Introducing our 2018 “Little Debbies”

This year at the Debutante Ball, along with honoring the three One Story authors who’ve had their first book published during the past year and our mentor of the year, Alexander Chee, we’re also honoring three of our authors who published their first short stories ever in One Story over the last twelve months. Those authors are Sanjay Agnihotri (Issue #236: “Guerrilla Marketing”), Maud Streep (Issue #234: “The Crazies”), and Lucas Schaefer (Issue #225: “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes”). All three of these short story debutantes (whom I affectionately refer to as our “Little Debbies”) will be joining us at the Ball on May 4th. Recently, I asked them if they had any questions for one another about their stories. Here are the results of that round-robin conversation.

PATRICK RYAN: Lucas, since you’re the first short story deb, chronologically, let’s start with you.

 LUCAS SCHAEFER: Okay, I have a question for Maud. Maud, you handle the passage of time so beautifully in “The Crazies.” When, at the end, you jump years ahead to the narrator’s current life and then take us back to the time of the fire—it’s poignant and unexpected. I’m curious if you knew from the beginning that the story was being told many years later, and how knowing that or not knowing it affected the writing of the piece.

MAUD STREEP: The passage of time was actually the key that let me into “The Crazies.” It was one of those stories that wasn’t working and wasn’t working. The first few endings were dreadful. But about a year in, my teacher at the time, David Gates, took a look at it and suggested that perhaps the issue was that the story wasn’t being told from the right time. That clicked things into place for me, although it took me another year to find the right distance and perspective, and then a couple more years from there until it felt done. So, thanks, David! The core of the story’s action and language remains as it was in the first draft, but without the perspective from the future, nothing added up.

Sanjay, I know you’ve previously said “Guerrilla Marketing” went through many drafts. I’d love to know more about how you came to the story’s structure—did you always know what happened in Los Angeles that left Vikram in the predicament he’s in? Did the reveal of what happened in LA and why it happened always fall where it does now, or did you play with the placement?

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Vikram’s back story was tricky. I always knew that he’d end up in NJ after getting kicked out of LA, I just didn’t have all the details worked out in the early drafts. It took some time to get that right. The placement too was challenging—I recast his LA backstory several times, though it always appeared near the end.

Lucas, I’m a boxing fan and can’t wait to read your novel-in-stories about the Austin boxing gym. You mention the book Boxing Shadows by W.K. Stratton as an inspiration. I’m curious to know what other writers—fiction/non-fiction—have inspired both the collection and your writing in general? Also, you mention in an interview with Patrick that you worked out at R. Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin. I have to ask: have you ever been knocked out? And if so, did you see stars? I got knocked out once, but it wasn’t in a ring, and I never saw stars, only pavement and blackness, and I’m afraid I might be missing out.

LUCAS SCHAEFER: What’s always appealed to me about the boxing gym as a setting isn’t so much the boxing as it is that, in our still-very-and-in-some-ways-getting-more-segregated (racially and otherwise) society, the gym is one of those rare spaces where people of wildly different backgrounds and experiences converge. And not only that, but they’re converging to fight. On purpose! How wonderful and unsettling and bizarre. This is a long way of saying that the books I tend to gravitate toward have less to do with boxing than with the clashing of cultures and identities, from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to Hari Kunzru’s White Tears to Oreo by Fran Ross, which is what I’m reading at the moment.

And no, I’ve never been knocked out! But that’s not due to my great defensive skills. My workout was all non-contact. I put on all the gear once to spar, and went a couple rounds—with a man who went super super easy on me—and afterwards I was like, “Lucas, honestly. This is not going to end well for you.”

I have a question for you, Sanjay, about the protagonist in “Guerrilla Marketing.” Vikram was an accountant but now makes a living working at a restaurant, a gas station, and, briefly, for Liberty Tax. The portrait is so affecting, in part, I think, because you really go there in exploring the toll that his work and his financial situation take on his body. Could you talk a bit about the role money (or lack of money) plays in your work, and how Vikram’s different jobs informed your understanding of him?

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Vikram happens to be educated, but many of the men I write about in the linked collection are not educated at all. Many have overstayed their visas and are scraping enough money to survive and send back to their families. Every day they face the risk of being caught and returned to the most deplorable conditions. Vikram, like all of the men in the boarding house, is obviously broke and his striving for cash is rational—up to a point, he’s got a wedding to pay for, after all. He’s also obsessed, like most Americans, with money as a function of status and self-worth.

In the story, the character of Boss Bhatti is a sort of mini Trump—he’s a bully and con artist, looks slovenly even in a $3,000 Brioni suit. He’s less educated than Vikram, less sophisticated, but still Vikram believes the lie and wants nothing more than to be part of his crew. I mean, Boss Bhatti is definitely the sort of guy who would attend Trump University and not ask for a refund. That said, I don’t judge Bhatti or Vikram in the story. That’s not my job as the writer. I have to take my ego out of it and portray the characters honestly and unsentimentally.

Maud, I read “The Crazies” many months ago and it still haunts, especially the last couple of sentences of that brilliant ending. You mention taking five years to finish the story—were those last couple of lines in the early drafts? They just seem so perfect; like they were delivered to you from the literary gods.

MAUD STREEP: I’m so pleased to hear the ending lines stayed with you—they took a lot of unglamorous work to find. As I mentioned before, I went through a few different endings. Versions of the final lines showed up in the story by the second full draft, but never in the right place—I couldn’t recognize them as the ending until I’d sorted out when in the narrator’s life the story was being told.

Lucas, “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes” circles around Holly, looking at her from everyone’s point of view but her own. I’m curious whether you ever wrote a draft in which she did speak, or if you always knew she’d be a presence through absence—if that was some of the appeal or challenge in writing the story?

LUCAS SCHAEFER: Great question. The earliest draft of “Oral History” included Holly as one of the interview subjects, but I knew before I got to the end of the draft that she probably shouldn’t be there. What resonates with me about Holly is that she’s basically born to do this one thing—box—but because of her geography and her circumstances, and because she’s a woman, and a lesbian, in a time and place and sport that isn’t “ready” to deal with her, she doesn’t get to do it. I wanted readers to want to hear from Holly and to not get to, and to feel that loss. “Oh, now you want to hear from me?” That’s what I imagined her telling the reporter when he called to ask if she’d participate in the oral history. “Dude, I got better things to do than talk to you. Y’all had your chance.” I might go back to her in another story, though.

PATRICK RYAN: Here’s a question for all three of you—a question I want to ask every working writer these days. What’s your technique for shutting out the world when you write?

MAUD STREEP: At home, I rely on those mockingly titled internet blocking apps, Freedom and Self Control. Since there aren’t yet humiliating apps to block out things like doing the dishes and vacuuming and managing day-to-day family life, I’ve been incredibly grateful for time spent removed from all that while at residencies the past few years.

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: I have an eleven-month old daughter, and I think I might also suffer from some form of attention deficit disorder, so I’m not sure I ever shut out the world. But I do write almost every day, first thing in the morning when my mind is relatively clear.

LUCAS SCHAEFER: I’m on Twitter too much and have no great secrets, but rain noises help. I get them off a YouTube video that’s ten hours long, all rain, so when I get to the end of the ten hours I can say, “You’ve done good, kid!” and then go back to the beginning.

PATRICK RYAN: I am very familiar with that ten-hour rain video. Okay, one last question for the three of you. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Debutante Ball?

LUCAS SCHAEFER: Before One Story took a chance on my work, it had been so much rejection. Having the piece out there has been such a boost, professionally and creatively, but being in Texas I’ve never met you, Patrick, or any of the folks who gave me this opportunity. So I’m excited to meet you all and to thank you and to celebrate One Story. And as a Longhorn, I’m happy to be there for fellow Austinite and UT grad Kendra Fortmeyer’s debut, and to honor Alex Chee, who led one of the first workshops I took in grad school and who is so generous with his time and knowledge.

MAUD STREEP: I’m looking forward to seeing the Debs with their mentors. I love the idea of honoring the people who teach and support writers. There’s the enduring myth of the solitary author, but I shudder to think where my writing would be without the generous brains of others.

SANJAY AGNIHOTRI: Hanging out with the generous folks at One Story, and meeting other great writers like Maud and Lucas. Also, if the conditions are optimal, I might bust out some break dancing moves. I won a break dancing contest in Saudi Arabia when I was in the 8th grade, but it was Saudi Arabia and the competition was thin.

PATRICK RYAN: We’re holding you to that, Sanjay. Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you at the Ball!

Annotated Pages

One Story is a non-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization, and the Debutante Ball is our biggest fundraiser of the year. Donations help us keep our doors open and support our mission to celebrate the short story & support the writers who write them. For this year’s event, we’ve asked a few authors to annotate (by hand) a manuscript page from one of their published books. We’ll be making these available to on-site donors at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball this Friday, May 4th. Thank you to all of the wonderful authors who have so generously sent us pages: Jami Attenberg, Aimee Bender, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Min Jin Lee, Celeste Ng, Ruth Ozeki, Ann PatchettRichard Russo, Patrick Ryan, Dani Shapiro, Jim ShepardKaren Shepard, Darin Strauss, J. Courtney Sullivan, Hannah Tinti, Vendela Vida, Jess Walter, Claire Vaye Watkins, Colson Whitehead, and Meg Wolitzer. We can’t wait to see you at the ball!

Pictured above: annotated pages by Ann Patchett, Ruth Ozeki, and Hannah Tinti

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. 

Announcing our 2018 Literary Debutantes

via GIPHY

One Story proudly presents our 2018 Literary Debutantes:

And Alexander Chee, our Mentor of the Year!

Join us as we toast these three One Story authors who have published their first books in the past year! The One Story Literary Debutante Ball will take place on Friday, May 4th at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY.  We’ll have live music, dancing, hors d’oeuvres, and specialty cocktails. It is our most important fundraising event of the year.

Tickets are on sale now starting at $75. To discuss sponsorship opportunities for the One Story Literary Debutante Ball, please contact: maribeth@one-story.com.

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.