One Story Workshop Day 1: Subvert Expectations

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 Michelle Hu. Enjoy!–HT

WSDayoneHuzzah! One Story’s seventh annual Summer Workshop for Writers has begun. Writers arrived at the Old American Can Factory and began Sunday night with a cocktail reception, filling the floor with excited and nervous conversation. The room quickly became boisterous as more names were exchanged and glasses of wine and beer were consumed. Students were introduced to the One Story team and their instructors, our own Patrick Ryan and Will Allison, in preparation for the week ahead, where they’ll be attending morning workshops, craft lectures, and a variety of panels on the business of publishing. After a friendly welcome, the students went on a tour of the can factory, and visited our office, where they heard about the creation of One Story from its co-founders, Maribeth Batcha and Hannah Tinti.

The first official day of the conference began the next day with morning workshops, where Patrick and Will led in-depth discussions on stories and novel excerpts from each student. A growing familiarity between writers became apparent in the lunch that followed.

Afterwards, students gathered for the first of the Craft Lecture series with author Myla Goldberg, who began with a brief announcement about the subjectivity of writing (even after it is published). Myla focused her lecture on creating a space that allowed for productive disagreement. Lauren Groff’s “L. DeBard and Aliette,” an unusual love story that takes place in a time of illness, became an avenue to explore how Groff develops the relationship between the writer and the reader. Students took Myla’s invitation to explore ambiguity and disagreement in the story.

Reading, a process between the writer and the reader, is not one-sided, and the goal, Myla said, “is to foster collaboration with just the right amount of information.” In the lecture, students explored the ways Groff’s intentional choices create that mutual experience. The story, written in present tense, gives the characters’ experiences a real life immediacy. The choice to divulge certain details non-sequentially, however, allows her to not alienate the reader but challenge their ability to read about difficult topics. Similarly, the exclusion of details also contributes to the collaborative experience. Myla discussed the way Groff writes about sex through exclusion and how that creates moments that are at once delicate and also provocative. In what Groff chooses to not disclose, the reader is given an active role in how they experience and what they fill the moments with.

To end the lecture, Myla told the students how she makes space for writing and gave some advice. In summary: Writing is play! She reminded us that writing began before we were given the words for it. The creation of imaginary lives and worlds started with our childhood vividness. In wide arm gestures, Myla told us that writing is as active and away from the page as acting. Get an empty room, she says, and physically act out what the character is doing, grimaces and laughter alike.

Another way of looking at writing as play is through something Myla mentioned earlier in her lecture: “Subvert the expectation.” A line that applies to the hesitation most writers feel. When beginning to write it is crucial to remember to play, to subvert, and to undo expectations. She left us all with the reminder that writing is undoing as much as it is doing. But above all else, it’s fun.

After an afternoon social break with snacks and drinks, the day ended with an informal “Meet the Instructors” conversation, moderated by One Story Publisher Maribeth Batcha. Patrick Ryan and Will Allison discussed and answered questions about how they started as writers and gave some tips for the submission process. As lightening and flood warnings briefly distracted the students, it seemed as if even the weather was fortifying the duality of a writer’s life. While some took the opportunity of the thunder storm to continue talking to their peers after the event, others hugged their bags and sprinted through the river-ed streets with their heels kicked high.

Issue #218: Queen Elizabeth
by Brad Felver

218_coverI love a good love story. But boy, are they hard to pull off! The risk is getting too sentimental, or, leaning too far in the other direction, and becoming cynical and heartless. Every once in a while, however, a writer skillfully walks the emotional line, capturing the complicated truth of what it feels like to be bound to another human soul. “Queen Elizabeth,” by Brad Felver, strikes a perfect balance between reality and hopefulness, and blossoms just like the ancient tree at the center of this heartwarming tale. A great deal of its success has to do with the authentic and complex characters Felver creates: Ruth, a mathematician who uses numbers to cope with her emotions, and Gus, an artisan woodworker, who creates beautiful, handmade desks (that will haunt the dreams of any writer who reads this story). “Queen Elizabeth” begins with a tussle over the bill on first date, and ends many years later, with Ruth and Gus sitting across from each other once again, feeling the same pull towards each other that they did when they first met. Between these two brilliant set pieces, Brad Felver skips through time, zeroing in on the briefest of moments that often define our lives. I hope that you’ll read Brad Felver’s thoughtful Q&A with us, where he discusses everything from woodworking to Euclidean planes, and even gives a glimpse into Gus and Ruth’s future, past the memorable ending of this marvelously satisfying love story.

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!

Lena Valencia new Managing Editor of One Story

LenaOne Story is absolutely thrilled to announce that Lena Valencia will be joining us as our new Managing Editor.

Lena Valencia has held positions at A Public Space and BOMB Magazine, and served as a bookseller and events coordinator at The powerHouse Arena. Her writing has appeared in StoryChordBOMBThe Masters Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Fiction from The New School and hosts the HiFi Reading Series in Manhattan. You can find her on Twitter at @lenavee.

Please join us in welcoming Lena to the One Story family!!

Issue #217: The Woman in the Window

217-kindle_Page_01In our new issue, Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Woman at the Window,” two point of views are woven into a complex story of sex, violence, longing and connection. Contributing Editor Patrick Ryan took this unique piece through its paces, and so I am turning the introduction reins over to his steady and talented hands. I hope you’ll all read Joyce Carol Oates’s fascinating Q&A that tells how this piece began with a painting, and then became a poem, and is now a powerfully unnerving, voice-driven story that will grip you from the first page to the very last sentence.-HT

Paintings with people in them always suggest a narrative. Part of the fun of looking at, say, Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” is wondering what the story is behind the image. Why does this pregnant woman reading the letter look so sad? Who is the letter from? Is it bad news? Maybe from the unborn child’s father? We can’t help but wonder about the context and start filling in the blanks. But it takes an imagination as colossal as Joyce Carol Oates’s to look at Edward Hopper’s painting, “Eleven A.M.” and create the story you’re about to read.

woman.in.windowIn the painting, a woman—naked but for a pair of high-heeled shoes—sits in a chair and stairs out through an open window. The woman seems to be waiting for something. The title of the painting tells us only the time of day. As Oates reveals in her interview with One Story, one of her starting points in writing about this woman is that she is forever trapped in her waiting; it is, forever, eleven a.m.

Waiting for what? Waiting for whom?

We’re honored to welcome Joyce Carol Oates into the One Story family, and we’re delighted to present to you “The Woman in the Window.”

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.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Kim Brooks

Houseguest CoverOn 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 have the pleasure of chatting with Kim Brooks, author of One Story issue #65, “Do You Like It Here?” Her novel, The Houseguestout this month from Counterpoint Press, examines the Jewish experience in America prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II on many, often unexamined, levels: a Yiddish actress and refugee who is haunted by her past, a rabbi who can no longer ignore the atrocities happening overseas, a Jewish junkyard owner who tries to turn a blind eye, and a secret network of organizations that attempts to transport Jews to American soil. Brooks deftly explores the subject of the Holocaust through this multi-layered narrative and in doing so, showcases themes of survival, cultural passivity, and personal vs. social responsibility. Through her characters, Brooks illustrates what it was to be Jewish in America during this tense time and simultaneously exposes the unsettling ignorance and inaction exhibited by Americans, both Jews and non-Jews. A multi-faceted story of love, politics, history, and identity, The Houseguest challenges what it means to save another.

Kat Misko: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate? How was this experience different than publishing a short story?

Kim Brooks: It was Rosh Hashanah, and I was attending a family service at synagogue, something I manage to do every four to five years whether I want to or not. I remember I was there because I left my phone in the car on purpose so I wouldn’t forget to turn off the ringer. I’d been pretty much surgically attached to this device since the whole trying-to-publish-a-book process began. But suddenly I was looking at it through the window of my parked car, and I could see that my agent had just called, but then I couldn’t find my keys for about forty seconds. It was the longest forty seconds of my life. After much hysteria, I found the keys, got the phone, listened to the message, and learned that Counterpoint wanted to publish my book. After that, I smiled for about a week. My husband and I went out to dinner and drank a lot of champagne and debated which actors would play the main characters in the film adaptation.

In terms of how the excitement compared to the excitement of publishing a story—it didn’t compare at all. I mean, I basically poured four years of my life into this book, four years worth of concentration, emotional energy, professional aspirations, babysitting money. Also, between you and me, it was not my first attempt. So like many writers, I figured that if I couldn’t find a home for it, I’d have to kill myself. Except I have kids, so I can’t kill myself, so the situation was even more desperate. All this is to say, it felt AMAZING!

KM: What I find compelling about your novel is that it explores the Jewish story during World War II from a very different perspective—those that make it to America and are haunted by their past; those that live in America and try to assist overseas through a network of organizations; and even those that live in America and turn a blind eye. What made you choose to write about this subject, which in many ways is the subject of the Holocaust? You deftly handle the notion that many people in America, even Jews, chose to remain ignorant of the issue overseas: Was it difficult to generate this subtle theme of cultural passivity that courses through the book?

KB: You know, this is the first time it’s occurred to me, but I suppose that passivity, the refusal to engage, the habit of turning away, negating, invalidating, unseeing, passivity in all its forms—cultural, individual, interpersonal—has always been a primary interest for me. But this is a problem for a fiction writer because it’s extraordinarily hard to make people NOT doing something interesting or compelling or suspenseful or all the things fiction is supposed to be. Imagine an HBO crime series that begins with a cop going to a crime scene and saying to his partner, “Meh, let’s leave this one alone.”

So in this book, I suppose the breakthrough must have been my realization that sometimes what we don’t do as individuals or as a community can have as many tangible, world-shaking implications as what we do. David Wyman writes about this in great depth in his book The Abandonment of the Jews, and that was certainly a large part of my inspiration, wanting to work through in a piece of fiction the experience of the abandonment he describes.

A number of people have asked me about why I chose to explore the events from an American perspective, about the unusualness of that choice. And I always try to challenge the question a little—this idea that there is a single, dominant Holocaust narrative. There’s this tendency to simplify or streamline what happened during this time to a few monolithic facts, but I think it’s important to try to remember that this was an event that was made of thousands of millions of smaller threads, from the individual to the collective to the continental. For me, there’s as much to learn from the stories of the victimizers, the accomplices, the bystanders, the witnesses, as from the victims.

KM: The book resonates with a deep tension between two cultural perspectives and is instilled with the fear of the Jew/immigrant on American soil. You have that great line: “…was not a Jew in America but an American Jew. These were two distinct, discrete things.” Did any current events inspire elements of this novel?

KB: Yes, unfortunately, though not one particular event. Our country and culture excels at using people’s differences as grounds for withholding compassion or basic human decency. I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start: police brutality against African-Americans, racial profiling of Muslims, governors taking the time to announce that Syrian refugees need not apply for residence in such-and-such a state.

It’s funny, every so often, someone will ask my about my writing, and when I describe it, they’ll say something like, “wow, that sounds pretty dark.” And I always think, yeah, but, the world is pretty dark. I mean, turn on the news. I only know how to write about the world I inhabit.

KM: I am always intrigued by the notion of research in a novel. As a work of historical fiction, did you perform extensive research for this book? How do you know how much research is enough and when do you sit down to write? Did you continue to refer to the research as you wrote?

KB: Like many writers, I find the process of the writing itself excruciatingly painful, even agonizing. And so I’ll generally do anything I can to put it off as long as possible. As a result, I think I do a lot more research than is necessary or relevant. But I should also say that by “research” I basically mean just reading books that interest me. I don’t have the discipline to research in any organized, professional, meticulous manner. I’m helpless with stuff like that and ask my husband to look things up for me like ten times a day. When I’m researching, I’m basically just reading widely and searching for something that sparks an idea or engages my imagination, throwing aside everything else.

KM: Structurally, your novel is divided into four sections. It’s also told from various character perspectives—mainly Abe, Max, Ana, but even at times, Judith, Spiro, Field. I love novels that experiment with form and perspective: why did you decide to have these sections and multiple perspectives play off each other? In what way did you feel this enhanced the story being told?

KB: A long time ago, back in college, I remember being stuck for the first time with a paper I was writing, and my college adviser told me, think about the question you most urgently want to answer for yourself, that you also sense you will probably not be able to answer in any definitive or clear cut way. It was such good advice that I’ve used it many times since, and when I look back at writing The Houseguest, I think I must have, at least subconsciously, wanted to explore the question of how different people deal with, respond to, incorporate, or turn away from the suffering of strangers. Are there certain character traits or personality traits that prime people to be compassionate or callous? What makes some people able to face their own fears and powerlessness productively, and others not at all? Because I wanted to answer these questions, I suppose it only made sense to have a cast of characters who are all dealing with the main disruption of the novel in different ways based on their particular sensibilities, backgrounds, values.

Of course, these are things I can only say in retrospect. As I was writing, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

KM: In the same chapter, Ana is visited by the ghost of her husband, while Abe is visited by the ghost of his brother. I enjoyed how you inserted these ghosts into their narrative realities—which can be a difficult feat—as a way of indicating that the past haunts the present, which properly reflects Ana’s journey as a Jew leaving her homeland for a strange, new home. What made you choose to use ghosts in the story?

KB: I’ve always been easily enchanted by writers who are able to blend elements of the otherworldly or fantastical into realist narratives: the two that jump to mind are William Kennedy in Ironweed and Bernard Malamud in many of his stories. It’s odd, because I’m almost never interested in the purely supernatural. For me, real life is strange enough. But some of my favorite moments in fiction take place in that borderland between dream-life and reality. I often say that I don’t think there’s much difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and I’m sticking to this, but if there is one difference, I think it’s that fiction is slightly better equipped to forge into this territory of the strange and subconscious. Or I suppose I should say that for me, when I’m writing fiction, I somehow feel like I have permission to be associative, to let go of what I think I know, to invent my own rules and do what I want.

KM: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball? And most important, what are you going to wear?

KB: Good questions! I am looking forward to the whole shebang, but most of all to hugging and thanking and drinking fancy cocktails with all the friends who’ve somehow put up with listening to me fret and complain about “the novel I’m working on” for the past half-decade.

As to what I’ll wear, I can tell you that my editor (and Ball chaperone) Dan and I have been discussing the possibility of matching, long, white satin gloves. So I’d say there’s a high probability that will happen. Beyond that, I’ve been thinking it might be fun to wear the sort of high-baroque gown that the Yiddish-actress, houseguest-diva Ana Beidler would wear if she were coming. It would be fun, but I’ll probably wear whatever frock I find in my closet that fits and isn’t in need of dry-cleaning.

Issue #216: Catacombs
by Jason Zencka

cover_os_216On my first trip to Rome, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Inside those underground caverns I discovered a true Momento Mori—thousands of skeletons of Capuchin monks, deconstructed to form elaborate frescoes and decorative arches—as well as a sign that read: What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be. The monks, I was told, would pray in the crypt every night before going to sleep, among the vertebrae and femurs and skulls of their brothers. When I first read Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs,” I was reminded of the beauty of that cold, dark place—not just because of the reference to the catacombs and tunnels that the narrator, George, travels to over his life, but because of how perfectly this story captures the mysterious places our minds create and then wander through, when dealing with the loss of someone we love. “Catacombs” breaks so many rules of fiction, slipping through time, playing with point of view, deconstructing its own narrative voice, and yet somehow through this process, it sets its finger exactly on a difficult truth—the guilt of those of us left behind, so desperate to commune and connect that it leads us to find solace and beauty in fragments, whether they are pieces of bone or memory. That this is Jason Zencka’s debut publication makes “Catacombs” all the more special. Please read his Q&A to find out more about this remarkable story, and in the meantime, join me in welcoming a talented new writer to the literary stage.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Cote Smith

Hurt PeopleOn 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 chatting with Cote Smith, author of One Story issue #118 “Hurt People” and the novel of the same name. The novel Hurt People expands on his short story, told from the point of view of a child living in the prison town of Leavenworth, as he idolizes his older brother, grapples with his broken family, and obsesses over the pool in his apartment complex—which is where the two brothers meet a mysterious stranger. Like the original short story, Smith’s novel is both grounded and suspenseful—true to its protagonist’s point of view yet imbued with poetry and tension. It’s a tricky balancing act that Smith pulls off with grace.

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

Cote Smith: I was at home playing a video game on the couch. I couldn’t pause the game, so I helplessly watched as my guy got slaughtered while my agent told me my dream was coming true. I celebrated by hugging my wife when she got home. We might have gone to the local brewery.

JH: I heard that your book took sort of an unusual path to publication. What was that experience like for you as a first-time novelist?

CS: The book was rejected the first time around. I thought it was dead and began working on another book, writing 200 pages before my future editor called and revived Hurt People from the dead like Lazarus. Everything since that moment, even the difficult and scary stuff, like editing, has been amazing. I’m lucky to have worked with such an amazing agent, editor, and everyone else at FSG.

JH: Hurt People is a full novel version of your One Story piece, also called “Hurt People.” What made you decide to expand the piece into a novel, and what was that process like?

CS: I knew there was much more to the world that I wanted to explore. The short story only covers the brothers and the mother, and gives just a glimpse of Leavenworth. Having grown up in the area, I was very familiar with that world, and yet had never seen a prison town portrayed in a story or movie, at least not from a child’s perspective. I thought it was a story that deserved to be told.

JH: A fair amount of the dialogue in this book is between the two kids—brothers—and that dialogue drives such an important relationship. What did you do to get into that mindset?

CS: I’m a younger brother, so getting into the mindset came fairly naturally, particularly the ideas of the younger sibling idolizing the older, wanting to do whatever they do, and remaining loyal no matter what.

JH: Another small thing among many that I love about this book is the way it captures the way some kids can be absolute obsessed with swimming pools. Were you pool-obsessed as a kid? Any vivid pool-related memories you’d care to share as summer approaches?

CS: I was obsessed. My uncle had a pool with a diving board, and my brother, cousins, and I spent entire summers inventing crazy pool moves and games. We had a floating volcano that we used to play king of the mountain, where one person sat on top and the others catapulted at them from the diving board to knock them off. We strung a hose through pool noodles and had a person on each side of the diving board hold the line so we could compete in an ad hoc high jump contest. Looking back, I’m surprised no one was hurt.

JH: As a movie nerd, I have to ask: are the VHS titles you use in Hurt People real? I know I could probably Google this but I’d love to hear about your selection process—either in terms of choosing real movies, or in terms of making up movies.

CS: The VHS titles are not real, but they were very fun to write. They’re based on the terrible horror and sci-fi movies we watched as kids, movies like Critters, Ghoulies, and the entire Leprechaun series. Like the brothers in the book, we watched these movies when we were far too young. We would take turns laughing hysterically in the light, when we were together, and being completely terrified when it was dark and time for bed. It’s all fun and games until you’re trying to fall asleep.

JH: So if Lieutenant Lazarus doesn’t exist, can you maybe get a development deal have it made so I can check it out?

CS: I’m on it.

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

CS: This will be the second time I’m a debutante, so I’m assuming there’s some sort of special jacket, or at least a pin, that Hannah will present to me. I’m really looking forward to that.