Introducing 2016 Debutante: Naomi Williams

Landfalls coverOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

First up is Naomi Williams, author of One Story issue #131 “Snow Men” and Landfalls from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Landfalls is a kaleidoscope tale of the ill-fated expedition of the ships Boussole and Astrolabe, which set sail from France in 1785 in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe and map the unknown parts of the world. The voices that populate the novel speak from locations visited along the journey—from the ports left behind, settlements visited, and journeys by dogsled across continents, and each chapter creates a new world, driven by individual desires and conflicts but all reflected in the larger story of the exploratory endeavor. Williams’ masterful narration pulls us into the individual lives affected by the voyage, but the expedition itself remains the central character as those lives intersect and diverge across the globe, and we arrive at the final page with sense that we, too, have gone on a great journey and are still yet a long way from home.

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

Naomi J. Williams: Hm. I’m not sure when that moment was. I do remember where I was when I learned my agent, Nicole Aragi, had agreed to take me on. It was early morning, and I was checking e-mail over my tea, which is what I always do first thing after I wake up, and there was her “yes” e-mail. My husband had just left for work, but I ran to the garage and he was still there, so I told him, and then we both cried a little. The book then went to auction, and that was very heady in its way, but I relayed the decision to go with FSG over the phone, and then I’m pretty sure the rest of my day went as originally planned—bugging my oldest child, a high school senior then, about college applications, and my younger one about homework, then enjoying a dinner that my husband probably made. Perhaps I had an extra glass of wine that night.

A few weeks later, though, before I’d seen a dime for the book, I did celebrate by shutting down my small private tutoring business. I was a good tutor, and fond of most of my students, but whereas I’ve always loved teaching classes, especially college classes, I never really enjoyed one-on-one tutoring, which often involved trying to cajole a few sentences out of children who didn’t like to write and didn’t want to be there. Once I knew the book was coming out, the tutoring became intolerable. That was a good day, when I sent out my “Dear Parents: I have some good news and some bad news….” e-mail.

TC: Landfalls is a dense collection of experiences all influenced by the Lapérouse expedition; crew members, scientists, family members left behind, inhabitants of the places the expedition visited. What was the first seed of this story for you? How did you decide to tell the story this way, from all angles?

NW: The idea for this book came from an old map that my husband gave me many years ago. It was supposedly an 18th-century map of San Francisco Bay but turned out to be a map from the Lapérouse expedition of a bay in Alaska. (That bay is the setting of “Snow Men,” the story that appeared in One Story in 2010.) I started Googling the expedition, which I’d never heard of before. The idea for the structure of the book—a series of stories or chapters, each set in a different part of the expedition and told by a different narrator or group of narrators—sort of came to me in a flash, either that first day or shortly thereafter. I’d always liked nautical fiction and stories about explorers, but I didn’t want to write another story that centered around the great white captain and his exploits. I wanted to mess that up a little bit and include voices we don’t usually hear.

TC: One of my favorite chapters is “Dispatches,” which follows Barthélemy de Lesseps as he crosses Russia. He’s cut off from the knowledge of what his former crew-mates are going through even as he makes a perilous journey of his own; we’re able to see the story as a whole, even though he can’t. It seems that some of the pleasure of historical fiction is that the reader always knows a little more than the character; for instance, that the French Revolution is brewing while the explorers are away from home. What drew you to this particular voyage and this particular historical moment?

NW: It was pure chance that drew me to this particular voyage, as I describe above, but I think it fascinated me right away—and continued to fascinate me for the decade I spent working on the book—in part because for its time, the expedition was quite progressive. It wasn’t about claiming land for France or about extracting gold or about missionizing people in faraway places. While the ships were charged with looking for economic opportunities for France, its primary goals were scientific and cartographic. A delegation of scientists and artists accompanied the expedition. Even the chaplains were also naturalists. It was also very high-tech for its time. And yet those Enlightenment ideals and idealism and advances didn’t really protect them in the end. I was really interested in exploring that. I’m so glad you liked “Dispatches,” by the way. I’m quite fond of that chapter myself.

TC: Can you talk about how research influenced the writing of this book? Did you find that research opened up how you thought about the novel or did it create unforeseen roadblocks?

NW: I love doing research. I have a lot of faith in the creative possibilities that open up when you combine artistic curiosity with scholarship. I veered from the historical record as little as I could—not because I thought that was my “job” as a writer of historical fiction, but because that was the challenge I set myself; it was just more fun that way. I never saw the research requirements as roadblocks. On the contrary, when I felt a little stuck in a particular story or chapter, I often found that doing more research would suggest something that lit the way forward. Of course, one can do too much research. I often had to tell myself to just stop already and start writing. Enough fussing about with what people ate in the 18thcentury or how they dressed or the obscure backstory of someone who never even makes an appearance in the novel! So yeah, in that sense it could present a roadblock. Because researching was always easier and more fun than writing.

TC: “Snow Men” was published in One Story in 2010, and the story makes up a chapter of Landfalls. Did you already know where it stood in the novel? How did having that story published change your writing life?

NW: “Snow Men” was the third piece from the book to find its way into print (the other two had appeared in “American Short Fiction” and “A Public Space”). I already knew where it would be in the book, but it had been a difficult story to write, and I was aware of some risks I was taking by adopting the point of view of a young native Alaskan girl. She’s one of the few characters in the novel who is entirely fictional, yet I felt a great obligation to her to get her as “right” as possible. So the piece’s appearance in One Story was an enormous shot in the arm.

TC: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

NW: Oh, I love parties and I love dressing up. My life in a laid-back Northern California college town affords me relatively few opportunities to do either. But contrary to the usual stereotype about introverted writers who find other people exhausting, I love being around people—new friends, old friends, the works. I can’t wait.

Introducing 2015 Literary Debutante: Anne Valente

bylightOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of talking with Anne Valente, author of By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books) and the upcoming One Story issue #205 “Tell Us You Were Here.” Thank you to Anne for taking the time to answer our questions about her brave and beautiful collection of stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Scott Cheshire

horsesbridlesOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Scott Cheshire, a wonderful and generous person and author. Scott’s debut novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is now available from Henry Holt. The book follows Josiah Laudermilk as he goes from being a twelve-year-old prophet in a religious household in Queens, New York, to a divorced man who goes by “Josie” and owns computer stores in southern California. When his estranged father falls ill and Josie returns to New York to care for him, Josie confronts his past in ways that reverberate into his present and future. Memories of his childhood, his departed mother, his break from the church, and the early years of his marriage collide as he tries to figure out how to be around his father again and how to move forward in life with a clearer vision of his reality. It’s a very relatable family story told through the fascinating lens of religion, history, and love.

Where were you when you found out High as the Horses’ Bridles was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, in Soho, when I got the call. Which was fitting as I wrote much of the book there. After the call, I wanted to call my wife and my friends but I resisted that and went outside. I walked around the cobbled streets out front and I tried to be very aware of the moment. I let it sink in. I thought about how long I had been working on the book, how many years. I thought about how long I had been writing. Then I called my wife. I probably got weepy. And then I called one of my teachers, who by then had become a real mentor and friend. I asked him what to do next. He said, start another book, right now, even if it’s shit. That was very good advice.

The title of your book is so perfect. How did you decide on this title and were there any other contenders?

Well thank you so much for saying that. The whole time writing it, the book was called The Ends. I had it at the top of every page. It kept me focused. Everything in the book had to funnel toward that, and so the book became about the many ends of our lives, the end of childhood, the end of love, the end of faith, the end of life, the end of time, even the opposite ends of the country. At some point I realized this was not, in fact, the title of the book, but rather its preoccupation. It also helped that everyone hated that title. I made a list of more terrible titles until it struck me that the title should come from the book of Revelation, since the book itself was birthed from that book and my relationship to it. I read Revelation again and came across the phrase. It seemed poetic, even American, it sounded like a Cormac McCarthy novel (which couldn’t hurt), but actually referred to something quite violent and nightmarish, the depth of sinners’ blood come Armageddon. I liked that tension.

High as the Horses’ Bridles is set mostly in Queens and Southern California, both locations where you have lived yourself. Can you talk about the process of writing a story that takes place in environments with which you are very familiar? And has your recent move back to Southern California from Queens affected your current writing at all?

This is an especially interesting question because I never had plans to live in California again, and yet here I am. Place, I must say, is very important to me. I mean in life and in my reading and writing habits. Place directly affects my mood. For instance, just thinking about the splintery beach of Truro, Mass., gives me peace. I have a photo of that place on my laptop screen. As far as Queens and Southern California, they were the landscapes of the most formative times in my life and so it made sense to write about them. Not to mention, for me, life is sort of a dialog with the physical world. And so my work tends to revolve around characters engaged with the world around them, the trees, the beach, the sidewalks, and subways. As far as returning to California, well, I’m writing about Queens again, but with the beach just minutes away. This makes for a better mood and hopefully makes for better writing.

One of my favorite chapters in the novel is very removed from your own experience—it’s a vivid depiction of a tent revival in nineteenth-century rural Kentucky. What kind of research did you do to create such a believable environment and characters in this section?

This was the last thing I wrote and it happened quite fast. It took about a month of long marathon writing sessions in which locked myself in the bedroom and had my wife bring me lots of coffee. But that only happened after a tremendous amount of research. I took lots of notes but mostly just figured I would use what stayed with me. After writing it, I reached out to a few historians of American religious history who not only responded, but they did so with great enthusiasm. They sent me notes and corrections on things I might consider, or about stuff I got plain wrong. I could not have done it without them.

To me, your novel is ultimately about the often unrealistic expectations that parents place on their children—or even expectations that the children perceive, whether they exist or not—and how families and individuals deal with the dynamics that result from these expectations. Do you agree with this assessment? Have you heard any interpretations of the book that have surprised you?

Well, because the book centers on one family’s religious legacy, people often talk of the book in that context, that it’s a book about religion, but really for me it’s a book about family, first. It’s about fathers and sons. Mothers and sons. So it makes me very happy that you describe it this way. I have heard many differing opinions on the novel. I have been hugged by an atheist who told me he was happy that someone finally wrote a novel about religion from the atheist’s perspective. I have received letters from people thanking me for writing a novel about religion finally from the perspective of the faithful. I have sent at least one woman back to church. All of this pleases me. Probably my favorite response though was from a man in Boston, who bought five copies, one for each of his boys. He said they were going to read the book together. It doesn’t get much better than that. I know writing the book certainly brought me closer to my own family.

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

I love One Story and have been reading it for years, so it’s thrilling to be a part of this year’s ball. Not to mention I get to put on a tie, and get a haircut, although I need to get new shoes. Since the move out west, I’ve been wearing flip-flops, mostly. Maybe I’ll get a pair of fancy ones to go with my suit.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Matthew Baker

If-You-Find-ThisOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of talking to Matthew Baker, author of the Middle Grade novel, If You Find This, published in March 2015 by Little, Brown. Matthew’s short story, Rites, One Story issue # 203, was also published this past March.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to meet everybody in person (finally!).

 

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Mia Alvar

alvar_11-10On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Mia Alvar, the charming and brilliant author of In the Country. Mia was born in Manila and grew up in Bahrain and New York City, and the stories in her debut collection follow an intriguing and varied cast of characters in each of these locations. In these stories, which are so true to life, family members show both deep love for and drastic misunderstanding of each other. Mia offers us stories of personal struggles, with vivid backdrops of politics, history, and socio-economic class differences. Her prose is deceptive in its seeming simplicity—its layers of meaning resonate long after the final page is turned.

As Mia tells us, she identifies with the narrator of “A Contract Overseas”, who has just discovered her enthusiasm for writing. The narrator’s brother understands, saying, “Now it keeps you up at night. You feel awake for the first time. Like you’d been sleepwalking through life before.” In the stories of In the Country, we are clearly reading the work of a writer who is passionate about her work.

Where were you when you found out your first book, the amazing story collection In the Country, was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was at home—getting updates simultaneously from my agent, who was finalizing the sale; and from my sister-in-law, who was in labor with her third child. The book deal was confirmed within a few hours of her (sister-in-law’s, not agent’s) giving birth. My husband was also working from home that day, so there was this happy embarrassment of good news in our apartment. We celebrated by passing a flask between us on the LIRR train that we rode to go meet our new nephew.

The first story in your collection is “The Kontrabida” was issue #165 of One Story in the summer of 2012. Were you working on other stories from In the Country around the same time? Can you talk a little bit about how you put together this collection of stories?

I did have other stories in the works alongside “The Kontrabida,” but at first I didn’t think much about how they’d all come together. I somewhat naively thought the setting(s)—this loose triangle of Filipino communities in the Middle East and America and the Philippines—would be enough to make it a collection. But over the years—and especially after Hannah Tinti worked with me on “The Kontrabida”—it became clear to me that those details of place and culture were more like points of entry than a subject. I realized that the stories I most wanted to tell were all in some way about the tension between cleaned-up “official” histories (whether in textbooks and newspapers, or in heavily curated family albums) and people’s messy, more complicated experience. After I knew that, I could see more clearly which stories belonged in the collection and which ones had to go.

Your stories so effectively explore the working lives of characters with a wide range of professions: medical doctor; special education teacher; fashion model; oil industry worker; nurse; journalist; etc. How did you go about preparing to write these characters, who are all so different and so convincing?

I’m glad you were convinced! To be honest, I find it extremely hard to sound authentic about people who do things I don’t in real life—but at the same time, I’ve never felt inspired to write from the perspective of a Filipina-American fiction writer in her thirties living in New York City. Maybe someday. But for this book, because I was drawn mostly to characters who are different (at least in surface ways) from me, I tended to over-prepare, wrapping myself up in a cocoon of research and interviews and prewriting and obsessive, borderline-Method techniques for getting inside their lives. Almost none of that material ended up in the stories, but it did give me a way into the voice or inner life of each character, which then allowed the details (work-related or otherwise) to fall into place. It’s not really necessary to describe what a nurse does at her job with which tools, but somehow having that information beforehand helped me figure out how that nurse might speak to her journalist husband at breakfast.

Many of your stories explore the role of the mother within a family, including the influence a mother has on her children, and the ways that mothers can surprise their children’s expectations of them. Your title story, which ends the collection, explores Milagros’s identity as a mother as one of its central themes. What most intrigues you about exploring motherhood in your writing?

This actually surprised me. I’ve only ever experienced life on the daughter side, so motherhood wasn’t a theme I consciously set out to explore. But mothers do come up a lot in the stories, and I guess that this goes back to my obsession with official narratives vs. real experience, and how those things pull against each other. Motherhood seems to be one of those ideas that we humans are most tempted to sentimentalize and oversimplify and “scrub,” so that space between the pretty mythologies and the complex, more gnarly aspects of it turned out to be rich and fascinating territory for me. And the writerly-craft nerd in me must have recognized on some level that motherhood—where the pressures are so intense, and the stakes could not be higher—is just a really great source of chaos, conflict, trouble…all of the things you don’t want in real life but do need in fiction.

Your stories take place around the world, with characters who are struggling with leaving or returning to their native Philippines. In “Shadow Families”, ex-pats in Bahrain throw parties for their fellow Filipinos and help each other out in an attempt to make their borrowed city feel “like home.” What does “home” mean to you?

It almost feels easier to define what home isn’t. At least in my experience, it’s hardly ever the place we’re physically and geographically born into—as many of my characters discover, either by choice or by accident or by economic/political necessity. I identify more than a little bit with the young girl narrating “A Contract Overseas,” who finds a sort of home in fiction and storytelling and other writers, after feeling basically like an alien within her own family and neighborhood her whole life. As sappy as it sounds, that whole “where the heart is” cliché rings very true for me. Even as they keep trying to recreate all the details of their original home, I suspect that what the women in “Shadow Families” are really after is the kind of connection and sense of belonging that two people—born in completely different countries and circumstances—find with each other, improbably, in “Esmeralda.”

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

Meeting my fellow debs. Getting all cleaned up (I hear the dress code is “Brooklyn fancy”), and toasting to the One Story crew, who always know how to throw a party.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Diane Cook

ManVnature HCOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Matt Sumell

making niceOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we’re chatting with Matt Sumell, author of One Story Issue #201 “All Lateral” and the debut story collection Making Nice, available now from Henry Holt. Thanks to Matt for taking time out to talk with us about publishing his first book, memory, first-person, and jolly ranchers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I always look forward to: celebrating with friends.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Austin Bunn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Ted Thompson

steadyhabitsOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we’re chatting with Ted Thompson, the first of our debutantes to hail from our sibling publication, One Teen Story, and it happened in the most innocent way. Not long after his debut novel, The Land of Steady Habits, came out, Ted wrote a short story called “The Beasts of St. Andrew’s.” When his agent read it and said it was a very fine piece of young adult writing, this was news to Ted (who didn’t know he was writing YA). And when the story subsequently came across our desk at One Teen Story and we read it and loved it and offered to publish it, we had no idea that Ted had recently published his first novel with Little, Brown.

The Land of Steady Habits is not a YA novel. (You might flip to almost any random page to confirm this, such as the one where the main character, a husband and father in his early sixties, smokes PCP with a friend’s teenage son.) It’s a very grownup novel about a not-so-grownup man who has decided to turn his back on his marriage, his home, his life—only to find himself clumsily second-guessing his every move. We spoke to Ted about what it was like to write, revise, and publish a book about a character coming unhinged.

Where were you when you found out The Land of Steady Habits was going to be published? How did you celebrate? 

I found out the novel would be published on my 30th birthday. That may seem a little too tidy to be believed, but it’s how it happened. The problem was that I had been out the night before with some friends trying not to think about the fact that my book was on submission, and celebrating my impending birthday with a regrettable amount of boozy frozen drinks, so when the call came I was in no shape to celebrate the big news. In fact, I almost didn’t pick up the phone! I was still in bed, feeling awful. I think I faked my way through the call well enough, though I doubt I sounded as enthusiastic as I should have. It really wasn’t until the next day when I could process what exactly had happened. And I think I’m still processing it.

The main character of your novel, Anders, decides in his early sixties to dismantle his life. Part of the fun of reading the book is that we get to watch this dismantling layer by layer. As the creator/conductor/overseer, were you rooting for Anders the whole time, or were you also wincing now and then?

I can’t actually remember my earliest impulses with this book, but it’s probably safe to assume that when I started working on the book I thought I would be rooting for Anders’ destructive impulses. But it only took twenty pages of writing it to understand I was way more interested in the role that regret played in his life, and the fact that he’s continually drawn to the very thing he’s just rejected. So I’m not sure I winced for him so much as felt for him and his competing impulses. I suppose I’m always interested in a character’s shame.

Can you tell us a little about how different The Land of Steady Habits is from the manuscript your agent originally sent to your editor?

Oh gosh, it was a lot different. The major thing was that the novel was originally told from just one character’s point of view. It was all Anders, and we had no access to anyone else. So it wasn’t until I was nearly a year into my edits that I decided to try a major rewrite. I was stuck, and beginning to despair, when I thought “What if I just changed the rules of the novel, the basic physics of how the whole thing is put together?” To me, it wasn’t until I did that–opened up the point of view to other characters–that I was able to find the book’s structure.

Darin Strauss and others have compared this book to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Did that comparison surprise you? Would you list Updike among your major influences? And are there—just maybe—more chapters that might emerge one day in the story of Anders Hill?

They surprised me in that the comparison is both flattering and lovingly exaggerated. Darin was a teacher of mine and will be my mentor at the Debutante Ball, and his kind words were helpful for marketing the book. But while I admire the Rabbit novels to no end, the comparison is likely the most apt in terms of subject matter (that is, a domestic novel focusing on a male character of a certain social class with destructive impulses). It’s a tempting thought, writing more about these characters long after the events that this novel covers. I doubt I’d jump into that project anytime soon, but I suppose it’s best to never say never.

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

I was fortunate enough to attend last year’s ball and I’m still thinking about the potency of that gin cocktail. So that’s one thing. But mostly I’m looking forward to meeting the other debutantes and celebrating how supportive One Story is to young writers (and also enjoying the fact that none of us has to give a reading).

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Andrew Roe

Miracle-girl-final-coverOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

First up is Andrew Roe, author of One Story issue #41 “America’s Finest City” and the upcoming novel Miracle Girl,  available from Algonquin Books in April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. What do you believe in?

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

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

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