This year at the Debutante Ball, along with honoring the three One Story authors who’ve had their first book published during the past year and our mentor of the year, Alexander Chee, we’re also honoring three of our authors who published their first short stories ever in One Story over the last twelve months. Those authors are Sanjay Agnihotri (Issue #236: “Guerrilla Marketing”), Maud Streep (Issue #234: “The Crazies”), and Lucas Schaefer (Issue #225: “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes”). All three of these short story debutantes (whom I affectionately refer to as our “Little Debbies”) will be joining us at the Ball on May 4th. Recently, I asked them if they had any questions for one another about their stories. Here are the results of that round-robin conversation.
PATRICK RYAN: Lucas, since you’re the first short story deb, chronologically, let’s start with you.
LUCAS SCHAEFER: Okay, I have a question for Maud. Maud, you handle the passage of time so beautifully in “The Crazies.” When, at the end, you jump years ahead to the narrator’s current life and then take us back to the time of the fire—it’s poignant and unexpected. I’m curious if you knew from the beginning that the story was being told many years later, and how knowing that or not knowing it affected the writing of the piece.
MAUD STREEP: The passage of time was actually the key that let me into “The Crazies.” It was one of those stories that wasn’t working and wasn’t working. The first few endings were dreadful. But about a year in, my teacher at the time, David Gates, took a look at it and suggested that perhaps the issue was that the story wasn’t being told from the right time. That clicked things into place for me, although it took me another year to find the right distance and perspective, and then a couple more years from there until it felt done. So, thanks, David! The core of the story’s action and language remains as it was in the first draft, but without the perspective from the future, nothing added up.
Sanjay, I know you’ve previously said “Guerrilla Marketing” went through many drafts. I’d love to know more about how you came to the story’s structure—did you always know what happened in Los Angeles that left Vikram in the predicament he’s in? Did the reveal of what happened in LA and why it happened always fall where it does now, or did you play with the placement?
SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Vikram’s back story was tricky. I always knew that he’d end up in NJ after getting kicked out of LA, I just didn’t have all the details worked out in the early drafts. It took some time to get that right. The placement too was challenging—I recast his LA backstory several times, though it always appeared near the end.
Lucas, I’m a boxing fan and can’t wait to read your novel-in-stories about the Austin boxing gym. You mention the book Boxing Shadows by W.K. Stratton as an inspiration. I’m curious to know what other writers—fiction/non-fiction—have inspired both the collection and your writing in general? Also, you mention in an interview with Patrick that you worked out at R. Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin. I have to ask: have you ever been knocked out? And if so, did you see stars? I got knocked out once, but it wasn’t in a ring, and I never saw stars, only pavement and blackness, and I’m afraid I might be missing out.
LUCAS SCHAEFER: What’s always appealed to me about the boxing gym as a setting isn’t so much the boxing as it is that, in our still-very-and-in-some-ways-getting-more-segregated (racially and otherwise) society, the gym is one of those rare spaces where people of wildly different backgrounds and experiences converge. And not only that, but they’re converging to fight. On purpose! How wonderful and unsettling and bizarre. This is a long way of saying that the books I tend to gravitate toward have less to do with boxing than with the clashing of cultures and identities, from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to Hari Kunzru’s White Tears to Oreo by Fran Ross, which is what I’m reading at the moment.
And no, I’ve never been knocked out! But that’s not due to my great defensive skills. My workout was all non-contact. I put on all the gear once to spar, and went a couple rounds—with a man who went super super easy on me—and afterwards I was like, “Lucas, honestly. This is not going to end well for you.”
I have a question for you, Sanjay, about the protagonist in “Guerrilla Marketing.” Vikram was an accountant but now makes a living working at a restaurant, a gas station, and, briefly, for Liberty Tax. The portrait is so affecting, in part, I think, because you really go there in exploring the toll that his work and his financial situation take on his body. Could you talk a bit about the role money (or lack of money) plays in your work, and how Vikram’s different jobs informed your understanding of him?
SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Vikram happens to be educated, but many of the men I write about in the linked collection are not educated at all. Many have overstayed their visas and are scraping enough money to survive and send back to their families. Every day they face the risk of being caught and returned to the most deplorable conditions. Vikram, like all of the men in the boarding house, is obviously broke and his striving for cash is rational—up to a point, he’s got a wedding to pay for, after all. He’s also obsessed, like most Americans, with money as a function of status and self-worth.
In the story, the character of Boss Bhatti is a sort of mini Trump—he’s a bully and con artist, looks slovenly even in a $3,000 Brioni suit. He’s less educated than Vikram, less sophisticated, but still Vikram believes the lie and wants nothing more than to be part of his crew. I mean, Boss Bhatti is definitely the sort of guy who would attend Trump University and not ask for a refund. That said, I don’t judge Bhatti or Vikram in the story. That’s not my job as the writer. I have to take my ego out of it and portray the characters honestly and unsentimentally.
Maud, I read “The Crazies” many months ago and it still haunts, especially the last couple of sentences of that brilliant ending. You mention taking five years to finish the story—were those last couple of lines in the early drafts? They just seem so perfect; like they were delivered to you from the literary gods.
MAUD STREEP: I’m so pleased to hear the ending lines stayed with you—they took a lot of unglamorous work to find. As I mentioned before, I went through a few different endings. Versions of the final lines showed up in the story by the second full draft, but never in the right place—I couldn’t recognize them as the ending until I’d sorted out when in the narrator’s life the story was being told.
Lucas, “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes” circles around Holly, looking at her from everyone’s point of view but her own. I’m curious whether you ever wrote a draft in which she did speak, or if you always knew she’d be a presence through absence—if that was some of the appeal or challenge in writing the story?
LUCAS SCHAEFER: Great question. The earliest draft of “Oral History” included Holly as one of the interview subjects, but I knew before I got to the end of the draft that she probably shouldn’t be there. What resonates with me about Holly is that she’s basically born to do this one thing—box—but because of her geography and her circumstances, and because she’s a woman, and a lesbian, in a time and place and sport that isn’t “ready” to deal with her, she doesn’t get to do it. I wanted readers to want to hear from Holly and to not get to, and to feel that loss. “Oh, now you want to hear from me?” That’s what I imagined her telling the reporter when he called to ask if she’d participate in the oral history. “Dude, I got better things to do than talk to you. Y’all had your chance.” I might go back to her in another story, though.
PATRICK RYAN: Here’s a question for all three of you—a question I want to ask every working writer these days. What’s your technique for shutting out the world when you write?
MAUD STREEP: At home, I rely on those mockingly titled internet blocking apps, Freedom and Self Control. Since there aren’t yet humiliating apps to block out things like doing the dishes and vacuuming and managing day-to-day family life, I’ve been incredibly grateful for time spent removed from all that while at residencies the past few years.
SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: I have an eleven-month old daughter, and I think I might also suffer from some form of attention deficit disorder, so I’m not sure I ever shut out the world. But I do write almost every day, first thing in the morning when my mind is relatively clear.
LUCAS SCHAEFER: I’m on Twitter too much and have no great secrets, but rain noises help. I get them off a YouTube video that’s ten hours long, all rain, so when I get to the end of the ten hours I can say, “You’ve done good, kid!” and then go back to the beginning.
PATRICK RYAN: I am very familiar with that ten-hour rain video. Okay, one last question for the three of you. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Debutante Ball?
LUCAS SCHAEFER: Before One Story took a chance on my work, it had been so much rejection. Having the piece out there has been such a boost, professionally and creatively, but being in Texas I’ve never met you, Patrick, or any of the folks who gave me this opportunity. So I’m excited to meet you all and to thank you and to celebrate One Story. And as a Longhorn, I’m happy to be there for fellow Austinite and UT grad Kendra Fortmeyer’s debut, and to honor Alex Chee, who led one of the first workshops I took in grad school and who is so generous with his time and knowledge.
MAUD STREEP: I’m looking forward to seeing the Debs with their mentors. I love the idea of honoring the people who teach and support writers. There’s the enduring myth of the solitary author, but I shudder to think where my writing would be without the generous brains of others.
SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Hanging out with the generous folks at One Story, and meeting other great writers like Maud and Lucas. Also, if the conditions are optimal, I might bust out some break dancing moves. I won a break dancing contest in Saudi Arabia when I was in the 8th grade, but it was Saudi Arabia and the competition was thin.
PATRICK RYAN: We’re holding you to that, Sanjay. Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you at the Ball!