Introducing 2018 Debutante: Kendra Fortmeyer

On May 4th, at our 9th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating three of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Kendra Fortmeyer, author of One Story Issue #209, “Things I Know to be True” and the novel Hole in the Middle (Soho Teen, forthcoming in September 2018).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KF:

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

Hayleigh Santra is a writer living in Brooklyn. 

Introducing 2018 Debutante: Chelsey Johnson

On May 4th, at our 9th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating three of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Chelsey Johnson, author of One Story Issue #181, “Between Ship and Ice” and the novel Stray City (Custom House).

In Stray City, the Lesbian Mafia always has each other’s backs. Without them, the only other family that Andrea Morales has is the one in Nebraska that kicked her out years ago for being queer. Her chosen family provides her with the love, support, and stability she needs to survive in Portland. After a difficult breakup, however, Andrea finds herself needing more than just the Lesbian Mafia’s help to get back on her feet. She gets close to musician Ryan Coates, a straight man who she keeps secret from the rest of her lesbian community. When she becomes pregnant and wants to keep the child, Andrea must navigate the tricky politics among her queer friends and learn to come into her own. Stray City is both a vivacious, headbanging ode to the underground scene of ’90s Portland, and a deep exploration of a young woman’s questions on identity and what it means to belong.

Monique Laban: Where were you when you found out Stray City was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Chelsey Johnson: My partner Kara had just walked into an enticingly fragrant Russian olive tree and stabbed her eye, so I was in the waiting room of a tiny beautiful adobe in Santa Fe, NM, that housed an urgent care. I had just nestled into an armchair by the kiva and opened a book when my phone rang. I saw it was my agent, and I took the call, though I had no idea what he was about to say because he’d just sent it out on submission the afternoon before. When he told me there was already an offer, I whisper-shouted “WHAT?!” and stepped out into the sunshine to hear the details. I couldn’t believe it. Afterward Kara and I went out to breakfast and sat outside and just marveled. I realized my whole life was about to change. The sky was so impossibly blue and clear. But the sky is impossibly blue and clear every day in Santa Fe, so that’s a cheap metaphor.

A few days later I flew to New York to meet with editors, and the deal was sealed when I landed back in Albuquerque, standing outside in a near-empty arrivals area. Kara picked me up and we went to this cafe called the Grove to get food, and as we got out of the car and walked across the parking lot I suddenly just broke down and wept. After all these years when I thought it might never come to anything, this. There are photos of us toasting over our afternoon breakfast burritos, my face blurry with tears and happiness.

ML: In Stray City, Andy navigates the dynamics in both biological family and chosen family, which includes abiding by “rules” or else hiding parts of yourself from your loved ones. In essence, Andrea has to come out multiple times to her families. It’s also a theme that comes up in your One Story story, “Between Ship and Ice.” Could you talk about what draws you to this theme of family acceptance?

CJ: I feel deeply tied to my families—the family I was born into (I am lucky to have a loving and supportive one), my partner and me, my animal family, my friend families, even the temporary mini-families that my classes and students become. Maybe because I didn’t follow the reproductive family track, I wonder if I’m always creating families around me, especially utopian, non-punitive versions of them. Among my chosen family, so many of my friends, especially but not only queer people, come from families that have failed them or hurt them or not allowed them to be who they are. Even in loving and well-meaning families we hurt each other, of course. In my writing, I try to honestly capture the actual complexities of family—how something that is supposed to be permanent and stable can be so fragile, and how we rebuild and remake it in new ways.

ML: The way you approach setting and time in the story is incredible. I loved the way you described Portland in the ‘90s. It was an intense decade for certain culture wars that you explain wonderfully through Portland’s subcultures and the way characters live out their identities and politics so brashly. The novel later shifts from 1999 to 2009 and shows a much tamer, less uptight but no less idealistic Portland. Part of this, I feel, comes from Andrea’s own maturity and motherhood, but there’s also a clear difference in her community. What was it like returning to ‘90s Portland to research your novel, and which parts of it make you nostalgic (or make you happy they stayed in the ‘90s)?

CJ: One of the things I loved most about Portland was its scruffiness, its unpretentiousness—and although it was surrounded by natural beauty it was also cheap, so it was a perfect incubator for DIY culture. If the rainy weather didn’t drive you away altogether, it drove you indoors to make stuff. To make art, you need three things: space, time, and just enough money to live on; and ten, twenty years ago, those things were easier to come by in Portland than they are now that it’s far more upscale. Besides that, I guess the one thing I am genuinely nostalgic about is how analog life was. People showed up for each other. You couldn’t flake by text message. You made a plan and you showed up, in person, no distraction buzzing in your pocket, your focus was solely on the moment. I feel like we spent more time in each other’s live company, reading each other’s faces and tone, interacting in and with varied environments, getting up to good and no good together.

That said, I have no nostalgia for how hard it could be to be queer then. The ‘90s were alive with the most vibrant, earth-shaking queer activism—ACT UP, Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers, and others—but it was because LGBTQ people were literally dying by the hundreds of thousands. President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1994, and years later he claimed he did it to prevent an even worse political move, like a constitutional amendment, but at the time it just felt like a big fuck-you. I lived in Portland throughout the Bush years and the wave of anti-gay marriage amendments, including Prop 36, which passed in Oregon, and no matter that I was in this robust queer community, that kind of legislative punishment, being used as bait in the culture wars, creates a constant stress that you become accustomed to just living with but never get over. It’s still not easy to be queer, but at least there’s more of a legal framework propping us up now.

ML: There are a lot of formal elements that you play with in Stray City. The first part of the novel is in first person, the third is in third, and the second part has a first-person narrator talking to “you,” or Andrea. On top of that, you add epistolary touches like emails and postcards, as well as telephone calls, journal entries, notes left in bars and glove compartments, and the official vs. unofficial answers to a Green Card exam. Breaking the prose up in all these ways makes for a very fun read! What made you decide to shape the novel the way you did?

CJ: The formal play came naturally to me as I wrote. I’ve always liked gathering up fragmentary texts—I love lists, notes, dashed-off love letters, quizzes, marginalia, ideas written on receipts or parking ticket envelopes or whatever. I wrote a story once that incorporated worksheets and a word search. The postcard is interesting to me because it’s like the original Twitter or text message: you have this physical space constraint, you can only fit so much into it so you want to make it pithy, and it’s personal yet sort of public at the same time. So that’s how it started, with the postcards Ryan sends her. I thought those would be both alluring to Andrea, because who doesn’t love receiving a postcard, as well as to the reader, because who doesn’t enjoy the voyeurism of sneaking a look at someone else’s postcard? As the novel went on I introduced more and more of those things, partly because Andrea is the kind of archiver of her life who would collect and save and examine them, and partly because it breaks up the hegemony of prose—it was a happy challenge to me as a writer to figure out how to entertain the reader (and myself) while conveying information to spur the story along. I wanted to create pleasure on the page for both of us.

ML: In your One Story interview back in 2013, you mentioned that you were working on “a novel that takes place in Portland, OR and Bemidji, MN in the late 1990s,” which I assume became Stray City. You also state that it had taken you a little over a decade for “Between Ship and Ice” to go from first draft to publication. What have you learned about writing a novel and writing short stories since then?

CJ: This is that novel! I have learned that writing a novel is not what I thought it was: a story, but more words. No. The main thing writing the novel taught me was to write forward and not fuss over every sentence and paragraph, at least not at first—just keep moving, keep the narrative’s muscles flexible and don’t let things calcify. It also taught me to turn up the heat on characters, to make things tenser and harder, and that cracked open the joy of plot, which as a story writer I had always side-eyed with fear and suspicion. I think I have unlearned how to write a short story, but that’s a good thing. I’m excited to try writing them again with a neophyte’s hubris and cluelessness.

ML: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the Literary Debutante Ball?

CJ: I’ve always wanted to go but geography and timing get in the way! I’m just really excited to celebrate with other writers and readers, especially Alex and Cheston and Kendra. And I want to raise a glass to Adina Talve-Goodman, who pulled my story from the slush pile and published it in One Story, which led me to the agent who sold the book and changed my life. I am forever grateful to her and One Story, and I dearly wish she could be there with us.

Monique Laban is a writer from Brooklyn. Her work can be found at http://moniquelaban.wordpress.com/.

Introducing 2018 Debutante: Cheston Knapp

On May 4th, at our 9th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating three of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Tin House managing editor Cheston Knapp, author of One Story Issue #133, “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love” and the linked essay collection Up Up, Down Down.

Up Up, Down Down is a collection of well-calibrated and sharp essays that wryly probe age-old questions of authenticity as he explores regional professional wrestling, the psychology of UFO hunters, growing up and out of Christian and fraternity fellowship, his own evolution as a writer, and much more. These essays are rich. Persistent and entertaining in his interrogation, and often surprising in his insights, Knapp is an open, candid, and inviting writer, with a gift for striking and original descriptive language.

Jonathan Rizzo: Where were you when you found out Up Up, Down Down was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Cheston Knapp: I must’ve been at work, because I recall hanging up with my agent and walking back into the office with a creeping, Kafkaesque suspicion that there’d been some sort of clerical error, that my editor had mistaken me for someone else (Chester Knupp? Justin Knode? Chisholm Knawshaw?), someone who’d written a sexy and eminently salable book, perhaps about one of the lesser presidents or a long-forgotten historical event or a novel about a once-repressed bassoonist full of lubricious sex—you know, the sort of book people now seem to want to read. This feeling persisted even well after I’d signed the contract… But to celebrate? Can’t recall for certain, but it’s likely that my wife and I ate some over-priced za and toasted “To the beginning of the end.”

JR: In “Far From Me,” you write of feeling discouraged and crushed when a friend dismissed a draft of the piece One Story eventually published, “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love,” as too similar to David Foster Wallace to be taken on its own merit. How did you get over that? And, though you were discouraged, was some part of you pleased with the comparison?

CK: Like, you mean, beyond expunging all memory of that cheeseweiner from my mind and never talking to him again? Nah—I don’t know. In some way writing that essay on the anxiety of influence (“Far from Me”) was a way of examining/unpacking why something as dumbly innocuous as that comment would’ve hurt (or pleased) me back then. Now I couldn’t care less, one way or the other. Through all the reading I did for that essay I came to believe that our prevailing ideas about influence and originality and individuality and “authenticity” are hopelessly flawed and deeply fucked, and that whatever flattery or fear we experience in relation to them is misguided and thin and ungenerous and reductive. Emerson, as with so much, got it right: “We are tendencies, or rather, symptoms, and none of us complete. We touch and go, and sip the foam of many lives.”

JR: The first essay in Up Up, Down Down, “Faces of Pain,” concludes with you walking into the training facility of a professional wrestling organization to get “a piece of the action.” How far did you take it? Did you develop a stage persona? Did you step into the ring?  

CK: Too far. In fact I seem only to know how to take things one way—too far. I’m hesitant to say too much about this because I’m kicking around the material as a pitch for another book, but I did spend some time with a lucha libre promotion that toured the US southwest and certain parts of Mexico. I played a burnout surfer from Norte California (modeled after Brad Pitt’s character in True Romance) by the name of Agua Frisco. But it was important for me, in working up “Faces of Pain,” to leave all this info off-stage, as it were, to stop at the very moment that other, more standard journalistic profiles would’ve begun, with entering the ring. I wanted to play with that form a little.

JR: Alongside the recurring exploration of the relationship between authenticity and experience running throughout these essays, you disclose in “Neighborhood Watch,” which is about your relationship and response to your neighbor’s murder, that a feeling doesn’t really become “real” for you until it’s rendered in prose. Has writing and having Up Up, Down Down published made the events recounted in the book more real for you?

CK: Ahh, the old “modalities of the real” chestnut. I’m glad the essay got you thinking about these things—it was one of my hopes for the book, that it might prompt certain questions for the reader without necessarily hazarding answers/solutions to them. Offer anything like an answer/solution and you’ll swiftly find yourself in dangerous essayistic waters… So I’ll mostly demure here and say that in that essay I was trying to contend with, among other things, the very idea of storytelling, that slippery process by which an event from life (in this case the murder of my neighbor) becomes a “story,” and so available for public consumption. Digestion. And the way Peter’s story was being told, in all the local media here, God, it frustrated me. There wasn’t any context at all. The event was just another bit of salacious gossip offered to the public as “news,” you know, before tomorrow’s weather forecast and the highlights from high school sports. So I felt this demanded I pay attention to how I was experiencing the event and then foregrounding all the problems (and pleasures) writing a story entails.

JR: The powerful combination of candor and self-interrogation is in effect in these essays as you spotlight and strip away cultural identities (skater, Christian, frat boy, writer, et al.) and familial identities (son, brother, husband, father-to-be). Is writer the one that unites them all?

CK: No one puts it better than Pliny the Elder: “It is a well-known fact, that when a man is in fear, the blood takes to flight and disappears, and that many persons have been pierced through the body without losing one drop of blood; a thing, however, which is only the case with man. But as to those animals which we have already mentioned as changing color, they derive that color from the reflection of other objects; while, on the other hand, man is the only one that has the elements which cause these changes centered in himself. All diseases, as well as death, tend to absorb the blood.”

JR: Do you feel philosophy helps or hinders understanding?

CK: Yes.

JR: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?

CK: I have the utmost respect for Maribeth and Hannah and the whole OS team, past, current, and TK, so it’ll be a treat to see them in all their glory. Also I’m pumped to see what Famous Writer I’ll whizz next to—last time it was Jonathan Lethem!

Jonathan Rizzo is a writer living in Brooklyn. He recently graduated with an MFA from Hunter College and is working on a memoir. 

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.