, ironing out contracts, putting out fires as the book hits the shelves and sometimes playing “bad cop” in negotiations. Sarah Burnes cited the importance of the gut check in picking new writers: “It comes down to this question: do I feel this thing?” And Jim Rutman explained that he often corresponds with writers for a long time before he finds the right project to work on together. “A rejection is not always a ‘no.’ It can also mean ‘not this book, but maybe the next’ if the agent is encouraging and asks to see more.” Regardless of all the industry talk of pitches, query letters, and market trends, all the agents agreed – the text itself is the most important. “The writer I pick is the one whose manuscript I can’t get out of my head,” said Samantha Shea.

Tomorrow, we’re meeting with a panel of editors and listening to a craft talk from One Story author Seth Fried. Stay tuned for more secrets from behind the editorial curtain!