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: 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.

Introducing 2015 Literary Debutante: Anne Valente

bylightOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 talking with Anne Valente, author of By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books) and the upcoming One Story issue #205 “Tell Us You Were Here.” Thank you to Anne for taking the time to answer our questions about her brave and beautiful collection of stories.

Where were you when you found out By Light We Knew Our Names was the winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize? How did you celebrate?

I was at home in my living room when I received the phone call from Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books that the collection had won. I absolutely couldn’t believe it. It was Memorial Day of 2012 and I was living outside of Columbus, Ohio. Since it was a holiday, I already had plans to go into the city that day with my husband and our friend Lareese, but we made it a super-day of celebration—we went to the COSI Museum, we saw a movie, we got vegan cupcakes, and we went out for sushi.

This collection is full of stories that are somewhat horrific—disappearing children, violence against women, dissecting live octopuses—yet you write with incredible warmth. It’s such a unique balance that I’m curious, who do you consider to be your influences as a writer?

I’ve always admired Lorrie Moore’s ability to blend laugh-out-loud humor with extreme pathos—some of the funniest lines in her stories and novels are sliced right next to the saddest. Though I don’t write humor, I’ve taken to heart her talent at holding two seemingly disparate elements together in fiction. I’ve also taken a cue from the warmth in Aimee Bender’s prose, where despite the horror of some of the things her characters face, everyone seems so capable of love and so terrified of losing one another. There is such optimism for humanity in her fiction.

The title story in this collection, “By Light We Knew Our Names,” floored me. I reread it several times mouthing Wow, wow, wow as I moved through. It’s a powerhouse story about a group of young women living in the town of Willow where it seems that sexual violence against women is not only expected, but the norm. To cope, the women meet at night and punch pillows, hit trees with bats, and talk about getting out. Many of the stories in this collection contain some element of violence against women but this one in particular builds an entire world around just that. What was the seed of this story and what was your greatest challenge in writing it?

Thank you for these nice words! It definitely wasn’t an easy story to write, and as you mention, I’d touched upon violence against women in other stories. But at the time of writing this story, which was in early 2010 before many of the recent conversations about sexual violence began to happen, I felt so frustrated that what I was seeing and intuiting about gender disparity in the world wasn’t being heard. I wanted to make it so over-the-top and so blatant that it couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to set a magnifying glass to violence against women and sear it open. My greatest challenge was to avoid alienating the reader into not listening, or into dismissing these young women and their anger.

There are 13 stories in this collection. When did you realize you had a collection and how did you go about arranging the pieces?

This collection went through several revisions of weeding stories and writing new ones before I put together the final version that Dzanc accepted, and even in the editing process, I still made replacements. In terms of arrangement, I made decisions based mostly on theme, on tone, on length, and on the movement of one story to the next. For the most part, the collection progresses from adolescent narrators and protagonists to older characters reaching and experiencing adulthood. I wanted to preserve this movement across the collection while also making sure that no stories overlapped or grew repetitive, from one to the next.

What are you most looking forward to at the Ball on May 15th?​

I’m beyond delighted to take part in a celebration of literature, words and debut authors with one of my favorite literary magazines of all time. One Story has been a long-time favorite since I first began writing. I’m very much looking forward to meeting the other debutantes, whose books and work I’ve read and admired from afar. I’m also really looking forward to meeting Karen Friedman after her tireless, sharp editorial work on my issue of One Story. It will be such a great celebration, and I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am to attend.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Matthew Baker

If-You-Find-ThisOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 talking to Matthew Baker, author of the Middle Grade novel, If You Find This, published in March 2015 by Little, Brown. Matthew’s short story, Rites, One Story issue # 203, was also published this past March.

If You Find This follows Nicholas Funes as he struggles to save his home from being sold which would leave his brother—a tree in his backyard—alone. That is until his senile grandfather, released from prison, stays with his family and spins a story about priceless family heirlooms. He’s soon aided by two unlikely classmates, a nursing home escapee, and a rundown “haunted” house. Mixing mathematical and musical techniques, Baker tempers Nicholas’s whimsical adventure with a voice that is uniquely engaging and emotional.

You’ve published many short stories. How did publishing your first novel, If You Find This, feel different? How did you celebrate?

My family knew I’d work straight through pub day if there wasn’t some type of intervention, so my mom and my sister stepped in and threw a launch party at the local art museum. My K-12 teachers were all invited and got free copies. And that really turned out to be the perfect way to celebrate—a reunion with all of those people who had helped raise me as a child. (The best part was, after the party I learned that while I had been busy signing books for people, everybody had secretly been signing a copy of the book for me, like a yearbook.)

As writers we are told to limit adverbs. Yet you embraced them in a powerful and unique way through Nicholas’s adverbial use of musical dynamics and by incorporating musical notations into the text of the book. What’s the story behind how you developed this technique?

I was reading a lot of comics and thinking about the storytelling moves that cartoonists can do on the page that aren’t possible in any other medium. In Peanuts, Charles Schulz uses music staffs and music notes visually in a variety of different ways, with characters actually interacting with the music in certain strips. There’s a long tradition of that in comics, of course—almost half a century before, Winsor McCay was already using music in similar ways in Little Nemo in Slumberland. Anyway, reading comics in bed one night, I wondered, “Would there be a way to use music notations in prose…?”

Your previous stories were for adults. How was writing a Middle Grade piece different?

The age of the audience doesn’t change anything for me, honestly. For example, I just finished a novella about an elderly man in Arizona. And the “ideal reader” for the novella would probably be someone in the age range of 67-100. I think that’s the demographic that might relate most to the protagonist, the demographic that might best understand what the protagonist is going through. Of course, that’s not an actual marketing category—“elderly literature”—but if it was, that’s what this novella would be. The fact that it’s aimed at older readers didn’t affect how I wrote the story, though. I was still trying (and mostly failing) to achieve all of the usual things artistically. If You Find This is the same way. The “ideal reader” for the novel is someone in the age range of 7-13, but that didn’t affect how I wrote the story, and although it’s aimed at younger readers, it’s also meant to appeal to readers of any age. Ultimately, that’s my target demographic for every story: “living humans.”

March was an exciting month for you. If You Find This and “Rites,” One Story issue # 203, were both published. Could you tell us a bit about your next project(s) and when we’ll read them?

I just finished my first collection of short stories, so hopefully you’ll get to read that sometime in 2016. I’m also revising another middle-grade novel for Little Brown, which hopefully you’ll be able to read by 2017. I’m also collaborating on a comic project with the artist Nica Horvitz, but we haven’t quite figured it out yet, so you may have to wait a while to read it…

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

Getting to meet everybody in person (finally!).

 

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Diane Cook

ManVnature HCOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 Diane Cook. Diane Cook’s short story collection Man V. Nature is full of stories that are disorienting yet somehow recognizable and telling depictions of very human characters in extreme situations. A widow moves to a facility where she is expected to forget her late husband and prepare for her official placement with another man. A woman refuses to resign herself to the tradition that a mysterious man will kidnap her newborn children as soon as she drops her guard, though the rest of the neighborhood urges her to accept the inevitable. A group of ten-year-old boys who are declared “not needed” escape their state-mandated destruction and must fend for themselves in the forest. As Ira Glass said of Diane Cook’s stories, “Many of them are dispatches from the end of the world, and it turns out to be a surprisingly familiar place.”

1) Where were you and what were you doing when you found out your first book was going to be published? What did you do to celebrate?

I believe I was in my apartment on the phone. I remember it being kind of fraught and me feeling a bit frantic. You could imagine me like Johnny from Airplane! in this scene.  On second thought, you should imagine I’m all the characters in it. In fact, I believe this is a documentary someone made about the process of trying to sell a book.

You know, we were so broke at the time I’m pretty sure we didn’t even celebrate properly. We probably drank a reasonably tasty reasonably priced bottle of sparkling wine and watched free Hulu. I feel so boring right now.

2) As you said in your One Story interview about “Meteorologist Dave Santana,” the stories in Man V. Nature are about characters giving free rein to impulses people generally feel social pressure to quash. At what point did you recognize that the stories you’d written shared a theme that could bundle them into collection? How did the book come together after that?

I was just writing stories for a couple of years. Then I began to formulate this series of questions for myself about the world and these questions led to certain story ideas. This work built a kind of web of ideas that a few stories lived in. Then, looking back I could see that a couple of stories I’d written in the past seemed to act almost like the delicate anchors to that web. Then it became a book to me and I wrote more stories from there. But really, even though I grouped the stories and called it a book, it wasn’t until I had given the book to others to read and they responded, “This really comes together as a book” that I believed that it actually DID come together as a book.

3) Many of the stories are set in worlds that are only different from ours in one highly specific, brutal way that the characters take for granted. (I’m thinking of “Moving On,” “Somebody’s Baby,” “A Wanted Man,” “The Mast Year,”
and “The Not-Needed Forest” in particular.) What draws you to these situations and how do you come up with them? Did you have any ideas that didn’t make it into a story?

Some of these stories came from me asking What if questions about the world. What if things happened that way instead of this way? What if daily life looked like this and not that? And whatever lens I’m looking through is kind of dictating what I’m seeing, what I’m wondering about. Most of the stories you just named came about that way. It’s fun and fascinating to think about the world this way. But one story—”The Not-Needed Forest”—came about from reading about a lot of deep wilderness living and from trying to write an homage to an homage while at the same time homage-ing the original homaged story (specifically “Young Goodman Brown” by Hawthorne and “The Man in the Black Suit” by King.) What came out of those initial thoughts all swirling around wasn’t that different from the story you can read in the book but it was a shell, lifeless. You ask what makes it into a story and what doesn’t. I think at some point no matter your goals or hopes for the story were, you have to let the story take over. The early draft was really homage-y. But there were these little bubbles coming up, trying to lift the story out of itself, trying to take advantage of what I’d gotten on the page. So I let them come up. You have to if you want to be really surprised by what you’re working on. The best parts of that story came from letting my original intentions go.

4) If you could meet one character from the book in real life, which one would you choose? What would you want to say to or do with them?

Even though I put them through some extreme paces, I love my characters. Gary from “The Way the End of Days Should Be” and Janet from “Meteorologist Dave Santana” are two favorites. I know people can read Stan and Susan in “It’s Coming” as a bit comical, and I used to too, but now they make me weep. I probably relate most to Jane from “The Mast Year.” But if I could meet anyone I’d want to meet Beatrice, the daughter in “Somebody’s Baby.” I want to follow her through her day and see if she is as mysterious and unsettling as her mother thinks she is, or if she is just a little girl.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

I’m really looking forward to meeting people I only know by name or avatar. A few months after I sold the book we moved to California. It was unplanned and unexpected and pretty stupid timing. We’d lived in New York for a decade and I’d wanted to leave for half those years, but just when living in New York might actually be fun and useful—like, now that I’m a writer maybe I’ll get invited to literary parties!—we bailed. It was probably for the best. I’m a terrible party-goer and pretty timid in crowds. But it was a weird thing to feel like a New York writer (I’d written the book in New York after all) but not actually be one anymore. Imagine all the people I might have met this year if we’d never left. I hope to meet some of them at the Ball.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Matt Sumell

making niceOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 Matt Sumell, author of One Story Issue #201 “All Lateral” and the debut story collection Making Nice, available now from Henry Holt. Thanks to Matt for taking time out to talk with us about publishing his first book, memory, first-person, and jolly ranchers.

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

I got the call while I was in the middle of a writer’s group thing with my great and talented friends Marisa Matarazzo, Michael Andreasen, and—One Story Debutante herself—Ramona Ausubel. We still had a few stories to go through, but after finishing up we walked down the block to a bar called The Hudson where I popped a jolly rancher in my mouth and washed it down with five vodka sodas before I pedaled home and made my first purchase: a bigger Brita. Pretty sure I’ve been dehydrated for decades.

It was only about six stories in that I realized Alby was the narrator for all of the stories in Making Nice. That isn’t because he’s an inconsistent narrator, it’s that the world in each story is so fully developed that they seem like stand alone pieces. Reflecting on it, though, the structure of Making Nice definitely suites its story. Could you elaborate more on the form and the way Making Nice developed?

As Barry Hannah put it: “I like the first person—just a guy blasting through with the little he knows.” Me too. And when you have a narrator blasting through the wreckage of his life—taking inventory, trying to sense-make it a little bit, salvage what he can—it makes some sense that it’s not going to track chronologically. You don’t start at point A and move in a hard straight line to point whatever. Memory meanders, circles, loops. It gets tangled. Pull one string and something else comes with it. One memory makes you think of another, and whether that thing happened ten years or three weeks ago is beside the point. Consider your mother. Does it run like a movie reel: your earliest memory to your last? If it does you’re fuckin’ weird.

From the moment Alby punched his sister in the boob, I loved him, and it was interesting to me that, as a woman, I could still relate to a character who expresses some form of misogyny at so many points. Were you surprised that women responded positively to the novel? How did you take gender into account when writing?

I didn’t really consider my potential audience much, if at all, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to please people. Not sure you can read this book and think I was even trying to come out of the gate clean. I’m not interested in that. I just wanted to present a guy honestly struggling with grief in a way that people can believe in–flaws and all—because bad choices—and bad behavior—make for good stories.

As for women responding positively—let’s be honest: some have and some haven’t. That’s fine, and I’m not sure it comes down to gender so much as the ability to read well. All that “misogyny” is surface level. Read a little deeper and it’s pretty clear that beneath all the flawed thinking—the temper, the bad choices, the drinking and drugging, the violence and the girl chasing—there’s an underlying sense of awe and appreciation when it comes to the people—especially the women—in Alby’s life. That he loved his mother. That his sister is important to him. That even at his worst—and there’s plenty of that—he looks back at past girlfriends with the understanding that the ladies who love you, and even a few who don’t, have a way of making things better, and worthwhile, and sometimes even nice.

Alby is decidedly a dog person, something that appealed to me, but I wonder if cat lovers sympathized with Whatsherface in “All Lateral.” Any plans to give cats a starring role in a future novel and gain access to a whole new world of feline-loving readership? 

Alby the dog lover is really—when you think about it—Alby the animal lover. Working from shoddy memory here: over the course of the book he sympathizes with a bird, turtles, an almost drowned grasshopper, gazelles, a wolf that eats gazelles, an elephant, a slug named Cherokee Bob, ducks, bulls, dogs, and—as much as I hate to admit it—even his father’s cat Steve.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

What I always look forward to: celebrating with friends.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Austin Bunn

the brinkOn May 15th, at the 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating ten of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.

This week, we’re speaking with literary debutante Austin Bunn, author of One Story issue #68, “The Ledge.” Nearly 10 years ago, “The Ledge,” kept Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti wide awake in the middle of the night, so she called our publisher, Maribeth Batcha, right away to make sure we published Austin’s short story before anyone else.

It’s no surprise that Hannah was haunted by Austin’s work. Like a favorite Don DeLillo, J.G. Ballard, Chuck Palahniuk, or Jose Saramago novel, Austin’s collection will keep you up at night, pondering the bleak fate of humanity. Discovering the world is flat, suffocating in a suicidal cult, learning how to survive nuclear fallout, and terrorism on a tropical island: these snapshots merely scratch the surface of Austin Bunn’s short story collection, The Brink.

Austin’s stories are rich with imagination, exploring the complexity and resilience of each tested character. He explores sexuality, desire, and periods of transformation, ranging from 15th century Spain to 20th century San Diego. Austin’s ability to modulate his voice distinctly from one story to the next is a recognizable feat. While reading, you might ask: how could one man create ten such diverse stories? Austin has lived many lives as a boat carpenter, journalist, playwright, screenwriter, professor, and game designer for reality TV. Perhaps this allows him to crawl underneath the skin of such unique characters, perfectly emulating their point of view and tone.

We thank Austin for taking the time to answer a few questions about his book and the writing life.

Where were you when you found out that your first book, The Brink: Stories, was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Watering the plants? Reheating coffee in the microwave? Restarting the AppleTV? It’s funny—you spend years waiting for the moment of knowing that your secret project, the countless hours of revision and rumination and prayer, will come to something, and when it happens, you’re on hold with NYSEG. I celebrated by taking myself out to lunch.

As a dramatist and the son of two language teachers, it’s no surprise that you begin the draft process by focusing on a voice. A voice grabs you and you hear the story first. You have so many unique, diverse voices in this short story collection. Where do you find inspiration?

I’ve always been drawn to premise and concept—maybe from too much science fiction and Stephen King in my youth?—but then I realized in my twenties that stories only happen because someone tells them. With that in mind: research. So, for example, once I got fascinated with end-time cults, I tracked down the Time magazine that had, as its cover, all the faces of those that died in the Heaven’s Gate suicide. Most of the faces were older, in their 40s and 50s and up. Just two of them were in their twenties: a young man and a young woman. And I thought to myself, what if they fell in love? I imbibed all the wild idiomatic expressions of their religion—thank you, language prof parents—and a story was born.

How long have you been working on this collection? Which story is the oldest story and which story is the newest?

I first dreamed of knitting a collection together in grad school at Iowa—when amazingly talented classmates (Kevin Moffitt, Nam Le, Matthew Vollmer) were teaching me how by building theirs. But mine was spazzy and not very considered, just the net of everything I’d done up to that point. The “oldest” story is the last, “Curious Father,” but I put it in quotes because after drafting it, I turned it into a play and then back into a story, where it became something else entirely. The “newest” are “Hazard 9” and “The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts.”

Receiving encouragement from Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you completed research on the Spanish Inquisition while writing, “The Ledge.” How much research did you complete on the religious cult Heaven’s Gate while writing “The End of the Age Is Upon Us”?

Let me just say first that it would take a certain willful amnesia to call Marilynne Robinson’s response to the period, gay, sea-faring, ghost story “The Ledge” as “encouragement”! In that first draft, I was aiming for Poe and ended up at John Carpenter. You’re reading a much deepened, more honest, less performative version because of Marilynn’s spectacular let’s call it agnosticism towards that first draft. I did lots of research for “End of the Age”, since much of the cult’s ephemera remains online and was intended for the Internet: goodbye videos, testimonials, religious documentation. After a few months, I was convinced I needed to get to 0 emotionally as well.

In addition to research completed for this short story collection, you conducted research to write your biographical screenplay, Kill Your Darlings. How was that research process different from the research involved in writing these short stories? Do you research first and write second or do you write a first draft and then fill in the gaps with research? What advice do you have for fiction writers regarding research? How historically accurate does a fictional story need to be?

I love research—it feels like the story writes itself. This was especially true for Kill Your Darlings, though at a certain point, there is just not any information and you have to invent. I always read first and immerse myself and take notes and then start drafting when I’m most excited by the material. Then you hit dramatic or emotional corners, and invention is your way out (though I’m proud of just how accurate the film is). I used to be a journalist, so I trust actuality and fact perhaps more than other fiction writers. But I am also a former journalist for that very reason—the world doesn’t always produce stories.

One of the many reasons why your stories are powerful is because they are dark. Why do you feel drawn to writing apocalyptic stories?

A friend just read the collection and told me the same thing, Austin, these stories are so dark—I don’t think of them as dark as much as worlds under threat. My honest answer is that I’m terrified of boring people—the pathology of having of an alcoholic parent—and the fiction that grips me, that compels me to read forward and stay up and see where it goes (Sam Lipsyte, J.G. Ballard, Saunders, Kelly Link) tends to explore the edges of disaster, catastrophe, annihilation. I’m also a kid who grew up convinced that the world would end before I was the age I am now. That does things to you!

At the end of your collection, you mention some of your favorite speculative fiction writers. Would you consider stories from this collection to fit into the speculative genre as well? Do you have any advice for emerging writers who feel like their work doesn’t fit in with “the norm”?

I do find myself drawn to speculative fiction—the permission it gives—and some of these stories might fit the category. But I also love the writers who seem to move in and out of whatever category created for them. There are so many great outlets for work now, and I think the success of these less conventional writers (Saunders especially) has tested what “the norm” is. I’m just drawn to voice primarily, less so genre, so my advice is to trust your point of view more than anything. After “The Ledge” was rejected by two dozen other publications, Hannah Tinti pulled it from the submission pile and it was my first published story. Keep the faith.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

Being given away. I want to see what that looks like.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Andrew Roe

Miracle-girl-final-coverOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 Andrew Roe, author of One Story issue #41 “America’s Finest City” and the upcoming novel Miracle Girl,  available from Algonquin Books in April.

“The crowds keep coming. More and more every day it seems . . . drawn by rumor and whisper and desperate wish. Somehow they heard about the little girl on Shaker Street.”

So begins Andrew Roe’s debut novel, which tells the story of eight-year-old comatose “miracle girl” Annabelle Vincent, her family, and the believers and skeptics who flock to see her. Set in Los Angeles at the end of the millennium, the novel offers a moving and unforgettable exploration of the mysteries of faith.

“Roe inhabits characters who are desperate to believe and reveals to us their needs and wounds and hopes, and he does so with kindness, generosity, and wisdom,” says author Doug Dorst. “This is a novel about what it means to be human, to seek connection and hope and maybe even transcendence in the world around us.”

Thanks to Andy for taking the time to answer a few questions about his work for One Story.

1. Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was at work. Right after I found out, I had to go into a meeting. There I was, bubbling and bursting with the news, but I couldn’t tell anyone until after the meeting was over. As for celebrating: on the way home, I stopped off to buy champagne and chocolate cake, which I shared with my wife and kids (well, no champagne for the kids).

2. When I first had the pleasure of reading your debut novel, The Miracle Girl, the book was called Believers. What occasioned the title change, and are you willing to share any other runner-up titles?

From the book’s inception (or pretty soon thereafter), I had the title Believers. I didn’t ever really seriously consider any other titles, so no runners-up to report. The name change came about when my publisher (Algonquin) suggested it. Though I was pretty attached to Believers, they thought that The Miracle Girl was a more evocative, engaging title, and one that ultimately would generate more interest in the book. And in the end, they were right. The Miracle Girl was the best title for the book. It was a good lesson in letting go.

3. Where did the idea for The Miracle Girl come from?

I’m going to date myself here: It started back in the mid to late 90s, when I saw an episode of the ABC news program 20/20. There was a segment about a young girl named Audrey Santo, who had almost drowned in a swimming pool accident, and as a result, she was in a coma-like state, unable to move or speak. At some point, stories started to circulate about her being the cause of miracles (weeping statues, healing the sick, etc.), and people began showing up at the Santo home seeking her help and intervention. I thought that would make an interesting premise for a story—perhaps a novel. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories you hear about Jesus or Mary appearing in a shower curtain or tree stump, and how people are drawn to such events. Why do they come? What do they hope to find? Do they really believe they’ll encounter evidence of the divine in the everyday?

After watching the episode, I jotted down a few ideas, and I think I might have even had the opening line (“The crowds keep coming”). I also had the notion that there would be many characters and multiple points of view, including the girl’s family and the visitors who come to the house—believers, skeptics, the curious, the sick.

So that was the spark. Then I ventured down a path of what if. What if the girl’s family, unlike the Santo family, weren’t religious and weren’t sure what to make of these supposed miracles? What if the story were set in suburban Los Angeles (where I’m from) and took place at the close of the millennium, amid all the buzz of reckoning and doom and Y2K? I started making stuff up. Years went by, and I ended up stopping and writing another novel, a short story collection too, but I finally came back to The Miracle Girl. The spark, fortunately, was still there.

4. What do you believe in?

My family. Tacos. Books. Music. Kindness. Humility. Empathy. Quietly kicking ass. San Diego craft beer. Coffee. Exceptions to the rule.

5. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Ball?

Getting to hang out with other writers and the wonderful One Story staff. And Brooklyn too.