One Story Summer Conference Day 2 : It’s About the Love

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. 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 Benjamin Newgard. Enjoy!–LV

In spite of stormy forecasts, Day 2 of the One Story Summer Conference began with clear skies and sunshine. After morning coffee and tea, conference participants attended another round of workshops led by authors Will Allison and Anna Solomon. Following workshop and a refreshing Mediterranean lunch, conference writers shifted focus from craft and technique to the business side of literature.

One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti, whose own publishing career traces back to such esteemed magazines (in addition to One Story, that is!) as the Boston Review and Atlantic, kicked off the afternoon with her lecture, “Out of the Slush Pile.”

For conference attendees, “Out of the Slush Pile” contained a bevy of crucial tips and guidelines for establishing a professional, compelling presence in the literary world. To begin, Hannah listed the basic features of proper Manuscript Format—what she considers a bare essential before she reads any submission:

  • Always double space (single-spaced work, Hannah cautioned, might be subject to immediate rejection)
  • Use a 12-point, simple font, such as Times New Roman or something similar.
  • Include your contact information on the first page: name, email, phone, and postal address (unless submitting to a publication that reads ‘blind,’ meaning they look at the cover letter and contact information after reading the piece).
  • Place an asterisk in any intended space break, just to ensure these don’t get lost in translation (between file formats, for instance).
  •  If submitting a physical manuscript, print on plain white paper (here Hannah recalled how she once received a submission on scented paper), and print only on one side. This last tip will improve legibility, plus editors often like to take notes on the back.
  • Include page numbers!

These rules, as Hannah noted, often change depending on the publication in question. Many journals, for instance, prefer that writers submit work in a particular file format, such as Word or PDF. In all cases, Hannah stressed the importance of checking the targeted publication’s submission guidelines, as breaking these can often disqualify a piece from the get-go.

Beyond preparing a brilliant, soon-to-be-prize-winning manuscript, there remains the question of where to send it. On this point, Hannah urged writers to do their research and separate potential publishers into tiers, somewhat like applying to college or graduate programs: Which journals, for example, might comprise ‘reaches’ or ideal places for your work? Which seem like safer bets?

To help in the search for potential literary homes, Hannah recommended three indispensable anthologies as resources: The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. Not only will these provide a sense of the quality writers should strive for in their work, but also an overview of celebrated, widely read outlets that could elevate a writer’s career.

Those hoping to publish not just a story, but a collection or novel are more likely preparing their manuscripts for submission to an agent or agency. In this regard, research proves no less important—Hannah encouraged all writers to find agents who have worked in genres similar to their own, and who have published authors they admire.

Whether submitting work to a magazine or agency, Hannah noted the importance of a strong cover letter. As discovered in her own experience as a writer, editor, and publisher, the most effective cover letters adhere to a simple set of conventions. They should:

  • Be short.
  • Be addressed to a particular editor on the masthead (as in the Fiction Editor, or the Editor in Chief)
  • Mention any previous personal notes or acknowledgements from the editor.
  • Include a (brief) biographical blurb, mentioning the most important past publications, mentors, classes, and other relevant accomplishments.
  • If submitting a short piece or story, say nothing about the content of the work! No synopses or plot information!

To conclude her talk, Hannah focused on the most dreaded, yet all too familiar aspect of publishing: rejection. And while this familiarity might make us bristle and wither (even the most encouraging rejections “still stink”), Hannah reminded the class that many of the most successful, even canonical writers first faced repeated rejection before becoming literary legends (including Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe). Rejection, in other words, is an inevitable part of the process, and as such Hannah encouraged all writers to develop their own rituals for easing the anxieties and pressures therein—for “taking the stones out of your pockets.”

Hannah’s lecture proved an appropriate prelude to the final event of Day 2, a panel of established book editors hosted by One Story Managing Editor Lena Valencia. Here conference attendees gained vital, firsthand insights into the publishing industry from Noah Eaker (Editorial Director at Flatiron Books), Megha Majumdar (Associate Editor at Catapult), Katie Raissian (Editor at Grove Atlantic), and Jessica Williams (Senior Editor at William Morrow).

Among the most heavily emphasized points they discussed was that the editor-writer relationship be understood as a partnership. As Williams put it, the editor’s job is to be the writer’s “toughest critic,” but also their “fiercest advocate.” First and foremost, she said, “It’s about the love, the passion for your book. It’s about finding the right fit for the editor of your book.”

Near the end of their discussion, the editors offered various pieces of advice for emerging writers. Some of these include:

  • Don’t get discouraged! If your debut book, for instance, doesn’t quite take off, there’s always the second, the third…
  • When it comes to finding an agent or publisher, a good way to get your foot in the door is to submit to magazines and journals. These much more frequently accept unsolicited and non-agented submissions, and many agents and editors search quality journals for new writers to work with.
  • Be nice! No matter your chances, unkindness can only make them worse.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Let your work sit, then come back to it. Editors, in other words, want work clearly cared for, work that demonstrates the writer’s effort and faith on the page.

Following the panel, workshop attendees got a chance to mingle with these editors over wine and cheese, which brought day two of the One Story Summer Conference to a pleasant, creatively buzzing close. Further literary exploration and learning await for day three—stay tuned!

One Story Summer Conference Day 1 : Characters Matter

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. 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 Stephanie Santos. Enjoy!–LV

One Story’s 2018 Summer Conference is here, and writers arrived at the Old American Can Factory on Sunday night excited to begin their week of workshops and craft lectures. Over wine and cheese, One Story co-founders Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha introduced the Writing Advice Wall: lengths of twine strung between two metal posts where workshop participants could handwrite bits of writing advice they picked up throughout the week on colorful cards and clip them to the twine.

The writers were given a tour of the Can Factory. At the One Story office, Maribeth and Hannah talked about the organization’s origins. The magazine started with just three thousand dollars and grew beyond what the two founders could have dreamed. The Summer Conference, they said, was an especially important milestone. When they held the first Conference in 2010, it was the organization’s first step toward being more than just a print magazine.

The next day, after their morning workshops with Anna Solomon and Will Allison, conference participants gathered to hear Patrick Ryan’s craft lecture entitled “Good Writing About Bad People.” He began by listing steps to approach any character you write, stating that all characters should:

  1. Interest you
  2. Be somewhat unknown to you
  3. Be able to surprise you
  4. Want something

Patrick said following these steps when creating a character is an effective way to separate your writing from typical genre fiction, which often falls flat for him when writers create a character and only go as far as tacking on shallow, meaningless attributes that do not speak to the character’s actions in a complex way. “Genre fiction,” he said, “is great when it comes close to literary fiction: when the characters matter.”

Patrick stressed that your character should be someone you want to spend quality time with, even if they are not someone you necessarily would like. Even if a character is mainly sweet, kind, or generous, finding the part of them that isn’t a good person is still important. He applied this same idea to unlikable characters: “You don’t have to like the character to be engaged in the story and want to learn more about them.” He emphasized the idea that there has to be some mystery about the character, and that overplanning or knowing everything about a character can make them reductive.

Another problem with overplanning connects back to the third step Patrick mentioned: if a writer knows everything about their character, the character can no longer surprise the writer. Patrick stated that too much planning is boring and puts too much pressure on the writer to invent, rather than allowing that character’s decisions to unfold organically. More importantly, he said this room for surprise is where some of the best ideas can come to a writer.

Stories are all about people, Patrick pointed out. Naturally, people see each other as good or bad to some degree. When writing a bad person or a villain, Patrick’s main point of emphasis was this: people are not just good or just evil, so neither should your characters be. “Evil” oversimplifies your character. He added that the same thing goes for labeling a character as “crazy.”

Patrick then outlined the three keys to writing complex villains:

  • Villains do not see themselves as villains.
  • You have to love all your characters the way an attorney loves a client.
  • Get in touch with your character’s internal narrative.

Patrick concluded his craft lecture with a final piece of advice for the writers. In order to write complex villains, writers must be both sympathetic and empathetic. Sympathy is at the base of all compassion and, as Patrick pointed out, it is impossible to not have compassion and be a writer. Empathy is important when writing a villain because it forces you into the perspective of that character and prevents you from selling your villain short. Patrick said that in every villain, there is often a heart, often a regret, often a fear, and something more than just evil. Without any of these, the villain is boring.

After Patrick’s craft lecture, the writers attended a Q&A session with instructors Will Allison and Anna Solomon. Hannah began by asking when Will and Anna first felt comfortable calling themselves writers. Anna felt pressured to take on the title when she was applying to graduate programs and had to explain to her friends and family the seriousness with which she now was approaching the field of writing to validate leaving her job to pursue a fiction-writing career. Will said that he calls himself a reviser. He took on this name long after he started calling himself a writer, eight years after he started writing his short story collection.

One student asked about Will and Anna’s daily writing routines, and both revealed that they schedule writing time early in the morning. Another student asked if they take time away from writing their novels to write short fiction, and both do but in different ways. When Anna submits a manuscript for feedback, she uses that time to write a short story and then puts it away to revise when she has another feedback-waiting period. Will says he often uses that break time to revise a story he has already written.

At the session’s end, they both named something about their writing careers that makes all their hard work worth it. Anna said she finds the act of writing thrilling, especially those moments where she creates something that surprises her. She also gets the chance to hear people discuss her published work and loves seeing how invested the readers were in her characters. Will said that when he was losing a game of softball, one of the players told him he had read his novel. After talking to this fan of his work, he stopped caring about the outcome of the softball game.

When the Q&A finished, writers filed out of the room and headed home to get ready for another busy day of workshops and craft lectures.

Issue# 243: Rachel King’s Railing

One of the most interesting things fiction can do is allow us to climb inside the minds of individuals who might not see the world the way we do. More than any other art form, even film, fiction is transformative. And a first-person narrator can make that transformation all the more intimate and impacting.

Our new issue, “Railing” by Rachel King, allows us to climb inside the mind of a middle-aged sausage-maker who was, up till recently, a train engineer. He’s divorced, has a daughter, would love to escape his past, and longs for the future he sees coming his way—a future that will be turned around and made brighter, he hopes, by a stranger running for public office.

The story, however, isn’t political. It’s personal, reflective, and aching to expand out of its own confines—into a world that involves a little less struggle. When I asked Rachel to tell me what the story was about in just one word, the word she chose was “intimacy.” (For more on our conversation, check out our Q&A.) “Railing” is an outstanding and melancholy piece of fiction. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Annotated Pages Auction

Bidding is now open for One Story’s online Annotated Pages Auction! We invited writers to hand-annotate a manuscript page from one of their published books and are auctioning off those pages online. Participating authors include: J. Courtney Sullivan, Min Jin Lee, Dani Shapiro, Jim Shepard, Peter Carey, Darin Strauss, Claire Vaye Watkins, J. Courtney Sullivan, Jami Attenberg, Vendela Vida, Michael Cunningham, Karen Shepard, Aimee Bender, and Karen Russell. Own a piece of contemporary literary history and support One Story.

Bidding is open  through 1pm EST Thursday, June 28th. Bids start at just $25. One Story Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and all winning bids are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

Visit our auction page for more information, and to place your bids!

Pictured: Annotated page from “Popular Girls” by Karen Shepard, from her collection KISS ME SOMEONE.

Issue #242: Michael Hawley’s That’s How You Dance the Mambo

I’ve lived in New York City for twenty years, and I’ve seen it change an awful lot. But say that to someone who’s lived here for thirty, forty, fifty years or more, and they’ll laugh, roll their eyes, and wave your observations way. Then they’ll tell you what real change looks like.

The main character in Michael Hawley’s “That’s How You Dance the Mambo” is Albert, an elderly man who is doing his best to live in the moment, even while the moment rains plaster dust down on his head. Most of his dear friends have shuffled off the mortal coil. His landlord would love for him to give up his apartment. His nephew wants to move him into a retirement home outside of the city. And his long-time neighbor, Nestor, has found a hundred-dollar bill and wants to go to dinner—but that means venturing out into a landscape neither one of them feels comfortable calling home.

“That’s How You Dance the Mambo” is a rendering of a present that’s out-of-true with its past. It’s a faded and crumbling love letter to New York City, and it’s a story, as the author says in our Q&A, about resilience. Let the dance lesson begin.

 

One Story Debutante Ball: THANK YOU

Thank you to everyone who came out on May 4th to Roulette in Brooklyn for our annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball.**

We were so happy to celebrate the first books of our debutantes: Kendra Fortmeyer (Hole in the Middle, Soho Teen); Chelsey Johnson (Stray City, Custom House), and Cheston Knapp (Up, Up, Down, Down, Scribner).

(left to right) Olivia Messer, Kendra Fortmeyer, Amy Thielen, Chelsey Johnson, Cheston Knapp, Jo Ann Beard

We also raised a glass to three authors who published their first fiction EVER in the pages of One Story this past year, our “Little Debbies”: Sanjay Agnihotri, Lucas Schaefer & Maud Streep.

photo credit: Mira Jacob

We then honored our Mentor of the Year, Alexander Chee, who was introduced by author Kaitlyn Greenidge.

 

One of our favorite moments was watching Kaitlyn crown Alex as he wore his “cape of totes” (sewn from literary tote bags). Alex then gave a moving speech about his own mentor James Alan McPherson, and how mentorship can change the world.

We also announced the formation of a fellowship in memory of Adina Talve-Goodman. This fellowship will support an early-career writer who has not yet published a book, and who speaks to issues and experiences related to inhabiting bodies of difference. This means writing that explores being in a body marked by difference, oppression, violence, or exclusion, often through categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness, disability, trauma, migration, and imprisonment. Applications will open this fall. We’ll be posting more information about this fellowship in the coming weeks, and look forward to working with the Talve-Goodman family to  develop this living memorial to Adina.

We’d like to share our gratitude to all of our sponsors, donors, board members, writers, staff, and volunteers who came out to celebrate One Story. We couldn’t have done this without you. To see more pictures from this special night, please click the link below.

Slideshow: One Story 2018 Literary Debutante Ball

-Maribeth & Hannah

**Shortly after our presentation, in which we remembered people who were dear to us, Maribeth and I learned that a man tragically lost his life outside of Roulette during our event. His name was Laquan Surles. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.

 

Introducing our 2018 “Little Debbies”

This year at the Debutante Ball, along with honoring the three One Story authors who’ve had their first book published during the past year and our mentor of the year, Alexander Chee, we’re also honoring three of our authors who published their first short stories ever in One Story over the last twelve months. Those authors are Sanjay Agnihotri (Issue #236: “Guerrilla Marketing”), Maud Streep (Issue #234: “The Crazies”), and Lucas Schaefer (Issue #225: “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes”). All three of these short story debutantes (whom I affectionately refer to as our “Little Debbies”) will be joining us at the Ball on May 4th. Recently, I asked them if they had any questions for one another about their stories. Here are the results of that round-robin conversation.

PATRICK RYAN: Lucas, since you’re the first short story deb, chronologically, let’s start with you.

 LUCAS SCHAEFER: Okay, I have a question for Maud. Maud, you handle the passage of time so beautifully in “The Crazies.” When, at the end, you jump years ahead to the narrator’s current life and then take us back to the time of the fire—it’s poignant and unexpected. I’m curious if you knew from the beginning that the story was being told many years later, and how knowing that or not knowing it affected the writing of the piece.

MAUD STREEP: The passage of time was actually the key that let me into “The Crazies.” It was one of those stories that wasn’t working and wasn’t working. The first few endings were dreadful. But about a year in, my teacher at the time, David Gates, took a look at it and suggested that perhaps the issue was that the story wasn’t being told from the right time. That clicked things into place for me, although it took me another year to find the right distance and perspective, and then a couple more years from there until it felt done. So, thanks, David! The core of the story’s action and language remains as it was in the first draft, but without the perspective from the future, nothing added up.

Sanjay, I know you’ve previously said “Guerrilla Marketing” went through many drafts. I’d love to know more about how you came to the story’s structure—did you always know what happened in Los Angeles that left Vikram in the predicament he’s in? Did the reveal of what happened in LA and why it happened always fall where it does now, or did you play with the placement?

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Vikram’s back story was tricky. I always knew that he’d end up in NJ after getting kicked out of LA, I just didn’t have all the details worked out in the early drafts. It took some time to get that right. The placement too was challenging—I recast his LA backstory several times, though it always appeared near the end.

Lucas, I’m a boxing fan and can’t wait to read your novel-in-stories about the Austin boxing gym. You mention the book Boxing Shadows by W.K. Stratton as an inspiration. I’m curious to know what other writers—fiction/non-fiction—have inspired both the collection and your writing in general? Also, you mention in an interview with Patrick that you worked out at R. Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin. I have to ask: have you ever been knocked out? And if so, did you see stars? I got knocked out once, but it wasn’t in a ring, and I never saw stars, only pavement and blackness, and I’m afraid I might be missing out.

LUCAS SCHAEFER: What’s always appealed to me about the boxing gym as a setting isn’t so much the boxing as it is that, in our still-very-and-in-some-ways-getting-more-segregated (racially and otherwise) society, the gym is one of those rare spaces where people of wildly different backgrounds and experiences converge. And not only that, but they’re converging to fight. On purpose! How wonderful and unsettling and bizarre. This is a long way of saying that the books I tend to gravitate toward have less to do with boxing than with the clashing of cultures and identities, from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to Hari Kunzru’s White Tears to Oreo by Fran Ross, which is what I’m reading at the moment.

And no, I’ve never been knocked out! But that’s not due to my great defensive skills. My workout was all non-contact. I put on all the gear once to spar, and went a couple rounds—with a man who went super super easy on me—and afterwards I was like, “Lucas, honestly. This is not going to end well for you.”

I have a question for you, Sanjay, about the protagonist in “Guerrilla Marketing.” Vikram was an accountant but now makes a living working at a restaurant, a gas station, and, briefly, for Liberty Tax. The portrait is so affecting, in part, I think, because you really go there in exploring the toll that his work and his financial situation take on his body. Could you talk a bit about the role money (or lack of money) plays in your work, and how Vikram’s different jobs informed your understanding of him?

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Vikram happens to be educated, but many of the men I write about in the linked collection are not educated at all. Many have overstayed their visas and are scraping enough money to survive and send back to their families. Every day they face the risk of being caught and returned to the most deplorable conditions. Vikram, like all of the men in the boarding house, is obviously broke and his striving for cash is rational—up to a point, he’s got a wedding to pay for, after all. He’s also obsessed, like most Americans, with money as a function of status and self-worth.

In the story, the character of Boss Bhatti is a sort of mini Trump—he’s a bully and con artist, looks slovenly even in a $3,000 Brioni suit. He’s less educated than Vikram, less sophisticated, but still Vikram believes the lie and wants nothing more than to be part of his crew. I mean, Boss Bhatti is definitely the sort of guy who would attend Trump University and not ask for a refund. That said, I don’t judge Bhatti or Vikram in the story. That’s not my job as the writer. I have to take my ego out of it and portray the characters honestly and unsentimentally.

Maud, I read “The Crazies” many months ago and it still haunts, especially the last couple of sentences of that brilliant ending. You mention taking five years to finish the story—were those last couple of lines in the early drafts? They just seem so perfect; like they were delivered to you from the literary gods.

MAUD STREEP: I’m so pleased to hear the ending lines stayed with you—they took a lot of unglamorous work to find. As I mentioned before, I went through a few different endings. Versions of the final lines showed up in the story by the second full draft, but never in the right place—I couldn’t recognize them as the ending until I’d sorted out when in the narrator’s life the story was being told.

Lucas, “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes” circles around Holly, looking at her from everyone’s point of view but her own. I’m curious whether you ever wrote a draft in which she did speak, or if you always knew she’d be a presence through absence—if that was some of the appeal or challenge in writing the story?

LUCAS SCHAEFER: Great question. The earliest draft of “Oral History” included Holly as one of the interview subjects, but I knew before I got to the end of the draft that she probably shouldn’t be there. What resonates with me about Holly is that she’s basically born to do this one thing—box—but because of her geography and her circumstances, and because she’s a woman, and a lesbian, in a time and place and sport that isn’t “ready” to deal with her, she doesn’t get to do it. I wanted readers to want to hear from Holly and to not get to, and to feel that loss. “Oh, now you want to hear from me?” That’s what I imagined her telling the reporter when he called to ask if she’d participate in the oral history. “Dude, I got better things to do than talk to you. Y’all had your chance.” I might go back to her in another story, though.

PATRICK RYAN: Here’s a question for all three of you—a question I want to ask every working writer these days. What’s your technique for shutting out the world when you write?

MAUD STREEP: At home, I rely on those mockingly titled internet blocking apps, Freedom and Self Control. Since there aren’t yet humiliating apps to block out things like doing the dishes and vacuuming and managing day-to-day family life, I’ve been incredibly grateful for time spent removed from all that while at residencies the past few years.

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: I have an eleven-month old daughter, and I think I might also suffer from some form of attention deficit disorder, so I’m not sure I ever shut out the world. But I do write almost every day, first thing in the morning when my mind is relatively clear.

LUCAS SCHAEFER: I’m on Twitter too much and have no great secrets, but rain noises help. I get them off a YouTube video that’s ten hours long, all rain, so when I get to the end of the ten hours I can say, “You’ve done good, kid!” and then go back to the beginning.

PATRICK RYAN: I am very familiar with that ten-hour rain video. Okay, one last question for the three of you. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Debutante Ball?

LUCAS SCHAEFER: Before One Story took a chance on my work, it had been so much rejection. Having the piece out there has been such a boost, professionally and creatively, but being in Texas I’ve never met you, Patrick, or any of the folks who gave me this opportunity. So I’m excited to meet you all and to thank you and to celebrate One Story. And as a Longhorn, I’m happy to be there for fellow Austinite and UT grad Kendra Fortmeyer’s debut, and to honor Alex Chee, who led one of the first workshops I took in grad school and who is so generous with his time and knowledge.

MAUD STREEP: I’m looking forward to seeing the Debs with their mentors. I love the idea of honoring the people who teach and support writers. There’s the enduring myth of the solitary author, but I shudder to think where my writing would be without the generous brains of others.

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Hanging out with the generous folks at One Story, and meeting other great writers like Maud and Lucas. Also, if the conditions are optimal, I might bust out some break dancing moves. I won a break dancing contest in Saudi Arabia when I was in the 8th grade, but it was Saudi Arabia and the competition was thin.

PATRICK RYAN: We’re holding you to that, Sanjay. Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you at the Ball!

Annotated Pages

One Story is a non-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization, and the Debutante Ball is our biggest fundraiser of the year. Donations help us keep our doors open and support our mission to celebrate the short story & support the writers who write them. For this year’s event, we’ve asked a few authors to annotate (by hand) a manuscript page from one of their published books. We’ll be making these available to on-site donors at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball this Friday, May 4th. Thank you to all of the wonderful authors who have so generously sent us pages: Jami Attenberg, Aimee Bender, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Min Jin Lee, Celeste Ng, Ruth Ozeki, Ann PatchettRichard Russo, Patrick Ryan, Dani Shapiro, Jim ShepardKaren Shepard, Darin Strauss, J. Courtney Sullivan, Hannah Tinti, Vendela Vida, Jess Walter, Claire Vaye Watkins, Colson Whitehead, and Meg Wolitzer. We can’t wait to see you at the ball!

Pictured above: annotated pages by Ann Patchett, Ruth Ozeki, and Hannah Tinti

The Queen of the Night Cocktail!

To honor our Mentor of the Year, Alexander Chee, One Story worked with mixologist (& writer) Christopher Hermelin to create a special cocktail named after Alex’s celebrated novel, THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT! We will be serving Queens of the Night (IN MASKS!)  at the One Story Debutante Ball in Brooklyn on Friday, May 4th. But you can make your own at home with the recipe below. Then let’s all raise a glass to the magic of mentorship, and how one writer can help many other writers move forward. Cheers!

 

Introducing 2018 Debutante: Kendra Fortmeyer

On May 4th, at our 9th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating three 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 Kendra Fortmeyer, author of One Story Issue #209, “Things I Know to be True” and the novel Hole in the Middle (Soho Teen, forthcoming in September 2018).

High-school senior Morgan Stone is an aspiring artist who has a peach-sized hole in her abdomen, to the right of her belly button. Pushed by her domineering mother, Morgan has grown up visiting countless doctors in search of a cure, believing that revealing her abnormality to anyone will bring heartbreak and rejection. When Morgan goes dancing at a club and unwittingly becomes Hole Girl—internet sensation—she embarks on a journey toward accepting her body and nurturing her own voice, separate from anyone else’s expectations. Hole in the Middle is a provocative exploration of otherness and the courage it takes to celebrate what it is that makes us different.

Hayleigh Santra: Where were you when you found out Hole in the Middle was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Hole in the Middle had a long, strange road to publication. The first time it really felt real—after the phone calls, the emails, the edits, the breaths held and released—was the day the sale appeared in Publisher’s Weekly. It was the fourth week of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in San Diego, and though I’d anticipated it for days, waking up to the email from my agent with the link to the announcement broke something open in me. I climbed out of my narrow dorm bed, went for a run, and wept. There was something haunting and lovely about pushing my body through the early morning light beneath the pines and feeling that no matter what, something I’d worked very, very hard to achieve my entire life was coming true.

And then my insane and wonderful Clarion classmates and our coordinator, Shelley Streeby, surprised me with doughnuts. “They also have holes in the middle!” they proclaimed, forever cementing themselves in history as the greatest and kindest group of humans to ever survive six weeks of intensive workshopping together.

(Bonus: when I received my acceptance to One Story, I screamed and collapsed into a pile of clean laundry. Fingers crossed this doesn’t count against my cotillion score at the ball.)

HS: One of my favorite characters in Hole in the Middle is Morgan’s best friend Caroline. She posts sticky notes around their apartment with encouraging, body-positive messages. What motivated you to explore this theme of body acceptance through the experiences of two young women on the verge of adulthood?

KF: Something I love about magical realism is how premise can give rise to larger theme. In this case, a girl with a hole in her stomach creates a space to explore body acceptance and our society’s policing of female bodies, and all of the intersections of feminism and selfhood in between.

But it’s fun, too, right? It’s not all academic—that’s the wonder of magical realism. It’s weird and surreal and filled with opportunities for humor and love. Female friendship is a powerful force. I knew from the second Caro hit the page that she would be like many women I’ve known: wonderful and supportive and kind, willing to pin you down and tell you firmly that you are beautiful, damnit, and stop believing otherwise.

Representation matters. We’ve got plenty of toxic female friendships in books and movies reinforcing the cultural myth that women can’t be friends with other women (because we’re all competing for male attention, right? #thanksfreud). Caro is a loving, open-minded, fierce-hearted teen. When her best friend is anxious about her body, her impulse is to support and encourage and champion. And the novel gets to explore this topic I adore! As it should be.

HS: In Hole in the Middle, Morgan’s mother has trouble accepting Morgan for who she is without trying to “fix” her. In your short story “Things I Know to Be True,” the main character also has a strained relationship with his mother, who is incapable of relating to her son in the face of his mental illness. Can you talk more about your interest in the turmoil that can arise when a parent cannot cope with their child’s otherness?

KF: It took me a long time to date anyone as a teenager—I was the “hopelessly and devastatingly crush on a close friend for years” sort. One day when I was fifteen (desperately in secret love, but apparently quite ace), my dad turned to me and said, apropos of nothing, “Just so you know, if you’re gay, Mom and I are totally okay with it.”

What I said aloud (ugh, Dad, I’m not) was certainly not what I was thinking (OH MY GOD MY PARENTS ARE DARING TO THINK ABOUT MY SEXUALITY THIS IS THE MOST EMBARRASSING THING THAT EVER HAPPENED). It definitely wasn’t, in retrospect, what I should have said. Which is, obviously, Damn, that’s amazing. I love you guys.

All this to say (ironically)—my parents are wonderful, touchingly accepting people. But I can’t stop writing difficult mothers. I suspect this is, in part, an attempt to exorcise my own fear about the mother I might be someday (which is, of course, how I can be to myself – overly judgmental, with love manifesting slantwise as “wanting the best,” or intolerance of imperfection). And, too, literary mothers stand in as social gatekeepers: the intimate expression of the conflicting love and worry, teachers and enforcers of the world’s rules. Maybe someday I’ll write a compelling father figure. For now, though, it’s all mothers.

HS: As someone who grew up in North Carolina, it’s lovely to interview a North Carolinian about her debut novel, which is set in North Carolina (cue Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up”). It’s also refreshing to read about smart, multi-faceted, progressive women who happen to live in the South. How important was it for you to set this story in Raleigh, North Carolina?

KF: Very! Growing up, I saw few literary representations of the place I lived. Though there are exceptions, most Southern literature seems to run the very limited gamut of:

  1. Set in the Civil War,
  2. Fried Green Tomatoes-style (folksy! charming!), or
  3. Deliverance-style (barefoot, backward and terrifying).

The first time I ever encountered the place I lived in literature—the actual place I lived, not a cutesy “y’all come back now”/truck-ridden hellscape of racism and wife-beating—were the early essays of David Sedaris. For a child who grew up in Raleigh, seeing places I knew and recognized (Cameron Village, the Dorothea Dix hospital) in a real book was revolutionary. I didn’t have to live in New York or Chicago or LA to be bookworthy. You could write books about the place I lived and the people who lived there. Those stories were worth telling.

We widely acknowledge now the power of representation in literature—the way a child seeing a character who looks like them can change what they believe possible, can change their life. In many ways, I think of this book as a love letter to Raleigh, a city I no longer live in and miss with my whole heart—a real and beautiful and complicated place, kudzu-draped and evolving. My next book is set in small-town Texas, but I’d love to write more—and read more—contemporary Raleigh novels in the future.

HS: Throughout the novel, Morgan is struggling to discover and protect her voice, as an artist and as a person. There are a lot of outside influences, including her mom and the entire internet, trying to tell her what she should do/be/say. Can you talk about finding your own voice as a writer? What advice would you give to those who are still figuring it out?

KF: Relax. Don’t question yourself. Existential creative anxiety is a sure route to paralysis. It’s normal to fluctuate, to borrow, to evolve. Maybe you just read All the Pretty Horses and all of your sentences want to be a page long and casually name-drop mesquite and arroyos; maybe you just attended a stand-up comedy festival and now all of your characters are cracking jokes about being depressed and smoking too much weed. Don’t worry about it. Just write, write, write and enjoy the ever-changing ride. Your own voice will emerge joyfully from the chaos.

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

KF:

  1. Publicly wearing the poofiest dress I can fit in an overhead bin,
  2. Seeing what earrings Hannah wears, and, of course,
  3. Meeting the other debutantes (and Alexander Chee, who I’ve Twitter-stalked with fondness and admiration for years)—and all of you.

Hayleigh Santra is a writer living in Brooklyn.