Introducing 2017 Debutante: Lisa Ko

On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating nine 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 Lisa Ko, author of One Teen Story Issue #14, “Proper Girls” and the novel The Leavers.

The Leavers is a story about family and identity, spanning nearly twenty years. Eleven year-old Deming Guo lives with his mother Polly in the Bronx. One day, Polly goes to her job at the nail salon and never returns. When Deming is adopted by a suburban white couple in upstate New York, he becomes Daniel Wilkinson, beginning the arduous journey to discover not only his true self but the fate of a mother long lost.

Wynne Kontos: Where were you when you found out The Leavers was going to be published and how did you celebrate?

Lisa Ko: I lost my phone while I was on vacation. I hadn’t been able to get my voicemail or email all week because there was no reception, and when I got back to New York I checked my email and found a message from Barbara Kingsolver saying she had been trying to call me for days and to please call her immediately. It was about the PEN/Bellwether Prize, which Barbara established and funds, and which comes with a book contract with Algonquin Books. I’d submitted my manuscript months ago and promptly forgotten about it. When I called Barbara with my boyfriend’s phone, she told me I’d won. I was too jet-lagged for it to really sink in — I think I celebrated that afternoon by drinking coffee and then passing out— but the next morning I woke up at five in the morning and was like, OH MY GOD!

WK: There seemed to be a parallel between Deming’s biological mother Polly and his adoptive mother Kay when it came to the concept of “motherhood.” Both have very different journeys that lead them to being Deming’s mother. Both women are not without faults, but feel real love for the same child. Can you talk more about your exploration of motherhood and its variety of roles?

LK: Polly and Kay are both imperfect women doing the best they can. They also want the best for Deming, or what they feel is the best for him. On a more thematic level, they are inseparable from larger forces of class, race, language access, and citizenship status, and this impacts their parenting and expectations. Kay and her husband Peter can provide Deming with economic resources, but Polly can provide him with connections to culture, family, and identity. I wanted to explore the differences between the two.

WK: Deming (later Daniel) performs poorly in academics, which causes him to struggle as a child. Being a bad student is an example of how Deming’s life and family defy cultural stereotypes we see about the Asian community. Did you intend to confront these racial stereotypes?

LK: I didn’t set out to strategically write against stereotype—I just wanted to create a fully developed character. Deming’s poor academic performance is tied to the upheavals in his childhood, some uninspiring teachers, and his interests being more in art and music than in the traditional academic areas that his adoptive parents value and pressure him to pursue. I do hope my characters reflect the full diversity of Asian Americans. There are definitely plenty of Asian kids who are terrible students!

WK: Deming/Daniel also struggles with a gambling addiction. The addiction seems to come out of nowhere, though it’s obvious he is incredibly isolated without a lot of support systems. What role did the gambling addiction serve in exploring Deming/Daniel’s character?

LK: There’s a certain obsessiveness about Daniel’s character, as well as a desire for risk-taking. That, and his perfect poker face—a skill honed from having to pretend, to hide his true feelings in his new adopted family and town—make him susceptible to succeeding as a gambler. The theme of gambling is also prevalent throughout The Leavers. Chance, luck, the arbitrariness of immigration policies, and even being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time affect my characters’ lives in pivotal ways. From a storytelling point of view, Daniel’s gambling addiction is something he needs to face as part of his character’s journey. He treats others poorly because he’s not being honest to himself, and he has to learn to make decisions for himself rather than doing what others want him to do, whether it’s his parents or his friends.  

WK: In conversation with Barbara Kingsolver, you mentioned getting inspiration from the New York Times reports about women who were separated from their children and imprisoned in immigration camps. Immigration has been a growing cultural and political issue in recent years, but it has taken on new meaning after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. This just four months before the release of your debut novel about how unethical immigration practices can cause enormous harm for families and individuals. What role do you hope your novel has had and will continue to have in this growing conversation?

LK: By personalizing one fictional family’s story, I’d love for The Leavers to clear some misconceptions about undocumented immigration, as well as raise awareness about the for-profit prison system and its ties to U.S. immigration policies. These policies have been in place for years, and didn’t start with the Trump administration. There are “bed quotas” that mandate that a certain number of immigrants need to be imprisoned at any given time—during the Obama administration it was 34,040 immigrants per day. Trump would like to double it. Private prisons are profiting, big time, off of xenophobia, racism, the criminalization of immigrants, and the separation of families like Polly and Deming’s.

WK: The concept of “identity” is at the forefront of this novel in almost every way. Deming/Daniel and his mother both explore dual Chinese-American personas, the Wilkinsons learn what it means to be an individual versus a parent, even Deming’s best friend Michael uses academics to reach a new phase of adulthood. Each character in the novel is searching for their truest meaning, either because they have yet to find it or they feel it has been lost. Why is identity such an important concept for you as a writer and what does it mean to you?

LK: American culture in general has always been obsessed with identity and the right to define ourselves—self-determination, right? If we’re referring to racial and ethnic identity, I think that Asian Americans are often so invisible in media, and when we are visible, we’re often being defined by others. So to define ourselves and center our stories is to assert our own humanity in a way, and that can be critical. Polly and Deming deal with this, too: their own search for belonging is also a desire to be fully seen, understood, and to be able to define themselves on their own terms, rather than to be forced to fit the more limiting definitions that are placed upon them.

WK: What are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?

LK: Having my story “Proper Girls” published in One Teen Story was a big turning point for me during a time when it felt like nothing was going well with my writing. I’m so excited to celebrate with One Story and the other authors!

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Anne Corbitt

On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating nine 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 Anne Corbitt, author of One Story issue #129, “The Tornado Bandit”. Her debut novel, Rules for Lying, was released last September from Southeast Missouri State University Press after winning the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel.

In suburban Atlanta, Georgia, high school sophomore Langley accuses her classmate Kevin of sexual assault, which he denies. Rumors swell and the entire town forms their opinions on who’s telling the truth in the face of a stalling police investigation. The novel follows Langley, Kevin, and the people closest to them as this incident wreaks havoc on all of their lives. Rules for Lying makes us question the truth in situations, while Corbitt’s vivid prose and masterful cultivations of suspense make this small town come alive with intrigue.

Kaitlin McManus: Where were you when you found out that Rules for Lying was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Anne Corbitt: As anyone who’s sent out a manuscript will tell you, for a few months there, I got in the habit of answering any unknown number that popped up on my phone. Friends I would send to voicemail, my mom would get a text back, but if it was an area code I didn’t recognize, I’d take the call in the shower. One night, though, I missed a call from a number that Google told me meant Missouri. It was too late to call back, so I spent the night telling myself that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be, that it was almost definitely a bill collector or a limited-time offer for a timeshare.

Then I got an email from Susan Swartwout at Southeast Missouri State University Press asking to schedule a phone call. It wasn’t the call, I told myself. There was no way.

When you’ve only ever really wanted one thing, it feels impossible to imagine a future past that wanting.

So the next afternoon, when I got on the phone with Susan, I didn’t even understand what she was telling me. “We picked your book,” she said.

“For what?” I asked.

Thankfully, Susan is kind, so she didn’t groan as she explained it all again. I remember crying. I remember trying to catch my breath.

“I don’t know if you’re a drinker,” she said, once I gave her the chance to talk again. “But you should go pop a bottle of champagne.”

We got off the phone, and I immediately drove to my parents’ house. They were having a new oven installed, so there were workers everywhere, but I made them sit in the living room, and then we were all crying. We Skyped with my sister in Philadelphia, who joined us. (My family is, obviously, way awesome.) I remember what I kept saying, out loud and in my head: It’s happening. It’s actually happening.

Then we went to dinner where I ordered a giant beer and sweet potato fries. It was perfect.

KM: You employ half a dozen narrators in this novel; all so distinct and yet each of their voices is so genuine. Was any one voice your favorite? Did you struggle with a particular character?

AC: They say first novels are often autobiographical, but mine definitely (and thankfully) was not. Still, I had some threads of connection with each character. Langley, for instance, became far easier to write once I realized she loved swimming at the same time that I was learning how to (in my thirties). That was our first bond.

Kevin was the hardest to write, and, even now, I feel like I wrote him from the outside. By that I mean I wrote him as a mix of all the boys I loved in high school. It’s hard to feel as connected to someone who never loved you back.

But hands down, throughout the entire eight years I worked on this thing, Eleanor was my favorite. She still is. She is so much stronger than she thinks she is, so much wiser too. Despite the bad choices she makes (and, boy, does she make some stinkers), she seemed the most grounded to me, the most likely to come out the other side with both feet firmly planted. I’d love to think I was like her when I was fifteen (I did have a picture of Edward Furlong in my locker), but really, she is so much cooler than I’ve ever come close to being.

KM: One of the things I loved most about this novel was that we don’t know until nearly the end if Langley is telling the truth. You just push on, and tell us how all the characters are trying to get on with their lives. What challenges did this present as you were writing?

AC: From the novel’s inception, I knew I wanted to keep readers guessing. The biggest failure I could imagine was a story that came down strong and loud on either side. So I didn’t let myself “decide” the outcome. That old adage about no surprises for the writer meaning no surprises for the reader definitely cycled through my mind. If it didn’t know, I hoped that readers wouldn’t either.

That said, it was consistently challenging to write Langley’s and Kevin’s chapters without knowing the answer—especially any scenes that recalled the event. That’s where my love for murder mysteries became an asset. I’ve annotated dozens of pages of P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Tana French, trying to figure out how they write crimes and crime scenes without ruining suspense. I’m still not entirely sure how they do it, but I tried to follow their lead as much as I could.

KM: Rules for Lying takes place in suburban Atlanta, where you currently reside. What was it like writing a novel that takes place in your own backyard?

AC: I actually don’t live in suburban Atlanta. I’m a city girl, through and through. (The distinction matters in Atlanta, though to anyone else, it’s precisely as unimportant as it sounds.) And that’s why I created the fictional suburb of North Oak. I wanted a place close to me, in a region I understood, but I wasn’t ready to write my city, at least not overtly. So I tucked Fulton High School about 25 minutes from where I grew up, which felt a safe distance.

To the question of writing about the larger Metro Atlanta area, this aspect of the novel was another one I knew from the start. I love Southern literature—Faulkner, O’Connor, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Eudora Welty—but I’ve only rarely read fiction about my South, the urban/suburban South. It’s a complex, dark, beautiful, conflicting, confusing place. I can’t imagine a better setting for fiction.

And just to say it: I wasn’t ready to write Atlanta then. I think I am now.

KM: Rules for Lying examines situational and emotional truths, even while the characters search for a more literal truth. What was it like, creating this balancing act?

AC: This question is the trickiest to answer because, truly, I don’t know. Because writing a novel is hard. Like, really hard. And it also feels ridiculous and foolish most of the time. So the short answer is this: it was tough. I cried some. I got really good at staring out the window.

But that’s just writing a novel. To the more specific question on balancing truths, I have to cite my two biggest literary influences: Southern fiction and mysteries. William Gay and Tom Franklin in one ear, Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott in the other. I wanted to do both traditions proud. I wanted a story that allowed characters to interact with their histories, to reach for the lost, to feel out of place, somehow, in the world where they’ve always lived, all while crafting a plot to keep them moving, to keep them uncomfortable, to give them a forward momentum that would propel them somewhere new and strange and not innately bad but not obviously good either.

In short, I wrote a lot of crap. Then I made it better.

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

AC: Writing fiction can be such a lonely vocation. You spend hours alone, working with characters no one else can see, constructing scenes that have never happened. Even when you emerge from your desk, you interact with such a noisy world, one that often undervalues the necessity of what you do. A good group of friends, particularly writers, can help. Other people’s books can too. A fully-stocked liquor cabinet. A dog. But nothing quite beats the high of standing in a room of people who share your passion for and belief in the written word. It’s a rare and thorough joy. It’s life-giving.

Also, I get to wear a fancy dress.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Angelica Baker

On May 12th, at our 8th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating nine 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 is Angelica Baker, author of One Teen Story #16 “The Feather Trick” and Our Little Racket, forthcoming from Ecco on June 20th.

 Our Little Racket tells the intertwining stories of five women who are directly touched by the fall of a Wall Street titan during the financial crisis of 2008. Offering a rare glimpse behind the tidy hedgerows of Greenwich, Connecticut, this novel reveals an insular world, full of its own dysfunction. Each woman in this novel grasps for power and dignity in her own way as she grapples with insecurities and secrets.

Baker’s masterful prose and unflinching realism take us deep into this universe of opulence to show us the dark underbelly of unchecked greed.

Colter Jackson: Where were you when you found out Our Little Racket was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Angelica Baker: When my novel sold, I was in Wyoming at a writing residency. It was March, and surprisingly warm, so I celebrated by going for a long walk by myself through the land around Ucross, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Then I probably walked back to my writing studio and made myself a drink and read a book by someone else until it was time for our nightly group dinner. So it was a pretty quiet and solitary celebration, but still an incredible day.

CJ: Something that fascinates me about this novel is that you tell it strictly from a female point of view, despite the very patriarchal, male-dominated world of Wall Street. Can you talk a bit about that choice?

AB: I wasn’t aware, early on, that I was doing this on purpose. When I first started writing what became this novel, I was just thinking about what it would have been like to be the teenage daughter of an investment bank CEO in 2008, just after the bank very publicly implodes. The first parts I wrote were all focused on Madison [the CEO’s teenage daughter], but I began to add in chapters that focused on other characters. I was bringing these to my workshop in my final semester of grad school, and a classmate one day mentioned that he assumed they would soon get to read a chapter about the CEO himself. And I had a pretty violent, knee-jerk reaction to that; I knew I didn’t want to do that. So then I started to see what I was doing, as I drew in other characters: I was focusing on the women. And once I saw that, other things began to fall into place.

CJ: One of the most haunting aspects of the book for me, and it was done so wonderfully, so subtly, was the feeling that women are only valuable in this world insofar as what they offer to the men and that this will continue with every generation based on the small role the teenage boys play in the story. Wyatt and Chip, the sons of the finance men, live off the page for me in a very real and frightening way. Because I felt like you were saying that this doesn’t end here, those boys will pick up the torch. Did I read it correctly? Is that what you are suggesting?

AB: I don’t know if Wyatt and Chip will pick up the torch exactly, but I do agree with you that the teenagers in this book seem to be getting a pretty clear message, from their parents and their community, about what value they might one day hold for one another. The Wyatt and Chip scenes were so much fun to write. It felt very easy, surprisingly so, to access that time in my life—what it felt like to be around boys when I was fifteen, to be trying to figure out what they expect from you.

CJ: For my own curiosity, because I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, do you think Madison’s story ends on a hopeful note?

AB: I think that there is still some ambiguity to Madison’s story, when we leave her. Most of the book follows her during a fairly concentrated period of time, as her understanding of her family and the life they’ve created for her has begun to change. One of the central questions, for me, was what exactly Madison is going to take from this traumatic year of her life. How is this going to affect the woman she grows up to be? We get some indications of this, at the end of the book, and I think they’re not hopeful ones. But I also don’t know that it’s been entirely decided. She’s very broken, the last time we see her, but there might still be hope that she might make different choices from the women who raised her.

CJ: Where did your interest in this story, and in the Greenwich, Connecticut world, begin?

AB: My interest in this story, and what it might look like, began in the year or so after the financial crisis and the failure of Lehman Brothers. I was very interested in the momentary collapse of that system, which really didn’t last—Lehman is gone, but otherwise I don’t know that the system it was a part of has changed all that much—and what it might be like to be on the inside of that, to be the face of it for the rest of the country. So once I knew the kind of people I was interested in writing about, I knew that the story was going to take place in a very specific part of the country.

CJ: As a reader, there were parts of this story that were upsetting. Some of the characters had a total lack of awareness and no empathy for the suffering caused. As a writer, were there parts of this story and this universe that were more difficult to write about than others?

AB: Well, the issue you mention was on my mind, obviously, the entire time. Many things about my characters are off-putting, even repellent at moments. But I think that’s what fiction is for. We can assume, going in, that we’d have no sympathy for these people; but putting them under the microscope of fiction might make them interesting to us. The conversation about “likable” characters always seems to miss the point, to me, because when you’re reading a novel the point isn’t whether you like the people in it. The point is, are they interesting to you? Are you compelled by their flaws and their messy behavior? But obviously, the people in my book are suffering through that year a lot less than millions of other people in the country, whose lives they’ve affected. So I was very mindful of trying to keep one eye on the situation as a whole. I know that some people probably just won’t be interested in reading about the one percent, but hopefully others will.

CJ: The book feels very well-researched. Particularly the nuance (eating grapefruit, the Avenue, the workouts, the high school boys, the homes, etc.) and the routines of daily life in Connecticut. How did you go about your research?

AB: I did read a fair amount about the families of many men who work in finance; there was a lot of nonfiction written about this world just after the recession, and while some of those stories were more gossipy than others, many of them were filled with telling details. But a lot of the details you mention were also drawn from my own childhood; I grew up in a very wealthy community, but my own family’s finances were a bit more modest, so I think I was always paying close attention to the tiny details of other people’s houses. I think any small, wealthy community operates in similar ways. People perform parts of their own good fortune, conceal other parts, craft the narrative they present to their peers in certain competitive ways. And I’ve always been interested in that.

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

AB: I am looking forward to everything about the Ball. I went for the first time three years ago, after One Teen Story had published my first-ever published story! So it’s a really meaningful night to me, and everyone is always loose and goofy and boozy and it’s not at all stuffy. It’s basically a huge party full of people who really like one another, and who doesn’t enjoy that? So it’s going to be really special for me to be recognized in front of this particular group of people, and I can’t wait.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Julie Buntin

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine 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 Julie Buntin, author of One Teen Story Issue #13 “Phenomenon” and the novel Marlena.

Marlena tracks the brilliant, destructive force of a friendship between two girls in small-town Michigan. One half of the pair, Marlena, dies within a year of their first meeting, while the other half, Cat, grows up haunted by the time they shared. Buntin’s novel captures both the tiniest details of teenage angst and the broader bubble-about-to-burst tension of America during the mid-2000s. Her 2013 piece in One Teen Story, “Phenomenon,” is about a meteor shower; this novel, too, feels meteoric: vivid and fierce and compelling to its end.

Julia Phillips: Where were you when you found out Marlena was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Julie Buntin: I was at work. I work for Catapult, an independent literary publisher and writing community, and in summer of 2015 we were a pretty small team—I think there were like, five or six of us in the office, tops. Everyone knew my book was out on submission—I was a wreck. After I talked to my agent and my new and official editor, I think I sort of blurted out to one of my colleagues that my book sold. (Clearly I am not a chill person.) My boss, the wonderful and brilliant Andy Hunter, somehow conjured a bottle of champagne and we all sat in the lounge area and drank it. A top ten life moment, for sure. Also: I love my job.

JP: Marlena is built around one all-consuming friendship between two teenage girls. In it, you write, “A best friend is a magic thing…For so many women, the process of becoming requires two.” Your story “Phenomenon” in One Teen Story focuses on the same thing: the extraordinary, destructive magic of best friendship. What about this dynamic makes it such fertile ground for fiction?

JB: This isn’t the most original answer, but what strikes me about best friendship, especially among teenage girls, is how much it has to do with the process of forming a self. So many adult women have a best friend from adolescence who to some small extent defines her still (even by virtue of what she has not become). I’m fascinated by the way girls disappear into each other at certain times and then harshly draw distinctions at others —and of course all the contradictory things that come along with those early romances, the love and jealousy and secret languages, the sense of being fully understood, how bitterly you can feel betrayed. Also, my friendships with women are the most important and defining relationships of my life. It’s helpful when you’re writing a novel to choose a subject that really matters to you—it keeps it interesting.

JP: Even beyond the story of these best friends, Marlena follows the rise of opioid addiction in America during the early 2000s. Marlena herself believes that “pills were okay because they originated with a doctor, and they weren’t meth…Meth was gross, Marlena said. For rednecks.” What motivated your choice of this particular time period and this epidemic of substance abuse?

JB: I am glad you asked this! The time period was really important to me—I set the teenage scenes circa 2006, which means the narrative present takes place some years from now, though I left out any deliberate time stamps. I wanted to write about the moment when opioids were becoming really commonplace, but many hadn’t quite recognized how dangerous they were. I also wanted to set the book just before the housing bubble burst in 2008—a time that was so tenuous financially for so many people. To speak to this somewhat obliquely, but honestly, I was also motivated by personal experiences with loved ones, and a desperation that came out of those experiences to understand, to make sense of what was happening through writing. And also I just felt like I hadn’t seen those stories—stories of girls, particularly, in real danger with substances—or read much that captures what it’s like to be drawn into that very toxic threat as a teenager. What happens to the burnouts? The kids you thought were bad news in high school? Or even just to the kid who goes in a little too deep, and makes a mistake or has an accident they can’t recover from? Those kids are everywhere, and we don’t see much of them in novels—maybe because they’re just not that likable or relatable.

JP: The novel takes place in Northern Michigan, which we see not only through its physical details—snow, woods, sheds—but also its economic details. Food stamps, child support payments, and hourly wages are crucial to Marlena. Why is it important to ground your novel in class?

JB: Novels that aren’t grounded in class really confuse me. Money and how much of it your characters have determines everything they do. The context you’re in right now, as you read this, has a lot to do with how much money you have in the bank, what your safety net is like. Trying to capture that aspect of life will always be a primary concern in my writing. Anything else would be dishonest, and even irresponsible.

JP: Marlena‘s narrator says, “Sometimes I wonder how I’d tell this if I didn’t have so many books rattling around inside me.” How do you think our reading and writing shape the way we tell the stories of our lives?

JB: Have you ever had the experience of reading a novel so immersive it makes you interpret your life differently? It’s natural to apply a narrative structure to experience; it helps make sense of things. I do think what we find sympathetic, what moves us in our reading, organically influences how we tell the stories of ourselves—how we want our stories to appear to others. That’s something Cat is aware of as she narrates, and even an impulse that she fights against, in an attempt to try to see the experience from every angle, to get as close to the impossible truth as she can.

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

JB: One of my other top ten moments as a writer is when I found out that One Teen Story was going to publish “Phenomenon.” I was also at work, this time at powerHouse Arena (a bookstore), and I remember locking myself in the staff bathroom and jumping up and down, I was so happy—it’s one of the first times I ever felt like I might actually have a shot at becoming a writer, with a book, answering questions like these. In other words, a writer people might read. I am so grateful to the One Story organization for making that possible for me and so many writers. That’s not really an answer. The answer is: everything. I am most looking forward to every single second of it.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Clare Beams

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine 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 Clare Beams, author of One Story issue #166 “World’s End” and the short story collection We Show What We Have Learned.

We Show What We Have Learned is a masterful collection that features nine stories, many of which combine elements of the realistic and the fantastic, while contemplating the human condition. Beams’s fully-realized worlds provide each story with an almost novelistic scope, allowing the reader to become immersed in the narrative. The writing is precise and strong; the characters perfectly nuanced; and the stories unpredictable, haunting, and true.

Laura Spence-Ash: Where were you when you found out We Show What We Have Learned was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Clare Beams: My family and I were visiting my parents in rural Vermont, and it was my birthday (this was in August of 2015). Emily Smith and Beth Staples, who became my publisher and editor at Lookout Books, had scheduled a phone call with me for that day, and while I’d always gotten fine cell reception at the house before, it picked this moment to quit—so I was scrambling around and trying to call from the landline, etc. Once I recovered from the stress of trying to make the call happen, I got to enjoy the conversation itself, during which it became clear that Lookout saw the book just the way I’d hoped somebody would and that they were in fact going to publish it. I think I walked around the rest of the day just saying “I can’t believe it” over and over again. This might not sound celebratory, but it felt that way.

LSA: Your stories often take wonderful, unexpected turns as we move out of the realistic world that we know and into a place that’s filled with mystery and possibility. How do you decide the balance between the realistic world and the speculative? Do you tend to start with the realistic world and move into the speculative, or are your initial story ideas rooted in the fantastic?

CB: I think I usually do have some sense of just how large a role the surreal is going to play in a given story before I begin—since some of my stories are much more fantastical than others (though I’d argue there’s something a little strange about the world of each of the stories in the book). When I start a story, I usually don’t have much more than an image—one central picture of some kind that sparks the rest—but I find that the picture does usually tell me a lot about how speculative the world of the story’s going to be.

LSA: Several of the stories take place in the past—as far back as 1665 in “Ailments”—and here, too, we are faced with multiple worlds as we implicitly compare the world of today to the world in the story. What draws you to write fiction placed in the past? Do you ever get stuck in the research phase and find it difficult to transition to the fiction?

CB: I grew up in a house that was built in the 1730s in Newtown, Connecticut, a town that has houses even older than that. Living there, I think I just felt continuously surrounded by the past. As a kid, too, I was always drawn to old books—Louisa May Alcott, the Brontës, Frances Hodgson Burnett—and I was the kind of reader for whom those worlds sometimes felt more real than my actual life. So it’s probably not surprising that my own preoccupations as a writer tend to steer me into the past, at times. There’s also something about moving into different historical moments that somehow feels a lot like moving into the fantastic for me—in each case I have the sense of entering a world that runs alongside ours, beneath it, inside it, and that informs it in interesting ways. I tend not to let myself do too much research ahead of time, for the exact reason that I’m always afraid I might research for years and years and never write anything. I try to make myself write until there’s a question I need to answer in order to move forward, and then I dip into the research just long enough to answer it before I go back to writing. The bulk of the research then comes in during later drafts, as I try to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong.

LSA: Four of the nine stories in the collection take place in a school setting, with several featuring teachers as the protagonists. I know that you taught high school for six years and now teach at the collegiate level. How did your experience in the classroom feed these stories? Do your students worry that the disintegration that happens to the teacher in the title story, “We Show What We Have Learned,” will happen to you?

CB: Ha! Well, first of all I should say that I really love teaching and always have, and my real teaching experiences don’t have much to do with the fictional experiences I present here, thankfully. (Though I do think it’s possible that the students I’ve had who’ve read “We Show What We Have Learned” look at me a little differently afterwards!) But all that time I’ve spent in classrooms has made me think a lot about their inherent power structure, which I find fascinating: this idea that the teacher’s job is to shape and change his or her students. It’s an idea I find dramatically rich. I also find classrooms themselves, the actual spaces, to be fertile territory for fiction—because they’re such self-contained little worlds, in some ways, and events can reverberate in ways that interest me.

LSA: I first read “World’s End” when it was published in One Story in 2012, and when I reread it in the collection, I was amazed at how familiar the landscape seemed to me, almost as though I had actually been there before. Your narrative descriptions are always vivid and precisely rendered. Do you see the landscape of the story before you begin writing or does it slowly take shape as you write, the details becoming clearer as you move through multiple drafts?

CB: The landscape, or the story’s setting, is often one of the first elements that comes into focus for me. It’s often connected to the kind of image I mentioned before, the kind that can spark the rest of the story and that I often have in my head before I have any kind of clear sense of characters, plot, etc. “World’s End” is a bit of a special case just because it’s based on a real place, in Hingham, Massachusetts—though I took many liberties with its reality and history in using it in the story.

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

CB: Meeting the other debutantes! And getting to thank my mentor, Megan Mayhew Bergman, whom I first met because our husbands grew up together in Vermont, but who has become a great friend and advocate. She has been so wonderfully generous to me.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Emily Ruskovich

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine 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 Emily Ruskovich, author of One Story issue #190 “Owl” and the novel Idaho.

Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho begins with musician Ann’s struggle to care for Wade, her husband, who suffers from early-onset dementia. Ann knows Wade’s ex-wife Jenny committed a shocking act years ago, but she still doesn’t understand why. Unfolding across the lonely and beautiful landscape of northern Idaho, Ruskovich’s novel is both quiet and fierce, a song-like homage to all the things we cannot know.

Natalie Mesnard: Where were you when you found out Idaho was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Emily Ruskovich: I was living in a tiny apartment I had rented in Madison, Wisconsin on a quiet street across from an elementary school. I remember I answered the phone while sitting in my small and messy bedroom, looking out the window at the school. My agent told me that Random House had made an offer on my short story collection, but that they wanted a novel, too. I was in so much shock that I hardly reacted. I called my now-husband, who lived in Iowa, and then my parents in Idaho, and their extremely happy reactions made things a little more real for me, but it was still really hard for me to comprehend. The news had come to me so quietly, just a phone call in a messy room on a sunny afternoon. It was really hard for me to believe. I felt like crying.

I had already made plans to go out to dinner with my two closest friends in Madison, Seth and Jesse. I didn’t tell them at first. It was only after we had finished eating that Seth happened to ask me, “Emily, do you think you’ll ever write a novel, not just short stories?” And I said, with some uncertainty, “Actually, I’ll be starting a novel really soon. As soon as I can.” And he said, “Really? When did you decide to do this?” And then I said, with a strange, detached calm (I was still completely in shock), “Today, a publishing house made an offer.” Seth shoved his plate out of the way, leaned forward on the table, laughing, and said “What?” Then Jesse said, “What publishing house?” And I said, “Random House.” Then both of them leaned back in their chairs, saying “What? What? What?” over and over again. And then they both started laughing, and suddenly, I was laughing, too.

Natalie Mesnard: Your writing is so lush and lyrical. How did you develop Idaho‘s distinctive prose style?

Emily Ruskovich: That’s a really excellent question, but I’m not sure I know the answer to it exactly. I just tried to feel my characters’ voices as deeply as I could, and remain true to those voices in my prose. The language was so important to me, and I wanted it to be an extension of the characters I so dearly loved. I never wanted it to feel separate from them, above them, or like language for language’s sake. I really worked hard on the prose, allowing myself to be poetic, then reigning in the poetry if it ever felt untrue to the moment. I think that I rewrote certain passages fifty times or more, and it feels like maybe I completely abandoned over a hundred pages of prose. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm. When I write, I speak. I have muttered my entire novel to myself, word for word, more times than I can count, always trying to be true to the perspective and the characters. Everything had to be about character. One review mentioned that the language is a kind of consolation to the reader, and I was very moved by that, and hope that it is true. In the novel, there are many questions that are left unanswered, but that was what felt right to me, what felt most real. And so maybe the poetic language is a way of giving the sense of an answer, just a sense of one, that the story itself is unable to provide.

Natalie Mesnard: The details of the prison setting in Jenny’s sections feel so accurate. How did you conduct this research?

Emily Ruskovich: I didn’t do a lot of research as I wrote. I read one book called Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System by Silja J.A. Talvi that was extremely informative and also heartbreaking. I learned a great deal from it. But I would say that mostly, as I wrote, I just imagined as deeply as I could and hoped that imagining so deeply would mean that I had created something close to what was real. A friend once told me something like that, and I really took it to heart. I did learn some things about how a prison is run from my dad, who worked as a counselor at a correctional facility for young people, and my younger brother, who had some experience assisting a doctor in a prison. And, for a brief time, I co-facilitated a memoir-writing class at a medium-security men’s prison. But I have never been inside of a women’s prison. In a way, the best research I did was when my husband and I drove to the Women’s Correctional Facility in Pocatello, Idaho, and we just sat in our car in the parking lot, looking at the un-spectacular building that we knew held so much pain and longing. We noticed the things that the women would see through the fence — the hills of sage and scrub-brush, the quaint garden that volunteers kept up just outside, and we just stayed there for awhile, trying to picture what it would be like to only know this one view, your whole sense of the world framed by a single window, your whole life defined by a single crime from many years before. It’s been something I have thought about a great deal since I was very young. I’ve imagined deeply, all throughout my life, what it would be like to go to prison, wondering if a person might find some way of protecting her interior life in spite of everything.

Natalie Mesnard: In your One Story Q&A about the 2014 story “Owl,” you said that piece began as something very different. I also noticed your bio in that issue mentions work on “a collection of short stories called Idaho.” I’m fascinated by how your work seems to evolve. Could you talk about that process of change?

Emily Ruskovich: The first chapter of Idaho was once a stand-alone novella that was the first story in a collection. It wasn’t until years later that, at the urging of one of my professors, author Ethan Canin, I realized it wasn’t a short story but the beginning of the novel. So that’s when Idaho the novella became, slowly, over a period of years, Idaho the novel.

Natalie Mesnard: What are you working on next?

Emily Ruskovich: I’m working on both short stories and also a memoir. I am a little superstitious about talking too much about it before I’ve really found my footing! I am working right now, but slowly, not really sure of myself yet.

Natalie Mesnard: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?

Emily Ruskovich: I am looking forward to meeting the other debut authors and their mentors, and getting to meet Hannah Tinti in person, after all that she has done for me. I’m also looking forward to spending time with my mentor, Michelle Huneven. It will be wonderfully fun to celebrate with everyone.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Melissa Yancy

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine 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 Melissa Yancy, author of One Story issue #20 “Alas My Love, You Do Me Wrong” and the short story collection Dog Years, winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Challenging the limits of physical health and everyday anxieties, the stories in Yancy’s debut collection reveal the fears we’re afraid to admit we have and the ways in which we try to control them. A molecular geneticist juggles the inevitable reality of her son’s Duchenne muscular dystrophy while planning his birthday party, a woman who runs a facial reconstruction program reflects on her relationships as she cares for her dying dog, and a former city clerk joins a strange self-help regimen after a workplace scandal costs her her job. The nine stories in Dog Years explore the different kinds of isolation we often put ourselves through and the quiet, unsettling, humorous, and deeply human insights that come from these moments.

Monique Briones: Where were you when you found out Dog Years was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Melissa Yancy: I was six months pregnant, sitting on the exam table in my doctor’s office, so I didn’t answer the phone. Just two weeks earlier, I had received the stunning news that I’d been awarded an NEA Fellowship, and when I saw the Pennsylvania number on the phone, I thought of the Drue Heinz, and then thought no, no way, not again. I didn’t properly celebrate. I was so busy, and couldn’t enjoy a glass of champagne or my favorite foods. (That sound you hear in the background is my wife playing the world’s tiniest violin for me.) It seemed like I went right into edits while I planned for the baby’s arrival, and it’s been non-stop ever since. I did have a few moments to celebrate once the book was out in the world. Going to my alma mater and celebrating with undergraduate professors meant a lot to me. And my dad came along for the prize weekend in Pittsburgh.

MB: I’m not sure if it’s possible to discuss the book without mentioning health and wellness, and how these two are often compromised and questioned throughout Dog Years. I was fascinated by how you paired certain characters with their ailments. Could you talk about how you create your characters, particularly the sort of match or mismatch you make between their personalities and their illnesses or conditions?

MY: I think some readers found that a little on the nose—the physical illnesses too neatly mirroring psychological wounds. But I never intended injury or disease to be metaphorical. Several of the characters were inspired by real people—the girl in “Miracle Girl Grows Up,” for example, was drawn from a young woman whose cancer treatments had physically stunted her. In these stories, and in others that don’t appear in the collection, I’ve explored patient exploitation (while engaging in said exploitation). But on the surface, it looks rather writerly—the character is stunted emotionally and physically. We’re all stunted in some way, and we all die of something.

There are a couple of characters I consciously complicated. The real life fetal surgeon who inspired “Consider this Case” has a beautiful wife and three children, and I didn’t think writing about how amazing he is would make for great storytelling. I was interested in what it would be like to have this specialty—there are only a dozen or so in the nation who focus on fetal surgery—and not have children yourself, and to have a difficult relationship with the idea of parenthood. “Hounds” developed in a similar way. I feel a little guilty about that one, actually. The character Jess physically resembles her real-life counterpart, but not psychologically—the events of the story are fictional. But again, a story about people doing heroic reconstruction work on veterans isn’t great fiction. And the injured faces aren’t meant to work on a symbolic level. I wanted to play with the idea of heroes and villains, and what it means to be someone heroic in one sphere of life, but experience moral grief in another. I’m less interested in the way the inner and outer wounds match up than the way the psychology of Jess’s character mirrors that of someone who has been through war trauma.

MB: How did you choose the order of the stories?

MY: By lottery. Really, there have been so many different iterations. I heard one long-time prize series editor say to front load it with the good ones, and not put anything too experimental or challenging first. A friend told me to think of it like a party, and then order it in the way you’d want to introduce someone to these characters. I did try to start with those with the broadest appeal, and put some palate cleansers in that would break up the more layered stories. I have no idea how to order a collection.

MB: One of my favorites in the collection is “Consider This Case,” because it’s very heartfelt and also has many hilarious moments. It’s a story about a fetal surgeon getting used to his father moving in with him, and there were numerous points during which I wasn’t sure if the father was going to make me laugh or cry. Could you talk about surprise and humor in your writing, and how you balance those elements in your stories?

MY: Humor allows us to access emotion. It opens up the body. And I think even people who aren’t jokesters in their daily lives develop a sort of gallows humor when life calls for it. Look at the present moment. The jokes are non-stop, which doesn’t mean anyone thinks what’s happening is funny. Some of the most devastating short stories are superficially humorous—Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” and George Saunders’s “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” come to mind. I wish I understood the mechanics of comedy more. It’s something I’d like to study. I’m not funny, but I love witty people, and I like to give my characters a little wit.

MB: Considering your background as a fundraiser for healthcare causes, I imagine that you’re surrounded constantly by your research. What is your research process like?

MY: Yes, you’ve got it. Research is basically showing up at my office. I have so little time to write that I like to imagine I’m being efficient. And bringing both hats (secretly!) to meetings that might otherwise be too erudite or overwhelming, can make the job much more interesting. When I research things for other, non-medical stories, though, I quickly fall down the internet rabbit hole. I’ve written some really weird stuff that way.

MB: You mentioned in your first interview with One Story that the best writing advice you’ve ever received is, “if you can’t write, lower your standards.” What other lessons have you learned since then?

MY: That advice is good for getting words on the page, but then the real work begins. The truest advice is the advice no one wants to hear—especially from successful writers—about the role of luck and timing. Which is why staying in the game is so important. Once the delusion of youth wears off, you need something else to sustain you. I once heard Ron Carlson say, “The writer goes to the stubborn,” by which I think he meant, it’s the people with the most grit, not the most talent, who survive.

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

MY: The as-yet unimagined ways I will make a fool of myself.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Sam Allingham

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine 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 Sam Allingham, author of One Story issue #97 “Bar Joke, Arizona” and the short story collection The Great American Songbook. Allingham’s debut showcases narrative versatility and range of emotion over the course of its nine stories. The opening two, respectively, introduce us to vivid fictionalizations of American jazz greats Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and a city barista who moves to bohemian western Massachusetts to practice polygamy. Allingham’s structural inventiveness is unyielding; one story builds off of a bar joke while another manages to sketch a negative of a character’s life by describing all of the other people in it. Love, mania, dangerous obsession, and devotion to one’s craft often blur uncomfortably, but there are otherwise few summary statements that could be made fairly about this heterogeneous collection.

Tyler Baldwin: Where were you when you found out that The Great American Songbook was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Sam Allingham: I found out at work, and my wife and I celebrated that night by going to the local bar in our neighborhood, where we’d met, and where I did a lot of the joke-collection (i.e., fieldwork) for “Bar Joke, Arizona.” Since I wrote that story almost ten years ago—it’s the oldest in the collection—it felt like things had travelled more or less full circle. That felt very satisfying.

TB: Several of the long stories in your collection start off innocuously enough, only to take a dark turn when a central character develops a mania or reveals some wholly unanticipated, grotesque aspect. I’m thinking especially of “Husbandry,” but also of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” The obsessions you invent in these stories are fascinating—for example, shooting small animals for food, and unsettlingly accurate model-building. I’m curious about how you came up with them, and if, when you began writing these stories, you were aware that they would surface.

SA: I usually start a story with some sense of the central conflict. I think of this as the initial thrust required to get the story into orbit, whether that’s the initial glimpse of the model city in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” or the mother dressing up in hunting clothes in “Husbandry.” So those two manias were present as soon as I started writing; the story’s inciting incidents wouldn’t exist without them, and they represent the central desire that drives the narrative. But as for how these ideas appeared, I’m afraid I don’t really know! I suppose the desire to build scale models of the place in which you live is really just a reflection of the writing process. I can tell you, though, that you can get a lot of narrative torque out of the tension between a monomaniacal character and a so-called “normal” one; the monomaniac forces their foil to reflect on their own desires, and to react in ways the reader might not expect.

TB: This collection is bookended by stories about several famous American Jazz musicians of yesteryear. The way you write their characters, it seems almost as if you’re a historical biographer, like you have intimate knowledge of their habits, foibles, and dispositions. What sparked your interest in fictionalizing this particular group of people, and how fictional are they?

SA: Almost entirely fictional! I did read a biography of Artie Shaw, and I listened to some interviews, but my Artie is in no way an accurate depiction of the man himself. He’s much more an homage to certain books by Thomas Bernhard than he is a real person—or, I guess, an attempt to turn a first-person rant into its own kind of music. I was interested in Shaw because of his intense hatred towards popular music, his great talent and also his sense of the insufficiency of that talent. All the other biographical stuff struck me as mostly incidental.

As for Rodgers and Hart, I did essentially no research, other than listening to their songs. I still know next to nothing about them, but the piece isn’t really about the context of their lives as much as it’s about the collaborative relationship between artists of two particular kinds: the one who finds his work fluid and easy (perhaps too easy), and the one who finds himself tortured by it. Also the relationship between music and language, composer and lyricist, fluency and neurosis.

TB: In your jazz stories, Artie Shaw and Lorenz Hart are so embittered. They end up hating not only the music industry—with the way commerce, friendship, and art strain against each other—but music itself. I’m used to authors waxing poetic and celebrating music as this higher sublimated language, but Artie longs for silence. A former music teacher and Oberlin student yourself, how do music and musicianship inform your writing?

SA: In my experience, writing that waxes poetic about music is usually extremely unsuccessful, and people who celebrate music for its communicative powers are often non-musicians! The musicians I know get intensely frustrated by the structure of music: its limitations, its repetitions and clichés. Like all artists, they’re leery of repeating themselves, trying to push through the limitations of the form and into some unexplored realm. That’s Shaw’s trouble, in the title story of my collection. He can feel the limits of his own playing, even if nobody else seems to notice, and it drives him half-crazy.

I think it’s easy to overstate the relationship between music and language. No worse critical cliché than calling someone’s prose “musical!” Of course, I pay attention to rhythm in my prose, maybe more than the average writer; I did start my musical life as a drummer—but I think a lot of the stories in the collection that are about musicians dramatize the unbridgeable differences between the two forms. Music occurs in time and space, it’s outward facing, and at its best (during certain improvisatory moments) it can feel almost unconscious. Language, on the other hand—by this I mean written language—sits outside time, in the exchange between writer and reader; it’s inward, ruminative; it has a tendency towards obsessive neurosis, extreme self-consciousness.

That being said, what unifies a song and a story is that both forms are highly structural. There’s an architecture to each, whether the audience recognizes it or not. I think being a musician taught me respect and also a certain frustration with form: chord changes, rising and falling action. It taught me that the best way to treat such a structure is to stretch it to the breaking point.

TB: While reading The Great American Songbook, I found myself unable to pin down your style or classify your stories. The collection contains one or two traditional, realist short stories, but also the likes of “Bar Joke, Arizona,” which is quite literally a bar joke that, with some narrative propulsion, becomes something entirely new and different. Is there a particular style that you’re most comfortable writing in? Which of the stories in this collection was most challenging to write, and why?

SA: For me, the joy in writing a story is figuring out the particular way it wants to work. A good story builds its own form, sort of mollusk-like; ideally, the thematic core builds outward, either from a scene or a premise or a character. I often stop after the first few pages of a story and think: what does this one need? It’s like you’re confronted with a marvelous new animal and you have to figure out how to feed it, keep it alive. So I would say that there’s no particular style I feel comfortable writing in because each animal has its own particular needs. That being said, the hardest story in the collection to write was “Stockholm Syndrome,” simply because it’s by far the longest, and because it was very difficult, emotionally, to live in Valerie’s head. She reminded me of unpleasant aspects of my own world vision.

TB: Lastly, what are you looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?

SA: I’m looking forward to reading the books by the other debutantes, and re-reading the ones I’ve already read. I don’t get out into the NYC literary world much, so I’m excited to wear a nice suit and drink cocktails and have lively conversations about literature!

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.